The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
"They're just humans/with wife and children," sings Flaming Lips leader Wayne Coyne on The Soft Bulletin's opening song, and although "Race for the Prize" is ostensibly about two doctors searching for a miracle cure, somehow you suspect Coyne is really talking about his band. The Flaming Lips may be just humans, but they're also extrahuman scientists of sound, and this album is their latest report back from the lab: a new battery of sonic acid tests (delivered in a sleeve appropriately decorated by a Lawrence Schiller photo from the 1966 book LSD), the latest in a line that includes 1997's ambitious four-disc simul-player Zaireeka and the group's infamous 150-boom-box-strong Parking Lot Tests.
The Soft Bulletin's 12 songs operate across dimensions of soundspace rarely accessed by "rock" bands. Yeah, superficially it's another Lips-ish clutch of cloudbursting midtempo rockers and good-natured ballads about open wounds, Superman and insects, sung in Coyne's grainy voice atop the best-miked drums -- and some of the most interesting bass lines -- in contemporary big-league rock music, with the addition of what at first seem to be three extra layers of storybook-soundtrack frosting. Nice -- kinda reminiscent of the Beach Boys' "Let's Go Away for a While," although a nearer cousin may be Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, with its lush instrumentation, occasional lyricless vocals and inventive, experimental structures.
But strap on the headphones and you'll really receive all the channels -- not just the piano, orchestra, harps, horns and massed vocal harmonies so beautifully arranged by Coyne, drummer Steve Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins (and co-produced by Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann), but a million brilliant little delights: the pingpong battle lurking beneath "Sleeping on the Roof"; the digital watch beeping on "What Is the Light?"; the comic low vox on the stupendously monolithic stomper "The Gash"; the deep, damp bass of "The Spark That Bled"; the way a chorus guitar pans on "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton"; and all the secret frequencies on the impossibly dreamy "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" that only kittens and anarchists can hear.
The Soft Bulletin is a document that may never be fully decoded and annotated. If it sometimes droops -- where are the solid guitar riffs that once were one of the Lips' major strengths (e.g., "Slow Nerve Action," "Halloween on the Barbary Coast")? -- remember: They're just humans.
MIA DOI TODD
Come Out of Your Mine (Communion)
The once-subversive elements of danger and noise that punk and rap share have become mainstream, reflecting a culture that's dangerous, noisy -- even downright ugly. We're deaf from the noise of consumerism, dying from dangerous deeds in Littleton and Kosovo, staring into mirrors at pathetically apathetic creatures that resemble human beings. Cobain's head shot was on target; there is little beauty in a jaded generation for whom the noun "whatever" is the answer to life's problems.
Like a defiant flower peeking up through concrete comes a minstrel named Mia Doi Todd. The 24-year-old Angeleno identifies the ugly spirit that pervades our time in "Strange Wind" ("There is a strange wind in the air today/Tree branches are budding and then blown away"), yet insists on emphasizing life over death ("But I will be born into the next millennium"). Recorded live on the post-midnight sly in a chapel at her alma mater of Yale and accompanied solely by her own guitar, Come Out of Your Mine is a timeless work by an unapologetic aesthete who's apparently unconcerned with the attitudinal fashions of her peers. Her delicately feminine lyrics and crisp vocal articulation will appeal to those who favor Joni Mitchell, but Todd has no identifiable antecedents. And because she can write a song extolling the sweetness of strawberries, there are those who will recoil in post-punk, anti-hippie horror. Let them sing of serial killers and blowjobs.
Which is not to say that Todd lacks heat. The moody languor of "Save Me," in which she lingers alone in a bathtub "until my lover comes," is very sexy indeed. In a world in which beauty is mocked, beautiful things naturally become subversive. "Today's not an age partial to pastures," sings Todd, ever the defiant flower, "but here we are in a pasture." (Michael Simmons)
NIGHTMARES ON WAX
Carboot Soul (Warp/Matador)
Every DJ and record collector fantasizes about coming across a stash of cheaply priced, impossibly rare vinyl at a thrift shop, a swap meet or in somebody's basement. The deeper you get into your chosen field of expertise, the more alluring the fantasy becomes -- you think you know everything about, say, 1960s garage rock, when all of a sudden you find a box of mint Chocolate Watch Band 45s that you've never even heard of. The high from such a righteous discovery would last you weeks, wouldn't it?
For George Evelyn (a.k.a. EASE), the DJ mastermind behind England's Nightmares on Wax, such a dream seems to involve finding somebody's car boot (U.K. parlance for trunk) packed with soul, funk and groove-oriented jazz from the 1970s. Carboot Soul, NoW's first release in four years, sweats mellow funkiness through every pore; it's as if EASE couldn't find any more rare grooves to lift and thus decided to create his own. As with Air's much-lauded Moon Safari (which Carboot Soul occasionally recalls), EASE relies primarily upon live musicians to put his retro-futurist vision across. (The record's only prominent sample pops up in "Ethnic Majority," which contains, perversely enough, a snippet of "Washington Square" by the notoriously unfunky James Last.) Free of any cheesy blaxploitation trappings but long on warm, loping bass lines layered with slightly distorted electric piano, Carboot Soul's grooves are as at home in the present as they would have been 25 years ago.
But it's hard to get over on groove alone, and the record's lack of obvious hooks -- "Finer" and "Survival," both of which feature the soulfully dissipated vocals of one Sara Winton, are the only real "songs" herein -- might initially leave some listeners cold. Stick with it, though, and you'll soon be seduced by the hot-tub soul of "Morse," the sunny street-corner vibe of "Jorge" or the swelling string arrangements of "Les Nuits" and "Capumcap." And once you're hooked, you simply won't be able to take Carboot Soul out of your CD player. Is it better than finding a bunch of rare grooves in somebody's attic? Not exactly, but it'll tide you over until that magic moment actually occurs. (Dan Epstein)
50-Odd Dollars (Razor & Tie)
The places Fred Eaglesmith chronicles were only places briefly, during the year of the one good copper strike or the unexpected bounteous crop. Now they're collections of farms or ranches with no center, and the people who live there aren't all lost, but the people who pass through are.
Raised in rural Ontario, Eaglesmith is a traveling minstrel of the most traditional sort, except that his music is edgy even when it isn't loud, shot through with old cars and older needs and, just occasionally, a monster guitar riff Neil Young would be proud to peel off. 50-Odd Dollars is probably his most polished offering, which is a mixed blessing. On can-kicking strolls like "Rodeo Boy," the punched-up drums and gritty guitar perfectly complement Eaglesmith's barely controlled wail-and-moan. And "Gettin' to Me," with its clipped chords and shuffling rockabilly beat, is a coil constantly compressed without ever releasing.
I saw Eaglesmith perform "Mighty Big Car" in San Juan Capistrano last year, and it was funnier ("Nothing ever looked as good in your front yard") without the practiced vocal hiccup he adds here. And "Ten Ton Chain" rumbles a bit too much with its overdriven guitars, like an adolescent's demufflerized road-cruiser. Onstage, Eaglesmith and his band -- complete with a man encased in percussion implements, who plays himself -- generate a carnival of gleeful, hurtful heartache. None of Eaglesmith's records has quite captured that magic, and 50-Odd is as solid as any in his catalog. But even more than most, this artist needs to go easy on the studio garnish, because the heart of his art is hunger. (Glen Hirshberg)
Short Music for Short People (Fat Wreck Chords)
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Punk rock was originally a rebellion against all types of oppression and bad taste that pissed off kids in the late '70s. One of the minor things punks were sick of was bloated, wanky, longhaired classic rock. Bands like the Ramones or the Dead Kennedys had more to say in a minute or two than Led Zeppelin did over the course of many ludicrous albums.
A couple decades later, punk rock still generally sticks to the short-song ethic, and Short Music for Short People has 101 bands airing out their grievances in 30 seconds or less. Among the best tracks are classics like Black Flag's "Spray Paint," Circle Jerks' "Deny Everything" and No Means No's "No Fgcnuik," which are more intense than most of the new stuff here. Not yet washed up, the Dickies harmonize over the lunatic "Howdy Doody in the Wood Shed," while the Vandals let loose with the chuckles-worthy "To All the Kids," which goes out to children with "eating disorders that sit on the corner/pants with elastic and 300 spastics/and Star Trek fanatics and guys in gymnastics with lives that are tragic." Several of the bands, such as Blink 182, Nerfherder, NOFX and Gwar, offer really juvenile songs that they probably spent about 30 seconds writing, while Bad Religion manages to be pretentious in a half-minute on "Out of Hand," singing, "The ticking of the hourglass/the tiny grains of sand/they beckon me like gravity . . ." Okay.
Some of the best numbers are the nonpunk tunes, like the Muffs' "Pimmel," sung sweetly in German; the Real McKenzies' "Old Mrs. Cuddy," which has bagpipes and cartoony voices; and Bouncing Souls' excellent "Like a Fish in Water," which sounds like a Polish folk tune as performed by some dudes from New Jersey. Sticking to the age-old punk tradition of being swift and to the point, Short Music for Short People will not waste a second of your time. (Adam Bregman)