Boggy Depot (Columbia)
Alice in Chains is (was), arguably, the best of the Seattle "grunge" bands, having put out a series of albums that grew progressively better without ever succumbing to pretension or rockstaritis - the often lethal affliction common to commercial success. On the other hand, Layne Staley, the band's singer, did just that - succumb to rockstaritis - effectively killing the band with his heroin addiction. The beauty of Boggy Depot, then, the first solo outing by the group's guitarist, is its establishing Jerry Cantrell as AIC's lifeblood and saviour. Like Keith Richards and his solo efforts, Cantrell emerges victorious from AIC's shadow even though those shadows are dense with portent. Opening with the heavy crunch of "Dickeye," and then suavely slipping in the radio-ready "Cut You In," it isn't until the Stonesy "Hurt a Long Time" that it becomes obvious there's not a clunker on Boggy Depot. As well, the 12 songs herein summon some potent icons ("Jesus Hands" and "Devil by His Side"), allowing a ghostly spirituality to waft through all the tracks. While most of the cuts bear the unmistakable patina of AIC (Mike Inez and Sean Kinney both make appearances), and despite the fact that Cantrell is clearly the yang to Staley's yin, Boggy Depot proves loud and clear that enough yang will rattle them bones every time.
3.5 Stars - Margaret Moser
Kicked in the Teeth (Epitaph)
These boys are all high and out of control on a trashcan punch mixture of adrenaline and testosterone. After all, not every band includes copies of restraining orders and ex-girlfriend fuck-you letters in their liner notes. Zeke speak in cranked-up 4/4 to all the things that make boys bad, yet much like watching a tornado destroying a trailer park, you just can't turn away from such a nasty spectacle. Motorhead is the most audible reference point here, but Zeke's presentation relies just as heavily on Southern California hardcore. Within just 20 minutes, you're fighting, fucking, and instigating teenage revolution, while a cover of KISS' "Shout It Out Loud" adds a nice garnish of arena rock bacchanalia to top it all off. Sometimes, it pays to come off like an arrogant, aggravated shit kicker - just look what it's done for the Dwarves, Nashville Pussy, and retiring American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall. Zeke proudly furthers this all-American lineage of heavy metal bad-assism with great gobs of fire. It's music to get yourself kicked out of shopping malls by.
2.5 Stars - Greg Beets
Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? (London/Slash)
When French theorist Roland Barthes wrote about the grain of the voice, he was making a distinction between well-polished and well-executed. It's why Johnny Rotten was a much more convincing punk than Billy Idol. It's why Tom Waits has more soul than Michael Bolton. And years from now, when Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind and their alterna-ilk are finally bargain-binned, the grain may be a key part in what saves modern rock up-and-comers Harvey Danger from obscurity. There's plenty on this first album for alt-rock fans to get excited about. There's that new spin on the soft-loud-soft power-pop formula that Nirvana utilized so well. There's the tack of letting the bass take the melody while the guitar fills in all the holes. What elevates the songs to a whole other level, however, is vocalist Sean Nelson stamping them with a gloriously edgy, perfectly imperfect voicing; Barthes' grain. The radio hit, "Flagpole Sitta," is actually misleading in context of the whole album, having more pomp and less grit than anything else here. Nelson captures a mischief in "Flagpole" that transfers over to many of the group's other songs, but as "Problems and Bigger Ones" and "Jack the Lion" indicate, he can also steer his vocal sneer into more sincere regions. Closing Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? with back-to-back slow burners after a series of songs that barely contain their fire might be chalked up to rookie mistake or adroit confidence, but there's no denying this debut: It's 10 songs strong, full of quirks, and full of smarts. And in an increasingly dark age in modern rock, in a year so lame that a Lollapalooza can't even be strung together, this could end up as this year's oasis in the desert.
4 Stars - Phil West
A Series of Sneaks (Elektra)
Like a battered old Elmore Leonard paperback, chewed on, passages unreadable, pages ripped out, A Series of Sneaks speeds towards its inevitable conclusion leaving a trail of intrigue, confusion, and a lot of unanswered questions. Singing through a mouthful of ice cubes, Britt Daniel comes off like the retarded son of a rich, foreign dignitary, spitting out pointed accusations and lovesick barbs among a spittled barrage of unintelligible eruptions. It's maddening, really, and with only three of the 14 songs on Spoon's second full-length clocking in over three minutes, the chapters whiz by, leaving a trail of bodies and mayhem. And once you're in, you're in; the muscle ain't having you taking a powder. Daniel's arsenal of riffs, a collection of icepicks, daggers, and handguns, rips through your flesh like the Valentine's Day Massacre. It starts with the door slamming open on "Utilitarian," the song's insistent, marching riffs dodging the type of industrial clanging that litters the album's floor (in this case, it sounds like someone kicking a coiled doorstop). Followed by the beating of "The Minor Tough," and the grim "The Guestlist/The Execution," the fix is in, the songs as compelling as their titles: "June's Foreign Spell," "Chloroform," and "Quincy Punk Episode." Frantic, urgent, desperate, A Series of Sneaks isn't anywhere as neat and tidy as Spoon's first Telephono call, but then getting answers, dames, and killed never is.
3.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
The Ponzi Scheme (Jetset)
Tod Ashley's Firewater first surfaced in 1996, a sort of noir-ish supergroup and an antidote to the mayhem of his fierce former band, Cop Shoot Cop. "Stasis is death," was the quote attributed to Ashley at the time, and true to form, the second coming of Firewater bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Gone are the star ringers (Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard; Yuval Gabay of Soul Coughing), collaborator David Ouimet, most of the middle European drenchings of klezmer and tango, and even the Jesus jokes. With only violinist Hahn Rowe and Ashley remaining from the original lineup, what's left? The Ponzi Scheme, which reinvents Firewater as a menacing pop band with a newfound maturity. Such words might seem odd for a group sporting such an alternative pedigree, but this is a brooding and carefully crafted work, imbued with an edgy drama and melodic flair, and delivered with a lascivious smirk. Despite a couple of duds, the album's best work ("Caroline," "Dropping Like Flies," the odd "I Still Love You Judas") brims with tension, and the lyrics, while a bit disaffected, are delivered by Ashley in a flat and convincing growl. Shane MacGowan and Tom Waits comparisons continue to attach themselves to Firewater, but that doesn't begin to tell the whole story of this band. Judging by The Ponzi Scheme, there's still quite a few chapters to go.
3.5 Stars - Jeff McCord
Spacey and Shakin' (57 Records/ Epic)
Two things about Pete Droge's third effort, Spacey and Shakin'. First, he's made a record. Second, he's made one with 10 songs on it. This is a "record" in the sense that it has two different and distinct sides, something that effectively became non-existent with the advent of CDs. Nonetheless, there's a decisive stylistic difference between the first six songs and the remaining five. Side one is an artsy grunge record - and a good one at that - with a definitive nod to the Kinks underneath Brendan O'Brien's (Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet) lush production. Side two, however, comes off like fancied-up modern folk record. Now, the clever among you will have noticed that six and five equals 11 songs. "But wait, you said there were 10 songs on this record," you protest. This is pure speculation here, but "Blindly," the last track, is so out of place from either the first or second batch of songs that it seems nothing more than a conciliatory gesture to The Man. In other words, after Droge turned in the tapes, somebody in a suit got a little miffed that there was no follow-up to his "hit" "Beautiful Girls," and summarily demanded one. So Droge delivered, remaking "Beautiful Girls" nicely.
3 Stars - Michael Bertin
Big Calm (Sire)
One-hit wonder my ass. After their debut, Who Can You Trust?, with its funky, floppy, trip-happy "Trigger Hippie" single, Morcheeba seemed destined to a dreary London life of forever attempting to top the one song they never really cared about that much. While the rest of Trust? was melange of post-trip hop and stony loops that wafted about like Thai stick tendrils with the ceiling fan off, nothing quite matched up to the single's funky vibe. Smart lads (and a lass) that they are, Morcheeba have murmured "fuck it!" to themselves this time out, rethought their strategy, and turned in one seriously cohesive slab that flows through one gooey emotion to the next like molten vaseline on a sunny summer Sunday in Sri Lanka. Vocalist Skye Edwards still has the come-hitherest voice around these days, but it's no longer operating solely in the service of the beat; she uses it instead to plumb the depths of lovin' and the peaks of heartbreak on their own terms, a fully realized instrument with quiet power to burn. It oozes, her voice, and in the midst of brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey's still-very-funky mixes, it slithers about, insinuating and pleasantly creepy. And speaking of the Bros. Godfrey, they too have abandoned (mostly) the electro-synth churn that came before and instead pick up everything from lap steel guitars ("Part of the Process") to a excruciatingly wobbly Wurlitzer piano on "Let Me See." Everything and the kitchen sink makes it in here, and the result is a vast step forward for both Morcheeba and what everyone used to call "trip hop." Try Barry White meets the Orb.
3.5 Stars - Marc Savlov
Feeler (World Domination)
Like grains of dust or pollen magnified thousands of times, the music of Vancouver's Perfume Tree is a wondrous parallel universe full of fantastic shapes and textures that beckon like a child's tactile gallery. At the doorway of this other world sits a giant bumble-bee-looking flower called "Can't You?," with a processed bass line that will eventually permeate every part of your consciousness like a warm, fuzzy electric shock. A lazy hip-hop beat underscores it, of course - beats and dance rhythms carry all 74 minutes of this trio's second full-length - but it's that bass line from the future that will alter your DNA permanently. Dubbed "ambient dub" thanks to dreamscapes such as "Can't You?" and chanteuse Jane Tilley's siren song arias - mystical journeys from the same ether in which Enya and Loreena McKennitt lay in suspended animation - Perfume Tree's moody and cerebral sound owes less to trip-hop and bass `n' drums than it does to the Cocteau Twins/4AD universe, but even that doesn't sum up the Warholesque feeling that something very hip is going on here. Whether a 10-minute wordless build of beats ("Flooded"), a 10-minute tidal pull ("Both Oceans"), or a 10-minute helicopter landing ("Too early, Too Late") - with the occasionally shorter frenetic beats breaks ("Been There") - the music of Perfume Tree is a twitching, pulsing, living thing that's growing on you even now. Totally unseen.
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
Come Clean (Universal)
Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia are the Ono and Lennon of your bad dreams. They're also the Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo if you care to dig deeper, but either way you reference their stormy, off-again /on-again working relationship, the song remains the pain. When 1993's Cuckoo broke big as a college radio deep cut, Halliday and company packed it in and went underground, much to the dismay of everyone. Three CDs full of melodic, romantic, aural snuff-films seemed to have done them in permanently, but over the intervening years they popped up on that most likeliest of unlikely places, Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation and Nowhere soundtracks. Back again right on the cusp of millennial panic, Come Clean takes up where "Cuckoo" left off, surging forward both lyrically and musically. It's light years past "Fait Accompli" and "Coast is Clear," two of Curve's biggest early singles; this is a revelation in terms of sonic solidity, an eerie, quasi-pop grate-fest that holds together over its 57 minutes like a bleeding NME critic snafued by snarling concertina wire. Garcia's beat programming and warped keyboard and guitar loops are all over the place, hiding in the corners and leaping out to throttle unsuspecting listeners, but there's nothing random here; it's intentional, in sync, pure pop for mad people. Melodies flow, charge, and rush headlong, whether it's the dark, Stooges-on-bad-Ecstasy terror of "Chinese Burn" or the hideous comedown of "Dirty High," with its repeated "I'm low, low, low" chorus that echoes. Whatever happened post-Cuckoo, Halliday and Garcia appear to be inseparable, musically if not sexually. Their mutual misery is fodder for this harsh musical money shot. Here's to tears.
4 Stars - Marc Savlov
BRAN VAN 3000
Jamie Di Salvo is a funny guy. A music video director and star of this group of collaborators from Montreal called Bran Van 3000, Di Salvo has created the electronic equivalent of Un Chien Andalou - a surrealist masterpiece of pop perversions. My gawd, this album is hilarious, opening with a seriously pasted-together montage of beats and pieces that segues into "Couch Surfin'," a Beck-ly drawled diorama of spacey disclaimers by the house guest from hell. The album sequencing keeps the amusement level percolating throughout and batting cleanup is the single "Drinking in L.A.," immortalizing the chorus, "We did nothing, absolutely bupkis that day/ and I say, what the hell am I doing drinking in L.A. at 26?," as part of a tale involving slacking off Cali-style and ignoring friends' entreaties to get out of bed and finish a script. Singers Sara Johnston, Jayne Hill, and soul belter Stephane Moraille have exactly the right air of righteous indignation with spot-on diva declamation. While there are a few spots of non-funky girl rapping, they are few and meant with the best intentions, being not only small episodes, but actually working with the comic relief provided musically. Beside an actual MC with some character and flow, Jean Leloup, there's a cover of Quiet Riot's "Cum On Feel the Noize" that, sung by the female squad, more than justifies its existence with a sweetly naïve strum/electronic feeling. A cast of tens and a better sense of humor than most sitcoms make Glee a club worth joining.
2.5 Stars - David Williams