Reviews by Eric Broome
The Crowd Scene
Forest for the Trees
Great Lakes
The Hang Ups
The Jayhawks
The Marshmallow Coast
Of Montreal

Chicklet/Wanderlust (Satellite)

Wanderlush, more likely. This Toronto duo's resemblance to early Lush is uncanny -- it's not just the Asian female singer, her blankly serene vocals and the fluffy reverb, but even the melodies and meandering strands of adjacent minor chords. Partners Julie Park and Daniel Barida divvy up guitars, keyboards and vocals, while Barida adds drums and a hired hand plucks bass. It's hard to imagine how anyone could view a group this derivative with a straight face, but if you've been missing the original band (and yes, Lush did make a couple of nifty albums), a dose of Wanderlust may suffice.

The aptly titled "Superficial" -- it's always nice when a group supplies its own review -- establishes the tone from the start, blending a few perky synthesizer licks with blurred roars of guitar, then topping it off with vaguely disillusioned imagery wordy enough to seem profound even when it isn't. (Actually, "Craft of confidence burns without heat/Tasteless saccharine stirred into words" makes a pretty fair self-review, too.) "Superficial" does have a hook, however, which is more than most of the other tracks can claim. "Firecracker," "Sleeptalking" and "White Flag" have decent choruses, but are dragged down by clunky verses. "Let Me Go (My Own Way)," a warning to an overprotective mother, is the one lyric with emotional punch, while "Shark's Smile" has a dash of pop spunk missing elsewhere. "Quake," an atypical song written by Barida, is a pleasant shuffle with a lounge-jazz slant, but the swamping echo buries all the fun. And the less said about "Over My Shoulder" (a dismal attempt to be arty-minimalist), the better. If released ten years ago, this disc might've been in the vanguard. Now? Fatally passé.

The Crowd Scene/Turn Left at Greenland (eggBERT)

The background of this duo sounds like a sappy screenplay. Grahame Davies was a Brit who liked American music, Anne Rogers was a Yank who liked British music. Rogers traveled to London to seek her fortune, met Davies and launched the Crowd Scene with him. Eventually, they married and she brought him back to the States, where they found a nurturing home at the cozy eggBERT label. Aww, so heartwarming. All they have to do is write one smash single, and they'll make a mint on the movie rights.

Turn Left at Greenland (if you have to ask, the group's probably not for you) won't yield any top-10 breakthroughs, but Davies and Rogers make a gallant try. They're both songwriters, and the album's running order essentially alternates their compositions (and lead vocals), giving a slight edge to Davies. This isn't as disjointed as it sounds, however -- the relaxed melodies, refined shimmer of guitars and aggressively overdubbed oohs 'n' ahhs remain fairly steady. Very much creatures of the studio, Davies and Rogers both contribute keyboard lines in addition to their respective guitar and bass, while three other players lend backing support without being granted member status. The results are bland at times, and both vocalists tend to be more interested in enunciating their vowels than in singing from the heart, but some engaging tracks surface between the overly polite moments. Davies' graceful "Weather Song" is the highlight, but Rogers comes up with a couple of catchy Bangles soundalikes, "Permanent One" and "Crush Me," plus the swinging (if unsubtle) "Stupid People." The disc is uncommonly well-produced for such a small-scale release -- it's just too bad that the group can't loosen up a bit.

Forest for the Trees/Forest for the Trees (Dreamworks)

Most articles about Forest for the Trees -- the pet project of producer/songwriter Carl Stephenson -- focus on exactly two things: Stephenson's past collaborations with Beck (he co-wrote several songs on Mellow Gold, including "Loser"), and his serious emotional problems, which delayed this disc's release for three years. Ever wonder why the actual music takes a backseat? Probably not, if you've heard the album.

Forest for the Trees contains one great single, "Dream." Based around a jaunty bagpipe loop and a shimmering mantra of girlie voices, this may be the only track you'll play more than once. Typically, the lyrics are an unconvincing melange of quasi-mystical soundbites, centered on self-realization, transcendence and the illusion of reality. Just as typically, Stephenson hides his weak singing voice by either half-rapping or processing himself so he sounds like an old Speak 'N' Spell toy. Oh well -- great hook, regardless. The remaining songs are generally a mess. "Wet Paint," "Algorithm" and "Planet Unknown" aren't so bad, even if "Wet Paint" is only a pale imitation of "Dream," "Algorithm" sounds like an old Peter Gabriel demo and "Planet Unknown" is merely adequate synth-pop. But these tracks are masterpieces compared to the rest of the album, which deteriorates into an exasperating snarl of chaotic song structures, pointlessly piled-on samples and thoroughly tuneless melodies. There's a certain homespun, child-like charm here (and hey, Stephenson's a lot funkier than Daniel Johnston), but that's about it.

Great Lakes/Great Lakes (Kindercore)

Dimwitted shoppers may flip past this disc, grumbling "ELP was bad enough -- does he have to make solo records, too?" They'll miss out on a neat little sleeper of an album, though.

Great Lakes is another act plucked from the Elephant Six gene pool, which may be obvious simply from the nostalgic, pop-art sleeve. Certainly, many of the group's distinguishing features are par for the course. Based in Athens, GA? Check. Produced by the Apples' Robert Schneider? Check. A host of merry cameos from the scene's other musicians? Of course. Nevertheless, this trio puts its own distinct twist on the E6 sound.

Upbeat pop with chirpy harmonies isn't Great Lakes' game plan, as might be expected. "A Little Touched" is the lone entry in this realm, with its banging piano chords and Merseybeat chorus. Otherwise, Ben Crum, Dan Donahue and James Huggins are more interested in the stately psychedelia of Odessey & Oracle, Sgt. Pepper and Heaven is in Your Mind. Clearly smitten with the relaxed plod of the Beatles' Pepper-era hits ("All You Need is Love," "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Fixing a Hole," etc.), Great Lakes adapts it quite well to flowery tunes like "Storming," "Come Home and Come True," "An Easy Life," "Giants and Tigers" and "Posters for the Theatre." Other tracks can be a bit unfocused -- the boys also have a risky yen for Brian Wilson-style modularity, best/worst heard in the climactic "Virgl" -- but the elegant arrangements (clarinet, flute, accordion, banjo, strings, horns) and spacious mix smooth over the group's indulgences. The words are above average, too -- prime lyricist/daydreamer Donahue escapes life's humdrum routine with a variety of sharp, visual metaphors.

Only 34 minutes long (and that's including five minutes of instrumental filler), this debut is no heavyweight manifesto. Still, it looks like the E6 gang needs to find room for another player on the first team.

The Hang Ups/Second Story (Clean)

Brian Tighe is a dreamer. Repeatedly on Second Story, he portrays himself scanning the sky, wistfully looking for answers. The motif is no accident -- such gentle vulnerability is key to his band's charm. Add a talent for inventive melodies which manage to sound both fresh and nostalgic, and you have all the ingredients for a durable, rewarding string of records.

Second Story, the Hang Ups' third album, has been hyped for its reunion of producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon (their first co-production since R.E.M.'s legendary Reckoning), but it doesn't recall R.E.M. so much as another seminal group of the era, the dB's. Tighe lacks a Chris Stamey to play devil's advocate to his Peter Holsapple, but his complex yet tuneful songs have a similar sense of craft, precision and rhythmic adventure. "Pretty BA," "Out of Touch" and "Party" are the initial grabbers, three chunky rockers showing traces of the early Kinks. However, as Tighe's measured vocals can seem pallid amidst the noisier textures, chiming pop like "Caroline," "Parkway," "Long Goodbye" and "The Queen" may be the group's true strength.

The impact of the Easter-Dixon team is obvious. The mix is more polished and headphone-friendly, while the arrangements are swollen with extra tricks: the cheering crowd in "Pretty BA," the horns in "Parkway," the harp in the title song, the Chamberlin in "Underneath a Tree," the lap-steel guitar in "Blue Sky" (yup, more sky imagery). Unfortunately, no amount of production wizardry (or snazzy fold-out packaging, for that matter) will bring this vein of unassuming guitar pop back in style -- times have changed, since the days when I.R.S. was a college-rock powerhouse. Doomed to be one of the year's most underrated releases, Second Story nevertheless proves that Tighe is a top melodic songwriter.

The Jayhawks/Smile (American)

Time is running out for the Jayhawks, and they know it. They've lost a prime songwriter (Mark Olson, now leading the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers), the movement has peaked and the moment for a commercial breakthrough is fading. It's doubtful the band can release another disc through Sony, unless the new one rattles a few more cash registers.

The Jayhawks go for broke with Smile. Hiring bombastic producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Kiss) to whip the sound into symphonic marshmallow, the group clings to skyward harmonies and simple, crowd-pleasing choruses with almost Abba-like shamelessness. Check "A Break in the Clouds," and just imagine Agnetha and Frida wailing the refrain. Along with the mainstream concessions comes a new electronic slant. It's not as if the Jayhawks have suddenly switched to dance music, but the frisky "Somewhere in Ohio" and "(In My) Wildest Dreams" are surprisingly close. Those tracks aren't so offensive, but what really doesn't work is the needless synthetic muck found elsewhere. Insertions like the background hiccups in "Queen of the World," the irritating squirts in "What Led Me to This Town" and the ersatz swells in "Broken Harpoon" are clumsy and distracting. Engineer Ed Ackerson (who indulges similar noodlings with his own band, Polara) certainly deserves some blame, here.

The news isn't all bad, however. Frontman Gary Louris still has a beautiful, reedy voice in the Gram Parsons tradition, and the group can deliver a soaring ballad when given the right song. In this case, the general rule is that the less writers, the better. Tunes written by Louris alone (particularly "Better Days" and the majestic title cut) stand out, while those penned by three or four members usually sputter. "Broken Harpoon" is lovely despite its excessive sweetening, while "Life Floats By" and "Baby, Baby, Baby" prove the band can still rock. "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" is obviously catchy, but almost too obvious with its happy-face beat and facile hook -- a perfect ditty for the closing credits of a Sandra Bullock comedy. It's no coincidence that the track received help from Taylor Rhodes, a professional songwriter whose clients include luminaries like Celine Dion and Nelson. Meanwhile, "Mr. Wilson" has the most intriguing lyric. Superficially a vague tribute to Brian Wilson and Alex Chilton, the title actually refers to Louris' own son. The erratic "Holly" portrayed in the third verse remains a mystery. Never comfortable with the pigeonhole, the Jayhawks continue to broaden their range. Yet, there's no denying the group is best when sticking close to its roots.

Lilys/The 3-Way (Sire>

Every review of the latter-day Lilys dutifully trots out a list of classic '60s-pop influences, attempting to place the group in the grand tradition of the Kinks, Zombies, Beach Boys and the like. Odd, how such comparisons often ignore a crucial difference: those bands wrote great songs.

Like most Lilys releases, The 3-Way is deeply frustrating. The production is perfect. The arrangements are splashed with interesting touches: banjo, organ, panpipes, sax, handclaps, synthetic strings, a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitars. The vocal harmonies are nimble and tight. So far, so good. However, bandleader Kurt Heasley simply refuses to write a song with any semblance of groove. Jolting tempo changes, hypersyllabic lyrics which rattle against the musical flow, a general unwillingness to stick with a melodic motif for more than 30 seconds -- the jumble of ideas being tossed about is staggering. Sure, it sounds like The Village Green Preservation Society, but only if the latter was played on a turntable, during an earthquake. The worst offenders are "Socs Hip" and "Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah's Slave)," two episodic tracks which both exceed seven minutes. Maybe the fans will praise these songs as "ambitious," but once "Leo Ryan" starts switching between Nuggets-style punk and unctuous disco, it's awfully hard to give a damn anymore. (Ditto for the detours into tango and Jobim-esque pop during "Socs Hip.")

Still, the news isn't all bad. The dreamy "And One (On One)" leans on the Odessey & Oracle button, decorating a baroque melody with the pleasant tinkle of faux harpsichord, while the frisky "Accepting Applications at University" boasts a neat tension between the foreground and background voices. "The Lost Victory" is a concise slice of jingling pop, "The Spirits Merchant" has some lovely passages and "The Generator" pulls the contrapuntal-vocal trick again, this time over a playful Latin rhythm. But otherwise, it's all run-on sentences and herky-jerky moodswings. At its worst, this disc is a migraine waiting to happen.

The Marshmallow Coast: Marshmallow Coasting (Kindercore)

Yet another cousin of the incestuous Elephant 6 scene, the Marshmallow Coast is essentially Of Montreal with multi-instrumentalist Andy Gonzales swapped into Kevin Barnes' spot at the microphone. Also on hand are Scott Spillane (flugelhorn) and Julian Koster (musical saw), who are apparently required to play on every Elephant 6 release. Fair enough.

Marshmallow Coasting, the group's third album, is aptly named. Like several other E6 artists, Gonzales writes better arrangements than melodies, and his songs tend to meander. Hearing the disc is like drifting through a landscape of fluffy clouds and flowers, and seeing lots of pretty sights but not much earth or stone. Gonzales has one of those whiny, boyish voices, and his lyrics -- romantic daydreams and fanciful nature images, mostly -- add little to the experience. However, the music's gentle flow has a soothing charm, and the sprinkles of woodwinds, horns and strings help cover his uneven songwriting. The album's best when a Ray Davies influence (see Something Else's "No Return") comes forward, and tighter tunes like "Hung Up," "Shimmering in a Bulb of Glass" and "Oblong Destiny" score the most points. "Blow My Mind" is a neat slice of psychedelic pop, but the refrain "It really blows my mind" is too laughably dated to swallow. "There Will Come a Time" lands closer to Bacharach with its lapping piano and arty modulations, while "L'il Fun Machine" is just what its title suggests: a skewed ditty which exploits Yamaha's archaic, all-in-one organ (and quotes Davies' "Victoria," to boot).

"Wimp" is still a four-letter word, but the Marshmallow Coast pleads for your tolerance. Enjoy the group's dainty pleasures, and try to forget about the missing chest hair.

Melony/Satisfiction (DGC)

Yet another fluffy new Swedish combo, this perky trio plays bright, gritty power-pop with heavy nods to Stateside culture. The players are admitted Pixies fanatics, and that influence is obvious in the circular chord riffs and ironic, non-linear lyrics (best example: "Let's Make a Rainbow"). Indeed, the words are the record's strongest selling point, bursting with quirky references to the Everglades, Hollywood, Barbra Streisand, Neil Armstrong, Coca Cola and more. It's no coincidence that "My Corona" rhymes with a certain Knack hit from a few years back, either. But as with the Pixies, the lyrics are often too skittish and fragmented to stand alone. Too many songs just come off gimmicky or trivial in the end, and Melony lacks that extra punk edge and unique melodic sense to save them. Still, some tracks manage to rise above these weathered pop hooks. "Wearing Shades on Rainy Days" blazes with puzzling images of hysterical blindness, "Big Dipper" is a bouncy roar of hand claps and power chords, "Rock Me" is a punchy treat, "2nd Man on the Moon" parlays trumpet and a subdued tango feel into a lush swoon, "Mirror on the Freeway" has a twangy sensuality and "Stage Diver" wryly describes a grunge wannabe in Seattle. But on the whole, Melony is just a temporary high, quickly forgotten.

Of Montreal/Cherry Peel (Bar/None)

A new star of the much-hyped Elephant Six collective, this ramshackle trio (actually of Athens, GA, not Montreal) sings guileless living-room pop, charmingly loping through 14 sweet tunes that somehow appear utterly sincere. Artlessly strumming a shabby acoustic guitar, Kevin Barnes is such an ingenue that he can pull off a line like "Tim, [I] wish you were born a girl, so I could've been your boyfriend" without a trace of controversy -- he just cares a lot about his friends, you know? He's not without his eccentric side, however -- just check "Everything Disappears When You Come Around" ("Birds have no heads/When you come around/Everything loses its legs") or "In Dreams I Dance With You" ("You remind me of a snowflake/That falls while comets hit the Earth/Destroying buildings and trees"). Elsewhere, he's crooning one schoolboy lovesong after another, whether they're gentle and acoustic ("Baby," "When You're Loved Like You Are") or Kinksy lo-fi rock ("This Feeling," "Don't Ask Me to Explain"). Bassist Brian Poole and drummer Derek Almstead plod happily behind, adding a chiming harmony now and then. While the group's rambling sense of melody occasionally betrays them, most tracks retain an adorable singalong feel, adding up to an astonishingly refreshing listen.

Owsley/Owsley (Giant)

Will Owsley is an unlikely hero. His resumé couldn't be creepier -- touring gigs with Amy Grant and Shania Twain? Ouch. Sure, there's his unheralded stint in the Semantics with a pre-fame Ben Folds, but really, can anyone sing duets with Shania and avoid being marred for life?

Yes, Owsley paid his dues, but he has emerged triumphant. Hands down the year's best new artist, this Alabama sparkplug pours such exuberance into his solo debut that the leg-splayed leap on the cover seems like an understatement. Nimbly switching between guitar, bass and keyboards, Owsley mines the classic pop vocabulary for an addictive set of brightly colored tunes, managing to slip a brilliantly infectious melody into almost every track. Face it, this guy knows how to write a chorus which sticks. Unlike many of today's other pop auteurs, Owsley doesn't rely on dense, flowery arrangements to sell his songs -- this is an album purely about hooks, hooks and more hooks. The crisp, spacious mix is easily enough attraction on its own, quickly recalling other pop craftsmen like Todd Rundgren, Neil Finn and Jason Falkner.

At least six cuts here are near impossible to forget. "Oh No the Radio" has a early-XTC flavor, as Owsley bounds through choppy guitar chords while crowing about his beloved radio dial. Like four other tracks, the song includes a distinctive coda, adding a musical depth beyond the usual top-40 fodder (plus, a chance for Owsley to show off his guitar skills). "The Sky is Falling" is just as captivating, with a playful call-and-response chorus and some quirky time changes. Typically, Owsley overdubs all the backing vocals himself. "Coming Up Roses" and "Sentimental Favorites" wrap comforting, cheer-up sentiments in gorgeous melodies with splashes of mellotron and Chamberlin, while the piano-dominated "Sonny Boy" has the most obvious Folds overlap and a delicious, ascending chorus. "Uncle John's Farm," a sweet tune about childhood escape, is also irresistible. Owsley's lyrics won't win any awards -- the song titles alone suggest his themes quite dependably -- but he's no hack either, consistently striking emotional blows with simple memories of youth and heartbreak. Now, there are a few danger signs here: the three-year recording span calls his productivity into question, and furthermore, several tracks have mysterious co-writing credits. There's also the stigma of his mainstream background, of course. However, if Owsley can churn out a second disc this good in another year or two, his future will be assured.

Quasi/Featuring "Birds" (Up)

Quasi's R&B Transmogrification was one of last year's most pleasant surprises, a scrappy set of tuneful organ-drum duets which drew equally from '60s punk, '70s pop and '90s indie-rock. Featuring "Birds" is a more ambitious collection, but it's also less focused and, well, oppressively miserable.

The album title is a marketing joke, of course -- the track "Birds" is nothing but a short montage of bird chirps and twitters. Otherwise, chief songwriter Sam Coomes pushes his low-tech keyboards through a maze of tricky melodies and diminished chord changes, while drummer Janet Weiss (née Sleater-Kinney) pounds gamely behind him. Featuring "Birds" broadens the group's palette with denser arrangements, more Weiss vocals and a heavier guitar presence, but really, such expansion only taints the initial garage-duo concept. The messy song structures are a more troubling problem -- tracks like "I Give Up," "Nothing From Nothing," "I Never Want to See You Again" and "Ape Self Prevails in Me Still" spoil catchy tunes with elongated instrumental preludes that serve no clear purpose. However, Coomes' lyrics are where the ear-candy appeal truly breaks down. Who wants to whistle along to sentiments like "Flail me, I desire to be flailed/Jail me, impale me" or "We went through hell just to get to hell/Die of thirst or drink up from the poisoned well"? How about "Life is dull, life is gray/At its best it's just OK/But I'm happy to report/Life is also short"? Maybe a title like "You Fucked Yourself" is illustration enough.

Still, Coomes' melodic gifts are enough to heal most of the album's ails. "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" is a feisty opening, painting a futuristic world of underwater cities and genetic engineering, while the chirpy bounce of "The Happy Prole" is enough to obscure its dire working-class hopelessness. "Please Do" is a sweet detour, a nostalgic acoustic-guitar ditty that evokes a barbershop quartet dressed in Northwest flannel. The waltzing "You Fucked Yourself" is seductive in spite of itself, and "California" has great hooks and some nice guy-girl harmonies. "Sea Shanty" is ominously memorable, "The Poisoned Well" has some lovely slide guitar, while the swelling "It's Hard to Turn Me On" is the prettiest track of all. Just don't expect to find many smiles here -- things are mighty grim in Quasiland.

Scarnella/Scarnella (Smells Like)

Given the crushing commercial failure of the Geraldine Fibbers, it's no wonder that the group's Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline have said "To hell with the mainstream" and spun off into this dissonant, experimental duo. Mostly a showcase for guitarist Cline's versatile playing, this debut makes no compromises, stressing extended improvisation and loose vocal incantations alongside a few rare dalliances with traditional song forms.

The link to Steve Shelley's Smells Like label is no coincidence -- plenty of common ground with early Sonic Youth is found on this woolly 66-minute disc, except that Cline has a technical mastery of his instrument which the Sonics can't match. The most striking example is "Improvisation #3 (Safari Youth)," a contemplative set of layered tinklings which even directly implies the connection in its title. On a similar note, "Improvisation #1" is an eerie landscape of droning feedback and overtones, while "Improvisation #4 (The Bag of Hair)" is a real monstrosity: over 15 minutes of integrated scrapes, howls, moans and rumbles. Not exactly dinner music. Still, Cline and Bozulich maintain a sense of discipline, tension and linearity throughout these free-form pieces which lesser artists couldn't manage. That the two achieve this with only minimal use of drums is even more notable.

The album is most successful when Bozulich and Cline are equal partners, however. Bozulich's declamatory vocals aren't as magnetic as on the Fibbers discs, but her ravaged lyrics remain chilling and evocative. "The Most Useless Thing," the strongest track, is a grim tango of sorts in which she encourages a friend to embrace romantic despair ("So close your eyes and let yourself come undone/This strange world is overrun by bastards and fools like you/And if you need to cry, go ahead/Cry a bathtub into your bed"). Also prominent are "Release the Spring" and "A Millennium Fever Ballad," two funereal folk songs which are surprisingly reminiscent of Nico's more pastoral efforts. The former is a haunting ode to the seasonal changes, ending with a short poem about Bozulich's "failed attempts to live a honest life," while the latter -- the album's best lyric -- counts down the weeks, days, hours and seconds until the millennium with apocalyptic dread. Three other tracks aren't as worthwhile, but "Dandelions" is a giddy reprieve from the otherwise oppressive intensity, a breathless punk tune with elusive images of addiction and dementia.

It will be a tragedy if the Geraldine Fibbers never move past their unhappy Virgin experiences and reunite. But as long as we have Scarnella, that bitter pill will be easier to swallow.

Ween/The Mollusk (Elektra)

Ween needed a knockout album to overcome a dud like 12 Golden Country Greats, and The Mollusk isn't it. Not even close. Here, the effortless conceptual flow of The Pod, Pure Guava and Chocolate & Cheese dissolves into a meandering grab bag of genre experiments -- some successful, most not. The Ween boys have long been victims of novelty-rock backlash, but with The Mollusk, they're unfortunately earning it. Has the divine inspiration of the Boognish deserted them?

Really, there are only four memorable tracks on the whole disc. "I'll Be Your Jonny on the Spot" is a speedy thrill, but only on a simple visceral level -- just a fiery romp with a nifty rubberband guitar sound. "Mutilated Lips," one of those patented woozy Ween ballads, has the album's most quotably warped lyrics ("I lick my brain in silence/Rather squeeze my head instead..."), but the retread melody is a bit troubling. "Buckingham Green" has a stirring majesty like some lost Bee Gees epic from the '60s, and "The Mollusk" is another exquisitely twisted manipulation of saccharine pop sentiment. But beyond those tunes, we're left with silly vaudeville ("I'm Dancing in the Show Tonight"), silly surf pop ("Ocean Man"), silly oompah-pah ("Polka Dot Tail"), silly rock 'n' roll ("Waving My Dick in the Wind") and silly Irish drinking songs ("The Blarney Stone"). Oddly enough, a few other tracks -- particularly "It's Gonna Be (Alright)" -- are almost too straight, rendered offbeat only by the duo's typical vocal-processing tricks. It's a strangely confused mix. The Weens' good cheer and endearing sense of mischief are enough to pull the album through, but just barely.

Ween/White Pepper (Elektra)

Sometime after 1996's Chocolate and Cheese, Ween's delicate perch between parody, straitlaced songwriting and sheer perversity lost its footing. Gene and Dean continue to churn out material with admirable speed, but the albums have lost their conceptual cohesion, that mysterious whiff of alien wisdom which made the music so oddly compelling (if often impenetrable). White Pepper is another salvo from the new, user-friendly Ween, a likable but scattershot batch of tunes which comes off more like a casual grab bag than an occult manifesto.

With production values reminiscent of '70s AM radio ("Stay Forever" threatens to slip into Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" at any moment), the album is disconcertingly smooth and palatable. Several tracks are utterly conventional on the surface, only betraying their Ween-ness with an occasional left-field image slipped into the mix. "Falling Out," a folksy stomp about soured relationships, doesn't even have the latter. "Even If You Don't" is easily the catchiest tune, piling fat chords onto a sturdy beat which recalls Lennon's "Instant Karma," while "Back to Basom" is a dreamy ballad with a similar sense of disembodied nostalgia. "She's Your Baby" is another acoustic sleeper, sweetly melodic but harmless. This Stepford Ween is hard to fathom -- are these songs calculated bids for commercial airplay? Deadpan jokes? The sincere results of personal maturation? Your guess is as good as mine. The rest of the disc is more familiar, skipping between various genre pastiches which somehow lack the usual punch and conviction. "Stroker Ace" is raucous speed-metal, couching sexual braggadocio in a drag-race metaphor. "Pandy Fackler" strays into lounge-lizard kitsch, with jazzy electric-piano licks and memories of a prostitute who lives on cotton candy and jism. "The Grobe" is psychedelic sludge, while "Bananas and Blow" uses steel pans and Caribbean beats to paint a tropical portrait of coke-fueled inertia. "Exactly Where I'm At" has about two lines of melody, but gets by on its droning swirl, powerful drums and typical, pseudo-cosmic lyrics ("If you're to be/The roaming eye/Pry it open and let me tell you why it sees/The harsh realities"). Luckily, there's one bullseye track: "Flutes of Chi," a tangy blend of waltzing melody and soaring, Middle-Eastern fills. Too bad it's such a rarity.

One of the few alternative bands to survive on Elektra's roster, Ween deserves plenty of credit for turning what could've been a brief stint as a novelty act into a sustained, substantial career. But have the boys lost the Boognish's divine blessing?

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