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MARCH 15, 1999: 

***1/2 XTC

APPLE VENUS VOL. 1

(TVT)

This lovely album is pretty much what XTC were planning six years ago before they launched a recording strike to break their old contract. The demos have been circulating for years, but the album actually sounds more at home in 1999: many of last year's notable pop records (the Pernice Brothers, R.E.M's Up, and, for those who liked it, Costello/Bacharach) ditched guitars to explore this kind of orchestral chamber pop. After such an extended break, you want XTC to do more than write catchy little pop songs: you want them to get you teary and haunt you for days. They accomplish that on the new "The Last Balloon," which is among the saddest and prettiest things Andy Partridge has written. Sort of a "Yellow Submarine" in reverse, it invites his children to escape the world that his generation messed up, then drifts off into the ether with an evocative trumpet solo.

The rest of Apple Venus is considerably more upbeat, with "Easter Theatre" and "River of Orchids" returning to the rustic Brit-folk territory of Skylarking, and "I'd Like That" working sexual urges into a nice love song. Bassist Colin Moulding's two dry-witted numbers are the ice to Partridge's fire (ousted guitarist Dave Gregory, who appears throughout, was evidently the lukewarm water). The token nasty number, "Your Dictionary" (about Partridge's divorce), marks his first use of the f-word, but the mood shifts from bitchy to regretful before it's through. "Greenman" features the album's only aggressive lead guitar -- and a few more wouldn't have hurt -- but there are enough soaring hooks and pop shivers to place this with XTC's best.

-- Brett Milano


***

THE LIVING END

(Reprise)

What if Stiff Little Fingers had been a rockabilly band from Melbourne instead of a gang of Clash City rockers from Ulster? That question is a least partially answered by Australia's the Living End, a young and restless punk-pop outfit with spiky flattops, a stand-up bassist, and a fleet-fingered guitarist who knows enough Duane Eddy licks to pull off a pretty decent Brian Setzer impersonation on the trio's major-label debut. "West End Riot" could have been another nostalgic "Rumble in Brighton," but over a brisk beat singer Chris Cheney keeps things personal and gritty enough to bring to mind the Clash's "Last Gang in Town," only with a better guitar solo. "Prisoner of Society" is a catchy little Green Dayish ditty in which Cheney wants a riot of his own but has to settle instead for the "generation gap" he equates with "war": it's so '77-style punk (only with another better guitar solo) that he probably should have nixed the line "We don't refer to the past," but it's fierce, tuneful, and passionate enough to make up for the oversight. The band really falter only when they take a stab at a little ska. If it's trendy they're after, they'd be better off buying zoot suits and hopping aboard the swing train. They've certainly got the chops.

-- Matt Ashare


**1/2

PARIS COMBO

(Tinder)

The bio for Paris Combo places the quintet's songs alongside those of Dominique A, one of the most imaginative urban folk-rockers of this decade. In fact, Paris Combo's sexy acoustic bistro jazz sounds nothing like the Serge-Gainsbourg-meets-Suzanne-Vega atmospheric songs of Dominique A. Instead, their mix of Gypsy rhythms, repartee, and muted saxophone solos looks back to Django Reinhardt and Josephine Baker, with all the polish and edge that made Paris club music of that era feel so harshly streetwise. They also, thanks to Belle du Berry's recitatives in razzmatazz like "Moi, mon âme et ma conscience," the sultry and Spanish "Irenée," and the funky "Le roi de la forêt," recall the 1980s club pop of Les Rita Mitsouko. Except that where Les Rita's chanteuse, Catherine Ringer, put her nasty-girl persona unmistakably in your face, du Berry hovers between sultry and dismissive, keeping you guessing -- and making you like it.

-- Michael Freedberg


**1/2

OLD SCHOOL VS. NEW SCHOOL

(Jive Electro)

A cross between the Judgement Night soundtrack and Jason Nevins's myriad Run-D.M.C. retoolings, Old School vs. New School is a publicity stunt (for Jive's new dance-music imprint, Jive Electro) masquerading as a tribute to rap's fertile adolescence. The high concept: 13 electronicats and DJs give tracks from Jive's vaults a Y2K upgrade -- and end up inadvertently evoking the brief heyday of hip-house, when every rap 12-inch had to include a floor-filling 4/4 remix. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I'll take the Jungle Brothers' "I'll House You" over many of the bastard-child reworkings on this disc. Big-beat-ify Whodini and Kool Moe Dee and corn becomes cheese.

The good stuff includes Bassbin Twins' Boogie Down megamix "A Crate of BDP," a stew of needle-thrashing scratches and live shout-outs drenched in community-center reverb that's obviously the work of obsessed fans. Aphrodite makes A Tribe Called Quest's smoothed-out "1nce Again" sound like a lava flow hitting a toy factory; the Stone Roses' "Fools Gold" gets doubly freaked, by Grooverider (snaky!) and the always-enthralling Rabbit in the Moon (spacy!). Improbable highlight: the pleasing sleaze of R. Kelly's "Sex Me (Hollis Monroe's Stripped Down Stomp Mix)" and Hybrid's take on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," which sounds like the theme from "Fresh Björk of Bel-Air." Overall, old school wins in a blowout -- as it should be.

-- Alex Pappademas


** Kid Silver

DEAD CITY SUNBEAMS

(Jetset)

The freaky stoners in Kid Silver got their start earlier this decade as three-fourths of the Irish shoegazing band Roller-Skate Skinny. Leaving behind Skinny's penchant for noisy psychedelic guitars, they now latch onto the three-year-old coattails of Beck's Odelay. The disc updates the casual psychedelia of Roller-Skate Skinny with punchy, dissonant horns, cute loungy "la-la-la" refrains, drum loops, and white-boy funk bass lines. Singer Ken Griffen dominates this sophisticated mix with a deep-voiced space-age Neil Diamond bachelor-pad routine, adding a heavy and appealing dose of shtick to the shuffling syncopation of songs like "Devils and Demons" and "67 Cities of Light." But the laser-gun guitars of "Breadcrumbs" and warped organ tones of "24 Last Days of a Lilac" offer a reminder that for better or worse Kid Silver remain firm believers in the power of drug-induced pop.

-- Mike Bruno


*** Jimmy Eat World

CLARITY

(Capitol)

Although a complete family tree would reveal emocore as a distant branch of hardcore, the genre has assimilated enough in the way of traditional structure and melodic smarts to make it all but indistinguishable from contemporary rock. It's become a refuge of stylized, often elegant modern guitar pop for people who don't trust the conventions of pop music. That said, Jimmy Eat World are among the most conventionally conventional of all the bands to fall under the effusive emo rubric. In other words, if you end up wondering what Clarity (the band's third album overall, and second for Capitol) has to do with punk rock -- on, say, the hushabye string-laden chamber rock of "Table for Glasses" or "A Sunday" -- you won't be alone.

Although insiders may detect that JEW have gleaned a glissando or two from the works of Samiam, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Jawbox, the breadth of Clarity will likely appeal to unindoctrinated listeners along less obscure bloodlines. In the shimmery, radiant minimalism of the piano-framed "For Me This Is Heaven," JEW recall Eno/Lanois-era U2; the voltage-surge insulation of the semi-automatic "Lucky Denver Mint" and the elegiac "Believe in What You Want" has a fiery, autumnal overdriven glow evoking the suspended insularity of Hum or Smashing Pumpkins. JEW are certainly reaching for something more than straight pop -- the epic 16-minute closer wafts from dazed drone through dreamy ethereal glimmer into homemade techno and back again, displaying the ambition -- if not quite the intellectual firepower -- of Sonic Youth's "The Diamond Sea" or a Björk remix. And though "Crush" could be a calling card for any number of more dogmatic emo acts, Clarity is a near-perfect pop album without it.

-- Carly Carioli


**1/2 Jeff Beck

WHO ELSE!

(Epic)

Sure the title's audacious, but not anywhere as flip as guitar legend Jeff Beck's compositional sense, which seems anchored in mid-'70s jazz-rock fusion. Numbers like the daft "What Mama Said" and the slide-guitar essay "Angel (Footsteps)" inevitably slope toward the kind of funky-bottomed flash that dominated his classic Blow by Blow and Wired albums. So the impression is either that Beck is totally unaware of how pop music has moved both ahead and backward in its aesthetics during the past 20 years or that he just doesn't give a damn. Probably the latter, but when his mile-wide tone kicks in, only sticklers care where the tunes are going (usually nowhere!). And no one should care about the invisible, heavily programmed rhythm section. Who Else! continues to prove that nobody gets as much sound and raw energy out of a guitar as Beck, and there's always something thrilling in that.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** D Generation

THROUGH THE DARKNESS

(Columbia)

There's something quaint and sweetly naive about a band who still use razorlike guitars and jackhammer rhythms to rail with Holden Caulfield-like disgust at a world of brutality and hypocrisy. Singer Jesse Malin's lyrics round up the usual suspects: bigotry ("Hatred," "Chinatown"), organized religion ("Sunday Secret Saints"), drugs ("Only a Ghost," "So Messed Up," "Cornered"), and all-purpose teenage alienation ("Helpless," "Lonely"). And corporate rock still sucks ("Every Mother's Son," "Rise & Fall," "Sick on the Radio"), even though D Generation are working for Sony.

Along the way, they pay lyrical homage to several influences: early Elvis Costello (whom they resemble in pop hookiness), the Clash (righteous outrage), and Bad Religion (harmonies, utter humorlessness). Indeed, at least in New York's East Village, D Generation remain the only band who matter, less for the bitter frustration Malin expresses in his Green Day-like pseudo-cockney snarl than for their ineluctable rhythmic ferocity. Lead-guitarist Danny Sage, bassist Howie Pyro, drummer Michael Wildwood, and new rhythm-guitarist Todd Youth work together like fingers on a clenched fist. So one resists the urge to tell Malin to lighten up -- or grow up -- lest D Generation temper their blazing purity. After all, someone still has to keep the punk flame for this kind of rock.

-- Gary Susman



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