Yearly Archives: 2001

Not a guilty pleasure

Big ass disclaimer in first-person perspective (you hate reading ’em, and I hate writing ’em, so let’s get it out of the way):

If I were forced to listen to rap-rock, I’d like it to be more heavy on the rock than the rap. But that’s just me.

I don’t channel hip-hop culture, so that portion of a rap-rock equation will be lost on me no matter how good the artist is. Which means I’ll take uninformed potshots at Limp Bizkit and Korn while practicing a double standard idolizing Rage Against the Machine and Missile Girl Scoot.

Now that you know from where I’m coming, I can now safely proceed to give RIZE a favorable review.

This Japanese trio is a rock band first. The guitar riffs are pure metal. Bassist TOKIE delivers some Zeppelin-worthy lines, even busting out an electric upright to give her part something subtle and special. Nobuaki Kaneko, meanwhile, grounds everything with drumming that’s both solid and all-over-the-place.

Even though vocalist/guitarist Jesse spends most of the recording rapping in a raspy, bleach-drenched holler, he does at least to attempt to sing — and I use that term somewhat loosely — some choruses.

The results aren’t too bad on such tracks as “Music”, “Why I’m Me” and “Rocks.” Then again, with riffs as big as these, the last thing RIZE needs is a Really Good Singer. In short, Jesse does his job pretty damn well.

RIZE’s debut album, Rookey, is the kind of recording you either really dig ‘cos you’re into rap-rock, or you hate yourself for liking ‘cos it is rap-rock.

But don’t let rough-hewned rap delivery hang you up — RIZE knows how to rock out. It’s all there in the guitars.

Beautiful thing

Okay, okay. The cliché-writing critic in me has to get the following sentence out of the way. I won’t rest easy if I don’t. Ahem:

If you like Mazzy Star, you’ll love AJICO.

There. I said it. And right away, I’m shaking my head at the inaccuracy of the remark.

Granted, AJICO does share with Mazzy Star some crucial similarities: a slow, haunted, atomspheric sound; a compelling lead singer; great songs.

But singer UA is not Hope Sandoval.

UA’s rich, husky voice immediately calls to mind Patti Smith or Marianne Faithful. When layered over Asai Kenichi’s reverb-drenched guitar work, AJICO resembles more closely the psychedelic influences that inform both groups.

On the opening title track of Fukamidori, UA delivers one of the most bluesy melodies in her career, stamping it with a distinct emotional charge. “Lake” has the quiet intensity that gave Erik Satie a permanent place in the western music repetoire. The eight-minute “Hadou” builds with a “White Rabbit” sense of proportion, only to conclude with Doors-like improvisation.

But not all is moody and grey, mean and restless. The grungey “Utsukushii Koto” (“Beautiful Thing”) approximates what the Velvet Undergroud might have sounded like if they wrote conventional rock songs. “Freedom” breaks the general solemnity of the album with a bouncy, sugary hook. “Garage Drive” thump-whacks along with a “Pretty Woman”-esque bass line.

When the mood does lighten up, Asai takes over vocal duties with a rough, nasal tenor that suites the group’s classic rock tendencies as well as UA’s deep alto. When the two voices join on “Utsukushii Koto,” the combination is astounding.

Fukamidori is a terrific debut, and with UA at the mic, listeners can rarely go wrong.

Hero worship in the best sense

The ’60s have been over for what? 30 years now?

But as the recent chart-topping success of The Beatles #1 demonstrates, the third to the last decade of the previous millenium refuses to go into that good night.

So what to make of Love Psychedelico?

This duo from Japan are so enamoured of their Jefferson Airplane, Rolling Stones and Revolver-era Beatles records, lead singer KUMI even affects a British accent in her Japanese. They’ve even titled their debut album, The Greatest Hits.

Love Psychedelico so faithfully recreate a vintage sound, right down to wheezy organs, clanging klaviers and jangly, twangy guitars, it’s amazing to think anyone in the world would go so retro so hardcore. (Only the drum machines give them away as a modern band.)

Under unskilled hands, this kind of sound could result in true evil, but Love Psychedelico not only manage to avoid nostalgic gimmickery — they make their sound totally work.

Credit that to the group’s incredibly strong songwriting and KUMI’s soaring vocals. Tracks such as “Your Song”, “Lady Madonna”, “Moonly” and “Nostalgia ’69” never tire with repeated listenings.

Even when shades of the past get a bit too familiar — the chorus of “I miss you” is almost a note-for-note quote of “Ruby Tuesday” — Love Psychedelico never fall into the trap of blind hero worship.

If anything, the group has done the miraculous achievement of honoring the past by creating new works in that same idiom. Sort of like folk singers who aren’t afraid to set traditional Gaelic waulking songs to techno beats.

Brings new meaning to the term “idol pop.”

Without a net

Jon Crosby does something remarkable on Music for People.

He’s managed to take music from a whole lot of influences and turned them into a cohesive work.

Critics have already been wetting themselves over VAST’s Music for People for good reason. This album jumps from anthemic rock to metallic thunder to lush string arrangements to everything in between, without a single two-second pause between tracks.

The opening strains of “The Last One Alive” call to mind Starfish-era Church, but when that opener segues into the album’s first single, “Free,” Crosby turns into a throat-bursting powerhouse, proclaiming his freedom at full volume. Afterward, Crosby retreats and almost turns into Boy-era Bono during the majestic bridge of “I Don’t Have Anything.”

And that’s just the first three tracks. As the album progresses, Crosby processes even more diverse sources. There’s a sliver of an Engima reference with a Gregorian chant-like sample on “What Else Do I Need.” “Blue” features an etheral piano and string arrangement that’s equal parts Lou Reed and Paul McCartney. “Land of Shame” even moves along on a shuffle beat.

Music for People is a sonic rollercoaster ride never on the verge of flying apart, even when your eyes tell you it should.

The only criticism that can be levied on the album is it’s relatively indescript mix. With such a work with a broad range of dynamics, it almost seems a shame that the guitars don’t buzz louder or the strings sweep more broadly.

But hey — that’s what volume knobs were made for.

Bono vox

There’s a moment on Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that erases any doubts that a listener made a right purchase.

It happens toward the end of “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.” Polly Jean Harvey hits a stratospheric note with blood-curdling precision, and yet her husky voice gives that wail-like tone a ruddy color.

And that pretty much speaks volumes to what Harvey does with her voice throughout this album.

Within a single track, Harvey can move from gutteral chant to sweet croon, from quiet deadpan to soaring falsetto, from introspective whisper to forceful directness.

And the songs on Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea provide ample opportunity for Harvey to flex her remarkable control.

The album starts off with Harvey practically bellowing at her audience on “Big Exit,” but when the chorus hits, she delivers a pristine soprano. Later, she draws in on “One Line,” layering her voice in an ethereal choir.

And just when you didn’t think Harvey couldn’t do any better, along comes Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to accenuate Harvey’s more bittersweet range.

Although Harvey is an excellent songwriter in any setting, it’s the harder tracks on Stories that leave a more lasting impression.

Her wail sounds wonderfully eerie on “Kamikaze.” “Is This Love” has one of those dirty grooves that just feels way too fun, and the appropriately titled “We Float” features a chorus that does exactly that.

But PJ Harvey the songwriter isn’t the star on Stories — it’s Harvey’s incredible vox.

Britain’s would-be best

There are a few things preventing Supercar’s Futurama from being one of the best British pop albums to be released in 2000.

Supercar isn’t from Britain, and Futurama isn’t sung in English.

Of course, the same could almost be said if Supercar were based in the States and did sing in English — it doesn’t prevent Futurama from sounding like it came from a Manchester rave or a London garage.

Supercar is really from Japan, as the band’s lyrics attest, but the group’s gorgeous sonic tapestry of buzzing, industrial guitars, techno beats, and square-wave synthesizer effects is far more international.

The Sony press machine compares the band to Lush, the Cranes and Psychocandy-era Jesus and Mary Chain.

Well, it’s a better description than I can come up with, even if it’s still slightly inaccurate. Think of a more electronica-friendly, less-grungey Garbage.

Supercar achieves the kind of balance between rock and dance that major labels were so desparately trying to find back in 1997, when alternative rock really started to leave a bad, putrefying smell.

If anything, Supercar does labelmates Boom Boom Satellites one better by writing actualy tunes.

“White Surf Style 5” is like a Beach Boys song on poppers. “Baby Once More” indulges in the lyrical minimalism of the best club music while employing twangy guitars. “Flava” sports effects that call to mind space-age lounge music, while “A.O.S.A.” sounds like it could have come from Everything But the Girl’s distant garage rock cousins.

“New Young City” features some really nice string arrangements that Jon Crosby probably cosmically channeled while recording VAST’s Music for People, while “Fairway” buzzes to an incessant dance beat.

Bassist/vocalist Nakamura Koji sings like he has a British accent — although not as heavily fake as Love Psychedelico’s Kumi — and his cool croon suits Supercar’s metallic but warm sound.

Aside from being a widly diverse and original work, Futurama is also incredibly cohesive, even as it pulls in 20 directions at one time. It’s an ambitious work that’s skillfully written as it is wonderfully performed.

Louder, darker, better

It’s easy to gush over the Brilliant Green’s first two albums. The Brilliant Green and Terra 2001 are both very competent albums, sporting solid songwriting and very spirited performances.

But after a while, the shiny happy jangle pop of “BuriGuri” doesn’t allow a listener to really rock out.

The trio’s third album, Los Angeles, is quite a proverbial kick in the arse.

The band sounds alternately angry and haunted on this album, even when they attempt to retain the brightness of their first two works. But that louder, darker sound works.

“The Lucky Star” starts off quietly with a heavily distorted vocal, then bursts into a roar. “Yeah I Want You Baby” continues that outburst with some of the grungiest guitars the group has ever produced.

“Sayonara Summer is Over” and “Falling Star in Your Eye” take baby steps back to the lighter BuriGuri of the past, but other tracks such as the reverb-drenched “Hidoi Ame” and the solemn “Kuroi Tsubasa” ground the band in its beautiful blue funk.

Los Angeles concludes with “I can hold you hand, baby,” a blues-y, atmospheric track worthy of Mazzy Star.

It’s as if something happened to The Brilliant Green since it’s last album to give the world the sonic equivalent of an upraised middle finger, but they’ve wrapped that finger in a diamond-studded velvet glove.

This time around, only the song titles are in English. Singer Kawase Tomoko sings in Japanese on this album, and while the rest of band set the amplifiers to 11, Kawase maintains the sweet core that made the BuriGuri’s earlier songs such pop confections. Now, she’s the element that makes the band’s harder songs go down easier.

Los Angeles finds the Brilliant Green growing up and expanding. It’s nice to see a band that continues to top itself after achieving high after high.

Seek and ye shan’t find

Here’s a new metric to determine the popularity of an artist: the number of users sharing files on Napster (before all the filtering, of course.)

The more popular an artist, the more files will be shared.

Someone looking for songs by Metallica or Dr. Dre won’t have nearly as hard a time as someone looking for, say, Yoshida Chika or Nina Hynes.

If Napster popularity were a measurement today, the availability of Oblivion Dust files says something about the group’s output.

Of the Japanese rock quartet’s four albums, the one most shared by users is Reborn and deservedly so. But it seems Reborn is the only album anyone’s purchased — Reborn’s predecessor, Misery Days, shows up occassionally, and the band’s debut, Looking for Elvis, pops up as often as the Halle-Bop comet.

So what does any of this babble have to do with Oblivion Dust’s most recent album, Butterfly Head? Well, if popularity and availability are directly proportional on Napster, quality and availability share no relationship whatsoever.

Butterfly Head is good. Probably just as good as Reborn and definitely better than Misery Days. But it’s damn hard to find it on Napster. (Try Audiogalaxy instead.)

OD’s latest offering contains much of the same elements as Reborn: big riffs, memorable hooks, some synthesizer effects for that Orgy/Nine Inch Nails reference, and singer Ken Lloyd’s rebeller-than-thou lyrics.

Lloyd still sounds like the distant Japanese cousin of Orgy’s Jay Gordon, but his vocal timbre is appropriate for the Japanese-English mix of post-grunge, Reznor-influenced rock. On “Designer Fetus,” he channels a bit of Billy Corgan.

About the only misstep — and it’s a microscopic one — is the hip-hop break in the middle of “No Regrets.” But for the rest of the album, Oblivion Dust lay heavy on the guitars.

“Designer Fetus” has a chorus that just won’t go away even when you want it to. “Forever” has a really nice guitar part. Even the overly produced “The Nude” fits well on the album.

Butterfly Head is some decent rock ‘n’ roll. Nothing mind-blowing like VAST or even Number Girl but certainly enjoyable in a late-90s sense. You’d think more people would be sharing it.