SXSW Record Reviews
MARCH 22, 1999:
BUILT TO SPILLKeep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.)
The world may not make any more sense to Doug Martsch now than it did when he wrote the songs for 1997's Perfect From Now On, but he's taken profound steps in tidying up the cosmic clutter surrounding his little corner of it. Keep It Like a Secret hits uncharted middle ground between the operatic Perfect and Built to Spill's landmark indie album, 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love. Martsch's guitar vocabulary, though its origins are recognizable, forms a language in itself. It gives "Center of the Universe" an intrinsically bright tone, and infuses "Else" with stunning beauty, the high-note bass line a sturdy sounding board for Martsch's delicate and flowing guitar and vocals. Drummer Scott Plouf is spot on throughout, providing active punctuation for the multiple layers of guitar. Though "You Were Right" seems a sincere ode to the influence rock lyrics have on life's experiences, the nature of their implications undercuts their ultimate impact as Martsch cites dour classic-rock prophecy from Bob Dylan to Bob Seger. Turning right back around, Martsch then summons some of that same abandon with the powerful riff that jumps throughout "Temporarily Blind." The last album's title was a promise; this one makes good on it.
5 stars -- Christopher Hess
IMPERIAL TEENWhat Is Not to Love (London)
When we last left our swarthy imps, they were hanging over the bow of their first release, Seasick. What's with that title? They're as seasoned and buoyant as any ocean-weathered shanty singer. But still waters run deep, and What Is Not to Love shows how well they navigate more treacherous surf, and how comforting they are as tour guides. Sex, sexuality, narciscism, love, loss, and tragedy are their familiar themes, which yes, often bubble under a glassy, sugar sheen; Imperial Teen is as loaded with subtext as last week's episode of Xena. But this time out, the same themes are carved deeply into the flesh -- the music is churning, a bank of foggy tunes and notions. When they're down, they're waaay down, venturing into the sea of Swanic Youth (two hypnotic and head-waggy tunes even crack the seven-minute mark!). But boy, when they're up, they're sky-high: "The Beginning," actually in the middle of the CD, with all that Ooh Whaaaaa Ooh Wah Ooh Wah!-ing could fit right on their poppy debut, while showstoppers like "Yoo Hoo" and "Lipstick" plant juicy kisses on the ass cheeks of everyone -- homo (and every other type of) phobia be damned -- celebrating the velvet goldmine between everybody's legs while humping that sassy, queeny, Bowie/Bolan edge that gives them theirs.
3.5 stars -- Kate X Messer
THE STREETWALKIN CHEETAHSLive On KXLU (Triple X)
The ultimate end to the means of punk rock comes when a perfectly placed wall of noise wraps itself around you in a warm embrace and methodically shakes all the shit out. These elusive moments are what make sifting through heaving piles of poorly executed banality almost worth it. The Streetwalkin Cheetahs play every note with this end in mind, and even if they don't mash your buttons down every single time, there's not too many contemporary bands I'd rather have playing at my end-of-the-world-party. The touchstone of this L.A. quartet is the Motor City confluence of heavy industry and revolution that fueled the Stooges and MC5. Their version of the MC5's "Looking at You" might even be better than the original. It's a gritty, high-energy explosion of sweat, sex, and salvation. The Cheetahs also make sure justice is served with their 14-minute take on the Stooges' "Funhouse." Not many bands can maintain the adrenal conviction of two-minute punk rock for a quarter of an hour, but the Cheetahs' grip never loosens. And those are just the cover tunes. Cheetah originals like "Miss Teen U.S.A." and "None of Your Business" are lovingly carved from the same fallen rib with the same punch-packin' vigor. This rapturous, on-air performance is live in bold type followed by three exclamation points.
3.5 stars -- Greg Beets
Two microphones and 26 turntables go on! Not all at once, of course. On their debut album, this Chicago foursome (MCs Lumba and Meta-Mo, producers Fanum and the Isle of Weight) team up with a revolving cast of 13 Windy City turntablists for an album that makes clear why hip-hop doesn't suck in '99. It's all about the beats 'n' rhymes: massive breaks and gruffly voiced raps that honk like Chu Berry one moment and splinter like Prince Lasha the next. You'd have to go back to It Takes a Nation of Millions (or, okay, Aquemini) to find a hip-hop album this dense and wierd. Chalk it up to a nonformula formula that lifted Sun Ra and George Clinton above the status of mere stride pianist and harmony group leader respectively: the unpredictable synergy that occurs when street culture embraces science fiction. The album's packaging, futuristic blueprints and superheroic archangels packing heat as they glide over Chicago, isn't just packaging, it's a statement of purpose. In Chicago, far from the rap industry's money centers, media glare, and bi-coastal photo-op gang wars, hip-hop is staying true to its original mission: Great Black Music to the Future. Fuck being Posdnous -- Rubberoom is hard and complicated.
5 stars -- Jeff Salamon
LO-FIDELITY ALLSTARSHow to Operate With a Blown Mind (Skint/Columbia)
"Launder your karma." Hmmmm. Isn't it amazing how Anglos regard the African diaspora (especially its musical output) as a sort of cultural attic; a place where you can root around for an hour or two, take all the really choice items for yourself, then turn out the light, fold up the ladder and forget it even exists? That's exactly the MO employed by London's Lo-Fidelity Allstars, taking the best Detroit (not Motown), Chicago, Kingston, and the Bronx have to offer and serving it up as that delicious Big Beat hash that's suddenly all the rage now that the FCC requires Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafella Skank" be used in each and every new TV spot for the under-25 film demographic. Leaving the sociological implications of such pillaging to the Henry Louis Gates and Utne Readers of the world (oh joy), the Lo-Fi's remain, as they should, squarely focused on the dance floor, so hold the phone and pass the Ketamine. Just let those crushing breakbeats and nasty chunks of bass crash over you and abandon your mind to the psycho-delic squalls of the sequencer as the nimble DJ work slices it to ribbons. That's the way to launder your karma. Even so, as we inch ever closer to the Clockwork Orange future the Lo-Fi's envision, perhaps we should pause a moment to remember UTFO, Afrika Bambaata, Billy Paul, Eddie Harris, Booker T., Base Patrol, and every other brother without whom none of this would be possible.
3.5 stars -- Christopher Gray
RUSSELL GUNNEthnomusicology, Vol.1 (Atlantic)
RUSSELL GUNNLove Requiem (HighNote)
At the most fundamental level, the lexicon of jazz suits itself perfectly to its rhythmic environment, be it a traditionally swingin' 4/4 or the latest streetwise hip-hop beats. Young trumpeter Russell Gunn comes at us from either direction with both barrels loaded. Ethnomusicology is the project he's currently touring behind, and is the more accessible venture of the two for the way Gunn takes his firmly rooted-in-tradition, quicksilver trumpet licks and weds them so compatibly to a variety of up-to-the-minute grooves, select samplings, and DJ scratching to create a statement for Now. Be the influences Seventies hard-boppin' trumpet ace Woody Shaw, the funky blues as explained by Wynton Marsalis, or the swagger of brother Branford Marsalis' high-struttin' Buckshot LaFonque outfit with whom he previously toured, Gunn has distilled and convincingly fused the common elements of all of them in a way that crackles with an infectious vitality. He has succeeded here with such seeming facility you have to wonder why most other jazz/hip-hop fusions have so often missed the mark. Love Requiem treads more traditional ground, skewing the "happy feet" mode for a more densely textured, compositionally driven suite reflecting the universal trauma of lost love. Broken down into musical segments expressing Love, Deceit, Psychosis, Emptiness, Torment, Heartache & Regrets, and finally, Acceptance, the suite is reminescent of Coltrane's Love Supreme as much for its obvious structural presentation as for its penetrating group sound and transcending spiritual content. As the titles imply, this is very personal, emotional music. In evoking these passions, Gunn has surrounded himself with some of the best young players out there. In particular, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist James Hurt, and flautist Greg Tardy contrast nicely with the fury of trumpet and saxes on the front line. Don't be surprised if this dark gem is remembered as a classic 20 years from now.
(Ethnomusicology) 3.5 stars
(Love Requiem) 4.5 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
BETH ORTONCentral Reservation (Arista)
Beth Orton remains steadfastly unclassifiable, thank god, though many have tried to make the folkie label stick. There's some validity to that, certainly, but there's also much more to the 28-year-old British singer-songwriter. After the rootsy blues of her Best Bit EP, and the critical/ commercial success of 1997's Trailer Park, it was anyone's guess where her third outing would take her. Now we know: warm, languid folk pop ballads cloaked in robes of regret and sorrow. Listening to the first single, the heavily rotated "Stolen Car," you'd think she was mining Shawn Colvin's territory, but then comes "Stars All Seem to Weep." Suffused with the singer's mellifluous ring, one of Reservation's multitude of stand-out cuts is backed with a slow, sexy, hip-hop groove reminiscent of one of Dre's old lovestruck tracks. Lots of Bens make brief cameos (Lee, Watt, and Harper), as well as guest appearances by Dr. John and Terry Collier (one of Orton's idols), proving once again that everyone loves Beth. If you haven't heard the plaintive and curiously uplifting songs of longing and loss from this rising phenom, you're missing the emergence of one of the most affecting new talents of the past five years.
4 stars -- Marc Savlov
L7Live Omaha to Osaka (Man's Ruin)
"So," says Donita Sparks nonchalantly, "What's happening here in Omaha?" The audience yells back unintelligibly. "Nuthin? A whole lotta nuthin', huh?" Rather than making fun of her midwestern fans (she does that later at the expense of bowling), the singer's tone suggests empathy. "Well, you have to congratulate all of you, though, on your supreme good taste to chose the L7 show over $%@&!* Megadeath." Duh. L7 got "so much clit she don't need no balls," right, Donita? "Hey, I know we're no Dave #@$&* from Megadeath, but we'll do, right? We'll do in a pinch in Omaha." Omaha, where most of this no-frills, no-fi 60-minute set was recorded at the end of 1997; Osaka, where the last four tunes were recorded ("we'll get to your fucking precious little 'Shit List' when we're good and fucking ready to"); and even their homebase of L.A., where the John Marshall High School Marching Band brasses off by opening Omaha to Osaka with a medley of L7 "hits." "It's not a long way to the top," snorts Sparks at one point. "It's a long way to be exactly where you were five years ago. We're down with the people. It's a lateral move."
3 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
BEN LEEBreathing Tornadoes (Grand Royal)
Bear witness to the only press on Australia's Ben Lee that doesn't harp on his young age, his starlet girlfriend, or his "prodigy" status: Lee's Breathing Tornadoes is the kind of pop you might actually condone for your younger siblings. His affinity for nonsense lyrics ("you throw me in a pan/you cook me in a can/you stretch me with your hands") indicates Beck's presence on his list of inspirations, but on that same list, you'll likely find Echo & the Bunnymen and the Psychedelic Furs. Lee sheds his acoustic guitar approach for a more samplicious Dust Brothers-style, but as slow tracks like "Birthday Song" and "Finger in the Moon" prove, angst-plagued and melancholy are not the best of Ben's 39 flavors. His earnest attempt at eluding his permanent assignment to the lighter end of the pop spectrum is a fruitless one. Lee's sound is nothing new, but Tornadoes very narrowly escapes wallowing in the commercial music doldrums that are characterized by repetitive loops, tedious choruses, and meticulous studio orchestration -- very narrowly. In fact, one begins to wonder if we're not predisposed to liking Ben Lee because of the very things this review initially set out to ignore.
2.5 stars -- Leigh-Ann Jackson
THE FLATIRONSPrayerbones (Checkered Past)
An alt.country quintet from Portland, Ore., the Flatirons are aiming to rise from soggy city fame to greater prominence on the back of Prayerbones, their Checkered Past debut. And while all the ingredients of the "don't call me alt.country" alt.country package are there -- the laconic guitar, the bits of mandolin bubbling up from the mix, the eclectic inspirations, the velvet chanteuse softness of Wendy Pate's dreamy voice -- they don't add up. Or rather, they do add up, but to the same answer every time. Prayerbones starts with the atmospheric slow burn of "Heaven Help You," and ends 13 songs later with the atmospheric slow burn of "Lullaby," and when all is said and done, it's hard to remember just where one song ended and the next began. The songs sound good in isolation -- "New Pair of Shoes" has a certain moody allure, as does "Bad Seeds," and several others -- but packaged together, they quickly lose their impact. Even an unexpected cover of Ozzy's "Crazy Train" gets swallowed in that sound. Lost in the blur are a few fine tunes ("Three Crosses," "Lullaby"), but they come too little and too late to save the album from itself.
2 stars -- Jay Hardwig
JOE HENRYFuse (Mammoth)
Joe Henry has tried on a lot of different musical personas in his quest to find an audience that rises above cult status: Seventies revivalism on the grand Murder of Crows, a pitch-perfect rendition of roots-rock on Kindness of the World, and a dicey embrace of trip-hop aesthetics on '96's Trampoline and the brand new Fuse. None of it, not even marrying Madonna's sister, has gotten him the listenership he's looking for. Which is a drag, though Henry's songs -- featuring writerly lyrics that lean toward the wordy -- sound like the sort written by someone who gets something out of his craft even without a mass response. How does Fuse stand up on its own? Reasonably well -- not as great as Kindness or Murder, but less hit-and-miss than Short Man's Room or Trampoline. Henry's newfound penchant for drum loops and atmospheric guitars is probably an attempt to tap into what's powerful about, say, Morcheeba, but all too often it comes off as a retread of New Romanticism. It doesn't help that these wide-open spaces emphasize the croakier aspects of Henry's voice, which at its best can carry a song, but here drags a few fine ones down. I've never seen him put on a bad live show, though, and here's hoping that onstage he pushes his way past his studio fussiness.
3 stars -- Jeff Salamon
HADACOLBetter Than This (Checkered Past)
Kansas City's Hadacol, named after the potent cough elixir that sponsored Hank Williams' radio show, struggles free of what has become convention among No Depression bands. Hacking with heartfelt melodies and world-weary lyrics, Hadacol rocks with frequent Fender-strangling guitar solos and eschews lush production for a sparser, more muscular sound. "Somebody Lied," in particular, is a railroad-beat rave-up that's closer in spirit to garagey punk rock than to Nashville, complete with a too-much-coffee guitar break; "Big Tornado," on the other hand, tips its gimme cap to Johnny Cash. Mostly, the band swerves toward Sticky Fingers-era Stones, rounding out a nice package of stylistic variation that's the result of having two strong but disparate songwriters in the band. Slower songs make very judicious use of pedal steel, mandolin, and Hammond organ, still keeping a raw, stripped-down sound to the whole. Vivid images of the often dull, sometimes harsh rural Midwest, two able (but not showoffy) guitar players, and weatherbeaten melodies that sound familiar but fresh; this is a band you ought to be able to turn on the radio and hear.
3.5 stars -- Jerry Renshaw
SPARKLEHORSEGood Morning Spider (Capitol)
Even not-so-attentive listeners will notice that on his second album, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous repeats a few gimmicks from his '95 debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. The abrupt shifts from folkie quiet to headbanging noise, the trebly guitars, the megaphone vocals -- they're all here again, which means Linkous is either a three-trick pony or a distinct stylist, depending on how indulgent you're feeling. Chances are, Good Morning Spider will have you feeling mildly, but not terribly, indulgent. Linkous' personality has survived the physical travails he suffered since Vivadixiesubgenreregressionplotz -- that wee-small-hours-of-the-morning-after feel haunts this album as eerily as it did the first one. But nothing here slams as hard as Winndixiesub marinesandwichplop's "Someday I Will Treat You Good" and nothing weeps as gently as "Heart of Darkness." And it's not a good sign that the catchiest tune was written by Daniel Johnston. Still, devotion is a funny thing, and even if Linkous hasn't come up with the tunes this time, Good Morning Spider still finds itself on my stereo with respectable frequency. I guess after four years it's just nice to hear his voice attached to some new, even if inferior, songs. Next time around, though, I hope he's not begging my indulgence.
3 stars -- Jeff Salamon
GAZA STRIPPERSLaced Candy (Man's Ruin)
This tightly wound, woofer-blowing exercise is a big rubber dunce stamp on the forehead of anyone doubting the perpetual endurance of sock-in-the-pants rock & roll. Chicago's Gaza Strippers run through the 10 songs on Laced Candy like a bullet train, but not before former Didjit guitarist/vocalist Rick Sims cultivates a perfect blend of Raw Power swagger and cheese-laden coliseum bombast. Close your eyes during one of Sims' solos and you'll see James Williamson doing a walk-on with KISS at the L.A. Forum circa 1975. Sims' high-pitched vocals also pack a bit of meat, especially on lyrics like "I'm an ape/Let me suck on your face" and "You are the scissors and we are the rock." Such tongue-in-cheek phrasings give Laced Candy a hint of parody, but the Gaza Strippers never let that override their primary mission of turning it loose for the plebiscites. The six-minute barn-burner "Yin and Yang the Flower Pot Man" closes the album with lighter-raising flair by crossing a hammer-down 2/4 beat and an indecent guitar display that spins wildly out of control at the song's conclusion. This would make an excellent soundtrack for the all-but-inevitable World's Scariest Police Chases movie.
3 stars -- Greg Beets
HIVEDevious Methods (ffrr)
With samples and loops ranging from the Bad Brains to Ministry, Devious Methods is a whack party game waiting to happen. Check it out: Get your friends and a couple of six packs and see who can identify all the stolen merchandise -- you get one, you get a beer/schnapps/Stoli/whatever. If that sounds too collegiate for you, you can always sit back with a William Gibson novel and imagine Hive as the soundtrack to your techno-nightmares. Half sly electronica, half Mad Hatter invention, this is one of the most ambitious offshoots of the modern electro movement since Pop Will Eat Itself ate itself. That's not to say their everything-and-the-kitchen-sink methods aren't occasionally overwhelming; they are, but then that's what it's all about for Hive -- more structured noise for your music dollar. Tracks like "Inside the Hive" thrum with a junglized video-game atmosphere, replete with clickbeep backgrounds, while the epic, three-movement "Moves Within Time" that closes the CD has the dreamy, hypnotic pulse that Goldie strived so hard for and lost on his recent Saturnz Return outing. Clearly a work of spastic genius, Devious Methods bears repeated listening if only to catch all those creepily pretty samples that lie scattered all over the devious landscape like so much sonic roadkill.
3.5 stars -- Marc Savlov
JUAN ATKINSWax Trax! Master Mix Vol. 1 (Wax Trax!/TVT)
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Detroit native Juan Atkins (Cybotron, Model 500), who -- along with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May -- founded the Detroit techno sound way back in the hedonistic early Eighties, makes a triumphant return to the forefront of the music he helped create. Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express may be a distant memory in the collective unconscious of hoary old-skoolers these days (and no more than a reptilian blip in the cerebral cortexes of everyone else), but Atkins has never been one to give up the ghost. Master Mix Vol. 1 is chockablock with clickbeep hummings, deeply mixed drones, and the technological impurities that scream "Detroit!" as much as Paul Oakenfold's mixes holler "Oi! London!" Tracks such as "Rhythm Is Rhythm" and "Model 500" graze amongst fields of organic technology; Philip K. Dick would've loved this garrulous, buzzing brainbomb of a CD. It's as if handbag house never happened.
3 stars -- Marc Savlov
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