By Michael Henningsen
July 14, 1997:
Alibi Value Scale Formula:
Bill White Acre Billy's Not Bitter (Touchwood Records)
Like Joseph Arthur, PJ Harvey and a slew of current pop artists, Bill White Acre uses the folk motif to flesh out his subtly complex songs, then supercharges a good number of them with a core band and a small army of "additional musicians." Both Harvey and Arthur are more skilled in the trade, but on his recently released CD, Billy's Not Bitter, White Acre makes an impressive go of it.
Opening with a thin, distorted phone-in vocal on "Boy," White Acre makes it clear that he wants you to hang on his every word. And throughout the rest of the record, most of them are worth latching onto. "Say You Will," the album's second track--fully orchestrated for a loud rock band--and the semi-acoustic "Belly" brilliantly showcase White Acre's formidable songwriting and arranging skills, flitting back and forth between melodic verses, melodic choruses and interesting bridge parts that serve to put a unique twist on his folk-based tunes. White Acre's songs seem to have served lengthy incubation periods within his own, warm musical space before being liberated by a band that alternately nurtures and roughs them up.
Some of his songs even have a unique Freedy Johnston quality to them: accessibility mingled with a higher purpose. Others, though, particularly the more drawn-out acoustic tracks, border on boredom. "Come Clean," for instance, despite its Mitchell Froom-in-the-house percussion sounds, fails to rise above its flat musical bed to inspire much of anything beyond a yawn and a trip to the Maytag for another Blatz.
"Meltdown," on the other hand, is perhaps White Acre at his best. The song represents a near-perfect balance of melody, sound layering and pure noise, not to mention lyrics that leave as much to the imagination as they do to effortless contemplation. Whoever sang, "They don't write 'em like that anymore," shouldn't be allowed to make records anymore. And where the hell is Greg Kihn, anyway? See what I'm getting at?
Despite a couple of droopers, Billy's Not Bitter has a lot to offer--especially to members of Camp Suzanne Vega, Camp Ben Harper and Camp Roger Manning. It's a record that forgoes instant gratification in favor of the pleasure derived from repeated, careful listening. Sometimes, it really does pay to discover.
For some, the release of Weld, Neil Young's last double live CD was a howling wake-up call, full of 12-minute jams, introverted guitar ecstasy and sing-along anthems culled from the very top of a very long hit list. For others, its release was akin to hearing the Proclaimers' "500 Miles" just one more time--virtually half of the material had been previously recorded live and released in (very) slightly different form on Live Rust and Rust Never Sleeps, nearly two decades earlier.
Perhaps the key to what makes Year of the Horse such a welcome addition to the Neil Young legacy, then, is the fact that the two discs contain a large amount of live material heretofore unavailable in the live context, unless you count bootlegs, but that's a whole other country. Live versions of "Mr. Soul" and "Pocohontis," although both appeared on 1993's Unplugged, make for more than effective Crazy Horse jam sessions here. In fact, the tie that binds this record to Young's previous live excursions--and they seem to get longer as he gets older--is the sometimes incredible length each song takes on.
Plenty of bands these days go in big for the extended jam thing (just check out any of the H.O.R.D.E. bands), but Young with Crazy Horse--especially with Crazy Horse--plays the game differently. He sets up the sorts of jams that, perhaps like his career, should never end. And short of typing a complete set list, there's not much more to be said.
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