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Sebadoh
The Sebadoh
Sub Pop

Like a warm, woolen sweater, Sebadoh is functional and comforting when you need it, but itchy when you don't. After 1997's dismal Harmacy it looked as if ten years of records of varying sound and song quality had taken their toll. The band's usual ingredients of emotional lyricism, noisy lo-fi and midtempo radio rock now seemed rote and thrown together. But the band has fired drummer Bob Fay (who replaced Barlow's original drummer/songwriting partner, Eric Gaffney), and the new blood brings new life to Sebadoh's ninth record.

The Sebadoh is still all over the place, as expected, but the band sounds invigorated; each song is a focused blast of energy, as if it were the only one on the record. Barlow and Jason Lowenstein still offer words of comfort to every loner, bookworm or indie-rock geek who pines for love. But here, in a fuller sonic context, their words sound less self-absorbed, more universal.

Alternating precisely between Barlow and Lowenstein tunes (with one written by new drummer Russ Pollard thrown in), The Sebadoh offers little musical touches that raise it above the typical Sebadoh record. Produced by ex-Dambuilder Eric Masunaga, the weird-keyboards-here-strange-vocal-effects-there project adds a new dimension to the tunes while diminishing the importance of the lyrics.

Sebadoh is a reason to believe that sincere indie rock isn't dead. It's nice to have the band back.

-- David Simutis

Sparklehorse
Good Morning Spider
Capitol

Mark Linkous, the brains and brawn behind Sparklehorse, has the country-goth thing perfected. On his second record, the rural Virginian figuratively hikes the paths of Americana with a backpack full of weird sounds and bizarre production twists. Linkous excels at mixing assorted noise, such as distorted vocals and radio static, with catchy hooks and undeniable pop. The details of production add to the listening experience: the sound of a radio dial being spun in "Happy Man"; the cross-fade of the funky guitar in the intro to "Sick of Goodbyes"; or the buried sound of a phone conversation in "Sunshine."

With a voice alternating from hoarse whisper to squeaky falsetto to deadpan mid-Southern twang, Linkous can change the moods of any of his songs with a carefully chosen word. He is a master of manipulating emotion, pacing the record and building up tension with restraint. Opening with a faraway-sounding guitar and Linkous's humming/singing voice, "Pig" quickly erupts into a burst of heavy power chords and loose drumming that seems to tire itself out as it fades into the second track, "Painbirds," a slow, quiet tune in which Linkous's singing barely rises above a murmur. This tempo-shifting occurs throughout the record. The rousing, somewhat straightforward pop of "Sick of Goodbyes" is followed by the soft strings and mellotron of "Box of Stars (Part One)" the same way the squealing guitars and urgent drums of "Cruel Sun" give way to the subdued jazz guitar and smoky ambiance of "All Night Home." With fully realized ideas and effective songwriting, Spider is the first great record of 1999.

-- David Simutis

Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys
Band of Gypsys: Live at the Fillmore East
Experience Hendrix/MCA

Whatever it was Jimi Hendrix was trying to achieve with his Band of Gypsys, good music wasn't the result. Gone was the pop appeal, live interplay and sonic give-and-take of The Experience, Hendrix's original band of Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums; in its place, the cardboard-cutout backdrop of Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, a.k.a. Band of Gypsys, who had replaced Redding and Mitchell respectively in 1969 after The Experience essentially disbanded. From fleet-of-finger to slow-and-cautious, the switcheroo, thanks in part to the rift between Hendrix and Redding, curiously coincided with Hendrix's heightened commercialization. Now, instead of running through grooves -- as dependent on lead guitar lines as on Redding's bass trills and Mitchell's triple-spurs -- Hendrix simply started showing off. On Band of Gypsys: Live at the Fillmore East, a 16-song collection of mostly previously unreleased tracks, Cox and Miles stay put, four-on-the-floor, leaving the adventurous notes, the stage and the spotlight to their messianic frontman. In fact, Hendrix's performances here New Year's Eve and Day 1969-1970 in New York City, would have sounded equally powerful had he played in front of prerecorded bass lines and a drum machine.

By way of Experience Hendrix, the artist's archival company, a PBS documentary on Hendrix will air this March in support of the release of this two-CD set, which includes a 26-page liner booklet and numerous live photographs. And new material. Four cuts never heard live before and three songs specific to these performances are included along with three alternate takes of old standbys, two remastered tunes and four republished works from 1970's Band of Gypsys (Capitol Records), which was recorded shortly after Cox, Miles and Hendrix began playing together "professionally." If you could call it that.

Though some have argued that Hendrix's "return" to black-based music and musicians, represented by his days with the Band of Gypsys, improved his art, it actually -- by what can be gleaned from these discs -- reduced most of it to Afro-cliche. For example, on Live, drummer Miles disrupts the meditative part of "We Gotta Live Together," a previously unreleased version on which he handles lead vocals, by singing the refrain, "home sweet home," 20 or 30 times with only the metronomic tick, tick, tick of his high-hat as accompaniment. The listener can safely assume bassist Cox was, at this point, taking a small break and Hendrix was getting high. The piece is entirely obligatory, a weak grasp at Sly Stone sing-along-with-me-now soul.

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