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Various Artists
Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music
Arista

When the ticket windows closed for the final time last fall, Lilith Fair had become the most successful festival tour of 1997, both financially and artistically. By then, Lilith founder Sarah McLachlan had gracefully ascended to the status of Wonderbra'd super-heroine, and the rotating lineup of 70 artists managed to impress many of the most cock-sure male rockers and jaded critics. If rock and roll can be likened to a boys-only clubhouse, it seems a handful of girls have finally figured out the secret knock.

Representing a healthy talent spectrum -- from seasoned vets to up-and-comers -- this 26-song, two-CD collection captures the best performances from that 35-city tour. As with any good concert experience, Lilith Fair highlights range from political fist-pumpers (the Indigo Girls' "Scooter Boys") to blissed-out Bic lighter moments (the Indigo Girls/McLachlan/Jewel rendition of the traditional Irish song "Water Is Wide"). Lowlights are few, the most glaring being the Cardigans' clunky "Been It" and Susanna Hoffs's uninspiring "Eternal Flame," both on the first disc.

Beyond the preponderance of acoustic-based singer/songwriter fare, there is a bit of spice. Both the haunting "Lama Dorje Chang" by Tibetan artist Yungchen Lhamo and Autour de Lucie's shimmery, French-language "Sur Tes Pas" show that groove and emotion can transcend one's understanding of lyrics. One of the few amped-up rockers, Meredith Brooks's "Wash My Hands," fails to convince -- only because it's placed smack dab in front of Patty Griffin's mighty "Cain," arguably the most moving three and a half minutes of the entire sampler. Like a book's satisfying final chapter, Victoria Williams's "Periwinkle Sky" closes the two-hour-and-20-minute set with her quirky, down-home charm.

With the exception of McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" and Joan Osborne's "Ladder," Lilith Fair is largely devoid of anything previously heard blaring out of car windows. Overall, that modest, anti-commercial strategy works to the collection's advantage. Credit producers McLachlan and Terry McBride for having the good sense to opt for the scenic, if not overly unfamiliar, route. (***)

-- Melissa Blazek

Sean Lennon
Into the Sun
Grand Royal

Just to get it out of the way for the Beatles fans: Sean is not the second coming of John but is definitely more in line with his dad's genius than half-brother Julian. On Into the Sun, Yoko's pride and joy steps out of the shadows with a scattershot release that has as much in common with his mother's bizarre, experimental work as it does with the Fab Four's pop sense.

Recorded for the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label, Into the Sun is part jazz, part '70s-ish soft rock, part rootsy Americana, part hip-hop and largely intriguing. Minus the major matter of lineage, there wouldn't be nearly as much interest surrounding Lennon's debut outing. But those who dig the likes of Beck, Cibo Matto (with whom Lennon plays bass and whose Yuka Honda -- Lennon's girlfriend -- produced and inspired the album) and other quirky genre-hoppers will find much to appreciate here.

Into the Sun candidly shines light on Lennon's splayed creative paths. Rather than locking into one style, he experiments loosely and playfully. Like any good postmod kid, Lennon spans the globe in search of the perfect groove and the right mood. From the Casio keyboard beats and bossa-nova guitar on the title track to the instrumental jazz of "Photosynthesis," right on through to the alt-country-leaning "Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy" and the smooth-love vocals and muted acoustic guitar of "One Night," Sun is a long and winding road, but one with a wealth of sights along the way. No pressure here. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Superdrag
Head Trip in Every Key
Elektra

Now I get it; Superdrag is actually a pop band -- and a brilliant one, at that. More often than not, on 1996's Regretfully Yours, that fact failed to register. Between all the sawed-off power chords, teeth-gnashing jibes and singer/songwriter Josh Davis's fingernails-on-slate whine, this Knoxville quartet's potential was less than consistently obvious, its debt to the likes of Cheap Trick, the Beatles and fellow Tennesseans Big Star harder to peg.

Not so Head Trip in Every Key, on which Superdrag takes the hooks by the horns, so to speak, allowing the songs to breathe and the influences to work their derivative magic, letting beauty seep into the music's foundation and pad the rough edges when such concessions to the song are unavoidable. In some cases -- as on the lusciously orchestrated, scatterbrained ballad/epic "Amphetamine" -- such boisterous prettification is every bit the intention.

By and large, though, Superdrag's refined tendencies are usually countered by a blast of malfeasant guitar-rock credibility. The sweeping melancholia of "Amphetamine," for example, is immediately followed by "Bankrupt Vibration," an image-damning dismissal of the brutally cynical -- and cyclical -- alt-rock machinery that approaches the acidic, unbearable reproach of the Regretfully hit "Sucked Out." "Jumping out of the window / I know the name of the game," Davis mewls over a self-consciously drab and repetitive mock-grunge lick. "Any rock and roll star is a pitiful shame."

 

And yet, surrounded by the frayed sonic ambition of the bulk of Head Trip, the occasional crabby digression is not only permissible but wonderfully ironic; it's as if Superdrag is spoofing it own once-trendy aspirations. "Mr. Underground," another cheeky ode to success's fleeting glow ("How does it feel to be one of the novelties / You can ask me") is a horn-drenched hoot with a razor-sharp aftertaste -- as is the first single, "Do the Vampire," though minus the bouncy brass. "She Is a Holy Grail" does a number on Davis's limited pipes, layering them into a soothing aural elixir worthy of the Beach Boys' best vocal moments, then slapping on distant Mellotron and a groggy flamenco guitar signature to alternately spacy and exotic effect.

Even better is the CD-opening "I'm Expanding My Mind," which takes a simple, nursery-rhyme chord progression in the verse and, umm, expands it into a chorus of anthemic proportions, piano and guitar pounding in unison toward a near-orgasmic crescendo. And as for the irresistible "Pine Away," Teenage Fanclub couldn't have done it any better themselves. In fact, you could say the whole of Head Trip in Every Key is the best album Teenage Fanclub never made. Mind-blowing stuff? You betcha. (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

Sonic Youth
A Thousand Leaves
DGC

They're not so young anymore, of course; Churning toward their 20th year as a collective, the members of Sonic Youth have long since become fathers/mothers to whatever underground scene is claiming them this week. But where the "Youth" part has become the proverbial exercise in irony, the "Sonic" bit doggedly refuses to follow suit. Both during and after its 3.5 seconds in the pop-culture sun -- around the time SY recommended to DGC that it sign you-know-who -- the band studiously avoided stasis, progressing from its early-'90s art-grunge phase to a current fixation on dynamic epics and atmospheric abstractions. (Read: art-psych.) A recent series of self-released EPs -- mostly improvised, mostly self-indulgent -- was said to announce the band's return to its experimental roots. But like hell if they ever really left, for even at the band's most conventional, you'd never mistake a Sonic Youth song for anything else.

It seems like every new SY release must now be greeted with a chorus of comparisons to Daydream Nation, the band's sprawling mission statement from a decade ago. Four subsequent albums all came up on the short end of that one. Aesthetic progression isn't to blame; consistency is. Daydream never faltered from start to finish, but succeeding LPs never sustained such songwriting skill for an entire album -- even if they did contain some of the band's best songs ("Theresa's Sound World," "Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit," "Bone," "Washing Machine").

And so it is with A Thousand Leaves: a few amazing moments, a few interesting ideas and some total crap. It shifts between mesmerizing and forgettable until it's mostly just frustrating. The album opens with "Contre Le Sexisme," four minutes of distant-thunder guitar fuzz and monotone drone topped by a sing-speak rant from bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon. Aside from a funny melodic reference to "The Way We Were," it's actually even worse than it sounds. "Contre," however, does make for a nice contrast to "Sunday," the great Thurston Moore tune that follows; the latter's chugga-chugga rhythms and chiming guitar crescendoes only highlight its predecessor's deficiencies. That frustrating pattern continues throughout; serious whiffs ("Female Mechanic Now on Duty," "The Ineffable Me") and wonderful moments (the hypnotic ten minutes of "Wildflower Soul," the frankly pretty "Snare, Girl") alternate so steadfastly you'd almost think it was deliberate.

Naturally, the album's weakest bit -- 11 dreary minutes of "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)," the parenthetical title of which moves it into the realm of Yber-lameness -- is followed by its best, "Karen Koltrane," courtesy of singer/guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Like most of SY's greatest stuff, "Karen" turns those weird tunings and sturdy rhythms into something powerful, haunting, evocative. And Ranaldo's got the perfect voice for it; where Gordon sounds like a good singer trying to be bad and Moore a bad singer trying to be good, Ranaldo is the guy who simply doesn't care. Like "Wildflower," "Snare," "Sunday" and a few others, "Karen" proves that there's still plenty of greatness lurking in Sonic Youth's ambitions; the rest of the disc proves that there are still plenty of dull missteps, too. One would hope to get better than a wash one of these days. (** 1/2)

 

-- Keven McAlester

Tortoise
TNT
Thrill Jockey

TNT's title track begins with a chaotic bebop rhythm; it's almost as if the drummer doesn't know that anyone else is listening. A simple guitar riff wafts through and repeats, as the drums lock into an almost military feel. This continues for more than two minutes before it becomes apparent the tune is in full swing; a bass guitar, vibraphone and another electric guitar join in the fray just before everything simply evaporates.

And therein lies the genius of Tortoise: They're a nebulous mass, never congealing to the point where they can be grasped completely. A genre unto themselves (post-rock), the instrumental sextet veers from freeform jazz to spaghetti-western soundtrack fare, from Steve Reich minimalism to trip-hop. And because they don't limit themselves to a single style, and each member is a multi-instrumentalist, they're always free to amass textures in any manner they see fit.

At best, TNT settles into a somnambulistic groove, with crisp drumming and slow dub bass lines slinking up to the fore. And because the rhythm section leads so deftly, all the added touches -- trumpet, vibraphone, marimba, strings -- are more soothing and hypnotic than distracting, like steady drips from a kaleidoscopic icicle. (****)

-- David Simutis

Tortoise performs Sunday, May 17, at Fitzgerald's.

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame


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