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APRIL 20, 1998: 

**1/2 Tuscadero

MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

(Elektra)

With a girl/boy line-up and indie-rock past that mirror the recently broken-up Veruca Salt, DC's Tuscadero have a model of sorts on which to base their transition from darlings of the underground to major-league players. Dark, distorted guitars rub up against bright shiny harmonies infused with just a touch of liberated attitude on My Way or the Highway, Tuscadero's second CD and their first big-budget production job. Call it empowered pop, which really isn't a hell of a lot different from the beat the Go-Go's embraced more than a decade ago when they first emerged from the LA punk scene. In fact, there's a strong retro new-wave current running through the best tunes here: a squiggly synth line pops up in "Freak Magnet," a tight and bouncy little number about attracting the wrong element; and the faux funk groove and cool sax soloing on the anti-fashion single, "Paper Dolls," are cheesy in a charming sort of way.

-- Matt Ashare


**1/2 This Perfect Day

C-60

(550 Music)

And the Swedish pop bands keep on coming. Actually, this Scandinavian quintet have little in common with Swedes like the Cardigans, Cinnamon, or Komeda. First of all, lead singer Mats Eriksson is male. Second, the band's brittle guitars and wiggly synth lines are more in the vein of American new-wavers Weezer and the Rentals. Humor and hooks drive TPD's best tunes -- the catchy "Fishtank" and the delightful kiss-off to one-hit wonders "In Two Weeks You Will Be Forgotten." But Eriksson's attempts at an American alterna-rock accent make him sound as if he had a speech impediment; and though the lyrics to "Dolphins" ("We're dolphins in the sea/My dolphin girl and me/We swim from town to town/Two dolphins on the run") are goofy in the extreme, he sings them with what appears to be the utmost seriousness. Maybe this is supposed to be a joke, but the laughs get lost in translation.

-- Mac Randall


*** The Specials

GUILTY 'TIL PROVEN INNOCENT

(Way Cool Music/MCA)

In the midst of the third wave of ska fever arrives the first recording of all new songs by the Specials since 1979. Their absence from the music scene has been salutary: this is a spectacular example of a reunion's heralding major improvements.

The 15 songs here possess real bite and are sequenced suavely. "Call Me Names" catalogues good reasons for paranoia, yet it does so with an oddly reassuring lilt, turning on a chorus of "I'm not afraid of being afraid/I'm only fearful." "Keep On Learning" -- which should have been the album title -- sounds like the bandmembers talking to themselves about their mission. The Achilles' heel of the original outfit was the vocals, too slight to project over the kick-ass rhythm section and bubbly brass. The voices are considerably more full-bodied now, and the band have managed the charming synthesis being simultaneously loose and precise. No mean feat for a group with a history of more spit than polish.

-- Norman Weinstein


**1/2 Sugarsmack

TANK TOP CITY

(Sire)

North Carolina's answer to Boss Hog continue the mean-ass streak that began with the distorto density of their '93 debut, Top Loader, and '95's Spanish Riffs EP. The latter especially is a head-clearing blast of aggression that's an apt preamble to this CD. Clenched tighter than a welterweight's fist, Sugarsmack deliver a hopped-up mix of white-trash blooze and art-punk bluster that's simultaneously obnoxious and hard to resist -- at least some of the time. And though the disc loses steam despite ratcheting up the punk meter midway through, the brooding last track, "Roy," saves the day. Strutting through a junkyard of jagged glass and pop-culture debris, singer Hope Nicholls is the star of this particular sideshow -- she's snide and forceful, in love with vowels in the same feral way as Patti Smith and Polly Jean Harvey. At its most inspired, Sugarmack's riffing, rhythmic toughness can make a lyric about Julia Roberts's mouth ("Jefferson") sound like a switchblade knifing you in the back.

-- Jonathan Perry


** Otis Clay

THIS TIME AROUND

(Bullseye Blues)

Chicago-based soul strongman Otis Clay is a great 'n' gritty vocalist in the tradition of '60s powerhouses like O.V. Wright and Otis Redding. His live shows, where he fronts his own little big bands, are visceral experiences. But his recordings are hit-and-miss. And this one's considerably off-target. Sure, Clay's singing sounds good. With a baker's-dozen set of lyrics about struggling with love and faith, there's no way he's not going to find emotional paydirt. But he's continually undermined by the arrangements, which are too often colored by keyboards, horns, and drums that recall the dawn of the disco era rather than the '60s spirit of deep soul or the Hi Records heyday of the CD's producer, Willie Mitchell (who created the lush, percolating textures of Al Green's early hits). Here the funky beats and sweetening just steamroll the juice out of Clay's performances. Disappointing.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Judas Priest

LIVING AFTER MIDNIGHT: THE BEST OF JUDAS PRIEST

(Columbia/Legacy)

Ann-Margret may have ripped off Rob Halford's motorcycle stage entrance, but nobody ever bested Birmingham's lords of British steel for their searing, economical sound. The twin axes of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton dished out twice the hooks in half the time of other bands. And if you can name a more dynamic post-Robert Plant lieder of the pack than Halford, go play your Michael Bolton tunes elsewhere.

This 16-track anthology surveys the bulk of the quintet's career (skipping their mid-'70s RCA catalogue), concentrating on their glory years, when nascent MTV gave them the exposure radio didn't. (Priest never had a US Top 40 hit.) Five live cuts may seem excessive, but if you've seen Priest in concert, you'll understand the attraction. Plus, nothing beats the sound of a testosterone-addled throng chanting along with "Breaking the Law." You think Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, or any of the pansy LA hair-metal bands would've enjoyed a fraction of their success if Judas Priest hadn't sown the land first? Boy, you've got another think comin'.

-- Kurt B. Reighley


*** John Wesley Harding

AWAKE

(Zero Hour)

The latest from this self-styled English "gangsta folk" artist is a concept album -- an hour-long song cycle that occurs, Owl Creek Bridge-like, in the first groggy moments of wakefulness when the clock radio rouses the singer from sleep, during which time he is haunted by ghosts and reveries and ontological doubts. It's a slight concept that fits with the album's narcoleptic pace. But though Harding's pop songcraft is immaculate, his lyrics witty and tart, and his delivery cool and assured, he doesn't escape the "Elvis Costello-lite" charges that have always dogged him. Still, the expanded sonic palette (from noisier guitars to ghostly Dr. Dre-style synths to telephone noises) keeps things interesting. More important, the storytelling is vivid, from "Window Seat" (about someone whose whole life, from cradle to grave, is spent on an airplane) to "Miss Fortune" (about a foundling boy rescued by a tycoon and raised as a girl). When coupled with sparkling and catchy pop, Harding's cheerfully bitter whimsy ("Baby, we're all gonna burn") is damn near irresistible.

-- Gary Susman


**1/2 Fluorescein

HIGH CONTRAST COMEDOWN

(DGC)

The post-Beck cognoscenti know Silver Lake's place on the rock-and-roll map -- the East Hollywood neighborhood is Southern California's latest pop-rock breeding ground. It's an incestuous kind of scene, in the healthiest sense, and Fluorescein's four members have all done time in various Silver Lake groups.

On High Contrast Comedown, former Lutefisk bassist Greg Mora steps out of the sideman's role to celebrate the primacy of guitar on his own terms. It's a schizophrenic effort that both revels in and rejects LA excess, but at least Mora's musical sensibilities are solid. This native Angeleno song craftsman worships the gentle, trippy Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and trad rock structures even as he playfully deconstructs them. "Cathy's on Crank" is too heavy-handed to match "Jane Says." But the best tracks on High Contrast Comedown -- "Rub (Hold It All)," "The Goldfist Rising," and "Crazy Eights" -- mix colorful visions of madness with compelling kaleidoscopic rock textures.

-- Mark Woodlief



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