Imagine you're at a rave. All the components are there: the guys wearing fluorescent colors and hopping clueless in place; the girls exposing their midriffs and holding hands, forming a daisy chain of faux lesbianism; the large, alien ice sculpture in the middle of the dance floor; the idiot dressed like a Transformer action figure.
Now, zero in on the music. Chances are, the pulsating, hypnotic grooves you're thinking of sound a lot like Goldie, who is to the rave scene what the lone, dead black guy is to a B horror movie: a requirement. The silly, throbbing sound this British oddity devises -- located somewhere along the jungle/drum-and-bass aisle of the electronica hypermarket -- has made him an underground dance prince among the rave contingent.
But Goldie is more than trend-setting royalty, he's an artist. Undoubtedly, that is what he wants us all to know with the sprawling, double-disc effort Saturnz Return. Waxing more ambitious than on his 1995 debut, Timeless, the Golden One orchestrates a techno therapy session that is one part hardened realism, another part indulgent escapism. The realism comes on Saturnz's first disc, an epic, hourlong composition called "Mother." Backed by a 34-piece orchestra and including enough ambient clutter to make Brian Eno wince, "Mother" is billed as a bitter love letter to a mother Goldie never knew. To be sure, it's a mighty effort from a bruised soul. But that doesn't mean it isn't numbingly excessive.
The second disc, however, finds Goldie more in his element. On the wild, jungle-nightmare opener, "Temper, Temper," drum and bass spar admirably with the sandblasted guitar of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. "Digital" features a cameo from KRS-One, who tries his best to rap in sync with Goldie's monumentally fierce grooves. Disc two's most unusual diversions are "Believe" and "Crystal Clear," on which Goldie collaborates with vocalist Diane Charlemagne for an acid-jazz shift so abrupt one is left blinking and stunned.
In a sense, Goldie's Saturnz Return is the Titanic of dance releases, as much an unwieldy, overinflated vanity piece as it is a raucous, guilty pleasure. Rave on, mate. (***)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
In the Gloaming
Certainly, there will be other disappointments out of the Carolinas in 1998. The year is young, after all, and we're still waiting on the new Hootie and the Blowfish release. Even so, this rambling sophomore effort from Charlotte, North Carolina's Jolene should have fans lamenting what could have been.
Specifically, In the Gloaming was supposed to signal the band's triumph over adversity and plain bad luck. Back in 1995, Jolene signed to the Ardent label, a well-meaning indie venture that almost immediately failed financially. Jolene's fine 1996 debut, Hell's Half Acre, may have been that crash's most unfortunate victim: It was a poetic, homespun effort with a whiff of bookish self-importance that recalled Reckoning-era R.E.M. in its poignant, uniquely Southern perspective and deceptive craftsmanship.
It's been two difficult years since Hell's Half Acre's release, after which Jolene abandoned the failing Ardent and, lost in label-less limbo, tried to make a living on the road. During infrequent tour breaks, the band assembled enough new songs to impress the A&R flacks at Sire Records, who signed them late last year.
So, naturally, one would assume that In the Gloaming is the gravy on that sweet deal. For some reason, though, Jolene sounds like a band uncertain of its future. Making matters worse, the Gloaming's first few songs offer a hint of what this disc could have been if Jolene hadn't blown through its best ideas in such rapid succession. The leadoff "Pensacola" is a life-on-the road saga that captures, in as few words as possible, the surreal and melancholy wonders of an existence uprooted from friends, lovers and family. And like the three tracks that follow it, the tune makes good use of the band's assets: singer/guitarist John Crooke's husky, unaffected vocals and guitarist Dave Burris's nimble fretwork, its chiming pop fluency reminiscent of his pals the Connells.
If only the same could be said for the remainder of In the Gloaming, which rambles nowhere slowly with little regard for structure or melody. Even Crooke's normally lucid lyrical imagery takes a turn toward the empty and cryptic in the drowsy Southern gothic tales "Two Sisters and the Laureate," "Pull Down the Weight, Virginia" and "20th Century Pause." Rigid, overburdened titles like those should be enough to give anyone pause.
The sad truth is, this CD would be a perfect car-stereo companion for drivers who like to sleep with their eyes open on long trips. Indeed, it was all I could do to keep from zoning through most of In the Gloaming. (**)
-- Hobart Rowland
Unless you've visited Stockholm lately, or caught the band's recent gig as the opening act for Frank Black on his European tour, you probably haven't heard the Wannadies' distinctive spin on Swede-pop. They've been putting out records since 1989, but despite good press in Europe and a slew of empty promises for international distribution, they simply couldn't get a break stateside. MTV even pulled their 1993 video for "Cherryman" when someone there realized that the song was about a pedophile.
But since the band signed with BMG Sweden last year, things have begun to turn around. And that's good cause for pop fans to rejoice, because The Wannadies -- a compilation of sorts that mostly contains songs from their last two European releases -- is a perfect, hook-packed confection. Imagine a postpubescent, pissed-off Hanson with some Teenage Fanclub thrown in for good measure.
Half the songs clock in at under three minutes, and every one features a hummable chorus you'll likely know by heart after one listen. "You and Me Song," originally released as a single in 1994 during what the British music press was calling the Swedish pop invasion, breaks from quiet, loungey, acoustic moments into the buzzsaw guitars and pounding drums that are a Wannadies trademark. Another group trademark is the perpetually tousled state of lead singer Par Wiksten, who, in the best Marc Bolan tradition, isn't afraid to toss in a pretty "la, la, la" when the song calls for it -- or a good "fuck," for that matter. No wonder the Wannadies are at odds with MTV. (****)
-- Seth Hurwitz
Moondog and the London Saxophonic
Sax Pax for a Sax
Composer and percussionist Louis Hardin -- who's gone by the name Moondog since 1947 -- was a New York City cult phenomenon in the 1950s. Back then, his eclectic compositions, which merged jazz, classical, Native American strains and other influences long before such fusion was fashionable, were admired by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini. Moondog has also influenced the minimalist movement championed by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, recorded a release of children's songs and ventured into classical music with an orchestral release in 1969.
Moondog's diversity, of course, makes him difficult to categorize, and Sax Pax for a Sax, Moondog's first U.S. release since 1971, is another interesting concept recording from this unclassifiable icon. Playing bass, drums and percussion, Moondog leads various saxophone ensembles through 15 of his compositions that combine jazz harmonies and baroque choral forms. The size of the ensembles varies throughout the CD, and those proportional shifts are integral to the ebb and flow of Sax Pax, adding to its unique compositional flavor. The result sounds as if Johann Sebastian Bach, Duke Ellington, Philip Glass and Sun Ra had been commissioned to write a score for a woodwind ensemble -- together.
While the songs generally follow classical structures, Moondog's melodies have a certain pop flair, as heard on the catchy vocal tracks "Paris" and "New Amsterdam." Still, the result is hardly conventional. It's somehow both a bit tiring and provocative nonetheless. Whether it's called jazz, classical, fusion or something else entirely, Moondog's Sax Pax for a Sax is one of the more unique recordings out there. (****)
-- Paul MacArthur
Celtic-influenced electronica may sound like an iffy proposition. Without a doubt, combining bagpipes, for example, with drum machines, samples and the occasional spoken word or gurgle is apt to take some getting used to.
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On that note, Martyn Bennett's second release, Bothy Culture, is definitely weird -- but in a good way. Bennett is trying to combine these seemingly disparate kinds of music into something that feels organic and whole. It would be easy to dismiss the "hip-hop piper" (as he is sometimes called) as a world-music Kenny G. (Though if Kenny started tearing his shirt off at the end of his concerts the way Bennett does, I'm not sure he'd get the same ecstatic reaction from the fans.) But rather than creating extended solos over bland, mechanical studio pap, like Mr. G, one gets the sense that Bennett is more interested in songwriting than showing off. And he adds didgeridoo, small pipes and sometimes violin to texture his music.
That's not to say Bennett doesn't like to jam on occasion, but it's never at the expense of the music. Much of Bothy Culture actually sounds like a soundtrack -- as if Bennett were writing a score to some imaginary, rustic environmental documentary. The electric violin, strings and rhythms of "Aye?," for instance, seem to evoke the cinematic image of a lone traveler resting her weary feet beside a ramshackle bothy -- or something like that. Bothies, by the way, are the simple shelters scattered throughout the Scottish Highlands used by climbers and other adventurers free of charge. Nice idea. But you'll still have to fork over 12 bucks if you want to explore Bothy Culture. (***)
-- Seth Hurwitz
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.