Reviews by Eric Broome, for Smug
Beck/Midnite Vultures (DGC)
We all heard DGC's apologetic campaign for Mutations: "Don't worry, it's not the real follow-up to Odelay. Just wait 'til next year!" Well, next year is here, and the widescreen sequel to one of the decade's most celebrated albums has finally arrived. Did Beck strike mellow gold again? Maybe, maybe not.
Despite the pressure to match Odelay, Beck knows better than to recycle its sound. Cheerfully marching into new territory, he throws out the samples, dumps the raps, confines the Dust Brothers to just two songs and steers his style from hip-hop toward a densely arranged brand of funky soul. More than any other Beck album, Midnite Vultures feels like the true creation of a band -- keyboardist Roger Manning contributes a dizzy array of sci-fi riffs and effects, the horn sections perfectly capture a classic Memphis ambience and Joey Waronker's drumming has a vicious bite.
However, beneath the wonderfully vivid arrangements, Beck's songwriting is missing some of his usual spark. "Sexx Laws," a lustful romp with a brassy Wilson Pickett feel, lacks the immediacy of "Devil's Haircut" and "Loser" as a radio anthem, and this problem continues throughout the disc -- there simply isn't a killer single here. The 11 tracks also include one glaring clinker: "Get Real Paid," an annoying robotic bleat which may explain why Beck has added Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" to recent set lists. Still, he unveils several new bursts of rambling genius, whether it's the growling drag of "Peaches & Cream," the energetic swagger of "Mixed Bizness," the edgy crunch of "Milk & Honey" or the perverse chill-out of "Debra." Following his R&B role models, he takes a surprising sexual turn with his lyrics, but his quest for good lovin' is tempered with typical images of surreal disorder ("Carnivores in the Kowloon night/Breathing freon by the candlelight").
Having already reached cultural-icon status, Beck can do what he wants now. His latest stylistic shift may irk the Odelay crowd and will certainly disappoint the folkies, but why worry? If one Beck persona lets you down, you can always wait 'til next year.
Blue October/Consent to Treatment (Universal)
No doubt about it -- Justin Furstenfeld has issues. Consent to Treatment may be a case of role-playing (after all, Furstenfeld gets a credit for "album concept"), but as leader of this arty Texan quintet, he pushes the group into some awfully dark places. As the title suggests, the album has an oppressive theme of psychological torment, most explicitly in "H.R.S.A." (which depicts institutionalization) and the self-explanatory "Schizophrenia," and hints of alienation, suicide, obsession, abduction, drugs and molestation are peppered throughout the lyrics. Someone's clearly fighting for his life, here.
Unfortunately, the music is just as heavy-handed as the subject matter. Furstenfeld has a raspy, overwrought wail which mercilessly hammers out his tortured visions (imagine a hysterical mix of Peter Gabriel and Jeremy Enigk), and the pounding, elemental melodies reek of anthemic excess. Led by fat bass lines, anonymous guitar growls and processed squeals of violin, the group's instrumental attack is technically polished but tuneless, only occasionally lucking into a resonant groove ("Independently Happy" and "Drop" are about the best). Onstage, the band's frenetic passion is probably exciting, but on CD, it's exhausting. Fantasies about spraying them with a firehose are hard to shake.
Dogstar/Happy Ending (Ultimatum Music)
Bret Domrose has a voice born to sing beer commercials. Hearty, masculine and blessed with the perfect touch of husky gristle, this handsome growl will send hearts fluttering throughout all of Mulletland. Yet for the rest of us, it's a warning sign flashing "CHEESE" in eight-foot letters.
Sixteen seconds into the first track "Halo," Demrose opens his mouth. The album's a lost cause from there. The music? Dull pop, flecked with a fatal strain of conventional hard-rock. Lightly stuttering chords, adequate harmonies, facile choruses with words like "sun," "love," "heart" and "dreams." Eventually, the lyrics become the worst horror. In "Slipping Down," Demrose complains "I'm trying to live a life/That cuts me like a knife," while the execrable "Washington" offers wretched couplets like "A breeze upon my face/Smells sweet as your embrace" and "Holding pictures near/I think of you my dear." That's just for starters. No track is worth hearing twice, not even an inexplicable cover of the Carpenters' "Superstar." "Stagger" almost passes for a mainstreamed Bob Mould tune, and that's as good as it gets. Dogstar worries about its famous bassist -- an undetectable Keanu Reeves -- trashing the band's credibility, but Keanu's not the problem. It's Bret.
Dynomite D/By the Way (Slabco)
After mixing acts like Modest Mouse, Bis and Money Mark, Seattle-based Dynomite D goes solo with this enjoyable little disc. Sure, it's just another home-brewed blend of samples, scratches and bassy grooves, but its unpretentious charm keeps things fresh.
Cramming 15 cuts into 34 minutes, By the Way is monotonous at times, but most tracks are too short to wear out their welcome. Mixing borrowed rhythm beds, a few tasteful keyboard solos, found vocal snippets and whatever else Dynomite D can find in his archives, the pieces have simple aims and generally succeed. "And Ya Don't Stop" is the obvious highlight with its chunky beats, woozy bassline, echoing cries and song-like structure. "Alki Beach Dr." layers gritty organ, handclaps, sampled grunts and wah-wah guitar into a slinky soul pastiche. "No Empty-V" is a more melodic concoction, wriggling through a hypnotic jam of rubbery burps and farts, while "Stick 'Em" smolders with funky keyboard lines, crashing drums and an insistent vocal loop. The longest work, "No Excuses," builds a disciplined, eerie moodiness on the turntable scratches of guest Kid Koala. Other tracks are milder trifles, but you could do far worse.
East River Pipe/The Gasoline Age (Merge)
It's impossible not to have a soft spot for F.M. Cornog and his one-man project, East River Pipe. There's the gentle melancholy of his lyrics. The clean economy of the arrangements. The soothing gait of the tempos. The comforting familiarity of the melodies. He's a hard-luck case, besides. You want to adore his records. That's why he's so frustrating -- he's so close to greatness, yet somehow can't step over the threshold. The Gasoline Age is Cornog's fourth album of shimmering vignettes, and once again, it's a mixed success. The central problem is that he flatly refuses to finish a song. Six tracks contain less than 10 lines of lyrics. Single ideas are padded into four-minute vamps, while potential jewels like "Hell Is an Open Door" and "Wholesale Lies" are cut off before they can properly unfold. The case of "All You Little Suckers" is especially maddening -- it's a gorgeous composition, draping heartbreaking words over a melody which Brian Wilson would envy. But it's too short to reach an emotional peak. Meanwhile, the next track is half as inspired, and twice as long. Cornog may fly solo, but he needs an editor.
Kincaid/Kincaid Plays Super Hawaii (Kindercore)
First, the good news: Kincaid plays a clever brand of sunny pop, led by chiming guitars, perky horns and subtly applied synthesizers. Arty flecks of strings, vibraphone, organ, accordion, banjo and even glockenspiel enter the frame, the latter used particularly well on the lovely "Plot #36." Now, the bad news: The band can't sing. According to the credits, all five members (plus three female guests) supply vocals, but the sum result is just pitiful. Sleepy, inexpressive, off-pitch vocals consistently drag down the material, and the group's tentative solution to the problem -- doubling unison lines for extra "power" -- only adds to the clumsiness. Several songs could've been quite cute (the sweetly baroque "Parachute," the bouncy "Solid, Jackson," "Benjamin," "Bells Will Ring," "There's an Ocean"), but the miserable harmonies dump a load of mud on whatever charms the album might've had. Kincaid's ties to the Elephant 6 scene (the band is from Athens, two members also run Kindercore, Macha's Josh McKay makes a cameo here) only serve to recall how much better Beulah delivers a similar sound.
The Loud Family/Attractive Nuisance (Alias)
The problem with the Loud Family's Scott Miller isn't so much his notorious "cleverness," and accompanying love for smarty-pants allusions, puns and word games -- it's his erratically paced melodies and outdated arrangements, which are still rooted in underground geek-pop of the mid '80s. The Loud Family's fifth album isn't as swamped with corny synthesizers and precious harmonies as most Miller projects, however, and the band does manage to splice together a few pleasing tunes. While Miller's lyrics are as elliptical as ever (music-biz frustrations seem to be a common theme), the songs stumble onto decent hooks about half the time, scoring with the crunchy "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man," the gentle "One Will Be the Highway," "Backward Century" and the pumping "Save Your Money." The album's nicest surprise is keyboardist Alison Faith Levy, whose underused vocals shine on "Years of Wrong Impressions" and "The Apprentice." Attractive Nuisance is a fair effort, but Miller has been mining this same vein for almost 20 years and the clock is ticking.
J Mascis & the Fog/More Light (Ultimatum Music)
In retrospect, it's hard to see why J Mascis retired the Dinosaur Jr. name. The group had evolved into essentially a Mascis solo project with selected guest players, and his new "band" is no different. In fact, the only other musicians on More Light are My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields (undetectable, except on the squalling title track) and Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard (occasional backing vocals). The songs don't show much stylistic overhaul, either. Keyboards are a bit more prominent, especially on "Waistin" and "Can't I Take This On," but otherwise, it's the same slack melodies and bruising major-seventh chords. The formula still works too, as "Sameday," "All the Girls" and "Back Before You Go" easily prove. "I'm Not Fine" is another gem, edging toward a classic-rock feel with its bluesy, descending progression and call-and-response vocals. But, given the change in name and label, shouldn't there have been a few more surprises?
Paloalto/Paloalto (American Recordings)
Here's a strange bit of geography: a band named Paloalto, who's actually from Los Angeles but pretends to be from Oxford. Yes, it's another entry in the post-OK Computer sweepstakes, though this young quintet pulls off the pose better than most. Singer James Grundler convincingly apes Thom Yorke's tremulous vibrato and keening wails, while the band revels in the expected whisper-to-a-scream dynamics. The main difference is that Paloalto and producer Rick Rubin keep the arrangements raw and uncluttered, avoiding Radiohead's electronic landscaping (notable exceptions: "Monolith" and "Made of Stone," which are practically plagiarism).
The album isn't without virtue, however. The songs are well-structured, the playing is stylish (particularly Jason Johnson's explosive guitar) and the lyrics adequately capture that vague sense of spiritual ache which remains all the rage. "Swim" and "Depression Age" are slashing anthems, "Sonny" is a tuneful character study, "Home" is a pretty ballad with ticktocking percussion, while "Beauty of Disaster" has a seductive swell. Other tracks are weakened with banal chord changes and predictable pacing (you just know that acoustic opening will build to an assaultive roar), but this is still a promising debut.
Iggy Pop/Avenue B (Virgin)
Iggy Pop's solo output has always been uneven, but he seemed to be on a winning streak with his previous '90s albums, Brick by Brick, American Caesar and Naughty Little Doggie. Here's where the joyride ends, however. Purportedly an introspective set of taking-stock-at-50 reflections, the mostly acoustic Avenue B is either painfully dull or painfully trite, depending on the track you choose. It's not all bad -- "Miss Argentina" is a sharp portrait of a conflicted lover, "Corruption" provides some riff-rock relief, "Long Distance" is a somber look at loneliness and the title song lays out the disc's major themes ("Still, I gotta live with my feelings/But I know about science too/And fame and death and money/And what they do to you"). Beyond those bright spots, however, pickings are mighty slim: a leaden cover of "Shakin' All Over," four banal spoken-word pieces, an unconvincing stab at Spanish dance-rock and a song which plays the "Nazi" card for pointless shock value. Guest stars Medeski, Martin & Wood add some life here and there, but otherwise, the performances are plodding and indifferent. Come on, Iggy -- where's your snarl?
764-HERO/Weekends of Sound (Up)
Cynics might nickname this Northwest trio "Built to Steal," but don't dismiss 764-HERO so quickly. Look past the meandering guitar lines, sluggish tempos, Built to Spill producer Phil Ek and the vocals' double-tracked reediness, and just enjoy the tunes without worrying too much about originality.
With Red Stars Theory's James Bertram now recruited as a permanent member, 764-HERO has matured considerably since its early days as a guitar/drums duo. John Atkins' lyrics manage a vague air of forlorn disillusion, but his sandy instrumental licks are what's most captivating. More grounded in standard verse/chorus structures than his prog-leaning peers, Atkins can write a cleverly gnarled melody when he's motivated. The shuffling "Terrified of Flight" is the most memorable song, but "Blue Light," the title track and the grunge-tinged pop of "Without Fire" are also strong. Meanwhile, "Left Hanging" stretches past nine minutes and never loses its tension -- a good trick. The disc closes with an apt refrain of "Dreams are mathematical now," and heaven knows why this wasn't used as the album's title.
Six by Seven/The Closer You Get (Beggars Banquet)
What a difference a year makes. Six by Seven's promising debut, The Things We Make, was a carefully paced mix of post-rock workouts and tenacious pop, and the group's second album follows a similar path. However, the production textures of this British quintet are so radically overhauled on The Closer You Get, the band is almost unrecognizable. With dense guitar distortion whipped into a buzzing swirl and vocals warped with effects, Six by Seven leaps toward a more aggressive, vanguard sound -- and it's not really an improvement. Since half the lyrics are blurred, the songs hinge only on melody and energy, and often this isn't enough. "Eat Junk Become Junk" launches the disc with an explosive roar (Ringo's influential "Tomorrow Never Knows" groove strikes again), but "Don't Wanna Stop" is the only other track with the same gratifying throb. More typically, the songs build tension and volume over a few repeated chords, which works beautifully with "New Year" but grows tiresome elsewhere. The Closer You Get is a valiant try, but it's no closer to greatness.
Stereophonics/Performance and Cocktails (V2)
This passionate Welsh trio has been deified by the hype-crazed U.K. press -- is it any wonder that the music doesn't live up to its acclaim?
Certainly, the Stereophonics boast one compelling virtue: Kelly Jones' voice. A potent mix of Bono's sensual phrasing and Rod Stewart's earthy rasp, it's simply a superb instrument -- raw, charismatic and eminently human. However, Jones' songwriting is merely average, and given the group's sparse guitar/bass/drums attack, he can't rely on lush arrangements to sell the weaker material. Some fine tracks surface -- the fiery stutter of "Roll Up and Shine," the reflective "Hurry Up and Wait," the rowdy hooks of "The Bartender and the Thief," the powerful "Is Yesterday, Tomorrow, Today?" -- but other songs lock into tedium, mostly due to Jones' wearying use of repeated melody lines (worst case: "T-Shirt Sun Tan"). Meanwhile, his lyrics occasionally gel into an interesting character portrait ("She Takes Her Clothes Off"), but more often dwell on erratic internal musings which don't make a resonant point. The group deserves some leeway, however -- they're awfully young, and there's plenty of undeveloped talent here.
Sumack/Now Hear This (V2)
These L.A.-based pranksters clearly know the value of hype -- their debut album comes splashed with a critic-baiting introduction, describing their place in a theoretical genre dubbed "junk rock." Whether this is the group's sincere view on their eclectic lineage or just a red herring to deflect the inevitable Beck comparisons, it's hard to say. In any case, Sumack's familiar mix of arch lyrics, frisky beats and sci-fi synthesizers doesn't quite pay off, due to a creeping blandness which a more inventive producer might have fixed. Lacking Beck's scruffy charisma, the band's well-formed vocals suit traditional melodies like "The Ballad of Frank & Charlie" and "Hey Professor," but sound white-bread on the funkier tunes. Still, several catchy tracks pop up, including "Metaphysical" (a satirical look at pseudo-intellectual bar talk, which practically scripts its video), "Regarding Saturday" (a tale of romantic tension, told in ironic lawyer jargon), the anthemic "Burn This Town" and "Do-Si-Do." Versatile and lyrically acute, Sumack only needs a bit more boogie in its beat.
Sunny Day Real Estate/The Rising Tide (Time Bomb)
Jeremy Enigk may be the Geddy Lee of indie-rock. Either you're utterly enthralled with his strident, nasal proselytizing or you want to growl "Oh, shut up already." Certainly, Enigk holds nothing back on Sunny Day Real Estate's fifth album -- he continues to rail against a cruel, corrupting world while searching for the grace of mystic love. His piercing, gnomish voice remains both compelling and grating, but it's a lesser issue here, since the new album's muddy mix emphasizes grooves over words. In any case, his fiery passion does have an odd charisma, and when the music locks onto a strong melody (as on "Killed by an Angel" and "One"), the group's bombast turns magnetic. On the gentler side, "Rain Song" and "The Ocean" (guess who's the Houses of the Holy fan?) are also powerful. However, too many tracks lapse into aimless churning, and Enigk tends to lazily coast on a single chord progression longer than he should (see "Faces in Disguise" and "Tearing in My Heart"). Now armed with a new label and a tighter trio format, Sunny Day Real Estate might've reinvented themselves with this disc, but the band's still tripped up by their pretensions.
Superchunk/Come Pick Me Up (Merge)
The uniformity of Superchunk's angular punk-pop tunes is legendary -- the group even dubbed its publishing company "All the Songs Sound the Same Music." Come Pick Me Up turns a corner, however. Adding a new producer (experimentalist Jim O'Rourke) and guest musicians on cello, violin, trumpet, sax and trombone, Superchunk's ninth album aims for a more subdued, textural sound. Some of the band's squalling power is lost, but these nuanced songs may prove more durable in the end.
From the disc's opening moments (a clatter of heavily processed drum beats), it's obvious that O'Rourke has mixed some new variables into the formula. As the tracks pass, further clues emerge: the fugue-like horn break in "Hello Hawk," the graceful strings in "1000 Pounds," the elaborate fade of "Pink Clouds," the ambient static in "Smarter Hearts." "Good Dreams" and "Cursed Mirror" are typical spunky blasts, while the intriguing "Low Branches" veers into skewed 6/8 time. Mac McCaughan's scruffy voice continues to improve, while his trickling guitar duels with Jim Wilbur retain an rich tension. Some folks will shrug "Ho hum, just another Superchunk record," but this one's definitely worth picking up.
Yo La Tengo/And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador)
Fresh from their most acclaimed release ever (1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One), Yo La Tengo may have sapped their momentum with this frustrating, overlong disc. Obviously trying to do something "different," the veteran threesome (guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, bassist James McNew) cut their noisier tendencies for a set of serene, low-key drones based on sustained organ chords and hypnotic beats. There's only one truly aggressive tune -- the Sonic Youth-like "Cherry Chapstick," in which Kaplan finally unleashes his signature guitar chaos -- but it arrives too late to change the mellow mood. Of course, nothing's inherently wrong with softer pieces, but Tengo just isn't suited for this gambit -- their singing is too weak and emotionally blank to be a dominant feature, and the incessant moan of gritty, vintage keyboards gets tedious. The best tracks ("Tears Are in Your Eyes," "From Black to Blue," "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House") create a languid air of romance as Kaplan and Hubley croon their cuddly lines, but by the time the disc closes with the inevitable jam (all 18 minutes of "Night Falls on Hoboken"), the end seems overdue.
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