Yearly Archives: 1999

Brand new Sting? Hardly.

Mellowing out hasn’t done much for Sting’s music.

Back when he was a conceited, human rights savior, Sting crafted some interesting material. Listeners could forgive the Artist formerly Known as Gordon Sumner for his sense of self-importance — just as long as he continued producing great pop music.

At the turn of the 1990s, that all changed.

Sting locked into a holding pattern — recording albums with his same touring band and his producer from the Police days, Hugh Pagdham. His music has since then been just as predictable.

Nowadays, the question to ask about Sting’s albums isn’t whether they’re any good, but how badly they don’t suck.

Brand New Day actually ranks up there with Ten Summoner’s Tales, the only Sting album recorded in the 1990s with a decent program of songs.

Sting doesn’t indulge in his usual bag of clever tricks — shifting meters, spliced genres — and in fact, quite a few tracks feature rather memorable hooks. “Desert Rose” is quite a keeper, and the chorus “After the Rain Has Fallen” stays in your head.

Even when Sting does get smart, it’s not as forced as before. The hip-hop break in “Perfect Love … Gone Wrong” isn’t out of place.

That doesn’t mean the album doesn’t have its share of filler. “Tommorow We’ll See,” although not entirely memorable, is still good for its subject matter. I don’t understand how the title track became the first single, however.

(Note to Sting: ditch country if you can’t get Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris to steer you in the right direction.)

So does Brand New Day suck? No. It actually doesn’t.

His own worst critic

Had I not done the journalistically-responsible duty of acquiring Nine Inch Nails’ previous albums before reviewing The Fragile, I probably would have raved about Trent Reznor’s latest opus.

Disclosure: I’ve heard of Reznor for years but didn’t seem to think his music was really aimed for me. It’s only out of curiosity for his unanimous acclaim as a studio magician that gave me the incentive to actually take the plunge.

And a studio magician he is. The Fragile is quite an achievement for a sprawling two-disc effort. And if it existed in a vacuum with no other Nine Inch Nails recording to precede it, a monument it would remain.

But Reznor has to contend with his worst gauge — himself. And while he could have zagged when people wanted him to zig, Reznor opted to work within Nine Inch Nails’ established paramters — heavy, distorted, textured, dramatic, electronic music.

Other critics have already arrived at the obvious conclusion, one lobbied at many a double album — there’s enough material there for one disc, not two.

And whatever Reznor was trying to accomplish over two discs with The Fragile he has already done on one with The Downward Spiral. (Can you believe that latter album was recorded when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy?)

But that obscures an underlying truth — even a second-rate Nine Inch Nails album is better than some of the best work of some really bad bands.

Which is to say you really can’t go wrong with a Nine Inch Nails album.

Nothing missing

Everything But the Girl’s 1996 album, Walking Wounded, was a recording that didn’t wear out with repeat listenings. In fact, numerous plays revealed deeper depths of the disc’s music.

But there was always a sense the album could have had “more.” Well, the duo’s new disc, Temperamental, delivers on that “more.”

With Walking Wounded, instrumentalist Ben Watt and vocalist Tracey Thorn were attempting to resolve their acoustic jazz-pop past with its newfound electronic future. The electornic elements of the album sounded something like club music but wasn’t. While the songwriting attempted to make way for the new whizbang drum machines and synths but didn’t.

On Temperamental, Everything But the Girl strikes the right balance. Most electronic music doesn’t aspire beyond a heavy set of phat beats and a single line of lyrics. (Tell me the last time you heard a revelatory couplet in a club.) But Watt and Thorn use this foundation to craft some hook-ladened songs.

Similarly, some songwriting tenets had to be compromised. The three-minute format doesn’t work on the dance floor, and Watt uses the typical seven-minute stretch of beats and rhythms to showcase Thorn’s vocal prowess.

If this album isn’t the definitive mix of electronic and pop music the label moguls are searching for, who knows what is?

No bleeding heart

Jeremy Toback has everything that could make him highly irritating.

Navel-gazing lyrics? Check. Guitar-driven, acoustic-pop? Check. Untrained, monotone voice? Check. Oxymoronic album title? Check.

So what stops this younger, Bob Dylan-wannabe from crossing the line to whiny sop on the level of Shawn Mullins and the Goo Goo Dolls?

For one thing, Toback is not heavy-handed with wearing his bleeding heart on his sleeve. If anything, his limited-range vocals — which do owe a helluvalot to the aforementioned Dylan — have not an ounce of “pity-me” sincerity. To that end, Toback is actually listenable. (Do you get the impression, sometimes, that some singers could belt about how happy they are and still sound like they’re complaining?)

Toback’s songs are also rather well-written. Despite his voice, which is charming because of its monotone, Toback squeezes out some memorable tunes. Although his verses tend to be one-note fillers, Toback nails his hooks on his choruses. Check out the successive tracks “Come on Down” and “Green Light” for examples.

Toback certainly takes the songwriting part of the singer-songwriter tag quite seriously, and it shows with this debut. He could have been unbearable, but he isn’t.

Over-this, over-that

There are moments when Chris Cornell’s voice amazes. There are moments when Chris Cornell’s voice overpowers. There are moments when Chris Cornell’s music is enjoyable. There are moments when Chris Cornell’s music is heavy-handed.

Most critics who have weighed in on Cornell’s solo debut album, Euphroia Morning, have pretty much called it a flawed album. And on a minute level, that assessment is accurate.

Euphoria Morning makes a few baby steps away from the rough-hewned metallurgy of Cornell’s previous band, dabbling in blues and Brian Wilson-Beatles-esque etherealisms.

And while those baby steps seem forced and somewhat misstepped, the rest of the album sports Cornell growling over a mostly acoustic version of Soundgarden. (“Soundgarden-lite” as some critics dismiss it.)

But for all the obvious negative press this album has generated, one thing seems to be overlooked — it’s still a damn good album to listen to.

Despite its flaws — maybe because of them — Euphoria Morning works as a vehicle for Cornell’s voice. Sure, it gets overblown — another over- word — but when that voice roars over some metal-rock riffs, who can’t enjoy it?

Maybe all those bad reviews were to cover up the fact that critics secretly liked it.

It don’t mean a thing,

Some formulas just shouldn’t be messed with but in the world of music, such formulas are subject to whimsy.

Take 8 1/2 Souvenirs. One of the most dynamic swing bands around, the group’s line-up in the last two years was a vertible brew of expert musicianship. Pianist Glover Gill and his spidery hands vied for as much stage presence as consumate leader Olivier Giuraud and mesmerizing singer Chrysta Bell.

Happy Feet, the group’s thrice recorded debut, documented the volatile chemistry of the Souvenirs.

On Twisted Desire, 8 1/2 Souvenirs loses Glover and drummer Adam Berlin. The resulting sound doesn’t swing as much, and Glover’s huge piano performances are greatly missed.

Excellent bands get beyond such loses, but on Twisted Desire, the remaining Souvenirs can’t seem to fill the void. Bell, her voice an excellent instrument, seems a too bit dreary for the Souvenirs’ usually buyoancy. And Giraud, himself a charismatic singer, takes to the mic only twice.

New drummer Rob Kidd doesn’t swing like former drummer Berlin, and it’s tough to reconcile the Souvenirs’ jazz with Kidd’s more rock ‘n’ roll thumping.

Twisted Desire is 8 1/2 Souvenirs’ second album for a major label, and its third overall. Still, consider it a case of sophomore slump.

High quality lo-fi

Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Great voices.

Glyn Johns. Legendary producer.

Bruce Springsteen, Sinéad O’Connor, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin. Superb songwriters.

So why can’t I decide whether to pan or praise Western Wall: The Tuscon Sessions?

Ronstadt and Harris do an excellent job in choosing a set of songs to highlight their strengths individually and collectively. They treat their voices like instruments in an ensemble, selecting pieces that serve the sum of their talents.

Ronstadt has the smoother, torch-song vox; Harris has the ruddy, emotive one.

So their choice of program isn’t really to fault. Even Harris’ collaboration with Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff is great. (Although the song really does sound like an outtake from the Luscious ones’ latest opus.)

No. It’s Johns’ production that causes any cognitive dissonance.

Each track on Western Wall sounds like it came from a different album. Reverb drowns “Loving the Highway Man,” while “Western Wall” sounds like it was recorded in a box. “1917” features a charmingly rough chorus of backing vocals, while “Sweet Spot” sports a stripped down arrangement.

There’s really no sense that Western Wall is a complete work — only a collection of snapshots.

And yet, the album works on that level. The more lo-fi moments bring Ronstadt’s and Harris’ immense talent closer to the listener. If they recorded the entire thing by a campfire on a Walkman, it would have been no less of a work.

Maybe that’s what they should have done in the first place.

‘A Mexican Music for Airports

The Village Voice already took the best description of Café Tacuba’s Reves/Yosoy.

The Voice’s reviewer called Reves, the all-instrumental half of the double album, a “Mexican Music for Airports.” The description is well earned.

Café Tacuba crafts some rather daring textures with Reves (“reverse” in English), foregoing the usual emphasis on hooks for mood and timbre. Angular melodies, outbursts of noise, bizarre samples — Reves almost resembles the work of John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz. But spiritually, Reves takes after Eno’s seminal work.

According to the Voice and CDNow’s All-Star News, Cafe Tacuba handed Reves to its label, who then expressed concern over how to market the album. In short, WEA Latina didn’t get it.

Café Tacuba then went back into the studio and recorded a second album of songs with vocals. Did it make a dent on the so-called marketing challenge? Hardly.

Yosoy (“I Am”) sports the most introspective work Cafe Tacuba has done to date. The anthems and sly musical jokes of its previous albums make way for a set of quiet tunes. But don’t expect ballads — these songs are every bit as challenging as its companion work.

Yosoy is the album R.E.M. failed to make with Automatic for the People.

Kronos fans take note: The quartet makes a guest appearance on Reves and includes new cellist Jennifer Culp.

All bitter, no sweet

The title of Kim Richey’s previous album, Bitter Sweet, was indicative of its content. As mentioned in the Notebook’s 1997 year-end issue, the album contained sweet songs about bitter subjects.

With Glimmer, Richey has done away with the sweetness, and some the remaining bitterness borders on dark and angry.

“Other Side of Town,” for instance, sports some barely-contained sarcasm. “You can come out, now, the coast is clear/Old ghosts don’t run around here/No loose ends to tie you down,” Richey sings, later warning, “Careful you don’t go so far/You lose the best of who you are.”

“You remember the way it never was,” Richey accuses on “The Way It Never Was.” “You’ve forgotten the things we didn’t say/If you miss me the reason is because/You remember the way it never was.”

Even Richey’s music turns dark. “Can’t Lose Them All” starts off with a minor key hook uncharacteristic of most Nashville artists, and the last half of the album is dominated by a series of quiet, plaintive songs.

Richey’s clear soprano, backed by these more introspective tunes, could fit her a slot on Lilith Fair, perhaps even replacing the festival’s headliner. If Sarah McLachlan spent less time being precious, she’d probably sound more like Kim Richey.

Glimmer’s slick production by superstar pop producer Hugh Pagdamn positions Richey to be something like a Nashville version of McLachlan. There’s not a pedal steel guitar to be found on the entire disc.

It’s an interesting gamble from one of Nashville’s strongest songwriters.


A few warnings about this album:

  • Don’t play this CD on a long drive home late at night
  • Don’t play this CD and walk into another room
  • And most importantly, don’t do any loud chores, such

    as washing dishes or vacuum cleaning, while playing

    this CD

In short, give the American Analog Set your undivided attention. It pays off. Really.

The American Analog Set hovers in the low registers of a volume knob, stripping away its songs from any sort of excess. Repeating guitar hooks anchor the band’s music, while Farisa organ and drums make subtle punctuations.

It’s great music with which to chill.

On The Golden Band, AmAnSet strike a nice balance between catchiness and proportion. Mostly atmospheric, AmAnSet’s music could easily meander into babbling territory. It never does, and combined with some nice hooks, the group’s tunes become exceptional.