World Party's Karl Wallinger has his drawbacks. First off, he's not much of a singer. True, Wallinger can carry a tune -- but he carries it with only a scant measure of character. And lyrically speaking, he's less a true poet than a collector of nice phrases (i.e. "Put the message in the box / Put the box into the car / Drive the car... " yadda, yadda, yadda). Music-wise, World Party's 1986 debut, Private Revolution, and its patchy, if well-crafted, successors, Goodbye Jumbo and Bang!, offer a virtual clinic in fine tunesmanship, but few truly original moments.
Still, the Welsh-born Wallinger is an artist worth treasuring -- mainly because few self-styled pop geniuses have transcended their limitations the way he does on the breathtaking Egyptology. The CD's detail-rich 15 tracks (not overly many when you consider that Wallinger averages a release every two and a half years) ooze over with a near religious affection for the sounds of his music-obsessed youth, from the British Invasion bands and their tackier early-'70s successors to the orchestrally bloated, black-tie pop of his parents' generation.
Egyptology's opener "It Is Time" gives an idea of just how deeply that obsession gnaws at Wallinger's very fabric, and how expertly he channels it into a sleek, retro-pop vehicle all his own. With a few crisp thwacks of a snare, the song segues into a twangy lick suggestive of vintage early Stones (or, for that matter, vintage Monkees). Its structure is deceptively basic, a blurring of verse and chorus that gets under your skin well before the tune reaches its crescendo amidst echoey ascending harmonies, sustained chords and thunderous rolls eerily similar to Keith Moon's classic drum demolition on the Who's "My Generation." Clocking in at just under three minutes, 30 seconds, "It Is Time" is a thorough rundown of fundamental rock and roll moves more than three decades old. Yet Wallinger's reverence for the past flows so unabated beneath the song's well-worn foundations as to make the tune immune to criticism.
That holds true for the majority of Egyptology, which only rarely strays from its sentimental, song-oriented mission. "Call Me Up," "Beautiful Dream," "Piece of Mind" and "The Whole of the Night" (likely a play on "The Whole of the Moon," a classic number from Wallinger's '80s spell with the Waterboys) contrast mock-psychedelia with an appropriate hint of stylized U.K. blooze. Most important, their hooks are addictive as hell. The crossover ambitions of Egyptology's string-enhanced, supper-club cabaret showpieces "Vanity Fair" and "Rolling off a Log" seem tailor-made for Neil Diamond. And the sweeping, emotionally frank ballads "She's the One" and "Love is Best" are among the prettiest, most tender compositions Wallinger has ever written. (One might have expected "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb," a tune inspired by the death of Wallinger's mother, to be the same. Instead, its rather silly symbolism -- "Mummy" versus "Mommy" -- feels more like an exercise in emotional ambivalence, though one preserved in an appealing Beatlesque shroud.)
But such analysis is really beside the point. In the end, Egyptology is as much a triumph of mood over matter as it is one of style over substance. And the spoils go largely to Wallinger, given that World Party has been his gig all along. With the exception of Chris Sharrock's implosive drumming on seven tracks, Wallinger played, programmed and produced every bit of Egyptology at his Seaview Studios, a knob-fiddler's Shangri-la stocked to the hilt with the latest gadgets.
Funny then how this disc is, by far, World Party's most organic outing. Where Wallinger's previous work -- with its drum machines, leftover '80s technology and such -- tended toward the impersonal, his new material bristles with humanity. Like a long-lost friend who's just resurfaced, Egyptology has never seemed more welcome -- or as immediately familiar. (**** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
Gospel Oak EP
Sinead O'Connor has retired from her escapades as one of the bald and the beautiful. Along with her new full head of shiny black hair, she ushers in a period of quiet.
Although she's probably best known for her fatalistic cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," it's O'Connor's originals that really take your breath away. The Gospel Oak EP, her first recording since 1994's Universal Mother, boasts five new songs written by O'Connor and produced by her ex-husband John Reynolds, as well as a live version of the traditional Irish anthem "He Moved Through the Fair."
All six of the EP's songs are soft, slow and steeped in the sounds of Ireland. A few tunes dance on the edge between ballad and jig, making for interesting tempos. The standout cut, "This Is a Rebel Song," is a melodic, weepy plea for the love and attention of an Englishman. There's a moral here, yet it isn't the hit-you-over-the-head sort of I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got's "Black Boys on Mopeds." Maybe O'Connor has softened up with the birth of her daughter, or maybe the recuperation from her nervous breakdown has mellowed her.
This isn't to say that her rebellious social and politically conscious side has been laid to rest. Actually, quite the contrary. The raging indignation heard on earlier songs such as "Red Football," "Famine" or "Fire on Babylon" has simply been replaced on Gospel Oak's "This Is to Mother You" and "I Am Enough for Myself" by the power of solemn contemplation.
Still, as much as the lullabies found on Gospel Oak EP suit her soprano, fans of O'Connor's early, more energetic work will likely still long for the wail and hip-hop groove found in "Mandinka," "Put Your Hands on Me" or "(I Am) Stretched on Your Grave." (*** 1/2)
-- Carrie Bell
In It for the Money
Lost on this side of the Atlantic amidst the Oasis and Blur-gasm of the last couple of years was Supergrass's debut I Should Coco, a splendid little piece of juvenilia that put the fun back into sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now, with In It for the Money, Supergrass has gone their fellow Brit-pop sensations one better. Where their more popular countrymen have stolen liberally from the Beatles, Supergrass has wisely stolen from everybody else. Okay, obviously not everybody, but for their latest they have mined bits and pieces of various British sounds from each of the last four decades.
For example, there's the Small Faces' "Ogden Nut Gone Flake" in "Tonight." There's the Who in the art-rockier moments of In It for the Money's title track. In addition to the synth sounds of Nick Mason that are sprinkled throughout the record, there's the outro of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" in the outro of the sluggish "Hollow Little Reign." And if that weren't enough, there's the jump of Julian Cope's "Beautiful Love" in both the bridge of "Going Out" and the chorus of "Late in the Day." All of that lies in the tracks of In It for the Money, but the beauty of the CD is that Supergrass manages to cull these items from the past and shove them into their music without sounding blatantly derivative. By keeping the sound big, the nostalgia trip becomes more of a sideshow than the main attraction.
The only downside of In It for the Money is that it relies too much on momentum to carry itself through less than stellar moments such as "G-Song" and "It's Not Me." And sure, some of the stupidity of youth that made the debut so endearing is gone. Still, it's not entirely missed, because Supergrass just transferred the cheekiness into the sound. The kids are growing up, but they're not yet grown-ups. (*** 1/2)
-- Michael Bertin
Do You Like My Tight Sweater?
While hardcore rave is unlikely to impact the charts any time soon, the techno-flavored sound will undoubtedly continue to ease into our culture, in part through the likes of U2 and David Bowie but also thanks to likable young British pop bands such as the Sneaker Pimps and Moloko. The debut albums from both those groups have taken their time getting over here: Sneaker Pimps' Becoming X was released six months ago in the U.K., while Moloko's Do You Like My Tight Sweater? is almost two years old. The delay isn't surprising -- club music has long held much more mainstream appeal in the United Kingdom than in the United States -- but what's telling, at least in terms of their chances for U.S. success, is that both bands take cues from American groups.
The Sneaker Pimps combine standard rock guitar parts with trip-hop beats and clear, white-soul vocals; when strumming an acoustic guitar (as on their single "6 Underground"), the trio is virtually indistinguishable from Luscious Jackson. Moloko, on the other hand, is far too distinctive for easy comparison, though the duo's blend of deep electro-funk groove, club beats and hip absurdist vocals -- along with a brightly colored retro-futurism (Moloko is, after all, a reference to A Clockwork Orange) -- comes closest to Deee-Lite.
While both groups use electronica's signifiers -- jungle's rattle, trip-hop's dark churn, ambient's synth washes, hip-hop's samples -- Sneaker Pimps never stray far from the comfy world of the pop song. Becoming X's opener, "Low Place Like Home," is only one step from Alanis, while the rousing closer is as breathy and sunny as the Cardigans. Moloko, though, by flashing a truly loopy attitude with songs as fresh and thrilling as they are instantly catchy, makes Tight Sweater one of the best debuts of the year -- no matter if the year's 1995 or 1997. Becoming X (PPP 1/2); Do You Like My Tight Sweater? (****)
-- Roni Sarig
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.