Hand It Over
It's been almost two years now since Dinosaur Jr. finally hit the pop charts with "Feel the Pain," and at least two years before that since Dino has managed to sound like anything other than a steadily diluting echo of the punk blast heard on early records such as You're Living All Over Me and Bug. In the meantime, Dino mastermind J. Mascis has been debunking the idea that Dinosaur Jr. is an actual band by bringing in a constantly revolving cast of support players, while at the same time searching for a way out of his alt-rock guitar-god pigeonhole by experimenting with timpani and other non-alt-rock instrumentation.
Those trends continue on Hand It Over with two different bassists and the use of trumpet, piano and a string quartet. They just don't go anywhere. The new line on Mascis is that he's a songwriter now, this generation's Neil Young, and early on in the transformation I bought that line. No more. If Mascis had anything to say, I presume he'd do something to make his lyrics decipherable. But he doesn't. And while he's got a pretty decent melodic sense that pops up on tunes such as "Nothin's Going On," it's nothing that a thousand post-punk popsters haven't been clogging the airwaves with for years.
Where Mascis still kicks ass, whether he likes it or not, is as a guitar wrangler. "Alone" serves up eight minutes plus of the sort of six-string histrionics that no one else in contemporary rock can touch. And it's these scattered touches of Hendrixian squeal, not the twiddly experimentalism of songs such as "I'm Insane," that make Hand It Over stand out.
I can understand Mascis's urge to break out of the familiar, but as a consumer, I wish there were more here of what he's great at, and less of what he just wishes he were great at. (***)
-- Brad Tyer
The Jazz Passengers
What can you do in the '90s with a couple of the biggest new wave rock stars of the late '70s and early '80s? Recycle them as jazz singers! That's what New York City's Jazz Passengers have done with Deborah Harry and Elvis Costello on this, their seventh CD. Recognizable names such as Harry's and Costello's would probably boost sales no matter how they sounded, but as it happens, they aren't half bad here. Being backed by some of the hippest, freshest jazzers from New York's avant-garde scene certainly helps.
The Jazz Passengers began in 1987 as a collaboration between saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Along with violinist Rob Thomas, vibist Bill Ware, drummer E.J. Rodriquez and bassist Brad Jones, Nathanson and Fowlkes offer up some of the freshest sounding jazz on the scene today. Much of their music, with its unexpected tempo changes, unusual instrumental pairings and soloing by two or more instruments at one time, recalls some of Charles Mingus's great work.
Individually Twisted's opening track, "Maybe I'm Lost," features Harry's voice moving from a whispery coo to a throaty growl before kicking into great solos by Thomas and Ware; "Li'l Darlin'," a Neil Hefti/Jon Hendricks composition, is the essence of cool, and Harry really sounds good on it. However, her limitations are exposed on the ballad "Angel Eyes," the stark arrangement of which leaves her nowhere to hide. "Aubergine," one of the two numbers in which Costello steps in as vocalist, is a cool but quirky Mingus-like tune. There's also a throwaway version of the Blondie hit "The Tide Is High."
But don't think about Blondie, and don't think too much about Harry or Costello. Just enjoy this for the good jazz that it is. (*** 1/2)
-- Mark Towns
The Jazz Passengers (with Deborah Harry) perform Sunday, March 16, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue.
On Bjork's new Telegram, she's offered up her raw material to "the pure idea of a remix." Now the pure idea of a remix, as I understand it, is to sell more records. But that's not what the walleyed Icelander says she had in mind when she farmed out the songs on her second solo album, Post, to her favorite hip-hop, ambient, jungle and techno specialists. Just as DJs such as Shadow and Spooky have driven home the idea that record spinners should do more than keep a party on its feet, a certain group of popsters is trying to prove that a remix isn't just for disco anymore, that there's much more to remixing today than simply tacking up a backbeat behind a dismembered pop song. The problem is that to create a remix of the sort Bjork claims to have wanted, the remixer has to consider a song just one more element of his or her art. And with Telegram, the remixers have treated Bjork's offerings as too precious, sticking to the original song structures (verse-chorus-verse) or simply expanding on the songs' original ideas.
The result is that Telegram isn't an album for either Bjork fans or remix sophisticates. Her ambush-style command of the English language, which lends her enough charm to make the fed-up tone of Post's "Army of Me" a delicious shock, is de-emphasized on Telegram. In the "Army of Me" remix by Graham Massey, the vocals are barely there. And on "Isobel," remixed by Eumir Deodato, tropical cruise ship grooves replace Post's light-as-a-feather, stiff-as-a-board kiddie trance. In neither case do the songs particularly benefit from reinterpretation.
Had they been reinterpreted more, that might not have been the case. Despite Bjork's repeated descriptions of "going all the way" with this or that tune, the new versions are mechanical ("I Miss You" by Dobie, "Enjoy" by British techno outfit Outcast) or simply aggrandized ("Hyperballad," re-recorded with the syrupy string accompaniment of the Brodsky Quartet). Still, not everything misses completely. There are a couple of denser, more attractive efforts, among them "Possibly Maybe" by Mark Bell and "Headphones," a sympathetic elaboration of the minimalist Bjsrk/Tricky track by the Finnish outfit Metri. And Bjsrk herself lays down one of the best light beats on "You've Been Flirting Again." But you still can't dance to it. Telegram is neither all remix, in which nothing is sacred, nor all tribute, in which everything is. Remixing, more about style than substance, should be more fun than this -- and far, very far, from "pure." (** 1/2)
-- Shaila Dewan
There is good music, and there is bad music. There is also bad music disguised as good music (Counting Crows, new John Cougar Mellencamp) and good music disguised as bad music ("I'm Too Sexy," old John Cougar Mellencamp). When five British 20-year-olds with easily diagnosed cases of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder call themselves Spice Girls and release a "feminist" Europop CD, there are only two possible categories in which it could be accurately filed: bad music or good music dressed up as bad music.
A little fuzzy on where the Spice Girls fit into this whole good/bad music thing, I brought my 16-year-old sister in as a consultant. She gleefully cranked up the CD's first track (the omnipresent "Wannabe") and immediately learned the words from the CD jacket. Much to my dismay, by the third song ("2 Become 1") she had developed a power dance, one which could only be interrupted long enough for her to declare the following to her sourpuss brother: "This is feminine power music -- you guys don't know anything. And when I grow up I'm going to rewrite all those old stories like Adam and Eve because it is always the girl who does the majorly dumb thing and that's not fair." The Spice Girls had unleashed a lioness, and her verdict was in before the disc was half over. This is good music.
So yes, most of Spice sounds like it was recorded by five teenagers in a mall karaoke studio, but let's not split hairs. This could be an important part of a budding worldwide movement, complete with a Seventeen magazine sponsored version of the Old Testament and sports bra burnings. Go get 'em, sis. (**)
-- Gerard Choucroun
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.
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