Hot town, summer in the city–that transporting time when you leave a layer of thigh skin in every taxi and two quarts of sweat in every subway station. Time for sand in the sunblock, for sparring with overzealous Parks Department workers, for holding down your gorge as you walk by that mound of restaurant garbage on the way to work, and for revisiting that spot around Exit 32 on the westbound Long Island Expressway where traffic stands still and time does not.
The reality of summer in the city never quite matches the memories. But that’s because you have yet to work up your summer soundtrack, the playlist that helps take you past the pain and into that state of mind evoked by the dull roar of the Atlantic surf, the smell of tanning oil and a view of the sun setting over the Hudson River. Below, Manhattan Music’s reviewers help you get started with a list of year 2000 releases they’ll be listening to these next two months.
Voice Brother and Sister (Misra)
Summer Hymns’ songwriter Zachary Gresham recasts memories of Sundays spent on his grandmother’s porch as psychedelic fever dreams. Taking subtle cues from old folk and church music, this brilliant debut from Athens, Ga., treats melody as gospel while taking rock sounds–guitar, bass, drums, lots of keyboards–in all sorts of otherworldly directions.
A South Bronx Story (Universal Sound)
Dreamed up by three sisters and a friend in the Bronx, ESG’s sound played an integral role in the hip-hop, house and “no wave” movements swirling around early-80’s New York. This career-spanning anthology collects classic tracks that have been sampled by any number of rap and dance producers who continue to build on ESG’s stylistic blueprint.
“Get Your Roll On,” from the album I Got That Work (Cash Money Records)
The same New Orleans clique that cooked up rap’s pre-eminent diamonds-and-dick anthem, “Bling Bling,” brings us this latest gasp from the land of the gaudy and the gauche. Big Tymers keep their lyrics simple, rhyming “Rolex” with “mo’ sex.” But popping under their military-march cadences are the beats of hip-hop’s reigning visionary throwback, Mannie Fresh, whose electro-booty bounce shines like costume jewelry floating in a bottle of Cristal.
Pirate Playlist 66 (Creation)
This British import came out at the end of 1999, but I’ve played it more than any other CD I’ve gotten in the last six months. The Times is essentially a prolific Brit named Ed Ball, whose songs are great bits of Beatlesque toffee with psychedelic centers. The conceit of this album is that it’s a 1960’s pirate-radio broadcast replete with D.J.’s to guide you between tracks, but Mr. Ball’s power pop summons the swinging London of then and now (as do songs with cheeky titles such as “Liam Gallagher Our Leader”). Mr. Ball sounds like a more soulful Glenn Tilbrook (of Squeeze), and when, on “The Real Theater of Dreams,” he sings, “She’s my new religion / On resurrection day” over a swelling “Give Peace A Chance” vibe tricked up with a screaming guitar line and a jubilant horn section, it’s easy to believe in love–even if you’re in the Hamptons.
Dusty Trails (Atlantic)
Ignore the unfortunate title. There’s nothing parched about this collaboration between Luscious Jackson’s Vivian Trimble and the Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs. Nothing like the music of their previous bands, this primarily instrumental album is all cool guitar breezes and keyboard swirls that waft around Ms. Wiggs’ earthy bass and Ms. Trimble’s sweet matte voice, while all sorts of percussive accents fill the background like the insect kingdom on a July night. Listen to this album and you’ll think of Brazil, France, Vespas, Alain Delon in shades and Sharon Tate in a bikini. Then, two tracks before it’s over, the sad, sweet voice of Emmylou Harris singing “Order Coffee” jolts you from your summer reverie to remind you that the fall chill is not far away.
Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey)
Giant Sand mastermind Howe Gelb lives out in the Tucson, Ariz., desert, and his music reflects his surroundings. This album sounds both sun-baked and spectral. Ghostly opera singers, a muffled Harlem horn and seraphic women’s voices–including Juliana Hatfield’s–waft in and out of sidewinding guitar riffs and plodding bass lines that take their good, sweet time to reach the finish line. When he’s not mumbling, Mr. Gelb sounds like a stoner Lou Reed, which is the perfect tone for such languid, hallucinatory lyrics as “The spine waits to feel the shiver / But right now deals with a great lack of it.” Mr. Gelb’s desultory ways work on the brain like a narcotic. Time and reality become distorted, the way they do on a ferocious August afternoon when there’s nothing to do and no air conditioning and it takes half a day to cross the room.
Tin Hat Trio
This young San Francisco-based trio of conservatory-trained smarties is leading the post-jazz exodus into the ethnic warrens of the rest of the world. With this their second album, Mark Orton (guitar, dobro, tenor banjo), Carla Kihlstedt (violin, viola) and Rob Burger (piano, accordion and some other odd instruments with keys) have pulled off an elegant trick, taking a bunch of musics now in fashionable circulation–Balkan gypsy, Piazzollan New Tango, Frisellian bluegrass–and melding an original voice. This music is more about texture and mood (often melancholy) than the rhythmic drive and solo virtuosity that have traditionally defined jazz. In fact, in a college lit mood, I’d say Tin Hat represents the loss of American musical innocence, the embrace of a gorgeous Old World ennui. This is summer music for the end of your summer romance.
Kronos Caravan (Nonesuch)
The Kronos are past masters of the fusion that younger groups like Tin Hat are pursuing in a more experimental-minded fashion. But just because violinist David Harrington and company never tossed away their conservatory badges or the traditional string quartet format, don’t think this latest venture into musical gypsyhood lacks the passion. While the lesser cuts do traffic in a beautiful surface exoticism (Iranian, Lebanese, Portuguese, you name it), the Kronos’ reading of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s fantasia on Balkan rhythms, “Pannonia Boundless,” or of New Music maestro Terry Riley’s electronic funeral march for Mr. Harrington’s teenage son, “Cortejo Fúnebre en el Monte Diablo,” are as intense as anything committed to disc this year.
Soul on Soul (RCA Victor)
Downtown trumpet eminence Dave Douglas proves that it’s possible to make the reverse commute from the exotic to back home. Mr. Douglas, who in his Tiny Bell Trio has mined Balkan sadness and metrical complexity as well as anyone, here assembles a hard-swinging septet to pay homage to the Swing Era piano titan Mary Lou Williams. Of course, Mr. Douglas contributed twice as many tunes to the project as Williams, but then he’s a very self-confident cat. With reason. The arrangements strike a winning balance between composition and arrangement, and Douglas’s team of downtown irregulars– including trombonist Joshua Roseman and drummer Joey Baron–offer up some of the year’s hardest-blowing straight-ahead jazz .
Apparently, the lyrics on XTRMNTR present an almost Stalinist critique of class structure. Damned if I can tell. All I hear is the first really good album by this stylistically skittish 15-year-old British-Scottish band. For the duration of that time, singer Bobby Gillespie has been bombed more than the South of London circa 1942, which may help to explain why he couldn’t settle on what Primal Scream was supposed to be. But finally he’s come up with a cohesive conflation of dank dub, Giorgio Moroder-style mecha-disco and sheer noise which sounded just great in the bourgeois climes of Fire Island three weekends ago.
“Another Dumb Blonde”
CD Single (UNI/Interscope)
Teen-pop haters should give Hoku a try. The subtext of this song–”I’m not like all those other coy strumpets you see on MTV’s TRL “–is buried deep enough not to cloud this relentlessly sweet kiss-off to some dude who doesn’t realize how unutterably uncool it is to cheat on the daughter of Don (“Tiny Bubbles”) Ho.
“Try Again,” from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack (EMD/Virgin)
In this soundtrack, mass-culture radio music yields an incandescent, advanced tune (one that is riding the top of the Billboard charts at the time of this writing). R&B and hip-hop producer Timbaland appeared to have ceded his primacy to Rodney Jerkins and Swiss Beatz before he dropped this calling-card single for Romeo Must Die . But he’s made “Try Again” the song to beat so far this year. As the rhythm ping-pongs from beat to off-beat, Aaliyah delivers a performance as coolly self-assured as her 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?”–and suddenly, Z-100 sounds far more mysterious.
Supreme Clientele (Razor Sharp/Epic)
This is the strongest solo shot by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan since Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s (or Big Baby Jesus’?) first–and for very different reasons. Where the Big Baby slathers spit, Ghostface Killah, also known as Tony Starks (and God knows what else), spits precision with dirty soul loops (lots of Al Green) in the distance and his tongue twisted with as much invective yearning as an Ezra Pound lecture on economics. The underground won’t be topping this anytime soon.
Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go)
At this stage of the game, a rock ‘n’ roll band can go one of two ways: It can resort to the sort of nostalgia that renders so many Lou Reed-influenced bands as effective as James Brown’s 70-year-old knees. Or it can utilize its love of the genre as one of many colors in a saturated palette. Blonde Redhead used to evoke a pretty good Matador act circa 1989–I witnessed a show about five years ago at which vocalist Kazu Makino spent 15 minutes castigating journalists for comparing her group to Sonic Youth. The journalists were right. But now the group’s more sound unit than rockers, and they’re creating music full of textured, angular melancholic longing and fragmented lyrical strain (sample song title: “Loved Despite of Great Faults”), accented by Ms. Makino’s passionately blank voice.
Mouse on Mars
Niun Niggung (Sonig/Thrill Jockey)
Yes, the futuristic pop of Mouse on Mars comes off as German all-electronic experimentalism. It’s full of softly placed burbling subtleties–what is called, in the terminology of the day, “clicks and cuts.” Many folks will find it so much radiator clank, but the pleasure principle is never far from the group’s knob-addled minds. Lemon Pipers fans, you can hum this thing, even if the disc is mostly hum itself.