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Music Reviews

POP PSYCHOLOGY: NICK LOWE'S BETTER TOMORROW

NICK LOWE Dig My Mood (Upstart/Rounder)

In nearly three decades of rocking, writing and producing, there’s very little that Nick Lowe hasn’t done. Launching the careers of Elvis Costello and the Pretenders (to name a few) and, a generation later, giving John Hiatt a jumpstart don’t even scratch the surface of his résumé. And then there’s his own impeccable records. Lowe’s second release for Upstart/Rounder finds his music — and presumably his mood — increasingly somber (the title and Lowe’s blacked-out face on the cover should offer a clue).

For a man who has given the world too many timeless (and cunningly clever) rock-pop gems to mention, on the surface Lowe’s latest may sound surprisingly unambitious. The opener, "Faithless Lover," is about as bleak as it gets. In a slow and sparse setting, Lowe’s warm, rich voice offers the only semblance of consolation. "Lonesome Reverie" has an almost upbeat "Rhythm of the Rain" feel, but is loaded with the kind of double-barreled introspection Lowe dished out on the incomparable "Where’s My Everything."

"What Lack of Love Has Done" stands as one of the disc’s — and Lowe’s — best. Reminiscent of Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s great tunes, it’s a laid-back white soul track, gently coaxed with an understated horn section that would have done Otis Redding or Joe Tex proud. With Steve Donnelly providing the faux Luther Perkins guitar licks, "Man That I’ve Become" is all Johnny Cash, complete with the church choir background vocals and, perhaps, a dour self-commentary. Elsewhere, there’s the hopeful "You Inspire Me" and "Freezing," a pair of cabaret ballads, and "Time I Took a Holiday," which delves into the Scott Walker variety of ambitious pop.

In other words, be prepared, because listening to Dig My Mood is no walk in the park. But once you accept the invitation to Lowe’s odd (check out his pulsing, Staples-like reworking of "Lead Me Not Into Temptation") and moody world, there’s an incredible wealth of comfort and beauty to be found. (Michael Lipton)

BASSHOLES Long Way Blues 1996–1998 (Matador)

By day, Don Howland is a pissed-off inner-city teacher working in the Columbus, Ohio, system; he told me a couple of years back that his students were killing each other off with alarming frequency. By night, he is the lead singer, guitarist and guiding intelligence of the way-gone roots-punk duo the Bassholes. The frustration and lunacy of Howland’s day gig informs every note of his band’s music.

Long Way Blues, on which Howland is backed by punchout drummer Bim Thomas, is the fourth Bassholes album since 1993; before that, Howland was a member of the Gibson Bros., a similarly aberrant roots combo in which he was partnered with guitarist "Monsieur" Jeffrey Evans (and, briefly, with Jon Spencer of Pussy Galore/Blues Explosion infamy). The Gibsons thrashed out crude yet spiffy blues/rockabilly terrorism; the ’Holes are a more distinctive and challenging product of Howland’s blues- and punk-bound musical imagination, and come fueled with his own high-octane brand of dazed Midwestern angst.

After an opening instro blat of distorted DJ noise and heavy-breathing samples evidently drawn from an old porno flick, the ’Holes unload big-time in a number typically abrim with violent bemusement. "Did I really kill my wife," Howland asks, "or was it just a dream?" Long Way Blues then veers its addled way through various scenarios of public drunkenness ("Knocked Out on My Lawn"), spousal decapitation ("Cabooseman Blues") and murderous retribution (the freakazoidal "Angel of Death"). The album ends with the thrillingly ugly one-two punch "Turpentine"; a lyrically less toxic, Stooge-ified rendering of the Sonics’ "Strychnine"; and, after a few minutes of dead air, an untitled Gun Club–style rave-up that braises the skin off your eardrums. The music is usually the sort of thing you’d imagine a crack addict with a large collection of Blind Lemon Jefferson 78s might make.

Don Howland is one badly bent gent, and Long Way Blues finds him well on the way to pinning the dementia meter with his singularly contorted and obsessive Americana moderne. (Chris Morris)

THOMAS CHAPIN TRIO Sky Piece (Knitting Factory Records)

It says something about jazz’s profile that a talent as large as Thomas Chapin’s has remained nearly invisible beyond a 500-mile radius of New York. And it’s not much comfort that Sky Piece, released a couple of months ago around the time of Chapin’s untimely death following a long illness, is being called his best work.

This is one of those rare trios that stayed together long enough to attain perfect equilibrium. From beginning to end, nothing is tossed off — every note sounds as if its author cast the I Ching before selecting it, yet the music swings with spontaneous joy. Chapin is masterful on a variety of saxes and flutes: the bass flute weighted against bassist Mario Pavone’s half-step back-and-forth on "Sky Piece"; the tour de force of alto-sax flutters and gentle bends on the prodding, time-signature-switching "Bypass"; the assertive flute on the hard-charging "Don’t Mind If I Do." Pavone’s sound is deeply polished dark oak, whether kicking strong on "Changes 2 Tyres" or bowing rivery swaths on the wide-eyed tone poem "Essaouira." Light-handed drummer Michael Sarin does precisely what is required, most impressively when he’s all but inaudible: Listen for the tick-ticking behind Chapin’s lonely Arabic flute on "Just Now."

 

Chapin’s music has been labeled "post-bop" — what a colorless phrase to describe such irrepressible variety. In "Night Bird Song" alone, you can find Charlie Haden meditation, Henry Threadgill motivational rasp, lopsided funk riffage and silvery flute elasticity — and each new track is a journey to a different uncharted land. Eclectic? Nope. This kind of originality and integrity is no grab bag. It can get born only when the world is seen through one very distinctive set of eyes. (Greg Burk)

VICTIMAS DEL DOCTOR CEREBRO Boutique 2000 (EMI-Latin)

The first song, "Gusano de Maguey," opens with a techno-rock beat that later bleeds into a soul-scream rage, and you have to ask, What’s with the White Zombie/Trent Reznor sound in Spanish? New music for the turn of the century? Not likely. Inventive and fun? Not often. Mexico City’s Victimas del Doctor Cerebro scored a reputation for incorporating theatrical antics into a patient brand of punk-metal, and obviously they’re looking to keep abreast of the times. But you’d think that, after several years of cranking out the same slam-punk tunes, the band would have evolved — à la Café Tacuba or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs — into something deeper.

Not on this record. Though Victimas are still a wild handful as a live act, Boutique comes off flat, with less than a handful of sparklers. The few highlights include the hip-hoppy "Señor Viaje," a fusion mess that thumps big-time to the distorted vocals of Ricardo Flores, who does his best Zack De La Rocha impression. The powerful "Diez," a soothing lament set against a simple rock riff, is clearly the best cut; Flores’ gentle vocals and a bluesy horn arrangement make it infectious. The spare, straightforward "Humanos" stretches the band’s stylistic reach when melodious violins underplay to a Queen-like stomp and Flores’ falsetto.

Fashionable genre trappings notwithstanding, Victimas shine best when they keep it simple. Boutique is a forgettable album that too often opts for glitz in place of real innovation. (Paul Saucido)

Rose Maddox, 1925–1998

Country singer Rose Maddox, who began her groundbreaking career in 1937 at the age of 11, passed away at an Ashland, Oregon, rest home on April 15; the official cause is kidney failure. As leader of the Maddox Bros. & Rose circa 1949, Rose was one of America’s first national female country stars (million-selling yodeler Patsy Montana was, after all, strictly a Western singer, and Kitty Wells at the time was rushing out covers of Rose’s songs). A former member of the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride, Maddox recorded for the Starday, 4 Star, Columbia and Capitol labels, a body of work that ranks among the most influential and progressive in country-music history.

Johnny Cash called Rose "one of the most exciting, fascinating performers I’ve ever seen. An American classic." No less an authority than Hank Williams Sr. once told her, "You are as important to country music as Roy Acuff." Dolly Parton has called Rose "my main inspiration." A national treasure, Maddox was hardly a relic: In 1996, her $35 and a Dream album (Arhoolie) won a Grammy nomination, and she also received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association of Owensboro, Kentucky.

Born August 15, 1925, in Boaz, Alabama, Rose accompanied her family to California at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, a trip the clan made by jumping boxcars. The Maddox Bros. & Rose formed in 1937, began broadcasting on Modesto’s KTRB, and by the end of WWII were making national waves with their high-impact blend of old-timey mountain music and hot, jet-age honky-tonk. Known as "the Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America," the Maddoxes were the very first country-music act to don extravagantly embroidered and rhinestone-spangled stagewear (created by Van Nuys tailor Nathan Turk), and introduced the image to Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. "Their costumes," Tennessee Ernie Ford later said, "made Liberace look like a plucked chicken!"

When the band split in 1957, Rose went on to record as a solo act for Columbia (which held three separate contracts with her at one point in the mid-’50s) and for Capitol, singing country, rockabilly, pop and sacred songs; she was also, with an assist from Bill Monroe, the first woman ever to record a bluegrass album; in 1963, Cashbox named her Top Female Singer; at the height of Patsy Cline’s popularity, Rose’s "Sing a Little Song of Heartache," one of her 15 chart hits, spent 37 straight weeks in Billboard’s Country Top 20. She never ceased performing, and in recent years she recorded a critically acclaimed album with Merle Haggard (1983’s Queen of the West), and was prominently featured in the 1991 PBS documentary Bakersfield Country and in CBS’s 1993 The Women of Country special; my authorized biography, Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox, was published last year in Nashville by the Country Music Foundation. A regular performer in Europe and on the festival and nightclub circuit up until last year (her final public appearance in California was at Ronnie Mack’s Barndance in June 1997), Rose Maddox was a true country-music champion whose fiery, traditional singing style still echoes through today’s country music.

 

Although never accorded formal validation by Nashville’s highly political Country Music Hall of Fame, Rose didn’t let that bother her. She was a powerhouse on and off the stage who is only now gaining the degree of recognition so long overdue. The fact that Music City USA’s downtown was terrorized by a tornado within 24 hours of Rose’s death struck more than a few as a small dose of poetic justice from the cosmos.

—Jonny Whiteside

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