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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 feel 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, the very last of summer has absconded from Connecticut, beating a hasty retreat with the warm weather for this year. I’ve been driving around listening to some good music of recent vintage with a head full of peach salsa and a jar full of ideas that were drivin’ me insane.
Or was that the other way around in reverse?
    It’s been almost a year and a half since Morphine’s lead singer/ songwriter/ bass guitarist Mark Sandman collapsed from a heart attack onstage at age 47. Ironically enough, this year has been as prolific for the band as any year in their history, at least in terms of album releases.

The Night was the first Sandman-posthumous release, and now, scant months later, comes Bootleg Detroit (Rykodisc, ^^^), a self-confessed "low-fi" recording of a show from their tour for their second album, Cure for Pain. The CD will be a must have for fanatics of the band (Sandman was working towards its’ release last year, so I hear), and it’s a good document of their live show, I guess.

But couldn’t they have culled a live album together from a better sound source? This album’s sound suffers somewhat from its’ origins (a fan in the audience taped it). It’s o.k. for what it is, but was this little forty minute album really worth it? I’m not sure.

However, if you have not yet been exposed to the low rumbling glory that was Morphine’s sound, welcome in. This set is mainly representative of their 1993 Cure for Pain (seven of the twelve songs), but also features three from 1992’s Good, and two rarer songs (including the first song "Come Along," which comes from a source unknown to me).

Sandman introduces his middle set as ladies of his acquaintance (like "we’re going to go visit ‘Candy’ for a while, then we’re going to see ‘Sheila’ and ‘Claire’…) in an effort to make these songs as personal to you as they obviously are to him. Between his lyrics and musical delivery, Sandman projected desire and deep longing in his performances.

The best comes last, though, as this short set winds up with the darkly hopeful tone of "Cure for Pain" (where Sandman swears he’ll "throw [his] drugs away" when the titular "Cure" is created), "Thursday" (a memorably sordid tale of marital infidelity and murder), the jazz-slink of "You Look Like Rain," and the powerhouse tune, "Buena."

Actually, you non-Morphine fans would probably be better off picking up Cure for Pain or Like Swimming for a superior introduction to the band. However, if you want to do yourself a favor, make friends with a Morphine fan by buying him or her this album, and asking to hear the other albums I mentioned.

There. Don’t say I never did you Morphine fans any favors.

You may not realize this, but Bjork (bjorn… sorry, born 35 years ago this November) has been in the music business for 24 years or so, easily half of which in her native Iceland. Since moving on from the pop group, the Sugarcubes in 1992, she has been batting a thousand creatively with four full studio albums of impressive inventiveness and range. She’s worked with trip-hop/ techno mavens like Nellee Hooper, Tricky, Howie B and Talvin Singh, as well as jazz artist Oliver Lake and even Madonna and Joni Mitchell. She makes the most of her vocal gifts, knowing and stretching her limits to find new sounds. She continues, in her own way, a fine pop tradition, represented in recent decades by artists like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson.

Plus she’s just so darn cute.

Her latest endeavor is collaboration with Dogma 95 filmmaker Lars Von Trier, playing (and singing) the lead role in his quasi-musical "Dancer in the Dark." Bjork (Ms. Gudmundsdottir, if you’re nasty…) plays the beleaguered heroine Selma, who escapes her sad reality as a single mother/immigrant factory worker, losing her sight (and getting arrested) in 1960’s Midwestern America in her fantasy world of Hollywood musicals. The movie is due out in mid-October (weeks after this writing), but a word to the wise: you may want to rent a lighter comedy after this one, like, say, "Angela’s Ashes…?"

Thusly, Bjork’s soundtrack to this film, Selmasongs (Elektra, ^^^^ ˝), doesn’t quite hit the same quirkily comical high-notes of Post, so don’t look for "It’s Oh So Quiet" or "I Miss You" here. This album more closely resembles her Telegram EP in tone, with it’s colder, more daring sounds The music recalls classic film music, and its’ biggest influences (like the Wagnerian horns of "Overture," which also recalls David Byrne’s The Forest).

The strongest and best of the songs are "I’ve Seen It All" and "Scatterheart." "Seen It All," recalls classic love duet/duels in a post-modern take on Cole Porter performed to a lushly orchestrated dirge beat. She sings the tune with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and between the two they move from deadpan to desperation, always with a sense of drama and humor.

Some favorite lines:

Bjork: "What about China?/ Have you seen the Great Wall?"

Thom: "All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall…"

Thom: "You’ve never been to Niagara Falls"

Bjork: "I have seen water/ It’s water. That’s all."

Bjork and producer Mark Bell looped beats and sounds from the foley and location sounds used in the film, with help on string arrangements from Victor Mendoza and Guy Sigsworth. On "Seen," a slow, lumbering beat is fashioned from train sounds, and the tense string arrangement adds to the song’s dramatic punch.

A scratchy record’s pops folds into the beat for "Scatterheart," which begins as a lullaby played on celeste, and becomes a more darkly ambient tone, as the lyrics change from a relaxing, reassuring tone to one of fear and uncertainty with a spark of hope ("My dearest Scatterheart/ There is comfort in the eye of the Hurricane"). The latter part of this tune would easily be at home on her album Homogenic with numbers like "Immature" and "All Is Full of Love." The tone of the song befits the movie’s themes and Vincent Mendoza’s strings end the tune on a note of tension and dread.

The songs with the lightest tone on the album are "Cvalda" and "In the Musicals." On "Cvalda," Bjork and Bell take factory sounds from the film to create a peppy dance number feel. The arrangement is filled out with orchestral/ big band flourishes, as Bjork throws down vocal onomatopoeia (with vocal assistant and co-star Catherine Deneuve (!) helping out). "In the Musicals" continues in that vein, as big, lush, romantic strings fill out the lean dance rhythms. The tune’s flourishes affectionately evoke Hollywood musical hyperbole, and is the closest this album comes to offering up a number like Post’s "It’s Oh So Quiet," with its’ lyric about a fading, but childlike, faith in the world of the musicals. The track "107 Steps" is all right, but doesn’t seem to do much but sound interesting without the context of the movie.

The musical themes of the "Overture" return for the album’s finale, "New World." Bjork begins by using solitary word images to evoke hope, wonder and sadness, meant to resonate in Selma’s character.

Most attempted non-animated musicals these days seem to fall flat (anyone see "Evita?"). This project has a lot going for it, what with Von Trier’s and Bjork’s collective bodies of work. The casting of Bjork in the lead role is daring for the movie, but has allowed her, I think, the luxury of having a new character to center this album’s themes on. The format of the film probably afforded her more musical leeway, too, allowing for Selma’s more internal take on Hollywood glitz, rather than a more accurate and potentially boring reading.

I love the album, but, then again, I love all her music. The true success of this album, though, will have to be seen (or not) on the big screen, in context.

Hmm… anyone watch David Byrne’s "True Stories" lately?

Finally, I’d like to apologize for not reviewing the late Jeff Buckley‘s Mystery White Boy CD (Columbia, ^^^^ ˝) and DVD (^^^^^) releases sooner. It was out in June and the latest you should have heard about it was in the guide’s September/ October issue. I’m writing this in late September. Mea culpa, mea culpa…

I first got to know the work of this incredible singer/songwriter/performer through his masterwork Grace, which, I’m sorry to say, came to me late via his MTV Buzz Bin video for "Last Goodbye." However, in true Buzz Bin fashion, circa 1995, I saw more of the video in commercials for their Buzz Bin collection than in actual airplay. Oh, well. That was plenty intriguing to spur my purchase of the album (used, of course). Grace is an overwhelming barrage of rock, jazz, folk and world sounds, all in the service of a poetic voice showing all the promise of his similarly prematurely demised father, Tim.

All the sadder, then, that Jeff Buckley died in a bizarre swimming accident on the Mississippi river in Memphis, without getting a chance to create a full length follow-up to Grace (or the "unplugged" e.p. Live at Sin-E, for that matter). The sad remains of the My Sweetheart the Drunk filled out a double disc released posthumously a couple of years ago, a record that’s hard to criticize due to its’ permanently unfinished nature. It can be said that Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk does grow on you, but, aside from his version of "Satisfied Mind," it’s not nearly as satisfying as it might have been.

So this "What If…?" is all that Buckley fans had to chew on from his official Columbia catalog. Until now.

The sadness in thinking about the Mystery White Boy album comes from a better source. It’s the sadness of having the opportunity to hear the wonders of Buckley’s live shows, and, after thoroughly enjoying it, knowing that there will be no more.

Like Sketches, Mystery is co-produced by Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert and his

co-guitarist/collaborator Michael Tighe. Unlike Sketches, this is the whole, undiluted, live Buckley. This is him displaying his vocal range and emotional depth in wonderful live versions of "Dream Brother," "Mojo Pin," the Nina Simone cover, "Lilac Wine," "Last Goodbye," "Grace" and Leonard Cohen’s tune "Hallelujah" (all originally from Grace). And, oh, so much more…

There are original tunes here that put Sketches to more than slight shame. "I Woke Up in a Strange Place" delineates a nightmare mixing sex, violence and fear ("Love came calling as a counterfeit mistress/ stealing form the pockets of the sadomasochists…"), and all set to a rocking beat. "What Will You Say" (co-written by Chris Dowd of Fishbone) seems a plaintive musing on what his relationship with his late father would have been if he’d lived to see him grow up ("It’s been such a long time/ and I was just a child then/ What will you say when you see my face?…/ It’s funny now/ I just don’t feel like I’m a man/ What will you say when you see my face?"), then seems to become a broader song about distant parents and loved ones in general. Buckley’s incredible voice (a tremolo, a breathy crooning, a scream, a wail, a moan, a cry…) carries all these tunes to dramatic new levels, backed more than ably by his incredible band of Tighe, Matt Johnson (drums) and Mick Grondahl (bass).

The highlight of both CD and DVD (the DVD is one whole live concert, the CD a collection of different live recordings) is the amazing alternate version of Grace’s "Eternal Life." A studio recording of this version has been previously available as a CD single bonus track, but this live version is my favorite. If you were blown away by the original, this will make your head explode. Buckley rips into this version with ruthless energy. The original was a slight tremor. This is a freakin’ earthquake.

I am afraid, however, that I will have to recommend the DVD slightly over the CD. The DVD, of course, has the visual component, but also features:

-A revved up version of the later Sketches tune "Vancouver" as a companion to the Alex Chilton cover, "Kanga Roo" (Only "Roo" appears on the CD).

-Extra examples of Buckley’s slightly unexpected stage humor (the CD, alas, only has one such nugget where, in his amazing mimicry of Edith Piaf’s nasal tones, he exhorts the French crowd to "Mange mon couer du fromage" (roughly "Eat my heart of cheese (?!?)"))

-A cover of "Kick Out the Jams" (featuring the mad moshing of roadie "Brother Angry Dave"), live in-studio recordings of "Grace" and "Last Goodbye" (like the concert recording, done for Chicago cable’s "JBTV"), and the Grace "Press Kit," featuring rarely seen interview and performance snippets of Buckley live at Sin-E and elsewhere (all in glorious sepia-tones).

Also, the DVD lacks the lackluster tracks, "Mood Swing Whiskey" (another previously unreleased song, which might have fit in very well with the underdeveloped ideas on Sketches), and the throwaway cover of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s "The Man That Got Away" (which still has it’s brief charms).

Both the CD and the DVD concert performances end with Cohen’s "Hallelujah" combined with an interpolation of the Smiths’ cover, "I Know It’s Over," performed by Buckley solo, accompanying himself on guitar. The lyrics to the Smith’s tune come off as perhaps more morbid in the present context ("Oh, Mother/ I can feel/ the dirt falling over my head…"), but it is a fitting end to this set, and the Smiths’ air of romantic cynicism matches well with Cohen’s own. And, of course, Jeff Buckley put it all across like no one else could.

So that’s my Head Full of Peach Salsa for year’s end. And remember, a vote for Ralph is a vote taken away from the battle against big oil, but a vote for Al is a vote for more time wasting political games involving Tipper, Joe, the PMRC and your first amendment rights.

But what ya gonna do?

Me, I’m going to go out and rent "Pump Up the Volume" and pray.

See you in the 21st century (I hope).

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 2000

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