el pee (FUME/Cold Spring)
Since it's taken nearly four years for a new album, and over two years for Lone Wolf Management to find this local trio a record deal, one would have thought that El Flaco actually translates into "The Wait." Which is a damn shame, because a better-financed version of el pee could have made for a solid major label debut since it combines the best of 1995's Thub ("Unflappable" and "Sister") with some equally hook-filled newer fare ("Local DJ," "Star Spangled Banner #2"). El pee could have also proved El Flaco was more than just an alt-rock ZZ Top or an unpretentious Primus, as well as illustrating what both of the aforementioned bands have seemingly forgotten - that there's room for both boogie without nostalgia and wit without novelty. And maybe, just maybe, el pee could have brought real rawk back to radio. Instead, the album is merely a great Austin effort, full of soul, songwriting, and humor, but very unlikely to make it too far beyond the local faithful. And if the band's decision to take a "hiatus" really spells "permanent vacation," then the sad truth about el pee may just be that El Flaco will now and forever translate into "the one that got away."
3 Stars - Andy Langer
GRANT LEE BUFFALO
Jubilee (Slash/Warner Bros.)
Maybe Grant Lee Phillips, singer and primary songwriter behind Grant Lee Buffalo, was tired of going broke by not appealing to the lowest common denominator, because Jubilee, the California trio's fourth record, shows a marked dropoff in the intelligence of the songwriting. For evidence, look no further than the first single "Truly Truly," which sports the lyrical complexity of George Harrison's "I Got My Mind Set on You." This from a band whose last album, Copperopolis, was an ode to the blue-collar wasteland left after the demise of the post-war American industrial base. Of course, nobody heard the last album and "Truly Truly" is already approaching "hit" status. Yet while Phillips plays dumb this time around, he's also smart enough to go copping the feel of some of his most successful peers. From the Pearl Jam-ish "Testimony" or the R.E.M.-like "Sanctuary" to the almost slick-hick "Come to Mama, She Say," Grant Lee Buffalo does modern rock to suit the suits. And while it does sound different from its three predecessors, Jubilee is still full of bombastic, near theatrical pop-rock music. It's just truly truly inane bombastic, near theatrical pop-rock music this time around.
3 Stars - Michael Bertin
With her long-awaited third album, Liz Phair has made a pretty strong statement. Though there are numerous fingerprints on this CD, from producers Scott Litt and Brad Wood as well as Phair and Jason Chasko, what this album will ultimately prove (quite intentionally) is that the maker of this music, contrary to speculation, has been Phair all along. While her songs have never been culturally prophetic or even musically genius, they do reveal the songwriter as an enigmatic rock personality capable of writing intelligent pop songs. And that's enough. "Big Tall Man" and "Polyester Bride" belong on the radio, their big sweeping choruses exploding with power chords, layered vocals, and lyrical slogans like "It feels goo-oo-ood ... ". These songs, as well as the other more obvious material like "Shitloads of Money" and "Love is Nothing" are good songs; and the ambitious "Uncle Alvarez" and "What Makes You Happy," like the goofy but rockin' "Baby Got Going" and "Ride," could be great songs. Front to back, solid if undemanding instrumental work and Phair's sharp songwriting is a more-than-adequate basis for a really good album. And that's exactly what Whitechocolatespaceegg is: A really good album.
3.5 Stars - Christopher Hess
Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo)
With her critically lauded debut Revival, SoCal gal Gillian Welch introduced herself as the skinny folkie in the floral print dress singing simple songs as if she had stepped out of Woody Guthrie's Oklahoma circa 1920. The hit "Orphan Girl" helped complete the illusion. Hell Among the Yearlings, the follow-up, doesn't betray the fact that Welch actually attended UC Santa Cruz (UT by the sea) or that she met the other half of her duet David Rawlings at the Berklee College of Music, but it does reveal a talented singer-songwriter not quite immune to the sophomore slip. A dark album that opens with a woman raking a broken bottle across the throat of the man attempting to rape her ("Caleb Meyer"), Hell Among the Yearlings is spare both in instrumentation and tone; Welch, Rawlings, and two acoustic guitars (or her banjo) being the only participants on nine of the efforts' 11 tracks, which moan with titles like "The Devil Had a Hold of Me," "I'm Not Afraid to Die," and "Miner's Refrain" ("I'm down in a deep, dark hole"). "My Morphine," with its opiated dilapidation, and "Whiskey Girl" are every bit as good as "Orphan Girl." If Hell Among the Yearlings, in its title alone, is no Revival, Welch once again proves her talent - even if she hasn't improved upon it.
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
One of These Days (Emperor Jones/Trance Syndicate)
Eccentric? Seems like a low-bidder word around these hinterlands. After 15 minutes of fame in his native Australia during the late Sixties, "primative pop" star Pip Proud retreated to a outback country shack with no electricity so he could write in peace. Featuring songs written between 1967 and 1997, One of These Days' odd-timed, often unsteady music puts time out of mind. The one-offed nature of these recordings will be disconcerting to some and magnetically appealing to others. It sometimes sounds as if Proud's brain is feeding his mouth with too much to say in not enough time. This harkens forward to a more competent Shaggs or a less prurient Frogs, but either way, Proud's extraordinary ability to craft hyper-descriptive lyrics is undeniable. The minute details woven through "The Tennis Player" sound like the work of a sculptor or a stalker. The title track is a simpler song of longing love, but it's no less effective and eerie. Proud's acute awareness of his surroundings and his undefinably singular world view should provide hours and hours of befuddled enjoyment for the third eye set.
3.5 Stars- Greg Beets
HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN
Swingin' Stampede (Hightone)
Few bands have captured a devoted following in Austin as rapidly as the Hot Club Of Cowtown. Soon after relocating here from San Diego last December, guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith and fiddle player Elena Fremerman finalized their lineup by adding bass player Billy Horton of the Horton Brothers. They then proceeded to impress nearly anyone who saw their dazzling, spirited shows, and after a ton of gigs, they signed a deal with Hightone Records. The fruit of all this is Swingin' Stampede, an eclectic mix of styles that could only be accomplished with the Hot Club's enticing energy and seemingly boundless musicianship. Taking the music of Bob Wills as a jumping off point (three covers), they venture into the hot jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, while also blending in traditional fiddle tunes and spirited takes on standards from the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. One of Wills' best-known fiddlers, Johnny Gimble, graciously adds his considerable prowess on four songs and Mike Maddux adds accordion on his composition, "T & J Waltz." The only problem with this recording is the production, which seems kind of sterile. Music this lively needs to jump from the speakers, and Swingin' Stampede, while trying to accurately capture this promising band in its fairly primitive glory, just doesn't accomplish that task.
2.5 Stars- Jim Caligiuri
A Long Way Home (Reprise)
Dwight Yoakam had a hit with "Little Ways" a few years back, and on the new A Long Way Home, it's still the little things that pay off big: Skip Edwards' piano fills on "These Arms"; the Motown backing vocals on "The Curse"; Scott Joss' fiddle intro to "Traveler's Lantern"; the supple string swells on "Yet to Succeed"; and probably a dozen more. Crafted as usual by mixing-board wiz Pete Anderson, this intricate web allows several past Yoakams to emerge, from the Vegas show-stopper of his last album, Gone ("Things Change," "Listen"), to the rockin' country rebel of Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. ("I Wouldn't Put It Past Me," "Only Make Me Want You More"), and the elder-respecting pupil he's always been, saluting Buck Owens on "That's Okay," Merle Haggard on "I'll Just Take These," and Bill Monroe on "Traveler's Lantern." With a pair of frisky fool songs ("Same Fool," "That's Okay"), a stone-cold jukebox classic in "These Arms," and another "Suspicious Minds" in "Listen," A Long Way Home would still be a great album even without all the extra stuff, like a guest shot from banjo legend Ralph Stanley or the bracing acoustic/steel duel that leads into opener "Same Fool." But then it wouldn't be a Dwight Yoakam album, either.
4 Stars - Christopher Gray
Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's/Sire)
Though he's played a lot of blues in his time, veteran vocalist and R&B guit-slinger Syl Johnson leaves no doubt where his heart lies: "I'm a soul man," he insists. "I ain't no bluesman." On Bridge to a Legacy, Johnson certainly makes good on the claim, opening with a string of solid cuts that recall the best of old-time soul. "Who's Still in Love," "I Been Missin' U," and "Half a Love" are all possessed of a sure and satisfying groove, fierce and funky, but not overly so. After that, things get a little spottier. On the fourth track the cheese starts to creep in, and by the fifth it's a featured ingredient: It soon becomes clear that, if Johnson recalls the soul of his classic Seventies sides, he also recalls its excess. If you don't mind a side of synthesizer with your drums and bass, Bridge to a Legacy should suit you fine, nestled up comfortably against your second-string Al Green albums. More casual fans may find this release a touch stifling, however, with Johnson's obvious soul obscured by a heavy hand at the mixing board.
2 Stars - Jay Hardwig
Blue Wonder Powder Milk (Epic)
Alex Callier, the man behind Hooverphonic's silky, sparkley, shimmering curtain, says the title of his Belgium quartet's second album refers to "anything that makes your life worth living." For Callier that would be Tangerine Dream. Imbued with the same sort of futuristic neon glow said pioneering West German techno band cast over countless film soundtracks, Blue Wonder Powder Milk lights up with synthesized string arrangements and programming the liner notes credit as The Hooverphonic String Orchestra. Brighter than the group's buzzing, whirring, sleeper debut, last year's A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, it goes down smoother than a glass of chocolate milk. Opener "Battersea," a sugary New Wave Depeche Mode synth number, sets a pulsing ebb-and-flow pace that lulls even as it races. "One Way Ride," with its echoing back-alley trombone, and the crystal bell-tone opening of the Psychedelic Furs-ish "Dictionary" are so sexy you don't even notice the band has changed singers since the first album. "Renaissance Affair," doing its New Age Stevie Nicks veil dance (Loreena McKennit), will be hard to resist for late-night/night-light types who plug into the nocturnal sounds of Hooverphonic because it's what makes sleep come alive.
3 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
The Sea II (ECM)
From Ravel's La Mer to Dirty Three's Ocean Songs, water's elemental forces have inspired some of the most moving music ever made. Add The Sea II to the list. Like its numeric predecessor, The Sea II is a commercially bold and aesthetically daring release from a German label renowned for its pure organic sonicscapes and impressionistic work. Label founder and producer Manfred Eicher, who produces virtually all of ECM's releases, keeps the mix open, thereby enhancing the dynamics of this quartet's instrumental interplay. Ketil Bjornstad's chordal piano lattice lets impromptu phrases breathe and blend, as light rays shoot through water like Jacob's ladders. His ivory work gives David Daring (cello), Jon Christensen (drums), and Terje Rypdal (guitar) fertile soil for individual and collective improvisations, bringing their respective tonal palettes to the fore: Daring's out-of-body lines in "The Mother," Christensen's polyrhythmic rhythms on "Laila," and Rypdal's seagull cries on "Consequences." In "Outward Bound" and "Brand," all four instruments float in and out, just as the view of an aquatic floor changes with fluctuations in the water's surface tension. You don't need to be a aqua-phile to love The Sea II, just willing to get wet.
4 Stars - David Lynch
Bele Bele en la Habana (Blue Note)
Tiberi Tabara (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
It's been said that of the forms of music developed in the Western Hemisphere, only Afro-Cuban music comes close to jazz in richness and complexity. In the Forties, Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban band leader Machito were major figures in a movement dubbed "Afro-Cubop," which blended American bebop and Afro-Cuban music. The center of this stylistic hybridization was New York, where the innovative combos of Arsenio Rodriguez demonstrated jazz influence over 50 years ago. In 1952, pianist Bebo Valdés initiated a series of
Cuban jam sessions ("descargas"), and soon it became common for jazz and Afro-Cuban forms to mix in different ways. On the new Bele Bele en la Habana, pianist Chucho Valdés, son of Bebo, continues the promulgation of the genre of which he was a major component in the Seventies as the leader of Irakere, an Afro-Cuban group featuring Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. Here, Valdés' piano work is astonishing; he not only amazing technician, he also has an extensive knowledge of Afro-Cuban, jazz, and classical music. At times, he gets pretty far out, but then this album seems designed mainly to demonstrate his versatility and virtuosity, and in doing just that, it's a landmark CD. For fans of more traditional Cuban music, there's the excellent Sierra Maestra band, which has been around since the late Seventies. The strongest influence of this nine-piece group has been Arsenio Rodriguez's aforementioned Forties outfits. On Tiberi Tabara, Sierra Maestra perform a variety of tunes dating back to the Thirties, with Barbero Teuntor Garcia's brilliant improvised trumpet spots, spirited solos, and ensemble vocals being the album's highlights. There isn't a lot of groundbreaking being done on this CD, but this is irresistibly buoyant music, skillfully arranged and performed with passion and precision.
(Bele Bele en la Habana) 5 Stars
(Tiberi Tabara) 4 Stars - Harvey Pekar