The best new “rock” record of the year so far is by a punk band turned pop band (if they were ever anything else, the cads). Runner-up belongs to a rai singer. The prognosis for the big beat — as opposed to all Jay E’s little beats, say — remains guarded.
The Ghost of Fashion
The music is conceived songs first, an epidemic problem in current rock and roll, especially rock and roll as putative as this. And since Eef Barzelay adds the usual enigmatic tendencies to a voice worthy of an accountant in a Presbyterian choir (in Dubuque), its popular potential is limited. Nevertheless, the band now sounds both more rock and roll (faster tempos, straighter propulsion) and more chamber music (louder cello, weirder lap steel), and more is what Eef’s somber tunes and noncommittal wit inspired hope for last time. Metaphorical materials include ice cubes, Jewish junkies, Elvis’s twin, a driving test, and a Joan Jett of Arc who burns her bridges in front of her and her steak at the Sizzler. A MINUS
DESERT ROSES AND ARABIAN RHYTHMS
Not surprisingly, there’s schlock here — English lyrics, worse horns, Trans-Global pomo, Amina Francophonie, and Sting, without whose Cheb Mami one-off this roundup of North African hitmakers wouldn’t exist. There’s also the signature tune from Natacha Atlas’s best and only good album, the supplest Mami track I know, an unstoppable Rachid Taha bonus, the latest in Egyptian sha’bi or however you spell it, and other intense bits from a culture that’s full of them, some attached to horns you can live both with and without. Rai rebels are so over. Rai professionals rool. B PLUS
KEEP IT ROLLIN’: THE BLUES PIANO COLLECTION
After years of devoting entire albums to New Orleans pianists who have trouble sustaining one’s interest two songs running, Rounder reduces a bunch of them to their essence on this 17-track selection. Mixing instrumentals and vocals, barrelhouse and gospel, it’s a mishmash jelled by second-line lilt. James Booker towers as always, but the late primitive Booker T. Laury and the young virtuoso Davell Crawford clearly belong on the same record with him — as do, this time, Tuts Washington, Charles Brown, even Willie Tee and Eddie Bo. Woogie! A MINUS
The rare great lost album that justifies its legend, this was held back by Elektra in 1993, supposedly due to the lynching cartoon on the cover, although the fading sales of conscious hip-hop and the death by automobile of 20-year-old D.J. SubRoc couldn’t have helped. Not quite great, maybe; slightly dated, even. But it moves more confidently than 1991’s Mr. Hood, and confident movement freshens the St. Ides and Somalia references decisively. Right or wrong, the crew’s two founding brothers are exhilarated by their belief that hip-hop can persuade the youth to watch out for cancer sticks and nibble plum pudenda, by their mastery of a sonic layering that assumes the Bomb Squad and has fun with it, by bass player B. Thompson. Of course, they’re also exhilarated by each other, and that wasn’t gonna last. But make a face at Elektra anyway. A MINUS
KMD’s reincarnated Zev Love X says his new handle starts with an abbreviation for Metal Face and is based on a Marvel villain who wants to rule the world for its own good. As concept, this could get tedious fast, but as a few skits it’s one more scenic sonic on an album that reaches its high point when it samples not just the Scooby-Doo theme but Scoob himself, thus acknowledging that, as Scoob knows so well, some villains are just plain evil. Right, the album never comes into full focus. But it does flow, as music and as signifying. Message: this smart guy had some horrible setbacks and came out on the other side. A role model, you might say. B PLUS
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO INDONESIA
(World Music Network import)
Being as Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation and all, I strove to meet the Smithsonian’s endless documentary series halfway and made contact with some pop stuff — go you cats and kitties with your gambang kromong. But as a groove man schooled in Western scales, I gave up soon enough; 550 cultures are the stuff of ethnomusicology, not rock criticism. This 15-song minitour is more like it. Crass even by Rough Guide standards, its only criterion seems to be tune, which can mean the very greatest hit of longtime stars or absolutely surefire folk tunes — a lovely gamelan snippet, say. Shameless schlock and proud rock fusions are by no means frowned upon, so those with sensitive stomachs will have to wait for something more tasteful or eternal life, whichever comes first. For most of us, however, this will prove at least as edutaining as Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? A MINUS
How to top “Old MacDonald”? Hire nanny goats and moo cows as rhythm animals, all the while denying that you live on a farm. Why this misapprehension should concern guys who share a home base with Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, and Stagger Lee needn’t concern us here. What matters, as we and they know, is that it permits an ear joke that sets off many others on one of the few crew records ever made that doesn’t dishonor the headman’s hit. In fact, with Nelly on more than half the tracks, I prefer this one. Having discovered how many Lexuses you can buy on good nature when the beats are right and the vocals friendly, they’ve scaled down the pro forma tough-guyisms of Country Grammar to some playa playing and brand names. True star: producer Jason “Jay E” Epperson, who’ll nail any sound you can think of and more to the one, two, three, or four — and delight you every time. A MINUS
Made in Medina
The Steve Hillage-produced follow-up to Taha’s neotrad U.S. debut takes the rai project of Arabic rock to a harder place. The beat’s not rock or funk either, but that’s just as well — one reason the powerful momentum, strong Arabic melodies, and guitar louder than you knew Gong-banging, Orb-gouging Hillage had in him sound fresher than anything I’ve heard from competing English speakers recently. Pure sound sensation — for those who lack Arabic, the vocal drama signifies masculinity in extremis, nothing more. So tell me, just how many other young singers are getting away with that saw these days? A MINUS
I have no idea whether this will prove the smash Maxinquaye wasn’t — well, actually I do, but I promise to keep it quiet if you do. For sure he’s presented his new label with his first song album since then. Where once were textures you could write a poem about now are textures you can hang a tune on. And forget P.J. Harvey for clout, this one’s got the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alanis Morissette and, uh, Live and Cyndi Lauper — all of whom sound fabulous. Yes, he’s still very down in the mouth. With him, that’s a matter of principle. But his defiance is more coherent, his mysticism more visionary. And if it’s not gauche of me to mention it, he rocks and does a Nirvana song, not necessarily at the same time. A
Take Off Your Pants and Jacket
Aware that their commercial base is teenage girls who know real boys are meaner than ‘N Sync, as all teenage girls do, they play up the fears that afflict mean boys at least as much as any other kind. They pine, they get tongue-tied, they wait by the phone, they curse their stupid haircuts. Way too old in real life to stop at kissing, and also way too horny, they assume the persona of guys for whom kissing and even holding hands are a big deal, which even for mean, old, and/or horny guys they often are. Yet they also rail against know-it-all grownups in general and warring parents in particular, and make obscene suggestions about their girlfriends’ moms. All to the fetchingly whiny airs of the universal punk tunebook. Commercial calculation — it has its uses. A MINUS
Dud of the Month
THE LIVING END
Whatever happened to that Clash-sounding ’80s band from Switzerland, I forget their name? Right now I wish I knew. Presumably they didn’t turn into an Alarm-acting ’00s band from Australia, because these Melbourne laddies are Young, you bet, and also Indigenous in their Anglo-Saxon way, imbued with “the Rose Tattoo and AC/DC [in their rock dreams — ed.] and the Angels.” Notice they don’t mention INXS or Midnight Oil, relevant in their unfettered ambition and feckless idealism, respectively. Nor is the latter anything to write Stone about. Of the approximately four political songs, only the immigration-keyed “Don’t Shut the Gate” is effective even artistically, and the anti-union tack of the opener, however well justified by specifics, is a bad sign. It’s no fun to point out that dumb bands give agitprop a bad name. But they do. C
Additional Consumer News
HONORABLE MENTION: Ass Ponys, Lohio (Checkered Past): more song, less band — also more feeling, less story (“Nothing Starts Today,” “Baby in a Jar”); Dropkick Murphys, Sing Loud, Sing Proud! (Hellcat): the PBA meets the IRA and turns left — another punk precinct heard from (“Which Side Are You On?” “Caps and Bottles”); the Robert Cray Band, Shoulda Been Home (Ryko): pushing 50, on the road, and “afraid to let this one go” (“No One Special,” “Baby’s Arms”); Music From the Tea Lands (Putumayo World Music): Anatolians and Ainus are Asians all, even via Australia or America — that’s Orientalism, and calming it can be (Ujang Suryana, “Kang Mandor”; Lei Quang, “Picking Flowers”); A Break From the Norm (Restless): the former Norman Cook shows off his capacious ears and record collection (Doug Lazy, “Let the Rhythm Pump”; Yvonne Elliman, “I Can’t Explain”); Vital 2-Step (V2): one hell of an abstract way to put your back out (Artful Dodger, “Re-Rewind”; Nadine Featuring Capital T, “I Feel for You”); Manic Street Preachers, Know Your Enemies (Virgin): punk propaganda poppified, which generates an illusion of context (“Ocean Spray,” “Let Robeson Sing”); [Selim Sesler and the Sounds of Thrace Ensemble], The Road to Kesan (Traditional Crossroads): Gypsy intensity from Greco-Bulgarian Turkey, artist uncredited on cover, somebody sample that daire drum, or is it a darbuka? (“Kiremit/Nasti usava,” “Tulum”); Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go (Hellcat): sing-alongs for the international brotherhood of disenfranchised world-music punks (“Gamma Ray,” “Bhindi Bagee”); Wild Pitch Classics (Wild Pitch/JCOR Entertainment): your once-in-a-lifetime chance to find out how exactly how much you love the Main Source (the Coup, “Dig It”; Ultramagnetic MC’s, “Raise It Up”); Slimm Calhoun, The Skinny (Aquemini/Elektra): cheese steaks from the Peach State, no more and no less (“It Ain’t Easy,” “The Cut Song”); Master Musicians of Jajouka, Featuring Bachir Attar (Point Music): as meddling goes, better Talvin Singh’s ethnotechnics than Brian Jones’s psychedelics (“Up to the Sky, Down to the Earth,” “Jamming in London”); Eileen Rose, Shine Like It Does (Compass): U.S. indie-rocker turned U.K. singer-songwriter, “ginny-mick courage” intact (“Still in the Family,” “Party Dress”).
CHOICE CUTS: The Dismemberment Plan, “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich” (Juno & the Dismemberment Plan, Jade Tree); Donna the Buffalo, “Yonder” (Positive Friction, Sugar Hill); Richard Hell & the Voidoids, “Oh” (Wayne Kramer Presents Beyond Cyberpunk, Music Blitz); Boogie Macs, “Girl From Ipanema” (Boy George, Essential Mix, FFRR); Cheb Tarik, “L’Histoire” (Arabic Groove, Putumayo World Music).
DUDS: Eliza Carthy, Angels and Cigarettes (Warner Bros.); Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (Reprise); Eels, Daisies of the Galaxy (DreamWorks); Cheb Mami, Dellali (Mondo Melodia); Pinetop Seven, Bringing Home the Last Great Strike (Self-Help/Truckstop); Smut Peddlers, Porn Again (Rawkus); Three Six Mafia, When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1 (Loud/Hypnotize Minds); Ugly Duckling, Journey to Anywhere (1500); Willard Grant Conspiracy, Everything’s Fine (Ryko).
ADDRESSES: Checkered Past, 855 West Roscoe Street, Chicago, IL 60657; Compass, 117 30th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212; Hellcat, c/o Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90026, hell-cat.com; Mondo Melodia, c/o Ark 21, 14724 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks CA 91403; Putumayo World Music, 324 Lafayette Street, NYC 10012, putumayo.com; Restless, 1901 South Bundy Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90025; Rounder, 29 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, rounder.com; Ryko, 530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401; SpinArt, Box 1798, NYC 10156-1798; Sub Verse, 401 Washington Street, third floor, NYC 10013; Traditional Crossroads, Box 20320, Greeley Square Station, NYC 10001-9992, traditionalcrossroads.com; World Music Network, 6 Abbeville Mews, 88 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7BX, England.