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By Michael Henningsen, Stewart Mason

AUGUST 24, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:

!!!!!= The Shit!
!!!!= Holy Shit!
!!!= Shit, Why Not?
!!= Ah, Shit!
!= Just Plain Shit!

Bob Mould The Last Dog and Pony Show (Rykodisc)

Former Hüsker Dü headmaster Bob Mould is the spokesman for the post-punk generation. On his first two solo albums, Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain, Mould, with an almost palpable pining, struggled out of his punk rock microcosm to teach the listening public that there was, in fact, more to his already admirable genius than the punk context had allowed him to fully explore. Both albums alternately featured ballads and melodic instrumental interludes among the driving, tuneful material more familiar to fans of his then former--and indeed quintessential--band. Next came three studio LPs and a collection of B-sides born of Sugar, his second foray into the collective force of a band. More so than his solo efforts up to that time, the Sugar records--especially Copper Blue--seemed to be Mould's ultimate vehicles for coming into his own as a post-punk Renaissance man. Shockingly, Mould dissolved Sugar just as they were becoming a household name to turn his attention back toward his solo career. The results were 1996's ill-tempered self-titled Rykodisc effort. In all, the album was satisfying to legions of his fans, but it lacked the ferocity and thoughtfulness that marked nearly every Mould-fueled release prior, dating back to the Hüsker Dü records of a bygone era.

With The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould has obviously taken great pains to emphasize that he's up to his old tricks--near perfect pop-punk songcraft, stark lyricism and an unmatched ear for melody--while cultivating an interest in uncharted territory. That interest, most notably apparent on the sterile, Plastioscene techno mire of "Megamaniac," is, at best, merely feigned. Fortunately, the record's remaining 11 tracks rock hard and well enough-- sometimes monumentally in the case of "Reflecting Pool," "Taking Everything" and "Who Was Around?"--to mask the aforementioned transgression almost entirely.

The truth is, Bob Mould is the sort of artist for whom it would be nearly impossible to make anything but an above-average record. He was born to music at least as definitively as it's born of him. The Last Dog ... can't, credibly, be hailed as his best work, but elements of the record represent just that. And the ones that don't are still better than most of what's coming out of the vein. !!! 1/2 (MH)

Squirrel Nut Zippers Perennial Favorites (Matador)

Fake swing has become the latest rage amongst trend-hopping pseudo-hipsters too damn stupid to think for themselves, as bands which played lame fake ska last year now pretend to have been Glenn Miller devotees since kindergarten and people who get all their cultural information from Gap ads hide last winter's electronica albums under the bed. Normally, this sort of manufactured hype is just an annoyance, but in this case, it's caused people who should know better to call North Carolina musicologists Squirrel Nut Zippers "a swing band."

The problem here is that the average pop listener (and sadly, even the average pop journalist) simply has no clue about pre-Elvis music, and so they don't realize that there is simply no swing to be found in Squirrel Nut Zippers' music. The wellspring for these folks is 1920s hot jazz, music born in Chicago and New York with its roots in New Orleans front-line bands, spirituals and plantation field hollers. Luckily, however, the Zippers realize that they were not born in Louisiana in the 1890s, and so they never try to recreate this music, which would be pointless at best and disrespectful at worst.

Instead, their hot jazz comes blended with roadhouse blues ("Low Down Man"), calypso ("Trou Macacq"), klezmer ("The Ghost of Stephen Foster" and the incredible "The Kraken," parts of which sound astonishingly like Raymond Scott's 1930s scores), and whatever else pops into their fertile minds. Banjoist Katherine Whalen's vocals, alternately languid ("My Drag") and flirty ("Evening at Lafitte's") are the band's most striking feature. Songwriters Jim Mathus and Tom Maxwell have less indelible voices, but the genial, sly humor of "The Suits Are Picking Up the Bill" and the near-crazed "Soon" comes through loud and clear. Squirrel Nut Zippers have no stench of irony or nostalgia; this is the music they make because this is the music they love, and Perennial Favorites is no novelty. !!!! (SM)

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