Writing about pop music has got to be like driving one of those caged carts that scoops up golf balls at a driving range. Lots of bright, shiny, identical objects fly at you, then bounce harmlessly off the safety mesh. After a while, you learn to stop flinching.
With record reviewing, however, the mesh isn’t impenetrable, and every so often a CD gets through and conks you on the head. Sometimes it’s a pleasurable feeling. Sometimes it makes you really, really mad.
Below are some of the discs that made a lasting impression on Manhattan Music’s reviewers this year.
The French are so damn civilized they’ll give government money to start up their own Olivia Tremor Control, which is reportedly what they did when Etienne Charry applied for a grant. So, despite Jacques Chirac’s recent humiliations, let’s give him partial credit for 36 Erreurs , as close to a perfect pop album as I have heard all year. The ground this CD covers is well-trodden, to be sure: a loopy mix of 60’s French chanson , muted 70’s glam, carnival music and really just about any Vietnam-era trend that garners the least bit of nostalgia over there. But like the misty-fringed glory days of Guided by Voices, each of M. Charry’s 36 songs are built around dozens of new ideas, most executed in under two minutes. A good part of the record, which I’ve been told is also the soundtrack to a film, sounds as if it has been recorded in a busy video arcade. But with the participation of French underground legend Bertrand Burgalat, Björk video director Michel Gondry (on drums) and a large cast of characters all around, I suspect that’s more a matter of concept than empty pockets. One hopes M. Charry doesn’t get too much money next year: I’d hate to find him giving up music for metal sculpture.
There have been enough albums of cover songs released this year to stoke any skeptic’s fears about the health of pop music. So give thanks for Bourbonitis Blues , the latest from veteran Austin punker Alejandro Escovedo. Mr. Escovedo is the son of Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo and the brother of former Prince protégée Sheila E. He also played in the Nuns and Rank & File, band names that used to mean something in the 80’s. But all you need to know is that Mr. Escovedo’s got a voice as smooth, clear and powerful as triple-distilled whiskey, which gives any material he chooses a terrific kick. Three of the four original songs on this album are musical gut-punches with guitar riffs that sound like Keith Richards joined X. The remaining song, “I Was Drunk,” achieves the same results lyrically, with Mr. Escovedo moaning “I was drunk / I was down / I was wanderin’ round my bed” over acoustic guitars and strings.
But Mr. Escovedo really works wonders with the five covers on this album. His reworking of Jimmy Rodgers’ “California Blues” is the like the free-fall portion of a roller-coaster ride. He makes the late Jeffrey Lee (Gun Club) Pierce’s “Sex Beat” sound as sensual and dangerous as New Orleans. And on Ian Hunter’s “Irene Wilde,” Mr. Escovedo purges the song of its sentimentality and instead conveys the hurt and longing that makes a boy who’s been rejected by his crush decide: “I’m gonna be somebody, some day.” That fame has eluded Mr. Escovedo makes it all the more powerful.
– Frank DiGiacomo
Racially Yours was recorded in 1993, but at that time, no record company wanted to release an album that explored slavery in ways that made Mandingo look tasteful. This was also after the Frogs-a group That album was considered a gay-supremacist tract at the time, but it’s clear now that the Frogs merely knew what to do to appeal to their natural constituency: university-bound twerps with dog-eared copies of the transgressive movement’s bible, Apocalypse Culture .
The Frogs have fascinated some simply because it’s unclear whether they actually believe such lyrics as: “Massa, Massa, your turn to die”; “And at the very least / She’ll keep me warm / Nine months to the day / A field hand is born”; and “Now that the white man’s six foot under / We can all go plunder, plunder.” If the Flemions have never bothered to display any discernible conviction, neither have they ever mustered any committed music. The melodies and instrumentation on Racially Yours are listless beyond belief. Listening to it leaves you more bored than outraged.
Here’s a man who seems to take the phrase “losing yourself on the dance floor” to literal extremes. After a series of increasingly popular 12-inch singles, Curtis Jones, the mohawked former chemical engineer who calls himself Green Velvet, is now finding himself on just about every techno-mix disc out there. But as this year’s eponymous compilation of those 12-inches shows, this is not populist stuff. When you consider the amount of self-loathing they contain, Green Velvet may be the most misanthropic techno record ever. Certainly, it’s a necessary antidote to the fat-walleted Fratboy Slim crowd that’s taken over the genre. On “Coitus (Remix),” which is a pretty typical Green Velvet track, Mr. Jones sounds like John Lydon on Quaaludes as he slurs “I’m losing my mind” over minimal rhythm. On “Water Molecule,” which some have interpreted as a transcendental reverie, he sends the message that he hates his physical form so much he’d rather be a water molecule or a rock. The track after that is titled “Leave My Body.” There’s a strong early-80’s U.K. post-punk vibe here-the sound is really more old-school acid house than techno-and that includes a general contempt for human achievement. It’s a conceit that will annoy some, but just turn on CNN. He’s right.
You Were Here
Sarah Harmer plays in an Ontario-based band called Weeping Tile. She also has a song on a Starbucks compilation. I want to hold these things against her, but I can’t, because Ms. Harmer’s U.S. solo debut, You Were Here, is pretty beguiling. Of all the little-known women singer-songwriters who have put out albums in the past year, hers is the one I keep putting on the CD player. Everything about her music-which is of the spare, soft-rock variety-is instantly accessible, and I won’t be surprised when I hear one of her songs, which tend to be about love lost or abandoned, on Dawson’s Creek or some other WB series. But if you spend some time with this collection of melancholy songs, it gives up little details-like the playful Woody Allen–esque clarinet in “Around This Corner”-that set Ms. Harmer, who’s playing the Mercury Lounge on Dec. 6, apart from the pop pack. Many of those details can be found in her lyrics, where the everyday minutiae of life become vivid symbols of heartbreak and the passage of time. In “Basement Apt.,” for example, she sings: “I can smell the bleach / That they use in the hall / But it can’t clean the dirt off of me / It’s seeping under the door / In across the floor / It’s starting to hurt / Everytime I breathe / Everytime I try to leave.” I hope she sticks around.
King James Version
Was this Seattle quartet permanently cursed by racking up a huge radio hit with their flippant 1998 debut single “Flagpole Sitta,” or did their time simply pass like a flash? Either way, the result’s the same: Their second album was barely noticed. Shame, because it’s a far better piece of work than their first one, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? From the nifty Before and After Science –era Brian Eno quoting in “Humility On Parade,” to the rhyming of “We hate it when our friends become successful” and “Silicone enhancements by the breastful” in “Pike St./Park Slope,” King James Version is a tough, tuneful collection that walks the right side of the line between clever and smart. As much as you want to hate lead singer Sean Nelson for his snotty delivery of jokey lyrics, he eventually wins you over with his charming ability to get really worked up about preposterous things, such as a day-dreamt appointment with hair-metal icon Kip Winger on “Meetings with Remarkable Men (Show Me the Hero).” It doesn’t hurt that tracks like “Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and “(Theme from) Carjack Fever” mine a severely tight rock groove.
Will You Find Me
To some listeners, the fifth album by this New-York-by-way-of-Maryland outfit may appear to fall under the same “slowcore” rubric foisted on bands such as Low and Acetone. True enough, all these groups share at least one major character trait: a general reluctance to turn up the volume. But in most other respects, Ida is a breed apart, offering up a subtle form of chamber jazz-folk distinguished by surprising melodic contortions and dense, complex chords that evoke the likes of Joni Mitchell and Brian Wilson. And oh, those three-part harmonies! The voices of Daniel Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele blend and diverge with an unpretentious forthrightness that’s as creamy as butter and goes to the heart just as quick. Eerily charged songs like “Down On Your Back” and “Shotgun” prove once again that loudness is no measure of intensity.
David Johansen and the Harry Smiths
David Johansen and the Harry Smiths
On Dec. 2 at the Bottom Line, before launching into another acoustic blues number in the misdeed-judge-jail-death vein, David Johansen reminisced that he was once arrested onstage in Memphis and “carted off to the local Riker’s. It was okay,” he told the crowd, “except I was dressed kinda like Liza Minelli at the time.” Since his transvestite punk days in the New York Dolls, Mr. Johansen has worked through such musical guises as solo hard-rocker and prescient, pompadoured lounge revivalist Buster Poindexter. But his latest incarnation, as featured on David Johansen and the Harry Smiths , is his most consistently satisfying. An homage to the legendary ethnomusicologist who collected the Anthology of American Folk Music, the Smiths capitalize on Johansen’s bluesy voice, myriad influences and deadpan humor. He has disinterred and breathed new life into songs by Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as a half-dozen songs whose authorship is unknown. Given Johansen’s past track record on musical trends, in a few years some young folk-blues stud will be on the cover of Time magazine, while Johansen is still playing the Bottom Line. Life isn’t fair-but that’s why they call it the blues.
ConstruKction of Light
I don’t quite know what to say about Vincent Gallo’s pan of King Crimson’s first studio album in five years in the Sept. 11 issue of this paper, other than to quote a comment in a reader’s letter that compared reading his appraisal to “watching someone struggle with a door that hadn’t been locked.” I do know that ConstruKction is leagues better than Thrak , Crimson’s last bloated, poorly conceived studio album. Barring the useless blues send-up “ProzaKc Blues,” every other cut is a fine argument for why King Crimson is only rivaled by German groove futurists Can in the history of progressive rock. Best of all is “Into the Frying Pan,” where guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew join spiraling guitar lines into a thrilling duel, while Chapman stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto-once mere acolytes of Tony Levin and Bill Bruford-plot obtuse but still rather funky beats. And constantly shifting key changes can’t even disguise the fact that it’s a good song. “FraKctured” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic–Part IV” are compositions so vicious and daring that fans of John Zorn and Aphex Twin should not leave King Crimson to the mulleted bridge-and-tunnel crowds that packed the band’s shows at Town Hall last month. So what if Mr. Republican indie-film director doesn’t like it?
Maher Shalal Hash Baz
From a Summer to Another Summer (An Egypt to Another Egypt)
Named after the Biblical Isaiah’s son, these cultish Japanese fellow-travelers of a left-wing terrorist organization have spent the last 15 years making some of the gentlest, least describable music under the sun. To name some of the influences on this 27-track retrospective-their first Western release-wouldn’t give you the foggiest idea what to expect, so I won’t bother. But to place them in the drugged-out psych-folk realm à la Ghost, as many do, is simply inaccurate. A wide-ranging collective of both virtuosos and savants led by Tori Kudo, Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s melodies are often given to the French horn, the guitar is quietly and beautifully scratched over out-of-tune woodwinds, and the rhythms plod like scattered raindrops upon Burt Bacharach’s toupee. “Flowerages” sounds like the Kids in the Hall theme was mixed with a national anthem and slowed down. “Great Gothic Country Song” is like a high-school marching band led by Derek Bailey attempting to play Albert Ayler’s music as a detergent commercial. Does this help?
On paper, Phoenix should be the worst band ever. There is no surer recipe for disaster than Frenchmen fleeing the Euro house scene to grow mullets, pick up zebra-striped guitars and stake a schticky claim to 70’s and 80’s rock. Yet by some cosmic accident, the high points on United can stand strong alongside the best ever turned out by Fleetwood Mac and Something/Anything? –era Todd Rundgren. Two songs, “Too Young” and “If I Ever Feel Better,” are as close to perfect as pop songs can get. Their melodies are huge, with pristine production and tasty clipped-guitar punctuation that would do Lindsey Buckingham proud. The members of Phoenix occasionally set out into choppy musical waters, but they sail them too smoothly to be written off as ironic cut-ups, French-ness notwithstanding.
Something of a star in the blissfully blunted Bay Area hip-hop underground, Quasimoto is an astral traveler given to sipping “butterfly Snapple” (?!) and “talking out of place, like I was sniffing paint, laced, flying up in outer space.” He produces, too, bending beats into soft sculptures that serve as musical equivalents to his lyrical non sequiturs . The Unseen traces lines back to old-school jazzbo rap as done by A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. But the madcap experimentation and twisted sonic digressions come straight from the sunny-side NoCal scene populated by characters like Peanut Butter Wolf, who released the album on his own indie label. Quasimoto is like a three-armed platoon player shagging fly balls out in rap’s left field. And his voice? Well, his voice is a pitched-up plaything that sounds like Q-Tip with a bad cold-in a good way.
Consistent hit-makers in the U.K., this cheeky trio have never had much luck Stateside, and they sabotaged their sales chances for this, their third album, by giving it what may be the most aesthetically dismal cover seen on a major release in years: a superimposition of the band’s already unattractive faces over a bunch of X-ray plates. All the same, from the very first few seconds of the brilliant opening track “Moving,” propelled by Gaz Coombes’ gruff croon and urgent acoustic guitar strum, it’s clear that Supergrass has taken a significant leap forward. Sadly, there are a few spots where they retreat from the new high ground they’ve established-the humor in songs like “Jesus Came From Outta Space” is too sophomoric to stand up to the scrutiny of repeated listens-and the whole package doesn’t quite boast the consistency of their previous effort, 1997’s In It For The Money . But the wistful acoustic atmosphere of “Shotover Hill” and the goofy glam-pop of “Pumping On Your Stereo” are rewarding enough to make one wish a few more Yanks had heard them.
Pure Garage II
(Warner Music UK)
Pure Garage II is the best sampler of two-step garage, the latest phenomenon to storm the front lines of electronic music’s never-ending genre wars. Though it has already boiled over from the pirate-radio underground to the top of the pops in England, two-step is still negotiating a proper coming-out on this side of the pond. It’s hard to say how much of a splash it will make, but considering the debt it owes to the progressive American rhythm & blues made popular by producers like Timbaland and groups like Destiny’s Child, it might not be long before we’re all two-stepping in spite of ourselves. For starters, two-step is irresistibly accessible. The 40 tracks on this two-disc set borrow all the best dance cues from techno, house, drum-and-bass and Jamaican dance hall. The beats snap like fresh vegetables while divas (male and female) croon juicy choruses that celebrate life in a big way. Rhythmically, two-step is as interesting and complex as anything spun out by hard-line jungle-ists. But taking the place of jungle’s tormented headiness is a champagne-spangled vibe that’s hard to imagine not blowing up big in New York .