Collector of Cactus Echo Bags (Thrill Jockey)
A peaceful collection of church ballads and sweepingly dramatic should-have-been-made-into television theme songs quickly end up a trainwrecked circus when the windy city's Lonesome Organist jumps the tracks and his consortium of overdubbed guitars, synthesizers, percussion, and vocals crash into a hillside. Entirely too busy for the little old lady at your grandmother's church -- let alone the despondent Casio artist -- these 20 quick tracks blast you through an explosively locomotive and somewhat danceable dreamworld of chaotic nightmares and real-life musical rip-offs. If the world needed this album, God would have put Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Combustible Edison, and Bad Brains on carousel jukeboxes and the rides would go a hell of a lot faster, and never, ever end.
2 stars -- Taylor Holland
FRIENDS OF DEAN MARTINEZ
Retrograde (Sub Pop)
The sound of the southwest is as elusive as it is pervasive. Blowing down into San Fernando Valley, across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and up into the West Texas plains, it's a lonesome cry best described by steel guitar and vibes -- best described by Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk." As captured on the Friends of Dean Martinez's 1995 debut, The Shadow of Your Smile, it's a sound both sad and wistful and dangerous -- very noir. Firing Retrograde with a Santo & Johnny tune, "Rattler," steel player Bill Elm and guitarist Woody Jackson once again steer their cherry red roadster down a lonely desert highway with instrumentals that have fallen from the pages of a Raymond Chandler/Jim Thompson novel. Joey Burns and John Convertino, meanwhile, the longstanding rhythm duo behind Giant Sand -- and integral components of the first Friends' LP -- ditch their white Ford pick-up in the grooves of some valley vineyard where they spend their days strumming acoustics and playing their accordions 'til the sun sets. Marimbas, mandolins, vibes, violins, cellos, and four tracks all inform the sleepy desert sounds of Spoke, a Guided by Voices album for the iguana set (or fans of OP8, which featured Burns and Convertino backing Lisa Germano). As with "Rattler" on Retrograde, "Low Expectations," the lead song on Spoke, sums up the southwest in a line: "No one said the time would come to finish what's begun/things get done when they get done."
(Retrograde) 2 stars
(Spoke)2.5 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
LULLABY FOR THE WORKING CLASS
I Never Even Asked for a Light (Bar None)
Is it just coincidence that this album fell into my possession on the first miserably cold day of winter? If so, it's an apt one. This record is bleak, perfectly matching the dreary weather-induced malaise that comes with winter. Sounding like the Bad Livers on codeine, this assemblage of Nebraskans centered around permanent fixtures Ted Stevens and brothers Mike and A.J. Mogis pieces together an ornate but understated acoustic patchwork that is simultaneously drab and beautiful. And, with its sparsely layered arsenal of just about every stringed instrument known to man, I Never Even Asked for a Light, the follow-up to their quietly exquisite debut Blanket Warm, is both spontaneous and intelligent in maintaining a consistent intensity. Even on a full-bodied dirge like "Hypnotist (Song for Daniel H.)," LFTWC flexes its musical muscle in simple melodies and not the strength of the strum. The band even manages to take the pretension out of "organic" by literally making an organic album; the birds on the opening track are birds from the Mogis' backyard and the sound of the ocean on closing track "The Man vs. the Tide" is the ocean. The band recorded the song while actually standing in the Pacific. Despite the cumbersome name and the cheerless aesthetics, Lullaby for the Working Class has made a gem of a sophomore effort. Maybe the best thing out of Nebraska isn't red and doesn't play football.
3.5stars -- Michael Bertin
BROADCASTS VOL. 5
(107.1 KGSR/Radio Austin)
It's pretty easy to glance at the 39 names listed on the back of this 2-CD collection and get fairly excited about the latest volume of KGSR's Broadcasts yearbook. With local notables such as the Asylum Street Spankers, Wayne Hancock, Abra Moore, and Trish Murphy interspersed between the likes of Paul Westerberg, Iris DeMent, and John Prine, disc one is worth the price of admission alone. Disc two's slate of national artists, which includes Widespread Panic, Matthew Sweet, Indigo Girls, Michael Penn, and BoDeans (with Boz Scaggs as the sixth man), is as good a starting line-up as any you'll find on previous Broadcasts releases. That's typically the way it is with these annual collections of conspicuously unadorned on-air performances. Pick out your favorite artists, hit those tracks, and enjoy. Not so this time. Sure, the household names are predictably exceptional, but prize tracks on Broadcasts Vol. 5 come from past year's speed bumps -- the people you've, a) never heard of, b) written off, or c) simply didn't realize they were still even alive. Working alphabetically, the not-so-famous Maia Sharp ("I Need This to Be Love"), the husky-voiced Richard Buckner ("Lil Wallet Picture"), and one-time Golden Palomino Lori Carson ("Little Suicides") do the relatively unknowns proud and outdo some of the knowns. Perhaps the collection's strongest performance belongs to the second group's most notable entrant, Suzanne Vega. Her delicately fingerpicked and golden-throated version of "Gypsy" oozes with a kind of chilling elegance. As for the last category, one-time J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf (yes, he's still making albums, and good ones at that) puts in a vocal performance more indicative and worthy of his former bands' Motown upbringing than its Top 40 burnout. Past Broadcasts editions have typically featured some fine three- or four-song runs, interrupted by the odd forgettable track, but this year the fine folks at KGSR have managed to put together a set of music over two hours long that never lags.
4 stars -- Michael Bertin
Hot `n' Cole
In her tribute to Cole Porter, Austin's Maryann Price recognizes a great deal of the appeal of his music is simply the feeling you get from hearing those songs. Price conveys the pleasant resolve of "It's Alright With Me" and the comfortable longing of "So Nice to Come Home To" without flourish or flash, and that's what makes the songs so effective. The spare trumpet work of Phil Richey and Martin Banks, the steady guitar of Slim Richey, and the beautifully unobtrusive sax of Mark Kazanoff all take similar roles to Price's vocals, producing a mildly stylized tribute to Porter's genius. This style allows Price's Texas soul to shine through on "Don't Fence Me In," the joy of freedom present in every note. There's a brief falter on the eerily Electra-like "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," though it's not severe enough to detract from the rest of the album. "Love for Sale," done sweet and smooth, side-steps the pitfall of having the sex bubble up through the lyrics as they so often do, tapering off instead into abstraction with the note of the last "saaaaale." The time granted to non-Porter songs is not wasted, the haunting blues of "Angel Eyes" being the best of these, but the moments when Price and Porter connect are the point on Hot 'n' Cole, and the point is well-made.
3.5 stars -- Christopher Hess
LIVE FROM 6A: CONAN O'BRIEN
LIVE ON LETTERMAN: MUSIC FROM THE LATE SHOW
Although a Politically Incorrect collection of punditry from Sammy Hagar, Gibby Haynes, and Ted Nugent still looks like a good idea on paper, Bill Maher may be the smartest talk show host on television simply for staying out of this CD derby for late shift souvenirs. Apparently, only he and Jay Leno realize they run chat rooms, not music halls -- which is why both of these sets fail: Not only were all the performances on both discs taped at 5 in the afternoon, one song doesn't allow much time to find a groove. Only because Live on Letterman casts more veterans does his collection seem more lively; Patti Smith's ultra-loose turn on "Who Do You Love" and Aretha Franklin's blitzkrieg version of "Think" are legitimate thrills, while Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and the Lyle Lovett/Al Green pairing for "Funny How TimemSlips Away" are actually fresh enough to transcend televised stiffness. On the other hand, only a deadhead could love the graceless Garcia/Grisman reading of "Friend of the Devil," and only a television junkie without a radio could find anything redeeming about the dry delivery of over-played singles from Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, R.E.M, Lenny Kravitz, and Jewel.
Worse yet, on Live From 6A, it seems that Conan O'Brien has a lock on Letterman's leftovers -- David Bowie, Björk, Elvis Costello, and 311 -- with only Ani DiFranco's shifty "Shameless" and Matthew Sweet's square cover of the Move's "Do Ya" being worth an invite over to your couch. O'Brien may be funnier than Letterman these days, but this one's an unintentional yuck.
(O'Brien) 1.5 stars
(Letterman) 2.5 stars -- Andy Langer
All for Nothing/Nothing for All (Sire)
When it comes to the 'Mats, music mogul Seymour Stein spent a little bit too much time wiping his feet at the door. When the band signed to his Sire label, their last album for Twin Tone, the perfectly imperfect masterpiece Let It Be was freshly behind them, leaving All for Nothing to pull only from the nearly-great Tim, Pleased to Meet Me, and the succession of descents into plodding Westerbergerian Über Alles sameness. As such, this "Best of" compilation is a no-win proposition. Not only doesn't Sire have the rights to some of the band's songs, the ones they do own, "Hanging Party" or "Waitress in the Sky," let's say, are mysteriously absent. As I see it, All for Nothing would've fared better if they'd opted to fill the first disc exclusively with the better cuts from those final albums (there were around three or four goodies apiece). Disc two, Nothing for All, the accompanying collection of b-sides and lost tracks, is the very definition of "mixed bag." Rabid fans will be left with the dilemma of needing everything on this disc, half of which they probably invested a lot of money and time in acquiring. For the less obsessed, there are some true delights here, from potential classics like "Birthday Gal," which was abandoned because of a few flubbed notes (yes, I am still talking about the Replacements here), to cool novelties like Chris Mars' "All He Wants to Do Is Fish." Be prepared for plenty of cover tunes, though, from the nifty "Cruella DeVille" to the wretched Dylan walk-through of "Like a Rolling Pin." Sadly, what Nothing for All proves more than anything is how much more fun those last albums would have been with the addition of just one or two of these little romps.
2.5 stars-- Ken Lieck
Maverick A Strike (Sony 550/Epic)
Stop the presses! Hold your 1997 Top 10 Lists! Finley Quaye's Maverick A Strike may be the single holiday release most deserving of year-end consideration. And never mind that it's an album clearly rooted in Marley and the Maytals, because relegating this find on your reggae list is missing the point; Quaye so effortlessly shifts between dub, rock, dancehall, and electronica, this is indeed the rare debut that transcends categorization. At just 23, Quaye's ambition seems dazzling and his talent raw, but it's an approach indicative of his bohemian English upbringing -- whereas being Tricky's uncle made it easy to appreciate Lee Ranaldo and Lee Perry or Paul's Boutique and The Lion & The Cobra equally. Not only does Maverick's production package Quaye's egalitarian innocence in an easily digestible pop format, it also showcases his raw musical talent -- a multi-instrumentalist with a classic reggae voice; the songwriting is mostly as classical as well, working its way through a catchy trio of singles ("Sunday Shining" "Even After All," and "It's Great When We're Together"), hypnotic instrumentals ("Red Rolled And Seen"), and challenging, postmodern skank ("Ride On and Turn the People On"). It's a massive attack that's driven by rhythm, powered by soul, and winds up pulling reggae into the Nineties kicking and screaming. Top 10 for sure...
4 stars -- Andy Langer
New Forms (Talkin' Loud/Mercury)
Roni Size has been a fixture on the U.K. drum and bass scene since roughly 1992 when his grooves caused more confusion with dance-floor dwellers than expressions of delight. This year has seen the opposite reaction with New Forms catapulting him into the limelight; Size and crew received England's Mercury Music Prize a mere week after this 2-CD set was released in that country. His ascent may seem fleeting, but his constructions of drum and bass are concrete manifestations of a musical genre that can be quite disposable at times. Helping cement the sound is Reprazent, a hand-picked crew of junglist technicians and musicians that includes DJ Krust, DJ Die, DJ Suv, Onalee (vocals), MC Dynamite (vocals), Si John (double bass), and Clive Deamer (drums, also of Portishead). The first disc is the stronger of the two (23 tracks all told) containing the single "Brown Paper Bag," a syncopated, double-bass fueled number, the frantic rimshots of "Let's Get It On," and the hyperactive "Matter of Fact." The only real shortcoming of the album is that MC Dynamite's rap talents are showcased on only one tune, "Railing." A luxurious production masterpiece, New Forms showcases a vibrant and dynamic form of music that's been lurking on the horizon for years, just waiting for a visionary like Roni Size to make it rise above.
4.5 stars -- Leah Selvidge
LOS FABULOSOS CADILLACS
Fabulosos Calavera (BMG)
More than anything, the Clash embodied the rich musical crossroads that were London in the mid-to-late Seventies, when English rock & roll was usurped by pissed-off punks under the influence of the herbal reggaeisms wafting in from Jamaica. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Argentina's longtime rude boys now on their 12th album, might sound more spiritually akin to the excitingly schizophrenic Spanish/French/Arabic mulch of Mano Negra, but their confident, no-holds-barred lurching from style to style is Sandinista-era Clash all the way. Every song introduces something different to the mix: from the Santana-gets-sideways "El Muerto" and horn-driven Chicago-isms of "Surfer Calavera," to the Sepultura death vocals of "El Carnicero de Giles/sueno," Dixieland piano of "Howen," Parisian jazz stylings of "A Amigo JV," and old-world reggaeisms of "Calaveras y Diablitos" ("Niño Diamante" is pure Police). The thread connecting all this is Los Cadillacs' frequent and unannounced punk rock spasms and their love of Latin death culture -- lots of calaveras y diablitos (skeletons and devils) rising from your local graveyard. Fabulosos Calavera isn't the radio-friendly, second-line punch of "El Matador" (from the Grosse Point Blank soundtrack), but like a South American street party, give into its rum punch and voodoo, and that bursting piñata will be a musical explosion you're not soon to forget.
3.5 stars-- Raoul Hernandez
Taken as a group, the four CDs Jim Hall has cut for Telarc, his current label, may be his best recorded work, which, considering his stature, means it's some of the finest jazz guitar done by anyone. Panorama features Hall with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Terry Clarke, and appearing on two selections apiece, pianists Kenny Barron and Geoff Keezer, trombonist Slide Hampton, and alto saxman Greg Osby. Flugelhornist Art Farmer plays on one. Hall wrote all nine compositions, and the care and thoughtfulness with which he invests in his work is contagious. Barron sounds great, displaying prodigious technique here without grandstanding. "Entre Nous" finds Hampton at the top of his game, performing lyrically and with great instrumental control, while Osby's inventive, fiery, and unpredictable improvising on "Painted Pig" is among Panorama's highlights. Hall not only exhibits his usual virtues, soloing with impeccable taste and considerable imagination, he also demonstrates that he's still growing and seeking to expand his vocabulary. Telarc producers deserve a pat on the back for the success of the Hall albums. They've supported his ambitious ideas and he's brought them off.
4 stars -- Harvey Pekar