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FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

*** Smoking Popes

DESTINATION FAILURE

(Capitol)

Down at the rock-and-roll laboratory they've been working 'round the clock to come up with something to hold up the stars now that the Ramones are kaputzville. Somehow the blood samples got mixed up: the doltish professors got Johnny's blood mixed in with Morrissey's, and the lab geeks didn't realize the Ramones weren't actually related until it was too late. Result: sad-sack, self-referential, lovelorn guy named Josh Caterer mocks himself to the tune of "I Wanna Be Sedated," only with twice the chord changes, and with support from his real brothers Matt (bass) and Eli (guitar), as well as their next-door neighbor Mike Felumlee (drums). Of course, Josh's bloodlines are still warring -- first song, last line: "My heart tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, 'Don't be a pussy all your life.' "

He's also still in love with Morrissey (it's a vestigial genetic thing), who took the Popes on tour last year and named them his favorite new band! And what do the Ramonisseys -- er, sorry -- the Smoking Popes have to say about it? "You didn't play my favorite song but that's all right, I loved the new stuff too/I'm just glad I got to see you," Josh croons. "I don't know if you actually saved my life, but you changed it, that's for sure." Jeez. Kids these days -- you can't please 'em.

-- Carly Carioli


*** Silkworm

EVEN A BLIND CHICKEN FINDS A KERNEL OF CORN NOW AND THEN

(Matador)

Silkworm have two simultaneous dynamics: they're a writerly band marked by meticulous songcraft and thoughtful, unconventional lyrics; and they're a piledriving guitar-rock machine with a dark, heavy, dense attack. Sometimes the words get buried in the guitar incandescence, or the instrumental work gets tripped up by the songs' wordy convolutions. But sometimes the band get their songs over with the force of a nailgun.

This double CD is a collection of out-of-print stuff from Silkworm's first few years, when they were a quartet with guitarist Joel R.L. Phelps: most of their first album, early singles, an EP, some unreleased recordings, and a tense, subdued track ("Insider") from a Tom Petty tribute CD. You can hear their recording style evolving over the course of the retrospective, but it's surprising how many of their early experiments connect full-on -- though more often in the cathartic mode than the intellectual one. They transform Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" into a bitter, pounding guitar storm. And the original songs like "Slipstream" that let Phelps and singer/guitarist Andy Cohen cut loose have wildly sparking energy.

-- Douglas Wolk


* Richard Carpenter

PIANIST, ARRANGER, COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR

(A&M)

The Carpenters, with their Brady Bunch haircuts, doe-eyed expressions, and blindingly white incisors, always weirded me out. Aside from a handful of insidiously gooey melodies and Karen Carpenter's honeyed voice, the best I can say for them is that they provided instant nostalgia. The kitschy If I Were a Carpenter tribute CD infused their legacy with an ironic charm and humor they never had.

But none of those qualities is anywhere to be found on Richard's overblown vanity project. Pianist. . . , a redundant morass of rehashed Carpenters hits buried under gobs of strings and wind instruments, is a transparent attempt to exaggerate the Carpenters' importance and elevate Richard to "serious artist" status. He may have been the studio brains behind the outfit, but it's his late sister's combination of restraint and warmth that's badly missed. Even the retrograde cheesiness that made the Carpenters' pabulum a sugary pleasure has been replaced by a saccharine substitute. Sappy symphonic flourishes get draped over mothballed relics like "We've Only Just Begun," and a 12-minute medley of Carpenters' hits dilutes songs like "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Superstar" to their logical, inevitable form: elevator music.

-- Jonathan Perry


**1/2 Oval

DOK

(Thrill Jockey)

Oval make music out of glitches. On their previous releases, they exploited the clicks and bleeps produced by broken, scratched, painted CDs. Here, they turn to the analog world for their erroneous inspiration -- specifically, the found-sound sample library of Tokyo sound wiz Christophe Charles, who recorded bells around the world for the collaboration. Oval reprocess these bell sounds into a lush tonal soundscape populated with deep bass and digital static -- think of a church-bell choir given MIDI gear and an overload of deconstructionist philosophy. Dok lacks the gentle aggression and subtle danger of Oval's debut, Systemisch; much safer and cleaner, it reprograms the boundary between analog and digital, filling the space with a truly massive acoustic presence. The end result may be less than revolutionary, but Dok does give ordinary bells a whole new personality.

-- Chris Tweney


** Home

13: NETHERREGIONS

(Jetset)

Home have now put out 13 albums since 1992. On their 13th, Netherregions, the quartet's agenda is much as it was six years ago: to combine left-of-center songwriting, at times reminiscent of Devo or the Residents, with plenty of experimental sonic dabbling (samples, tape loops, effects processing, lo-fi recording techniques, odd instrumentation). Every song here has its coherent moments and its requisite lost-in-space section. "The Bogeymen," for example, is almost a normal pop song until the coda, when the Homesters reduce the tape speed drastically every eight bars to create a disorienting, almost sinister tone.

"Another Season" is a lovely piano-based instrumental; "Turn Away" takes a while to get going but then rewards with some ear-catching processed cello; "Work" features a percussion track that sounds like someone hitting a tin can with a spoon while at the same time wiping a guitar's fretboard with a cloth. The rest of the album either meanders pointlessly ("A Christmas to the Easter") or offers wretched, pitch-wary singing ("The Pearls Hang Loosely"). All of Home's ideas are interesting, but they're not consistently appealing.

-- Mac Randall


*** Gregg Bendian

GREGG BENDIAN'S INTERZONE

(Eremite)

Percussionist Gregg Bendian's homage to progressive rockers Gentle Giant is one of last year's best tribute albums, largely because it's among the least literal. Bendian doesn't rework Gentle Giant tunes; instead he creates original music that uses techniques he first heard in the band's music -- odd meters, counterpoint, atonality, and other devices beloved of new-music performers. Tunes like "Titled" and "I-zones" skitter in and out of odd meters, and their tempos melt away into pointillist fragments. The haunting melody of "Sunblade Strafe the Continent" (film noir surf music?) dissolves into group explorations of abstract tone colors and textures. Bendian, who usually plays drums and percussion, sticks to vibraphone, which he plays with a dry, vibratoless tone reminiscent of early Bobby Hutcherson. The rest of the band -- guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Mark Dresser, and percussionist Alex Cline -- give the music a flow and a light, dancing quality that nevertheless can pack a wallop when it's needed.

-- Ed Hazell


**

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: THE SCORE

(Atlantic)

Like the film itself, Patrick Doyle's score is slick, shallow, and occasionally haunting. "Estella's Theme" features John Williams's wistful slow Spanish guitar over organ-chord string counterpoint, with a melody that hints at the theme from Ice Castles; it metamorphoses into "Kissing in the Rain" which has a driving bittersweet energy reminiscent of French composer Maurice Jaubert (L'histoire d'Adèle H.), and then into the pop Elgar (think "Nimrod") of "The Day All My Dreams Came True." There's also pop Richard Strauss (think Four Last Songs), courtesy of Kiri Te Kanawa's operatic aria "I Saw No Shadow of Another Parting." You could do worse.

The rest is as picture-perfect glossy as stars Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, with tipoff titles like "A Walk in the Park" and "The Price of Success." There's well-bread vocalise from Tori Amos and Janis Kelly, well-bred cocktail piano from Cyrus Chestnut ("Joe Leaves"), and well-bred jazz from Chestnut ("By the Inch or by the Hour") and James Carter ("The Big Trip") -- everything the hip Manhattanite needs to be, well, hip. In this context even Cesaria Évora ("Bésame Mucho" -- which is also on "The Album") sounds uptown.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


*1/2

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: THE ALBUM

(Atlantic)

One of two CDs tied to Alfonso Cuarón's new adaptation of Great Expectations, this disc kicks off with two breathy Tori Amos cuts that, though predictably overproduced, offer the abstract melodrama peculiar to soundtracks, leaning more toward an atmospheric pitch, which becomes her, than radio-tailored neatness. Her passion is persuasive. Erstwhile Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland submits a slow, circusy romp whose violin and piano contortions come as a darkly tickling surprise. Mono provide the tune that accompanies the commercials for the flick. If you've seen the ad, you've heard it all there. Chris Cornell's outing reveals his almighty wail as one better suited to big amps than acoustic angst. Reef, Pulp, Duncan Sheik, Poe, the Verve Pipe, Lauren Christy, and Fisher toss up lackluster synthetic dressing for a withered, lost-and-found love-song salad. The Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" and Iggy Pop's "Success" make cameo appearances. But this disc works best as a nostalgic investment, because most of it's the stuff lite-FM-hits radio is made of.

-- Chesley Hicks


*** Bill Frisell

GONE, JUST LIKE A TRAIN

(Nonesuch)

Reminiscent of the guitarist's remarkable trio work with Ginger Baker and Charlie Haden, the 15-track Gone, Just like a Train glides along on almost-telepathic interaction. That helps the CD maintain its rhythmic groove and melodic focus despite playing hopscotch with styles -- from crowing Chicago blues to lazy lullabies, from post-fusion jugband jazz to claustrophobic ambient tensions. Sinewy rock vet Jim Keltner (Lennon, Dylan, Clapton) and Alison's bassist brother Viktor Krauss (Lyle Lovett) support the push-pull dynamic of Frisell's watery C&E (country-and-Eastern) clusters, as all three players explore unpredictable textural combinations. The nimble Krauss, who pumped the low end on Frisell's 1997 CD Nashville, maneuvers his upright bass as if it were an electric. His pouncing riff on "Lookout for Hope" sparks Frisell's shimmering, out-from-the-clouds volleys against Keltner's crunching swing before easing the eerie 10-minute epic back into the haze. The rest of Gone boasts similar charms, the trio weaving a balance of eloquence and grit that few can match.

-- Tristram Lozaw



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