Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Record Reviews

JULY 20, 1998: 


If the Beach Boys provided the soundtrack for endless summers of hopeful romanticism, Hello I'm a Truck fits the bill for endless summers of ironic detachment. Like all that is good and bad about Southern California, this Silver Lake-bred quartet revels in the yin-yang of jaded observations and goofball witticisms. Their New Wave landscape of synthetic squawks and bleeps provides the perfect setting for "End of the Summer," a slightly melancholy tale about a suburban teen suicide pact that's nonetheless great driving music. "Ultrasonic Cotton Candy" goes even further by undressing The Hook all the way down to its adrenal core. The song pounds the perfectly obvious keyboard combination deep into your drums with all the frazzled energy of a poodle that never stops yapping. Later on, the band plots a South American coup d'rock in "Airwave Paraguay," only to succumb to the sugar rush infatuation of "Double Love Chew." You could get away with describing Hello I'm a Truck as Cars protégés with a better sense of humor, but the novelty of the New Wave aesthetic is a mere accouterment to their clever songcraft. Get this one while the sun's still warm.

4 Stars -- Greg Beets


Highways and Honky Tonks (Rounder)

"Heather Myles is the kind of singer that makes you wish you were wrapped in a roadhouse love affair somewhere between Bakersfield and Barstow." So claims the promotional material from Myles' latest release Highways and Honky Tonks, her first for rootsy Rounder after Nashville doors closed on three earlier efforts. Sure enough, the songs have a truck-stop feel along with some Nashville steel: the album shuffles along confidently, a little slick at times, but not egregiously so, straddling the border between maverick and mainstream. There's several toe-tappers ("I'll Be There If You Ever Want Me"), a few tear-jerkers ("Broken Heart for Sale"), and more than a few you're-goldurned-right-about-that numbers, including the dreadfully honest "Who Did You Call Darlin'" and the standout opening track, "You're Gonna Love Me One Day." There's shades of Loretta Lynn in that songwriting -- as well as in Myles' rich, resilient voice -- but it comes up several hairs short of classic. In other words, it may not make you pine for that Barstow barstool, but it just might make you crack a cold one and call your honey closer.

3 Stars -- Jay Hardwig


Learning How to Live (Sub Pop)

On "House of Secrets," the near-masterpiece that opens Mike Ireland's debut, a shaken protagonist returns to the abandoned home of his recently shattered life with the intention of burning it to the ground. "Secrets" embodies the same raw, bare emotional wallop that makes classics like George Jones' "The Grand Tour" so unforgettable. A latecomer to country music, Ireland understands there's more there than twang and pedal steel; his keen ear steers him clear of aping Nashville's traditionalists. Instead, Learning How to Live revels in the lush Sixties pop arrangements that ruled the charts when producer Billy Sherrill was king of Music City. Ireland sings with winning conviction and an appealing honky-tonk whine, and while none of the album's remaining songs hold up to "Secrets," many come close; "Headed for a Fall" reeks of the cynicism of spurned love, "Biggest Torch in Town" is its delusionally optimistic flipside. There's no denying Ireland is a compelling and sincere talent, without a drop of the icy cool ethic many of his peers possess, though whether his demons will ultimately conquer or sustain him remains anybody's guess.

3.5 Stars -- Jeff McCord


Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel)

For the long list of folks who lined up for this project, singing harmony with Ralph Stanley must have been like robbing a bank with Clyde Barrow. Regarded as one of the progenitors of the high lonesome sound, Stanley's songs have been reworked by nearly everyone working the bluegrass circuit. On Clinch Mountain Country, Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys perform his songs and those of his brother Carter, as well as other bluegrass standards and public domain material. The most notable example of Stanley's influence on this 2-CD set is Bob Dylan's turn on "The Lonesome River." Dylan's mud-nasal low-end meshes with Stanley's tenor holler in an astounding harmony, spooky in its dissonance and weighted with history. In fact, each and every performance on this set is memorable; the lazy drawl of Dwight Yoakam on "I Just Got Wise," Junior Brown's patented twang on "Stone Walls and Steel Bars." The gospel tradition in mountain music is well-represented here, too, in hymns like "Shouting on the Hills of Glory," "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," and perhaps the most stunning moment, the near-perfect match of Alison Krauss and Stanley on "Pretty Little Miss in the Garden." In its wealth of beautiful tunes and breadth of contributors, Clinch Mountain Country offers a guided tour through the roads of a long and dynamic tradition and suggests a number of new paths to follow.

4 Stars -- Christopher Hess


Plain Sweeping Themes for the Unprepared (Trance Syndicate)

After running yourself ragged on a summer's eve of mad dog debauchery, Monroe Mustang's laconic twang is just the elixir to get you feeling human again. The Austin quartet's soothing yet precise muse often harkens back to the early post-psychedelic work of Pink Floyd or the lazy, off-kilter sounds of New Zealand pop. Then they come along with a clever tune like "I Was Eighteen It Was Hate," which breaks the mood with a dark, slurry texture that's reminiscent of a toilet bowl confessional. "Vinyl" narcotizes rhythm and harmony to create something deliciously wrong before "Veronica" dives headfirst into desperately romantic acid rock. The band pays close attention to the subtle interaction of sounds, which leads to a striking degree of musical congruence. Somehow, though, Monroe Mustang seems just a bit more approachable and (ahem) fun than their drone-heavy brethren. Whenever the band settles into a comfortable groove, something unexpected and jarring is just around the bend. Perhaps we can chalk that up to the charming playfulness of the four-track mind.

3.5 Stars -- Greg Beets


The Black Light (Quarterstick)

Like dayglow colors that appear only under a black light, the instruments that paint Joey Burns and John Convertino's fuzzy black vision are key. Setting the tone instantly, "Gypsy's Curse" is a spicy instrumental of twanging guitars topped with accordion and sprinkled with cello: Mambo Italiano! "Fake Fur," with its marimba, wood claps, and steel guitar, tells a different tale, and while the third track, "The Ride (pt II)," features bassist Burns' indistinct voice as its main component, all the instruments listed after the duo's names in the credits rise to the surface sooner or later to define a tune -- a bassline here (the title cut), a trumpet there ("Chach"). Whereas their debut, '97's Spoke, was recorded in Burns and Convertino's bedrooms, The Black Light lists a studio in their native Tucson as point of origin, and one imagines the musically adept duo having a ball with a crib's worth of nifty instruments. An adult should have overseen the album's edit, the last third living up its song titles ("Sprawl," "Stray," "Bloodflow"), but if nothing else, this sort of ghost town music conforms well to the background.

2 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol)

The four-year wait for a follow-up to Ill Communication has yielded a sloppy mess that's part Ill Conceived, part License to Fill. It's 22 completely unmemorable tracks and to say it has minimal flow and loads of sketchy ideas is charitable. Hello Nasty's old-school hijinks sound like lazy filler; even worse, although the Beastie's proto-punk excursions have always been hit or miss, they've left them behind here in favor of some ultra-forced faux-Beck stylings -- the most criminal of which has Adam Yauch whining his way through the sappy "I Don't Know." How about, "I Don't Know How to Pull Off a Convincing Falsetto"? Since it takes seven songs to get to "Intergalactic," the album's first single and best song, and until track 9 for anybody to get off a decent rhyme, it's probably no accident that the cover pictures the trio of post-funk heroes tightly trapped in a sardine can and sweating in the sun. Hello Nasty was this summer's "event release" and the Beasties clearly felt and bowed to the pressure. To use a Beastiesque metaphor, they folded like origami.

2 Stars -- Andy Langer


Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia)

Franz Kafka had one request of his friend Max Brod, the legal executor of his estate. He wanted Brod to destroy everything. Kafka didn't consider any of his written works finished, and therefore didn't want them seen by the world. If sometime in May 1997 Jeff Buckley had an inkling of his untimely drowning, he might have made a similar request of his mother, the executor of his estate, because the material that makes up the 2-CD Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is unfinished as well. On the first disc, that's not very problematic, because it consists of polished material that was simply going to be re-recorded. It sounds finished. And it's a bit more diverse and daring than Buckley's stellar debut, Grace. It's with the second disc, the incomplete homemade four-track recordings that Buckley was dinking with, that things get uncomfortable. There's something eerily voyeuristic about intruding into the middle of the creative process without an artist's permission. To the credit of Buckley's mother, she didn't attempt to touch up anything. Still, it's tough to enjoy something the world wasn't meant to see.

2 Stars -- Michael Bertin


Dear Enemy (Hannibal)

On their Hannibal debut Dear Enemy, identical twin sisters Dana and Karen Kletter create a vast musical story book of their 38 years together. The emotionally deep result is conveyed in an honest, mostly acoustic (guitar, banjo, piano) way. The
12-song suite, featuring Susan Voelz adding banner violin cameos, retells the twins' shared experiences and emotions. Examples include suffering through the late summer heat ("We Died in August"), and dealing with an occasionally present father ("Flight Into Egypt"). The album's closer, "Blue Glass," possesses the quietly dark mood à la Trinity-era Cowboy Junkies. Having more than just very compatible and moving voices (even singing the words "brackish water" in "Beach Song" gorgeously), the sisters are both classically trained pianists, though their talent doesn't stop there: Karen is a veteran of medieval history doctoral studies and Dana backed up Courtney Love on Hole's Live Through This. Their individual and shared experiences all come together on Dear Enemy, one emotion-soaked, damn fine debut.

3 Stars -- David Lynch


New Power Soul (NPG)

Things haven't been bad enough for the Artist that New Power Soul constitutes a comeback
per se, but it's certainly a return to form. For the first time since Prince declared himself dead on 1994's Come, the Artist has released an album you don't need a remote control to listen to. New Power Soul is compact, well-sequenced and fit with far more hits than misses -- certainly much more than you could say about the bloated crapshoots he called Emancipation and Crystal Ball. And as it winds up, the Artist's new power isn't far removed from Prince's old power: slinky falsettos, knee-deep grooves and raw sexuality. The latter is all over this album, although transparent jams like "Mad Sex" and "Come On" are balanced by spiritual delirium like "Freaks on the Side," which instructs us that "God is love/ love is God/ simple and plain/ partyin' in this way/ there's so much more to gain." Even so, the Artist hasn't given up painting seedy portraits. "Shoo-Bed-Ooh," a slick eclectro-funk tribute to an unsuccessful prostitute is the album's centerpiece, a sex rave that includes at least one classic line: "Spittin' out the aftertaste of a boy who might not call again." It's frank stuff, but eminently hummable. And although the Artist and the New Power Generation cover a lot of musical ground in just 10 songs and one slow jam bonus track, New Power Soul gels around cohesive songwriting, not a batch of similar grooves. If Prince is really dead, then long live the New Power Generation.

3 Stars -- Andy Langer


Powertrip (A&M)

The Seventies were a time of great cynicism and maleficence -- Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Watergate -- an era best defined by hard rock; desperate, dangerous music chronicling dissolution and death. Dave Wyndorf understands. The dark lord behind Monster Magnet, Wyndorf has once again rammed his fist down the throat of the Seventies, and as with the group's last effort, 1995's Dopes to Infinity, pulled out the heart and lungs of a beast still best defined by Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Unflinchingly aggressive, Powertrip bulges with muscled testosterone, steely riffs pumping Wyndorf's epic machismo ("Powertrip," "Space Lord"), sonic explosions ("3rd Eye Landslide"), and comic book cliches ("Temple of Your Dreams," "Goliath and the Vampires"). Though it's all terrifically radio-ready, a Sixties garage nugget like "See You in Hell" (a rewrite of Dopes' "Dead Christmas") displays Wyndorf's obvious gifts as a songwriter. The Nineties will ultimately also boil down to hard rock -- disguised as punk and grunge -- and as such, Monster Magnet's Powertrip is totally justified.

3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


Strung Out in Heaven (TVT)

Caught up in the hedonistic bliss-wreck of 1969, Anton Newcombe just can't get his latter-day incarnation of the Word According to Brian Jones out of his hazy head. Three years and seven albums after kick-starting BJM, Newcombe and his host of disposable co-conspirators have jumped from Bomp! to TVT with this 13-song salvo that recalls not only the namesake Jones, but also Byrds, Velvets, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and -- leaping ahead here -- the more bluesy psychobabylonic riffings of Primal Scream. It's a flashback within a freakout, but Strung Out in Heaven is surprisingly cohesive given the amount of rock & roll territory it mines. Ranging from the atonal Lou Reed drone of "Wisdom" to the pure pop ecstasy of "Going to Hell," and the proto-Dylan/Noel Gallagher of "Wasting Away," Newcombe is an evil genius at stylistic appropriation; BJM tosses off a mean doppelganger of just about any soundscape collated circa '65-'70. Like the psychedelic paisley zombies in Bob Clarke's hippified flick, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, BJM just keep crawling back, dragging their beloved decade behind them, to devour our brains. (The Brian Jonestown Massacre plays the Electirc Lounge, Friday, July 24.)

3 Stars -- Marc Savlov

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