Dollars for Discs

Time to wake up, dear reader, we're trying something new. This article that you're reading, the one with the "Sound Check" logo at its top, is a roundup of more-or-less current CD releases. This won't replace the regular "Rotation" column that you may or may not read; that will continue about its standard business the rest of the month, while this, if plans pan out, will wrap up each month with a broader overview of what's out there. The hope is that this will let us increase our coverage of contemporary musical recordings, and in a handy narrative format no less.

As for the boundaries of this column, there are none, other than how much I can hear. Major release, independent, national act, local, it's all grist for the disc changer. And in the spirit of consumer awareness -- this is a shopping guide, and I know you have only so much of the folding stuff to spread around -- I'll even rate the brave little discs according to my perception of the merits of ownership. That is to say: five stars (*****) means Òthis disc deserves, by virtue of its absolute genius and purity, a place in the collection of any person capable of appreciating musical beauty." Four stars (****) means "damned good stuff, worth the cash for fans and the open-minded." Three stars (***) tells you that you're buying flawed but not necessarily fucked material, that this is a mixed bag or that the artist in question has done better work, and if you've got that, you needn't bother with this. Two stars (**) indicates the sort of mediocrity that no one but a masochist or obsessive collector would consider paying for. Unless you're friends with the band. One star (*) suggests absolute dreck, artistic bankruptcy in vision and/or execution, and indicates the probable presence of true evil somewhere along the production line. One-half star (1/2) indicates an unnecessarily picky method of minute differentiation.

That brings us to our first item of consideration, which happens to be the CD I'm listening to now -- R.E.M.'s Monster (Warner Brothers). The music press loves R.E.M. for Michael Stipe's well-mannered activism, and they bit when the publicists sent out the notice that Monster was to be R.E.M.'s guitar-heavy return to rock, because that's exactly what everybody wanted to hear after two albums in which Stipe's once-mumbling moodiness threatened to float off into an ether of synth washes and strings. Yeah, well, okay. So if Monster is R.E.M.'s return to rock, that only points out that R.E.M. never really, you know, rocked. They chugged, yeah, and they popped up and bounced around now and then, but the significant appeal of R.E.M. has been texture, not brute force. What happens when R.E.M. hands the reins to Peter Buck and his guitar is a mess that dribbles from the half-baked "Let Me In" to the boneheaded clunk of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" -- surely the most dismal R.E.M. single ever to clot radio. But Monster is also Stipe's sex album, which seems to dictate that he distort his voice into something that sounds tough while expressing articulately confused conclusions. One example, "King of Comedy," makes me wince like I haven't winced since Neil Young sold me Trans. Not very interesting, I'm afraid. (***). Much more interesting, though it's had plenty of time to age, is Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Bar/None), a liberal sample of the wares of Juan Garcia Esquivel, the last of the Mexican big band leaders. Esquivel recorded for RCA from 1957 to 1968 -- about the time that stereo was replacing mono in the singles lairs of Playboy-reading America -- and his LPs were favorites for test driving the new system. By now, though, they've been out of print for half of forever, and it wasn't until Re/Search Publications included Esquivel in its Incredibly Strange Music issue that word started to filter out beyond record collectors. The word is good. Esquivel used his big band -- which included everything from a blaring horn section to slide guitar to Chinese bells to gourds to female voices singing "Pow!" -- to fill the dynamic envelope with an off-kilter blend of originals ("Mucha Muchacha" is a standout) and standards ("Sentimental Journey" being the most whacked). It's loungy. It's camp (it was camp even then). It's hi-fi. It's the time-warped product of a very narrow slice of American history, and at its best it sounds like the soundtrack to a swanky uptown cartoon about single guys with big stereos. That's a good thing. (****)

But for all the deep pleasures of camp, it doesn't help you make it through the night. For that you need a troubled songwriter, and Austin's Daniel Johnston is your man. He's got a troubled songwriter's resume leading from the carnival to the state mental institution in Rusk, and if he's replaced Roky Erickson as a troubled genius in Austin folklore over, say, Gibby Haynes, it's because, unlike Haynes, who is merely weird (however deeply), Johnston can actually write drop-dead gorgeous songs. He delivers an epic 18 on Fun (Atlantic), under the guidance of producer and erstwhile Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, and sings them to sparse accompaniment in a voice that's so vulnerable and without guile that it bypasses cynical filters and connects at the gut. It's a bit of a, 'scuse me, schizo record, caught -- like a voyeur -- somewhere between private and public worlds. But Fun's a pretty decent introduction to a songwriter most people outside the underground have yet to hear, and Johnston's every high-frequency tune about unconditional love and Captain America (especially "Foxy Girl") is worth a spin. (***1/2)

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If you like Johnston's songs, but find the man's lack of performance skills off-putting, you can bypass the original and check out Kathy McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnson (Bar/None), which, oddly enough, should have a greater shelf life than Johnston's own album. McCarty sang for Austin's Glass Eye back in the old days, and became a fan of Johnston's songs through the home-dubbed tapes he handed out to anyone who would listen. She's collected 19 of her faves here, and what she brings to them is a musical sense to match Johnston's vulnerability, making the tunes sound less freakish and more like the result of a full sensibility brought fully to bear. The difference between the two albums (though hell, there's no crossover of tunes -- buy 'em both...) is the difference between Johnston's sketch and McCarty's portrait. (****)

McCarty's ode to Johnston is the happy exception among tributes, though. Less successful is Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson (Capitol), on which Dinosaur Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Graham Parker, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, David Byrne and Bob Mould, among others, interpret the critically revered songwriter's tunes. It's an interesting mix of people, and the quality of Thompson's songs more or less holds the package together. X, Los Lobos and June Tabor, especially, turn in worthy performances, but there's nothing here that surpasses the still available originals. I suppose the idea is that by attaching popular names to an underappreciated body of work, you can help out the original artist. That's nice, and maybe it'll work, but if it's the name Richard Thompson in the disc's title that attracts you, you don't need this. (***)

Get away from songwriters for a moment, though -- hell, get away from songs entirely -- and check out The Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom), wherein one-time Coltrane collaborator and sax explorer Pharoah Sanders teams up with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania, a master of Moroccan Gnawa music who plays the bass-like Guimbri instrument and leads a chorus of vocal chants. The project, conceived by musical journeyman Bill Laswell, delves into the Gnawa trance music ceremonies, using Sanders' free-form soloing over a rhythmic bed of handclaps, drums and the resonant Guimbri to effect a fluid pulse that's probably closer to blues than anything else in American music, but not all that close just the same. It's lulling without being spacy, and Sanders' tenor sounds as at home in this setting as it does in front

of a jazz trio. Experimental, successful, eye-opening. (****)
The Sporting Life (Mute), an unlikely collaboration between vocal torture queen Diamanda Galas and ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones starts off similarly trancy, but it doesn't take long to turn seedy, which is, I gather, the point. Here, Galas turns away from the spiritual concerns that gave such weight to her Plague Mass, but applies the full force of hysteria to street life and man-baiting. "I'm so disappointed in you," she hisses, "and I don't handle disappointment well." Trust me, it doesn't sound like a come-on. For Jones' part, he gets to play with noir rock rhythms that anchor, as well as anything could, Galas' screaming flights. It's creepy, over-the-edge stuff, but it doesn't much go anywhere. (***1/2)

It shouldn't, however, go into the cut-out bins, which is where the Smashing Pumpkins' rarities, B-sides and live cuts collection Pisces Iscariot (Virgin) ought to land. This is pure filler crap from start to finish, and even the budget-price marketing can't justify the shabby effort. Even if you dig the band, the indulgence involved here is likely to be too much for you. If you thought the Pumpkins were annoyingly indulgent in the first place, this is nothing but confirmation. (*)

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