steadyhead * faster
Cadillacin Records

You simply cannot listen to a track of steadyhead * faster -- Crazykilledmingus' third offering after an eponymous cassette and 1993's CD Window -- without noticing the band's derivative reliance on the reverb baths and vocal inflections of Jane's Addiction. It's a problem -- if you're interested in originality, anyhow -- that's been evident since the very beginning, and I suppose there's nothing to do but get over it and deal with the disc from that bedrock assumption. The band's obviously not making much of an effort to move beyond its influences.

The band has, however, added a guitarist (Brandon Becker) to the roster. His presence increases Crazy's ability to layer simple, lyrical guitar solos over strummed rock balladry -- and adds some necessary punch to the Pearl Jam-ish power-chording that litters the album -- but the band's basic sound remains unmolested. Unfortunately, the consistency they've achieved isn't terribly exciting. The real advance made here is in the professionalism of the sound. Crazy's music may not be particularly earthshaking, but from a production standpoint, it's presented in something close to its most favorable light, courtesy of production by Chris Smith, Kyle Kee and the band. "Descend" may sound like one long intro to a Metallica song that never kicks in, but it's a flattering imitation. "America," the band's most likely candidate for a radio single, and offered here in its third recorded incarnation, probably sounds as good as it's ever going to sound. On the packaging downside, there is a hidden track tacked on to the CD's tail, and only collectors and idiots have time for those.

"end of the world delight" shows the brightest spark of the new material, too much of which suffers from the incessantly clumsy teenage poetry of the lyrics. ("Girlfriend" launches with the lines, "In my room / In my mind / In my loneliness / I wonder all the time / Would you give into my heart of gray," which I take for a bad sign.) Earnestly dumb lyrics don't help the record stand out, and naggingly amateurish vocals fail to carry the band's competence over the top. Three records in, Crazykilledmingus has gotten noticeably better at making the music they make. It's just that the music they make hasn't gotten any more interesting.

-- Brad Tyer

The Pooh Sticks
Optimistic Fool

The Pooh Sticks are the perfect pop band -- forever young, vibrant and fun, plus a virtual encyclopedia of the rock and roll era. Hue, the star lead singer, is a Welsh stud in the Tom Jones tradition, a man with natural gifts for both pop melody and rock attitude. Guitarist Paul picked up his endless repertoire of licks from the piles of LPs in his bedroom -- everything from the MC5 to the Bay City Rollers, Alex Chilton to Todd Rundgren. Then there's the all-female rhythm section: cool and quiet Alison on bass, tough and beautiful Stephanie on drums, and the sunny Trudi shaking out the beat on the tambourine (and plunking keys when necessary).

Since not many people have seen any of the other Pooh Sticks in the same room at the same time as Hue and the band's multi-talented producer/songwriter Steve Gregory, some have wondered whether this band actually exists, or is simply another studio trick. Rest assured the band is real: the Pooh Sticks' spirit soars through their third American release, Optimistic Fool. Though the record isn't nearly as fun as 1991's Great White Wonder or 1993's Million Seller, Optimistic Fool ably continues the backward trek through the heart of classic sugar-pop and candy-rock. While "Prayer for My Demo," "Song Cycle" and "First of a Million Love Songs" mine familiar pop-about-pop territory, "Cool in a Crisis" and "Working on a Beautiful Thing" are simply great tunes. The guitars crunch, the harmonies hit the spot -- even the handclaps are just right. And if pop is ever to be as bright and shiny as it once was, you, too, must believe in the Pooh Sticks' existence.

-- Roni Sarig

Wild Love
Drag City

Though it's not widely known, guys such as Bill "Smog" Callahan (and Beck and Lou Barlow and Daniel Johnston) who've made an art out of sitting in their basements and cranking out song fragment after song fragment on a 4-track tape recorder have an unlikely patron saint, someone who represents everything they'd want to be if they had prolific creativity, the stamina of a perfectionist and access to bigtime home studio equipment. His name used to be Prince, and he's the monarch of do it yourself recording.

That's what makes "Prince Alone in the Studio," from Smog's new record Wild Love, an indie classic of epic proportions. Typically Smog-like in its dark humor, with psychedelic effects and cello, the majestic dirge sums up the passion that drives helpless lo-fi heads to relentlessly tape themselves. Lines such as, "It's 3 a.m., Prince hasn't eaten in 18 hours" and "It's 4 a.m., and he finally gets that guitar track right / And it's better than anything any girl can ever give him," convey the loneliness, grueling discipline and magic satisfaction of artistic creation as well as any song in memory. If Prince is royalty, Callahan is his court poet.

While "Prince Alone" stands as Wild Love's triumph, the rest of Smog's folksy kraut-rock stays in step with the concise "Bathroom Floor" and "Sweet Smog Children" and the sardonic, melodic "Be Hit" and "Goldfish Bowl." Wild Love is Callahan at his bleakest, and the no-longer-lo-fi Smog at its most accessible. It's also Drag City (home to similarly minded bands such as Silver Jews, Gastr del Sol and Red Krayola) at its best. -- Roni Sarig

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Roni Sarig
Brad Tyer