Yeah, I know, it’s
not much of a title for a music column, but you probably picked this
guide up for free anyway, so quit yer complainin’.
Besides, it gives me a reason to start
using a ratings system (for all those who, like me, prefer a user
friendly precis option in their media reviews):
^^^^^ = Five chips-
The salsa’s great and the chips are eternally refreshed. Dunk at will, and
repeatedly. Own this.
^^^^ = Four chips- The
chips are a wee tad more stale than you would prefer. Enjoy the salsa, though,
‘cause it’s mighty tasty. You
might want to own this.
^^^ = Three
chips - Salsa’s less than perfectly fresh and the chips are still
stale. It adequately mimics the peach salsa experience, but that
very special something is missing.
Borrow this, at least.
= Two chips- it physically resembles chips and salsa, but it
ain’t it. Don’t eel bad if you miss hearing
= One chip - It seems to resemble a food stuff, but who knows
what it is anymore? If
you must, crane your neck briefly to take notice of this, as you
would a car wreck on the highway.
= No chips - Better you eat cow chips than this. Avoid this and warn your
friends to avoid this. Please.
set ? Good. Now for this month’s reviews.
As I write this Head Full, it is the day after the Great
American Eating Holiday, Thanksgiving. What a festive time, as I
reach for the bromo-seltzer and acetaminophen, to celebrate a group
of musicians who share their neuroses so entertainingly! Woo-hoo!
All right, so not every
artist I’m reviewing this time is dwelling in such dark mental
territory, but then there is Radiohead and their new album Kid A (^^^^) with its’
musically glacial ambience combined with the disturbed vocals and
lyrics of Thom Yorke. Yorke’s
voice produces simultaneously some of the most alienated and
impassioned sounding vocals this side of the two Davids: Thomas (of
Pere Ubu, not Wendy’s) and Byrne (he of big suit and mimed arm
chopping motions, who, incidentally, inspired Radiohead’s name). This album, the band’s
fourth, is their densest, lyrically and musically. In fact, the only lyrics
printed in this package are fragments of an accompanying booklet
full of disturbing cartoons of violence and other poetry.
The album, however,
often makes up for in mood what it lacks in clearly decipherable
lyrics. In fact, Yorke and company are perhaps the only
“alternative” band of their commercial caliber to get away with
such deliberately obscured lyrics this side of R.E.M. (another of
their professed influences, for whom they opened on the latter
band’s Monster tour in
Hartford, supporting their own fine album, The Bends). Much like
R.E.M.’s Rumour and
other early efforts, the sounds are meant to simply wash over you,
allowing occasionally decipherable fragments of lyric to lend
meaning to the proceedings.
Ambient music (in the
Brain Eno sense of the genre) also strongly informs Kid A’s musical mix,
particularly on “Treefingers” where organ sounds and echo meld
together in a gentle flow of sound.
They also let their late -70’s/early-80’s influences hang
out as well: “In Limbo” recalls R.E.M.’s Murmur crossed with Talking
Heads’ “Drugs,” and “Idioteque”
updates parodies of dance music like T-Heads’ “Once in a
Lifetime” or Peter Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember,” and even
deals with similar themes of overwhelming sensory overload and
impending disaster, as Yorke heralds the coming of another ice age. It also features Belew/Fripp/King
Crimson style guitars, even recalling, once again R.E.M., and even
U2’s The Edge.
Vocoders and other
filters are frequently used on this album to lend a mechanical and
distant sound to Thom Yorke’s voice, as on the album’s title
track and “Morning Bell.” On
the latter tune, the mix of artificial sounding vocals and the
tune’s lyrical cry for release combine to recall the themes
visited on their last CD, OK
As cold and distant as
much of this album sounds, Thom Yorke manages to inject some welcome
humor in the form of irony into the proceedings. On “Optimistic,”
ThomYorke wails that doing the best you can is sufficient, but
before you even think of mistaking him suddenly for Norman Vincent
Peale, he uses examples from nature (“The big fish eat the little
ones/ Not my problem get me some”).
And so, having tried the
best I could to explain it all, I finish by saying it’s pretty
damn cool, and will probably deserve its’ multi-platinum status.
Following which, Thom
Yorke can afford to go back into therapy…
come out with another excellent album…
return to therapy…
, in between therapy sessions, he’ll do vocals for Bjork and PJ
brings us to our next album review and a fine for overuse of
a fair cop.
course, I referred above to Thom Yorke’s appearance on Bjork’s Selmasongs (see the review
from the November/December issue) and his work on the new PJ Harvey
release, Stories from the
City, Stories from the Sea (^^^^). Polly Jean Harvey finds
herself not only in New York City on her latest album, but
thematically down the block from Sonic Youth (particularly on this
year’s NYC Ghosts and
Flowers), and practically in the same apartment as Patti Smith.
No, she didn’t move in
with Patti Smith. We’re
still talking thematically here.
Yes, now it can be told:
Harvey’s biggest influence must be Patti Smith. After listening to her 1992
album, Dry, the influence
is quite apparent, but this fact is made much more clear if you
listen to tracks like “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers
Whore,” as it contrasts morality with greed and street level
politics. There is also
“Good Fortune,” which evokes a romanticized image of lovers on
the run, “like some modern day/ Gypsy landslide/ like some
modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.”
Now, if lyrics like that
don’t scream, “PATTI SMITH!” I don’t know what does.
This album, like Dry, features a core group of three musicians, including the return
of half of her Dry rhythm
section, drummer/ keyboardist Robert Ellis, and bassist/
keyboardist/ accordianist Mick Harvey (of Nick Cave and the Bad
Seeds). Ellis is a
particularly welcome readdition to PJ Harvey’s mix, as anybody who
experienced his revelatory drum work on Dry knows. Mick Harvey
is more than able to help flesh out Harvey’s poetic and musical
visions. The two lend
able support to the waltz “You
Said Something,” (a romantic vision of a night in the city) as
well as the lusty grind of “This Is Love,” and the mad rocking tarantella,
“Kamikaze” (which also recalls tracks from Dry like “Dress” and
Thom Yorke (remember
him?) also joins in, providing
backing vocals to “One Line” (which, like “Kamikaze,”
features a lyric that could be as much about Palestinians and
Israelis as about New Yorkers) and “Beautiful Feeling” (about an
addicting love affair), as well as the lead vocal on “The Mess
We’re In” (which continues on that theme of a young doomed
“Bonnie and Clyde” kind of love).
“A Place Called
Home” continues a theme of stories of runaways, here longing for a
home and using love to anchor their hopes. The slow, beautiful and
elegiac “Horses In My Dreams” (the album’s penultimate track),
flirts with runaway imagery, as well as a possible longing for
It seems like Harvey has
dealt with similar romantic material on Dry (among others), but
she’s developed a more mature way of attacking the material,
without losing the passion behind it. Listen as “We Float” resolves all the albums’ themes,
looking past the immature death wish kind of love, toward a future
of “(taking) life as
it comes.” Contrast
that feeling of hopefulness about life with her more defiant
declaration of her powers to stand against the storm on Dry, in tunes like
“Victory” and “Water.”
Though she’s telling stories about a similar character (or
characters) on Stories, it is with a more mature perspective and with more
That’s fine… so long
as she stays a little impatient.
One must rock after all.
Moving ever so slightly
out of the deep end of the pool, let’s welcome the new release
from the Squirrel Nut Zippers: Bedlam
Ballroom (Mammoth, ^^^^). These
eight (or so) wacky people from up North Carolina-way seem, to the
uninitiated, to share common ground with the aforementioned Brain
Setzer Orchestra. The
only thing these bands have in common, however, is that the roots of
both their styles go back over fifty years. You see, the Zippers make the effort to write new quality pop material in their
particular chosen genre of 1930’s “Hot” music. Unfortunately, songwriting
credits for this album are unavailable in our radio station copy (it
was an advance copy with spare production credits). Think of it as
the primordial swing or pre-big band swing. All these songs (but one)
were probably written by leader James Mathus (usually on guitar), as
Tom Maxwell (the band’s other guitarist/ songwriter, and vocalist
on their biggest hit, “Hell” from 1996’s Hot) has left the band. The problem is that the Zippers’ songs are usually so good that they could be cover tunes. The one credit I know for
certain is the album’s raucous title track, which was written by
trumpeter Stacy Guess (who previously appeared with them on record
only on 1995’s The Inevitable…).
The band has expanded
its’ sound to include funk and 50’s style R & B, and even if
it’s for commercial considerations, it suits them well. Listening to the blues funk
of “Do What?,”
it’s easy to hear why Jim Mathus has been tapped to work on Buddy
Guy’s next album. “Stop,
Drop and Roll” delivers a great lyrical hook over a drunken
cakewalking rhythm. “Bedbugs”
appealingly revisits the calypso stylings of “Hell” and “Trou
Macacq” from 1998’s Perennial Favorites. “Baby
Wants a Diamond Ring” and “Just This Side of Blue” are jump
blues featuring lead vocalist Katherine Whalen, both performed well
enough instrumentally to forgive the former its’ horrendously
well-worn hook (unless this was a cover tune, in which case it works
just fine). Whalen
delivers nicely sensitive vocals on “Hush,” which is in similar
danger of cliché overload, but for her vocal and a string
arrangement lush enough for a Perry Como Christmas record but
without the fat. Whalen’s
vocals get to shine in the service of a better song on the
jazz-blues ballad “Bent Out of Shape.”
I am finally convinced,
however, that Katherine Whalen should get together with her fellow
vocalists, Erykah Badu and Macy Gray, and record that Billie Holiday
tribute album they’ve obviously been meaning to make.
And then, they should retire.
take back the retirement part, then, but you know…?
All Depends” features Whalen in a slow, slinky latin flavored
Ballroom” and “Missing Link” are wild and woolly little
instrumentals, much in their favored “hot” style, and “Don’t
Fix It” and “Do It This A Way” definitely fall into Dixieland
categories; the former is a slow New Orleans style march, and the
latter, a high-octane, banjo fueled workout.
the final analysis, Squirrel
Nut Zippers are more than just a digestible swing-pop for modern
made a real effort to create new music out of old American musical
traditions, and they manage to have fun doing it. And that’s hard to beat,
daddy, eight to the bar…
Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide,