Fatboy, Coldplay: Hale Britannia … J Mascis: Light Bright

Fatboy, Coldplay: Hale Britannia

Could it be coincidence that the record labels behind two acclaimed British acts–Coldplay, a London-based band seeking to import its hit U.K. album to American shores, and Fatboy Slim, the big-beat D.J. hoping to continue his platinum success here–would pick Election Day, Nov. 7, to release their albums in the States? What better moment for a bunch of Englishmen to invade New York than the day that interest in the democratic process peaks and the brutish pundits and their exit polls leave more than a few citizens fantasizing about the other Albany?

Fortunately, both of these refreshingly understated albums travel well.

Fatboy Slim (né Norman Cook) is no stranger to American tastes or success. His 1998 album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, went platinum and yielded both “Praise You” and the infectious “Rockafeller Skank,” which brought electronica to the Yankee masses. The title of his new release, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Skint/Astralwerks) reflects Mr. Cook’s assessment of that success, and it allegedly came to him after encounters with Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Bill Murray during a stay at the Château Marmont hotel in Los Angeles.

Mr. Cook intends Halfway to be a move away from the “big beat” sound he originated and a return to the underground music from which he’d weaned himself. It begins and ends with a sampled phrase from 70’s blues-rock band Wet Willie’s “Macon Hambone Blues”: “under the big bright yellow sun …” I assume it’s the same sun that shines invitingly between the legs of a woman’s form on the CD booklet cover, an image that, like Mr. Cook’s music, combines in-your-face eroticism with Stonehenge-like mysticism.

The “big bright yellow sun” sets by track 3, “Sunset (Bird of Prey),” and rises again during the 11th and final track, “Song for Shelter,” thus imitating an all-night house party.

What’s even more interesting about “Sunset (Bird of Prey)” is the singer: Jim Morrison. Mr. Cook has sampled a short verse from Morrison’s posthumous poetry LP of the late 70’s, American Prayer , and created something even Doors fans might agree honors the Morrison myth tastefully.

Mr. Cook also employs the talents of D.J. Roland Clark, whose house anthem “I Get Deep” appears in “Star 69” and again during “Song for Shelter.” At first, the sampled lyric, which begins “They know what is what, but they don’t know what is what, they just strut …,” suggests sexy girls walking along the beach. But when we hear the complete monologue at the end, we realize Mr. Clark is talking about politicians and other “suits” (the mistaken identity may be intentional).

Other tracks, including two featuring soul diva Macy Gray (“Love Life” and “Demons”) and one with funk legend Bootsy Collins (“Weapon of Choice”), represent a hodgepodge of moods.

Whether Mr. Cook believes that his success has pulled him away from the original house music he loves, or that his big-beat sound is merely branching off in a new direction, is really beside the point. By showing us a glimpse of his real personality on Halfway –half wealthy, vodka-soaked beach bum, half average guy with genuine faith in his music–Mr. Cook takes the listener to a place where hedonism and humanity coexist on the dance floor.

As for Coldplay, the band is making its first bid for transatlantic success, following in the footsteps of this past spring’s import band, Travis . Parachutes (Nettwerk) is Coldplay’s first full-length album. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize this year, the British pop-music equivalent of a National Book Award. A single from the album, “Yellow,” also spent most of last summer at the top of the U.K. charts.

But Coldplay don’t seem particularly of the moment. They’re a standard rock-music ensemble that plays mellow tunes with simple lyrics, no distortion boxes, no soaring solos and no screaming. All songs are attributed collectively to the band’s personnel: Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion and vocalist Chris Martin, who sounds a lot like Dave Matthews.

The songs drift in and out of moments of intense reflection, somewhat like ex-Pink Floydie Roger Waters’ work sans the shrieking. The title song is only 46 seconds long and, with a sparse and simple musical arrangement, it typifies the unfinished quality of the other tunes.

Most will find it difficult to explain precisely what makes Coldplay’s music so appealing. The first listen will not impress you; the second will. By the third listen, you will be drawn in and pleasantly unsettled–just the way you were by all that election coverage.

–Gregg Wager

J Mascis: Light Bright

Back in the late 80’s, when his band Dinosaur Jr. was reaching its artistic peak, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist J (né Joseph) Mascis was often described in the music press as an “indie-rock guitar hero.” Which doesn’t say much for the instrumental prowess of indie rock; though Mr. Mascis was certainly capable of sculpting a fiery six-string solo, he was, in the final analysis, a noodler. Aiming for the intuitive brilliance of his idol Neil Young, he usually ended up closer to the sloppy workmanship of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew. And when his playing style was stripped of its usual crutches–namely, ear-splitting amplification and enough effects pedals to restock Sam Ash–it revealed itself as fundamentally flawed. Mr. Mascis’ live solo acoustic album, Martin + Me , released in 1996, has to be one of the most horrendous listening experiences of the past decade, marred by countless technical flubs and a woeful sense of rhythm.

In truth, Dinosaur Jr.’s significance in the history of pop music had little to do with Mr. Mascis’ guitar heroism, or lack thereof. Rather, it was the Amherst, Mass., band’s distinctive sound, which combined the tuneful exuberance of punk with all-out free-form sonic assaults, that proved influential. Albums such as 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me and 1988’s Bug can now be seen as seminal points in the development of both the American grunge and the British shoe-gazer movements. Dinosaur Jr. cloaked chords, melodies and riffs in a blanket of fuzzy noise so warm and thick that the noise itself became the music’s central hook. Throw in Mr. Mascis’ tortured croak of a voice and a lyrical sensibility that exemplified the term “slacker” well before that word came into general usage, and you can practically smell the teen spirit.

Yet Dino’s influence quickly waned in the 90’s, along with its quality control. Its most successful album, 1993’s Where You Been , was also its last decent record. Two subsequent offerings were largely uninspired. Mr. Mascis split up the group in 1997 and retreated into silence. Now, three years later, he has returned with More Light (Ultimatum/Artemis). The album is credited to J Mascis and the Fog but played almost solely by Mr. Mascis himself, with a little help from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard. Oddly enough, it contains some of the finest music he’s made.

The album’s opening track, “Sameday,” sets the tone immediately: super-charged rock supported by mammoth guitar riffs and unusual arrangement touches (is that an electric sitar in the background?). Neither this nor any of the 10 songs that follow stake out any new stylistic territory for Mr. Mascis. There’s an introspective ballad (“Ammaring”), a metal sendup worthy of AC/DC (“Back Before You Go”) and a swirling skronk-fest (the title track), but nothing he hasn’t tried before. Still, the vitality so sorely missing on the last couple of Dinosaur Jr. albums is back in force on every song.

It’s a good thing, too, because Mr. Mascis’ lyrical bent hasn’t changed–he’s still grappling with various types of ennui and malaise, both romantic and general (one tune is titled “I’m Not Fine”)–and he needs some power behind him to keep him from sounding too mopey.

Best of all, More Light finds Mr. Mascis playing guitar like, well, a guitar hero. His solos are invariably concise and to the point, and his aggressive picking and frantically bent notes erupt out of even the most placid songs with a filthy vigor. The merciless gut-punch of his drumming is also noteworthy; he can be a bit dodgy tempo-wise, but that only adds to the overall charm.

Of course, Mr. Mascis’ whiny vocals are still an acquired taste, and the falsetto shriek he unleashes on “Can’t I Take This On” may make more sensitive listeners lunge in terror for their volume controls. But for those who once thrilled to Dinosaur gems like “Freak Scene” and “Little Fury Things,” J Mascis’ return to form is a heartening event. An entire generation of former college-radio D.J.’s is, no doubt, more than ready to welcome him back.

–Mac Randall

Haggard: Thrills Over the Hill

The past decade has been good to former outlaws looking to return to their roots: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings (1994), Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (1997) and Willie Nelson’s Teatro (1998) are all albums that can be counted among the artists’ all-time best.

Add Merle Haggard to that list. His latest album, If I Could Only Fly (Anti-/Epitaph), a short (35-minute), sparse effort that embraces the unrepentant, hard-drinking, womanizing redneck’s own aging and mortality, deserves a spot on the shelf alongside his 1969 masterpiece Same Train, Different Night .

Mr. Haggard telegraphs his intentions from the git-go. The first song, “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” begins with him murmuring over a single, stretched accordion chord and a gentle acoustic-guitar line: “Watching while some old friends do a line / Holding back the want-to in my own addicted mind.”

With two sentences, Mr. Haggard establishes his rough-and-ready bona fides and also shows he’s O.K. with the fact that he’s moving up in years. Before the song is over, he has gone so far as to relate how his children want him to give up even his legal vices: “They say it’s time that dad should lay tobacco down.”

Throughout the album, this sense of acceptance and change takes center stage. Even Mr. Haggard’s sexual braggadocio is tempered by an accepting wistfulness. Take the deep Texas swing of “Bareback,” a song about his late-found faith in monogamy: “I’m still up there riding every night / All you got to do is hold me tight / But I ain’t riding bareback anymore.”

Throughout the album’s dozen songs, Mr. Haggard alternates between feel-good country-western romps and reflective ballads, with both styles serving as marvelous showcases for his longtime (and wonderfully adept) backing band, the Strangers. Mr. Haggard and his band are so well traveled they can reference more than 30 years of Americana–Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” riff in “Honky Tonk Mama,” the Grateful Dead’s heavy mythology in “Thanks to Uncle John”–and make it sound like they invented it.

Three decades ago, Mr. Haggard–who did two years and nine months in San Quentin for attempted robbery–mined his own history and came up with “Mama Tried,” a hit with this timeless line: “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.” Now married to his third wife, his place in this country’s musical heritage secure, Mr. Haggard is still bursting with confidence and a delicious swagger, growling down on his R’s and forcing grunts out of his honey-soaked voice.

The music is as rich and full as ever. But now, instead of jailhouse tales and backwoods swells, Mr. Haggard is belting out lines like this: “I might be over the hill / But you make growing old quite a thrill.” On If I Could Only Fly , the thrill is all ours .

–Seth Mnookin Fatboy, Coldplay: Hale Britannia … J Mascis: Light Bright