The Last Dog and Pony Show (Ryko)
Bob Mould is one of those guys who gets taken for granted: You know his music will be intelligent, thoughtful, melodic, catchy and rockin'. Sure enough, The Last Dog and Pony Show is, and now, after having dissolved Sugar (one of the most powerful and successful "underground/alternative" bands of the '90s) and two solid decades of electric rock, he goes and tells us his fall '98 tour will be his last with full electric backing. So get it while it's hot.
This is a rock album. Lots and lots of guitar riffs. Think the Replacements as a comparison. In fact, "Classifieds" and "Skintrade" could practically pass for 'em. But, like us all, Bob's getting older, and like many of us (sorta), he's growing up. Overflowing with creativity, Dog is his most thoroughly enjoyable disc in years. Texturewise, it's a nicely varied soup, electric and acoustic blended and spiced just right. Basically playing everything except drums, Mould also seasons his cuts with unexpected sound flourishes such as the calliope-ish organ on "First Drag of the Day" and even a dose or two of art-damaged sound-collage things like the industrial-beat Dada dance cut "Megamanic."
Mould's lyrics are conversational and read like a personal diary entry that we've been allowed to peek at. "New No. 1" seems to be a positive song about a breakup and new relationship; "Vaporub" uses that smelly substance as a symbol of the shame of weakness. At least I think that's what he's saying - "Vaporub" continues with "Never learned to trust another person/Never knew a person who could understand my words." But one of the neat things about this disc is that it can be enjoyed on two separate levels: It sounds good, and it's a wise, deeply felt journal of one man's odyssey through this thing called life and what he's feeling today. (Scott Morrow)
In a Spin interview conducted by musician-peer Mary Lou Lord, Elliott Smith said two of the five songs he contributed to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack were composed during a muted episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. This sounds a bit far-fetched considering the emotional outpouring that permeates just about all of Smith's music. Guess he's got a knack for sincerity.
Smith's latest album is his first on the DreamWorks label but his fourth as a solo artist following his departure from Portland band Heatmiser. The original title, Grand Mal - a severe and often traumatic epileptic seizure - became the drastically sentimental and more appropriate XO, also the alternate name of the third track, "Waltz No. 2," which contains the lyrics, "Still going strong/XO mom/It's okay, it's all right, nothing's wrong." The lightly sugar-coated music is skillfully layered over a thick chunk of bitter pain for a newly married ex-girlfriend. Smith follows in the same vein with the never-gotten-over breakup of "Waltz No. 1": "What was I supposed to say? I wish I'd never seen your face."
Smith has a solid and distinctive style as a guitarist, singer and songwriter, and he's loaded a melodically tender record with 14 songs whose edgy words grip without leaving visible bruises. He's not the low-fi indie rocker-folkie you assumed he was; X0 is a twinkling gem of beautifully honest Beatleish pop songs - not too surprising, since Smith says he was listening to the Beatles nonstop prior to recording this album. As the swirling melodies of "Baby Britain" and the acoustic loveliness of "Independence Day" attest, there's an original sound emerging from his ambition to be as profound as John Lennon and as gentle as Paul McCartney. (Rita Neyter)
Make Some Noise (Ark21)
"Blistering" and "explosive" are two of the most common adjectives used to describe this Chicago-based 10-piece jazz-funk outfit. And rightfully so. Out of the gate, the disc smokes with the punch and power that only a well-tuned horn band can deliver. The rhythm section is skin-tight, the staccato horn parts super-sharp, and there's expert blowing all around, notably from sax man/band leader Mars Williams (a veteran of a diverse selection of groups including Ministry, Psychedelic Furs, Fred Frith and Bill Laswell's Massacre, Billy Idol and Power Station).
Adhering to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, the new release picks up where the band's 1996 debut left off. The grooves are solid throughout, with "Yankee Girl" adding a percolating Latin twist, "Ramblin'" and "Cabbage Roll" taking cues from Earth, Wind & Fire and the Ohio Players, and "Cookie's Puss" snatching ideas from the J.B.'s. The sole cover (last time out, the band tackled tunes by Miles Davis and John Coltrane) is an abbreviated rendering of Dizzy Gillespie's classic (and challenging) "Salt Peanuts" that quickly segues into a more manageable original, "Chocolate Covered Nut." With the horns and keyboards teaming up to stir some dark, dense textures, "Lobster Boy's Revenge" checks in as the most adventurous and original track. The odd man out (and ironically, the first single) is "I Want You To Want Me," a smooth, urban R&B track that features Norwegian singer Trine Rein and Liquid Soul's rapper the Dirty MF. Live, that role will apparently be filled by new vocalist Simone (daughter of "High Priestess of Soul" Nina Simone).
While the group may be billed as acid-jazz (the lineup features both a rapper/MC and a DJ who provides intros to most of the tunes), the result is more old school than new. The key references are easy to spot, notably Tower of Power and the Jazz Crusaders. Fact is, Liquid Soul has many of those bands' strengths - stellar playing, tightfisted arrangements - but also has a few of their weaknesses, namely, a bit more discipline than soul. Still, there ain't nothin' like the real thing and, from beginning to end, this is tough, meat 'n' potatoes playing that doesn't let up. (Michael Lipton)
BLOOD FOR BLOOD
Revenge on Society (Victory)
If you thought pretty boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were the embodiment of class anger in the Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting, boy, did Hollywood pull the wool over your eyes, because the resentment seething from Blood for Blood's new Revenge on Society is the real tale of Boston's mean streets.
Though BFB recycle that simplistic brand of three-chord punk as common as shorn heads and nose rings, these prophets of hard times straight outta Southy use their limited musicianship to forge a rough 'n' tumble dynamic: retro-decrescendo vocal choruses, tempos sashaying between slowcore and 2/4 double-time, even plaintive guitar counterpoint to the thrusting riffage and chunky bottom. By God, this urban caveman punk is so primitive it's fresh.
BFB's standard-issue rebellion might be a bit quaint, but lead singer Erick Medina puts it in perspective midway through the album with "This isn't about your fantasy/This is about my fuckin' reality." Okay, so it's trite, but I still get gooseflesh hearing heartfelt lines like "The world's going to hell in a handbasket" from the title track, the ferocious "You ain't nothing but an image and a liar" in "Ya' Still a Fake Paper Gangster" and "I've lost my way/
Y'know my time is almost done" from elegiac slo-burner "Shut My Eyes Forever," the last song before the fade-away symphony of busted heads and broken bottles in "Last Call" that closes the album. But what really drives home BFB's blue-collar blues is the preface in "All Fucked Up" of a cold one being knocked back, the can crinkling up as Lind softly and warm-buzzedly confides, "This shit's gonna be the death of me."
To declare Blood for Blood the anti-sellouts of the punk world would be going too far. After all, can anyone truly resist the allure of filthy lucre? Hell, maybe a little financial stability would ease the bitterness of this band's wrong-side-o'-the-trax sour grapes . . . But enough of this fruitless speculation. Blood for Blood are but the latest testament to the decades-old wisdom that unfocused rage, crappy instruments and fine malt lyrics still make for better hardcore. (Andrew Lentz)
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Deserter's Songs (V2)
Ever since 1991's Yerself Is Steam was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, New York's Mercury Rev has consistently served up some seriously tripped-out shit. Thanks to collaborative connections with the Flaming Lips (Dave Fridmann produced a couple of their records, while Jonathan Donahue once served as their lead guitarist), Mercury Rev quickly developed a reputation for picking up where the Lips' psychedelically skewed pop left off; if the Flaming Lips could break your heart, then Mercury Rev could definitely warp your mind.
So it somehow figures, what with the Lips pushing the boundaries of weirdness on their recent four-CDs-played-simultaneously project, that Mercury Rev should now release the most coherent, pop-oriented record of their synapse-frying career. Now, before all you freaks out there droop your shoulders and go "awwww," be advised that the nearly impenetrable sonic layers you dug on 1995's epic See You on the Other Side are still very much in the house. This time around, however, the army of Mellotrons, flutes, harpsichords, clavinets and processed guitars have been pressed into the service of three- and four-minute tracks, most of which are more than a little reminiscent of such mid-tempo, mid-'70s classics as "Mind Games" or "All the Young Dudes."
There's definitely something of a rustic, sepia-toned flavor to Deserter's Songs as well. Mid-Hudson Valley neighbors Levon Helm and Garth Hudson stop by for a front-porch jam on "Opus 40" and "Hudson Line," while the brief instrumentals "I Collect Coins" and "The Happy End (The Drunk Room)" are creepy as hell, in a dusty music box sorta way. Frankly, the whole record is pretty unsettling; "Holes," "Goddess on a Hiway" and "The Funny Bird," the three finest songs, offer gorgeous melodies that never quite cushion the sting of some seriously pessimistic lyrics. It's a bummer, sure, but it's a beautiful one. (Dan Epstein)