Yearly Archives: 2000

Pleasantly bizzare

Whatever you do, don’t press the random button while listening to this album.

And if you just happen to have acquired Shouso Strip through file sharing, don’t just start playing tracks randomly.

Shiina Ringo’s second album is an epic work full of strange effects, sudden starts and stops, plus lots and lots of studio tricks. It’s also a highly structured album that only makes sense when heard from start to finish.

Taken individually, the tracks on Shouso Strip could be mistaken as a whole lot of fancy stuff on the surface with little depth. After all, if a song were really that good, it would stand on its own stripped-down, right?


Shouso Strip goes beyond just a collection of 13 good songs. Each track works well with others, and in some cases, they need each other.

By itself, “Stoicism” is a passable, quirky novelty, but taken in context of its preceeding songs, the head-banging “Identity” and the grunge-y blues of “Tsumi to Batsu”, it sets up momentum for the straight-forward rocker of “Tsuki Ni Makeinu.”

The dischordant intro of “Benkai Debussy” sounds alien without the prepared piano conclusion of “Yokushitsu.” And the sudden cut at the end of “Sakana” would make no sense without the distorted drums of “Byoshou Public” to cut it off.

It’s this interplay between the songs that makes Shouso Strip an addictive album. Play it again and again, and the aural roller coaster Shiina has created takes more twists and turns with each subsequent listen.

While her debut album, Muzai Moratorium, showcased the strength of Shiina’s songwriting, Shouso Strip demonstrates her ability to compose.

Very few women rockers, including ones in America, achieve the kind of confrontational artistry Shiina Ringo regularly produces. E!Online’s comparrisons to Courtney Love — whom Ringo mentions along with Kurt Cobain in the lyrics of the album’s centerpiece, “Gips” — are somewhat off-the-mark.

Shiina isn’t afraid to be challenging or weird, and Shouso Strip is both pleasantly.

Business as usual

Back in high school, Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album was the soundtrack to my attempt to cram John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for English literature class.

At the time, Chapman’s socially-conscious music was a much publicized and lauded move away from the MTV-shaped female figureheads of music that dominated the radio and television airwaves. As if being Annie Lennox was a bad thing.

People expected great things from Chapman, being a “serious” artist with a “real” message and all.

Twelve years later, most press about Chapman labels the trembly-voiced singer as being too serious and too real.

And yet, the forces that gave Chapman such great publicity more than a decade ago still give her context. Whereas Chapman was styled as the anti-Madonna back then, she could very well serve as the anti-Britney Spears and the anti-Christina Aguilera.

In other words, Chapman has pretty much stood still while the world around her has gone in circles.

What does that mean for Telling Stories, Chapman’s first album since scoring a hit with “Give Me a Reason” four years ago?

It means it’s business as usual for Chapman. Telling Stories has moments of quiet beauty and introspection, with sparsely arranged songs that draw inward even when being uptempo and extroverted.

Telling Stories doesn’t quite have the live-in-the-studio feel that made 1995’s New Beginning such a strong performance, but some of the flourishes on the album — Uillean pipes, violins — add just enough garnish to make things interesting.

For the first half of the album, Chapman keeps things lively, placing one fast tempo song after another. As Telling Stories progresses, Chapman slows down the momentum and delivers the kind of material for which she’s best known. Toward the end, an appearance by Emmylou Harris adds honey to an already exquisite, bittersweet album.

Telling Stories packs few surprises for anyone familiar with Tracy Chapman’s work, and in a strange way, that’s pretty comforting.

Model covers

Line-up changes not withstanding, Rage Against the Machine is one band with a clear sense of itself.

I mean, a really clear.

Even a project as straight-forward as a covers album is forcefully and unflichingly molded into the group’s creative and ideological vision.

Renegades is a Rage Against the Machine album firstly, a collection of other artists’ songs secondly.

On hip-hop covers such as Volume X’s “Pistol Grip Pump” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Can Just Kill a Man”, Rage supplanted those track’s original “music” — not hard, since most hip-hop is backed by drum machines and samples — with its own.

Some of the transformations are drastic, as evidenced on Afrika Bambaataa’s “Renegades of Funk,” originally a break dancing song with a really old (read: cheesy) drum machine. On EPMD’s “I’m Housin’,” Rage makes the song more ominous with a slowed-down beat and Tom Morello’s obtuse guitar riffs.

On other tracks, Rage Against the Machine magnify a seemingly small portion of a song, such as the sliding bass on “Pistol Grip Pump,” which turns into an anaconda-sized slithering slap in the ear.

The punk covers come across as more straight-forward. About the only thing that separates Rage’s version of Minor Threat’s blistering “In My Eyes” is a louder mix. Zach de la Rocha makes for a mean punk singer — he shouldn’t just stick to rap.

Rage’s much lauded cover of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” doesn’t quite come across as revelatory as its press would have anyone believe. It’s a heavier, fatter cover, but the original somehow manages to sound harder than Rage’s version.

It’s the songs that don’t fit into hip-hop or metal where Rage takes the most liberties. Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” transforms from a haunting folk ballad to a nightmare-ish metallic tale. Bob Dylan’s cheeky jubilence on “Maggie’s Farm” becomes a declaration of angry indepedence.

Oddly enough, Rage saw fit to turn Devo’s synthetic “Beautiful World” into one of the band’s quietest songs. In doing so, they turned a self-deprecatingly funny tune into something mopey.

A listener not familiar with any of the original songs on Renegades will most undoubtedly enjoy the album just because Rage Against the Machine are excellent at what they do.

But as a covers album, Renegades is an inventive work. Whatever traces these tracks possessed of their songwriters’ original intentions are wiped clean by Rage’s own.

Good luck woman

Now isn’t this strange?

Here in America, Pizzicato Five releases its fifth album, creatively titled The Fifth Release on Matador, and it comes across like all the other albums P5 has recorded.

Back in Japan, singer Nomiya Maki strikes out on her own, not exactly stretching beyond the comfort zone of P5’s club friendly pop trash, but she manages to record a better album.

Miss Maki Nomiya Sings sports many of the elements that makes Pizzicato Five such a familiar listen — big club beats, homages to Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg, lush strings, bossa nova rhythms, and a lot of French lyrics.

But it’s her collaborators which make all the difference on this project.

P5 instrumentalist Yasuhara Konishi knows only so many ways to make good use of Nomiya’s voice. On Miss Maki Nomiya Sings, guests such as Cibo Matto’s Honda Yuka and former Deee-Lite DJ Towa Tei offers Nomiya something new.

And boy does she ever shine.

On “Star Struck,” Honda sandwiches Nomiya’s sweet harmonizing between stretches of buzzing guitars and synthetic drums. “Baby” features a catchy, catchy, catchy intro that makes a terrific counterpoint to Nomiya’s bouncy delivery.

“Arrivederci a Capri” has the best back beat to support Nomiya’s voice since “Magic Carpet Ride” on Made in USA. At times, you’d wish Nomiya would bust out of her usual fare, such as the reprise of “Fiorella with the Umbrella” that follows P5’s habit of putting remixes of the same track on the same album.

It’s not until the very final track of the album where Nomiya’s potential for so much more becomes readily apparent. With acoustic guitars chiming behind her, Nomiya does a mean cover of KISS’ “Hard Luck Woman.”

At that moment, a listener realizes that Nomiya’s smooth alto could sing a shopping list a still be riveting. Sugoi!

Grand cross illusion

Marilyn Manson lives under a microscope in every music publication known to man. Except this one.

Nope. This site isn’t going to explicate any deeper meanings or extract any autobiographical parallels from the lyrics Manson screams from track to track on Holy Wood.

Why not? ‘Cos (1.) it’s already been done (2.) it’s not hard to glean the general gist of Manson’s tirades (3.) it’s not anything we haven’t already heard before from the same person.

God is dead, if he ever existed, and the downtrodden becomes the oppressors’ undoing. Et cetera. Ad infinitum. Pax Nabisco.

Why listen to Marilyn Manson in the first place? Aside from being an excellent showman — which last year’s live album The Last Show on Earth failed to demonstrate — Manson makes some decent rock ‘n’ roll.

Sure, a lot of the shock has worn off since 1996, but what’s left is a good 19-tracks of full-on guitars, spooky synthesizer effects and Manson’s sprechstimme scream. That, and it’s good for some licks. (The guitar kind, please — not any other.)

As Rolling Stone and other music mags have said already, Holy Wood isn’t the White Album Manson claimed it would be. But it’s certainly a lot louder and heavier and more interesting than Mechanical Animals.

Nor does Holy Wood feel like the completion of a trilogy, but that says more about the accompanying works than it does about the album itself.

Antichrist Superstar had its own thematic workings within itself. Musically, it employed little tricks — repeated motif here, recurring lyrics there — that made it more than just a concept album.

But on Holy Wood, Manson would like you to think there’s something bigger going on — categorizing the track listing under parts of headers that spell the name, “ADAM” or writing an accompanying novel which has yet to be published. The music doesn’t reflect it.

Not like that detracts from anything. Holy Wood is still a good rock album, but that’s all it is. It’s not Manson’s great creative achievment, nor is it a grand dramatic gesture.

And that’s enough in and of itself.

Not a cloud on the disc

If Anton Bruckner wrote one symphony nine times, then Eithné Ní Bhraonáin has recorded one album five times.

And yet symphony orchestras still perform Bruckner’s symphonies in the same way Enya’s albums sell in the millions.

That’s because Enya knows how to do one thing, and she does it well — extremely well.

A Day Without Rain has everything longtime Enya fans expect from the reclusive Irish artist — poignant melodies, oceans of harmony, soothing strings, Enya’s clear voice.

Rain even mirrors the arc of her four other albums. A piano piece, which also serves as the title track, starts things off. Then comes an uptempo number, followed by a slower song, followed by the requisite Latin piece, followed by a song in Irish Gaelic, followed by an uptempo but sparse number, followed by an instrumental, etc., etc.

There’s nothing incredibly new, and on some level, Enya is a bit too predictable in that regard.

At the same time, the album is distinct from Enya’s previous work. Like the title suggests, A Day Without Rain is sunnier, much lighter than her other albums. The sparsely introspective songs that anchored Watermark and The Memory of Trees have given way to lots of plucked strings and lilting waltzes.

The mood, however, doesn’t last very long. Clocking at a little more than half an hour, the album seems far too short for such a long a wait — it’s been five years since she released an album, not counting the greatest hits collection, Paint the Sky With Stars in 1997.

And while Enya has written what could be considered a “happy” album, A Day Without Rain doesn’t take listeners as far into that introspective zone where her other albums have ventured time and again.

It’s a familiar sound, done beautifully as always. Enya doesn’t give us anything terribly new, but she does still satisfy with what she has mastered.

Run with yourself

Two albums came into mind when I put Bonnie Pink’s Let Go on the CD-ROM drive: The Sundays’ Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Wendy and Lisa’s Girl Bros. album from 1998.

Pink’s sweet, soothing voice recalls the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler, while her songwriting manages to bridge that group’s dreamy amalgan of the Cocteau Twins and the Smiths with the blues-yness of Prince’s former front women.

Perhaps the most telling track is “You Are Blue, So Am I,” a song as every bit as infectuous as the early Sundays’ hit, “You Think You’re the Only One.”

Shimmering guitars, a tastefully funky bass line here and there, Pink’s child-like voice soaring above everything — it’s a remarkable combination distinct not only from other Japanese women rockers but from nearly anyone in the world.

After a pair of false starts (“Sleeping Child,” “Fish”), Let Go, Pink’s fourth album and her debut on Warner Bros. Japan, finds its groove and latches onto it for the album’s remainder. Pink hits a songwriting homerun from one track to the next.

“Reason”, “Kako to Genjitsu”, “Run With Yourself”, “Shine” — just when you think her songs couldn’t get any better, they do.

Singing in English and Japanese, she employs both languages to good effect. On “Trust,” she delivers verses in her native tongue, but during the bridge, she bursts into English: “Why did you hide my toothbrush? Where did you hide my picture? Why did you ask me not to call you last weekend?”

Although Pink sings with a noticeable accent, her handling of the English language is never awkward — no misplaced syllables, no odd stresses. If American artists were remotely interested in covering her material, they’d have no problem. (Hint, hint.)

Pink’s understated, sparsely arranged songs, however, require a lot of attention for their beauty to become readily apparent. It’s easy to overlook her songs on first listen, but repeated spins reveal levels of satisfying depth.

Growing up

If Shonen Knife had a little sister who was rough around the edges, she would be Mummy the Peepshow — and she’d be the worst kind of sibling to have.

She’d upstage her Big Sis time and again, being brattier, cutesy-er, and more in-your-face. While Shonen Knife works hard to get to where she is, Mummy the Peepshow comes along and does something bigger and better.

Of course, there really is no rivalry between the two all-women bands from Osaka, Japan, but it’s difficult to hear Mummy the Peepshow without thinking about Shonen Knife.

With Electric Rollergirl, Mummy the Peepshow sharpens its ever improving songwriting skills. Where This Is Egg Speaking … stayed true to its punk roots, Electric Rollergirl finds the group etching its way into onee-san’s territory.

From the quasi-disco beat of “Disco Holiday” to the New Wave riffs of “Kick Off” even to the charming off-kilter cover the Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” Mummy the Peepshow dash out one earnest pop ditty after another, tackling an encyclopedia of post-punk influences with indie abandon.

Unlike Shonen Knife, who take after the power pop of Red Kross, Mummy looks toward 50s bubblegum pop and, silly as this sounds, the Dead Milkmen for inspiration.

And while Maki Mummy’s untrained vocals grounds Mummy the Peepshow firmly in punk, the band’s music moves toward more crafted, more hook-filled pop. The band has also thankfully found a sound engineer to boost its levels, giving Electric Rollergirl just a touch more polish.

In other words, Mummy is maturing. They’re growing up, and given the proverbial leaps and bounds the group has attained since its scattered debut Mummy Bullion two years ago, they’re ready to step out the shadow of Osaka’s more recognized punk trio.

Even better than the first time

Sade has always been a great singles band. When they write a hit, as they have on “Is It a Crime?” or “Smooth Operator” or “Stronger Than Pride,” they strike the nail on the proverbial head.

But when it came to making albums, the quartet’s fillers were forgettable — mostly meandering, repetitive mood pieces that fell short of being actual songs.

Sade’s previous album from eight years ago, Love Deluxe, barely had any singles — it was an hour’s worth of filler.

Now, Sade has returned with Lovers Rock, perhaps the tightest album in the band’s repetoire — and mostly devoid of any singles.

Sure, “By Your Side,” with its “Whiter Shade of Pale” feel, makes for an appealing first offering, but it doesn’t possess the wildly catchy hooks of “Never as Good as the First Time” or “Sweetest Taboo.” Not like it should.

Lovers Rock shows Sade moving far, far away from the bad porno soundtrack leanings of the band’s earlier work. (“Your Love is King” is great, but that sax …) They still offer soothing, soft, morose jazz-pop, but it comes across as sharper, more restrained, more subtle.

More seductive, really.

Consider Lovers Rock Sade’s version of Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart — a set of songs that don’t have much flourish but relentlessly pursues a mood that gives the band’s sound clarity.

“King of Sorrow” qualifies as a dark horse hit. The title track has one of those memorable choruses that linger hours after the album has ended. “Slave Song” is a terrific experiment in dub, one the group can afford to explore more.

There’s a lot to like about Lovers Rock. Sade has managed to spread the best the group has to offer over an entire album. Eight years is a long time, but it paid off.

Bacharach ambition

Yasuhara Konishi really worships his 60s record collection.

When Pizzicato Five was first introduced to the United States five years ago, Yasuhara was one of the best pillagers of the past to propel the present. His mix of trashy 60s pop with modern club beats was irresistible.

In the past two years, however, Yasuhara hasn’t hid his hero worship. He doesn’t just want to emulate Burt Bacharach — he wants to become him. Last year’s Playboy & Playgirl was the most earnest expression of imitation ever set to aluminum. Nancy Sinatra could have walked all over this album without encountering a single club beat.

With The Fifth Release on Matador Records, P5 are stuck in a time warp. Lush harps and strings, exuberant beats, Maki Nomiya’s soothing croon — it’s the same stuff Pizzicato Five has offered its audience for a better portion of the decade.

Unfortunately, P5’s most recent material lacks the cohesion of Happy End of the World, an epic work steeped as much in the past as the present. Even the First and Second Releases on Matador, which were just collections of past P5 tracks, held together more tightly.

But the moments when P5 shines are bright. “20th Century Girl” hinges on a simple, anthemic chorus. “Wild Strawberries” has a “la-la” chant that would make Stevie Wonder jealous. Even the muddy “LOUDLAND!” is charming, if only because Nomiya’s voice goes through a lot of distortion. The group even includes two versions of the same song so different from each other, it takes a glance at the liner notes to reveal they’re the same song.

When Pizzicato Five meander, however, it’s hard to stay interested. The fascinatingly titled “Darlin’ of Discotechque” works best in a lounge, not as casual listening. And when Yasuhara tries his damnedest to become his idols, even Nomiya’s ever-appealing voice can’t save those indulgences.

P5 fans who don’t like change very much won’t mind this album at all. At the same time, this duo has produced better work when they’re not trying to be so much like their idols.