First things, first: The Buddyrevelles are much better than their awful name might suggest. No, really. Still, this Chicago-based trio doesn't quite rise above the pack. Most likely to attract Superchunk and Built to Spill fans, the group bets its chips on unusual song structures. While too warmly organic to be labeled "post-rock," the band borrows plenty from this realm -- songs may carry on for a couple of minutes before a vocal enters, tempos radically slow down without warning, overlaid guitar lines are stressed over full chords. The main obstacle is the wan, charmless singing. Guitarist Aaron Grant (high whine) and bassist Scott Hoch (low monotone) create an interesting counterpoint, often recalling the Doug Martsch/Calvin Johnson duets in the Halo Benders, but their voices have a certain listlessness which saps the music's power. The writing is always polished and confident, however. Flip the title to American Motorcoat on Matador, and they could be a contender. Grade: B
Nothing's so exciting as when an unknown artist comes out of nowhere and stomps all over your meager expectations. Such is the case with Amy Correia, whose magical debut sounds more like a career highlight than a first step.
Originally from a small town in rural Massachusetts, Correia paints her songs with pastoral, fishing-hole imagery which will draw some Victoria Williams comparisons. However, while Williams took years to stop milking her vocal quirks and evolve toward more sophisticated phrasing, Correia is already there on her first try. Mixing folk, blues and pop, the tracks on Carnival Love are consistently endearing and memorable, focused on wistful reveries sung in her frayed but graceful voice. Subtle percussion, piano and cello flesh out the arrangements, but her own whisks of guitar, mandolin and baritone ukulele are the heart of the sound. Highlights include the haunting "Angels Collide," the slowly unfolding clomp of "Chinatown," the celebratory "The Bike" and the casually lilting "Starfishin'," while "Daydream Car," "He Drives It" and "Life is Beautiful" are accessible enough to even grab some Sheryl Crow fans. Stardom seems inevitable. Grade: B+
E rebounds from the commercial failure of 1998's desolate Electro-Shock Blues with this excellent disc, a set of thoughtful (yet highly accessible) tunes centered on themes of healing and rebirth. Now without a permanent band, he borrows Grant Lee Phillips and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck as prime collaborators, joining his longtime drummer Butch. The ghosts of E's late mother and sister still lurk in the shadows (particularly in the woeful "It's a Motherfucker"), but the warmer, less gimmicky sound benefits intimate songs like "The Sound of Fear," "Wooden Nickels," "Jeannie's Diary" and the spooky "Flyswatter." As a final perverse twist, the album's single -- the Odelay-influenced "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" -- is an unlisted bonus track. Grade: B+
These Welsh renegades dwell in their own wacky universe, creating nonconformist tunes which whip pop, traditional folk and prog-rock into a psychedelic froth. The group's latest album is a surprisingly pastoral effort, full of acoustic instruments, wistful lyrics (yes, all in English) and gentle dynamics. Too many songs seem slight and undercooked (five of 15 tracks are under two minutes), but the energy picks up when the band focuses its restless talents on a complete idea. "Poodle Rockin'" is the clear highlight, a loony tribute to a dog's carefree life which defies you not to giggle. "Faraway Eyes" has a country-influenced grace, "Freckles" is heartbreakingly pretty, the title song mixes a flowing melody with splashes of mariachi, while "Desolation Blues" has a dark dissonance more typical of earlier releases. GZM has produced better albums, but there's probably nothing the group could do to move beyond a cult following, anyway. Especially with that name. Grade: B
Grandaddy's sublime debut, Under the Western Freeway, was one of 1997's most delightful surprises, but unfortunately, the group's slumping second album lives up to its title. While the fundamental ingredients are the same (the creamy highs of Jason Lytle's gentle vocals, the apocalyptic unease of the lyrics, the cleanly pulsing chords, the pleasantly outdated synthesizers and subtle shades of guitar), the new songs are short on the old magic, with the notable exceptions of "The Crystal Lake" and "Hewlett's Daughter." The most extroverted track, "Chartsengrafs," faintly echoes the Pixies, while "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," "Miner at the Dial-A-View" and the suite-like "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot" detail Lytle's post-Koyaanisqatsi thoughts about technology's toll on humanity. However, the melodies just don't have the debut's sweet allure. Grade: B
Juliana Hatfield is frustrated. Ever annoyed with folks who pigeonhole her as a girlish waif, she yearns to be a muscle-bound rocker. So, saddled with a sizeable backlog of material, she has decided to pull a Guns 'N Roses and release two simultaneous albums -- in this case, showing her tender side on one (Beautiful Creature) and her aggressive side on the other (Total System Failure).
Given how weakly equipped Hatfield is for rock 'n' roll thunder, no one should be surprised that Beautiful Creature is the superior of the two. In fact, it may be her best album since 1992's Hey Babe. Self-consciously subdued and often acoustic, the songs have unremarkable themes (forlorn cautions to lovers and friends, usually) and a few clunky rhymes ("This emotion is an ocean"), but the melodies are first-rate. "Close Your Eyes" and "Might Be in Love" are adorable little tunes, "Daniel" and "Somebody Is Waiting for Me" have a Weezer-like grind, "Until Tomorrow" has a waltzing beauty (and the best lyric), while "Cry in the Dark" is an anthemic climax. Hatfield's singing has also noticeably matured, far less prone to the breathiness found on her early records.
Total System Failure is not as inspired, unfortunately. Conceived as a power-trio record, the disc relies on repetitive, grunge-derived riffs which sound at least six years behind the times. The lyrics are actually an improvement over Beautiful Creature, adding more topicality, storytelling detail and edginess. Yet there's no getting past the dreary tunes. Hatfield's vocal limitations become more obvious here, and "Breeders," "Houseboy," "Leather Pants" and "My Protégée" are the only compelling tracks. Cherchez la femme, Juliana. Beautiful Creature: B+, Total System Failure: B
Taking a surprise turn from quirky country to polished soul, Lambchop's fifth album is beautifully decorated with strings, horns, vibraphone and pedal-steel guitar -- and that's just for starters (try scanning the liner notes, which credit over 25 musicians plus a gospel choir). Kurt Wagner's fragile, half-spoken quaver continues to be a handicap, especially when straying into Al Green territory, but his sensitive reflections on love, family, despair and small-town boredom enliven languid ballads ("The Old Gold Shoe," "The Book I Haven't Read"), frisky vamps ("Up With People," "Grumpus," "What Else Could It Be?") and the near-gothic horror of "The Petrified Florist." Arguably, the best release yet from this prolific Nashville ensemble. Grade: B+
Bedhead formally split up two years ago, but the group's co-leaders, brothers Budda and Matt Kadane, collaborated with rising stars Macha on this half-hour EP. The result is an unusual mix of Bedhead's dirge-pop balladry and Macha's clattering Far East exotica -- not as good as Macha's proper albums, but more than worthwhile in the end.
The disc contains either six or 86 tracks, depending on your point of view ("How Are Your Windows?" is a extended, ambient drone, perversely indexed in five-second segments). Otherwise, "Hey Goodbye" is a sensual ballad which expands into a wonderfully florid chorus, "Never Underdose" is a slow-building surge of psychedelic ritual and "You and New Plastic" uses Macha's trademark mallet instruments to mount a throbbing, polyrhythmic groove. The delightful novelty is a climactic cover of Cher's ever-horrifying "Believe," downshifted here into an ominous, minor-key narcotic. Yo La Tengo will hear this track, and moan with envy. Overall, the disc is a bit thin, but as an experimental diversion, it succeeds nicely. Grade: B
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 titled. 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 food for thought. Gonzales has one of those weak, boyish voices (is it laziness, shyness or simple ineptitude?), and his lyrics contribute little to the experience. However, the gentle flow of the music has a soothing charm, and the sprinkles of woodwinds, horns and strings help cover his sketchy songwriting. The album's best when a Ray Davies influence comes forward, and tighter tunes like "Shimmering in a Bulb of Glass," "Hung Up," "Oblong Destiny" and the folksy "Loneliest Heart in Texas" score the most points. Grade: B
A lot can happen to a guy in five years. In the time since 1995's excellent No Joke, Curt Kirkwood has lost his label, his original bandmates (including brother/bassist Cris Kirkwood, apparently on a hopeless path to junkie oblivion) and his commercial momentum. Now, after recruiting a fresh band and signing with Hootie & the Blowfish's new imprint, Kirkwood is finally ready for action again. Or is he?
Something's not quite right with this comeback album. Maybe it's the loss of time-tested chemistry. Maybe it's the more generic bass lines. Maybe it's the conventional production, which stresses Kirkwood's shaky vocals at the expense of guitar power. More likely, the problem is simply what he's playing. Whereas his songs once crackled with fiendish riffs and knotty rhythms, he now saves his flash for the instrumental breaks. Elsewhere, he doesn't sound much different from any other journeyman rocker. "I Quit," "You Love Me" and "Endless Wave" are notably facile by Meat Puppets standards, while "Armed and Stupid," "Hercules," "Take Off Your Clothes" and "Tarantula" are the only tracks which truly burn. Grade: B
Jason Finn (former drummer for the Presidents of the United States of America) joins the Nevada Bachelors for the band's second album, and indeed, the Bachelors arose from the same Northwest pop tradition which spawned the Presidents and Young Fresh Fellows. But, fret not: The Nevada Bachelors aren't nearly as gimmicky, even if they mine a similar vein of brash, buoyant garage-pop.
A vast improvement over 1998's Carrots & So On, Hello Jupiter can be maddeningly catchy. Fat chords, punchy hooks and good cheer rule the day, best heard in the one-two punch of "No Reason" and "Bad Haircut" which launches the disc. "Mitzi and Darius" and "New Amazing Buzz" are bratty riff-rockers, "Matador" pokes fun at the rival label's notorious snootiness ("I don't think we're cool enough for you -- too radio friendly"), "E-mail" and "Thought" relax the pace with flowing melodies and extra string parts, while "The Hook" sounds like a lo-fi Queen pastiche (see "Killer Queen"). Almost every track pays off, on some level. Why has no one heard of these guys? Grade: B+
Air traffic controller digs up his five-year-old CD, happens to send it to the right person and, presto, rides a spot on the Cable Guy soundtrack to belated stardom. The press loved the Cinderella story behind the Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing in a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand." But now the ball is over, and the Gods' Chris O'Connor faces a grim destiny: one-hit oblivion. He originally planned to return with Mellotron On, an album recorded last year for Sire, but his deal fell through shortly before the disc's release. The revised White Hot Peach (inferior to the scrapped album, oddly enough) grabs eight songs from Mellotron On, then adds three new ones. To O'Connor's credit, "Motor of Joy" is the only track which repeats the hit's sampled gimmickry, but he doesn't offer any fresh twists either, just a batch of sedate pop grooves topped with pallid, overprocessed vocals. His gentle character sketches aren't without merit, but the thin melodies spend too much time flickering between a few adjacent notes. After opening well with "Message From Steven," "Ghost of a Chance" and "Gotta Know Now," the album simply slides into anonymity. Grade: B-
On this heady two-disc set, Sonic Youth plunges boldly into modern classical music, performing the works of iconoclastic, game-playing composers like Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Nicolas Slonimsky and John Cage. The band enlists some avant-garde ringers (Jim O'Rourke, Wharton Tiers, Christian Marclay, William Winant, Takehisa Kosugi and Christian Wolff, the latter two also featured as composers) to shape the pieces, but there's no mistaking the Sonics' genuine empathy for the material.
These daring creations require significant input from the musician -- the composers steer the general arc of the performance via structural constraints, but crucial variables are left blank. Unfortunately, the sparse packaging (a simple cardboard sleeve) has no room for liner notes, so the schematics go unexplained. The more whimsical pieces are easy to understand: Reich's "Pendulum Music" exploits the feedback created by microphones swinging over upturned amplifiers, George Maciunas' impish "Piano Piece #13" orders the performer to nail down the keys of a sacrificed piano (don't miss the bonus CD-ROM video!), while Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" merely asks for three evocative screams (in this case, belted out by young Coco Hayley Moore, the illustrious Sonic offspring). Other tracks are less accessible, but it doesn't take a music degree to feel the intensity of the moods. James Tenney's ominous "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" even resembles the band's more typical efforts, if stripped down to pure texture. What could've been a tedious, dilettante indulgence ends up utterly mesmerizing -- don't miss this one. Grade: B+
The outside marquee said "Violet Krumble," but it was actually the reunited Bangles who took the stage in a secret, exclusive show. Amazingly, the girls have hardly aged at all (mini-skirted Susanna Hoffs probably still gets carded), and the gale force of their charisma is as potent as ever.
The group spun through all their signature tunes ("Going Down to Liverpool," "In My Room," "Live," "If She Knew What She Wants," "Hero Takes a Fall," "Manic Monday," "Hazy Shade of Winter," "Walk Like an Egyptian," "Eternal Flame"), album tracks (including "September Gurls"), covers and a few songs from their planned reunion disc. Newly unearthed nuggets included We Five's "You Were on my Mind," Love's "7 & 7 Is" and a fiery version of the Yardbirds hit "I'm Not Talking." Verses from "I'm Waiting for My Man" and "Mrs. Robinson" were also inserted into "Manic Monday" and "Walk Like an Egyptian," respectively. The group's harmonies still sound wonderful, though Hoffs seems to have lost some of her upper range. She copped out on her high notes, several times.
The girls were having plenty of fun onstage, which was heartwarming to see. It was also a relief to see them without the poodle haircuts and glitzy outfits they had at the time of the group's demise. Guitarist Vicki Peterson called the show a "public humiliation rehearsal," prior to their widescreen re-emergence the following weekend, but the Bangles could do no wrong with the adoring, sentimental crowd.
Sure, it was another sold-out Cracker show, but this wasn't the big story.
Once upon a time -- back when "E6" was just a call during a child's game of Battleship -- Camper Van Beethoven set the standard for underground hippie eclectica. Originally formed in Redlands before moving north to Santa Cruz, the group enjoyed an influential, late-'80s reign on college radio, but never had a commercial breakthrough -- not even a dizzy cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" did the trick. While often forgotten today, the band's freewheeling blend of rock, ska, ethnic folk and psychedelia still sounds remarkably fresh. Minus a few dated jabs at '80s punk culture, the Campers' five albums could've arrived a decade later and seemed fully contemporary.
Of course, singer David Lowery re-emerged in Cracker after Camper Van Beethoven's demise, and grabbed overdue success with two hit albums in a row. Several years later, the group has a solid audience, and no further need to duck comparisons with its parent band. So, why not try an informal reunion?
Informal, it was. Opening for Cracker was Jonathan & Victor, a fairly ordinary group featuring ex-Campers Jonathan Segel and Victor Krummenacher. Also on board was a third CVB fugitive, guitarist Greg Lisher. This enabled a mini-reunion during Cracker's set.
The band onstage was never billed as "Camper Van Beethoven" (the original drummer was missing, anyway). Instead, the three guest stars wandered in for isolated songs, temporarily converting Cracker into a makeshift simulation. Guitarist Johnny Hickman switched to mandolin to give Lisher space, while Lowery gamely led the ensemble through seven CVB favorites, including the signature anthems "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and "Ambiguity Song," the ska-like "Tania" (exquisite licks traded between Lisher and violinist Segel, here), "Eye of Fatima," "Sweethearts," "Turquoise Jewelry" and, yes, "Matchstick Men." The conservative, Counting Crows-fed audience received the reunion with good cheer but mild recognition, being more interested in shouting "Wooo!" during flashy guitar solos.
Cracker itself had a strong night, too. The set stretched to two and a half hours, which allowed time for nearly all the expected requests. Song choices were evenly split between the group's four albums, spanning accessible hits ("Teen Angst," "Low," the exhilarating "Movie Star," "This is Cracker Soul," crowd favorite "Eurotrash Girl"), rootsy jaunts ("Mr. Wrong," "Lonesome Johnny Blues," "Trials & Tribulations"), dour ballads ("Big Dipper," "Dixie Babylon") and the almost punk "100 Flower Power Maximum." Lowery was somewhat stiff with his neatly pressed suit and closed-eye introversion, but the charismatic Hickman easily compensated, coming off almost too hammy with his rock-star moves and faces.
Cracker's more straitlaced, bluesy rock never matched Camper Van Beethoven's giddy spirit of adventure, and Lowery has always been a bit defensive about this. It's nice to see him finally embrace his past.
It's easy to be cynical about yet another Who reunion, but for those of us seeing the group for the first time, this night was a thrill. In contrast to the overblown Quadrophenia extravaganza a few years ago, the lineup was a tight, minimal unit: just original members Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, plus drummer Zak Starkey and longtime keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick. Their voices have lost some range and gained some grit, but the instrumental chops of Townshend (an acoustic version of "Drowned," the break in "Who Are You"), Entwistle (an extended solo in "5:15") and Bundrick (the synthesizers in "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again") remain dazzling. The group still stretches out songs as in its improvisational heyday, and even pushed a disastrously retooled "Magic Bus" so far that Townshend had to restart the song. The set list was a predictable mix of crowd favorites, save "Drowned" and the rarities "Let's See Action" and "The Relay," but that's to be expected. It might have been nice if the latter two (or the silly "You Better You Bet") had been replaced with other missing classics ("Bargain," "I Can See for Miles," "Pure and Easy," "The Seeker," "Pictures of Lily"...), but that's life.
Opening the show was Unamerican, a new quintet who paradoxically sounds so "American" that you'd never know they're from London. Mixing the heartland rock of folks like Tom Petty, the Wallflowers and Neil Young (whose "Old Man" was covered) with hints of post-Weezer/Fountains of Wayne pop, the black-clad band was obviously excited with this fortunate booking. Unfortunately, the songs were often plodding, and only "She's a Bomb" and the catchy "Tonight's the First Night" scored any points.