Big Deal

If there's a special CD rack in heaven where all the great pop failures of the '90s are filed away, chances are there's a section for the Splitsville family of recordings -- just down the row from the Posies and Redd Kross. The crucial lesson to be learned from all three groups is that corporate backing, highly accredited producers and a hearty stash of ear-teasing hooks don't amount to caca if your handlers haven't a clue what to do with you.

Back in 1994, the Greenberry Woods, the first project from Splitsville sibs Brandt and Matt Huseman, was the picture-perfect token pop band. The band members promptly found their color-coordinated, Beatle-bobbed selves neck-deep in the grunge cesspool without so much as a radio programmer's hand to hold. It didn't help any that they were from Baltimore or that they saddled their sparkling '94 debut CD with the cuddly cute name Rapple Dapple. A harmonically refined blast of boy-meets-girl, guitar-driven bliss, Rapple Dapple was the giddy antithesis of the mopey Nirvana nation. Predictably, the Woods were dropped by Sire/Reprise, the label that had originally positioned them as the Fab Four's second coming -- that is, before Kurt bought it and all hell broke loose. The only surprise was that the band was allowed to record a second release, which stiffed even more impressively than its predecessor.

The eventual upside of all this carnage is Repeater, the stunning sophomore release from Splitsville, the Woods' eminently more interesting indie alter ego. After being dumped by Sire, the Husemans shifted to a power-trio format, traded the Woods' Gap-inspired fashion statement for cheesy polyester suits and fat ties, and signed with Big Deal, a quirky little New York label that was more than willing to forgive their kitschy retro vices; in fact, they were enthusiastically embraced. Finally, it sounded as if the Huseman brothers were having fun, banging about on an exhausting variety of instruments and adopting nifty one-name pseudonyms (Messiah, Johnny and newcomer Dusty). For a while there, though, it seemed they were having a bit too much fun: Splitsville's 1997 debut, Ultrasound, was a sloppy, silly affair, and on the subsequent limited-edition EP, Pet Soul, the band fed its Brian Wilson cravings in what amounted to a wistfully derivative (and mercifully brief) nostalgia binge.

In light of those previous indulgences, Repeater is a fearlessly fine-tuned revelation, a near-perfect marriage of Woodsy craftsmanship and Splitsville's canny brand of exploratory pop surgery. Throughout much of Repeater, it's as if the band were trying to go back and right history, intent on convincing us that there was plenty about the last 25 years to be proud of. From the abrupt clang of an alarm clock that opens the lead-off breathless anti-rut rant "Dayjob," to the fax-modem static of the misty-eyed technophobe epic "Dotcom," which signals the album's close, Repeater wakes us with a start, sets a bionic pace and demands that we keep up. And with hooks this Teflon-tough, staying alert is hardly a problem: The album deftly applies the three B's (Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star) as it brashly insinuates '70s prog-rock disposability, administering ballsy bubble-gum blows with a relentless spunk worthy of the finest new wave and punk.

Not bound by the limits of good taste, Splitsville presides over a guilt-free, hand-me-down universe, where the likelihood of a potent Kansas flashback is as probable as a synth lick cribbed from Flock of Seagulls. And though the songwriters haven't a lot to offer in the way of useful insight (fancy a line like "I'm heading for the final floor without a sound / I'm Chicken Little, and the sky is falling down"), they finesse their catchy, well-rhymed nonsense into a whole far more inspired than its pieces: "Joan of Arc" is the best song Jellyfish never wrote, while "The Master of Space and Time" is at once precious and precocious enough to give Alex Chilton chills; the surfy, seductive "Big Red Sun" could easily pass for a new Fountains of Wayne single. But given the Huseman brothers' commercial track record and Big Deal's limited marketing resources, Repeater isn't likely to go the way of FOW's overhyped debut. Barring some minor miracle, heaven's cutout bin looms. Shame.

-- Hobart Rowland

Lauryn Hill
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is an album that carries the unfortunate possibility of being killed by its own critical praise. A recent editorial spread out of New York City had a bevy of music critics deconstructing the first solo album from the Fugees' demanding diva like contemporary British scholars dissecting Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- or a bunch of Internet freaks mulling over last week's episode of The Sentinel. So upon first listen, I restrained myself from making any preemptive accolades, for fear that something perceived as exemplary might be little more than unduly influenced premature admiration. After extensive review, however, I found The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill a superb album all-around.

With her Fugees cohorts conspicuously missing (the opening track, "Lost Ones," offers a few potential clues as to the reason for their absence), Hill maneuvers about from style to style with an immeasurable versatility. What other R&B talent do you know -- besides, maybe, Missy Elliot -- who can so fluently flit from vengeful rap assaults to heartbreaking torch ballads worthy of Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan, and back again? It's in the latter department, by the way, that Hill excels most brilliantly. The key difference between Hill and the bulk of today's R&B sap mongers is that when she pours her heart out in song -- as she does copiously on "Ex-Factor," "I Used to Love Him" (with an incomparable contribution from Mary J. Blige) and the beautifully carefree "Nothing Even Matters" (featuring D'Angelo), you believe every word she utters. The same goes for more potent numbers such as the cataclysmic "Superstar," certain lyrics of which ("Music is supposed to inspire / How come we ain't getting no higher?") almost provoked tears. Almost.

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