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SEPTEMBER 28, 1998: 

*** Varnaline

SWEET LIFE

(Zero Hour)

Yes, it is possible to be musically schizoid and yet focused all at once. Over the course of three albums and an EP (all released inside two years), this sometimes one-man/sometimes three-man NYC unit has bled a range of styles -- brooding slowcore, searing post-punk, and hazy, hungover indie rock that nods to old masters like the Grifters and even older ones like Crazy Horse. Sweet Life finds singer/guitarist Anders Parker (who's joined here by his bass-playing brother John and drummer Jud Ehrbar) writing somber laments about dreary desolation, love that's irretrievably out of reach, and other downer themes. It's hard to imagine a more devastatingly pretty song than "Mare Imbrium," or a more fearsomely angry one than "Now You're Dirt." And that's really what this album and this band are about: the perfection of extremes.

-- Jonathan Perry


**** The Jimi Hendrix Experience

BBC SESSIONS

(Experience Hendrix/MCA)

This 30-track, two-disc set, which for the first time collects all of Hendrix's live-in-the-studio recordings for the BBC (Rykodisc issued an abbreviated, 17-track compilation in '88), is nearly as essential as Jimi's three studio albums proper. It's a vibrant, vivid portrait, not just of Hendrix the artist and musician but of Hendrix the young man, conquering the pop world on his own limitless terms -- and having a blast doing it.

You can hear Jimi's laughter on his lovably inane Valentine to the BBC ("Radio One"); you can feel his insatiable desire to plug into all music with his playful covers of the Beatles' "Day Tripper," Elvis's "Hound Dog," and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." Stevie Wonder even drops by to lend a hand on drums on a pair of tracks ("Jammin' " and Wonder's own "I Was Made To Love Her"). Although none of the band's live readings of their own compositions usurp the studio versions, Hendrix's personality, which lives and breathes through these songs, makes this an indispensable document of a moment in time when he sounded at once invincible -- and never more human.

-- Jonathan Perry


***1/2 Otis Rush

ANY PLACE I'M GOING

(House of Blues)

Good as it was to hear Rush's major-label comeback two years ago, it's better to hear him reapproach his classic form. He's ditched Stratocasters to return to his fat-toned Gibson semi-hollowbodies. And right from the done-me-wrong opener, "You Fired Yourself," he's singing with soul power, reaching way down in his belly for fire. His guitar leads travel in unpredictable spirals, like mad vines linking the twisted emotions his lyrics extol. They ring with vibrato and rest on notes well off the roots. And his wild fills range from quavering whole chords to one-note jabs.

Classic Memphis-sound producer Willie Mitchell has given Rush the kind of spare framework he enjoyed on his earliest sessions for Cobra Records, allowing this pioneer of gritty Chicago-ghetto blues to thrive. That's surprising, since Mitchell's production on Otis Clay's last CD was full of cloying keyboards. This studio date, plus the gigs I've seen this year, indicates that Rush's years of erratic performances may be behind him -- at least for a spell.

-- Ted Drozdowski


***

LOS DE ABAJO

(Luaka Bop)

For all that they're seven Mexico City twentysomethings, Los de Abajo bring with them with a lot of history. They take their name from Mariano Azuela's classic literary rebel yell of the Mexican Revolution. Their neo-rocanrolero attitude has roots in the '68 massacre of student protesters in Tlateloco. And their sound flashes back to 1949, when Cuban mambo king Pérez Prado left Havana to set up shop in Mexico City.

Don't come looking for some kitschy Latin-craze redo, though. Los de Abajo have insurgency on the brain -- federales and free-traders beware. On their first full-scale release outside Mexico, they unleash a tropicalized, agit-rock hurricane of big-city salsa descargas and blue-beat skankathons that pick up a few punky polka trances, bolero interludes, merengue throwdowns, and conjunto scribbles along the way. Sure, once in a while they sound too much like a Maldita Vecindad tribute band, and, sure, Liber Terán's voice isn't always malleable enough to handle the quick-cut montunos and sidestepping stylistic shifts thrown his way. But Los de Abajo pull off one of the best tricks of revolutionary activism: they build a party platform you can party to. Comfortable shoes are a must. A Subcomandante Marcos ski mask wouldn't hurt either.

-- Josh Kun


**1/2 Everlast

WHITEY FORD SINGS THE BLUES

(Tommy Boy)

From the start, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues has a lot going against it. Creator Erik Schrody (a/k/a Everlast) used up his 15 minutes of fame -- as leader of the gimmicky Irish rappers House of Pain -- a long time ago. Then there's the CD's title and cheesy opening track ("The White Boy Is Back"), both suggesting that he's terminally stuck in a bygone era where white people don't do hip-hop.

But Everlast has a few worthwhile tricks up his sleeve. After he and Sadat X (of Brand Nubian) rap capably about getting paid on "Money (Dollar Bill)," he turns around and offers an argument against obsessing over cash on "Ends," which reveals maturity and lyrical skill. Beneath the song's hip-hop surface of scratches, and samples, he strums an acoustic guitar and rasps a melody, fashioning a new identity as b-boy singer/songwriter.

The rest of Whitey Ford alternates between straight hip-hop and guitar-based folk reminiscence, with the occasional Nine Inch/Zeppelin metal riffing ("Hot to Death") and some New Orleans piano rolls on "7 Years." In the end, it's an intriguing trip on backroads not often taken by the MC -- even the pale-skinned, shit-kicking kind.

-- Roni Sarig


**** Charlie Feathers

GET WITH IT: ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS, 1954-'69

(Revenant)

Among other things, Charlie Feathers -- who died last month at the age of 66 -- claimed (against evidence to the contrary) to have come up with Elvis's arrangements, taught Jerry Lee how to pound the piano, and invented rockabilly. "You know the secret to the sound of Sun records?" he asks Peter Guralnick in a 1976 profile reprised in the liner notes of Get with It. "Slapback!" Feathers may have imagined himself a keeper of secrets, but in practice he was not a very good one -- every time he opened his mouth to sing, the truth leapt out. Irrespective of his Forrest Gump-like assertions later in life, Sun was held aloft on the backs of characters like Charlie Feathers -- a man of enormous and largely unrewarded talent whose emotional radiance illuminated the big truths of small things.

The tracks he released on Meteor, King, and Sun -- compiled here -- remain the genre's zenith. When Feathers's lithe, sinewy, rail-solid wail bursts into ecstatic hiccups, it's like ball lightning. His finest hillbilly lament, "Defrost Your Heart," is the best evidence that he might've had a career in country if he'd wanted it. He often recorded novelty songs, but even on such disparate attempts as "Tongue-Tied Jill" and "We're Getting Closer To Being Apart," he absorbed the absurdity into the revelation of the song -- nonsense becomes a plea to be understood, distance evaporates.

Get with It also includes unissued takes and delves into Feathers's tape library; most notable are two tracks he recorded with the late Junior Kimbrough, who taught him to play guitar. Kimbrough's hill-country strangling and Feathers's percolating bluegrass add a new step to an ancient dance, each man testing the depths of the other's chaos, suggesting that there were other, stranger ways rock and roll might have evolved. "Rockabilly is the beginning and the end of music," Feathers once declared to Robert Gordon. "Lord, I'll never live that sound down in my ears. It will die with me, boy."

-- Carly Carioli


**1/2 Archers of Loaf

WHITE TRASH HEROES

(Alias)

This Chapel Hill-based indie quartet get more ambitious with each release. Their fourth album adds proggy post-rock to their regular menu of noise-pop aggression. Although the twin-guitar attack of Eric Bachmann and Eric Johnson remains prominent, the Archers bring analog synths and scattered sampling to a mix that seems apt in the post-OK Computer era. The result is a schizoid, developmental disc that lurches from deconstructed roots rock (the dirgy "Slick Tricks and Bright Lights," the unhinged, insistent "Banging on a Dead Drum") to synth-charged retro ("One Slight Wrong Move," "Dead Red Eyes") to throwaway instrumentals like the Pixies-inspired "Smokers in Love Laugh" to the surprisingly Depeche Modal hues of the title track. Bachmann does deliver an inspired tale of the downtrodden with "After the Last." The song -- a blend of angular guitar dissonance, synths, and an a cappella chorus -- showcases him at his best, chronicling the poetics of misery, and of the down and out.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Angelique Kidjo

OREMI

(Island)

African singer Angelique Kidjo has left behind arguments about roots versus international pop: she may think of herself as a bridge between the two, but she's pretty much crossed the bridge, becoming an international R&B artist who happens to sing in African languages. When she includes African elements -- the background chant on her sly reworking of Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," or the Zulu-like chorus at the end of a funk number called "Babalao" -- they sound like borrowed spice in a familiar stew.

For a lesser artist, this would amount to a sellout, but Kidjo proves good enough to pull it off. Whether she's trading choruses with Cassandra Wilson or Kelly Price or mixing it up with Branford Marsalis on the Weather Report-esque funk of "Itche Koutche," she meets her collaborators on equal ground. Even at its loungiest, the music here has authenticity and grit. And even in the most calculating moments, Kidjo's personality shines through. If she hasn't yet alienated Afropop diehards, Oremi should do the trick. But for the mainstream audience who've dismissed African singers as too exotic, scary, or amateurish in their appropriations of Western pop, Kidjo has emerged as a real contender, perhaps the first.

-- Banning Eyre



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