Echo and the Bunnymen: Soul on Fire

“No one could have been that special. Not the Velvets, not the Doors. No one! We were the best band of all time.” So says Ian McCulloch, the humble lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen, in the notes to their new four-disc retrospective box, Crystal Days (1979-1999) (Rhino). He was referring to the Liverpool quartet’s July 1983 concert at the Royal Albert Hall, but, in truth, those words could have issued from his lips at any time and in any context. For “Mac the Mouth,” as the British music press dubbed him, has rarely held himself in low esteem.

Mr. McCulloch’s view of his band’s place in history isn’t shared by most of the world’s pop listeners. Generally, he and the other Bunnymen–guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson and the late drummer Pete DeFreitas–are considered in conjunction with several other bands that arose from the British isles at the dawn of the 80′s, introducing a wide-open sound and an intensely serious demeanor: U2, the Waterboys, Big Country, the Alarm.

Listening to the 72 tracks collected on Crystal Days –of which nearly 40 have never previously appeared on CD–it’s easy to hear the traits that these groups shared early on. The rhythm section is thunderous but economical. Rudimentary guitar lines sparkle with the residue of a dozen effects pedals. Vocal melodies are delivered in a passionate bellow. Simple parts add up to a powerful whole.

Yet on closer inspection, Echo and the Bunnymen’s music distinguishes itself through its boundless darkness. While the message of nearly every U2 song is ultimately one of redemption, the Bunnymen inhabit a world turned in on itself, wracked with existential pain. On 1980′s “Rescue,” the band’s first major-label single, Mr. McCulloch hissed, “Things are going wrong / Can you tell that in a song?” He proceeded to make a career out of telling just that, reaching an apex two years later with “The Back of Love,” a bravura display of withering rage and grandiose despair. Moments like these reveal that the Bunnymen’s true generational kin were Joy Division and the Cure.

Few of this box’s B-sides and outtakes will be treasured by non-fanatics, but they’re all at least interesting. Neither the Mac-less early-90′s version of the Bunnymen nor the mid-90′s McCulloch-Sergeant side project Electrafixion are represented, but that’s no great loss. The only real misstep here is the ditching of the 1987 studio version of “New Direction” in favor of an earlier recording that lacks the crucial “Higher and higher / Souls on fire” hook. Otherwise, Crystal Days does a marvelous job of tracing the Bunnymen’s path from their first charmingly awkward indie recordings to the surprisingly respectable work they’ve done since reuniting in 1996.

Yes, the Bunnymen–consisting of Mr. McCulloch, Mr. Sergeant and various hired hands–are still active. Their latest album, Flowers (spinART), though lacking the drama of old, features enough semi-psychedelic anthems to rouse the envy of Oasis. At an invite-only concert at Fez on July 9, Mr. McCulloch demonstrated where Liam Gallagher picked up his best moves. Decked out in leather jacket and shades, Mr. McCulloch introduced a magnificent rendition of the Bunnymen chestnut “Ocean Rain” with these words: “This is the greatest song ever written.” Some things never change, thank heaven.

–Mac Randall

‘N Sync: Growing Pains

As the lip-licking doomsayers crank out obituaries for teen pop, it’s worth noting that ‘N Sync were ahead of the curve in presaging their demise. Long before the Backstreet Boys donned sarongs and weird hairstyles in a misguided effort to woo older fans, ‘N Sync fashioned themselves as marionettes and invested their career-sustaining capital in self-awareness. It wasn’t especially clever stuff, but as an extension of the blueprint that boy bands are built from, it was at least kind of interesting.

But now, the games are over. With one of the Backstreet Boys in rehab and MTV covering the impending death of teen pop as a news story, the guys in ‘N Sync are pleading their case for real-deal status. “Pop,” the first single from Celebrity (Jive), opens with the lines, “I’m sick and tired of hearing all these people talk about / What’s the deal with this pop life and when is it going to fade out?” Of course, the answer no longer matters much to little Janie, who tore the ‘N Sync posters off her walls last year in a fit of embarrassment.

Celebrity is all about trying to keep fans like little Janie on board. ‘N Sync sprinkles their newly grown-up tastes with zingers cribbed from a post-boy-band manifesto. Over purposefully jarring tracks by such A-list producers as BT, the Neptunes and Riprock ‘n’ Alex G, they deconstruct their own image, exposing little more than their own cartoonishness. Their most accomplished songs–the Pac-Man-sampling “The Game Is Over” and the steamy, two-step garage rave “Up Against the Wall”–ultimately sound like a group trying to shed the skin that made them more than just five weird-looking guys from Orlando, Fla.

The biggest problem with Celebrity –and the one that’s bound to turn off their maturing ‘tweenage fans–is that ‘N Sync lost their sense of humor along the way. They rail against the vapidity of pop and celebrity culture as if a boy band could ever stake a claim to street cred. It’s a reverse sellout pitched to an audience that, for all its mindlessness, is smart enough to know what it doesn’t want .

–Andy Battaglia

Greg Osby: The Jazz Solution

The prolific alto saxophonist Greg Osby has titled his latest album Symbols of Light (A Solution) (Blue Note). We might be tempted to ask, parenthetically, “What’s the problem?” But we more or less already know.

Even the cautious New York Times announced two months ago that American jazz is dead, its grave to be danced on by French and Scandinavian jazzers more adept at samples and grooves–or so claimed the contentious Brit-crit-penned piece. Ignoring for a moment that the fashionable Swedish trio E.S.T. often sounds like warmed-over Miles circa Kind of Blue , and that the French group St. Germain is a meld of pop-star Miles and current house music, the article’s unfairness to someone like Mr. Osby is breathtaking. He and fellow altoist Steve Coleman, pillars of Brooklyn’s M-BASE collective, were fusing post-bop jazz with electronic funk and hip-hop back in the late 80′s and early 90′s. But with his recent streak of excellent Blue Note albums– Zero, The Invisible Hand, Banned in New York and now, Symbols of Light –the 41-year-old Mr. Osby has found a different-sounding solution to the very real problem of stagnation in American jazz. Mr. Osby’s open ears have taken him from pop rapprochement back to a conventional acoustic-jazz format, where he and his coterie of sharp young musicians have dedicated themselves to pushing the jazz mainstream into something more organic and heartfelt, if only an inch at a time.

“3 for Civility,” the first cut off the new quartet-plus-strings album, is in its way a perfect refutation of trend. The Osby tune commences with the high-modernist splank of Wünderkind Jason Moran’s piano, leads into Nioka Workman’s slow, finger-snapping cello line and is joined by Mr. Osby’s suave alto, steeped in the bop tradition but beholden to nothing. “3 for Civility” reminds me of my favorite Bill Frisell album, 1996′s Quartet , in the way it communicates some non-clichéd jazz essence while being enriched by folk and classical traditions, and in its evocation of an eccentric and slightly melancholy American mood. Of course, with Marlon Browden on drums, Mr. Osby’s take on a pan-stylistic Americana kicks more ass.

If the rest of the album were this good, I’d shut down the voting for the 2001 best-of polls. However, the bracingness of “3 for Civility” or “Social Order” gives way to tunes where Mr. Osby, now miles away from his knotty, metrically shifty M-BASE persona, floats along in a melodic, minor-key way. Still, it’s hard to imagine anything gutsier for a hip jazz intellectual than to risk a little corniness in the service of beauty. Beauty will be better served when Mr. Osby figures out how to write for individual strings instead of deploying them en masse in not especially imaginative ways. That’s a skill that could take four or five albums to develop. Given his current rate of production, that should be sometime next year.

– Joseph Hooper

The Greg Osby Quartet will perform at the Village Vanguard July 31 to Aug. 5.

Melissa Etheridge: Mediocrity Is Skin Deep

I can’t say for sure if Skin (Island), Melissa Etheridge’s seventh album, is the worst record she’s ever made, since I’ve never before been paid to appraise her music. Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to listen to her records, but I just couldn’t make it through track 2 without feeling bile tickle my throat.

But Skin is newsworthy by dint of the fact that each song seems to address her breakup with Julie Cypher (the woman who allowed herself to be inseminated with the issue of David Crosby, a man whose gene pool must be more vile than a Fresh Kills downwind). Skin seems redolent of Tunnel of Love , the breakup album from Bruce Springsteen, who amounts to Ms. Etheridge’s aesthetic boss.

The ceaseless drumbeat for Mr. Springsteen’s status as an Important American Artist irritates me, but his plain-spokenness is never less than eloquent. Ms. Etheridge, on the other hand, is about as banal and overripe a songwriter as exists today. For instance, it’s shocking that she’s never written a song called “Walking on Water” before now. That particular gem includes a bunch of lovelorn tropes along the lines of “You wanted more/ I gave you less,” while “The Prison” comes complete with a folksy harmonica accompanying the couplet “I know before you try to run / You gotta learn to crawl.”

Now let’s consider the utter bankruptcy of the following: the widescreen “heartland-rock” production; the dopey drum loops on half the album; her allegedly soulful, overwrought howling; and the decision to feature Hollywood pals Meg Ryan and Laura Dern singing backup on the typically redemptive “Heal Me.”

It’s a shame that Ms. Etheridge and Ms. Cypher couldn’t keep it together (think of the children!), but the fact that she couldn’t come up with a lyrical insight at gun point, coupled with her aggressively ordinary musicianship, renders Skin nothing less than wretched. If Middle America must have blustery, confessional, middlebrow rock (which I have no intrinsic gripe about), it deserves much, much better than Melissa Etheridge.

–Rob Kemp