Yearly Archives: 2001

How you like them apples?

Wait a minute — didn’t Smashing Pumpkins already release a greatest hits album? It was called Gish, wasn’t it?

OK, OK — snarkiness aside, Smashing Pumpkins deserves much, much, much credit for thinking large and being ambitious.

They set out to be the biggest band in the world, and while they didn’t exactly knock U2 off its mantle, the Pumpkins certainly tower over 90s rock.

“Siva” and “Rhinocerous” from Gish establish the tone of Rotten Apples and mark the high bar the Pumpkins would attempt to surpass time and again.

The band’s loyal and avid fans would argue quite passionately Billy Corgan and company did exactly that. A curmudgeon like myself would assert the quartet’s ambitions backfired more times than it should have.

Right from the start, the Pumpkins recognized the value of volume — pulling back, then blazing out, going from whisper to a scream. As a result, the band’s earliest work showed a maturity and understanding of music that had few of its peers had at the time.

It’s too bad “I Am One” wasn’t included in this set.

Then Corgan decided walls and walls of guitars — as the ones that totally bogged down the bloated Siamese Dream tracks — wasn’t enough.

So strings and glockenspiels and rhythm machines started to encroach into the band’s basic but visceral rock sound.

“Disarm” would have been even more powerful if it had been strings, chimes and timpani only. Same goes for “Tonight, Tonight”.

While the idea of a more robotic Smashing Pumpkins seemed good on paper for Adore, the actual execution left more to be desired, as demonstrated here on “Eye”.

These transgressions aside, the fat has been cut out of the Pumpkins prolific output on Rotten Apples, leaving only the brightest spots of the Pumpkins’ repertoire.

Despite Adore’s lackluster commercial response, it did yield “Perfect” and “Ava Adore”, and despite my obvious hatred for Siamese Dream, “Today” is still a pretty good song.

The collection doesn’t rewrite history the way Faith No More’s Who Cares a Lot? does, but it at least allows casual fans who didn’t want to give up valuable shelf space for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to own that album’s hits.

A second volume of b-sides, Judas O, is definitely geared for fans. The tracks sound like the leftovers they are.

Smashing Pumpkins is an admirable band, even if Billy Corgan took himself a bit too seriously in the end, and Rotten Apples makes a good supplement to a collection that includes Gish and MACHINA/The Machines of God.

Is this it? Why, yes it is.

If the Strokes consisted of five Japanese women instead of five New York guys, they might sound something like Mean Machine.

Key word: might.

Play the Strokes’ Is This It alongside Mean Machine’s Cream, and the differences are pretty obvious.

The Strokes are decidedly lo-fi, big on affecting a cool-than-you attitude. Mean Machine is definitely hi-fi, dirty and grungey and bittersweet.

Between the two groups, there’s some pretty obvious Velvet Underground/Television/Ramones worship going on. Like the Strokes, Mean Machine looks to early punk for inspiration.

But with some heavy J-pop credentials in its midst — namely, Yuki from the defunct Judy and Mary and solo artist Chara — the band’s messier tendencies are tempered by a pop aesthetic.

Clear, distinct melodies and so-basic-it’s-almost-primitive structures drive the band’s gloriously sloppy sound.

“Suuhaa”, named after the breathing exercise in Lamaze, is so simple, it borders on transparent. But after repeated listens, it turns out to be rather addictive.

“Amai Candy” lays heavy on the flange pedal, giving the song a rousing conclusion. “Lucky Star” merges L7 simplicity with a hip-hop groove.

“My Little Bag” has an infectous chorus with some pretty awful lyrics. “My little bag from my grandma/My little bag comes from Heaven”. Who said rock music had to be profound anyway?

Track after track, Mean Machine hits listeners with one wonderfully primitive song after another. After a while, Cream sounds homogenous but in a good way.

Mean Machine has its eye squarely on making the dumbest of rock music possible, just the way Phil Spector would have liked it.1 This is truly it.

1 Rock music history lesson: When Phil Spector showed someone a new track he just written, he asked, “Is it dumb enough?” meaning, “Is it simple and catchy enough?” Don’t take it as a knock.

Beautiful but scattered

It takes a while, but Bonnie Pink’s Just a Girl really gets under your skin. Only problem is that you have to get over a really bad first impression.

Let’s not mince words — Just a Girl is really scattered.

When veteran producer Mitchell Froom took the reins of Pink’s last album Let Go, he gave Pink clarity. As such, the album held together incredibly well, and Pink’s 70s rock vibe felt honest and genuine.

Just a Girl dips a cautious toe into some experimental territory, and the results are decidedly mixed.

On the opening track “Sweet”, Pink alternates from a straight-forward backbeat in the verses and a busy live drum ‘n’ bass beat for the chorus. It’s imaginative, but it feels forced.

“Communication” feels like a big rocker, but instead of employing power chords and electric guitars, Pink settles for ringing acoustic guitars.

“Buildling a Castle” depends on an introspective piano to drive it, but like “Sweet”, it alternates uncomfortably between slow verses and busy choruses.

“Sasei” employs an ominous bass, a disco beat and strings. If the rest of the album had similar-sounding songs, it would sound totally at home, but the rest of Just a Girl traffics in acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter fare, and the track stands out glaringly.

After the fourth or fifth listen however, Pink’s talent for melody and her soaring, sweet voice seeps into a listener’s subconscious.

Despite being a scattered album, the individual songs become hummable pieces, difficult to forget long after the album has ended.

“Nemurenai Nite” is just plain gorgeous. When Pink excoriates herself for being “just a stupid girl” in the title track, the heartbreak is totally engrossing.

And the singles preceding the album’s release — “Take Me In” and “Thinking of You” — are the album’s highest points.

Despite Pink’s lack of clarity, Just a Girl still manages to win listeners in the end. All it requires is a bit of effort.

Rock vs. pop

I hate using first-person perspective in a review, but here goes …

My brother and I were comparing notes about Yaida Hitomi’s new album Candlize. He likes it better than her first one, daiya-monde. After listening to daiya-monde again, I still preferred it over Candlize.

Although my brother and I both follow the Japanese music industry with a fine tooth comb, our individual tastes couldn’t be any more disparate.

He listens to mainstream artists — Suzuki Ami, Sakai Noriko, Utada Hikaru. I’m more into rock bands and indies — Number Girl, Cocco, fra-foa.

Our respective backgrounds definitely influenced how we each perceived the album and so might yours.

Candlize is definitely much more of a pop album. The caffeinated exuberance of daiya-monde has been toned down to make room for big hooks.

That’s not to say Yaiko has lost all of her verve — “Buzzstyle” and “Look Back Again” possess every bit of energy as “B’coz I Love You” and “My Sweet Darlin'”.

But it’s the re-recorded versions of “Over the Distance” and “I’m here saying nothing” that shows how much Yaiko has pulled back.

“Over the Distance” was just a toned-down rock ballad, but on the album, it’s a sweeping epic complete with dramatic strings. “I’m here saying nothing” turns into a shade of itself with most the acoustic guitars stripped from the final mix.

Like her first album, Yaiko’s album tracks feel more polished and accessible than her singles.

“Zeitaku na Sekai” has a relentless backbeat and an incredibly catchy chorus. “Te to Namida” starts off with a great verse, then bursts into a loud, triumphant chorus.

“Maze” concludes the album beautifully on a quiet note.

There’s a lot to like about Candlize, but for folks who prefer to hear Yaiko at her most exuberent, the album might be a struggle to warm up to at first.

But eventually, Yaiko’s solid songwriting wins out at the end, and even if she isn’t belting her all, she still leaves a lasting impression.

Horvitz just floats

Pop music writers who fawn over Stephin Merritt’s various ensembles probably never had to keep track of Wayne Horvitz.

Horvitz has formed a “grunge jazz band” (Pigpen), a big band (New York Composers Orchestra) and a jam band (Zony Mash), as well as participated in a drum ‘n’ bass group (Ponga) and John Zorn’s punk jazz band (Naked City).

Horvitz’s 4+1 Ensemble is something akin to the Bill Frisell Quartet from some years back — a rhythm section-less group consisting of some off-kilter but ultimately sublime timbres.

4+1 Ensemble pits two very warm instruments — Evynd Kang’s violin and Julian Priester’s trombone — against an array of electronics, drum programming and keyboards helmed by Horvitz, Tucker Martine and Reggie Watts.

All that machinery could have resulted in something cold and synthetic, but From the Window sports some of the most introspective and organic performances from any of Horvitz’s ensmebles.

When Watts sings a soulful improvisation over the minimal arrangement of “Sweeter Than the Day”, it feels totally human.

The restrained drum beat on “Julian’s Ballad” allows 4+1 to improvise like a jam band in slow motion.

“People Just Float” is pretty self-descriptive — Horvitz and crew layer one dissonant set improvisation on top of another, creating a piece somewhat reminiscent to Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes.

Unlike the B3 Hammond-driven Zony Mash or the synthesizer-heavy President, 4+1 focuses on the piano as the main instrument.

Although Horvitz is a skilled improviser on piano — as Naked City demonstrated so glaringly — his own music has rarely employed the instrument.

On From a Window, Horvitz shows he can draw back on his fiery fingers, letting the attack and decay of the piano punctuate the overall texture created by the rest of the ensemble.

“Crispin and Lisa’s Duet” focuses more on Priester and Kang, but the piano in the background is no less present.

From a Window is one of Horvitz’s most beautiful works, a collection of haunting melodies set to an imaginative set of instruments.

Emotional rescue

In the past 25 or so years, Kronos Quartet has commissioned more than 400 works. That’s about as many songs Prince reportedly has in his legendary vault.

Of course, that means Kronos shares with Prince the potential to release some awe-inspiring albums or some really questionable duds.

Although Kronos has single-handedly managed to bridge classical music with pop culture — commissioning a piece from Mr. Bungle and performing with Café Tacuba — the quartet is in its best element performing Western art music.

Requiem for Adam fits squarely in the classical arena, and it’s a piece which sports one of Kronos’ most spirited performances. Named after the son of Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington, the piece was written by Terry Riley, the man commonly credited for ushering in minimalism with In C.

Riley stayed away from notated composition early in his career but started up again after working with Kronos in the late 70s. In turn, Riley’s improvisational pieces forced Kronos to adopt a work ethic that involved totally immersing themselves into a piece.

Unlike the overly long Salome Dances for Peace, Riley’s work on Requiem is focused but organic. The beautiful first movement starts off mournfully but midway through slowly builds to a flurry.

The second movement pits Kronos against a set of analog synthesizer effects that sound totally crude. Extracted from the piece on the whole, this movement could have been a somewhat engaging work by itself.

In contrast to the first and third movements, which have no electronics, the second movement sticks out.

Thankfully, the third movement erases any missteps of the second by returning to the dark harmonies that informed the first. Save for an introspective middle section, this last movement is mostly kinetic, an energetic piece propelled by glissando and heavy arhythmic accents.

The album concludes not with Kronos but with Riley performing a quiet piano piece titled The Philosopher’s Hand.

It’s a suitable conclusion the album. Kronos spends a good part of the disc mourning, wailing and screaming through their instruments. Drawing back from that intensity with a low-key piano piece strikes the right chord.

Of all the 400 pieces Kronos could have recorded, the quartet picked a great one to feature on Requiem for Adam. This disc is no dud.

Trembling before melody

John Zorn is not above writing hooks.

For the last hundred or so years, Western art music composers have been trained to regard melody with skepticism.

Although tonality no longer holds the stigma it once did in the 60s and 70s, composers have yet to re-embrace melody as a means of artistic expression.

Don’t even ask them what they think of film scoring — some of those composers will tell you a movie director, let alone the medium, has no place in determining their creative vision.

Raised on Bugs Bunny cartoons and Anthony Braxton records, Zorn possess none of those issues.

He can churn out a high-minded, conceptual game piece such as Cobra as easily as he can orchestrate the punk-jazz machinations of Naked City, or the klezmer-meets-Ornette Coleman aesthetic of Masada.

And film? Zorn loves it.

His Film Works series of recordings contain perhaps his most diverse work. Some scores are as thorny as his most avant-garde works, while many others are as beautiful and melodic as anything from a Hollywood composer.

Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d was written for a documentary about gay and lesbian Hassidic Jews. Director Sandi Simcha Dubowski made only one restriction on Zorn — he had to incorporate “Idalah-Abal”, a piece originally included on another Zorn recording, Bar Kobha.

As such, Zorn took a number of Masada compositions and integrated it with original music written for the documentary. The result is one of Zorn’s most haunting, serene and beautiful scores ever.

There are moments where the music does come across as incidental, as when Zorn takes on babbling vocal duties on the exuberent “Simen Tov/Mazel Tov”, or when Jamie Saft’s organ work on “Notarikon” sounds like a rumbling thunderstorm.

“Tashlikh” almost sounds like a piece from Wayne Horvitz’s 4+1 Ensemble, while the title track comes across more as Second Viennese School exercise than as a compliment to the Masada notebook.

These disparities make it evident that the film’s subject matter is the core driving force for the music.

Yet clarinetist Chris Speed keeps things together with a mournful, subtle performance that demonstrates the poignancy of his instrument.

Limiting the ensemble for the score to clarinet, piano, organ and percussion, Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d certainly feels like a generally cohesive work.

With each score, Zorn aims to create music that underscores the images on celluloid while standing true to itself.

Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d keeps up with the task and sounds wonderful to boot.


If you’re only vaguely familiar with New Order, you might perceive the band as bunch of faceless guys hiding behind a wall of synthesizers.

The name Joy Division may not even mean much to you. (I really ought to have written those past two sentences in the first-person — it sure describes me.)

Which makes New Order’s first album in eight years, Get Ready, sound really new and unfamiliar.

New Order has always been something of a guitar band. Check out (the best of) New Order — the first four tracks, including the then-newly written “Let’s Go (Nothing For Me)”, sport lots of guitars. Even “Regret” from 1993’s Republic hinges not on a synth hook but a guitar hook.

On Get Ready, New Order still relies on a lot of ethereal synthesizer effects, but now the trio has thrown in some axeslinging to make these tracks sound harder and beefier than anything they’ve ever done.

The first two tracks of the Get Ready — “Crystal” and “60 m.p.h.” — ably set the tone for the rest of the album.

A pair of grunge-y guitars lay the foundation for “Crystal”, while dramatic synthesizer pads only punctuate, not propel, the song. On “60 m.p.h.”, there’s barely a synthesizer chiming in among all the ringing guitars.

Other tracks almost sound like New Order is trying to put Oasis cowering back in a dark corner where they belong.

“Slow Jam” starts off with a distorted synthesizer hook vaguely reminiscent of Trent Reznor, but then a wall of guitars crashes in with rock star aplomb.

“Turn My Way” would have made a great outtake from Smashing Pumpkins Adore sessions, an impression pretty much reinforced by Billy Corgan’s vocal contributions to the song.

“Rock the Shack” sounds like such a 180 degree turn from “Blue Monday”, it’s a wonder the song doesn’t more closely resemble a big late-80s hit by an Athens, Georgia, band, which also had “shack” in the title. (As in “Love”?)

New Order doesn’t completely give into six-string excesses. “Someone Like You” and the introspective “Vicious Streak” features a lot of the same watery effects employed on Depeche Mode’s Exciter.

All told, Get Ready is probably one of the rockingest albums released this year — from a band not reknowned for fiery fretwork.


Oh dear — a critics’ darling record.

Pan it, and risk being called hopelessly out of touch. Or praise it, and risk being called hopelessly fashionable.

Fuck it —

Is This It by the Strokes is a masterpiece. It’s OK to like the Strokes because they make it easy to like them.

Is This It has the same selfless vibe that made Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand so refreshing back in 1994 — decidedly lo-fi, totally focused and wonderfully simple.

And the best part? The Strokes slavishly sound like their idols. You’ve heard them before — maybe 20, 30 years ago when they went under such names as The Velvet Underground or Gang of Four or Television.

But in this case, they haven’t just put these bands on the sonic equivalent of a photocopier machine — they’ve captured their spirit, their urgency, their rough-around-the-edges aesthetic that emphasizes attitude more than technical prowess.

Is This It is cool because it just cuts through the grandoise bullshit of latter-day cock rock to get back to the basics — I, IV, V. (Actually, V is most often optional on these tracks.)

The album breezes by in little more than half an hour, pounding out one three-minute gem after another. Singer Julian Casablancas alternately croons and snarls through an intercom, while guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond hammer fuzzy two-note, two-chord riffs in quick succession.

It’s hard to pick one track out from another — the songs have such a nice homogenous sound, the whole disc feels like a complete work onto itself.

Yes, I’m resisting the urge to throw out such terms as “symphony” and “opus” because these New York City prep school-bred lads are barely thinking on those terms.

In other words, the Strokes keep it simple. This music is brainless in the best of ways. It doesn’t demand anything of you, and it doesn’t require much in return, except maybe some serious pogo-ing.

The saviors of rock ‘n’ roll

It’s tough to avoid Tenacious D.

Kyle Glass and Jack Black have amassed such a following from their HBO shorts, even people who don’t subscribe to HBO have heard of them.

(Uh-huh. I’m hinting my cable service isn’t all that tricked out.)

With the release of the duo’s self-titled album, the cable-challenged finally get to hear what all the fuss is about. And yeah — that’s some funny shit they got going there.

Most folks will probably find humor in the lyrics — talk about Kielbasa sausage and warm butt cheeks, gentle fucking, Dio’s relevance, destroying city hall and of course, the supremacy of Tenacious D.

But the real humor lies in how Glass and Black satirize every rock ‘n’ roll cliché in the book — all through music.

Take “Tribute”, a song paying tribute to the greatest song of the world. How many songs can lampoon “Dueling Banjos”, Devo and prog-rock all in four minutes and eight seconds?

The square-wave synthesizer effects and strings on “Wonderboy” are delivered with such seriousness, it shines a harsh light on just how pompous rock ‘n’ roll can really get.

Even the full band arrangements, which include drumming and guitar work from Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, come across as ridiculous. Funny how a power chord can be a tool of humor in the right context.

And while it may be tempting to just find this album on a file sharing service, listeners would be doing themselves a great disservice by skipping over the cover art.

The devil imagery, the stark “Bohemian Rhapsody” face close-ups and the Smashing Pumpkins typography — it’s all a complete package.

Perhaps the most stinging revelation about Tenacious D is the fact other artists have recorded songs every bit as ridiculous as the ones on this album — and thought they were complete serious.

Who said rock ‘n’ roll was about music? It’s all theater, man.