Different Stages Live

When I was in high school, there were two similarly garbed and coiffed camps who hung out in the smoking area: AC/DC fans and Rush fans. It was hard to tell them apart unless you listened in as one group discussed the relative merits of feathered roach clips and water bongs, and the other talked Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and favorite Monty Python sketches, and clips vs. bongs. The same kind of deep divide greets this three-disc set. You'll either sit enthralled with headphones on (even though you've already got all of the studio versions) or run screaming from the heavy-thinking prog-rock jams. Different Stages includes all of Rush's FM favorites, lesser-known album tracks and the entire 2112 suite, and it showcases the true chops of guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart, exalted heroes of amateur players and all but unknown outside their cult. Geddy Lee thumps his bass with admirable skill and hits the vast majority of his notes in his whiny vibrato. Discs one and two were recorded during '94 and '97 tours, but the third disc of this set is all from a 1978 London show, and it's interesting to see how far the band has progressed with the advances in playing and sound technology since then (though the younger Lee's voice is even whinier). The 1978 version of Rush is much cruder, but their energy is abundant, and we can forgive them for some of the questionable-in-hindsight material ("By-Tor & The Snow Dog"? "Cygnus X-1"?). I'm sure I've got a dog-eared Tolkien paperback somewhere in the attic myself, probably right next to that feathered roach clip....

-- Bob Ruggiero

Sonya Hunter
Finders Keepers

The path to pop success is usually paved with excess, which may be one reason San Francisco-based singer/songwriter Sonya Hunter is relatively unknown, despite her abundant talent. Hunter's fragile alto has an appealing, childlike quality that lends an intimate, confessional air to her finely crafted tunes. Her melodies have a subtle, sorrowful pulse, and while her lyrics eschew florid language, they're full of the poetry of everyday speech. Listening to Hunter muse about lost love and heartbreak is like spending an evening reading your best friend's diary. The effect can be vaguely disquieting but wonderfully flattering.

Hunter has remained relatively unknown in her hometown, despite a decade's worth of remarkable live gigs. A few years ago, though, Germany's Normal Records got in touch with her and began recording her for a market that was hungry for American roots music. On Finders Keepers, first released in Germany in the early '90s, Hunter is at the top of her form. There are several matchless originals: "The Wedding," a jaded look at the nuptials of an ex-boyfriend, "Talkin' Sad Eyed Salesgirl Blues," which inspects the life of a blue-collar worker with a few well-chosen words, and "4 A.M.," which explores the weary dream world between sleep and waking, loving and longing, living and dying. Traditional tunes like "Silver Dagger" and folky faves by Dylan ("I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"), Buffy St. Marie ("Johnny Be Fair") and others are delivered with lively, whisky-soaked arrangements. These songs convey a perfect mix of maudlin sentimentality and cheery optimism, and Roxanne Marie's aching accordion fills are a particular delight.

-- j. poet

Wayne Toups
More Than Just a Little
BTM Records

The man whose publicists call him "The Cajun Springsteen" continues to mix a musical gumbo of zydeco, country and soul on his eighth album, though this time he's leaning more toward his country influences than ever. The results are adequate, though not particularly memorable. Though the best material here is the more hardcore zydeco (the bouncy "Ragin' Little Cajun," the party song "After the Mardi Gras"), Toups rolls the dice and wins on a risky version of Carole King's sweeping ballad "Standing in the Rain," which shows off his Huey Lewis/Randy Newmanish voice. Still, the more countrified songs are rather forgettable, hindered by slightly generic instrumentation and the emotional limits of Toups's singing. More Than Just a Little is the rare zydeco record that needs more accordion and spicy jambalaya attitude. One cook with his hand in too many pots is just as capable of screwing up the recipe.

-- Bob Ruggiero

electro-shock blues

Eels' lead singer, E, has had a rough couple of years. He is now the last living member of his family, and several of his friends have died recently as well. But rather than run from the topic, electro-shock, the follow-up to 1996's Beautiful Freak, jumps headlong into the theme of death. How headlong? Consider "Cancer for the Cure," in which E details the diagnosis of his mother's incurable cancer. Or the title track, which focuses on the suicide of his sister (and includes lyrics based on her writings).

What's odd is that for all its morbid material, electro-shock is a hell of a catchy record. E makes singer/songwriter rock, but with an intimate production that includes plenty of electronic instrumentation. His deadpan recitations are surrounded by eerie samples, keyboards and string arrangements. Contributions from Lisa Germano, Grant Lee Phillips (of Grant Lee Buffalo) and Dust Brother Mike Simpson blend seamlessly.

Of course, with E's voice set out front, it's impossible to ignore the subject matter. But rather than wallowing in misery, E and his drummer Butch (bassist Adam joined the band after the recording) strive for a light touch. "Hospital Food," with its mordant refrain about "delicious hospital food," hints at the randomness of life and death while electric piano, baritone saxophone and subterranean drums weave and curl around E's musings.

When E emotes directly, as on "Dead of Winter," the music is right there with him. Bowed bass and acoustic guitars lay bare the loneliness, emptiness and fear you feel when a loved one dies. If the entire album were this raw it would be unlistenable; the pain is that sincere. It's a sad record, but far from depressing.

E has made it through the trying times and sees a way out. On the final track, "P.S. You Rock My World," the L.A.-based singer has an epiphany at a funeral and delivers the last line of the record on an up note: "And maybe it's time to live."

-- David Simutis

Live -- Omaha to Osaka
Man's Ruin

Considering L7 outlived grunge and out-grrred riot grrrl, perhaps it's time to consider the band on its own terms, rather than as part of those movements. Mixed up in the early '90s grunge whirlwind, L7's sheer rock monstrosity seemed too heavy, too metal and too plodding. Sure, the 1992 debut Bricks Are Heavy scored alternative hits with "Pretend We're Dead" and "Shitlist," but unlike some former Sub Pop labelmates, L7 couldn't quite break into the pop mainstream.

Instead, the group was lumped into the then-burgeoning neofeminist riot grrrl garage-punk movement, and the L.A. foursome was expected to share the artistic minimalism and politically charged gestures of groups like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. But L7 was too polished, too individualistic and too much fun. The band didn't write manifestoes -- it made shitlists.

L7's focus has always been the riff. Like Motsrhead, AC/DC and the Runaways, Suzi Gardner's and Donita Sparks's guitars chug, while the behemoth rhythm section of Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas forms a punk rock juggernaut. With Gail Greenwood replacing Finch in 1996, this live album captures performances from Omaha, Nebraska, and Osaka, Japan. The disc's 16 tracks rely on the newer, and heavier, side of L7's oeuvre, sounding as murky and powerful as Nirvana's ode to the detuned guitar, "Bleach."

The John Marshall High School Marching Band opens the Omaha set by blurting out a perky medley of L7 favorites before the ladies storm the stage, growling about their urge for trouble with the driving anthem "Bad Things." "Must Have More" drops the pace to a silken slur with the guitars tuned down to something like L; the verse subsists on Gardner's guitar girth, while vocalist/guitarist Sparks's repetitive, zombie-vocal hook breaks the mudfest.

The five songs from the Osaka show are even wilder, with enthusiastic crowd scream- and sing-alongs. Gardner's and Sparks's guitars are heavier, and Plakas continues to stomp out her mechanical 4/4 beat throughout. The crowd microphones are cranked up to capture the group's pugilistic thud reverberating from the stage, so heavier songs like "Fast and Frightening" sound massive and distant.

"How many of you here in Omaha like to ... 'party'?" mocks Sparks between guitar lashings. She obliterates the macho rock posturing and seemingly obligatory audience-pandering chatter of most hard rock live albums without a hint of indie rock's sociopolitical diatribe. Tough and revolutionary, sure, but not riot grrrls.

-- Dave Clifford


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