'98 is not a bad year for music so far
By Noel Murray
AUGUST 3, 1998: At the midpoint of the 1998 music season, the year has already yielded a number of subtly strong releases. Many have already been written about or referenced in these pages, including the divine delights of Neutral Milk Hotel, Pulp, and Josh Rouse, as well as the more down-to-earth, ramshackle pleasures of the posthumous Jeff Buckley record and Jason and the Scorchers' often incendiary double-live CD. What follows is a quick tour through 10 other records some sparkling, some dingy that have been mostly brightening up my living room over the past six months.
The Halo Benders began as a larky side project for Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, and Pell Mell's Steve Fisk, but something has happened to the group over the course of three albums. Fisk is still just along for the ride, but the prolific Martsch has begun to use Halo Benders as a vent for his quirkier riffs and melodies, allowing him to test out some crazy angles that he later puts to better use in Built to Spill. Meanwhile, Johnson must think the whole project is a goof while Martsch spins some breathtaking backgrounds, Johnson croons off-key like a drunken hotel lounge singer. On The Rebels Not In (K), arcing guitar riffs shoot aimlessly into the air, getting the listener's hopes up until Johnson's braying brings them back down again. Songs like the incredible "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain," which features Martsch's lead vocals, make the Halo Benders a project worth pursuing. But more typical is "Devil City Destiny," which prompted my wife to say, while wandering through the living room, "That's the worst song I've ever heard."
Komeda follows up its compelling U.S. debut, World of Komeda, with the slightly more varied What Makes It Go (Minty Fresh). The Swedish group's sound is still based on a Teutonic, Stereolab-by-way-of-Kraftwerk foundation; but on tracks like "It's Alright Baby," "Curious," and "Happyment," the addition of cheesy horns, sweet strings, random whistling, and twangy guitar gives Komeda's intense drone some whimsical coloration. Mostly, though, Komeda continues to do what it did so well initially intertwining spooky guitars, buzzing analog synths, and the seductively monotone vocals of Lena Karlsson, who recites love songs as though they were a set of instructions for building a toaster. Imagine pop music authorized by a totalitarian regime with a weakness for Peter Max posters, and you've got an idea of the kooky "otherness" that makes Komeda such a unique treat.
Pearl Jam has been carrying too heavy a load almost from its inception first the group was cursed as the ambitious, arena-ready lamprey riding Nirvana's back, then it was lauded as the savior of modern rock after its wars against Ticketmaster and MTV. Now the group's declining sales (down from multiple platinum to mere platinum) have trend-conscious rags proclaiming the "Death of Grunge." None of which changes what Pearl Jam really is a better-than-average club band with a great vocalist.
Yield (Epic) is a typically scattershot rock record, highlighted by the hummy "Wishlist," the swaying "Lowlight," the propulsive "MFC," and the Who-ish "In Hiding." On the mighty "Faithful," a gentle jangle of guitar alternates with devastating power chords, as Vedder delivers the kind of nuanced vocal performance (at once tender and fierce, with astounding tremolo) that has made his band's rep. But Pearl Jam remains every bit as capable of lumbering head-bangers and aimless, pseudo-smart thrashers. And speaking of pseudo-smart, rock songs don't get any worse than "Push Me, Pull Me," which marries a dull rhythm to Vedder's street-preacher imitation and lyrics like "If there were no angels, would there be any sin...ah, stop me before I begin." (That's not even the worst song on the album that honor goes to "Pilate," with the stomach-turning chorus, "Like Pilate, I have a dog.") Then again, as always with Pearl Jam, the excess is half the fun, and it makes the times the group gets it right all the more exciting.
Joe Pernice's Scud Mountain Boys were always a difficult group to get behind. No matter how gorgeous their spare, literate folk-country, Pernice's earnest vocals always seemed to be bordering on the parodic as if he were making fun of his own music by investing it with exaggerated sincerity. The same problem crops up on Overcome By Happiness (SubPop), the new album by Pernice's latest outfit, the Pernice Brothers. Even so, the switch in medium from stark country to orchestral pop allows his level of sincerity to seem a little less faux. Maybe it's because fey white boys sound more at home singing pretty pop songs, or maybe it's because the extra instrumentation gives Pernice's pale skin some much-needed blood. Either way, it's nice to hear his witty, self-deprecating lyrics presented in arrangements that sound so fresh and bright, you'll swear you've heard them before, slotted between Poco and America on some Classic Cafe radio show. And though Pernice's saccharine vocals still grate on the teeth as the record wears on, Overcome By Happiness is brief enough and full of enough masterful songs ("Clear Spot," "Dimmest Star," "Monkey Suit," the title track) that it qualifies as a genuinely good thing.
Sportsguitar's second album Happy Already (Matador) maintains the jangly rhythms and distorted solos of the group's debut Married, Three Kids. If the results sound less fresh this time, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that this Swiss group's sound wasn't that fresh to begin with. Like onetime indie-rock contenders Butterglory or 18th Dye, Sportsguitar believes in the pop-music possibilities of six strings and a sunny disposition. The band's strengths and weaknesses come together on a few great songs like "Youth," in which controlled dashes of feedback carry an oblique lyric about the singer's missing teenage years. Where did they go? Is the song metaphorical or is it literal? No answers are forthcoming, but the band is having so much fun that the answers hardly seem worth pursuing. Though Happy Already suffers from what a friend of mine calls "some unfortunate lyrics" (especially on the aptly named "Mistake," which explores the topics of cunnilingus and vomiting within an otherwise charming sing-songy melody), the band's winning guitar sound and clumsy grasp of English make the record endearing, if minor.
Having stretched dream-pop about as far as the concept would go on 1992's minor classic Raise, Swervedriver has since retreated into ever-gentler, more Beatle-esque cul-de-sacs. Of course, "Beatle-esque" is a relative term when applied to a band whose debut featured eyeball-popping guitar distortion and endless rapid-fire drum rolls. On 99th Dream (Zero Hour), Swervedriver's latest (and first stateside release in five years), the band liberally applies backward masking to its mix of psychedelia and muted beats. Fans of the group's more metallic sound may miss all that beautiful noise, but the prettier songs on 99th Dream the chugging "These Times," the instrumental "Stellar Caprice," the tremulous "Expressway" almost make the lower volume worthwhile. Still, it's hard to deny that when Swervedriver actually attempts to rock, the lack of sonic violence renders them practically inert.
Tortoise's attempts to bring fusion and mathematical precision to alternative rock have earned the wrath of countless writers who smell pretension behind the group's arch prettiness. TNT (Thrill Jockey) is unlikely to win over that peanut gallery, which is too bad, because in subtle ways, Tortoise is leaving behind its nerdy obsession with form and exploring the wonderful world of substance. Significantly, TNT abandons the rigid percussion-and-bass-only aesthetic that limited even the expansive songs on 1996's groundbreaking Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Lead guitar plays a substantial role here, as do horns and a suddenly in-vogue computer editing technique that enables the band to cut and paste musical themes as though they were redistributing sentence fragments. The result is an enveloping instrumental suite that works both as pleasant background music and as the soundtrack to an afternoon's meditation.
Versus keeps getting stronger and more sublime with each album. The group's fourth long-player, Two Cents Plus Tax (Caroline), is both more consistent and cuts more deeply than 1996's catchy Secret Swingers. Ostensibly a suite of songs about New York City romances at the end of the millennium, Two Cents is less compelling in its concept than in its execution. Singer/guitarist Richard Baluyut has smoothed out his often-toneless vocals, and his ax-mastery is breathtaking throughout. Playing off bassist/singer Fontaine Toups, drummer Patrick Ramos, and second guitarist James Baluyut, he creates textures so heady that the songs often seem to be exclusively about the dynamics of the guitar. There are memorable melodies on "Never Be O.K.," "Underground," "Spastic Reaction," and "Dumb Fun" (my favorite), but conventional pop structures take a backseat to tight, spare picking and colorful blasts of distortion. This is a record with pull, dragging the listener through its carefully controlled contortions.
Rufus Wainwright's eponymous debut on DreamWorks attempts to make a virtue of archaism, and there is some inherent appeal to hearing his exploratory piano rags backed by lush strings; it's as though the last 50 years of popular music never happened. Except that Wainwright's inspiration seems to stem more from Elton John's early epics or from Stevie Wonder's more outr '70s songs. Unfortunately, his vocals are downright expressionless, rendering him unable to carry slow songs the way John and Wonder did. The best tunes on the record collide the past with the present; on "Danny Boy," for instance, electric bass, synthetic rhythms, and a slight raising of the tempo lend the track a much-needed shot of energy. Otherwise, Wainwright's music rises and falls based on how slow and flat his voice sounds and on how much patience the listener has for his persistent lack of verve or joy. I can get through four songs before I start to tune out.
The music and lyrics on Robert Wyatt's Shleep (Thirsty Ear) seem to have been generated by wires attached to the musician's slumbering mind. A piano gently pounds a Bo Diddley beat, a sax blares tunelessly, flowing water burbles in the background, a lone violin plays a romantic melody, and an electric guitar wails away off in the distance. Wyatt, meanwhile, sweetly croons a reverie that trails off before he can finish his thought. A former member of '60s/'70s prog-rock legends Soft Machine, Wyatt has spent the last two decades fussing over albums such as these, combining the warmest aspects of mountain folk and free jazz. This, his first record in seven years, lets his high, nasal, very British voice deliver meditations on political and romantic powerlessness in ingenious, seemingly random arrangements. The effect is like going to sleep with troubles on your mind and waking up happy for no discernible reason.
Just released and worthy of further examination in the coming weeks is the Beastie Boys' new record, along with Rancid's latest Clash impression, Life Won't Wait. Later this year come new discs from rock intellectuals Afghan Whigs and Archers of Loaf, releases from personal faves Idaho and The Mysteries of Life, possibly a new R.E.M. or Pavement album (if they get in and out of the studio in a timely fashion), and the event of the fall an as-yet unofficial, career-spanning six-CD box set of rare and unreleased Bruce Springsteen songs. Keep listening.
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