Yearly Archives: 2000

An ‘A’ for effort

This album gives me a headache. And that’s actually a compliment.

Thee Michelle Gun Elephant plays its brand of rock ‘n’ roll really loud and really obnoxious. Play the band’s U.S. debut Gear Blues at any volume, and it’s still too much.

The Japanese quartet’s take on punk owes as much to the 12-bar-blues and surf rock as it does to the Ramones. It’s as if everything between the Beatles and Led Zeppelin never happened.

Call it “crotch rocket rock.” The band wears a lot of leather in the packaging for Gear Blues, and it’s not hard to imagine Harley Davidson devotees blaring this album in their earphones while tearing down the interstate.

From the uniform black to the ultra-cool shades, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant is a lot of attitude. Which is to say Gear Blues does little more than reinvent the wheel.

Vocalist Chiba Yusuke growls, screams and swears his way through Abe Futoshi’s cranked-to-11 garage rock riffs. You probably heard it all before, and you probably heard it better from other bands.

But what Thee Michelle Gun Elephant lacks in originality — a rather overrated concept, at times — they make up for in sheer gumption.

On the surface, tracks such as “Smokin’ Billy” and “G.W.D.” don’t really offer much other than really grungey guitars and choruses delivered in vocal-chord busting screams. But after a while, TMGE’s music becomes hypnotic. It’s simple. It’s guttaral. It’s the perfect soundtrack for letting your hair whip across your face (assuming your hair is long enough to do that.)

Alive/Total Energy calls Gear Blues, which was released in Japan two years ago, a “classic” album. Perhaps. If nothing else, this album is a textbook example of how image and attitude go a long way in the rock ‘n’ roll world. A very long way.

Growing up

<!– Link: Spice Girls

There’s only one thing missing that would make the Spice Girls latest album, Forever, a sublime experience: a few songs written by Utada Hikaru.

In the past year, Utada has released three singles, two produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a third produced by Rodney Jerkins. Coincidentally, those are the same producers who have brought the Ginger-less Spice Girls out of musical childhood and into adolesence.

The Spice Girls’ PR machinery have spun this third recorded effort as a more mature work, and in many respects, it is. Gone are the sound bite platitudes and cuddly, bubbly personas of albums past.

Now, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh — um, I mean Emma, Melanie, Melanie and Victoria wear uniform, sexy black and look every bit of their alleged ages. And the music? It’s sleek, it’s lush, it’s got some really great beats — in short, utterly and abashedly commercial.

Whereas Spice and Spiceworld reveled in tooth-rotting sacchrine, Forever is that dash of coffee to go along with the milk and sugar.

If you don’t pay too close attention to the words, Forever might even come across as adult. But as such, the 11 songs that make up this album are a series of odes to modern romance. Nothing, in other words, that you haven’t already heard before from better poets.

(Better poets indeed. “Right Back At Ya” reeks of such desparate assertation of the Girls’ staying power, it’s woefully comic. That’s perhaps the largest misstep on a generally safe album.)

And while it’s easy to relegate Forever into background music while at the office or during study hour — the phat beats aren’t all that intrusive, thankfully — the album does do a terrific job in leaving a favorable impression.

Unless you’re incorrigibly pretentious, Forever is a hard album to resist — even if it lacks the in-your-face, over-the-top vitality of the Spice Girls’ explosive debut. Come to think of it, the album does tend to get a bit heavy with the ballads, although Melanie C. gets to show off her pipes on “Time Goes By.”

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a third dose of “Girl Power!” from this quartet of competent singers. Had the Spice Girls continued in that vein, they would have mercilessly met a rather public cold shoulder from consumers.

Forever, in short, is a nice change for the Spice Girls.

‘You need to get more funky’

<!– Link: Zoobombs

If it helps, Zoobombs have been compared to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It doesn’t help me, so I’m going to try to describe what I hear.

I hear two chords. I hear a lot of syncopated beats. I hear a vocalist who does something in between singing and chanting. I hear some really loud guitars. And I hear some great bits of English between a deluge of Japanese.

“You need to get more funky,” advises singer Don.

Zoobombs perform funk you can pogo to. It’s got fist-pumping intensity and a stubborn sense of minimalism — read: they don’t exactly write verses, choruses and middle-eights — that quite nearly reaches a hypnotic state.

If you listen too closely to Zoobombs, you might be disappointed. There’s a lot going on in their songs, but not enough to hum along or to anticipate where the next change might happen.

But if you take in the organized sense of chaos as a license to tune in and drop out or whatever the hell hippy phrase that was, Zoobombs are actually quite fucking cool.

Hell, they even cover Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money,” right down to a Japanese-inflected British accent.

But in between those moments of repetitive chant-like transcendence, Zoobombs turns it down. “Pleasure Drop” is ruddy and pretty at the same time. “4190” goes for a bit of trip-hop, and “Ships Are Alright” could have come straight out of a Muddy Waters’ nightmare.

For the rest of Let It Bomb, Zoobombs sound like an old 60s funk band that time warped into the late 70s and dug the Sex Pistols and the Clash. It’s a pleasing mix of modern noisemaking with some timeless rhythms.

Very few bands can make an old organ mesh well with buzzing guitars. Zoobombs is one such band.

Lost in a shadow

<!– Link: Julieta Venegas

With Julieta Venegas’ last album Aquí, listeners could play the CD, put its music in the background of their consciousness and let its minialistic beauty seep in slowly.

The same can’t be said for Venegas’ new album Bueninvento.

It’s not a bad album, per se. Indeed, Venegas has sought to broaden the aural scope of her music. Where Aquí consisted mostly of accordion and piano with spare accompanying instrumentation, Bueninvento is a major production by comparrison.

On “Hoy no quiero,” it’s guitars, not Venegas’ classically-trained piano, that drives the track. “Simepre en mi mente” bristles with quiet energy, but a huge bridge serves as a dramatic apex for the song.

In fact, a good portion of this album is spent delaying the inevitable big bang of a full band, giving many of the songs an incongruous feel to them. It takes more than a minute before a real back beat grounds “Instantánea,” a minute and half before the full band plays on “Voluntad,” and nearly two minutes for “Enero y Abril.”

Very artistic, on one hand, but it’s a clever technique that gets run into the ground on Bueninvento. It worked with fewer instruments on Aquí.

Venegas possess the kind of voice that can overpower anything, but here, she’s lost in the mix somehow. That, coupled with a set of mostly well-crafted, well-written but on the whole hook-less songs, qualifies this album for borderline sophomore slump.

There are a lot of reviews out there that trumpet Bueninvento as a really impressive work, and perhaps those reviews are a lot more trustworthy. None of them mention anything about Venegas’ first album.

Aquí, however, casts quite a shadow for a debut, and Bueninvento, while brave in its attempt to steer away from the aesthetic established by its predecessor, seems to get lost attempting to find its own sound.

The pugilist as crooner

<!– Link: Oscar de la Hoya

Could Oscar de la Hoya kick my fat, nerdy ass if I give his album a bad review? Of course, he can.

But you couldn’t tell that by listening to Oscar de la Hoya, the album. Helmed by Ricky Martin’s producer, de la Hoya’s first steps out of the boxing ring and onto the pop star stage is a safe, radio-friendly collection of grand, weepy ballads and Latin rhythm-driven dance tracks.

It’s a calculated attempt to woo de la Hoya’s female fan base (and maybe more than a few gay male admirers) into more intense fits of hormone-driven hysteria. And dammit if it works.

With most of the album’s tracks sung in Spanish, de la Hoya successfully translates his sex appeal into music. He can be forgiven if his choice in songwriters tends to be unchallenging — the net effect of his ballad crooning on a person’s libido is what matters in the end.

To be perfectly crass, de la Hoya has made some pretty good fuck music.

News of de la Hoya’s record contract signing was met with the usual reaction when sports superstars muscle in on other branches of entertainment — doubt and dismissal. Just take a look at Kobe Bryant’s music career. Don’t see one? That’s the point.

But de la Hoya really does have a pleasant voice, and that’s not my libido typing. He won’t give Justin Timberlake or JC Chasev any sleepless nights, but I bet Oscar kicks much posterior at a karoke party.

There are some moments where de la Hoya’s album gets a bit too calculated. The Diane Warren-penned “With These Hands” is every bit as pompous as a Diane Warren song can get, and “Para Amarti” opens with the same kind of horns and rhythms that rejuvinated Santana’s career and launched Rob Thomas’.

Those missteps aside, Oscar de la Hoya is entertaining. No, it’s not art, and quite frankly, the idea of de la Hoya wrapping his middle class-appealing voice around, say, rock ‘n’ roll is actually a bit disturbing.

So leave him to his ballads for now. Oscar can handle them.

Footnotes: Look carefully at the track listing. The evidently superstitious de la Hoya has forsaken track number 13 and labeled it 14. Oh, and the pictures in the CD booklet are nice.


<!– Link: 98 Degrees

How can you tell one boy band from another? I’m not setting up a joke — I really want to know.

Because for some reason, 98 Degrees is probably the least irritating boy band out there. And it’s not like they really do anything much different from their bigger-selling co-horts in the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync.

They have slick, overproduced music. They have plaintive, heart-string-tugging ballads. They sing about girls and romance. They have killer looks. Hell, they even have album sales.

What makes them different?

The group’s last album, 98 Degrees and Rising, was greeted warmly by the same forces that have propelled Britney Spears into album sales stratosphere, but the disc was largely a collection of forgettable songs totally indistinct from everything else out there on the pop chart’s upper echelon.

With Revelation, 98 Degrees has been given a chance to show its abilities off.

Nick, Drew, Justin and Jeff have better voices individually and collectively than other teen-marketed ensembles. The Backstreet Boys sometimes sound like they’re singing through their noses, but 98 Degrees actually possess voices that a person can withstand listening to for an hour.

They’ve also been given better songs. No, they don’t sound much different from every other glossy, R&B-wannabe act out there, but they do a much better job of staying in a listener’s mind after the album has finished. They also don’t tax a person’s patience as much either.

Even the more novelty ideas such as the Latin pop bandwagon-jumping of “Give Me One More Night (Una Noche)” or the distorted, barely audible hip-hop break on “Dizzy” don’t come across as crass as they could have been. Although those Swedish songwriters should do a better job of covering up their ABBA influences — the opening of “Stay the Night” is lifted straight from “The Winner Takes It All.”

All that, and they’re better looking. Okay I admit — I bought this album for the pictures. But the music that came along with it isn’t too bad for what it is: get-rich-quick commercial pop for fast and easy consumption.

So long as more serious music fans don’t hold 98 Degrees to the same lofty standards as, say, Dynamite Hack, they’re okay.

Future perfect tense

“D! I! S! C! O!” chant the members of Plastilina Mosh on “Boombox Baby,” one of the first tracks from the Mexican duo’s album, Juan Manuel.

Disco is only one of many influences driving Plastilina Mosh’s music, but it’s certainly a significant one. Keyboardist Alejandro Rosso and guitarist Jonaz incorporate all the Really Cool Things happening in the club music underground but infuse it with a live feel.

“Tiki Fiesta” and “Arpoador” sound like Plastilina Mosh raided the Esquivel vaults like almost every other DJ on the planet. Then the pair launches into dance floor-ready, driving tracks such as “Bassass (International Stereo”) or “Human Disco Ball.”

On “Boombox Baby,” they’ve done a faithful recreation of a classic disco track, right down to the slapped bass and tinny electronic clavier. Then on “Baretta ’89,” Rosso and Jonaz lay a processed vocal straight from a Stevie Wonder record over a sleazy ’60s bass line.

It’s music that’s slavishly devoted to the past but evidently made in the last few years of the millenium.

Singing in English and Spanish, it’s difficult to peg Plastlina Mosh as a rock en Español band. (The group’s press materials pompously discourage such activity.) But it’s not hard to find Latin influences in the band’s music — an accordion here, congas there.

And unlike a lot of instrumental-driven, club-marketed bands, Plastilina Mosh’s music is as hook-y as it is textured. There’s a real sense of songwriting craft on Juan Manuel, and while this music is great for the floor, it makes for memorable listening as well.

Juan Manuel is an impressive work from a band with a keen appreciation of the past and an fascinating vision of the future.


Yaida Hitomi arrives at a time when the world just really doesn’t need another LilithFairMarketedWomanInRock. But the world always needs good songwriters, and Yaida fits that bill quite nicely.

A good number of tracks on Yaida’s debut album, daiya-monde (a play on the word “diamond,” which is part of the name of her band Diamond Head, and her name spelled backwards), will draw obvious comparrisons to artists not only in Japan but worldwide.

“Girl’s Talk” uses the kind of overproduction in which Shiina Ringo often indulges. “Your Kiss” sounds like something between Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” and Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” And “Moshimo no Uta,” a light-hearted drinking song that bears no resemblance to anything else on the album, marks the kind of left turn Cocco uses with her children’s songs.

But the rest of daiya-monde sports the kind of earnest rock that, in less skilled hands, would come across as bleeding heart at best, crass at the worst. Instead, Yaida has crafted a number of suitable hooks around her powerful voice.

It’s not difficult to fall head over clichéd heels for such keepers as “How?”, “Nothing” or the album’s emotional pinnacle, “Nee.” (It was an excerpt for the video of “Nee” that drew my attention to Yaida in the first place.)

Yaida veers manically from high-speed exuberance (“B’coz I Love You”, “My Sweet Darlin'”) to mid-tempo introspection (“Nee”, “Your Kiss”). She’s created a set of songs that puts her in league with other indepedently-minded Japanese woman but at the same time sets her apart.

Yaida would never be mistaken for Japan’s answer to Courtney Love, as E! Online once described Shiina Ringo, or Japanese Fiona Apple, as the New York Times once described Cocco. If those nasty, pigeon-hole-ing comparrisons had to be used, Yaida resembles Joan Osborne or Meredith Brooks without a hint of being a one-hit wonder.

daiya-monde is a stellar debut from a singer with the potential for staying power.

With or without you

If Achtung Baby were recorded without all the fancy dance beats or all the studio trickery, it probably would have come across much like U2’s latest long-player, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Unlike the other two albums in the Irish quartet’s 90s oeuvre, Achtung Baby was propelled by its songwriting first, its studio magic second. Zooropa needed quite a number of listens — and in some instances, hindsight — to penetrate its layers of effects, while on Pop, the surface was the depth.

For All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 has gone back to being a rock band, just as the band’s PR machinery predicted. As a result, the group has once again placed focus on the one thing that often seemed lost in its attempt to use the studio as a fifth member — the song.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind is practically filler-free, and even the dead weight — “New York,” “Grace” — are light years better than, say, the entire second half of Pop.

“Beautiful Day,” the first single off the album, features that signature U2 chorus in which the Edge competes with Bono by singing a soaring single-note “Yeah!” “Elevation” employs some of the effects processing from the group’s immediate past as a means to drive the song’s hook.

“Walk On” could be considered the cousin to “Until the End of the World,” which is a good thing, while “Stuck in a Moment” successfully traffics in the gospel tendencies that made Rattle and Hum tedious.

It’s very easy to sing this album’s praises — U2 is pretty much back on top of their proverbial game.

But don’t think Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry Jr. have gone back to re-recording The Unforgettable Fire — this “new” U2 draws as much upon its latter day works as the spirit of its earlier songs.

“Kite” begins with a backmasked synthesizer before the Edge crashes in with his trademark slide. At the same time, “Wild Honey” depends on acoustic guitars to provide most of its backdrop.

“In a Little While” might have hints of Rattle and Hum’s soul and Achtung Baby’s backbeat, but “Peace on Earth” has The Joshua Tree’s sense of holistic introspection.

In short, U2 has taken the sum of its entire career and created a whole work that shows them in one of their best moments.

Friend and enemy of modern music

There are probably a few good reasons why the general media has largely passed on “critiqueing” Smashing Pumpkins’ Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music.

First, the band pressed it on vinyl, making any digital encoding of the music spotty at best. Second, the distribution of the album, although free, pretty much excludes anyone without (1.) high speed connections to the Internet, (2.) hard drives larger than 6GB and (3.) means of transferring these files to audio CD. Third, these tracks are leftovers from the MACHINA sessions — outtakes from a relatively recent release that may or may not have much historical value.

So, are the issues detailed a few paragraphs ago big stumbling blocks? The particular files I downloaded have very low levels, and on some tracks, it’s very easy to spot where analog and digital just don’t seem to agree. But a few tweaks on the computer and speaker volume knobs — figuratively speaking since a computer operating system really doesn’t have knobs — rectify these shortcomings.

As for acquisition of the album, sorry — you really do need high-speed access and a large hard drive. The Pumpkins released 25 tracks of music, which comes to more than 100MB of space.

Digital music has a great future, but one thing artists, labels and tech companies haven’t acknowledged is the gulf between have and have-nots. People will still need CDs if they can’t keep buying computers every two years. And convergence? Hell, the vision of broadband hasn’t even gone that mainstream.

But this is supposed to be an album review — what about the goddamn music?

Okay. So. Machina II. Good stuff? There certainly are moments.

If I read this correctly, the “album,” as it were, is really divided into three — two EPs and the album proper, all spread out over four vinyl discs.

The two discs that contain the album are the most cohesive set out of the entire work. The two EPs, on the other hand, feel like the outtakes they are.

“Cash Car Star” and “Let Me Give the World to You” screams “obvious singles.” It’s a pity neither song made it on a Pumpkins album proper. “Go” features James Iha on vocal, while “White Spider” goes for a Marilyn Manson-Nine Inch Nails vibe.

“Innosense,” on the other hand, sounded like something that was already written by the Pumpkins many times before. “If There Is a God” is nice if a bit pompous with all that reverb.

Since most of this music was born in the same sessions that produced MACHINA, Machina II pretty much sounds like that album. Not a bad thing at all, really — MACHINA is the most consistent album the Pumpkins produced since Gish.

In other words — if you really like MACHINA, you will like Machina II just as much.

At the same time, it’s difficult to perceive this album as little more than a companion. It certainly doesn’t feel like a proper follow-up, and for its price, it’s actually a pretty nice deal.