Consumer Guide

Six of these 12 picks recast known compositions, and only two of the six are in the rock tradition. But I did find one medium-obscure alt band worth writing about. One.

Six of these 12 picks recast known compositions, and only two of the six are in the rock tradition. But I did find one medium-obscure alt band worth writing about. One.

BANG ON A CAN: Music for Airports: Brian Eno(Point Music)The problem with the original was that it had a bit too much going on melodically and structurally to minimalize down into a synthesizer, especially one that wasn't pretending to be anything else. Here the piano-clarinet-cello-guitar-bass-percussion ensemble pretends to be a synthesizer. And although I pray postdance knob-twisters don't fall for the Gregorian goo-goo girls who douse "1/2" with blancmange, the lovely textures will make them drool. Or anyway, sweat. Perspire. Exude. A MINUS BECK: Mutations(DGC)Mellow Gold's loser thumbed his nose at the world; Odelay's winner put his mark on it. On this adjustment to musical fashion, a success story discovers what he already knew but hadn't seen up close— eventually, winners lose. No longer immersed in failure, which you joke about (and then beat), he takes on decay, which you hold at bay (for a while). Although he hones his insults when the occasion arises, forget jokes— he's in mourning for dead relationships and the bodily passing they prefigure, and he sounds it. But because he's kept up with the times, he also sounds lyrical and elegiac, evoking the soft nostalgia of folk-rock without falling into it. Embracing the new directness, he feints and sidesteps just like always, exploiting a fad's expressive potential like the shape-shifter he remains. A MINUS BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: The Boy With the Arab Strap(Matador)Rather than singing the anxieties of suspended postadolescence in lyrics that dissolve upon contact with the mind, Stuart Murdoch pins his themes down one scenario at a time. Rather than tracing his uncertainties in music that wanders hill and dale, he erects song structures and rounds their corners with wispy vocals. With his little gang helping him, the music comes out beautiful and fragile. When their childhood ends, as it must, they'll be happier than they are now— or else much sadder. A MINUS JAMES BROWN: Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68(Polydor)Counting the half-studio Sex Machine, this makes Brown's fifth live album from the crucial 1967­1971 period— and except for Sex Machine, it's also the best. Its chief competition, Live at the Apollo Volume II, was released a few weeks after it was recorded, but Brown moved so fast in those years that the Apollo record is radically different, a soul envoi at a moment when, as here, the funked-over "Cold Sweat" was his centerpiece and the daring "Say It Loud— I'm Black and I'm Proud" his pride and joy. From touchstone to newborn, from bop-inflected Maceo on the piss-break instrumental to born-again JB on the climax medley, breakneck intensity for the ages. A MINUS BOB DYLAN: Live 1966(Columbia)What no one ever mentions about this oft-celebrated Manchester concert is that the folk set sucks. It's arty, mannered, nervous, as if Dylan is sick of these songs, although three of the seven haven't even been released yet. And when they are, on Blonde on Blonde, they'll be band— if not Band— backed like all the others except "Mr. Tambourine Man," and as such relaxed, confident, committed, meaningful. Appallingly ideological though it is that anyone could have preferred this static display to what followed, the rock set is warmly received, which is not to say it lives up to its myth. You'll hear some of the most freewheeling, locked-in live music of the '60s— far more detailed and responsive than comparable Stones and Who, with Robbie Robertson so cockeyed funky he almost careens off the stage. You'll also hear some folkie fool shouting "Judas" and Dylan calling him a liar and, if you strain, somebody muttering "play fucking loud." But you will not hear the times a-changin' or Robert Zimmerman jousting with destiny. That stuff's for historians. And if we owe the historians for the terrific electric disc, they owe us for the awful acoustic one. B PLUS GRANDADDY: Under the Western Freeway(V2)An indelibly local unit from the sun-baked I-5 nowhere of Modesto, California, they orchestrate lo-fi so cunningly that the tunes arising from the murk seem angelic in their grace and uplift. The title instrumental, a descending scale voiced by several flutes or recorders and a roomful of busted Casios, sets the standard. But that's not to say skateboard pro turned glorified garbageman Jason Lytle throws away the words, starting with a lead track that dissents from meritocracy with a quiet defeatism too subtle and eloquent for any simple slacker. No matter how wearisome Lytle finds all the Neil Young, Howe Gelb, and Pavement comparisons, they triangulate him accurately and honorably. A MINUS PJ HARVEY: Is This Desire? (Island)Seeing Harvey in her most original live guise to date at the Hammerstein Ballroom, I didn't think Nick Cave or, heaven knows, Aretha Franklin. Instead I recalled the renowned art song singer Jan DeGaetani, whom I was dragged off to see 20-odd years ago. I didn't much enjoy DeGaetani— not my repertoire, let's say. But I admired her ease, her naturalness-within-formality, and more and more that's how it is with Harvey. In a charcoal suit and stacked heels plus red top, this was a concert artist repaying the adoration of her fans, but not so as she'd give them the early songs they wanted. Instead she concentrated on less immediate new material, which gained power in performance just as it does with repeated exposure on record. Melding modal tradition and concrètefuturism, dancing to the strong beat as the moment required, she sounded so good she made what she had to say irrelevant. Which is just as well, because what she has to say is limited. Is this desire? It must be, because all she's certain of is that her characters rarely get what they want. Hence, neither do listeners who want formal command to provide some release. While every song here kicks in eventually, starting with the two-minute "The Sky Lit Up," at times she could be the rock Wynton Marsalis. So thank God she'd rather be Tricky. A MINUS ALANIS MORISSETTE: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie(Maverick/Reprise)If "pop" means anything anymore, it ain't this. As a SoundScan-certified megadeal, she's outgrown the bright appeal of pop the way she's outgrown the punky abrasions that gave the debut its traction off the blocks. The mammoth riffs, diaristic self-analysis, and pretentious Middle Eastern sonorities of this music mark it as "rock," albeit rock with tunes. And in this context I suck it up, feeling privileged to listen along with all the young women whose struggles Morissette blows up to such a scale. Here's hoping lots of young men feel the same. A MINUS P.M. DAWN: Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad(Gee Street/V2)Jesus Wept boded mediocrity— although composing is no harder than sampling, it is different, and once he'd redefined himself as one more R&Bsongwriter, Prince Be's all-embracing aesthetic and fluky chart run seemed over. But working with a steady band, a sometime collaborator, and the occasional borrowed riff, he revives his spaced-out spirituality as music if not commodity, transfiguring his grumpy disillusion with melodies, vocal harmonies, and now also guitar parts, all lovingly designed to convince his son Christian to be here now. A MINUS RED HOT + RHAPSODY (Antilles)Bacharachians please note: this AIDS-fighting Gershwin tribute is how great songwriters make themselves felt. Beyond near has-beens Bowie and Sinéad and the all-too- inoffensive Natalie Merchant, the contributors are marginal. Spearhead, Sarah Cracknell, Morcheeba, Finlay Quaye, to stick to standouts, flounder as often as they fly. But entrusted with this material they soar or at least flutter about, as do Smoke City and Majestic 12, both previously unknown to me. Defined by keyboard textures from sampledelica to Hammond B-3, this is a seductive showcase of the moody sensibility shared by acid jazz and trip hop. Now if only the sensibility had Gershwins of its own— well, soon they'd no doubt find themselves something better to do. A MINUS STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians(Nonesuch)Grown even more universal (and likable) in posttechno retrospect, Reich's mathematically ebbing-and-surging facsimile of eternal return is the great classic of minimalist trance, at once prettier and more austere than Terry Riley or Philip Glass. Eleven minutes longer than in the ECM original "owing to a tempo change governed by the breathing pattern of the clarinetist," this relaxed rerecording will appeal to graduates of the chillout room. But though rock and rollers can go with its flow, it's not a true reinterpretation like Bang on a Can's Eno, and I prefer the intensities I learned to love. Maybe Beethoven can be rehashed forever (and maybe not). With Reich, one is all any nonprofessional needs. B PLUS BUTCH THOMPSON: Thompson Plays Joplin(Daring)One reason Scott Joplin's rhythmic revolution comes through so faintly on record is that it was swallowed whole by the tempo of 20th-century life. And it's true enough, as anyone who's ventured near Treemonishaknows, that Joplin craved respect. But that's no reason to forgive all the concert pianists who've arted up and toned down his beat since Joshua Rifkin, and with a firm hand, the man from Lake Wobegon sets them straight. His Joplin doesn't rock, swing, or anything like it. But at their most liltingly delicate these rags are set in motion, as he says, by "the same driving pulse that underlies all of America's truly original music." Marvin Hamlisch go back where you came from. A MINUS

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