HINTERLANDER Hinterlander (Snail on a Stick)
Hinterlander’s first release is sweet Hawaiian music: the melodies of baby dolphins suckling their mother’s teats, and bees drinking wild-ginger nectar. This album’s bliss may have arisen from singer and Los Angeles native Heidi Nelms’ switch to island life after being a crucial part of a mid-’90s Echo Park music scene. I used to ask myself what the hell went on over on Maui, until I heard that musicians including Nelms and bandmate David Hamma (Burning Softies, Puritan) were busy recording songs between surf sessions with new producer Jay Paxton, on his label Snail on a Stick. They’re living in huts, breaking new ground to create a true Hawaiian-indie sound.
What is that sound? Beauteous harmonies on tunes like the “Rhiannon”-ish “Bird Song,” and traditional ukulele chords jabbed with Casio beats on “Spanking Good Time” and “Glory of Crockery.” Crisp guitar and bass plucking is taken to a nearly Japanese-tea-party level on “Paper Crane,” about a fantasy monster who likes to lick icing off oatmeal cake. There’s also a disconcerting tendency to multitrack vocals, taking Marc Bolan’s pioneering to a girlish extreme: Heidi sounds like 10 little geishas singing simultaneously.
Between her L.A. roots and her penchant for horror-movie soundtracks that utilize both minor chords and lyrics about blood and loneliness, Ms. Nelms gives Hinterlander just the edge it needs to separate itself from the hippie bongo drumming and classic/blues rock that has dominated the island scene forever. Hinterlander is the first release in its genre, female-punk gone ecstatic — not in an Ani Di Franco way, thank god. It’s about moving away to a lovelier place and discovering psychedelic new dreams.
RINÔÇÉRÔSE Music Kills Me (V2)
Jean-Philippe Freu and Patou Carrie — the two French psychologists who, along with producer Johnny Palumbo, make up the core of the house outfit Rinôçérôse — like the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls about as much as they like cedillas and circumflexes. Freu and Carrie describe their sound as house music played with guitars. They’re into the Velvet Underground, they’re into François Kevorkian, they love AC/DC, they love 808 State. But it’s Some Girls that they like the most, because it’s where the whiskey-spit swagger of Mick and Keith’s honky-tonk runs up against the flash cocaine hedonism of the disco dance floor.
It makes sense, then, that Music Kills Me, their second album of guitar-driven house, bears song titles referencing Jimi Hendrix, riffs derived from Angus Young, and Peter Frampton–y talk-box vocals. But set all this discussion of classic rock aside for a minute. If house music is (at its root) disco deconstructed into samples and synths, and if Rinôçérôse are playing house music on live instruments, then this isn’t some new microgenre of house. It’s classic disco redux.
Disco’s most radical concept — the idea of the producer (e.g., Giorgio Moroder, Larry Levan) as artist — still thrives in electronic music and hip-hop. But Rinôçérôse represent the traditional component of disco where live bands played weird dance music, a place where Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Chic and Shuggie Otis made their between-the-lines sounds. They’re really on when they sound like psychedelic soul man Otis, because on record, Rinôçérôse’s music is often indistinguishable from good sample-based house music. It’s on the more open instrumental jam sessions — “Dead Can Dance”’s pseudo-bossa tempos and especially the bluesy twang of “Highway to Heaven” — that they distinguish themselves as live players eagerly retrofitting rock/dance hybrids. (Daniel Chamberlin)
THE DIVINE COMEDY Regeneration (Parlophone/Nettwerk America)
Only in England would Neil Hannon and his delicate, decidedly un-pop Divine Comedy come close to being “pop stars.” Though they’ve charted numerous Top 20 U.K. hits and shared bills with the likes of Robbie Williams, they have yet to crack the U.S. market. (In 1997, TDC toured Europe with a 30-piece orchestra while the American leg was downsized to acoustic shows.)
Hannon’s songwriting and production, after growing to grand proportions, have now come full circle. Devoid of the cartoonish cabaret crooning of 1997’s breakthrough Cassanova, Regeneration is more down-to-earth, with less grandstanding and more adventurousness. The opener, “Timestretched,” is a dreamy exploration of time and space with Hannon singing like a thoughtful songwriter rather than a dandy. “Lost Property” unfolds like an epic, both musically and lyrically. While singing about losing such nonessentials as “gym kits and trainers, asthma inhalers, Silk Cuts and bennies,” Hannon also poses deeper queries like “I just cannot seem to keep hold of anything for more than a short time.” Although the songs are mostly confessionals of some sort, Hannon is more of a sentimentalist than a misanthrope. There’s still plenty of faux grandeur (“Dumb It Down” and the charming “Perfect Lovesong”), but on the soaring “Love What You Do” and “Mastermind,” a grand, Scott Walker–style ballad (with a dash of Love’s Forever Changes), Hannon drops his guard and opens up vocally and lyrically. Meanwhile, his trademark odd observations (“Every nose is a vacuum cleaner in the loved-up London scene”) lurk around every turn.
But it’s the five-minute-plus title track in which Hannon runs the gamut. Beginning with a haunting Jack Bruce warble, the song builds to a series of grand choruses that make the wait — and the entire disc — worthwhile. Hannon’s tunes are crises waiting to happen, often utilizing string/horn sections and definitely not written with mass consumption in mind. As he says in “Note to Self,” “The writer writes for himself, not for you.” (Michael Lipton)
THE STICKMEN Insatiable (Cuneiform)
Despite recent Angelenocentric reports to the contrary, not every great punk-era band came out of SoCal. Looking back carefully over the early ’80s, we see that every city had at least one really amazing band. Boston had Mission of Burma, Akron had Tin Huey, and on goes the list. Dozens of great regional records had their 15 minutes and then went quietly into that good nightclub (which generally closed soon after for letting in underagers).
Philadelphia boasted the Stickmen, a band so violently original that this review can only emphasize to the point of redundance that they were fantastic. Reviewers almost always threw in a line like “Blood Ulmer on diet pills.” They were that quirky and funky — far more so than Ulmer or NYC no-wave bands like the Contortions — but they were tight. Their songs were all short, with interlocking parts that begged comparisons to Captain Beefheart at his most sculptural. Though they sounded nothing like Beefheart, they did sound like they were full of amphetamines (which some of the members were). The bass-and-drums team of Bill Bradfield and Jim Meneses (now a leading light in the avant-garde world) was funk at its most extreme. Beth Lehman’s Acetone organ parts were intense jump cuts. And front man Pete Baker made Lord Buckley look absolutely placid.
Insatiable collects the Stickmen’s complete recorded output onto one disc, and even includes Quicktime movies of the band live. Few things deliver like this, and fewer still age this well over time. Then again, very few things were ever this fresh in the first place. (Skip Heller)
LISA LOPES Supernova (Import)
Supernova was supposed to be Lisa Lopes’ manifesto, her declaration of independence. It was meant to be her Miseducation, Mama’s Gun and No More Drama all rolled into one. Her solo debut away from Chili and T-Boz, the other two-thirds of TLC, was supposed — once and for all — to resolve the question “Who is Lisa Lopes?” The answer is so unpretty: No one will care after listening to this collection.
The production is cold and sterile, with nearly every track sounding as though it were stitched together from sounds emitted by old children’s toys: a jack-in-the-box, Speak & Spell. (In the right hands, that’d be a dope approach. But Lopes and her vision-emaciated team of producers can’t pull it off.) Nothing coalesces. The vocals, finger snaps, keyboards and samples all seem phoned in from their own universes; they never serve the whole. Further crippling the situation are gratingly trite lyrics: Lisa is embittered, embattled, and so artless that the clunky song titles (“Let Me Live,” “I Believe in Me”) say all she has to say. Things take a turn for the unintentionally funny when Lopes, whose flow here is more than a little similar to Lil’ Kim’s, pouts through the bratty “I Believe in Me” like a sulking 5-year-old: “This jam is dedicated to moi/I believe in me ’cause I take care of me/All I need is me.” And when she goes for the positive outlook, she does no better than “[I’ll] never neglect to spread my wings and fly.”
What makes the whole thing so truly depressing is that in small doses — in her own group, or in her cameos on Donnell Jones’ “You Know What’s Up” or Lil’ Kim’s “Ladies Night” — she’s an effortlessly cool presence. (To be fair, TLC has always been so much more than the sum of its parts.) But on Supernova, the bruised, haunted and furious quality she’s always brought to the table has been flattened; Lopes is reduced to a cartoon wit’ attitude. (Ernest Hardy)
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JIM O’ROURKE Insignificance (Drag City)
Insignificance’s cover painting (a chubby, balding figure being sucked off by a bunny) makes it an explicit companion piece to 1999’s Eureka (featuring the same figure frowning in pink lingerie), Jim O’Rourke’s first record to take the counterrevolutionary step of featuring his own vocals. In between, he’s done a hard drive’s worth of production work, tour stints as Sonic Youth’s bassist, and the slim Halfway to a Three-Way EP. O’Rourke is an exception to the steep increase in pretension that has marked the last few years of independent music: An honest-to-DePaul degree holder in composition who’s worked credibly in remixology, collective improv and post-minimalism, he’s now making records on which — get this — he writes some melodies and lyrics, then performs the resulting songs with other musicians.
Eureka ironized its own accessibility by piling on the “bad” pop details (sub-Sanborn sax, a hyperarranged Bacharach cover). Insignificance, an all-analog affair with fewer musicians, is less guarded and more consistently enjoyable. Most of the disc finds the core band (including Dazzling Killmen bassist Darin Gray and hometown hornmen Rob Mazurek and Ken Vandermark) building five-to-seven-minute suites on O’Rourke’s solid acoustic foundation. But partly thanks to Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, guitarist/front man and drummer of Wilco (no mean genre-twisters themselves), two tracks rock in earnest. On “Therefore, I Am,” barre-chord blasts the Strokes should envy give way to a soaring falsetto chorus, while the Tweedy riff that opens “All Downhill From Here” (and the album) is convincingly Skynyrd-fried, masking the song’s jarring five-bar phrases.
The fly in the ointment is the lyric content, which plumbs depths of misanthropy that make labelmate Bill Callahan (Smog) sound like Bobby McFerrin. O’Rourke couples his strongest hooks with his most caustic observations, as on the standout “Memory Lame”: “Listening to you reminds me/of how the deaf are so damn lucky.” On “Get a Room,” it’s hard to say which is grimmer: the scenario of a luckless fellow with one night to live spending his last moments beside a dozing one-night stand (“Maybe you should kick her”), or the arrangement’s soft-rock bounce, with its marked resemblance to (no joke) Edie Brickell’s dreaded “What I Am.” (Franklin Bruno)