Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Natural Calamity, Peach Head; Snowpony; John Southworth, Mars Pennsylvania

By Michael Henningsen

JANUARY 4, 1999: 

Natural Calamity Peach Head (Ideal)

London-based trio Natural Calamity (Japanese musicians Shunji Mori and Kuni Sugimata and British singer Stephanie Heasley) are refreshingly difficult to pigeonhole. Their music, electronic but not chillingly so, vaguely psychedelic but lacking the dance focus that would support the trip-hop label (despite the Dust Brothers remix of the slinky "As You Know"), recalls any number of past and current artists but doesn't quite sound like any of them. Portishead, St. Etienne, recent Everything But the Girl, Stereolab, Pizzicato Five, Young Marble Giants, Can, Brian Eno and (especially on the billowing untitled 15-minute instrumental that closes the CD) even Mike Oldfield or Tangerine Dream come to mind, but Natural Calamity have enough personality of their own to keep the comparisons superficial at best.

The overall tone of Peach Head is dreamy without being narcoleptic. A few tracks, such as "Tomorrow" (featuring a gorgeous extended Hawaiian steel guitar solo), float along unencumbered by percussion, while the lazy, tremolo-drenched instrumental "Jessica" bears remarkable resemblance to both the Beatles' "Sun King" and Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross." As a result, even moderately propulsive tracks like "And That's Saying A Lot," which with its echoey slide guitar and Heasley's bluesy vocals eerily resembles a futuristic Bonnie Raitt, have a lulling quality. Peach Head might relax you, but it's consistently interesting enough to keep you from nodding out. ¡¡¡¡

Snowpony The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony (Radioactive)

Meet the next generation of shoegazers. The three members of Snowpony have impeccable résumés: singer/songwriter/programmer Katharine Gifford is formerly of Stereolab and Moonshake, bassist Debbie Googe was in My Bloody Valentine until she got sick of waiting for Kevin Shields to get off his ass and finish the now seven-years-in-the-making follow-up to Loveless, and drummer Max Corradi (since replaced by Moonshake's Kevin Bass) was in Quickspace. Add that their full-length debut was produced by the ceaselessly busy John McEntire (Tortoise/Gastr del Sol), and you have an album with indie credibility to spare.

All of the members' previous bands are echoed in The Slow-Motion World. The near-funky "Love Letters" in particular recalls Stereolab's rhythmic drones, and Moonshake's organized cacophony (the near-atonal horn samples that interrupt "Bad Sister") and My Bloody Valentine's beautiful noise (the squalling guitars overlaid on "Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead") punctuate all the songs.

The only problem is the variable songwriting. The above songs are all great combinations of smart (if a tad dark) lyrics, surprisingly memorable hooks and inventive production and arrangements. Unfortunately, not all the songs are up to that level. McEntire's production flourishes keep a song like "Siamese Fighting Fish" interesting, but don't hide the clichéd, overly repetitive lyrics. Better quality control in the future could make Snowpony's next album a shoegazer classic. ¡¡¡ 1/2

John Southworth Mars Pennsylvania (Bar/None)

From Joni Mitchell to Mary Margaret O'Hara, Canada has a tradition of wildly idiosyncratic artists, of which UK-to-Toronto transplant John Southworth is the latest. There's really not much middle ground on his debut, Mars Pennsylvania: you'll find Southworth's nasal voice, silent film comedian persona (one song is a loving tribute to Buster Keaton), kitchen sink arrangements ("Man If We Could Surf Forevermore" and "American UFO" sound like they were produced by a schizophrenic Brian Wilson with Attention Deficit Disorder) and verbose lyrics either totally mannered and precious or refreshingly different.

Southworth's equally polarizing heroes and contemporaries--Van Dyke Parks, early Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Richard Davies and Rufus Wainwright--will pass through your ears at first listen, but Southworth never recalls any of them for more than a song at a time, and at his best, like the jazz-plus-strings "Girl on the Moon," he sounds only like himself. Mars Pennsylvania is the kind of debut that makes you look forward to an artist's entire career. ¡¡¡¡

--Stewart Mason

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