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
Good Morning Spider
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
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.
The remastered version of "Hear My Train A Comin' " also comes off as contrived. In general, the song resembles, a little too closely for me, Hendrix's earlier, more commercially successful and certainly more brilliant work, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." The major-to-minor change in the bridge of "Hear My Train" is cribbed almost note for note from "Voodoo Child," and the way "Hear My Train" begins slowly, quietly -- as Hendrix's voice harmonizes with his instrument, "I hear my train a-comin', yes, I hear my train a-callin' me" -- explodes into heavy noise, slows down again for Hendrix to sing in his best bluesy style, then bursts into a raucous guitar solo, shows how an artist, deadened by popular expectations, will resort to what worked in the past for inspiration. Sometimes new and beautiful things result. Other times "Hear My Train A Comin' " happens.
Of course, Hendrix's playing is for the most part exceptional, though not wholly progressive. There's nothing on these tracks to indicate he was taking the guitar solo down ever more crazy routes. But also bear in mind the fact that heavy metal, as it is known today, was taking shape across the pond in the form of a quartet called Black Sabbath, nee Earth. Hendrix's strong intro riffs and prominent power chords on then-new tracks such as "Power of Soul" and "Stepping Stone" prefigure Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Sabbath by about six months. Though Hendrix was not "metal" per se, because his lyrics were still about getting stoned or "together," traces of his guitar work would ultimately end up in the licks of Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page and Sabbath's Tony Iommi. Hendrix's reflecting in his music the spirit of the times -- the great disillusionment felt by flower children on learning that drugs and all-encompassing social programs weren't end-all panaceas -- reveals his uncanny ability to react artistically to his surroundings. In this case, Hendrix's guitar playing didn't become harder because he was such a well-informed citizen; it became gloomier, darker, louder and harder because he was somehow (mystically?) in touch with the social mood and cultural zeitgeist and could translate that into artful noise. If anything, Live reinforces the Hendrix myth of man-as-pop-prophet.
Hendrix's fascination with the war, probably nurtured during his time in the service, is also evident in his playing at around the time Live was recorded. Sounds of battle cries, moans, jet planes and rockets explode from his Fender Stratocaster, juiced up more than ever with a handful of distortion gimmicks. In the intro on the second of two new versions of "Machine Gun," which Hendrix dedicates to the soldiers in Vietnam, the guitarist imitates the sound of gunfire by chopping muted eighth-note tones and mimics the presence of human cries by striking high-pitched notes, which he feeds through his wah-wah pedal for extended counts. As the song reaches its pinnacle, drummer Miles simply rat-a-tat-tats beneath Hendrix's introverted soloing. Otherworldly growls linger in the air seemingly for hours as Hendrix stretches his strings beyond their limits with his tremolo bar and cues feedback at his whim. Bluesy phrasings interspersed with quick and dissonant accents ultimately move Hendrix's solo from shock to earnest music-making toward the end of the 13-minute cut.
It may be that Hendrix was truly interested in making good music and that the countless posthumous releases over the years have merely made him appear self-absorbed. The same way a contract dispute came back to hurt Hendrix after he had become famous some 30 years ago, so is documentation of his every sound coming back to dilute his legend today.
-- Anthony Mariani
Looks like Buckcherry's cruising for a lawsuit. By what's on this disc, the band's Dreamworks debut, it seems these bad boys from L.A. have lifted entire guitar lines and parts of lyrics from songs written by the gods of thunder, KISS. Knowing that the arena-rock giants are surrounded by $2,000-an-hour lawyers who live to sodomize little folk with rolled-up subpoenas, Buckcherry's members may be dead long before they ever perform live. (Or at least before they perform live in front of people other than Rainbow Room groupies.) But then again, a lengthy courtroom rumble would produce some good press for the band, especially considering the fact that its "music" won't.
Brazenly, Buckcherry opens its 12-song CD with the most notable theft: the primary rhythm guitar riff from the 1977 KISS tune "Shock Me," written and sung by KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley. And as Space Ace, as he's affectionately known among KISS Army foot soldiers, did lo these 20-odd years ago, so does the Buckcherry guitarist (either a guy named Keith Nelson or Yogi, it's not clear who) begin the song with a two power-chord run that hiccups three times in the beginning, shifts to two staccato chops, full stops, then returns to its free-swinging two-chord charm but at a higher pitch.
Though Space Ace has freely admitted pilfering preexisting work to suit his needs (i.e., on the ending solo of the KISS song "She," Frehley recreates almost to the note Robby Krieger's solo from The Doors classic "Five to One"), he's never referenced stuff so blatantly, let alone from the same genre. As expected, the Buckcherry song of concern, "Lit Up," becomes brainless braggadocio after the best part of the tune -- the part written by KISS -- loses steam. Not even the redeeming quality of lyrics about cocaine and getting fucked up can save this track from Wasp wannabeism and, consequently, my trash can.
To also strengthen KISS's potential claim against Buckcherry is the lyric "queen of the night time world," in the refrain of "Lawless and Lulu," the third song on Buckcherry. It's obviously a rip-off of KISS's 1976 song "King of the Night Time World" (my italics). Need I elucidate? And it makes you wonder if the only thing missing from Buckcherry's schtick is the kabuki makeup. KISS cover bands should be afraid. Very afraid.
And aside from the facts that most of the guitar solos on Buckcherry sound like Frehley's in the way they're concentrated on high pitches, long string bends and melodic flurries, and that lead singer Joshua Todd's singing mimics Dee Snyder's singing/shouting, the record still fails in its postmodern take on the much-maligned '80s metal, its evident inspiration. (Which begs the question, "Is it a joke if no one gets it?") Though most critics/fans/musicians will agree that '80s metal lacked substance, they will say that it overflowed with technical proficiency and a dedication to musicianship. Tell this to the guys from Buckcherry. Simply playing three-note arpeggios through a wah-wah pedal -- as on the track "Get Back" -- which, literally, any monkey could do, isn't artful. But it is, I guess, everything you'd expect from a guitar player named "Yogi," who -- in all estimations -- is not fit to insulate Frehley's moon boots.
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Another sticking point for me is the way Buckcherry's guitar tandem of Yogi and Nelson, ummm, work. Historically, talented heavy metal guitar tandems needed no introductions, so to speak. When you heard any vintage Judas Priest record, for example, you knew exactly whether it was K.K. Downing or Glenn Tipton soloing. Simply by their styles. Same goes for vintage Iron Maiden: Dave Murray's and Adrian Smith's styles were so vastly different that they were like sonic nametags. Even in such bands as the Scorpions -- whose solos went mostly to one player, Matthias Jabs -- you could still tell when the other guy, Rudolf Schenker, got his chance to jam. But with these two goofs from Buckcherry there's no telling who's doing what. They both sound identical. Identically vain and derivative.
So some will say of the band, which also includes the nominal contributions of Jonathan Brightman on bass and Devon Glenn on drums, "Well, they're just doing what Puff Daddy does, but with metal." But this opinion is stupid in two ways: one, rap is NOT heavy metal and was not born of the same sociopolitical circumstances as metal; and two, metal -- unlike rap, which gets its strength by turning white pop culture on its head -- is defined by its grandiosity, intensity and originality. Growing up in a blue-collar town in Pittsburgh, I saw kids fist-fight over who they thought were the best big-time rock guitarists of the day. We felt that strongly about our metal. But who in the hell would take a blow for Yogi? or Keith Nelson? I'd lose teeth for Michael Schenker or Alex Lifeson or Ritchie Blackmore, but for Yogi? I think I'd kick someone's ass just for bringing his name up.
Even the content of Buckcherry's songs stinks with artifice. Guns N' Roses will be the last heavy metal band for years to cross over while maintaining an antiestablishment posture. Period. How many metal bands today could perform songs about "immigrants and faggots," "po-lice and niggers," abusing women and drugs and still sell a million records and receive airplay across the globe? None. What Guns N' Roses did in 1987 and into the early '90s will never be duplicated, especially by a bunch of talentless turks trying to tap the millennial retro craze for a "buck" or two. Merely performing songs with the refrains "I love the cocaine / I love the cocaine," as Buckcherry does in "Lit Up," or "I saw your old lady in a porno mag," as they do on "Dirty Mind," indicates a quixotic attempt to recapture the end of the Reagan era and all the excessive consumption therein. Things -- art, music, etc. -- lose meaning over time and outside of their contexts. Someone should tell Buckcherry it's not 1985 anymore.
And, oh yeah, Gene Simmons's lawyer also wants to have a word with them.
-- Anthony Mariani