Burning the Daze (Atlantic)
The long-awaited Mark Cohn release is here. All five of you who have been holding your breath can stop now. Burning the Daze is actually the 1991 Best New Artist Grammy-winner's third album, but since his 1993 sophomore release didn't yield a hit as popular as his debut's, you probably need to be reminded who Cohn actually is: "Walking in Memphis." Yeah, that guy. What's he been doing over the last few years? Becoming Bruce Hornsby, apparently, which begs two separate questions: first, it took you five years to make this?; and second, did you think anyone would feel like they missed you if you came back sounding like someone who never went away? Really, the resemblance to Hornsby is uncanny - especially on "Healing Hands" and "Turn to Me." While Cohn and Atlantic brought out the big guns for Burning the Daze, John Leventhal producing, vocal help from Patti Griffin, and Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell contributing some oh-so-important handclaps, it all sounds slick and polished, but the shot they fired can be heard elsewhere - with bitchin' two-handed piano solos. (Marc Cohn plays La Zona Rosa Saturday, April 4.)
2 Stars - Michael Bertin
Stadium Blitzer (Watermelon/Sire)
Without a doubt, this is the album that every Gourds fan has prayed would follow '96's outstanding Dem's Good Beeble. It comes closer to capturing the raw booze-sweat energy that pours from the stage during this wildly popular local band's performances. It better reflects the interplay between mandolin runs and bass walks that is so integral to the band's sound without taking anything away from Claude Bernard's waltzing accordion and the hackstart trap-beating of former beeble Charlie Llewellin. Most importantly, it's one big, bold step further into the limelight for Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, two of the most intelligent and innovative songwriters in Austin today. Smith's hillbilly-savant treatments of miner ancestry ("Coppermine") and Mexican mistresses ("Maria") are the perfect foil to Russell's modern folklore ("Pine Island Bayou") and geographical canonization ("Raining in Port Arthur"). The one-two punch of "Lament" and "Plaid Coat" that opens Stadium Blitzer plunges the listener into the Texas-to-Appalachia world of them Gourds before they have a chance to hitch up their drawers, and there are enough live set staples ("LGO," "Magnolia," "Cold Bed") to make any longtime fan happier than a pig in shit. The chirping cicadas that bookend the songs and pop up throughout bring the Gourds' sophomore effort out of the studio and onto your front porch - especially in the exquisite a cappella duet that closes the album with whoop and Amen! Perfect. It just doesn't get any better than this. (The Gourds' CD release party is at the Electric Lounge Friday, April 10.)
4 Stars - Christopher Hess
THE HALO BENDERS
The Rebels Not In (K)
Featuring Calvin "Beat Happening" Johnson's leadership and Dub Narcotic semi-fame, various Built to Spill, Tree People, and other craftspersons, Halo Benders' second album is comically serious indie pop. Emerging out of dubby bass, elementary octave rhythm guitars, and echoplex leads that are out of the DIY big-note songbook, the group manages to convey some kind of sense of humor mainly through Johnson's hysterically funny basso loverman vocals. The tweeness is out of the cuckoo's nest on lines such as "innie, outie, I don't care" (navel-gazing maneuvers, one presumes) on the opener, "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain." "Your Asterisk," for comparison shoppers, ventures into a new galaxy equally Willie Nelson and Jonathan Richman. There is much that's enticing about this throwaway aesthetic, however: "Bury Me" involves lunatic late-Seventies cut-time Oi! stomping with Numan-esque synthing and a drummer heroically struggling to keep up, while "Do That Thing" sounds like some Beat Happening should-be-hits that will sadly never see the light of your dashboard radio. With sincerely hooky backing vocals throughout, these songs are what the Northwest's fluffy pop movement aims for: new bubblegum for now teens.
3 Stars - David Williams
GASTR DEL SOL
Camofleur (Drag City)
The mark of a truly exceptional band lies not only in its ability to live up to its self-imposed precedents, but in its ability to be innovative within those precedents. Chicago's Gastr del Sol does this well, as every track they release holds its own with an individual character and personality still well within the parameters of indelible good taste. Relative to the previous Gastr del Sol releases, Camofleur could be labeled a pop album, but compared to say, the Apples in Stereo, it might as well be Miles Davis. The lyrical content is more prevalent and more interesting than their previous releases, (which is probably why it's being called a pop album), but in the spirit of previous releases, it holds line with the bizarre yet sparse multi-instrumental flavors that have given David Grubbs, Jim O'Rourke, and Markus Popp renown as modern composers of a sound, which could be likened to blaring Led Zeppelin's "Bron-y-Aur" over the loudspeaker at an alien parade while falling sound asleep.
4 Stars - Taylor Holland
THE YOUNG DUBLINERS
Alive Alive O (Cargo)
There are those days when the moon is in the seventh house, Jupiter aligns with Mars, and the album you've chosen blindly from the bins is a diamond in the rough. Make room at the bar, then, for the Young Dubliners, a Southern California-based group whose sound is as varied and pure as the 40 shades of green in Ireland. In this live recording from the Belly-Up Tavern in San Diego, producer Steve Albini has coaxed a lyrical gem from the Young Dubs. The eight songs clock in at just under 40 minutes, but they follow a timeline that echoes from well in the past right up to the here and now. There's spiritual muscle to tunes like "Man Upstairs" and spirited modern rock with "Confusion," but nothing on the album kicks like "Follow Me Up to Carlow," traditional music from the Irish soul. More to the point, Alive Alive O works as a live album because the music is so conducive to audience response, and not just the noodley conceit of a studio effort. It's a reminder that the power of folk music is in its relation to oral tradition and performance. (The Young Dubliners plays Stubb's Friday, April 3.)
3 Stars - Margaret Moser
THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS PRINCE
Crystal Ball (NPG)
What are we to call Prince this week? How about Pain in the Ass. First, the Artist promised this 4-CD set would only be sold over the Internet. Then, production delays and the creation of a confusing array of configurations held up Crystal Ball's release, which is now not only available at the Artist's "exclusive" retailer, Best Buy, but everywhere else as well. Available in both a funky plastic ball and the traditional jewel case configuration - with the mail-order version featuring a "New Age" experiment as a fifth disc - all the sets seem to include a mostly unadvertised acoustic set closer, The Truth. After all that chaos and disorder, for the final retail release to be such an unsequenced and unnecessarily overwhelming mess is a major disappointment. Sure, The Artist has always been self-indulgent, but to follow his 3-CD Emancipation with another three discs of demos, remixes, and afterthoughts proves he's no longer shackled by some record label conglomerate - only by his own egomania (and his past). Not surprisingly, then, Crystal Ball's only really new material, The Truth, is also its most interesting, poignantly pointing towards The Artist's final crossover destination: AAA. Full of rare displays of control and restraint, it's also still a bit too short on fully realized songs to make it nearly as vital as it is fascinating. Nevertheless, it could be a stand-alone album, which is probably what Crystal Ball boils down to with some clever programming. Funk workouts like "Hide the Bone," "Movie Star," "Rippogodazippa," and "What's My Name" aren't merely the foundation of a solid album, they're vintage, must-have Prince. Unfortunately, they're also buried among bloated 14-minute jams like "Cloreen Bacon Skin," embarrassing off-Broadway schmaltz such as "Strays of the World," and yet another remix of "Lovesign." Whether anyone with a musical appetite that stretches beyond The Artist will have the time or the energy to do such an edit is a germane question; it's probably best just to wait until the The Artist finally gets around to releasing a set of genuinely new material.
2.5 Stars - Andy Langer
Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe)
Remember that day in high school when your teacher pointed out to you all of the symbolism in The Great Gatsby - the green light on the end of Daisy's pier, the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg looking down over the valley of the ashes? That's the day you understood that not everything written was always so literal. Ani DiFranco must have skipped that day. On Little Plastic Castle, recorded here in Austin, DiFranco writes only lines that are unmistakably clear in their message: "Just give up and admit you're an asshole" ("As Is"); "Life just keeps getting harder" ("Glass House"). That's probably not really a big deal since DiFranco's career has been built on frankness, and she's done well by it. The problem here? Let's put it this way: Maybe DiFranco ought to change the name of her record company to Self Righteous Babe Records. It gets a little tough to take over 60 solid minutes of the heavy-handed gospel according to Ani. What's truly terrifying, though, is that the two best songs on Little Plastic Castle, the title track and "Deep Dish," are the two on which Jon Blondell plays. Actually, it has nothing to do with the local trombone player; they're good because they're actual songs (perhaps the only two on the album). Everything else is sermon, accompanied by some nifty guitar playing by DiFranco, but sermon nonetheless.
2 Stars - Michael Bertin
The Lonesome Crowded West (Up)
However insipid it may sound, the only plausible explanation for why Modest Mouse's new release is so great is that the songs are just so cool. Seattle (by way of Issaquah) singer-guitarist Isaac Brock has a way with words that resides somewhere between a whisper behind your back and a brick to the side of your head. His vocal delivery often comes off timid and childlike, but it can just as easily be angry and venomous; the CD insert features a skyscraper around dusk, calm, lights coming on, but with a storm threatening eventual chaos and violence in the same frame. A similar feeling comes from the music inside. In quieter moments like "Trailer Trash" and "Bankrupt on Selling," Brock's raw delivery and poignant lyrics burn with an intensity equal in brutal rockers like "Doin' the Cockroach" and "Shit Luck," songs filled to frenzy by the odd and inspired bass of Eric Judy and the masterful drums of Jeremiah Greene. The unique personalities of these songs are often multiple ones. "Doin' the Cockroach" starts with slow, pained guitar and vocals reflecting drunken frustration at an unreasonable world then accelerates into an all-out nonsensical jam that defies logic. Every once in a while an album comes out of the blue and makes everything in its path seem silly in comparison. This is one of those.
4 Stars - Christopher Hess
Contact From the Underworld of Redboy (Capitol)
More pretentious noodling from a certified rock legend who's seen better days, or visionary ethnic-techno music for the next century? Contact From the Underworld of Redboy isn't sure if it wants to be a recording with a message or the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made, but in either case it doesn't work. Worse, this kind of music comes with a built-in guilt factor: If you don't like it, you don't understand the plight of our Native American brethren, especially when detailed by someone as well-respected as Robbie Robertson. When he trots out names like Leonard Peltier, Wilma Mankiller, Sherman Alexie, and Floyd Redcrow Westerman as contributors and inspiration on the album, Contact begins to feel more like a demand performance from the listener - that the debt owed the Indian nation is here and it's C.O.D. And it's not as if musical cross breeding were anything new or inept - Peter Gabriel, Loreena McKennitt, and Ry Cooder have created very successful hybrids with ethnic music that sound as pure and lovely as any of the stripped-down hillbilly rock Robertson nurtured so fabulously with The Band. Contact is rife with anger and attitude ("Making a Noise," "Sacrifice"), but it seems contrived in a lush musical context. If an effort like this is a soundtrack in need of vision, Robbie Robertson might be better off going into CD-ROMs.
2 Stars - Margaret Moser
Big beat, schmig beat, this is the sound of God DJing. Like fellow thudmonkey Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), this Bath, England duo (Alex Gifford and Will White) take the foundations of funk rock, toss them into the musical equivalent of Satan's Cuisinart, and press "fuckup." Huge beats litter Decksandrumsandrockandroll, yes, but the real meat here is the Props' mind-bending use of samples, stylistics, and screaming rock loops. Live at SXSW, they commanded the stage, artfully aware of the necessity for visuals (also known as "moving about"), and the power of the beat. On CD, with the smoky, trendy crowd vanquished, they come across as much more than simply the next big thing from the U.K. The opener, "Take California," is a roiling, bass-driven free-for-all that commands attention like a Luftwaffe airstrike, and things only get better from there. The bonafide coup of securing Shirley "Thunderball" Bassey to sing on "History Repeating" is monumental, but street cred aside, the song is killer: a smoky, loungy dollop of créme de menthe sensuality that oozes from the speakers like a hot fudge-and-estrogen cocktail. If that were all, it'd be enough to make my year-end Top Ten, but the Propellerheads slouch not. "360 (Oh yeah?)" features a revivified De La Soul up against a languid, trippy beat that goes on and on like a summertime blunt, and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" deconstructs 007 even better than Moby's recent foray into Bondville. Decksandrumsandrockandroll is one of those watershed releases that heralds something much larger than itself. Like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head (from which the Props' "Bigger?" could be an outtake), this is the sound of a genre redefining itself, lunging forward into new, uncharted waters and unchecked landscapes. More so than Fatboy Slim, The Crystal Method, or even the Chemical Brothers, this is the sound of the new. "Isn't it amazing?" they ask us. Why, yes, it is.
4 Stars - Marc Savlov
AIR FRENCH BAND
Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)
Sacrebleu is right. Who could have known ze slutty cocktail revolution would get picked up dans une Parisian disco by zat trés chic garçon, electronica. Mon dieu. L'Inspector Dimitri from Paris, la France's most celebrated DJ, has come Clouseauing, tripping and tumbling through Sacrebleu's Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, falling into "Reveries" (incidental music from some French soft porn flik), looping une jeune fille en Francais (naturellement) pour "Un Terlude," go-go bossa nova-ing avec "Une Very Stylish Fille" (built around a sample from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), and doing it again Steely Dan-style dans "Back in the Daze." C'est très amusant. "Le Moogy Reggae" et "Sacre Français" ("sacre funk") aussi. Air French Band, Nicholas Godin et Jean Benoît Dunckel, are too David Niven/Robert Wagner pour L'Inspector, how do you say? Cunning? C'est un New Age. Le Moog, le mini-Moog, le Fender Rhodes, et Korg keyboards. Ze soft, low pulse of eine kleine nachtmusik, eh, musique pour le nuit (night). Ze soundtrack theme musique pour A Man and a Woman ("La Femme D'Argent," "Sexy Boy"), le muted horn wah-wah de "Le Voyage de Penelope," et le heart-monitor, Galaxie 500 blip de "Kelly, Watch the Stars." Très belle, très jolie. Who could have known? Je ne sais pas, mais Vive la France! Oui.
(Sacrebleu) 3 Stars
(Moon Safari) 3.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
Ball of Fire (Island Jamaica Jazz)
Big Up! (Island Jamaica Jazz)
They've spawned literally hundreds of imitators of one sort or another, from Britain's punk-era Two-Tone skankers to a myriad of today's cranked-up skank hellions, but when the dust finally clears, the Jamaican band that originally created the sound we all know as Ska is still very much alive and sounding better than ever. Ball of Fire is the Skatalites' fourth, and by far their best album of the decade. While previous projects were all satisfying, they tended to have a few good tunes and too much filler. Quite the contrary here. On Ball of Fire, they've taken some of the absolute best and most beloved ska classics from their salad days of the early/mid Sixties ("Confucious," "Occupation," "Eastern Standard Time," and the James Bond Theme), and given them a fresh reworking. Constant touring has kept the group a well-oiled juggernaut and this album is nothing less than a live, in-the-studio recording with a sparkling sound. Original band members, drummer Lloyd Knibbs and upright bassist Lloyd Brevett, lock into the wicked riddems like a steel trap while the relaxed four-horn front line plus guest guitarist Ernest Ranglin stretch out and swing like demons. Here is one of the greatest "groove" bands of all time at the top of their form, kickin' some serious tush. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first track on the new album by reggae saxophone star Dean Fraser is The Skatalites' chestnut, "Dick Tracy." It's a rousing and appropriate introduction to this ambitious instrumental collection of classic roots reggae tunes, a fun-filled reggae/jazz crossover album with enough substance to adequately satisfy both contingents. Fraser has performed and/or recorded with virtually every major reggae artist in the past two decades, and on Big Up! he's assembled a stellar cast of musicians anchored by the tasteful combination of reggae's premier drummer, Sly Dunbar, and veteran jazz drummer Idris Muhammad. Jazz heads may find Fraser's sound on his main ax, alto sax, to be rather thin and scrawny for its lead role here, his best work being on the fuller-bodied tenor, but pianist Jon Williams, and in particular acoustic bassist Wayne Batchelor, are outstanding throughout. Too jazzy for reggae fans? Too reggae for jazz fans? This album proves we can all be one big happy family.
(Ball of Fire) 5 Stars
(Big Up!) 3 Stars - Jay Trachtenberg