That Which Didn't Sink, 1998

Brief foreword: I began posting short website reviews during 1998, but did so for several months before I decided to start archiving them. Using the Wayback Machine, this is a latter-day effort to collect some capsule reviews which I wrote during that "lost" year. I was able to assemble about a quarter of them. Unfortunately, the reviews of my favorite 1998 releases were mostly scattered to the winds. Maybe I'll try to re-review some of these picks one day but, for now, I'll just post the top 10 which I sent to various publications at the end of 1998.

1. Neutral Milk Hotel/In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
2. Rufus Wainwright/Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)
3. Billy Bragg & Wilco/Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
4. Elliott Smith/XO (DreamWorks)
5. Hole/Celebrity Skin (DGC)
6. Liz Phair/whitechocolatespaceegg (Capitol)
7. Spiritualized/Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 Live (Arista)
8. Jeff Buckley/Sketches for "My Sweetheart the Drunk" (Columbia)
9. The Halo Benders/The Rebels Not In (K)
10. Portishead/PNYC: Roseland NYC Live (London)

Post-game fussing: At the time, I didn't own Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister yet. If I retooled this list today, I certainly would insert that album, probably in the #5 spot. There's also a chance I might shuffle the order a little -- I'm especially tempted to drop Celebrity Skin a few notches. In any case, the recovered reviews follow. Their quality wobbles more than I would like, but this page serves as a warts-and-all document of its time.

Spiritualized: Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 Live (Arista) Rating: 14/20
This lavish two-disc set perfectly captures Spiritualized's transformative concerts, in which album tracks are embellished, stretched and rearranged into towering epics of hypnotic thunder. Drawing most of its material from last year's spellbinding Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space, the band gasses through 15 songs in 95 minutes, taking full advantage of an added string section, a couple of horn players and a rousing gospel choir.

Portishead: PNYC: Roseland NYC Live (London) Rating: 14/20
This dramatic disc, recorded live in New York with an orchestra, actually surpasses both of Portishead's studio albums. Minus the fussy production, vocal filters and other soundboard tricks, vanguard torch songs like "Glory Box," "Sour Times" and "Cowboys" spring into vivid color, accenting the emotional pull of Beth Gibbons' powerful wails.

Beck: Mutations (DGC) Rating: 14/20
The weak-kneed promotion of this disc screams "This is not the real new Beck album!" at every turn, but this well-produced set of folk ballads isn't shameful or embarrassing at all. However, it is a bit underwhelming -- the problem isn't so much that it's low-key and acoustic, or even that the melodies aren't strong, but that Beck's lethargic images of malaise and decay are all cut from the same cloth.

P J Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island) Rating: 14/20
Having already recorded her masterpiece (1995's To Bring You My Love), Polly Jean Harvey looks for new avenues to explore on this more subdued, observational disc. Patti Smith and Nick Cave influences echo throughout these poetic character studies, but the confessional tenacity of Harvey's best work is missed.

Belle & Sebastian: The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador) Rating: 13/20
This Scottish ensemble's sequel to the widely acclaimed If You're Feeling Sinister falls a little short in the songwriting department, saddled with some overlong tracks, an uninvolving spoken-word vamp ("A Space Boy Dream") and an awkward avoidance of traditional choruses. Otherwise, the group's delicate, art-school daydreams blend literate lyrics and ethereal folk-rock on shimmering tracks like the wistful "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," the syllable-packed "Sleep the Clock Around," the orchestrated rush of "Dirty Dream Number Two" and the piano-dappled stateliness of "Chickfactor."

Cornelius: Fantasma (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The word "brainchild" is overused, but it perfectly describes this dizzy mix of neural-snapping associations from studio whiz Keigo Oyamada. Evenly split between abstract collage and straight songwriting, the information-packed cuts span arch deconstructions of shoegaze ("New Music Machine"), chamber music ("2010"), riff rock ("Count Five or Six"), cartoons ("Magoo Opening"), guitar pop ("Chapter 8 -- Seashore and Horizon," essentially a remix of an Apples in Stereo tune), easy listening ("Star Fruits Surf Rider") and Brian Wilson at his most experimental.

Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick) Rating: 13/20
Morissette's sequel to Jagged Little Pill is burdened by impossible expectations, yet is equally full of well-crafted arrangements, warbling hooks, confessional lyrics and powerful vocals. The songwriting's a little formulaic, however -- in particular, almost every set of lyrics employs the same parallel sentence-construction format (the excellent single "Thank You" is a perfect example, with its "Thank you..." chorus lines and "How 'bout..." verse lines).

Pere Ubu: Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr) Rating: 13/20
Though Pere Ubu is always a demanding listen, this long-winded disc is one of the group's more difficult releases, since singer/visionary David Thomas spends much of its 70 minutes warbling in a low, indiscernible mumble. The lyrics continue Thomas' explorations of America's lonesome-highway resonances, while the band's growling, rhythmically complex jams are dependably sharp (for a first taste, try "Urban Lifestyle," "Wheelhouse," the more laidback "Monday Morning" or the Beefheart-like "Fly's Eye").

Robyn Hitchcock: Storefront Hitchcock (Warner Bros.) Rating: 13/20
The soundtrack to Hitchcock's Jonathan Demme-directed concert film is a disappointment, due to an overload of self-consciously eccentric banter and too many gimmicky song choices. Still, Hitchcock's inspired writing shines through on acoustic tracks like "1974," "Glass Hotel," "Beautiful Queen" and "No, I Don't Remember Guildford."

Chariot: I Am Ben Hur (Munster) Rating: 13/20
A punchy supergroup featuring Ken Stringfellow (the Posies), Javier Escovedo (the Zeros, the True Believers) and Pat Fear (White Flag, the Tater Totz), Chariot burns through a first-rate set of material which deserved wider distribution than its tiny Spanish label could provide. Fans of the Posies' chiming pop will tingle at "Runaway Girl," Alex Chilton's "You're So Fine," the waltzing "What If I Run Out of My Pills?" and the Choir's "I'd Rather You Leave Me," while other tracks barrel between bar-band rock ("Gypsy Son"), near-grunge ("Dogs Wear Eyeliner"), western pastiche ("Hanging Song," Merle Haggard's "Running Kind") and vintage garage-punk (Paul Revere's "Him or Me," a blistering take on the Count Five's "Peace of Mind").

R.E.M.: Up (Warner Bros.) Rating: 13/20
After the highly underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the now drummer-less REM wipes out with their worst release ever. There's simply no guts to the disc at all -- just a batch of dainty, keyboard-heavy ditties that are thoroughly forgettable minus a few isolated bright spots ("Hope," "At My Most Beautiful," "Why Not Smile," "Parakeet," "Daysleeper").

Vic Chesnutt: The Salesman & Bernadette (Capricorn) Rating: 13/20
This perennially underrated artist's sixth album (and first for Capricorn, not counting the Brute collaboration with Widespread Panic) is strongly colored by the his backing band: the quirky indie-country ensemble Lambchop. Unfortunately, Lambchop's lushly lethargic ways seem to sap all of Chesnutt's spunk, leaving a disc with a dismaying lack of energy.

P.M. Dawn: Dearest Christian. I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (Gee Street) Rating: 13/20
P.M. Dawn continue to move away from rap and sampling on their awkwardly titled fourth album, developing their own lushly contemplative brand of soul balladry. Taken individually, these well-crafted songs are exquisite, but when heard together in context, the monotony of the group's circular melodic style and unvarying arrangements is a significant hindrance to the disc's staying power.

Tortoise: TNT (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
Tortoise's third album sounds more small-scale and organic than 1996's heralded Millions Now Will Never Die, mixing jazz, classical and electronic influences in reflective instrumentals based on trickling guitar lines, vibraphone and live drums. The music's unassuming restraint puts a limit on its appeal (prepare to be "appreciative" rather than "excited"), but pieces like the minimalist "Ten-Day Interval," the percolating "The Equator," the elegant fusion of "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls" and the gradually unfolding title track are filled with captivating detail.

The Hope Blister:'s OK (4AD) Rating: 13/20
Overzealously promoted as the new edition of This Mortal Coil, the Hope Blister indeed serves as a conceptual mouthpiece for 4AD figurehead Ivo Watts-Russell and concentrates on dreamy cover songs (in this case, sources include the Cranes, Chris Knox, Brian Eno, John Cale and David Sylvian), but the group's lack of a rotating lineup and more stark presentation defy This Mortal Coil's star-studded grandiosity. Unfortunately, the disc's pristine dourness is numbing more than illuminating, and "Spider and I" and "Sweet Unknown" are the only tracks stirring enough to fully live up to expectations.

Macha: Macha (Jetset) Rating: 13/20
The trio's auspicious debut is a compelling set of dreamy, polyrhythmic pieces, peppered with enough Middle Eastern instruments to stock the entire series of Hope/Crosby's Road films. The arrangements are stunning, the rhythms are seductively throbbing and the production is superb -- it's just too bad that the group's meandering sense of melody isn't as impressive as their musicianship.

Fear of Pop: Volume I (550 Music) Rating: 12/20
Ben Folds' oddball solo project would never attract a major label if not for his band's recent commercial breakthrough, but this collection of funky synthesizer-laced experiments is lots of fun. No flashy solos here -- just a wry batch of mostly instrumental grooves including car-chase soundtracks ("Kops"), seductive soul moods ("Slow Jam '98"), Stereolab-like math games ("Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway"), ironic rap ("I Paid My Money"), rave-up abrasion ("Rubber Sled") and two guest vocals from infamous spoken-word legend William Shatner.

Placebo: Without You I'm Nothing (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Placebo's second collection of neurotic, post-grunge pop is a mild disappointment, despite its popular single "Pure Morning." Singer Brian Molko has a knack for turning rhyming lyrics into catchy hooks, but these raga-esque melodies are surprisingly samey and unmemorable, given the debut's promise.

Midnight Oil: Redneck Wonderland (Columbia) Rating: 12/20
Midnight Oil's lack of a consistent musical style is a prime reason (along with their relentlessly grim, conservationist lyrics) for their underachieving sales in the States, and their latest album switches moods yet again, opting for an overtly crunchy, post-NIN texture. This calculated move doesn't help these uninvolving songs go down any smoother, however -- the band's best days are clearly behind them.

The Third Eye Foundation: You Guys Kill Me (Merge) Rating: 12/20
Matt Elliott's second collection of moaning, ambient grooves is seductive when heard in small doses, but his warped-My-Bloody-Valentine-riff-plus-skittering-beats formula gets repetitive over the course of an album. His arrangements have a warmer, less sterile feel than typical of the genre (he also has a sense of humor, if titles like "I'm Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired" are any indication), but his looped compositions need a few more twists to stay interesting.

Nevada Bachelors: Carrots & So On (Yeti) Rating: 12/20
There's a sharp pop band struggling to emerge from these scrappy tunes, but Robb Benson's lyrics are too wordy to nail down any strong melodic hooks. Later reissued on the Pop Llama label, this likeable little disc is erratic but promising, backing an autobiographical theme song ("Shake Yer Mop") with top tunes like "White Caps," "New Money Parade" (shades of Placebo?), "Frederick Grew Hasty" and the reflective "Sorry."

Neil Finn: Try Whistling This (Work/Columbia) Rating: 11/20
The ex-Crowded House leader's first solo album is sadly dull, dragged down by relentlessly slack tempos and sedate, overdubbed harmonies which flatten out the emotional tug of Finn's voice. Going solo brings few conceptual wrinkles beyond a more synthetic drum sound, and "She Will Have Her Way" and the Peter Gabriel-like "Loose Tongue" are the only tracks which boast Finn's usual pop moxy.

Squeeze: Domino (Valley) Rating: 11/20
This mild, homemade disc finds Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook and their new bandmates fighting a grim, uphill battle against the industry which has forgotten them. The group's tricky, soul-influenced pop remains impressive as songwriting, but all sense of fun is long gone -- the album is dominated by low-key, unimaginatively arranged ballads, and only comes to life with punchier tracks like "Little King," "Sleeping with a Friend" and the excellent "Play On."

Komeda: What Makes It Go? (Minty Fresh) Rating: 11/20
The promise of 1997's The Genius of Komeda fades with this disappointing successor, where the group's Siouxsie-meets-Stereolab, keyboard-driven pop just seems cold and stilted. Short at 37 minutes yet still burdened with obvious filler, the disc finds these clean-cut Swedes struggling for quality material -- "Binario," "It's Alright, Baby" and "A Simple Formality" are the only tracks where the melodies equal the arrangements' space-age allure.

Praxis: Mold (Yikes) Rating: 11/20
Praxis was once Bill Laswell's powerful avant-funk outlet, but the loose ensemble -- now without a star instrumentalist on the level of past members like Buckethead, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell -- has apparently morphed into another of Laswell's endless electronic projects. The versatile musician/producer has his hands in so many records at once that he has forgotten how to self-edit, and this immaculate collage of moans, chirps, swirls and brittle rhythms breaks no new ground for him (stick with "Meldt," "Lichenous Shock" and the 13-minute "Septic Plague" -- the other tracks rarely pay off).

Love and Rockets: Lift (Red Ant) Rating: 10/20
Love and Rockets' appeal was never really about their mannered vocals and trivial lyrics, but the elegant discipline of their guitar textures. So why did the band dump their trademark sound and carefully assemble this slick, uninteresting batch of keyboard-driven dance grooves?

Afghan Whigs: 1965 (Columbia) Rating: 10/20
Apparently, the Whigs are trying to make a soul album here, given the smooth grooves and embarrassing "Come on and love me, baby" lyrics (not to mention the nostalgic album title and sleeve photos). But as ever, the band's complete inability to write a decent melody sinks the project.

Compilations & archival releases

Soundtrack: Velvet Goldmine (London) Rating: 15/20
One of the most essential pop soundtracks of recent years, this clever collection is drawn from Todd Haynes' seductive film tribute to the glam-rock era. Sprinkled in glitter from head to toe, the disc is a posh mix of appropriate classics ("Needles in the Camel's Eye," "Virginia Plain," "Satellite of Love"), crafty pastiches (Shudder to Think's "Ballad of Maxwell Demon" and "Hot One" are especially on target) and devout contemporary covers (featuring two makeshift supergroups with members of Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Suede, the Stooges and Roxy Music).

John Lennon: Anthology (Capitol) Rating: 14/20
Yoko Ono's four-disc housecleaning of John Lennon outtakes, demos and rarities only proves that Lennon gave us his best -- unlike, say, Springsteen or Dylan, he doesn't have many buried treasures hidden away. Most of the highlights of this extravagant package are alternate versions of familiar tracks ("Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out," "I'm Losing You," "Woman," "Watching the Wheels," "Jealous Guy," "Real Love," several demos from the acclaimed Plastic Ono Band period), though a few important new items emerge ("Serve Yourself," "God Save Oz," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Move Over Ms. L" and three songs which were later given to Ringo Starr).

Marianne Faithfull: A Perfect Stranger: The Island Anthology (Island) Rating: 14/20
These two packed discs include 35 tracks drawn from the legendary chanteuse's 17-year career with Island. In addition to representative songs from fine albums like Broken English, Strange Weather and A Secret Life, the collection also boasts three rare non-LP singles, the film theme from "Trouble in Mind," her contribution to a 1985 Kurt Weill tribute album and five previously unreleased tracks.

Oasis: The Masterplan (Epic) Rating: 14/20
This excellent compilation collects 14 non-LP tracks recorded between 1994 and 1997, personally chosen by the band and their Internet fans. The group's formulaic hooks and facile lyrics wear thin at times, but there's no denying the addictive power of songs like "Acquiesce," "Half the World Away," "Rockin' Chair" and "Stay Young."

The Pastels: Illuminati (Up) Rating: 12/20
One of the most puzzling album concepts ever: an impressive variety of too-hip, arty remixers soup up tracks from Illumination, the previous release by the decidedly ungroovy, unfunky, technically challenged Pastels. Most of these retooled pieces are scarcely recognizable instrumentals, others retain the vocal melodies and merely substitute new arrangements (top honors go to My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, Cornelius, John McEntire, Ian Carmichael and Jim O'Rourke).

Here are my other 1998 albums, for which I've lost the original reviews. I took my best stab at attaching ratings to them, but I'd need fresh listens to know for sure.

Barry Adamson: As Above So Below (13/20)
Air: Moon Safari (13/20)
Tori Amos: From the Choirgirl Hotel (14/20)
Archers of Loaf: White Trash Heroes (11/20)
Frank Black & the Catholics: Frank Black and the Catholics (14/20)
Blonde Redhead: In an Expression of the Inexpressible (12/20)
The Boo Radleys: Kingsize (13/20)
Buffalo Tom: Smitten (14/20)
Club Off Chaos: Club Off Chaos (11/20)
Elvis Costello w/Burt Bacharach: Painted from Memory (14/20)
Cowboy Junkies: Miles from Our Home (13/20)
Cracker: Gentleman's Blues (13/20)
Dub Narcotic Sound System: Out of Your Mind (13/20)
Eels: Electro-Shock Blues (13/20)
Firewater: The Ponzi Scheme (13/20)
Diamanda Galas: Malediction and Prayer (12/20)
Golden Smog: Weird Tales (13/20)
Juliana Hatfield: Bed (12/20)
Kristin Hersh: Strange Angels (13/20)
The High Llamas: Cold and Bouncy (13/20)
Lida Husik: Faith in Space (12/20)
The Jesus & Mary Chain: Munki (14/20)
Lambchop: What Another Man Spills (13/20)
Mark Lanegan: Scraps at Midnight (13/20)
Sean Lennon: Into the Sun (12/20)
Arto Lindsay: Noon Chill (12/20)
The Loud Family: Days for Days (12/20)
The Lounge Lizards: Queen of All Ears (11/20)
Lyle Lovett: Step Inside This House (14/20)
John Lurie: Fishing with John (10/20)
Natalie Merchant: Ophelia (13/20)
Mimi: Soak (12/20)
The Minders: Hooray for Tuesday (13/20)
Money Mark: Push the Button (13/20)
Mono Puff: It's Fun to Steal (12/20)
Bob Mould: The Last Dog and Pony Show (13/20)
Mudhoney: Tomorrow Hit Today (11/20)
Of Montreal: The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (13/20)
Polara: Formless/Functional (11/20)
The Posies: Success (13/20)
Possum Dixon: New Sheets (12/20)
Quasi: Featuring "Birds" (13/20)
Lou Reed: Perfect Night Live in London (13/20)
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (14/20)
The Residents: Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible (13/20)
Marc Ribot: Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (13/20)
Scarnella: Scarnella (12/20)
Shonen Knife: Happy Hour (13/20)
The Smashing Pumpkins: Adore (13/20)
Snow Patrol: Songs for Polar Bears (12/20)
Snowpony: The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony (12/20)
Sonic Youth: A Thousand Leaves (14/20)
Soul Asylum: Candy from a Stranger (10/20)
The Spinanes: Arches and Aisles (13/20)
Super Furry Animals: Radiator (13/20)
Swell: For All the Beautiful People (12/20)
Swervedriver: 99th Dream (12/20)
They Might Be Giants: Severe Tire Damage (13/20)
Tricky: Angels with Dirty Faces (13/20)
Tuatara: Trading with the Enemy (12/20)
Velvet Crush: Heavy Changes (13/20)
Victoria Williams: Musings of a Creekdipper (12/20)
Brian Wilson: Imagination (12/20)
Wondermints: Bali (13/20)
Tom Zé: Com Defeito de Fabricação (13/20)
(plus compilations)
Ben Folds Five: Naked Baby Photos (12/20)
Bob Dylan/Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (20/20)
Foetus & Marc Almond: Slut (12/20)
Genesis: Genesis Archive 1967-75 (15/20)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: BBC Sessions (15/20)
Jefferson Airplane: Live at the Fillmore East (15/20)
Pixies: Pixies at the BBC (15/20)
Stereolab: Aluminum Tunes (Switched On Volume 3) (14/20)
Super Furry Animals: Out Spaced (13/20)
Throwing Muses: In a Doghouse (15/20)
Tones on Tail: Everything! (13/20)
Frank Zappa: Mystery Disc (13/20)
Various: The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (16/20)
Various: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (18/20)
Various: Rare on Air: Volume 4 (13/20)

Bis: Intendo (Grand Royal), Chariot: What If I Run Out of My Pills? (Munster), Paul Chastain & Ric Menck: Hey Wimpus (Action Musik), Fluid Ounces: Vegetable Kingdom (Spongebath), the High Llamas: Lollo Rosso (V2), Lisa Husik: Dissolve (Alias), Beth Orton: Best Bit (Dedicated), Primus: Rhinoplasty (Interscope)

Endorsed but still unreviewed
Cinerama: Va Va Voom, Mark Eitzel: Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby, Mouse on Mars: Glam, Pizzicato Five: International Playboy & Playgirl, Robert Pollard: Waved Out, Queens of the Stone Age: Queens of the Stone Age, Tall Dwarfs: Fifty Flavours of Glue // XTC: Transistor Blast, The Yellow Balloon: The Yellow Balloon
comments by Eric Broome

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