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By Michael Henningsen

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

Olivia Tremor Control Black Foliage: Animation Music (Flydaddy)

1996's exceptional Dusk at Cubist Castle announced the Olivia Tremor Control as the third prong of the great Elephant 6 triumvirate (after the Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel). Shockingly, their second full-length release, the 27-track Black Foliage, trumps the debut all the way around. The pop songs are more poppy, and there are more of them. "Hideaway," the dreamy "I Have Been Floated" and "California Demise 3," remade from last year's 7-inch EP, are as instantly hummable as anything the Apples have yet concocted. The sonic experiments, brief instrumentals and tape collages are integrated more seamlessly than before, and improvisatory musings like the 12-minute "The Bark and Below It" never lose the listener's interest, unlike the sometimes ponderous second disc of the debut.

"A Place We Have Been To," "Paranormal Echoes" and especially the overtly Beach Boys-like vocals in "The Sylvan Screen" make it obvious that the E6 collective have been listening to their Smile bootlegs more than ever. Meanwhile, the title track and its five similarly named instrumental doppelgangers vaguely recall Rock Bottom-era Robert Wyatt. But as a whole, comparisons are fruitless. The Olivia Tremor Control have reached the point where they sound only like themselves: trippy, inviting, eccentric and endlessly fascinating. ¡¡¡¡¡

Love Nut Baltimucho! (Big Deal)

It's recently become socially acceptable for '90s popsters to declare fealty to Cheap Trick's patented late-'70s mix of hard candy crunch and glossy pop sheen. Baltimore's Love Nut are apparently among the Trick's most ardent admirers. From the one-two punch of the opening "Theme From Baltimucho" and the only slightly less manic "Bob Pine" to the gently psychedelic untitled closing track, their second album tries hard to recreate that In Color vibe.

They get it half right. Guitarist/ songwriter Andy Bopp knows how to balance diamond-sheen guitar riffs, anthemic choruses and sweet harmonies in that tricky not-too-hard/not-too-soft style of '70s power pop. Unfortunately, Bopp's unimaginative lyrics evaporate the second the song is over (certainly there's nothing as clever as Trick's "ELO Kiddies," or as menacing as "The Ballad of TV Violence"). Nothing is less than competent, and several tracks (the semi-quirky "Man Or Machine?" in particular) are excellent, but Love Nut really need a stronger dose of personality if they want to do more than remind people of their heroes. ¡¡¡1/2

The Concentrators The Concentrators (Lotus Sound)

Remember the ska revival? Sure you do, it was the next big thing for about five minutes before the now-fading swing revival. Unfortunately, most of these bands wouldn't have known bluebeat if it bit 'em on the ass. But now that Gwen Stefani is about six weeks away from a career at Fotomat, ska can return to those who know what to do with it.

Most of The Concentrators' full-length debut was recorded live at KUNM and the Launchpad, smart moves for a band whose furious live attack is their greatest asset. Naturally, tracks like the smoking "Albuquerculosis" sound better blasting through an atmosphere of dance-floor heat and $2 Red Stripes. But unlike a lot of local bands, The Concentrators have put a convincing approximation of their stage power on tape. What's next? ¡¡¡¡

Ninian Hawick Steep Steps (Grimsey)

Track one, "Scottish Rite Temple Stomp" (originally released as a single in 1996) is brilliant, one of the funniest, catchiest songs I've heard in ages, with Heather McElhone's snotty-cute vocals and absurd lyrics leading a wide-screen rampage of bagpipes, loud guitars, funky-drummer beats and massed keyboards. Genius.

The rest of this 28-minute EP consists of a terrible remix of "Stomp," two lackluster pop songs not sung by McElhone and four formless electronic soundscapes. Crap.

So that's five cute li'l doggies for track one, one cute li'l doggie for the rest, averaging out to: ¡¡¡

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