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This Note’s for You

Photo by Mike Hashimoto

NEIL YOUNG Silver & Gold (Reprise)

The second I put this on, I feel like I’ve entered the Time Tunnel. I’ve got my fringe leather on, I’m driving to the park with my girlfriend in my 1969 Opel GT to meet some friends, smoke a doob, hang out and hit each other on the shoulders. Oh, and it’s 1973 and I’ve got the new Neil Young tape in and she likes it a lot — better than my Foghat or Mothers Fillmore East. Chicks really dig Neil.

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This was a common occurrence for many years, because Neil Young was always putting out “good” new albums, and several even great albums, like [insert favorite Neil Young record here]. And if you didn’t need a laser beam to hear it, this good new Neil Young CD could almost pass for one of those good old Neil Young records. It splits nicely into “Side One” and “Side Two,” is about 40 minutes long (20 minutes/side), it’s got his snaky, creaky printing on the cover, and it even sports the old classic Reprise orange steamship logo with the “:r” that was only used on the Neil, Captain, Duke, Frank and Jimi rekkids. “Side One” is exceptional. Five really great songs, including one, “Buffalo Springfield Again,” that tells a story, has a great hook, and gets you right in the heart, which makes it pretty much perfect — a Neil Young song in every way. “Side Two” has some sugary love stuff that gives me head cavities, but that’s the one your girlfriend will like best. (“Side One” can also be used as a soundtrack for hitting other guys in the shoulder.) A wonderfully warm recording, Silver & Gold is country-folk soaked in co-producer Ben Keith’s crying pedal steel, Neil’s harmonica, fiddles, acoustic guitars and even Emmylou and Linda for good measure on one cut. Everything just seems to fit so damn well. If it were in a 12-inch sleeve, it might squeeze right between After the Gold Rush and Harvest. Snugly, too.

But why now, here in 2000, is this particular Neil CD rocketing up the charts? Maybe because there’re entire armies of “alternative” young guys who grew up on Neil and created a, hell, an entire genre based on his music. Or maybe it’s just that the real deal sounds so sweet and refreshing, because it’s just that: real. Neil continues to make fresh, relevant and honest music, and Silver & Gold is a fine rock-folk-country-love-song album: a good Neil Young album. Extra points added for nostalgic value? Hell yeah!

BELLE and SEBASTIAN Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)

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To Britpop cultists, Belle and Sebastian are a dream: The band grabs the spotlight by avoiding it. (Features on the band usually focus on their reluctance to be featured.) Their records seem to come out in both a trickle and a stream. (Much was made of the unavailability of their coveted debut, originally issued in a pressing of 1,000, and three ’97 EPs initially released only as imports, yet they’ve put out nine records since ’96.) Their well-structured songs revel in Byronic notions and often involve concupiscent adolescents haunted by fatigue and ennui. (Do Belle and Sebastian romanticize early, tragic death? See “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career”; “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying.”) And finally, they’re from Glasgow, Scotland — allowing for a new spin on twee U.K. fetishism. Much is made of the fact that B&S shun media to focus on their music, yet it’s their music, not their lack of traditional pop-star access, that frustrates most.

Sticking with their strengths on their fourth long-player, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, B&S are a bit stuck. Leader Stuart Murdoch’s precious, high-pitched warble will still break a fragile heart, and the band’s arrangements are impressive, evoking Burt Bacharach and funky Stax sides more than the music of contemporary orch-pop pretenders, but the group’s lack of growth has begun to make their well-established talents wear thin. Despite the fact that Fold Your Hands is better produced — deeper, richer — than previous records, its songs are no better (probably worse) than those on the album that first gained them widespread notice, ’97’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. And like ’98’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, on which choirboy/janitor Murdoch began sharing songwriting duties, Fold Your Hands shows the limits of democracy: On this record, one-third of the songs are written and sung by supporting players like cellist Isobel Campbell, violinist Sarah Martin, guitarist Stevie Jackson and keyboard player Chris Geddes. This might furnish a small thrill to B&S fanatics, but it’s akin to the tingle provided Beatles fans when Ringo sang lead — a neat trick and a good way to introduce variety into the mix, but nothing to make one cheer the shifting spotlight.

So while it’s a groovy rut B&S find themselves caught in, it’s a well-furrowed one, too. Hey, why not use a hackneyed rock-crit trick! Let’s quote a new song of theirs about a love affair on the wane and suggest that B&S fans say, for now, “Don’t leave the light on baby/I’ll see you sometime maybe.” (Alec Hanley Bemis)

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS Be a Caveman: The Best of the Voxx Garage Revival (Bomp/Voxx)

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Hey, kids, remember those fabulous ’80s? The Members Only jackets? The Rubik’s Cubes? The never-ending barrage of hits by Madonna, Journey and Phil Collins? Of course you do! But unless you happened to be living in L.A. at the time, or were otherwise plugged into the small nationwide network of garage obsessives, your memories of the ’80s garage-rock revival are probably pretty dim, if not totally nonexistent. Yet back when Huey Lewis was busy fending off numerous challenges to his position as King of the Dorks, a whole mess of messed-up kids willfully rejected the pink-and-turquoise trappings of the Leg-Warmer Decade in favor of Beatle boots, Prince Valiant haircuts and Chocolate Watch Band records.

At the center of this odd blip on the pop-culture radar screen was Voxx Records, the mutant brainchild of Bomp Records founder Greg Shaw. “The idea was to present young bands doing pure mid-’60s roots music: garage, psych, surf, beat, folk-rock, and various hybrids thereof,” Shaw explains in his liner notes to Be a Caveman, a 27-track monument to the whole snot-encrusted uprising. Voxx did just that, recording talented bands like DMZ, the Crawdaddys, the Tell-Tale Hearts and the Miracle Workers (all of whom are represented here) in glorious monophonic sound, and packaging them in period-appropriate artwork. Though some of these retro-rockers aimed no higher than the slavish imitation of their heroes, others managed to inject their own twisted visions and personalities into the mix. Indeed, the biggest surprise of Be a Caveman is that the tracks by Fuzztones, the Pandoras and the Chesterfield Kings — three of the revival’s most popular bands — sound flat and unimaginative, while lesser-knowns like the Wombats (“Bye Bye Baby”), the Laughing Soup Dish (“Teenage Lima Bean”) and the Eyes of Mind (“She Only Knows”) deliver some seriously inspired lunacy.

But even the weaker moments don’t sound too bad, especially when you match ’em up against Smash Mouth, the oaf-rockers who achieved massive commercial success in recent years by taking a watered-down approach to the same sort of organ-and-fuzz-guitar juju heard herein. Even if you don’t already own all the Nuggets and Pebbles comps that inspired this stuff, Be a Caveman should leave you with a fairly wicked contact high. (Dan Epstein)

BANGS Sweet Revenge (Kill Rock Stars)

With mall-trash chicks pouting all over the pages of Vogue and Jane, looks like culture’s pendulum has swung right on back to metal bands and white fringe. Why else would Olympia, Washington’s hipster elite put away their granny dresses to slip into leather britches? The arrival of Bangs’ Sweet Revenge suggests that indie pop of the Pacific Northwest is once again changing its hat. Just like the baton toss of that scene’s glum and noisy grunge to moody yet cuddly soloists like Elliott Smith and Mary Lou Lord, Sweet Revenge is an unexpectedly spunky and kinda carefree turn.

It’s true that Bangs labelmates Unwound and Bikini Kill have rocked in the past, but Sweet Revenge just happened to come along at the appropriate time. This year, you can make Bangs’ cover of Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” your summer anthem; you can also wear frosted-pink lipstick and a ponytail on the side of your head, and people probably won’t even point or stare. Could it be that this trio was holding back on its first album? Or just not getting enough exposure? Whatever the answer, with Sweet Revenge the band is exploring a wonderful new area: having fun. Sarah Utter’s Lita Ford solo on the title track is worthy of a flying V salute, as is her Tony Iommi–inspired hook on “Scorpi Oh.” Head-bopping drum-roll stop-and-start-again gems fill out the rest of the album, thanks to Kyle Ermatinger’s tight beats and Maggie Vail’s bouncy bass.

Sweet’s one ballad, “Undo Everything,” nutshells what Bangs could be and what they lack: Plain old lines like “The rain is coming down/We’ll never be the same” find themselves next to tricky wordisms like “I shed for you while you were here/unbreathe every breath you ever took before you left.” And some of their “oh-woahs” and “ay-yays” come close to ripping off that piercing vibrato of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker (who stole hers from Belinda Carlisle). But Bangs’ feisty cuteness makes up for that. It was only a matter of time before good hard pop met soggy Washington state. (Wendy Gilmartin)

 

ARAB STRAP Elephant Shoe (Jetset)

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Elephant Shoe, the latest release from Scottish songwriting duo Arab Strap, is easily the most miserable set of tunes since . . . well, since Arab Strap’s Philophobia. As was the case on the group’s previous releases, there’s simply no mistaking that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are genuinely screwed-up souls. And while Moffat’s tales are certainly cause to give thanks you’re not one of those fucked-up artist/musician types, his pain and confusion (which manifest as ambivalence), paired with Middleton’s artfully constructed soundscapes, make for some of the most morose yet refined stuff going.

The recipe has changed little; if anything, it’s only become more articulate. Hauntingly beautiful backing tracks that could easily stand on their own float along, barely moving. The arrangements are sparse and gentle, with each guitar, bass and piano line carefully and delicately placed. Moffat’s contribution is a series of half-sung recitations from a man who sounds weary not just of love, sex and the world but of life itself. While pieces like “Cherubs” and “Aries the Ram” are typically austere snapshots — a one-sided conversation — a couple of cuts, the disturbing “Pyjamas” and the soaring “Direction of Strong Man” (which comes closest to hitting a groove) coalesce into nothing less than stunning works of art. To paraphrase Aussie Paul Kelly, Moffat excels at “picking sores” — fleshing out the most unpleasant parts of the most unpleasant times of relationships. In “Pyjamas,” over Middleton’s airy quilt of sound, he notes, “There’s at least a foot between us — do you really need pyjamas in this heat?” Who hasn’t been there?

Meanwhile, “Pro- (Your) Life” deals with abortion — in a way that will surely make the Indigos cringe: “You know I’d love it/a little us would be sweet/but don’t take that from your pro-life pal/she doesn’t even eat meat/It’s as simple as this: The time’s not right/You need a new job/and some sleep tonight.” Unless you’re an experienced (or aspiring) bottom dweller, Arab Strap may be an acquired taste — but Middleton and Moffat make wallowing in the dark muck an almost blissful experience. (Michael Lipton)


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