SXSW Record Reviews
MARCH 9, 1998:
THE APPLES IN STEREO
Tone Soul Evolution (Sire)
What the fuck is this? Is it irony? Is it flattery? Is it theft? And why the hell does it have "evolution" in its title? No term could be less appropriate. This isn't rooted in the past, it's lifted from it - and transported, unaltered, 30 years forward. Musical cryogenics, anyone? Merseybeat evolved (with the aid of LSD of course) and this is what it evolved into. Unfortunately, there's envy as much as there is indictment in what they've produced. In the same vein as Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples Xerox the mass-consumed Brit sounds of the late Sixties, and the accuracy with which the band reassembles all the pieces - the instrumentation, the arrangements, the vocal phrasing, everything - is almost unnerving. With each successive listen there's a greater anticipation for the opening chords of "Seems So" to lead into the first verse of "If I Needed Someone"; and for a cover of "She Said" to spontaneously jump out of "Shine a Light." Divorced from its derivative context, however - ultimately a criterion by which some sort of evaluation should be made - the Apples have made a charming album, but that doesn't erase the questions like: What differentiates this from the Rutles, and is there supposed to be something "to get" here?
2.5 Stars - Michael Bertin
THE HIGH LLAMAS
Cold and Bouncy (V2/Alpaca)
Pop this shameless has no place in a decent society. What kind of debauched soul lurks behind lyrics like "okeechee chay chichu" and "tilting windmills stand alone, banjo pickers have all gone home"? What of the angst that makes pop music so dramatic? This bounces and skips merrily along its way through a shiny plastic world of Prozac and gummy bears where Paul McCartney will always be king. This is a world where song titles are as rhythmic as the songs - "Tilting Windmills," "Evergreen Vampo," "End on Tick Tock." Were Lawrence Welk's bubble machine to come to life and strike out on a solo career, this is what the debut would sound like; plenty of waltz time, constant electronic gurgling, ample electronic bleeps and blips suggesting robots at play, vibes and marimbas, flutes and flugels. Pop for the sake of pop. And catchy. The tunes stick in your head like no Gatti's jingle ever could. Each and every song is perfectly orchestrated, intricate mixes of electronic sounds, strings, horns, and various soft-sounding percussion instruments. And while many of the songs like "Showstop Hip Hop" are no less than pure pop gems, they're so happy that, well, it's creepy.
2 Stars - Christopher Hess
Don't Get Too Comfortable (Blue Gorilla)
I've got a few pounds on Pee Shy's Jenny Juristo. She'd better watch out. I'm going nuts determining the origin of a certain keyboard part pummeled by the perky Tampa, Floridian on their second album. Free-form deejays - not the ones with broadcasting degrees (why would you go to college to learn how to become an idiot?) - but ones who know the Sixths from Salem 66 understand this obsession. Juristo used to be a deejay. That figures. Bandmate Cindy Wheeler owned a coffeehouse and competed in poetry slams. That figures, too: Pee Shy's lyrical wit has this same disturbing coziness. This coziness can be a tad precious (precious enough to land it on a recent Melrose Place), but sometimes it's dead-on: Like that chord turn in "Much Obliged" or the chanting rumble of "Too Punk." Where are these from? You're on your own, bucko. But I swear if Pee Shy gets to SXSW, and this riff is still in my head, I'm gonna jump up on the stage, grab the bug-eyed Juristo by the scruff of her skinny neck, toss her to the ground, and straddle her until she tells me where that piano in "Mr. Whisper" is from?!?
3 Stars - Kate X Messer
Taking History (Pressing)
Poi Dog Pondering alums Adam Sultan and Ted Cho have continued to pull together as a team long after founder Frank Orrall packed his things and took the Poi to Chicago. Case in point, the on again/off again (and now on again) Hollowbody and its debut full-length CD, Taking History. Sultan and Cho form the center of attention here, with a rotating group of all-stars including Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould), Cindy Toth (Reivers), Rafael Gayol (Sexton Sextet), and Lyman Hardy (Ed Hall) trading off the rhythm section chores. The key to Hollowbody, despite the name, lies in the vocals, which are heavily textured and flanged à la early Black Sabbath or ELO, leading Sultan's moody yet tuneful songs to recall something you might have heard on FM radio late at night in the early Seventies. That isn't to say this is retro, only that Sultan and Cho, who co-produced the disc, have managed to evoke a kind of pop sound that doesn't get made much anymore (whether or not they may have been trying to sound like My Bloody Valentine and got waylaid is beside the point). Though the final track, "Swan Song," carries faint echoes of their Poi past, Taking History is certainly not a dog of an album.
3 Stars - Ken Lieck
Word Gets Around (V2)
Sometimes everyday life trials pass me by as the stuff that irritatingly bites into my time and seizes the energy that is better spent moving on to bigger and better things. Stereophonics' singer-songwriter Kelly Jones takes pleasure in these simplicities, finding the stories and charms embedded within. Drawing out the hidden tales that are held fast in the minutia of everyday life, Kelly culls from experiences gained in his small hometown of Cwmaman, Wales (the town to which their V2 debut is dedicated). Sculpting vignettes of local gossip ("A Thousand Trees"), tragedy ("Billy Davey's Daughter"), the tribulations of a young man ("Check My Eyelids for Holes"), and just sitting in traffic ("Traffic"), Kelly writes with the keen sense of an experienced social voyeur and wails like he's possessed by the ghost of Steve Marriot. Musically, Stereophonics are tight, driving, and melodic with a straightforward, no bullshit rhythm section comprised of Stuart Cable (drums) and Richard Jones (bass). Combining the tunefulness of Oasis with the passion of the Manic Street Preachers, Word Gets Around is a stunning debut that is a refreshing departure from recent British offerings while seeking to be nothing more than its simple self.
4 Stars - Leah Selvidge
The songs on Lapsed, the first for Matador from Philadelphia's Bardo Pond, are dense, heavy compositions that take high-pitched, lilting vocals and smear them across a cinder-block wall of distorted guitars. The vocals are still there, fragmented and strewn, though they have become all but absorbed into the rough, porous wall. From the beginning, the sprawling waves of fuzz seem to start at the end - as if the first notes actually follow where the last chorus would have been sung, and the ensuing final free-form windout, as loud and long as possible, is the point of it all. Bardo Pond's brand of drug-rock, thick as a hot kettle full of snot, is more explorative than experimental. There aren't any shocking changes or mechanical innovations here, just a mesmerizingly lolling sea of dissonant sounds, trudging along around mid-tempo to a final exhausted end, the vibrato pedal drone of "Flux" disintegrating into nothing, the rolling drums of "Anandamide" staggering through swirling loops of guitar screech and vocal wail. "Straw Dog" is the climax, a faster, staggering blues fighting for balance in the muck-strewn wake of "Green Man." This is not rock of violent addiction or somber coming-down, it evokes more a constant state of mind: a perpetual buzz that makes everything just a bit fuzzy around the edges.
3 Stars - Christopher Hess
Through the Trees (Carrot Top)
There ain't nuthin' pretty about the Handsome Family. That's not entirely true, but for the most part, their thing is to take fairly conventional C&W tradition and fuck mercilessly with it. In fact, there's this whole Hee-Haw Chicago connection that I can't exactly wrap my head around, but it's there and those No Depression dudes are all over it since the Handsomes do the twisted roots thing well. Each song is a set-up for either a goofy punchline or a poignant gut punch; pathos balances out all the hillbilly hilarity, and Rennie Sparks' lyrics are just heartbreaking while husband Brett's music follows suit (and welcomes guests like Jeff Tweedy). When they get the hell out of the Mountain Dew can, they can be as high lonesome as Jimmie Dale or as baleful as Howie Gelb - like on "I Fell" ("But when I reached down to touch the skull underneath my hand/A stream of orange lizards poured out/From the bone white mouth/That empty mouth reminded me of you") and "Where the Birch Trees Lean" ("Once we walked the crumbling cliffs/Where the birch trees lean/Now who will kiss your apple lips/Under the salty sea?").
3 Stars - Kate X Messer
Help Wanted, Love Needed, Care Taker (Doolittle)
Mount Pilot's Help Wanted... displays a sophistication not seen on most alt-country albums, which in itself is borderline disearnest as a classification here. If not for the bash and pop of "3 Years in October" (and maybe "Been Forgotten"), you'd be hard pressed to find enough material to make the case that Help Wanted... is "insurgent." The John Keane-produced debut from the Chicago-based four piece is slick but not soulless. And rather than rely on the too-familiar drink and strum methodology practiced by most punks-turned-Parsons fans, Mount Pilot has actual players. Most notable and audible is guitarist Jon Williams, a surprisingly adept picker. Even with Les Paul chops, Williams usually keeps his playing from overpowering the songs themselves; not always, but usually. Help Wanted... does have an occasional reliance on lyrical convention - at its ugliest on "Boulevard" with the opener of "Boulevard of broken dreams" and the chorus line "Where were you when push came to shove?" The blemishes are largely forgivable though, because with its country bebop and swing feel, Help Wanted... is enough unlike the mass Tupelo fallout to make it eminently likable.
3 Stars - Michael Bertin
Full Service No Waiting (Vanguard)
Above all else, the first thing that hits you when listening to Peter Case's latest album is how comfortable and familiar it sounds. These 11 well-fleshed folk songs have the warmth and authenticity of an old wool blanket or a pair of beat-up sneakers. Case's well-honed songwriting voice is both introspective and moralistic at times, but it never becomes meddlesome, because he's forthright and just ambiguous enough in his delivery to make you start wondering how what he's singing about applies to you. It doesn't hurt that Case can draw on a multifaceted life journey from busking teen vagabond to power pop luminary to devoted family man. "Crooked Mile" is a wandering search for meaning that continually asks, "Who's gonna go your crooked mile?" before resolving that "the only thing I've found that counts in this world is love." "Beautiful Grind" follows by painting a loving picture of a relationship that thrives on toil and challenge as opposed to wistful memories of fleeting storybook romance. Case closes out Full Service No Waiting with "Still Playin'," a song of equal parts bemusement and wonder at having given one's life to music. "Still playin' that same sweet melody," Case sings, "for a hundred years or more, 'til everyone's gone free." It's not every day that you find someone so able to articulate their raison d'etre with such universal beauty.
4 Stars - Greg Beets
MEN WITH GUNS
A Film by John Sayles/Original Soundtrack (Rykodisc)
Dramatic films call for dramatic soundtracks, and in the case of John Sayles' new movie and its attendant soundtrack Men With Guns, the title says it all. Like the recent soundtrack to Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson (on Sony's budding Classical imprint), Men With Guns tangos triumphantly like a hot-blooded Mexicana with a rose in her teeth and gleam in her eye. Whereas The Tango Lesson strokes its romantic notions with a warmer, somewhat more authentic touch, however, Men With Guns stokes its equally passionate fire with the same sense of bravado found on the soundtracks to Robert Rodriguez's Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. It may be old-world traditional compared to Rodriguez's rock & roll menace, but it's no less modern in its attempt at capturing the same drama found in Latin American novellas. Equally important, it achieves Sayles' intent of "creat[ing] a musical journey that [is] squarely within Latin America, but not tied to any one country." Credit goes to composer Mason Daring and his soundtrack-defining musical "cues," minute-long mood setters full of rain sticks, vibes, and fluttering Spanish guitars, which link together such priceless South of the Border spoils as Lito Barrientos' "Cumbia En Do Menor," Ramón Ropain's "Mi Cumbia," and especially Totó la Momposina's arresting island spell "La Verdolaga" and the album-ending "Mohana." Not only will Momposina's two songs send casual listeners scrambling for more info on the Columbian singer, they'll nestle among the many shimmering moments on exceptionally good soundtracks to previous Sayles films such as Matewan, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star.
3.5 Stars - Raoul Hernandez
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