After a ten-year moratorium on touring, it was no surprise when 1992's Nonsuch quietly became the last studio effort by XTC. Nor was it surprising that Andy Partridge placated his fans throughout the '90s with repackaged singles, B-sides, and outtakes from when the band did tour. Finally, there is a real surprise: XTC has a new album of eleven new songs. Still on his anti-pop crusade, Partridge, and lone-surviving XTC cohort Colin Moulding, have created a solid hour-long acoustic set with Apple Venus Volume 1.
With no true band any more, much of the instrumentation is provided by the London Session Orchestra, a dubious backup band at best. Sometimes the orchestrated swells and horn pops appear a tad contrived, though mostly Partridge is able to imbue his signature style onto the players. Yet the strongest cuts on the album are the simpler acoustic melodies of "Knights in Shining Karma" or "Your Dictionary," done without electronics or an orchestra, instead relying on an almost-solo Partridge (though Dave Gregory did stick around long enough to help out with piano and other acoustic accompaniments).
Volume 1 is full of the usual incendiary quips and observations, all buried beneath the trademark pop hooks. Better than simply picking up where it left off, XTC has managed to wade into dangerous, personal waters. Much of Volume 1 seems more depressed and introspective than usual, perhaps indicative of why Partridge chose such a striking counterpoint to his usual musical backings. Volume 1 is not an attempt by alternative pioneers to reestablish themselves in the current market. Rather, the album is aimed solidly at the old fans, whom it is assumed have grown and lived in the past decade as Partridge has. This is not music for the MTV generation; it is for the generation that has since turned its back on MTV.
Good Morning Spider
It would be difficult to go through a near-death experience, as Sparklehorse main man Mark Linkous did in 1996 (he flatlined for a couple minutes after a drug-induced "accident," which eventually left him in a wheelchair for months), and not come out of it with battle scars and a tale to tell. Good Morning Spider, the second album from Sparklehorse, is Linkous's story. And if the incidents that led up to and resulted from his cardiac arrest, rehab stay, and physical recovery are only referenced once or twice on the album (the most obvious of which is the gloomy "Saint Mary," about the London hospital where he dried up for two months), the emotional wounds that haunt his every breath are vivid.
But Linkous was a pretty twisted guy in the first place. A Virginian with a taste for psychedelia by way of his country roots, Linkous's lo-fi heapings of acid-crashed musings on everything from his eternal loneliness to his own self-deprecating view of his art are never quite clear. Good Morning Spider is delivered in a thick haze of ideas, concepts, and all things abstract. Reality checked out of Linkous's life long ago; the leftover pieces, and Linkous's shattered theories of what it was once like, are what this album is all about. Tape loops (as erratic as their controller) rattle and hum throughout, often countering the barely audible acoustic guitars and Linkous's own fragile voice. The glorious "Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man" unfolds in a series of interconnecting musical vignettes that fade in and out of the mix before giving way to a big rock crunch of a chorus. "All I wanted was to be a happy man," Linkous sings with the biggest burst of energy found on Spider. And it's scarily convincing in its determination.
Even the most conventional song here, the guitar-flashing "Pig," sounds like something that escaped not quite complete. There's a fragmentary feel to Good Morning Spider that eases its way into the acoustic whispers of "Hey, Joe" and "Come on In" with a cautionary brittleness that should be slapped with a "handle with care" warning. By the end of it all, Linkous may not actually appear grateful to be alive, but he's certainly rejoicing in the fact that he's not dead.
Producers can't rap. That's why Dre had Snoop, Puffy had Biggie, and RZA has a whole crew of Wu-Tangers. And on his debut solo disc, Tim's Bio, Timbaland even states the obvious: "He said that Timbaland can't rap/But I don't care because I make those tracks/I make you bounce and wiggle and do this and that." Which, I suppose, is all that we can really ask.
Timbaland (it says Tim Mosley on his fat paychecks) sharpened his skills on a series of factory-generated R&B songs before scoring with a double dose of hip-hop hall of fame contenders in 1997: Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly and a jittery, super-fly single with partner Magoo, "Up Jumps da' Boogie" (which also featured Elliott). Last year, he gave Aaliyah her greatest slice of radio heaven before graduating to this sporadically spotty but occasionally invigorating project.
Subtitled "From the Motion Picture: Life from da Bassment" (there's no such feature; it just looks good on paper), Tim's Bio combines Timbaland's rickety drum- and bass-fueled electronic beats with a gaggle of guest stars. Nas, Jay-Z, Kelly Price, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and, of course, Elliott and Magoo all make cameos, as does an entire community of neophyte rappers from Tim's posse. But the real stars of this show are the producer's rhythmic seizures and nervous grooves, which are among the best in the biz.
Airwave-friendly but still faithful to the streets, Tim's Bio balances sample-heavy, pop culture-conscious ditties. I Dream of Jeanie's theme song is prominently used on one track, and the best cut here, "Here We Come," uses the old jazzy Spider-Man cartoon tune as its launching point--with equally cunning rhymes. But Timbaland's a showman, and Tim's Bio is all about that big payoff. His own staccato, almost robotic style blends in just fine with Magoo's three-hits-of-helium novelty tones and the tougher vocal dexterity of his more seasoned pals. The strongest songs here, the quasi-funky "Lobster & Scrimp" and the spurting "What Cha Talkin' Bout," even find redemption in Timbaland's crawl from the shadows of the cellar. His MC ability might be a bit thin, but in the greatest hip-hop tradition, he surrounds himself with masterful and effective accessories.
All Over You
Those who know Lazy Lester, a 65-year-old harmonica/guitar player, put him in the same stew with Lightnin' Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Katie Webster, Ernest "Tabby" Thomas, and the rest of the Louisiana swamp-blues artists.
But All Over You, the first album Lester (real name: Leslie Johnson) has released since Harp & Soul in 1988, has a lot more Mississippi Delta and South Side Chicago than bayou in it, even though almost every song here is a reprise of someone's swamp-blues hit. Perhaps his relocation to Pontiac, Michigan, has something to do with that, or the fact that he recorded with Austin, Texas blues heavyweights like Sue Foley, Derek O'Brien, and ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds drummer Mike Buck.
Lester's harmonica style is far more in the vein of Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson than the legendary swamper Slim Harpo, even though he begins All Over You with Harpo's "I Need Money." Lester covers Jimmy Reed's "The Sun Is Shining," but other than that, every song is from the vaults of pioneering Louisiana producer J.D. Miller. Only on Miller's "Irene" does the sound of rural Louisiana dominate.
But whatever you want to call it, All Over You is a fine blues record. "Nothing but the Devil" and "My Home Is a Prison" evoke a night alone on an unlit road in Mississippi cotton country. "I Made up My Mind" and "Hello, Mary Lee" sound as though they were filtered through the smoke of an inner-city nightclub. Lester plays and sings with an uncanny ease that keeps everything rolling by at a pace that's positively eerie in its seeming effortlessness. These are blues that tap you on the shoulder, rather than grab you by the front of your shirt.
Lester's nickname suits him because, although he's obviously working his butt off, he and his band sound like they're just chilling on the front porch of the shack while the Spanish moss flaps calmly in the breeze. Lester's years as a session player have made him a master of lazy blues for lazy times. It's good to have him back on record.
We all want to change the world, but Julian Lennon's got it in the blood. On Photograph Smile, Lennon's fifth album and first since 1991's dismal Help Yourself, the first-born of John churns out fourteen pleasant pop tunes that reflect not only his musical heritage but the tribulations of a life in the spotlight.
Photograph Smile isn't going to change the world by any stretch of the imagination. But it's a definite return to the delightful cuts from Lennon's 1984 debut Valotte. Indeed, if anybody has the right to indulge in a Beatles fixation, it's him (and Sean). And here, more than on past releases, Lennon embraces his father's songwriting styles full on.
Much of the material here wouldn't sound out of place on John Lennon's later solo work. Opener "Day After Day" could be a Paul McCartney B-side. Especially good are the Beatles homage "Don't Wanna Know," the twangy "Kiss Beyond the Catcher," and the Double Fantasy-ish "How Many Times," a song about environmental responsibility. Album closer "Way to the Heart" makes a musical reference to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and offers a heartfelt plea for clarity in an unfulfilled relationship (undoubtedly the track also speaks to Julian's continual struggle to come to terms with his father's death).
Lennon speaks with the perceptiveness of a guy who's been screwed over by the music industry, his own stepmother (yep, Yoko), and a career under the intense scrutiny of those willing to immediately write him off as a no-talent next-of-kin. Photograph Smile does have a few duds and clocks in at an overly long 64 minutes. Still, it's a fine return to form. Methinks Papa would be very proud.
Malamute Jute EP
Some one-man studio rats become minimalists to a fault. Half-formed ideas go unedited. Instrumentation is reduced to a guitar with two missing strings and a coffee can. Obscure philosophers and the smell of crushed daisies are the subject of songs. Answering machine messages left by telemarketers serve as the choir.
Though he makes all the noises, vocal and otherwise, on Malamute Jute EP, Cobra Verde's Doug Gillard has not been swallowed up by his own navel. The five-song CD is incomplete only in length.
On the opener, "Malamute Jute," Gillard's confident guitar strums and singing bring to mind the Smithereens at their craftiest. "Flying Backwards" is a quiet acoustic number that might give Alex Chilton reason to tear. Gillard plugs in the electric guitars on lively "Livery" before reaching the record's creative peak on "Going Round," which matches guitar with synthesizer handsomely. "Western World" brings Gillard back to his spiritual father, Chilton, especially on the chorus.
Pop and rock music took a glorious turn in the early '70s, when bands inspired by the Beatles quit trying to imitate the mop tops and instead looked for their own sound. Gillard is reminiscent of those searchers; you'll like what he found.
328 Sunset Drive
Athens, GA 30606
ONE HORSE POWER
THE HOSTILE OMISH COULD SETTLE TO BE A COMPETENT PUNK BAND WITH A WICKED SENSE OF HUMOR. ONE HORSE POWER HAS LOUD, FAST SONGS ABOUT COPS, GIRLS, AND BEER. SOME OF THE MATERIAL PUSHES THE LIMITS OF GOOD TASTE. "VAGITARIAN" IS A SONG ABOUT A WOMAN WHO WOULD RATHER WATCH ELLEN THAN SATISFY A MAN. "ETHIOPIAN FEAST" DESCRIBES HOW TO MAKE A NUTRITIONAL DRINK OUT OF CRUSHED BEETLES. "DON'T KEEP ME WAITING" ATTEMPTS TO JUSTIFY THE PSYCHOLOGY OF A STALKER ("I'M SORRY THAT I HURT YOU/IT'S A POWER THING"). THEIR MOTHERS MUST BE SO PROUD.
BUT THERE'S MORE UNDER THE OMISH'S BIG, BLACK HATS THAN SONGS ABOUT CANNIBALISM AND EPILEPTIC ICE CREAM MEN. THE BAND SLIPS IN A FEW SONGS THAT LEAVE PUNK FOR POP AND ROCK, AND IT'S AN EXCURSION WORTH TAKING. THE MINUTE-AND-TEN-SECONDS-LONG "HEY MOM" IS LIKE A BRIEF SNIP FROM "KNOCKIN' ON HEAVEN'S DOOR." THE AFOREMENTIONED "DON'T KEEP WAITING" IS A SOLID MODERN ROCK SONG THAT L7 COULD COVER IF THE LYRICS WEREN'T SO NEANDERTHAL, AND "THE BUZZ" HINTS AT REGGAE. ONE HORSE POWER'S MOST AMBITIOUS TRACK, AND THE CLEVEREST, IS THE FIVE-MINUTE-PLUS "THE BEDFORD HIGH SCHOOL MARCHING BAND," WHICH CAPTURES THE FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL EXPERIENCE FOR THE STONER KIDS AND BAND GEEKS. "MAN, THE JOCKS HAVE BEEN TAILING ME ALL NIGHT," SAYS VOCALIST FILTH DURING ONE OF THE INTERLUDES, "AND THEY WANT TO KICK MY LITTLE ASS."
HARD TO TAKE SERIOUSLY? YES. CRUDE AS ALL GET OUT? OH YEAH. FUN TO LISTEN TO? AND HOW.
Hostile Omish Barnraising Party
6570 Richmond Rd.
Oakwood, OH 44146
Giants of Science
Hang-Ups and All
The Giants of Science like rock music, specifically American rock music. Hang-Ups and All starts its journey on the Jersey Shore, visits Seymour, Indiana and the Twin Cities, and ends up somewhere near Tom Petty's last known whereabouts.
The band's name is taken from a Springsteen lyric, and the homage doesn't end there. "What She Needs (Sammi)" is pretty shameless mid-'70s Bruce, with harmonica subbing for Clarence's sax. The Boss isn't the only one to have his crypt plundered. "Rip Off" is a rip-off of Pleased to Meet Me-Replacements. The shout-from-the-cornstalks vocal style of "Stranger" is well acquainted with John Mellencamp.
The songs lack originality. The mix is timid. Former Scene writer/dreamboat Brian Lisik has a thin voice. But dang if the Giants of Science don't cover at least some of their shortcomings by having their hearts in the right place and their heads bowed before the right masters.
Cherokee Queen Records
447 Meade Ave.
Akron, OH, 9220
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