Category: Reviews

Something to be desired

OK. At what point did I come to like Rufus Wainwright?

When he first debuted in 1998, it astounded me that anyone would think he actually had an appealing singing voice. If people complained about Shiina Ringo having a weird voice, I’d point to Wainwright (and Bob Dylan, for that matter) and mention something about pots and kettles and black.

Wainwright annoyed me. And I still think he sings through his nose.

But let’s face it — the guy can write a tune. An article in Rolling Stone about children of rock stars mentions the tension between Rufus and his famous folk-singer father, Loudon III. At the moment, Rufus has the bigger star.

(Note how Martha Wainwright is being plugged as Rufus’ sister, not Loudon’s daughter.)

And Wainwright wouldn’t be the pet of critics and fans alike if he didn’t have some sort game.

2003’s Want was originally intended to be a double album, but his label didn’t want to gamble selling a 2-disc set to a buying public accustomed to file sharing.

So Wainwright split the album up, releasing Want One in 2003 and Want Two in 2004. It’s hard not to draw an analogy to the release of Radiohead’s Kid A, followed not long after by Amnesiac.

The initial releases in both instances have the stronger material.

That’s not to say Want Two is nothing but filler. The album, in fact, is incredibly eclectic, knocking on the door of unfocused but not treading the threshold.

The exoticism of “Agnus Dei” makes it the most unlikely song to open an album. “Little Sister”, “The Art Teacher” and “Hometown Waltz” manage to veer from classicism to balladry and back again without seeming incongruous.

The second half of the album is steeped in moodiness. “This Love Affair” has the kind of long, drawn out melody ideal for showcasing Wainwright’s emotive belt, while “Memphis Skyline” is the perfect song for a 1 a.m. set at a jazz bar.

But Want Two doesn’t possess the kind of clarity of its predecessor, and in that sense, the album feels more like leftovers, much in the same way Amnesiac wasn’t much more than Kid B-Side.

If you had to choose between the two Wants, go for the first. But if you can afford both, by all means get both.

Into the woods

I nearly fell out of my chair when I first heard the news Dave Fridmann would be producing a Sleater-Kinney album.

Fridmann’s most famous works are the lush productions he coaxes from the Flaming Lips and his own band, Mercury Rev.

But as his work with Number Girl can attest, Fridmann can make a loud band sound explosive. In fact, Number Girl fans may find The Woods, Sleater-Kinney’s sixth album, very comforting.

From the opening squeal of “The Fox”, Sleater-Kinney comes out swinging with its fierest sound. 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One may have skewed to tunefulness, while 2002’s One Beat flaunted passion.

The Woods, however, is a jackhammer.

It’s impossible to think two guitars and no bass could produce as massive a sound that can be found on “The Fox”. Drummer Janet Weiss could give Ahito Inazawa and Jimmy Chamberlain lessons with this track.

“What’s Mine Is Yours” is the kind of stuff Josh Homme should have written for Lullabys to Paralyze, especially that growling, low middle section where the band goes bugfuck.

And it’s hard not to think of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! when listening to Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”, even though musically they share little in common. (Entertainment! is practically slim next to the big sound on The Woods)

But thematically, the biting allusion to reality TV would have been perfect fodder for the early ’80s UK punk group.

Sleater-Kinney gets ambitious with the final two tracks of the album — the 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” segues with “Night Light”, making for 15 minutes of continuous music. (That’s about 1/3 of the album’s length.)

By then, the album has so pummelled listeners, they may as well fuck the fatigue and go for broke.

Fridmann loves to push the digital clipping envelope, and on more than one occassion, The Woods hisses with ugly sound of loud music surpassing the acceptable limits of digital audio.

For tracks such as “Steep Air” or “Entertain”, it’s almost unnoticeable (but barely). For a track as mellow as “Modern Girl”, which concludes drowned in a fuzzy sound, it’s incredibly distracting.

Although 2002’s One Beat was lauded for its post-9/11 ferociousness, The Woods pushes even further. Put this album on when you want music that punches you in the chest.

There’s a light

How many albums written in the style of children’s music require Parental Advisory stickers? From my first-hand knowledge, only one.

It’s far too simple to call Avenue Q a send-up of Sesame Street. Sure, Avenue Q has puppets singing in an inner-city neighborhood, teaching audience members valuable lessons about life.

But the lessons taught in Avenue Q? Some of them aren’t for children. Not yet, at least.

Adults, however, need the wisdom Avenue Q offers. When debating the issues of the day, it’s far too easy to take the stance, “Nobody’s perfect, so let’s just get along.”

Avenue Q fully acknowledges the first half of that statement — no, no one is perfect — but it encourages listeners to take responsibility for their imperfections.

And the best part? The show uses humor to make its point.

“Eveyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes,” Princeton and Kate Monster sing, “Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.”

About people who make judgments on race, Princeton explains, “No, not big judgements like who to hire or who to buy your newspaper from … Just little judgments like thinking Mexican busboys should learn to speak goddamn English!”

You know, sometimes I wish some white people around these parts would learn to speak goddamn English, too. Ooops, was that just a little racist?

Gary Coleman (Yes, that Gary Coleman, played by Natalie Venetia Belcon) says so: “Bigotry has never been exclusively white.”

Kate gets a rude awakening from Trekkie Monster about the Internet (“The Internet Is For Porn”, a song that makes good use of the “in bed” suffix appended to fortune cookie readings.)

Kate: “I’m glad we have this new technology”

Trekkie: “For porn”

Kate: “I got a fast connection so I don’t have to wait”

Treekie: “For porn”

And in “If You Were Gay”, Nicky (modeled after Ernie) attempts to reassure Rod (modeled after Bert) he’d be all right having a gay friend.

“If you were queer/I’d still be here/Year after year/Because you’re dear/To me”. That’s kind of rhyming seems modeled after Stephen Sondheim.

And on “Schadenfreude”, Gary Coleman explains to a homeless Nicky in Act Two that it’s human nature to feel good about the misfortune of others. Gary sings, “‘Cause when people see us/They don’t want to be us/And that makes them feel great.”

Avenue Q can get a bit raunchy too.

“You Can Be Loud as the Hell you Want (When You’re Making Love)” starts out with some loud love-making from Kate and Princeton.

Princeton: “Don’t put your finger there!” Beat. “Put your finger there!”

And on “Special”, Lucy the Slut “can tell just by looking that you are especially hard for me!”

Comedy and music is a hard balance to achieve, especially since music often suffers at the expense of the laugh.

Avenue Q strikes the right balance by setting biting, sobering humor with the easiest melodies to sing.

After you hear Trekkie Monster chime “Why you think the Net was born? Porn! Porn! Porn!” it’s hard to forget.

At the same time, it’s also easy to relate the show’s songs to real-life scenarios.

In Austin, Texas, there are homeless people who panhandle by freeway intersections. That’s schadenfreude right there.

And once I met someone who got squicked by homosexuals, and he didn’t turn out to be a dumb bully — he was a well-educated dweeb whose ass even I could pound.

That’s not quite the lesson Avenue Q expounds, but hey, recognition is the first part addressing a problem. And this show shines a warm, bright light on a number of social ills.

Out in out in

There’s no turning back when an artist samples Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima in the first few seconds of a song.

Out of context, the screeching, amplified violins that open Penderecki’s most recognizable piece sound like the metallic scream of a train car applying its brakes.

Fifteen seconds of Penderecki’s Threnody also open up “Tasogare”, the seventh of eight tracks on UA’s sixth studio album, Breathe. By that point, UA has made it perfectly clear pop has little sway on her music nowadays.

But for the Threnody to wash over the minimal robotic beats of the song’s introduction signals UA’s full embrace of the avant-garde.

In the past, she pushed against pop’s boundaries. Now, she’s breaking through them.

UA collaborates on this album with Uchihashi Kazuhisa, a guitarist who’s worked with Elliott Sharp and Otomo Yoshihide. As with her last two studio works, Doroboo and Sun, the music is mostly introspective, freely rhythmic and timbrally adventurous.

But while the general mood of Breathe isn’t far removed from its predecessors, it still possesses its own identity.

Uchihashi and UA go for a more synthetic sound, samples and rhythm machines replacing the live dynamics of a house band.

“The Color of Empty Sky” starts of with a wheezy accompaniment, only to give way to lush strings for the chorus.

Odd samples propel “Moss Stares”, which could have been an outtake from Björk’s Vespertine. (What if UA went completely a capella for her next album, ala Medulla? Something to consider.)

Takuji Aoyogi provides a nice contrast on the duet, “Beacon”, while the repeated motifs of “Mori” feel almost minimalist.

Unlike her last two albums, Breathe clocks in at 39 minutes, which is still somewhat long for eight songs. But even though she remains as experimental as ever, she’s reigned in the expanse of her previous outings.

It’s heartening to witness UA continually challenge herself and her listeners. After unshackling her rock ‘n’ roll potential with AJICO five years ago, she’s become fearless in pursuing new creative outlets.

But it’s hard not to miss the tuneful UA, who brought the world “Kanashimi Johnny”, “Rhythm” and even “Senkoo”.

Aside from a melodic chorus here and there, the songs on Breathe don’t offer anything resembling a single, a point not lost on UA’s label — Speedstar didn’t even precede the album’s release with one.

Breathe is a fascinating, demanding album. But like Sun before it, enjoying it depends on how much you want to work for it.

Meeting point

If there were a drawback to Konishi Yasuhara’s sample-crazy approach, it would be the claustrophobia of his thick arrangements. Pizzicato Five would oftentimes come across as manic — Nomiya Maki’s smooth voice the only element to reign in the chaos.

Comparing i-dep to Pizzicato Five is superficial at best, but Nakamura Hiroshi shares with Konishi a keen ability to cut up timbres and snippets of motifs, then piece them back together into a pleasing whole.

But where P5 was kitsch and excess, i-dep, Nakamura’s jazz-techo ensemble, is all about cool delivery and exotic climes.

Meeting Point, i-dep’s debut mini-album, combines deep rhythms, creative samples and live instruments into a seamless blend of dance floor beats and human warmth.

This album isn’t a robotic four-on-the-floor exercise, nor is it a slavish replica of bossa nova, a genre curiously popular in Japan. Rather, Meeting Point brings the best of both genres together.

Guitarist Imura Tatsuya does an incredible job of plucking out complex melodies and keeping up with the drum machines and synthesizers. On “Good Water”, he’s placed subtly in the mix, but the virtuosity of his playing drives the song.

On “Tell Me More” and “Rustlica”, his presence adds a bit of humanity to the subtle but complex layers of samples.

But the real stars of the album are the band’s skillful arrangements. The 7-minute “Rustlica” has enough going on to keep a listener engaged for a long duration.

“Two (M.P. version)” is a fantasia of hooks, wonderfully orchestrated and danceable without sacrificing substance for rhythm. The album ends with “Amore”, featuring g-ton from nobodyknows+, a charming romp over Latin rhythms.

Although the album itself is primarily a studio vehicle, the music translate incredibly well live, as i-dep’s showcase at SXSW 2005 clearly demonstrates. It would be wrong not to acknowledge Takai Ryoji’s grounding bass work, or George Kano’s precise drumming.

Meeting Point is, simply put, enjoyable. i-dep isn’t alone in mixing bossa nova with techno beats, but the band makes the kind of music appealing to even listeners ambivalent to those genres.

One household, two styles

It’s easy to fall into the perceptual trap that Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz are a single creative entity.

They are married to each other, after all, and they work on each other’s albums often — Horvitz as producer for his wife’s singer-songwriter albums, Holcomb as singer when his projects require a voice.

But Solos marks the first time both share billing on an album, and the original idea was for each to perform the music of the other.

In piecing the album together, they decided the performances of their own pieces worked better, so the album is divded between Holcomb doing her own material, and Horvitz doing his.

And while the two make astounding music together, what is striking is just how different they are as composers and performers.

Horvitz is the more melodic and perhaps more conventional performer of the two. He gives a playful reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Armageddon”, perhaps the most straight-forward track on this album of contrasting styles.

Holcomb follows right after with the concise “The Pleasure of Motion”, in which she gets downright violent with her instrument. And in another zag to her zig, Horvitz’s “Joanna’s Solo” is simple and poignant.

Although Horvitz, who is a prolific writer, occupies most of the tracks on this album, the most expansive piece is Holcomb’s “Before the Comet Comes”, written for a theater production of the same title. Like the other pieces on her 1996 solo piano album, Little Three, “Before the Comet Comes” explores a wide dynamic range, starting out introspectively but building momentum over the course of 13 minutes.

As the album progresses, the two players start reflecting each other’s style. Horvitz admits to ripping off Holcomb’s arrangement for the traditional song, “Buttermilk Hill”, and it’s easy to mistake his playing for hers.

On “Up Do”, Holcomb sounds like Horvitz at his more whimsical, but she retains just enough grit in her performance to remind listeners who’s at the keyboard.

Personally, I prefer Holcomb’s dynamic, often abusive playing, even though Horvitz’s sense of melody does a fine job of grounding the album.

It takes a while to suss out the nuances of the two performers, given the shared credentials of both as noted improvisers. But when the differences make themselves known, Solos comes across as a striking collection of distinct styles.

Dear Duran Duran — what the fuck?

Dear Duran Duran,

Please put down the crack pipe.

Your judgment is being seriously impaired, if the songs on the promo CD, Beautiful Colours, are any indication.

Since acquiring this disc a few weeks ago, I have played it with the familiar regularity I extend the best of your repertoire. I enjoy listening to the songs that didn’t make the cut on Astronaut, and I find the alternate takes on the album tracks illuminating.

(I will give you credit for the versions that do appear on the album — they are indeed the superior performances of those songs. “Bedroom Toys” still sucks, though. Amazing to think you guys could write something worse than “Palomino” or the majority of Pop Trash.)

But the more I listen, the more apparent the weaknesses of Astronaut are, and the more obvious they become, the more I feel cheated.

You have a long, storied history of mishandling your career, and if the two boxed sets of singles are any indication, you have a terrible habit of relegating incredible songs to obscurity. “I Believe/All I Need to Know” should have started side two of Big Thing, not that cover of “Suzy Q”.

In the case of Beautiful Colours, the volume of unused material could have meant the difference between a brilliant comeback and an antisceptic one.

“Beautiful Colours”, the song, lives up the adjective contained within the title. “Salt in the Rainbow” harkens to the poignancy of your most recent work, such as “Come Undone”.

Even a party track such as “The Pretty Ones” has more heft to it than that wimpy “Taste the Summer”. And “Virus”? And “TV vs. Radio”? You have guitar muscle in Andy Taylor — show him off, dammit!

Who is that backing singer on “Lonely Business”, by the way? She makes me glad Lamya isn’t hanging out with you guys anymore.

Beautiful Colours has the songs that would have convinced me this reunion was worth the effort. In fact, it’s disappointing you could actually validate my low opinion of Astronaut.

And it’s frustrating to think you had the material to make a better album all along.

As such, I had to piece together my own version of what this latest Duran Duran album should have been. I was an ardently loyal fan up until 2000, and now I consider myself proudly lapsed.

I will still pay attention to what you guys do creatively, and I will support you with my disposable income when it seems right to do so.

But there are other artists out there with a clearer vision of how they want to work, and they have cut into the devotion I once reserved exclusively for you. (Man, I can’t wait to hear Cocco again!)

I know you have it in you to whittle away my skepticism. It’s there in Beautiful Colours. Now if only you could get your act together to do so.

Your fan of 20 years,


Respect yourself

It probably isn’t wise to write about a covers album with unfamiliar source material, sung in a foreign language.

So I was going to pass over writing about Molotov’s Con Todo Respeto since I don’t speak Spanish and am familiar with only two of the tracks on the album.

But after a few spins — and an initial disappointment that Dance Dense and Denso wasn’t followed up by more of the same angry, caustic music — I discovered I actually like this album.

Molotov may have built its reputation on anger and sarcasm, but beneath that fury is a sense of humor.

And while Con Todo Respeto contains no original material by the band, the interpretations could have been done only by Molotov.

Falco’s “Amadeus” becomes “Amateur”, a song that doesn’t celebrate genius. And under Molotov’s hands, the Latin undertones of “Da da da” come to light.

Some of the transformations (compared to snippets available on Amazon — hey, I’m cheap that way) are pretty drastic. Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” sounds like it was done by Jimi Hendrix. The Misfits’ “I Turned Into a Martian” turns into a Mexican romp.

The band’s interpretation of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” imagines what it would have sound like if the Beasties stayed punk. And it’s tough to hear Lipps, Inc.’s “Designer Music” after hearing Molotov’s “Diseño Rolas” first — the song works better in Spanish.

If there’s a general conceit to Con Todo Respeto, it’s juxtaposition. Latin music gets the punk treatment, while American rock goes through a Latino filter.

“La Boa a Go-Go” retains none of Sonora Santanera’s big band feel, and the raging punk of “Mi Aguita Amarilla” is a far cry from Los Toreros Muertos’ blues shuffle.

Toward the end of the album, Molotov breaks down its own mash-ups in the titles — “Perro Negro Granjero” combines ZZ Top’s “La Grange” with Three Souls In My Mind’s “Pero Negro y Callejero”, while “Aguela” mixes up “Mi Abuela” with the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” and Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move”.

A band that can seamlessly blend Latin music, punk and hip-hop from other artists deserves respect of its own.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Con Todo Respeto is its ability to entertain without the context of the original material. The band has fun with this music, and it comes through, right down to 17th century-styled busts on the cover.

It probably helps to know the source to appreciate these reworkings. But this covers album stands firmly on its own.

P.S. Hybrid Magazine was nice enough to drop enough names for me to make my own comparrisons. It would be rude not credit them.

No need to argue

I still stand by what I said the last time Do As Infinity released an album — the band hasn’t really evolved since its first albums, a few anamolous songs aside.

And I wasn’t expecting much from Need Your Love, the band’s sixth album.

Do As Infinity doesn’t exactly break expectations, either — the slick, friendly pop they’ve delivered over the past six years is still very much the duo’s modus operandi.

And yet, Need Your Love is actually pretty good.

Do As Infinity built its reputation on a genre-blending trifecta — a bit of rock, a bit of jazz, a lot of pop. Owatari Ryo added guitar muscle to songs that would have otherwise drowned in an ocean of synthesizer effects.

But the genre-hopping became too distracting, sacrificing focus for diversity. The songs suffered for it, the albums even more so.

Need Your Love is still a pop album, but the band concentrates more on its hard rock underpinnings, resulting in perhaps its most cohesive album in years.

Album opener “For the Future” doesn’t stray too far from the template that brought listeners “Summer Days” or “Toshikari Naru Mama”, but the following track, “Blue”, keeps the band on a steady rock course.

“Be Free” still owes a lot to “Week!”, but the former has more of an edge over the latter. Even “Yotaka no Yume”, which starts off sounding like another ballad in a long line of DAI ballads, bursts out in a dramatic chorus more akin to Cocco.

The songwriting, while still adhering to a recognizable Do As Infinity aesthetic, features some of the better hooks the band has produced in a while. The delicate opening of “Rakuen” immediately grabs, while its chorus keeps hold.

“Ultimate GV” and “One Flesh” start off with strong guitars and build to even stronger choruses.

By the time the band winds down to its more predictable balladry, it had already given listeners a good workout.

Need Your Love doesn’t paint outside the lines of Do As Infinity’s creative borders, but within them, it’s the tightest work the duo has done thus far.

Pocket change

I don’t need to write a review for this album — Minnie Driver already did it for me.

In a television interview, Driver described how she had her album playing in the background, when her sister remarked, “I’m really liking this new Dido album.”

And there you have it.

Legend (or public relations machinery) has it Driver originally sought a music career and was actually signed to Virgin Records before her casting in Circle of Friends launched a film career instead.

Of course, celebrity crossover has its own pitfalls, the least of which is an audience skeptical of jacks-of-all-trades. (Believe it or not, Jennifer Lopez can be a very good actor.)

Personally? I like Minnie Driver. She’s the kind of actor whose presence can push movies beyond their potential. Return to Me, in which she stars opposite David Duchovny, is pretty standard as far as rom-coms go, but Driver managed to keep the plot from getting too sappy.

So part of me is rooting for her to achieve some degree of success as a songwriter. Does she earn it? Check back a few paragraphs about that Dido remark.

Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket, Driver’s debut, is a your basic slow tempo, slightly ethereal, singer-songwriter fare. On more than one occassion, she displays her affinity for Elton John.

Driver’s voice is sturdy and appealing, but she’s no Joni Mitchell.

The album’s lack of flashy production makes it difficult to perceive the album on more than a subconsious level. That’s a roundabout way of saying it makes for some pretty good background music.

Eventually, the tunes sink in after a few listens, but as first impressions go, Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket does the soft sell a little too softly.

“Invisible Girl” has the distinction of being the most extroverted track on the album. The Eno-like effects on “Wire” and “Deeper Water” provide a nice backdrop, while “Ruby Adeline” actually does an good job of concluding the album.

A lethargic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, though, misses the point entirely.

Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket doesn’t do anything to dispel the notion that actors should stick to acting and musicians should stick to music. But even with Driver’s pedigree as a musician-turned-actor, it’s probably her luckiest stroke that her day job turned out as well as it did.