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JUNE 8, 1998: 

***1/2 Wayne Hancock

THUNDERSTORMS AND NEON SIGNS

(Ark 21)

It's official: alterna-country is a phee-nomenon. Young country musicians who represent the antithesis of Nashville sensibilities are making headway with audiences entranced by honesty, grit, good times, and grunge delivered in various doses. So what's that got to do with the pure honky-tonk sound of singer/songwriter Wayne Hancock? Well, it helps explain how the young Texan achieved enough success with his '97 Ark 21 disc That's What Daddy Wants to persuade the label to re-release his '95 debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.

Both CDs revel in the pleasures of a heavy string thumping against a stand-up bass, heartfelt but nasal vocals, twanging guitar breaks, weeping and whining steel-guitar backing, and Hank Williams-like originals just as clear and hard-hitting as a bottle of moonshine. On Thunderstorms, Hancock celebrates his hard-won sobriety in an upbeat, rockabilly way, acting as the designated driver in "Double A Daddy." (The "Double A" stands for, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous.) Other cuts swing and sway so convincingly that you'd never notice there are no drums beating out the meter. My dictionary says honky-tonk is a "cheap, noisy bar or dance hall." But my ears say it's Wayne Hancock.

-- Bill Kisliuk


**1/2 Tricky

ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES

(Island)

The trip-hop triumvirate that emerged out of the early-'90s Bristol scene included one groovy collective (Massive Attack), an alluringly cinematic duo (Portishead), and a mumbling maverick by the name of Tricky (a/k/a Adrian Thawes). Less overtly reggae than Massive Attack, pricklier than Portishead, and proclaiming allegiance to rap through his sampling of Public Enemy and his history of gangbanging, Tricky styled himself a hip-hop surrealist, dropping his beats and samples sparsely, favoring implied grooves and out-of-focus melodies. It didn't sound particularly hip-hop on his first two solo discs or on his multi-vocalist side project Nearly God, and it doesn't here on Angels with Dirty Faces, though occasionally you can sense a connection. It's more an abstraction of hip-hop, an aural architectural metaphor that's been lived in long enough to be comfortable but not so long as to have grown dull.

On Angels, Tricky uses a live backing band -- including guitarist Marc Ribot and cellist Jane Scarpantoni -- as well as singer Martine Topley-Bird (a Tricky regular) and, on one tune, PJ Harvey, but everything's so skewed and tweaked that you'd hardly know it. There's something almost heroic about the lengths to which Tricky seems to go to subvert convention, even if it does leave most of the tracks here stripped of any semblance of a hook. "We do this with or without airplay," he points out on "6 Minutes," and you get the sense that he knows this time it'll be mostly without.

-- Matt Ashare


***1/2 Nick Lowe

DIG MY MOOD

(Upstart/Rounder)

For a guy who coined the phrase "pure pop for now people," Nick Lowe's tastes are getting more retro all the time. If you always suspected the had a sentimental streak behind the wise-guy exterior, here's the proof: 12 songs, all sad and/or romantic, none "pure pop" in his usual sense. For the first time there's no Beatles overtones, no lead guitar, and no sense of humor. In the past, he would have worked a ballad like "You Inspire Me" for irony; here he does it straight-up and charming -- hip lounge bands should learn this one immediately. That's the one happy moment on an album where he masters the heartbroken country/soul ballad: "Cold Grey Light of Dawn," whose strings recall Elvis Presley's Memphis sessions, is as rocking as it gets.

But Lowe has never sung better -- on "Freezing" he finally becomes a crooner -- and the rootsy turn serves him well. The swampy "Lead Me Not," the '60s soul homage "What Lack of Love Has Done," and the dark cabaret-ish "Faithless Lover" are the kind of songs he's been trying to write for years. And the deeply jaded "Man That I've Become" is the best of his Johnny Cash ready-mades. Lowe remains a canny producer, using brushed drums, close-miked vocals, and echoed room sound to get a late-night ambiance that sounds finely crafted and tossed off at once. It's enough to make you stop wishing he'd get together with Dave Edmunds again.

-- Brett Milano


*** Massive Attack

MEZZANINE

(Virgin)

So tell me again: what was trip-hop? Did anyone ever really know? Well that may be a moot point now that one of tip-hop's principal exemplars has moved far beyond the bounds of this always dubious subgenre. Combining Jamaican dub with Middle Eastern motifs and ambient soul with all-out rock, Massive Attack are back with 11 tracks that are both completely danceable and unremittingly ominous. Mezzanine's first track, "Angel," gets things off to a roaring start, climaxing with a burst of distorted guitars that makes the band's choice of moniker more appropriate than ever. "Man Next Door" transmutes a sample from the Cure's "10:15 Saturday Night" into a doom-laden soundscape dominated by cavernous drums and swirling synths. The airy, pronunciation-challenged singing of Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser graces three tracks here, the most notable being "Teardrop," with its somber death-knell piano. Not exactly full of indelible melodies, this is music that can easily fade into the background if you let it; but give it your attention and it will reveal a depth of texture that expands over repeated listenings.

-- Mac Randall


**1/2 Hayden

THE CLOSER I GET

(Outpost)

Neil Young and Kurt Cobain may have demonstrated deeper skills for communicating their psychic turmoil from the get-go than this 24-year-old, but the promise of Hayden's 1996 folk-grunge debut was that you had to pull After the Gold Rush and MTV Unplugged in New York off the shelf in order to be sure. Now, after hooking up with a full-fledged rock band and several major producers, our Canadian upstart deflates that promise in ways both good and bad. The good is a series of gently depressive rockers that are looser and sweeter than anything off his debut, with open-ended lyrics, swinging rhythms, and warm, tempered vocals (no more Moses-from-the-Mountaintop roar, thank Yahweh). In between, he settles down into a comfortable rut, mulling over lost loves and other interpersonal plights with the same small bag of tricks that tender-hearted young people feel the need to share at coffeehouses from Cambridge to Berkeley.

-- Franklin Soults


***1/2 Firewater

THE PONZI SCHEME

(Jetset)

While most of the Lower East Side's '80s gutter hipsters were finding their '90s muse in the deconstructo blues, former Cop Shoot Cop crooner Todd Ashley has been combing the veldt of NYC's ethnic enclaves in search of the ultimate multicultural-noir party sound. In CSC, Ashley once narrated a wake from the perspective of a corpse ("Everybody Loves You When You're Dead"); in Firewater he's belting out cut-rate epiphanies from the bottom of a bottle, being shattered in the decadent, elegantly grizzled manner of all good cabaret mustafas.

Back on 1996's Get off the Cross . . . We Need the Wood for Fire (Jetset) Ashley, with help from an all-star cast (members of the Jesus Lizard, Foetus, and Soul Coughing), trampled through an array of Gypsy/klezmer/waltz signatures like an Eastern European Phil Spector. The Ponzi Scheme retains a less ornamental version of Get Off's ethnic brocades. There are a few miscegenated instrumentals (spaghetti-western and blaxploitation spy themes on the opening "Ponzi's Theme," Sousa-fied something-or-other on "El Borracho"). A sleazy strip-club sax does tangos around saloon-style ivory tickling on "Another Perfect Catastrophe," and "Knock 'Em Down" matches up against Elvis's '70s takes on "When the Saints Come Marching In." But Ashley's booze, buggery, and backstabbing generally take on more straightforward tones -- it's his knack for the broad, sweeping flourish and melodramatic gesture that makes this disc as intoxicating as the band's nom-de-moonshine.

-- Carly Carioli


**1/2 Various Artists

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS

(Upstart/Rounder)

Like the Terry Gilliam film currently in release, the Fear and Loathing soundtrack presents itself as a flashback of sorts. Drug-related classics by Big Brother & the Holding Company ("Combination of the Two"), Brewer and Shipley ("One Toke over the Line"), Jefferson Airplane ("White Rabbit"), the Youngbloods ("Get Together"), and Bob Dylan ("Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again") are sequenced in a manner that more or less parallels the film's narrative, which itself is a fairly faithful interpretation of the Hunter S. Thompson book it's based on. Indeed, each track is preceded by a snippet of Johnny Depp's voiceover monologue from the film, just to add a bit of cinematic context. When you consider that more and more blockbuster rock soundtracks don't even pretend to have more than a tangential relationship with their host film (they're simply "inspired" by the movie), it's refreshing to find one featuring tunes you actually hear in the film. Of course, almost all of these are also familiar songs that you're likely to have elsewhere in your collections -- from the Dead Kennedys' cynical hoedown "Viva Las Vegas" to the cheesy Perry Como number "Magic Moments."

-- Matt Ashare


*** Buckfunk 3000

FIRST CLASS TICKET TO TELOS

(Language)

Buckfunk 3000 is one of the many guises of London-based electronic auteur Si Beggs (he's also gone by the name of Big Foot and Cabbage Boy). Like Richard D. James, a/k/a Aphex Twin, Beggs uses the name game to defy easy categorization. On First Class Ticket to Telos, his first Buckfunk 3000 full-length, there are shades of Ninja Tune-style DIY cut-and-paste hip-hop ("For Funk's Sake"); and with "Planet Shock Future Rock," he nods in the direction of Afrika Bambaataa's seminal Kraftwerk-meets-P-Funk track "Planet Rock," mixing arcade bleeps and buzzes against a background of soulful vibes. Elsewhere, you can hear Beggs working some pre-jungle hardcore on the squelchy, rhythmically complex "Panic Button" and reliving some of the happier moments of '90s techno in "First Class Ticket to Telos." Beggs understands that good funk is about having fun while making a mess of the music.

-- Doug McDonald



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