Reviews by Eric Broome
Tori Amos
Bob Dylan
Jason Falkner
Nelly Furtado
The Kingsbury Manx
Mouse on Mars
The Olivia Tremor Control
"Listen to What the Man Said"
The Ladybug Transistor (live)
The Black Crowes/Oasis (live)
Sigur Rós (live)

Tori Amos/Strange Little Girls (Atlantic)

Tori Amos' rippling piano style may shine with classically trained talent, but her need to show off limits her writing. You sometimes hope she'll just bang out a few straight rhythm chords and nail down a tight melody, but she still insists upon those compulsively churning, arpeggiated licks. She tries to refresh herself with other gambits: guest stars, switching to harpischord and organ, adding techno beats. Nothing quite works. Now, she's pulling an even bolder stunt: an all-covers album. Inevitable, right? Unfortunately, it's also the first Amos release which dips into pure mediocrity.

The disc is billed as a concept album, hinged on her efforts to transfer male compositions to a female context. Sure, whatever. But does she add anything to these dozen songs? Not really. In fact, she destroys two of them: 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" and the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun." Elsewhere, her belabored pacing and breathy theatrics hamper classic tunes from the Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Neil Young and the Boomtown Rats. An absurd version of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" begs to be skipped altogether, and the most listenable tracks are modest offerings from the Stranglers ("Strange Little Girl"), Joe Jackson ("Real Men") and Depeche Mode ("Enjoy the Silence"). Amos does get the chance to play dress-up in the CD booklet, however. Grade: B-

Bob Dylan/Love and Theft (Columbia)

For years, Bob Dylan has been burdened with the legacy of his early records. No matter how good a new Dylan album is, there are always stubborn fans who just sniff and point back to masterpieces like Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Dylan has always shrugged off expectations, defiantly moving forward on instinct, but following 1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, he faced a more immediate challenge: living up to the mark of his previous album. Giving himself four years to find a solution, he miraculously topped himself with Love and Theft, a warm survey of rustic American styles which takes a sharp turn from its more somber, atmospheric predecessor. Resurrecting the wry humor and rambling stanzas of his legendary '60s discs, the ever-evolving songsmith hits typical themes (disillusion, romance, corruption, rural storytelling), but adds an anything-but-typical range of sounds including rock ("Honest With Me"), folk ("High Water"), blues ("Cry A While"), a sock-hop rave ("Summer Days") and an unprecedented set of pre-rock 'n' roll crooners ("Bye and Bye," "Moonlight," "Floater," "Po' Boy"). This is Dylan's most eclectic record since 1970's Self Portrait, and it's miles more successful. His eroding voice has some trouble rising above the louder tracks (the allegorical "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" is the worst case), but he's wonderful with the mellow stuff -- particularly "Moonlight," which harkens back to that surprising, honeyed voice found in "Lay Lady Lay." Riding a phenomenal career resurgence at an age when most musicians are quietly tending their gardens, Dylan has rolled out another classic.

Jason Falkner/Necessity: The 4-Track Years (spinART)

Jason Falkner's brilliant Author Unknown would've been the best power-pop album of the '90s, if not for Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend. Falkner's second Elektra disc didn't have the same transcendent sparkle, but his artistry wasn't really an issue. What mattered was that neither album sold, so the label brusquely gave him the boot. Now between contracts, Falkner has dug into his closet for these early demo recordings, which include five songs from Author Unknown. Hearing raw, intimate (but fully arranged) versions of superb tunes like "I Live," "She Goes to Bed" and "I Go Astray" is a treat, but the previously unreleased compositions are the nicest discovery. "She's Not the Enemy" (a 16-track ringer), "His Train," "The Hard Way" and "My Home is Not a House" have the same blend of immediate hooks and complex melody which graces Falkner's best work, while the acoustic "Song for Her" has a raga feel recalling Led Zeppelin's exotic ballads. Talent like this should not go unrewarded. Grade: B+

Firewater/Psychopharmacology (Jetset)

No doubt about it -- Tod A. is a world-class cynic. His relentless harangues about a dehumanizing consumer culture wore thin amid the brittle clamor of his past band, the generally forgotten Cop Shoot Cop. However, he seems revitalized with Firewater, whose earthier arrangements add some welcome humanity to his complaints. Heck, he almost sounds romantic on this disc's "Bad, Bad World" and "She's the Mistake."

Psychopharmacology prunes back the gypsy eclecticism of Firewater's previous two albums, but the loss of instrumental color is balanced with improved songwriting. The rhythmic snap of "Woke Up Down," "Get Out of My Head" and "The Man With a Blurry Face" is instantly magnetic, while the more traditional "Fell Off the Face of the Earth" has a shuffling, downward hook which wouldn't sound out of place on Magical Mystery Tour. Who would have guessed Firewater could beat Oasis at their own game? Otherwise, the title song is a haunting, loud-and-soft look at the emptiness of psychiatric drugs, while "7th Avenue Static" -- surprisingly, the album's only track with violin -- blends a rattling military beat with a bitter portrait of homelessness. "Car Crash Collaborator" also pays off big, depicting insurance fraud with a wonderfully sleazy sax riff. Tod's best work ever? Quite possibly. Grade: B+

Nelly Furtado/Whoa, Nelly! (DreamWorks)

Terminally eclectic Nelly Furtado (a Canadian of Portuguese descent, who's white but sings black) is not only superior pin-up fodder, but a promising talent as well. The funky, sample-stuffed production of her first album is bound to draw Odelay comparisons, but her sound actually digs much deeper -- it's no accident that the sleeve graphics recall classic A&M records of the '60s. Whipping pop, soul, hip-hop and Brazilian influences into a zesty melange, Whoa, Nelly! is a remarkably self-assured debut, both verbally sharp and commercially seductive. Furtado's lyrics are loaded with personality, as she asserts her independence and slaps the wrists of those who underestimate her, while her versatile voice easily handles both flowing melody and rap-like syncopation. The album weakens a bit during its second half, but oughta-be-a-hit anthems like "Sh*t on the Radio," "I'm Like a Bird" and "Hey, Man!" signal a young artist worth watching. Grade: B+

The Kingsbury Manx/Let You Down (Overcoat)

What a wonderful little record. The Kingsbury Manx is an arty Chapel Hill quartet whose placid, contrapuntal pieces are just as enigmatic as the band's name. Reference points include Pink Floyd (circa 1969-72) and Swell, but these layered compositions have a pastoral allure which transcends any influences. The vocals drift by in a low, conversational murmur, while methodical rolls of picked guitars (often acoustic) carry the harmony. The group has an unusual yen for 6/8 time signatures (best heard in "Porchlight" and "Patterns Shape the Mile"), but less knotty tunes like "Simplify," the title track and "Baby You're a Dead Man" are instantly magnetic. Beautifully paced, arranged and produced, the disc is a far cry from the scrappy punk-pop typically associated with its region, but do you hear me complaining? Grade: B+

Mouse on Mars/Idiology (Thrill Jockey)

Ever defying genre restrictions, this German electronic duo continues to expand its range in fascinating ways. Idiology is the group's most eclectic release yet, blending synthetic beats with traditional strings, horns, piano, clarinet and guitar. Most startling of all, the disc even adds a spoken-word piece ("Unity Concepts") and two tracks with melodic vocals ("Presence" is especially notable, recalling the gentle strains of Robert Wyatt). The most characteristic grooves dwell on giddily abrasive, hyperrhythmic collisions of buzzes, blurps, boops and rattles (see "Actionist Respoke" and "First: Break"), but the way-out mix also drops in the warped ska of "Doit," the funky "Subsequence" (a five-minute jam which begs for a Prince cameo) and the vaguely Asian meditations of "Paradical." If the group's mischievous side gets tiring, you can always switch to classy, orchestrated cuts like "The Illking" and the closing "Fantastic Analysis." Another bonus: The disc lasts a tight 50 minutes. Whoever heard of an electronic album which isn't padded with filler? Grade: B+

The Olivia Tremor Control/Singles and Beyond (Kindercore)

Terminally two-faced, the Olivia Tremor Control has always hopped between sugary pop and druggy, experimental collage as if it's perfectly natural. Presumably, a compilation would lean toward the group's more tuneful side, but this disc is more "Beyond" than "Singles." Collecting scattershot material recorded between 1992 and 1996, the 20 tracks are almost half instrumental, and even the more traditional songs often seem unfinished and sketchy.

The album's pivotal cuts are drawn from two EPs: the group's debut recording "California Demise" (try pricing original copies on Ebay) and 1995's "The Giant Day." Even these tracks include a generous dose of noodling, but "Love Athena," "Fireplace," "Shaving Spiders" and "I'm Not Feeling Human" are deft mixes of buzzing psychedelia and bubblegum hooks. Elsewhere on the disc, the unusually hard-driving "Beneath the Climb" has almost a Who-like punch, while "Gypsum Oil Field Fire" and "King of the Claws" (both taken from an early split single with the Apples in Stereo) are nearly as seductive. Dig any deeper, however, and you'll mostly find erratic song fragments and unfocused vamping. Grade: B

Portastatic/Looking for Leonard (Merge)

Really, this album shouldn't be credited to Portastatic. More accurately, it's a film score composed by Mac McCaughan, who just happens to be known for work with Portastatic and Superchunk. "Looking for Leonard," a Canadian film still seeking distribution, is apparently another misfit-lovers-on-the-run tale -- the titular "Leonard" is Leonard Cohen, who somehow figures in the plot but doesn't appear. The CD itself is rather short at 34 minutes, and entirely instrumental except for one dialogue fragment. Nearly half the tracks will seem disposable without the visuals, unless you're especially fond of murky, droning organ chords (look out, Yo La Tengo fanatics). Otherwise, the main theme has a fluid, circular melody which would fit nicely on Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets. "Luka's Theme" drips with slinky atmosphere, based around a twangy, nostalgic lead. "Stealing Romance" is a cute blend of violin and picked guitar, while "Sweethearts of the World" slips muted horns into the mix. Late in the game, "Funeral Music" and "The Chase" finally add a splash of yowling distortion. This skimpy disc makes a weak entry point into McCaughan's thick catalog, but collectors won't want to be without it. Grade: B-

Tipsy/Uh-Oh! (Asphodel)

Five years ago, Tipsy's delightful Trip Tease dropped out of the sky, and surprised quite a few fans with its perverse brilliance. Who in the world were David Gardner and Tim Digulla, and how had they spliced together such a witty take on mood-music kitsch? Even the mainstream noticed the duo's flair -- Tipsy's quirky instrumentals were eventually tapped for "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and a Coke commercial.

Well, the lounge/cocktail revival has faded, and perhaps this overdue sequel missed its moment. Then again, Gardner and Digulla always resist being lumped with the Tiki crowd, so who cares? The new tracks are a bit more frantic and non-linear, but have a familiar sense of ambient whimsy. "Papaya Freeway" and "Sweet Cinnamon Punch" drift toward Martin Denny turf with their tropical rhythms, vibraphone, romantic woodwinds and gliding guitar. "Hey!" and "Wig Out" are zany fun, bursting with amusing collisions, while "Reverse Cowgirl" adds squirts of chicken-scratch guitar and country pastiche. "Swallowtail" and "Eclipse of the Sun Virgin" have a more traditional, orchestrated grandeur, while "Suez Motel" is an eerie detour into Middle-Eastern exotica. A host of guest musicians contributes to the Tipsy stew (how many other albums can you name with two theremin players?), and while some of the 18 tracks are unfocused, they're certainly never boring. Unfortunately, Tipsy seems doomed to be just as underrated as Air is overrated. Cruel world, no?Grade: B+

Tricky/Mission Accomplished EP (Anti/Epitaph)

Once acclaimed as a groundbreaking visionary, Tricky has watched his stock fall with each release. Even Island finally shrugged its jaded shoulders and walked away. Hollywood Records picked up Tricky's upcoming album, but in the meantime, the growling auteur gives us this short, four-song appetizer.

Tricky's label problems are at the heart of Mission Accomplished. The powerful title track sneers at Island's ambivalence ("In other words, flip flop/They said that I get dropped"), while adding a sarcastic chorus which quotes Peter Gabriel's "Big Time." The thick distortion and slashing riff are the main allure -- this is one of Tricky's hardest-rocking cuts. "Crazy Claws" and "Tricky versus Lynx" are two of a kind: lurid, urban-city rants about violence, drugs and dangerous women. Based around static loops, the tracks seem musically repetitive and incomplete. They're also closer to the straight rap tradition than usual, though Lynx's awkward delivery undercuts the words' potency. The climactic "Divine Comedy" is the most withering groove. Tricky's record-biz resentment couldn't be more upfront: "Who I am/Polygram/Fuck you niggers." As ever, his abrasive voice is a major handicap, but the music's maniacal fire is enough to sustain the mood. Hopefully, he'll be happier with the Hollywood execs. Grade: B

Various Artists/Listen to What the Man Said (Oglio)

A Paul McCartney tribute album is a no-brainer -- what isn't so obvious is a tribute restricted to his post-Beatles work. Here, contemporary power-pop acts tackle their fave McCartney ditties from the '70s, '80s and '90s, donating royalties to breast cancer research in the process. The results are pleasantly catchy, though the stress on copycat arrangements renders the disc somewhat trivial.

Owsley's effervescent "Band on the Run" and Semisonic's "Jet" take top honors as note-for-note Wings simulations, while the Finn Brothers' rattling "Too Many People" is the sharpest mix of quality songwriting and personal interpretation. Matthew Sweet's "Every Night" is predictably lovely, while the Virgos' "Maybe I'm Amazed" takes advantage of an indestructible classic. Elsewhere, the contributions -- even from proven talents like World Party, Sloan, the Minus 5, They Might Be Giants and Robyn Hitchcock -- aren't as satisfying, either because of weak performances or lackluster material. Certainly, it's hard to see why the second-rate "Dear Friend," "Waterfalls," "Man We Was Lonely" and "Love in Song" are featured tunes, when obvious picks like "Let 'Em In," "Live and Let Die," "Venus and Mars/Rockshow" and even "Listen to What the Man Said" are missing. Still, it's a fun disc. Grade: B

The Ladybug Transistor at Spaceland, June 7th

The Ladybug Transistor's Argyle Heir is bound to be one of the year's most underrated albums, and the band's recent Spaceland gig had a similar air of doomed obscurity. The audience of meek pop-cultists couldn't conjure up much energy, though this was the group's sharpest local performance yet.

The Ladybugs' personnel includes six people (four men, two women), but they sounded like an even larger ensemble, thanks to the members' versatility. The only player who stuck to one instrument was the drummer. The lead singer added trumpet, guitar and keyboards. The keyboardist doubled on flute and melodica. The violinist and guitarist (a suave gent with a vintage Rickenbacker, whose economical style obviously echoes classic session soloists) both switched to bass and keyboards. The shifting positions always kept the show fresh and interesting.

The players aren't brilliant musicians, but they were incredibly well-rehearsed. Many songs added decorative instrumental fills, which were composed and performed with the utmost care. It all went smoothly, despite repeated requests to re-balance the mix in the onstage monitors. If you can stomach a group whose '60s influences are names like Lee Hazlewood, Jimmy Webb and the Bee Gees rather than the Beatles and Dylan, definitely check out the Ladybug Transistor.

The only problem here is Gary Olson's mannered voice. His deep, tremulous, carefully intonated croon gives him a squaresville Potsie quality -- it's easy to imagine rock fans who would roll their eyes and want to hurl tomatoes at him. The band might have wider appeal if his timbre was softened with more backing vocals. Actually, given the group's otherwise ornate arrangements, it's surprising that vocal harmonies are so rare.

The opening bands were also in a old-school pop vein. First up were the Lucksmiths, a scruffy Australian trio who had a surprisingly strong following in the crowd. Next came a local group called Irving. This lightweight quintet was a bit limp and derivative -- it's not often you see current acts with the guts to sing harmonized la-la's.

The Black Crowes/Oasis/Spacehog at the Greek Theater, May 14th

Some promoter must have giggled with delight, when the idea for the "Brotherly Love" tour first struck him. A triple bill of groups known for bickering siblings, this mischievous package brought a rare note of rebellion to the staid Greek Theater.

The seats eventually filled, but were more than half empty during Spacehog's opening set. These British dandies showed a capable sense of melody, but were flattened by their shallowness and unapologetic recycling of glam-rock affectations. Singer Royston Langdon has perfected a one-speed, Ziggy Stardust bleat, but was totally unable to downshift into a more nuanced style. He even spoke with the same booming yelp. The group played a short, half-hour set, spanning only seven tunes. Most notable were the minor hit "In the Meantime," "At Least I Got Laid" (not nearly as entertaining as its title), a song with a riff lifted from the Who's "Can't Explain" and a lengthier piece which incorporated a pseudo-disco abstraction of Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra."

The audience leapt to its feet when Oasis strolled onstage, and immediately established that this was an Oasis crowd (this was confirmed by the milder response to the Black Crowes' headlining set). We've all seen Oasis on television, and there were no real surprises. While the playing was strong, this is not a group who's interested in stage presence. The three guitarists nonchalantly stood and carefully fingered the right notes, never exerting themselves physically, while Liam Gallagher's singing posture (hands behind his back, awkwardly crouched to sing from underneath the microphone) remains bizarre and ungainly. The set opened with the band's worst choice of the night: "Go Let It Out," a painfully banal single which was dead on arrival. Otherwise, the boys stuck to grinding out favorites like "Morning Glory," "Columbia," "Cigarettes & Alcohol" (sharp, but still too derivative of "Bang a Gong"), "Champagne Supernova," "Acquiesce," "Don't Look Back in Anger" and an bludgeoning encore of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus." "Wonderwall" was notably skipped. The group's dependable ear for hooks and aggressive roar of guitars salvaged the weaker moments, while the often-controversial Liam held his between-song comments to a minimum.

If Oasis was about good songs and a dull performance, the Black Crowes were the other way around. Chris Robinson has an exciting voice and a charismatic bag of stage moves, but the group's nostalgic Southern rock wore out its welcome by halfway through the set. Brief reminder to the band: The Rolling Stones wrote both riffs and melodies, not just riffs. "Midnight From the Inside Out," "Greasy Grass River" and "Cosmic Friend" showed some spark, but some other songs were clunky -- particularly the new album's "Lickin'." The group did play "Remedy" and "Twice as Hard," but generally frustrated long-time fans by passing over most of their popular tunes. The final song was a grandiose cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," which included guitar cameos from Oasis plus an extra circle of female singers. A somewhat clichéd ending, to a somewhat clichéd evening.

Sigur Rós at the Wilshire Theater, October 6

Rock show or classical recital? It's not surprising that a Sigur Ros concert had a strange atmosphere, given the deliberate pace of the band's dreamy, ritualistic hymns. The packed house stayed eerily silent during the pieces, only adding polite recognition claps when tracks (just three of them) were played from the group's acclaimed album, Agætis Byrjun. Quite a rarity for the chatter-happy Hollywood scene. Heck, the band members themselves didn't speak beyond a brief thank-you as they exited, and didn't even play an encore -- instead they made two traditional curtain calls, linking arms to bow meekly before the roaring ovation. Bless their introverted hearts.

As might be expected, the performance included a constant stream of video images to offset the group's total lack of visual appeal. Most shots were abstract stills, but one segment had a striking image of birds perched on a cable in silhouette. As the song progressed, the birds gradually flew away, leaving an empty wire by the end. Beautifully evocative of the music's lonely grace.

The quartet's chief strength was their amazing patience, as they carefully erected their slow-moving epics of layered guitars(often bowed) and organs. The drummer favored mallets for a more muted feel, and sometimes switched over to keyboards, leaving the music to drift in the air without a backbeat. Singer Jonsi Birgisson's genderless wail provided some melodic focus, but his lyrics (in mutated Icelandic) obviously didn't offer much food for thought. The unvarying sound wore out its welcome before the concert's end, yet the best moments (such as the album's "Svefn-G-Englar" and "Olsen Olsen") were exquisitely dramatic. The group's limited palette doesn't suggest much chance for longevity, but hey, the Cocteau Twins managed to hang on for 15 years, didn't they?

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