Reviews by Eric Broome
Bis
Vic Chesnutt
The Chills
Harmonia 76
Jimi Hendrix
The High Llamas
Lida Husik
Chris Knox
The Moog Cookbook
Colin Newman
Quasi
The Replacements
The Shame Idols
Silver Apples
Stereolab
Superchunk
That Dog
They Might Be Giants
The 3Ds
Tipsy
Robert Wyatt
Yo La Tengo
"Succour"
"The Simpsons"





Bis/The New Transistor Heroes (Grand Royal/Capitol)


Brash, bratty, cute and infectious, Bis is 100% fun. This young Glasgow trio (two guys, one gal) plays nostalgic New Wave rock with energy to burn, like some hyperactive mix of early Wire, Blur and a pinch of B-52s. Ferocious tunes like "Tell It to the Kids," "Sweet Shop Avengers," "Poster Parent" and "Dinosaur Germs" are dizzy with delight, while poppier moments like "Mr. Important" and "X-Defect" show the kids can definitely write a hook. Other tracks detour into disco ("Starbright Boy"), ska ("Everybody Thinks That They're Going to Get Theirs"), synth pop ("Skinny Tie Sensurround") and one quirky tune that I could've sworn was a Gang of Four cover ("Photo Shop"). The lyrics aren't too deep, centering on adolescent concerns like rollerblades, candy, skateboards and John Hughes movies, but the group does come equipped with its own self-created mythology: goofy pseudonyms, Tiger Beat-style profiles, mock anime artwork and a vague "Teen-C Power" manifesto. The disc dips into pure silliness at times, but it's hard to resist such giddy charisma. ***




Vic Chesnutt/About To Choke (Capitol)


It's a familiar story: quirky-voiced folk singer with physical affliction jumps to major label, releases new album perfectly timed to follow all-star tribute disc. However, About To Choke is a stronger record than Victoria Williams' Loose. Simple as that.

Beyond a vocal overdub here or there, you'll find no commercial concessions on Choke, only more evidence that Chesnutt is one of the most underrated songwriters around. Now with five albums behind him, he just gets better and better -- an all-too-rare example of sustained artistic growth. There's a homeliness to his delivery that will permanently keep him off the sales charts, but it's also a big part of his charm. Whether it's quirky rock tunes like "Ladle" and "Giant Sands" or quiet musings like "Threads" and "Swelters," Chesnutt's plaintive picking, forlorn vocals and precision imagery are right on target. "Degenerate" might be his prettiest song ever, "Hot Seat" beats Eddie Vedder at his own game and the slinky "Little Vacation" is as close as Vic will ever get to being sexy. Superb stuff. *** 1/2




Martin Phillipps & the Chills/Sunburnt (Flying Nun)


After 30 or so members in 16 years of existence, New Zealand's Chills can hardly be called a band anymore. Apparently, leader Martin Phillipps has finally figured this out and given himself top billing. (Hear that, Chrissie Hynde?) Maybe this most underrated of cult popsters can grab some name recognition now.

It's been a long four years since the last Chills album, so of course there are more changes: new members (XTC bassist Dave Gregory and journeyman drummer Dave Mattacks, both on loan), a new Stateside label (Flying Nun, finally with a US office) and a smoother, keyboard-based sound. Sunburnt falls short of masterpieces like 1987's Brave Words and 1990's astounding Submarine Bells, but it's loaded with shimmering jewels such as "Premonition," "As Far As I Can See," "Swimming In The Rain" and "Walk On The Beach." Also don't miss "Lost In Future Ruins," Phillipps' most obvious Brian Wilson tribute yet. The arrangements are too slick at times, but the thoughtful lyrics and gentle hooks usually win out. One day, Kiwi pop will get its due. ***




Harmonia 76/Tracks & Traces (Rykodisc)


Brian Eno's two collaborative albums with the German duo Cluster, Cluster & Eno (1977) and After the Heat (1978), remain the most overlooked jewels in his catalog. Harmonia was a short-lived band preceding Cluster, featuring Cluster's Hans Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius along with Neu!'s Michael Rother. This fascinating disc collects 54 minutes of previously unreleased sessions of Harmonia with Eno, recorded back in 1976. The sound is milder and more organic than on the later Cluster & Eno records, but similarly placid and lovely. It's not all instrumental, either -- Eno adds some dreamy vocal lines to "Luneburg Heath." A mandatory purchase for Eno and krautrock fans. ***




Jimi Hendrix/First Rays of the New Rising Sun (Experience Hendrix/MCA)


The legacy of Jimi Hendrix is one of music's most protracted legal battles. Ever since his death in September, 1970, a whole roomful of folks have been fighting over the rights to his massive tape archives: manager Michael Jeffery (now long dead), producer Alan Douglas, attorney Leo Branton, father Al Hendrix, half-sister Janie Hendrix...the list goes on. In 1995, the Hendrix family finally won ownership of the guitarist's catalog in an out-of-court settlement, and set about reversing 25 years of exploitation. The Hendrixes don't seem completely selfless either (their own label, complete with ability to sign new artists? Janie's husband installed as label president?), but one thing is certain: They did spend a lot of time and money tracking down original master tapes, in order to issue definitive mixes of the classic Jimi works. The vast superiority of the new Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland reissues is undeniable, and many more projects are planned for the future.

The most important of these projects may be the initial one: the release of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the double record Hendrix was assembling when he died. (Of course, the content isn't infallible -- Hendrix never nailed down exactly what would be on the album.) How does it stack up? Well, again, the mixes are fantastic without a doubt, warm and alive in ways that were never hinted at before on CD. The song selections are smart too, taking the cream of the earlier Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge and War Heroes albums. However, there's a crucial sequencing problem. The first eight tracks are easily on the level of Hendrix's original releases, particularly the fantastic "Freedom" (wow, whatta bass line), "Night Bird Flying," "Room Full of Mirrors" and the much-covered ballad "Angel." But with the ninth track, a noodling instrumental called "Beginnings," the album falls off a cliff and never recovers. Rambling, ill-structured cuts like "Astro Man," "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)" and "Stepping Stone" erode into confusion, while "Straight Ahead" and "In From the Storm" sound like uninspired retreads (a problem that might have grown much worse if Hendrix had lived). In the disc's entire second half, the only truly noteworthy songs are a strange Dylan-influenced tune called "My Friend" and the intimate "Belly Button Window" (a tribute to drummer Mitch Mitchell's unborn child). The album would've been much more cohesive if the best material wasn't all bunched up at the start. Still, it is Jimi Hendrix, and it does convincingly portray an unrealized direction into a harder, funkier, less effects-dependent sound that would've fit quite well with musical trends of the '70s. No matter how you look at it, Hendrix's death at age 27 remains rock 'n' roll's most tragic premature loss. *** 1/2




The High Llamas/Hawaii (V2)


Songwriter/arranger Sean O'Hagan doesn't hide his ambitions. Simply put, he wants to be this era's Brian Wilson. The problem? Since he aims so high, even an album as enjoyable as Hawaii seems like a failure.

Hawaii is quite an undertaking for both O'Hagan and listener. The numbers are staggering: 77 minutes, 29 tracks plus a bonus disc with 38 more minutes of music. Whew. Set a whole evening aside for this one. Very few musicians could sustain inspiration over such a vast stretch of time, and unfortunately O'Hagan isn't one of them. Sure, he nails the Wilson trademarks: the baroque chord changes, the graceful melodic flow, the spacious mix, the intricate arrangements (strings, horns, flute, banjo, keyboards, you name it). However, he's tripped up by his thin voice, elliptical Van Dyke Parks-inspired lyrics, the gutless drum parts and a shortage of true pop hooks. While "Literature is Fluff," "Nomads," "Campers in Control," "Peppy" and "Pilgrims" are gorgeous, most of the album just floats away into the vapor. O'Hagan needs to drop the conceptual indulgences, and focus on writing some great tunes. ***




Lida Husik/Fly Stereophonic (Alias)


Six and a half albums (and three labels) into her career, Lida Husik is still an obscure name, even on the indie-rock level. Go figure. Talent such as hers shouldn't go unrewarded. Her Alias debut doesn't quite equal 1995's masterful Joyride, but it's nevertheless another triumph of sensual grooves, layered vocals and haunting melodies (emphasis on "melodies," because that's what separates Husik from her ambient kin).

Actually, Fly Stereophonic is her poppiest release yet, featuring uptempo breezes like "Dead Poets," "Café Con Leche," "Chocolate City" and the swinging title cut. New wrinkles include "Dancing Pants" (saxes, bagpipes and reggae?), the thumping Gene Krupa beat of "Death Trip," a Latin-tinged Monochrome Set cover and the sci-fi effects on "Sharon Hill Shadows." Meanwhile, "Cape Fear" may be her prettiest song ever. As usual, her lyrical reflections are a bit vague, but that's probably the point. Don't wait any longer to discover this truly unique artist. ***




Chris Knox/Yes!! (Flying Nun)


Year after year, Chris Knox releases unique, whimsical, tuneful records which no one bothers to hear, beyond a few staunch NZ-pop cultists. There's no justice. Yes!! doesn't reach the heights of 1995's epic Songs of You & Me, but it's still one of the year's most delightful discs. Charm and exuberance like this are embarrassingly rare in the jaded alternative realm -- when Knox sings about "The Joy of Sex," believe me, you hear the joy. Somehow, this elf-like genius just rattles off a few furious guitar chords and a primitive rhythm loop, adds his powerfully elastic wail and ends up with magic. Seems like a miracle. His songs can be samey and he does have a problem with self-editing, but there's no denying his talent. For an extra wrinkle, the disc tacks on a 17-minute experimental piece that's more interesting than almost anything by his fussy techno/ambient competition. The man can do no wrong. *** 1/2




The Moog Cookbook/Ye Olde Space Bande (Restless)


You know the drill: Roger Manning (late of Jellyfish and Imperial Drag) and buddy Brian Kehew dig out their vast collection of vintage synthesizers and arrange kitschy space-age versions of popular favorites. This time around, macho FM-radio staples ("Born to be Wild," "Cat Scratch Fever," "More Than a Feeling," "Rock and Roll All Night," "Whole Lotta Love," etc.) are on the menu. It's a smart choice of material -- this disc will age much better than the Cookbook's all-grunge debut, which already sounds like a trendy relic. Mark Mothersbaugh, Charlotte Caffey, Wayne Kramer and Michael Penn add cameos, too. ***




Colin Newman/Bastard (Swim/World Domination)


Since Wire went on hiatus (again) in 1991, Colin Newman has plunged into electronic music, releasing albums and singles with his collaborator/wife Malka Spigel on his own Swim label. Bastard is another partnership with Spigel, but it's billed as a Newman solo album, his first since 1988. Newman isn't the groundbreaker he once was, but these pulsing instrumentals do supply some textural intrigue. The disc is also more varied than many similar high-tech works, ranging from jungle-influenced slinkiness ("Slowfast") to dreamy grooves ("Sticky") to thumping dance beats ("G-Deep") to the drumless majesty of "Without." Meanwhile, prominent electric guitar on "Spaced In," "The Orange House & The Blue House" and "May" keeps things from getting too sterile. Bastard is far from essential, but it'll do. ** 1/2




Quasi/R&B Transmogrification (Up)


Keyboards are hip again, thanks to folks like Ben Folds and Stereolab, and Quasi pushes keyboard pop to its primitive extreme on this thoroughly adorable disc. Recorded with help from Pond's Charlie Campbell, much of R&B Transmogrification features just two instruments: Sam Coomes' mondo-distorted organ and Janet Weiss' scrappy drums. Coomes sings sadly in a boyish voice, but the main attraction is his thrilling keyboard style, which bridges everything from Big Star to Thunderclap Newman to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." The grinding riffs of "Ghost Dreaming" and "Sugar" actually sound more like grunge guitar than organ, while other tracks ("Ballad of Mechanical Man," "Mama, Papa, Baby") echo the baroque noodlings of classic '60s punk. From yearning balladry ("In The First Place") to garage pop ("Two-Faced") to the magically loony instrumental "Bird's Eye View," this disc is a delightful surprise. *** 1/2




The Replacements/All For Nothing, Nothing For All (Reprise)


The Replacements' underachieving ways frustrated even their biggest fans, but this two-disc compilation does a good job of collecting some of the band's highlights. The first disc is a conservatively chosen best-of set, grabbing four tunes from each of the group's Sire albums (sorry, no Twin/Tone stuff). It's dismaying that Tim and Pleased to Meet Me classics like "Hold My Life" and "Swingin Party" are skipped in favor of blander Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down selections, but that's the breaks. Anyway, the second disc is the real story here, featuring 18 nifty rarities. Some were compilation tracks ("Date to Church," "Cruella DeVille"), some were promotional B-sides ("Satellite," "Another Girl, Another Planet"), some are genuine buried treasures ("Birthday Gal," "Portland," "Wake Up," "We Know the Night," "Who Knows"). Others are just trashy silliness, but that's to be expected. File the first disc, play the second. ****




The Shame Idols/Rocket Cat (Frontier)


One of those ice-cream cone albums that you can quickly wolf down without spoiling your dinner. Part of the same Northwest pop school as the Young Fresh Fellows, Flop and (ouch) the Presidents of the USA, the Shame Idols play frisky, good-natured tunes topped with sweet (if inexpressive) vocal harmonies. The harmonies dominate more than on the band's debut I Got Time, but otherwise the differences are minimal. Actually, variety is the group's biggest problem -- the tracks blend together so seamlessly that you hardly notice the breaks between songs. Still, a nice try at bridging the gap between UK pop and American punk. ** 1/2




Silver Apples/Silver Apples (MCA)


The Silver Apples were far ahead of their time, anticipating electronic groove music in an era when guitars and melodic songwriting ruled the world. The group only released two albums -- Silver Apples (1968) and Contact (1969) -- before vanishing into permanent cult status, but the Apples have been resurrected in recent years, thanks to a slew of modern techno artists acknowledging the duo's influence. Now, after decades, the original albums are finally available in the States again, packed into one generous 74-minute disc.

The Silver Apples sound isn't easy to describe. Imagine Cream. Now take out the guitars...and the chords. Add a bewildering din of electronic bleeps, bloops and whooshes, controlled by singer Simeon through a huge custom assemblage of pre-synthesizer oscillators (no actual keyboards, just dials and knobs). Finally, insert flowery lyrics of fairytale love and mystical journeys, sung in chanted raga-esque melodies. This basic structure hardly varies throughout the 18 tracks. Contact adds a few new elements (notably, the hillbilly banjo on "Ruby" and "Confusion"), but is actually inferior to the debut due to its diminished unity. Pivotal tracks include "Oscillations, "Seagreen Serenades," "Program" and "Misty Mountain" from Silver Apples, and "Gypsy Love," "You and I," "I Have Known Love" and "A Pox on You" from Contact. The band's limitations are obvious, but this is truly seminal stuff. ***




Stereolab/Dots and Loops (Elektra)


Not one of Stereolab's better efforts, unfortunately. The group continues to expand its sound into more melodic, rhythmically complex areas, but the obsessive fiddling with tricky time signatures -- at the expense of primal thrust and groove -- drains away most of the pop appeal. I mean, how many 6/8, 5/8 and 10/8 tracks does Stereolab have to write before they prove their point? On the positive side, the sophisticated horns, strings and percussion (love that marimba) are a treat, and guest stars John McEntire (Tortoise), Sean O'Hagan (High Llamas) and Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma (Mouse on Mars) make valuable contributions. And of course, isolated tracks ("Brakhage," "Miss Modular," "Rainbo Conversation," "The Flower Called Nowhere") are exquisite. Still, the tedious, 17-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" is no "Jenny Ondioline," and too many other pieces fade into cold mathematics. ***




Superchunk/Indoor Living (Merge)


Superchunk just continues to grind out the product (eight albums now, and don't ask us to count the EPs and singles). It's remarkable that Mac and the gang can stay interested, given the strict limits of the band's sound. Indoor Living tries to expand the palette, adding mainstream touches like the double-tracked vocals on "Unbelievable Things" and cute little keyboards on "Burn Lost Sundays," "Watery Hands," and "Every Single Instinct." But beyond that, it's business as usual, and things aren't sounding so fresh anymore. The curling gnaw of Mac/Jim's duelling guitars remains the group's signature, but otherwise, there's a distinct lack of firepower on this samey disc. "Nu Bruises" is the only track that truly blazes, while most of the others just cruise along, slipping in a catchy chord sequence here and there. Superchunk could never make a record not worth owning, but frankly, I'd be happy if Mac started focusing his energies on Portastatic. ***




That Dog/Retreat from the Sun (DGC)


Retreat? More like the Great Step Forward. That Dog's cloying qualities have been ridiculed in the past, but the group's third album will be much harder to dismiss. A fully mature work, Retreat from the Sun dumps the adolescent nerd-girl schtick (unfortunate exception: "Minneapolis") and tightens up the instrumental attack for some of the prettiest pop textures you'll hear this year. The vocal harmonies of Anna Waronker and the Haden sisters are nothing short of stunning, while bass, guitar and violin lock into a cooperative interplay only hinted at before. "Never Say Never," "Being With You" and "Gagged And Tied" are punchy rockers, the title cut is heavenly pop bubblegum, while the more subdued "Every Time I Try" and "Until the Day I Die" add sweet chimes of piano. A nearly irresistible disc. *** 1/2




They Might Be Giants/Then: The Earlier Years (Restless)


Given the thin charms of They Might Be Giants' recent albums, this double disc is a well-timed reminder of the duo's most inspired period. A generous all-in-one recap of TMBG's independent days, Then collects the group's first two albums, 16 EP tracks (later included on Miscellaneous T) and 19 unreleased rarities. While the music's goofiness grates at times, the relentless hooks of 1986's self-titled debut and 1988's Lincoln still pack sizable punch. The B-sides aren't as substantial (predictably), but you wouldn't want to be without "We're The Replacements," "It's Not My Birthday," "I'll Sink Manhattan" and "Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal." Meanwhile, the rarities are a bizarre mix of novelties, including gems like "Now That I Have Everything," "Weep Day" and "Which Describes How You're Feeling" as well as promotional snippets, show tunes, alternate versions and Dial-A-Song relics. Overall, a fascinating package. *** 1/2




The 3Ds/Strange News from the Angels (Flying Nun)


The 3Ds would probably be indie-rock giants, if only they weren't from New Zealand (and thus rarely able to tour). The group's fourth album is another irresistible burst of their distinctive sound, a ratty snarl of guitars and noise crossed with offbeat, curly melodies. Strange News doesn't have a single as strong as past masterpieces "Outer Space" and "Hey Seuss," but these 14 songs never disappoint. While the band's love for crunchy discord can be shocking even by underground standards ("Devil Red," "Carrion Days"), more gentle spots ("I Believe In You," "The Wish") swing with tuneful charm. The pinched voices of Davids Mitchell and Saunders (bassist Denise Roughan keeps quiet this time) can't always compete with the squall, but you'll be too busy wading through the chewy hooks and distortion to worry about lyrics much anyway. In an ideal world, 3Ds anthems like "Dust," "Vector 27" and "Big Red Heart" would rule college radio. *** 1/2




Tipsy/Trip Tease: The Seductive Sounds of Tipsy (Asphodel)


And now for something completely different...Tipsy. This magical San Francisco duo constructs boppy little instrumental vignettes, sort of like '60s sci-fi/sitcom program music presented in a modern ambient context. While the 13 tracks are based on grooves rather than melody, the instrumentation is strangely organic -- guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor sax and flute all play prominent roles, thanks to a motley gang of outside contributors that includes Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn and PJ Harvey sideman Joe Gore. There are few albums in which the line between sampling and live playing is so utterly obliterated. Titles like "Nude On The Moon," "Space Golf," "Something Tropical" and "Oops!" are just as fun as they sound. An endlessly entertaining disc. *** 1/2




Robert Wyatt/Shleep (Thirsty Ear)


Robert Wyatt has been recording for almost 30 years (solo records, Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs, you name it), but Shleep may be his best work ever. Almost indescribably lovely, it's a typically languid collection of creamy grooves and rolling melodies, but Shleep has an extra warmth that's missing from his artier past records. The opening "Heaps of Sheeps" is the best example, an absolutely irresistible, lightly funky workout that benefits from Brian Eno's clever arranging input. (Eno contributes to three tracks; Paul Weller and Phil Manzanera also make appearances.) "The Duchess" mixes an offbeat walking tempo with peculiar contradictive rambles, "Maryan" has a gorgeous flow that perfectly supports its watery theme, "Free Will and Testament" is introspective soul balladry and "Blues in Bob Minor" is an intriguing rewrite of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Wyatt's soothing voice remains uniquely eerie and beautiful, while his painterly lyrics drip with nuanced imagery and insight. A few jazzier moments meander, but on the whole, Shleep is sheer magic. *** 1/2




Yo La Tengo/I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)


You never quite know what you'll get with a Yo La Tengo album. You know you'll get a few droning VU-style jams. You know you'll get a bit of jangly pop. You know you'll get the artless, sometimes charming, sometimes lethargic vocals of guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley. But it's the detours and nuances that count. On the 68-minute I Can Hear the Heart, the curveballs keep coming. "Center of Gravity" is bossa-nova pop. "One PM Again" is a tribute to the underground country band Lambchop. "Autumn Sweater" resembles the organ grooves of 1993's Painful at first, then adds a surprise techno bassline during the bridge. Plus, there's a noisy cover of "Little Honda," a brilliant conceptual bridge between the Beach Boys and Jesus & Mary Chain. More typical highlights include the groovy raveup "Sugarcube," the chiming "Stockholm Syndrome," the eerie lament "Shadows" and the dreamy "The Lie and How We Told It." Kaplan holds his guitar-hero indulgences mostly in check, while the disc's vaporous, rehearsal-hall mix is an interesting contrast to the sharp textures of 1995's Electr-O-Pura. Essential. *** 1/2




Various Artists/Succour (Flydaddy)


This double-disc set benefits The Ptolemaic Terrascope, a struggling British 'zine devoted to underground psychedelia. Stuffed with 35 tracks and over 156 minutes of music, Succour is a fine introduction to today's hidden acid-rock scene. However, judging from this collection, we're not missing an awful lot. Over a third instrumental, Succour offers not the exuberant, tuneful sounds of Sgt. Pepper and Hendrix, but instead a murky, joyless brand of space-rock that wears out its welcome long before the discs are over. Still, some good songs surface between dreary dirges from strange names like the Linus Pauling Quartet, Charalambides, the Marilyn Decade and Dunlavy. The Green Pajamas inject a cute dose of pop, Porcupine Tree improvises a spooky Robert Fripp-like jam, the Wellwater Conspiracy skips through a nifty pot-party raga and Peter Buck & Scott McCaughey croon a pretty VU-like ballad. Palace, Spirit, Olivia Tremor Control, Nurse With Wound, Captain Sensible and Robyn Hitchcock add some star power, but the best tracks actually come from three complete unknowns: the Lucky Bishops, Motorpsycho and the Flyte Reaction. Bands to watch? ** 1/2




Soundtrack/The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield (Rhino)


The Simpsons locked up its place in cultural history long ago, but the show's first step into the record world (1990's The Simpsons Sing the Blues) was pure kiddie product. Later, a second album was mysteriously aborted. Not to worry -- Rhino has finally compiled the definitive collection, featuring nearly all the brilliant musical bits from the program's eight-year history. With 39 tracks (including numerous subdivisions) packed into 56 minutes, Songs in the Key of Springfield is that rare release which every household should own.

The highlights? Where to begin? The menacing "Stonecutters' Song?" The "Oh, Streetcar!" score? The Be Sharps' "Baby on Board?" Apu's poignant "Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?" The Schoolhouse Rock-spoofing "Amendment Song?" Mr. Burns' "See My Vest?" The Falco-esque "Dr. Zaius?" Bart's all-syrup Squishie bender on Broadway? His memorable "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" prank? Everyone will have a different favorite. Also amusing are several offbeat variations on the closing theme (personally, I favor the Hill Street Blues and Addams Family tributes). You gotta get this one. ****


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