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The University of Hartford

By Kevin O’Toole

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 this.

^         = 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.

       All 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 Computer.
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…

       …and come out with another excellent album…

       …and return to therapy…

       …and , in between therapy sessions, he’ll do vocals for Bjork and PJ Harvey tunes…

       …which brings us to our next album review and a fine for overuse of ellipses.

       It’s a fair cop.

       Of 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 “Joe”).
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 death.
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 patience.
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 deceased Zippers 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.

        O.K., take back the retirement part, then, but you know…?

        “It All Depends” features Whalen in a slow, slinky latin flavored ballad.  “Bedlam 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.
In the final analysis, Squirrel Nut Zippers are more than just a digestible swing-pop for modern audiences.  They’ve 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, 2001

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