Group Dance Epidemic
What Pavement said about Smashing Pumpkins was mean but true: Too much popular music is bereft of purpose. Most records coming out are neither enjoyable enough to qualify as real entertainment, nor enlightening enough to be particularly good art. So when Brave Combo advertise their music as "Fun ... and Functional!" on the cover of their new CD, Group Dance Epidemic, it's wise to take note.
Group Dance Epidemic is Brave Combo's response to the dual plagues afflicting organized dance these days. On one side, there's the undisciplined gyrations and moshing of youth dance; and on the other, there's the remedial stepping of the electric slide and the macarena. Brave Combo are out to remind us how fun formal dance steps can be when they're named things such as "The Hokey Pokey," "Hand Jive" and, of course, "The Hustle." To help us relearn the moves, Group Dance Epidemic's CD booklet includes, in place of the lyrics, photos and instructions for each dance. (Who listens to words when they're dancing anyway?)
Of course, this is Brave Combo, Denton, Texas's best (and only) new wave polka/ wacky world music sextet, a group that recorded "Stairway to Heaven" as a swing tune, "Hava Nagila" as a twist and "Satisfaction" as a cha-cha. It's not surprising, then, that Brave Combo's take on popular group dance would be dizzyingly dynamic and eclectic. In the group's capable hands, "The Hokey Pokey" gets both a rock (with Led Zep drums and twang guitar) and a cowbell-funk go-go reading; the "Jeopardy" theme song becomes a schottische; "The Hustle" interweaves bits of "Walk on the Wild Side"; and "The Bunny Hop" quotes Duke Ellington's "Cottontail." Other (relatively) straightforward numbers take us globetrotting: There's a Greek sailor's dance, a Mexican hat dance, a Yemenite-Israeli folk dance and a Cuban conga line.
Instead of trying to explain the joys of this disc, I defer to its eloquent liner notes: "Why is group dance all the rage? (1) Because it's fun! (2) Because it is for everybody; even the shy and the uncoordinated can find pleasure and security in the structure of organized dance. (3) Because it is spiritual; we lose ourselves in synchronized movement like schools of fishes or flocks of migratory birds and experience our interconnectedness with others." Two-left-footers of the world, unite! (****)
-- Roni Sarig
Brave Combo performs Saturday, July 19, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.
Some Other Sucker's Parade
Scotland's Del Amitri are smitten by American rock and roll -- so much so that if bandleaders Justin Currie and Iain Harvie never opened their mouths except to sing, you'd swear they were from the U.S. Lead vocalist Currie has long since refined his thick Glasgow brogue into a well-enunciated, soulful croak with a curious hint of a Midwestern drawl. And the group itself traded loyalties for good on 1989's Waking Hours, moving from what was initially a breezy, Beatles-derived sound to an easy-listening blues-rock blend somewhere along the lines of a spunkier Steve Miller Band -- though guitarist Harvie's jagged riffs can always be counted on for the occasional nod to the Faces and the Rolling Stones.
For Some Other Sucker's Parade, their fifth release, Del Amitri reunite with Waking Hours producer Mark Freegard, and the Yankee-loving trend continues. "What I Think She Sees," the title track and "Not Where It's At" -- all foolproof jangle-pop confections -- are the best of a splendid first half. "Not Where It's At," in particular, perfectly pools the band's winningest attributes: sweet, streamlined harmonies; equally rich, layered guitars; an uncanny instinct for the drop-dead chorus; and a flair for the obvious (the tune's Byrds-ish Rickenbacker intro). And while Currie's wounded barfly routine can verge on the tiresome at times, it's perfect here. "She don't want me, 'cause I'm not where it's at," Currie sings, flitting playfully between self-pity and sarcasm. "I don't have my finger on the pulse of my generation / I just got my hand on my heart, I know no better location."
If the songwriting on the disc's second half is noticeably less engaging, there are still inspired spurts. Indeed, Del Amitri rarely stray far from matters of the heart, dissecting their personal relationships in a mildly cynical tongue-in-cheek manner. "Roll to Me," the band's top ten single of two years ago, was nothing more than a teasing, two-minute come-on, its lighthearted disposability effectively flushing out the sour vibes lingering from 1992's Change Everything. On that intensely personal release, Del Amitri achieved a level of musical and emotional catharsis they'll likely never tap into again. And that's okay. Because one brooding, underrated masterpiece is enough for any pop band -- especially when it sells as miserably as Change Everything did. Given Some Other Sucker's Parade's handful of potential hits, the disc shouldn't meet with a similar fate -- even if, on the whole, it falls a half-dozen hook-filled insights short of excellence. (***)
-- Hobart Rowland
Belle and Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister
With a name like Belle and Sebastian, you might expect some precious and terribly earnest duo of harmonizing folk strummers in ruffled shirts. And though you'd be wrong about this camera-shy seven-piece pop orchestra from Glasgow, Scotland, you'd still somehow have the right idea about them. Led by singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian make exquisitely gentle and lush folk-pop that would blend into a pastoral country scene the way long grass or a rolling brook -- or a pair of folksingers -- would.
It's the kind of thing that shows up again and again in the music of provincial Britain: from Donovan and Nick Drake in the '60s and '70s to the Lilac Time and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees (remember them?) in the '80s. But there are other musical traditions as well working on Belle and Sebastian's first proper release, If You're Feeling Sinister. Murdoch as a writer shares Morrissey's knack for coming up with great song titles -- "The Stars of Track and Field" or "Judy and the Dream of Horses," for instance -- that pay off in the lyrics as often as they don't. When the words work, Murdoch seems to characterize sleepy northern towns -- full of confused kids and the twisted adults they grow up to be -- the way Ray Davies sketches London. There's a dreamy melancholy that constantly gets upstaged by wry wit.
Even more appealing, though, are the players. Belle and Sebastian have a large-band folk sound, comparable to Nashville's Lambchop or England's Tindersticks, only brighter, poppier and much more Scottish. With at least three voices, electric and acoustic guitars, pianos and organs, cello and violin, horns and harmonica and even what sounds like a warped plastic recorder, Belle and Sebastian use a full palette of musical colors. But even at their most upbeat, they paint in subdued shades. What results is big music that manages to sound rich while still feeling small and intimate. (*** 1/2)
-- Roni Sarig
Jon Bon Jovi
For all the excess of the cock-rocking '80s -- the big hair, the disposable hooks -- there hasn't been an overspill of enduring talent. For his part, Jon Bon Jovi was as much a part of that soft-metal, fashion-show era as was MTV. And like it or not, when the ax came down on the whole mess, he was seen as a poster boy for why it deserved a speedy demise.
All of which makes the uniformly solid Destination Anywhere, Jon Bon's first proper solo release, a fairly compelling statement. If anything, the disc is sure to provide more ammunition to the critics who've always believed that Jon Bon's legacy will be that of a credible songwriter. Here, with only minimal help from outside writers and no support from Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, he's delivered material that relies more on thematic texture than cool guitar tones -- and more on cohesive structuring than on a paint-by-numbers style. What's more, Destination Anywhere contains the first batch of Jon Bon Jovi tunes to threaten any real dramatic conflict, played out in a voice that's inherently low-key, confident and convincing. In some instances, Jon Bon even sounds downright bitter ("Too late to cover up my tracks / Damn the fool who begs for more / I'll take my past and paint it black"). Yet somehow the bitterness suits him.
Musically, there's a surplus of mid-tempo tunes worth a slow dance or two. Only now there's producer Steve Lironi's loops and programming to give them a more contemporary feel. Consequently, tracks such as "Janie, Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Learning How to Fall" and "Staring at Your Window with a Suitcase in My Hand" are both predictably catchy and unpredictably modern. And even if collaborations with Dave Stewart and ex-Hooter Eric Bazilian don't fare as well, they're at least worth a hum. On the whole, Destination Anywhere reveals an above-average rocker/balladeer evolving into something far more substantial: a competent survivor. (***)
-- Andy Langer
On Little Head, John Hiatt's goal seems to be to take the listener on a trip back to the days when vocals were recorded live, there were no overdubs and a band got it on one take or not at all. As that sort of nostalgia, the CD's successful. But as a piece of recorded music, it demonstrates why John Hiatt will always remain a traveling troubadour rather than a star.
The reason is simple: excessive familiarity. Yes, Hiatt's produced quality music here, and it's nicely done, but haven't we heard this all before? You get the impression he pulled out his collection of Stax and Motown albums, along with some other choice '60s and '70s releases, and wrote this disc while listening to them. The track "My Sweet Girl," for example, is the jazzy, slow and sinewy blue-eyed soul Van Morrison perfected on Moondance.
Little Head does successfully catch the loose, live feel of recording while on tour. That sweaty immediacy of playing a show and then running into the studio to cut tracks is well-captured, in no small part thanks to John Hiatt's backing band, the Nashville Queens. The Queens, featuring longtime Hiatt bassist and disc co-producer Davey Faragher, provide a straight, no-chaser roadhouse kick to Hiatt's excursions. He feeds off this, approaching the music with a relaxed, to hell with it all attitude of plug in, tune up and let's roll tape.
It almost works. The title track builds from a single swamp-blues riff into a thick slab of Muscle Shoals-inspired backwoods R&B. "Feelin' Again" and "Sure Pinocchio" find Hiatt flexing some rarely shown funk muscle thanks to a flurry of Tower of Power horns and ex-dB, R.E.M.- sideman Peter Holsapple's rippling, Booker T.-inspired organ runs. The problem is, Hiatt's so wired into the past, not to mention
locked into his own style, that these attempts at change sound dated.
Hiatt's voice has aged into a cranky, nasal twang that he puts to great use on songs such as "Runaway." He utilizes a sorrowful yodel and a haunting arrangement to cut through this typical "tear in the beer" country ballad, turning it into a classic sure to be covered by Bonnie Raitt on her next CD. In fact, with one song he schools an entire generation of alternative-country rockers, coming up with the tune they all want to write but have been unable to compose so far.
So, yes, John Hiatt is like a one-trick pony. You know what's coming, you know it will be done well. But at least this time around, there are a few surprises. (***)
-- David Whitman
In a more just world, Eddie Vedder need never make another release, never do another tour, never venture into the limelight again -- and stay rich. He'd simply sit home and collect a fresh crop of royalty checks forwarded directly to him and his bandmates by the Nixons. Now, that's not to imply that The Nixons, the self-titled follow-up to the Denton band's relatively successful major-label debut Foma, sounds completely like Pearl Jam. Actually, it only sounds like very bad Pearl Jam.
From the opening notes of the first single, "Baton Rouge," The Nixons is instantly familiar. Of course, that could be seen as a compliment -- as in "immediately likable." But here that familiarity is more along the lines of "immediately hackneyed." The disc only compounds its problems by stealing from itself. "In Spite of Herself" has the same kick as "Baton Rouge" does, mainly because they share nearly the same signature guitar line. Lyrically, the CD doesn't fare much better. "Miss USA," for example, bases its entire premise on the revelation that society worships beauty. Oooh, digging deep there, aren't we? And with "December" and "Shine," the Nixons even indulge in the bizarre practice of stealing song titles from Collective Soul. So if you like your music recycled and your lyrics trite, turn it up. Then promptly file The Nixons under "Big Dumb Rock."(* 1/2)
-- Michael Bertin
Lester Bangs once described an Otis Rush album as "better than suicide," but I've always thought the line was much more appropriate to the genre known as "mope rock." Not the watery, pretentious poet stuff such as American Music Club, or silly Goth/gloom nonsense such as the Cure and Smashing Pumpkins. I mean the real deal: albums where you can hear the artists slit their wrists open and let the blood pour out on 24 tracks because it's the only alternative to embracing the deep sleep. I mean Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, the third albums by Big Star and the Velvet Underground and Nirvana Unplugged. And I mean just about anything by England's Tindersticks.
This combo hasn't altered its formula much over four full studio CDs. Curtains once again features the core sextet fleshing out Stuart Staples's somber tone poems with beautiful layers of violin, keyboards, accordion, clarinet, brushed drums and the occasional borrowed orchestral instrument. The surprises here are "Fast One," which features a pretty good imitation of the Velvets' noisy masterpiece, "I Heard Her Call My Name," and "Marriage Made in Heaven," a bonus track with guest vocals by Isabella Rossellini. (She's no diva, but I'm with David Letterman: I melt just when she says her name.)
As far as the basic Tindersticks recipe, it's not really an acquired taste; like sushi or snails, you either love it right off the bat or it makes you want to puke. The biggest obstacles are the tempos (they're slower than Strom Thurmond's pulse rate) and Staples's voice (Nick Cave imitating Bryan Ferry on a 45 slowed down to 33). Although I have a limited tolerance for mope rock, I'm willing to follow Staples and crew on their particular funeral marches every time out, because few of their peers have ever plumbed depths so deep, and because the beauty of their arrangements always suggests there is light at the end of the tunnel. (*** 1/2)
-- Jim DeRogatis
Love Among the Ruins
Back in the winter of 1988, when 10,000 Maniacs were beginning to make their play for the hearts, minds and ears of the budding J. Crew generation, a campus colleague of mine claimed that he had already endured about all he could take from the bookish Jamestown, New York, quintet. "I'd rather undergo oral surgery with a power drill than have to sit through 'Like the Weather' again," he'd whine -- or something to that effect.
And though I was a fan (and remained one for quite some time), I could sympathize with him. Because really, all that saved 10,000 Maniacs from melting in its own spineless melodies and militant good taste were the pipes, ornate poetry and austere fashion quirks of the its chanteuse, Natalie Merchant. Merchant was the Maniacs -- or, at least, she was the only thing about the band worth saving.
Nowhere is that more evident than on Love Among the Ruins, 10,000 Maniacs' first studio project since 1993, the year the band's bread and butter struck out for a solo career. The loss of a lead singer, lead songwriter and lead focus for the media might have snuffed out less persistent groups, but not the Maniacs. They simply plugged the void left by Merchant's departure with longtime musician pals Mary Ramsey and John Lombardo and inked a new deal with a new label. Pity for us. What the remaining Maniacs came up with is more innocuous than anything Merchant has ever committed to disc -- and that means it must be really dull.
Ruins is little more than deftly executed nothingness, a custom-crafted, neo-folk sleeping pill. Its sheer vacuity falls, somewhat unjustly, on the shoulders of Ramsey, a so-so singer who shouldn't have to take the rap for what was apparently a band-wide lack of originality. Still, Ramsey's soggy delivery sops up what little mystery and friction the music might have mustered. That life-sucking quality extends to non-original material, as well: Ruins's cover of Roxy Music's "More than This" is an easy-listening, VH1 nightmare at its most unrelenting. It's also the disc's first single. Someone hand me the drill. (*)
-- Hobart Rowland
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Year of the Horse
These represent Neil Young's fifth and sixth live discs of the '90s (following Weld, Arc and Unplugged) -- throw in Lucky Thirteen, and he has seven discs of recycled material this decade, in addition to six CDs of new material. As such, they may not exactly be irrelevant, but they do pose a niggling question: Why is it okay to release this and keep so much other material locked away on the shelf? Young has to be the biggest major rock artist with the most significant chunks of back catalog unavailable on CD. Great swatches of his agonized '70s output are nowhere in sight, while the trilogy of terror from the '80s -- Trans, Everybody's Rockin' and Old Ways -- is available only as overpriced imports. And there's the small matter of this long-delayed sequel to Decade, an opus that promises another pile of material both new and recycled, though by the time it sees a record store shelf it'll probably have to be titled Millennium.
Noodling around on less-than-essential toss offs such as this one certainly isn't a crime, but it does seem like creative wheel-spinning. Oh, well -- at least this isn't the same old same old. Though a couple of tunes resurrected from Zuma -- "Barstool Blues" and "Danger Bird" -- sound workmanlike at best when compared to the endlessly fascinating originals, Young does shake things up a bit. The beautiful "Pocahontas" receives an amped-up electric crunch, while chestnuts "Mr. Soul" and "Human Highway" are rendered in an acoustic fashion (though "Mr. Soul" got the same treatment on Unplugged -- is Young even paying attention to what he's putting out these days?).
The only truly pointless inclusions are three tunes from Broken Arrow, which get extended jams. This wouldn't be that bad, except that they were extended jams on the studio album. (If Young wanted to include something from Broken Arrow, why didn't he throw in "Music Arcade," the sole acoustic number amidst that album's electric rumble, an elliptically resonant tune with the potential to become as popular as "Sugar Mountain"?)
Consumer alert: This represents 85 minutes spread over two discs; junk one song and you could've fit it all on one CD and saved a couple of bucks. Right now, Young might be advised to back off the feverish pace at which he has been releasing product, lest he fritter away all the goodwill he garnered with his amazing comeback a decade ago. (**)
-- David Kronke
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.