MARCH 23, 1998:
TITO & TARANTULA
Although the title sounds like a Quentin T. cult, Tarantism is clearly
a codeword. Speak it to unlock the secrets of the dark soul. Walk this way with the
man whose eyes bore deathlessly into your skull and let him guide you as you travel
down, down, down the blood-red highway. That soundtrack you're hearing? The smooth-as-black-leather
guitar laid up against fiery rhythms and lyrics glowering like the lake of fire?
That would be Tito Larriva, from El Paso by way of L.A., riding cool behind the wheel,
boot to the metal, flooring it to the devil stomp of "Angry Cockroaches"
or easing around the wicked sway of "Sweet Cycle" ("Who am I to complain/about
a little earthly pain?"). What's Larriva muttering under his breath, his eyes
black as pitch? Oh, just a few stories about the usual... love, lust, desperation,
killing. Feeling a little jumpy? Close your eyes and dream of angels that weep and
women with tattoos in their eyes. Go ahead and pray for redemption, if you dare -
it comes at you like a hot wind; even when Tito shuffles along to "Strange Face
of Love" it's scant comfort to the bump and grind of "After Dark."
Relax, it's gonna be a long night, but you're in good hands. Just don't look over
More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96 (Bloodshot)
Built on the foundation of three fairly stunning
solo albums, More Miles Than Money represents the closure of a creative cycle
for Alejandro Escovedo. Honing his songs, his band, and his live show in the years
preceding the release of his third and best solo outing, 1996's With These Hands,
the longtime Austin icon sunk a lot of hopes and dreams into his short-lived partnership
with Rykodisc, in part because his being on the boutique indie finally meant a return
to major label distribution. And it was during the extensive touring that came in
the wake of With These Hands that Escovedo came into his own as a solo act,
if not as a musician. More Miles Than Money captures this creative zenith
from the outset, establishing the dark, rapturous mood of Escovedo's live sets with
the mournful opener, "Last to Know" ("More miles than money, we fall
in love and it's never funny"), and holding it for an hour until he brings the
proceedings crashing down with the medley, "Gravity/Falling Down Again/Street
Hassle." In between, there are elegant, sometimes stark versions of set staples
such as the Jagger/Richards classic "Sway," "She Doesn't Live Here
Anymore," and "Slip," featuring the dreamy lead lines of guitarist
Joe Eddy Hines, who distinguishes himself throughout the album. With the possible
exception of Escovedo's usual set closer "I Wanna Be Your Dog" landing
three songs before the end of the disc, More Miles Than Money is an excellent
culmination of this unique songwriter's post True Believers solo career.
World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat)
There is nothing special about this album. There are no African
a cappella choirs, no Philharmonic orchestras, no tricked-out miking jobs
to make the music sound 40 years old. And that's what makes World in a Drop of
Water, this Austin-based singer-songwriter's third album, so good: It's simple
and pure. It's just Fracasso and a few others - Charlie Sexton (who also produced),
Dave McNair, Mac McNabb, plus brief appearances from Andrew DuPlantis and Kelly Willis
- but really, at the end of the day, it's just Fracasso's voice, that slightly quavering
voice which sounds like it has survived every emotional catastrophe possible and
has come back even richer for the wear. It's Fracasso's greatest asset, and he really
mines its emotional range, carefully exploiting it on the relatively lavish "Gold"
and the heartbreaking "Your Gift to Me," then playing it with a more restrained
and fitting plainness on "Started on the Wrong Foot." And as backing soundtrack,
the entire album is very stark and understated, with the melodies of "Chain
Link Fence" being just enough to buoy Fracasso's voice without smothering it.
There's nothing fancy about World in a Drop of Water, not that you would ever
expect that from Michael Fracasso, but it's smart of him nonetheless to just open
his mouth and let his voice do the talking.
NEKO CASE & HER BOYFRIENDS
The Virginian (Bloodshot)
It starts with the rat-a-tat-tat of two sticks
on a snare drum and a clean, snappy Fender country lead kicking the band into gear
- the upright bass beating like a heart while the mandolin flutters at the chorus.
Two voices drop in with a drop-dead perfect tenor harmony, her voice nasal and steady,
his just as flat and smooth: "Way down in bowling green, prettiest girls
I've ever seen/A man in Kentucky sure is lucky to lie down in bowling green
- yeah." It stops you like the first time you heard the Everly Brothers
hit those notes, which is appropriate since they covered "Bowling Green."
Then Neko Case steps back from the mike, closes her eyes, and lets her voice fill
the song like sunlight parting drawn blinds: "Kentucky sunshine makes the heart
unfold, warms the body, I know it touches the soul." Stretching
and rounding the syllables on "unfold," "touches" and "soul,"
you know it right then and there: It's no coincidence Case shares a birthdate and
birthplace with Patsy Cline (you can just imagine the field day the press is having
with that angle). Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, it's all there. If you don't
know it on "Bowling Green," Case's coquettish howl on "Karoline,"
a twanging, banging, slamming two-step, or the equally raucous rockabilly
"Honky Tonk Hiccups" make their point like an iron on branding day. And
the balladry? Forget about it. Ernest Tubb, Dave Edmunds, Wanda Jackson - Rosie Flores
- are all influences as well as musical and spiritual antecedents to Canadian/Virginian
Case, who even throws a Queen cover on at the end of this 32-minute gem, "Misfire."
Misfire? Try bullseye.
The Northeast Kingdom (E Squared)
It's breakthrough time - time for Cheri Knight to go beyond
"former Blood Oranges bassist" and an obscurity known only to No Depression
subscribers and be recognized as a great American musician in the making. With help
from Emmylou Harris and E Squared CEO Steve Earle, this could be the album which
accomplishes that - or at least bangs open the door. Not that Knight is suddenly
doing things different; hers is still a mix of Appalachian and Irish inspiration
painted across a bed of screaming guitars - the kind she and mandolinist Jimmy Ryan
(present here) created with the Blood Oranges. Only now, she's perfected it. It has
gone beyond novelty and become a powerful vehicle for her lost highway songwriting
and entrancing voice. She sings like a less technically perfect Kelly Willis (the
imperfections are to her advantage), and she's learned how to make choruses like
"Here we go/ round the bend/ one more time" (from "Dead Man's Curve")
ring through your head incessantly, to be exorcised only by a thousand listens. Highlight
of the album goes to "Sweetheart," a turn-of-the-century-style ballad jetted
into the rock age, wherein she wails "Sweetheart, do you favor another?"
and you can hear her heart breaking as clearly as an instrument being played. Iris
DeMent fans: get to this SXSW showcase an hour early and discover your new favorite
Skull Orchard (Sugar Free)
Certainly the title of Jon Langford's debut references
a cemetery, but this Mekon and Waco Brother also presents a stark, muscular narrative
of the economic death, decay, and devastation he knows being raised in industrial
Britain and currently living in Chicago. Langford unpacks these ugly hyper-realities
(the lost lives and depressed dreams of skeletal mining, shipping, and factory towns)
in 15 tunes, each an impression of the Skull Orchard theme. When Langford sings "too
many stations/ too many corporations /too many billboards /too many chains"
in "Trap Door," they ring with the truth of a transatlantic rust belt prophet.
"Inside the Whale," a fiddle-flavored tune about hopes of a new life stifled
by hard thankless jobs, pulls no punches either: "We saw a better world just
around the corner... Big clear dreams arising over the event horizon/But no light
escapes/Inside the whale." Langford grabs hold with the inaugural punk-scorched
drive of "Tubby Brothers" and doesn't let up until the last chords of "Tom
Jones Levitation" evaporate from memory. The result may not be easy listening,
but there's hope: Musical catharsis is a consummate way to deal with the pain.
Let Them Eat Pussy (Amphetamine Reptile)
When a no-holds-barred label like AmRep decides
to ship an album in a plain white wrapper, you better believe you're in for some
dumb-fuck prurience strategically designed to raise the ire of cops and judges in
states like Florida. It was only a matter of time before someone "snatched"
Ted Nugent's Double Live Gonzo introduction to "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang"
for a band moniker, and to their ultimate credit, Nashville Pussy does everything
exactly how you'd expect a band called Nashville Pussy to do things. Blaine Cartright
from Nine Pound Hammer and his axe-slinging wife Ruyter Suys lead the quartet through
27 minutes of fuzzy, VU meter-paralyzing assault that makes you wanna go drink lots
of beer. Imagine Motorhead, bred in the Smoky Mountains, bashing you upside the head
with tunes like "Go Motherfucker Go," "Somebody Shoot Me," and
"All Fucked Up." Throw in a seriously bastardized cover of Smokey Robinson's
"First I Look at the Purse" (which isn't about handbags), and you're guaranteed
a roomful of hand-wringing mothers in under 30 minutes. Now that's efficiency!
New Rock (Grand Royal)
Living an ocean away from the mean streets of Compton, and an ocean and a continent
away from the Bronx projects, Japanese youth pick up the signals of American music
with only the crudest notions of the social context it springs from (just like white
kids from Scarsdale!). What they often send back our way is a pleasantly rootless
revision of our sounds - the giddy punk of Cibo Matto, the helium-weight disco revivalism
of Pizzicato Five, the gaudy Brian Wilson update of Cornelius. Add to that list Buffalo
Daughter, whose second US release, New Rock, is actually something new, something
borrowed, and a couple of things that blew until these three "Japanese funk
savants" worked their recombinant magic on them. As song titles like "R&B
(Rhythm and Basement)" and "Socks, Drugs and Rock'n'roll" might clue
you in, this is music about music, with damn little on its mind but frivolity. From
the hip-hop beats of "Great Five Lakes" to the tensile funk of "No
New Rock" (a reference to the classic No Wave sampler, No New York) to
the jammy psychedelia of "Sky High," New Rock arrives from the Empire
of the Sun boldly waving its Made in the USA label.
Dig My Mood (Upstart)
It was James Brown who first taught me not to be ashamed
of my love for torch and twang - "Prisoner of Love" to be exact. It was
Nick Lowe who first taught me not to be ashamed of my sense of humor and pop obsession
- "Marie Provost" and "Cruel to Be Kind" to be exact. Now, with
the release of Dig My Mood, something has come full-circle. Lowe has always
been a master of melancholy - a sucker for a gut-wrencher - like George Jones or
Hank, Sr. Even at his Stiff-est, the Jesus of cool always let a classic artery, giving
a bloody tip of the brim to his own heroes (including a certain ex-father-in-law).
Dig My Mood is directly from the heart of this timeless troubadour - not wholly
unlike 1994's ingenious and critically touted The Impossible Bird - but with
perhaps a few new tricks. In "Man That I've Become," he's as black as Johnny
Cash; in "You Inspire Me," he's as seductive as Nat King Cole; in "Lead
Me Not," he's as lean and mean as Marvin Gaye; but in "What Lack of Love
Has Done" and "High on a Hilltop" he is 100% Nick Lowe, penning, strumming,
and crooning two of the finest songs he's ever given.
Sound is a playground for Cornelius, the Japanese techno-wonder responsible for
Fantasma. Even more than a playground, it' a circus and he's the ringmaster.
On his Matador debut, Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada) has proven himself above
and beyond the candy-pop world that gave rise to acts like himself and Pizzicato
Five. He hears and uses everything, a cacophony of found and engineered sounds, of
programmed music and played instruments (all of them himself), melding it all into
a symphony of ecstatic pop proportions. As ringmaster, Oyamada himself is a necessary
presence, and he makes himself known. When the rocking "Free Fall" is suddenly
twisted and slowed in a straining of tape, or when the seemingly electronic hum of
the final track is cut short by a breath and a sigh, we are suddenly lifted from
the musical place where Cornelius has put us and reminded that this is, indeed, a
circus, and anything is possible. And all of it is a masterfully built prelude to
"Thank You for the Music," the album's whopping endpiece, a sprawling tribute
to the sounds that make up the world around us, starting with the "Hey you guuuuys"
yell from the Electric Company and strolling merrily through some sunny-day
country music with banjo, harmonica, and the spirit of the Beach Boys. It may not
be the greatest show on Earth, but it's pretty close for a 13-song pop album.
When Aussie Richard Davies formed the one-shot
duo Cardinal with orchestral pop revivalist/Sub Pop recording artist Eric Matthews,
you could hear his music shifting. Where his previous band, the Moles, did everything
in their power to obscure Davies' knack for hookcraft, Cardinal luxuriated in it.
On his second solo album, Telegraph, Davies doles out the hooks with an even
more impressive intensity. Though song titles like "Confederate Cheerio Call"
and "Main Street Electrical Parade" suggest he's up to his old obscurantist
tricks, it's the sounds that count, and the ones on display here are the most radio-friendly
Davies has ever come up with. After its time-keeping intro, "Cantina" kicks
into the jangly guitar line Davies has spent his whole life waiting for. There's
urgency in Davies' voice, too, as well as in the lyrics ("The river overflows
its banks too many times a year/I guess you know it and you feel it near"),
but as always, any attempt at determining the song's meaning pulls you further and
further away from the very notion of meaning. Again and again, Davies simulates a
perfect pop song - right down to the tiniest details and the broadest emotional resonances
- only to drop the pretense of approachability when you investigate too closely.
The neat thing is, the mask is so beautiful you're rarely tempted to look behind
All the Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood)
With All the Pain Money Can Buy, Fastball has finally
justified our love. While not a radical departure, this Austin trio's sophomore effort
is a noticeable variation on the insouciant power pop of their debut, Make Your
Mama Proud. Pain is bigger and broader. It's catchier and cleaner. It's fuller
and funner (okay, "more fun" is correct, but it would have killed the alliteration
and parallelism). It's the Kodachromatic that David Lowery tried but failed to make
with The Golden Age. If there is any failure here, it's that Miles, Tony,
and Joey have neglected to leave things sufficiently meaningless. Today's chart toppers
are infectiously inane. "Mmm Bop"? I defy you to find anything indicating
a thought anywhere in that song. "Wannabe"? If the Spice Girls weren't
cute enough to gawk at, they'd be flogged for being vacuous then disposed of accordingly.
On Pain, the words are a little bit more than just phrases to hang a melody
on, but not so much that they turn into sermons. In fact, if there is anything religious
in Pain, it's the way Fastball celebrates and worships all that is pop, paying
homage to everybody from the icons of the Beatles and Elvis Costello to bit players
like Peter Noone and Greg Kihn.
Communication Breaks (Die Young Stay Pretty)
Where Nirvana pumped up the Pixies' extreme dynamic
range with angst and psychomelodrama, Track Star take that same formula of soft/loud,
fast/slow, and break it down into manageable pieces - as if after Kurt's flameout
we've all learned to be real careful about how much of ourselves to put on the line
in a three-and-a-half minute pop song. Not so much self-consciously lo-fi as purposefully
Spartan, Communication Breaks also sounds like an update of the Minutemen's
tense miniaturism. Squeezing 16 songs into 73 minutes (a misleading number, because
the last track features the same two-chord guitar riff repeated for 29 minutes),
this San Francisco trio make each note count (not counting the two they repeat for
29 minutes). The singer whispers most of the time, his voice occasionally leaping
to a shout; the guitarist is well-versed in the use of feedback and distortion, the
bassist keeps things rolling when everything else drops out, and the drummer knows
how to crash his cymbals when the moment calls for it. The listener doesn't do so
The eponymous debut of Hai Karate (a side project for Gas Huffer's Don Blackstone)
is like a cannon shot - a quick, riveting blast. Quick: At 18 minutes, all nine songs
could fit on one LP side. Riveting: Hai Karate's music is similar to Gas Huffer's
straight ahead brand of rock & roll, but with more amped-up grit. Blast: The
tempo is consistently driving, from the feedback fueled "Everyday Thing"
to the powerhouse "Bad Luck." In "Rehab," the San Francisco quartet
knows it's not necessary to sing every morpheme clearly; if you possess a heartbeat
you'll get the message loud and clear, the words written on an aural wall built by
humbuckers and jumping amp stacks. In the bridge of "Bad Luck," a flanger
guitar wrestles with a nasty harmonica, sounding like the Buckeye State's New Bomb
Turks on an angry day. Maybe most of the songs sound the same, but Hai Karate ain't
aiming for the diversity prize here. This album is more about expelling their spleens,
because anger without release is a bad, bad thing. So grab a beer, nod your head,
and let it out with a Hai Karate kick.
Rock 'N' Roll Spook Party (Estrus)
This 17-minute, 12-song spin is as much bad fun as a meal
of candy corn, caramel apples, chocolate cupcakes, and malt liquor. That may send
some folks to the emergency room, but the chosen ones will be nodding and grinning
their sugar-heightened approval. The 1-4-5s' biggest attribute is their total lack
of real or imagined street credibility. They put on their helmets and play sub-elemental
garage rock laden with cheap distortion because it's fun. There's no underlying subtext
of latent hostility to get in the way of the nonstop rock action. This local band
also writes catchier-than-hell songs that say what needs to be said quicker than
you can heat up your lunch cup; "Special 4th Class" is a daisies-for-roses
punk love song that celebrates every cottage label's favorite postage rate. Drummer
Lady Ace commandeers lead vocal duties from Travis Higdon on "Theme to Double
A," righteously proclaiming that she's the double-A battery that powers the
1-4-5s. Throw in a sloppy and enthusiastic cover of "Greased Lightnin'"
and you're just about ready for a bottle of pink stuff and a few bland diet days.
The Dwarves are Young and Good Looking (Greedy/Epitaph)
Few bands embody the brevity-is-a-virtue axiom as thoroughly
as San Francisco's Dwarves. Their 20-minute, smash-'em-up sets are the stuff of legend,
but what often gets lost in the sideshow hoopla is the way the band's hypersonic
invocation of the Motor City is Burning Class of 1969 hits you right between the
eyes like a poison-tipped arrow. Clocking in at an unprecedented 39 minutes, The
Dwarves are Young and Good Looking finds the band moving a few blocks away from
total self-immolation in favor of superior production and sharpened songwriting.
But mature? Not on your life, bub. The Dwarves still spew forth a ribald, ass-slapping
energy overdose that cleanses you in the fine tradition of aversion therapy. "Everybodies
Girl" in particular is a pop tune in punk's clothing that singer Blag Dahlia
rips through with Stooge-like aplomb. This lyrical highlight from "Pimp"
clarifies the band's intentions quite succinctly: "Don't wanna be your pastor/I
wanna be your master/I'm just a fucking bastard/I wanna be your pimp." At this
point, is it really necessary to say the Dwarves aren't recommended for the easily
offended or faint of heart?
All Over the Land (Flydaddy)
Before Flydaddy Records came along, what did we
accept as evidence of the existence of beauty in this world? How did we manage to
rise up every morning, put on our clothes, and start the day before this label devoted
to all things jangly gave us Cardinal, Number One Cup, and Witch Hazel? It's best
not to ponder such questions for very long; better to simply add to that gilded roster
the Boston quartet Syrup USA. The unicorn on the cover of their debut, All Over
the Land, clues us into who will grok this music: Riot Grrrls Who Read Every
Book in Anne McCaffrey's Perth Series Cover to Cover Before Nirvana Changed
Their Lives (And the Boys Who Love Them). Frontwoman Seana Carmody (ex-Swirlies)
sings like Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier sometimes, but unlike those Frog ironists,
this band hasn't given up on rock - in fact, they love the stuff. "People of
the Lake" kicks off the album with the same guitar line that haunted Sea and
Cake's "Parasol," and "Vaporized" launches its fan-girl musings
with this couplet, "I found your records all over Lexington/REM and OMD."
If Carmody's spirited vocals and muscular tunes are the group's calling card, Matt
Fein's keyboards - particularly that Farfisa! - are the secret reason All Over
the Land has spent the past few weeks all over my stereo.
Bothy Culture (Rykodisc)
If the photo of a Puckish white man with dreads and an interesting hat on the
back of this CD is Martyn Bennett, the picture says a thousand words; Bothy Culture
is so frustrating as to be both appealing and annoying. There's a trend in these
days of Celtic renaissance to embrace the various aspects of its history within music;
fellow Canadian Loreena McKennitt does so with amazing proficiency. Bennett's approach
is far less classical than McKennitt's, but his music can be just as rich (his first
CD was tellingly called Jacobite Bebop). It's when the experimental road forks,
however, that Bennett takes a decidedly more avant-garde approach - so much so that
the opening tracks sound like New Age fusion (go ahead, name two more annoying genres
to combine). Up against the starkly modern trip-hop beats of the opening track, "Tongues
of Kali," are layered bagpipes and vocals that Bennett himself describes as
"a pile of twaddle," yet by the album's second track, the dreamy fiddle
of "Aye?" is as entrancing as the best work of Jean-Luc Ponty. Call me
a reluctant fan then, because by album's end, with "Yer Man From Athlone,"
and "Waltz for Hector," Bennett's vision has successfully blended tradition
with neon technology and urban culture. Now, the question is, how does he do that
May I Come In? (Heart Beat)
First off, this is not a jazz album. Though best known to
local audiences as one of Austin's finest jazz singers - as well as the producer
of the annual "Women in Jazz" concert series - Hart's full-length debut
is anything but jazz, taking its cues instead from modern R&B and soul music.
In fact, it isn't until a piano solo on the title track, three-quarters of the way
through May I Come In?, that the word "jazz" might even enter into
play. John Mills' soprano sax solo on the next tune, "Second Time Around,"
and Ephram Owens' flugel horn work on another marvelous Rich Harney composition,
"You've Been Haunting My Dreams," sets the listener up for the exquisite
album closer "(I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over" - the tune which best
suits Hart's sublime voice - but by this time the album has already chosen its course.
Whether it's Hart's own compositions, "I Want You to Be My Man" and "Catch
Yourself," two of the album's best tracks, or schmaltzy pop like "Though
I'm Alone" and the horribly Streisand-esque Michel Legrand number, "What
Are You Doing With the Rest of Your Life," this local diva's smooth, sensuous
delivery is maddeningly alluring. But even if Hart is backed by some of the Austin's
best jazz talent, this still isn't a jazz album. It's an Anita Baker album. And a
damn fine one at that.
Having spent the better part of this decade touring
and recording with the Allman Brothers, it's not surprising that guitarist Warren
Haynes and bassist Allen Woody have attempted to capture the spontaneous interplay
of that band for their second outing on Capricorn (one-time home of the Allman Brothers).
Too bad Dose has neither concert craziness nor rare studio diversity. Tunes
like "Birth of the Mule" and Son House's "John The Revelator"
prove that this Southern rock trio (with Matt Abts on drums) is a potent force in
the genre - and next to 801's space glam version of "Tomorrow Never Knows,"
Gov't Mule's rendering of "She Said She Said" goes down as one of the better
Revolver covers out there - but while Gov't Mule's molasses heavy grooves
can be sweet, they can also get bogged down: Interesting playing doesn't always translate
into interesting listening. And where's Woody and Haynes' near-legendary acoustic
account of "Afro-Blue?" While Dose may be the work of a tight electric
power trio recorded flawlessly, Gov't Mule could have mixed the punch a little stronger.
Just Won't Burn (Tone-Cool)
The world needs more talented women blues musicians, or more accurately, the ones
consistently playing their asses off need more attention and exposure. But a blues
player with a music degree from Berkeley? Isn't a college degree the antithesis to
the blues? In some cases perhaps, but the Boston-born Tedeschi has street cred, logging
many miles on the road. In addition to touring, however, blues musicians must be
able to cover the standards well. After Sippi Wallace and Bonnie Raitt's defining
version of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," you'd have to be brave
or stupid to record another version, but Tedeschi does a respectable job with it.
Then again Tedeschi can afford to be confident in song selection as her voice, gritty
and powerful, yet highly soulful, simply knocks your socks off. As one of the five
Tedeschi-penned tunes, "Looking for Answers" displays a developing songwriter
who can play tasteful jazz-flavored blues licks with ease. She may still be honing
her chops, but this blues mama will only get better with time.
Wrong Side of Memphis (Checkered Past)
Johnny Dowd was born in Ft. Worth, Texas, but it's safe to
say the execution state's Office of Tourism won't be using his songs for a TV spot
anytime soon. From the shuddering first words of Wrong Side of Memphis ("there's
been a murder here today"), to the apocalyptic entropy ending ("welcome
Jesus, to this dismal swamp"), Dowd presses hard on your soul and doesn't let
up, but damn if you don't love every analog minute of it. The jarring delivery of
"Fort Worth, Texas" spins a death row story, "I shot my girlfriend
and watched her die/then turned the gun on me, but I aimed a little high," while
"Wages of Sin" tells the tale of Johnny Guitar, raised by a Christian mother,
who "was evil and followed the neon lights," complete with a late Fifties
sci-fi soundtrack. The sasquatsch bass line and film noir keyboard of "Just
Like a Dog" takes you on carnival rides that leave you feverish and dazed, but
relishing the ride. Dowd's song structure may not be vastly different than anything
you've heard before, but what he does within that structure is like nothing else.
If music is cathartic, then Dowd, who currently makes a living as a moving man in
upstate New York, wrestles with some seriously bad ass demons. One has to wonder
how autobiographical this very intense debut really is. I am afraid to ask, but I
can't wait to see the man preach his salvation live.
DON MCCALISTER, JR.
Down in Texas (Appaloosa)
Maybe it's because he looks more like a computer programmer than a country musician.
Perhaps if he got a big cowboy hat or slicked back his hair and put on a hip Nudie
suit. Nah, scratch that. Don McCalister is just fine the way he is. The best way
for him to break through into the upper echelon of Austin's overloaded country scene
is just to keep playing great music, the kind that attracts help from the likes of
Jesse Taylor, Doug Sahm, Champ Hood, Ernie Durawa, and Floyd Domino. If you haven't
discovered McCalister yet (and odds are you haven't) and you love sweet songwriting,
good Western swing (including the woefully forgotten clarinet), and covers ranging
from Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt to "Steel Guitar Rag," this album
is as good a place as any to start. If you have already discovered McCalister,
chances are you might recognize some of these songs from previous recordings. Don't
let that deter you - you won't be disappointed. Whatever McCalister may lack in name
recognition, he more than makes up for with a musical sensibility as informed by
Texas traditions as anything this side of Don Walser.
Little Ship (Virgin)
Sixteen. This is record number 16 for Loudon Wainwright. That's impressive longevity,
made more impressive by the fact that over 99 people out of 100 don't know who Loudon
Wainwright is; if there's any business that doesn't reward anonymity it's the music
biz. Nonetheless, the man who was once called the next Bob Dylan (who hasn't?) as
well as the next Melanie (who has?) embarks again on another musical journey with
Little Ship. And here's a question for you: What's the difference between
Little Ship and Shawn Colvin's last album, A Few Small Repairs? If
you said Shawn Colvin, you're wrong. Like that Grammy winner, Ship was produced
by John Leventhal and features him on guitar. Moreover, they both have the work of
drummer Shawn Pelton, and multi-instrumentalist Rick DePofi all over them; and, oh
yeah, Colvin even sings on a couple songs on Ship. It's only natural, then,
that this album sounds uncannily like Repairs at moments, more specifically
its quieter moments as the dry humor and the plain sarcasm of Wainwright - so evident
on previous records - have yielded the floor to more self-serving introspection.
With a very plain and very male voice, it's still unmistakably Loudon Wainwright,
but what better timing for the collaboration to translate into some long-elusive
name recognition? If only the songs were a little bit better...
Pan-American Flash (Checkered Past)
Like BR5-49, Paul Burch is an exponent of Nashville's Lower
Broadway alt.country scene. Before Nashville, Burch honed his interpretations of
Bill Monroe (with whom he played), Pete Seeger, and the Stanley Brothers on the east
side of the continental divide. Not content with simply putting his twist on old
standards, Burch throws his own hat in the ring with 13 original tracks on the aptly
named Pan-American Flash. His tunes are simple - like they were penned on
the fly - and it's this simplicity, which permits reflection, not reaction. Burch's
music harkens back to a time when traveling, usually by train, permitted greater
appreciation for the subtlety of the countryside and its people - perhaps the reason
why the gorgeous smooth lap steel musings of Paul Niehaus work so well throughout.
Likewise, tunes like the Dylan talking blues of "Born To Wait" unfurl with
a slow drawl so you can savor the delivery. You may not find pyrotechnics on Pan
American Flash, but you won't find insipid country histrionics either.
The Luckiest Boy in the World (Knitting Factory)
Oren Bloedow has made his name playing bass with downtown
Manhattan jazz mavericks like Wayne Horvitz and the Lounge Lizards, but he's got
pop aspirations, too; on The Luckiest Boy in the World, Bloedow straps on
the six-string as he and his pals Martin, Medeski, and Wood light out for off-kilter
singer-songwriter territories. "In the Clinch" starts things off in an
oddly fragmentary manner: John Medeski begins with some stop-time piano, Billy Martin
kicks in some martial drumming, Bloedow's voice leaps from the baritone range into
a fragile falsetto like Jeff Buckley barely back from the dead, and then, just as
he starts picking at his guitar, the song fades out. "Endless Tears" and
"Living Room" land in more commercial territory, with the band etching
out a lightly funky sound somewhere between the Spin Doctors and the Dave Matthews
Band - except, you know, good. "Living Room" asks a rather jejune
question ("Why do they call it the living room/When there's no more life than
a frieze on a tomb?") and spins out an appalling child's-eye view of subtly
inflicted domestic terror. It's one sign that the album's titular "luckiest
boy" is invoked ironically. Another is "Do I Have to Take You Outside,"
which sounds like an angry lover's lament until you listen closer and realize it's
a son rebuking his emotionally manipulative dad - a
Lipstick Lies and Gasoline (Razor & Tie)
None other than Lone Star Robert Earl Keen has handpicked Fred Eaglesmith to open
for him on occasion. And listening to their respective stuff, it's easy to see why
the two are simpatico. Both populate their songs with marginal characters
capable of falling completely into redneck ruin. But whereas Keen's characters actually
fall, Eaglesmith's are lucky enough to have their lives slide uneventfully into trailer
park tedium. So, instead of just a country/folk singer, Eaglesmith comes off as an
Americana Tom Waits. On his Razor & Tie debut (home of other acclaimed artists
like Graham Parker and Dar Williams), Eaglesmith pieces together a stark and percussive
genre-challenging album, and whether wound up or broke down, the Alberta-based songwriter
always sounds on edge. He recreates the desolation and desperation of small town
Texas with bleak accuracy, coloring it with just enough brutal sarcasm and cynicism.
Pretty impressive realism, especially since Eaglesmith is from Ontario, which, if
you have any grasp on geography, you'll recognize is not Texas. Not even close.
Gently Down the Stream (Matador)
My dreams are wet - turgid with the water of desire and despair
- and Come's finest album to date isn't helping any. Not since early-Eighties New
York noise gods Rat-at-Rat-R has the sound of two guitars entwined so intimately,
like strands in a DNA spiral. Brandished in rivalry and counter-rhythms one moment,
and nestled back-to-back the next, Thalia Zadek is the knight in black armor and
Chris Brokaw is the one in white. But this is no reductive fairytale about good and
evil. Together, they fend off pain, terror, and dragons that aren't even there; Brokaw's
gentle fervor - like a less-whiney J. Mascis or more cogent Grant Hart - is a nice
mirror to Zadek's cigarette alto. After '96's cabaret-soaked Near Life Experience,
Come is back to gutting minor chords and tapping veins, and while they go after the
blues ("A Jam Blues"), Southern rock ("Stomp"), and even lullabyes
("The Fade-Outs" and "The Former Model"), I'm going to get some
sleep and try to re-ignite these haunting dreams.
Celebration! (Man's Ruin)
In 1993, anyone disoriented enough to opine that
Austin's Fuckemos would still be batting out product five years down the road would
have been goosed out of the room in no time flat. And rightfully so. The Fuckemos
divisive, love-or-hate appeal is grounded in the slippery idea of stumbling toward
relevance by accident and against all reason. Celebration! finds the band
continuing to evade the crash-and-burn with 12 cinderblocks' worth of slobbering
drunk rock hilarity. Give credit to the pitch-shifting vocals of lyrical wünderkind
Russell Porter for keeping things afloat with his terminally depraved wit. Though
the music's ugly veneer combines bad heavy metal card tricks with careless, sneering
boy-punk, there's a surprising pop sensibility beneath that crust. Meanwhile, Russ
regales us with songs about everything from bird droppings and bladder control to
playing tennis and bisexuality. This album will sound best thwacking off solid concrete
walls, but even if your digs are a bit less Spartan, you can count on Celebration!
to scruff things up a bit.
Solex vs. the Hitmeister (Matador)
At their best, the songs on Solex vs. the Hitmeister
are wholly original and groundbreaking, moody music intelligently crafted and assembled
into pop compositions that float just beyond the limits of pop music. "One Louder
Solex" opens up from a muffled drone to a low drum beat and spooky keyboard,
and Solex's voice, dreamy and childlike, is a fine silken thread that holds the samples
together. "Solex Feels Lucky" is a bit more boisterous, the soft, jazzy
little trumpet line that's repeated through this song and woven through the vocal
lines a nice, odd contrast to the chugging drum track. At its lesser moments, though,
it slips into cute tricks for the sake of cute tricks. The unchanging, rote club
beat of "There's a Solex on the Run" makes the mix ring hollow, the samples
seem more an afterthought than anything. And "Solex's Snag" is so noncommittal
it doesn't move at all. For the most part, however, Elisabeth Esselink, the heretofore
unknown Dutch keyboard player and sound collage artist also known as Solex, has hit
on something new and good, squeezing a definite personality from the circuitry she
TO ROCOCO ROT
Paris 25 EP (Trance Syndicate)
So much of what we call techno is an attempt to prove that machines can create
realms of beauty every bit as complex and awe-inspiring as those nature has given
us. Synthesizers peal off layers of sound rich in harmony and overtones like a fast-motion
film of a field of wildflowers blooming over and over. Heretically, Germany's to
rococo rot construct miniature models of anti-techno, again and again giving us the
sound of a computer being stripped down to its essential mechanics. Degraded percussion
tracks, "off" bass tones, and scurrying synth notes circle around each
other then die out when another soul-numbing timbre is ready to emerge. So much for
those rosy visions of a cybernetic utopia where computers assist us in expressing
our innermost spirit. This, to rococo rot seem to say, is the sound of the future;
if you can find beauty in this sonic wasteland, then you should pray for your own
soul. Like their earlier full-length, Veliculo, the Paris EP ofttimes
sounds like a mid-Seventies dub record creakily streaming into your computer via
a faulty modem - King Tubby Meets Rockers Uplink. That makes sense: At their best,
as on the eight-minute "Mit dir in der gegend (sher)," to rococo rot posit
cyberspace as just another Babylonian exile - and then try to find a way to live
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