AUGUST 17, 1998:
el pee (FUME/Cold Spring)
Since it's taken nearly four years for a new album, and over two years for Lone
Wolf Management to find this local trio a record deal, one would have thought that
El Flaco actually translates into "The Wait." Which is a damn shame, because
a better-financed version of el pee could have made for a solid major label
debut since it combines the best of 1995's Thub ("Unflappable" and
"Sister") with some equally hook-filled newer fare ("Local DJ,"
"Star Spangled Banner #2"). El pee could have also proved El Flaco
was more than just an alt-rock ZZ Top or an unpretentious Primus, as well as illustrating what both of the aforementioned bands have seemingly forgotten - that
there's room for both boogie without nostalgia and wit without novelty. And maybe,
just maybe, el pee could have brought real rawk back to radio. Instead, the
album is merely a great Austin effort, full of soul, songwriting, and humor, but
very unlikely to make it too far beyond the local faithful. And if the band's decision
to take a "hiatus" really spells "permanent vacation," then the
sad truth about el pee may just be that El Flaco will now and forever translate
into "the one that got away."
GRANT LEE BUFFALO
Jubilee (Slash/Warner Bros.)
Maybe Grant Lee Phillips, singer and primary songwriter behind Grant Lee Buffalo,
was tired of going broke by not appealing to the lowest common denominator, because
Jubilee, the California trio's fourth record, shows a marked dropoff in the
intelligence of the songwriting. For evidence, look no further than the first single
"Truly Truly," which sports the lyrical complexity of George Harrison's
"I Got My Mind Set on You." This from a band whose last album, Copperopolis,
was an ode to the blue-collar wasteland left after the demise of the post-war American
industrial base. Of course, nobody heard the last album and "Truly Truly"
is already approaching "hit" status. Yet while Phillips plays dumb this
time around, he's also smart enough to go copping the feel of some of his most successful
peers. From the Pearl Jam-ish "Testimony" or the R.E.M.-like "Sanctuary"
to the almost slick-hick "Come to Mama, She Say," Grant Lee Buffalo does
modern rock to suit the suits. And while it does sound different from its three predecessors,
Jubilee is still full of bombastic, near theatrical pop-rock music. It's just
truly truly inane bombastic, near theatrical pop-rock music this time around.
Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo)
With her critically lauded debut Revival, SoCal gal Gillian Welch introduced
herself as the skinny folkie in the floral print dress singing simple songs as if
she had stepped out of Woody Guthrie's Oklahoma circa 1920. The hit "Orphan
Girl" helped complete the illusion. Hell Among the Yearlings, the follow-up,
doesn't betray the fact that Welch actually attended UC Santa Cruz (UT by the sea)
or that she met the other half of her duet David Rawlings at the Berklee College
of Music, but it does reveal a talented singer-songwriter not quite immune to the
sophomore slip. A dark album that opens with a woman raking a broken bottle across
the throat of the man attempting to rape her ("Caleb Meyer"), Hell Among
the Yearlings is spare both in instrumentation and tone; Welch, Rawlings, and
two acoustic guitars (or her banjo) being the only participants on nine of the efforts'
11 tracks, which moan with titles like "The Devil Had a Hold of Me," "I'm
Not Afraid to Die," and "Miner's Refrain" ("I'm down in a deep,
dark hole"). "My Morphine," with its opiated dilapidation, and "Whiskey
Girl" are every bit as good as "Orphan Girl." If Hell Among the
Yearlings, in its title alone, is no Revival, Welch once again proves
her talent - even if she hasn't improved upon it.
One of These Days (Emperor Jones/Trance Syndicate)
Eccentric? Seems like a low-bidder word around these hinterlands. After 15 minutes
of fame in his native Australia during the late Sixties, "primative pop"
star Pip Proud retreated to a outback country shack with no electricity so he could
write in peace. Featuring songs written between 1967 and 1997, One of These Days'
odd-timed, often unsteady music puts time out of mind. The one-offed nature of these
recordings will be disconcerting to some and magnetically appealing to others. It
sometimes sounds as if Proud's brain is feeding his mouth with too much to say in
not enough time. This harkens forward to a more competent Shaggs or a less prurient
Frogs, but either way, Proud's extraordinary ability to craft hyper-descriptive lyrics
is undeniable. The minute details woven through "The Tennis Player" sound
like the work of a sculptor or a stalker. The title track is a simpler song of longing
love, but it's no less effective and eerie. Proud's acute awareness of his surroundings
and his undefinably singular world view should provide hours and hours of befuddled
enjoyment for the third eye set.
HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN
Swingin' Stampede (Hightone)
A Long Way Home (Reprise)
Bridge to a Legacy (Antone's/Sire)
Though he's played a lot of blues in his time, veteran vocalist and R&B guit-slinger
Syl Johnson leaves no doubt where his heart lies: "I'm a soul man," he
insists. "I ain't no bluesman." On Bridge to a Legacy, Johnson certainly
makes good on the claim, opening with a string of solid cuts that recall the best
of old-time soul. "Who's Still in Love," "I Been Missin' U,"
and "Half a Love" are all possessed of a sure and satisfying groove, fierce
and funky, but not overly so. After that, things get a little spottier. On the fourth
track the cheese starts to creep in, and by the fifth it's a featured ingredient:
It soon becomes clear that, if Johnson recalls the soul of his classic Seventies
sides, he also recalls its excess. If you don't mind a side of synthesizer with your
drums and bass, Bridge to a Legacy should suit you fine, nestled up comfortably
against your second-string Al Green albums. More casual fans may find this release
a touch stifling, however, with Johnson's obvious soul obscured by a heavy hand at
the mixing board.
Blue Wonder Powder Milk (Epic)
Alex Callier, the man behind Hooverphonic's silky, sparkley, shimmering curtain,
says the title of his Belgium quartet's second album refers to "anything that
makes your life worth living." For Callier that would be Tangerine Dream. Imbued
with the same sort of futuristic neon glow said pioneering West German techno band
cast over countless film soundtracks, Blue Wonder Powder Milk lights up with
synthesized string arrangements and programming the liner notes credit as The Hooverphonic
String Orchestra. Brighter than the group's buzzing, whirring, sleeper debut, last
year's A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, it goes down smoother than a
glass of chocolate milk. Opener "Battersea," a sugary New Wave Depeche
Mode synth number, sets a pulsing ebb-and-flow pace that lulls even as it races.
"One Way Ride," with its echoing back-alley trombone, and the crystal bell-tone
opening of the Psychedelic Furs-ish "Dictionary" are so sexy you don't
even notice the band has changed singers since the first album. "Renaissance
Affair," doing its New Age Stevie Nicks veil dance (Loreena McKennit), will
be hard to resist for late-night/night-light types who plug into the nocturnal sounds
of Hooverphonic because it's what makes sleep come alive.
The Sea II (ECM)
From Ravel's La Mer to Dirty Three's Ocean Songs, water's elemental
forces have inspired some of the most moving music ever made. Add The Sea II
to the list. Like its numeric predecessor, The Sea II is a commercially bold
and aesthetically daring release from a German label renowned for its pure organic
sonicscapes and impressionistic work. Label founder and producer Manfred Eicher,
who produces virtually all of ECM's releases, keeps the mix open, thereby enhancing
the dynamics of this quartet's instrumental interplay. Ketil Bjornstad's chordal
piano lattice lets impromptu phrases breathe and blend, as light rays shoot through
water like Jacob's ladders. His ivory work gives David Daring (cello), Jon Christensen
(drums), and Terje Rypdal (guitar) fertile soil for individual and collective improvisations,
bringing their respective tonal palettes to the fore: Daring's out-of-body lines
in "The Mother," Christensen's polyrhythmic rhythms on "Laila,"
and Rypdal's seagull cries on "Consequences." In "Outward Bound"
and "Brand," all four instruments float in and out, just as the view of
an aquatic floor changes with fluctuations in the water's surface tension. You don't
need to be a aqua-phile to love The Sea II, just willing to get wet.
It's been said that of the forms of music developed
in the Western Hemisphere, only Afro-Cuban music comes close to jazz in richness
and complexity. In the Forties, Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban band leader Machito were
major figures in a movement dubbed "Afro-Cubop," which blended American
bebop and Afro-Cuban music. The center of this stylistic hybridization was New York,
where the innovative combos of Arsenio Rodriguez demonstrated jazz influence over
50 years ago. In 1952, pianist Bebo Valdés initiated a series of
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