Yearly Archives: 2002

Grunge jazz, redux

Back in 1994, Seattle-based jazz keyboardist Wayne Horvitz jumped on the grunge bandwagon and formed perhaps the only “grunge jazz” band around.

For three years, Horvitz and his group, Pigpen, combined the improvisatory fire of John Zorn’s Naked City with the sonic sludge of the Pacific Northwest’s rock and roll calling card.

No — it wasn’t as scary as it looks in text. If anything, Pigpen produced far more interesting recordings than Zony Mash, the project Horvitz pursued after Pigpen ran its creative course.

Jump cut, five years later, to Japan.

Whether by design or by coincidence, LOSALIOS has picked up where Horvitz left off.

The quartet is something of a supergroup. Nakamura Tatsuya was drummer of the hugely popular Blankey Jet City. Guitarist Kako Takashi plays with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, while bass player TOKIE performed with Nakamura’s bandmate Asai Kenichi in AJICO.

Performing nothing but instrumentals, LOSALIOS superimposes fiery improvisation over grunge guitars.

This quartet isn’t merely a rock ‘n’ roll jam band — they’ve woven dissonant, disjointed improvisation into their sonic pallete.

The band’s second album, Colorado Shit Dog — no idea what a shit dog is and why it’s from Colorado in particular — traces a more direct lineage to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew than most jazz-inspired rock albums (or rock-inspired jazz albums).

It’s almost impossible to differentiate between TOKIE and Kako — they’re playing is so locked, it’s as if they’re thinking with one mind.

Saxophone player Takeda Shinji does a marvelous job providing a foreground voice to the mix, but he can blend in with the insanity of the group’s noise-making when need be.

Through it all, Nakamura holds everything together with a rock solid drumming. Even when he’s pounding a difficult rhythm, he doesn’t let his bandmates’ liberal noodling interfere with his timing.

That solidarity serves the group well on such tracks as “Coganemushi”, where effects pedals blur the band into a reverb-drenched mush, or “Snake and Steak”, where a tricky compound meter leaves no room for tonality.

Some tracks play it straight, such as the surf-inspired “Hit Man” or the dramatic “Blue Black”.

But for the most part, tracks such as “Palakeen” — in which the band accelerates to revved up jam — epitomize the nimbleness of LOSALIOS’ collective improvisatory skills.

Most of the musicians in the band may have cut their teeth in rock ‘n’ roll, but they make for one hell of a jazz ensemble. Colorado Shit Dog is a fine introduction to a band that doesn’t make “grunge jazz” sound so scary.

Open letter to Number Girl

Not that anyone should complain, but — what the hell happened to Bugy Craxone?

In 2000, the Hokkaido-based trio released an album (Yuganda Ao to Tsukenai Kanjoo no Soko) steeped in the all the best 90s alt-rock had to offer — malleable dynamics, metallic riffs, a pouty lead singer who can turn seductress to banshee on a dime.

Although solid songwriting gave Bugy Craxone a credible foundation, the band epitomized commercial alt-rock.

Two years and one garage rock revival later, Bugy Craxone

has ditched all of that. Now, they

just want to be Number Girl.

And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

“Fuck the Melancholy”, the opening track on the band’s latest long-player Northern Hymns, begins with a rhythm taken straight from Number Girl’s “Abstract Truth”. After singer Suzuki Yukiko enters with a snarl, the rest of the song plays like Number Girl’s best moments — thundering drums, dischordant guitars, even a screaming backing vocal during the chorus.

In fact, Northern Hymns feels like an open fan letter to Number Girl. Bugy has turned itself into a garage band, trading in its more ambitious complexities for a straight-forward, visceral sound.

Oikawa Tsukasa’s guitars are dirtier, more dissonant. Suzuki sings with total abandon, while drummer Miki Hiroshi pounds on his set with a single-minded determination.

There are even tell-tale signs of hero worship, such as the feedback noodling at the start of “Free Throw”, the rhythmic solidarity of “War Is Me”, the headbanging ferocity of “Sayonara Sunday”.

But this isn’t just mere imitation — Bugy Craxone has keyed into the main component of Number Girl’s appeal, a loud-is-more aesthetic that at heart emphasizes simplicity and clarity of statement (even after Dave Fridmann got a hand on them).

There are signs the Bugy Craxone of Olde is under there somewhere — the melodic majesty of “Your Sunrise”, the intimacy of “Hibi no Awa”. “Kurete Hana”? Let’s just say Mukai Shuutoku has seldom written in compound meter.

Even if it isn’t Bugy Craxone’s intention to bow a hat to Mukai and crew, Northern Hymns is definitely one of the most passionately performed rock albums released this year. It’s also refreshing to witness a band do a complete sonic makeover.

Familiarity breeds distress

When Yaida Hitomi first debuted with her buoyant “heart rock”, she balanced the fickle demands of Japan’s pop audience with the more emotional and creative terrain staked out by the likes of Shiina Ringo and Cocco.

She wrote ear-catching, high-octane songs stamped with a individual identity.

But there’s nothing like familiarity to breed distress.

Yaida’s second album, Candlize, sharpened the pop instincts and watered down the rock exuberance of her debut. With album No. 3, I/Flancy, that exuberance is pretty much an after-thought.

Not that any of this matters to the Original Confidence charts — Yaida’s releases consistently top the charts, putting the singer between the proverbial rock and hard place.

I/Flancy shows Yaida has clearly chosen to maintain chart success at the expense of her creative growth.

She deviates not one bit from the template that’s brought her fame. She’s working with the same producers, she’s playing with the same band.

It’s a comfortable arrangement, and one that still yields something of a satisfactory listening experience.

Yaida still has a sharp ear for melody, as evident on “Mikansei no Melody”, “Ring my bell” and “Dizzy dive”, all of which were released on singles. In the past, Yaida’s singles were weaker than some of her album tracks.

“I really want to understand” and “I can fly” show influences of the recording sessions’ locale — in this case, Dublin, Ireland — to great effect. “I can fly” is probably one of the few Japanese pop song to incorporate Uillean pipes.

When Yaida punctuates the chorus of “Ashita kara no Tegami” with the English lyric “I don’t want to stay”, the heart in her heart rock really comes through.

But for all of the good songwriting on the album, it’s not enough to keep a listener familiar with Yaida’s work interested. Yaida has gone as far as she can go with Diamond Head, her backing band and production team since day one.

Her songwriting deserves new challenges, and I/Flancy just isn’t it.

You know you’re right

While listening to a co-worker rant about the merits of a Nirvana greatest hits album, I said: “Didn’t Nirvana already release a greatest hits album? It was called Nevermind.”

It’s easy to get cynical about Nirvana’s influence on rock ‘n’ roll history. Without Nirvana, there would have been no Pearl Jam, and hence no Creed. Conversely, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer would have one less subject to run his scientific analyses of ideal pop songwriting.

It’s also easy to get cynical about how said self-titled greatest hits collection came to be. For all intents and purposes, Nirvana is pretty much a CD single of the last song the band recorded. Damn those legal wranglings! And damn those file sharing whippersnappers!

But put the work of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl in a subjective vacuum, and it’s also to easy why Nirvana is lionized even today.

Put simply: damn that “Sliver” song is mighty fine.

Aside from “You Know You’re Right”, there’s nothing on Nirvana which fans haven’t already heard or don’t already own. That means this release has more use for people whose Nirvana collection begins and ends with Nevermind. (Yeah, I’m talking about myself.)

Although Nirvana’s major label work occupies the most real estate on the disc, the band’s earliest songs possess the most charm. Credit that to a lack of studio sheen later applied by Butch Vig on Nevermind and supposedly avoided by Steve Albini on In Utero.

Oddly enough, it’s the tracks from Nevermind that seem the most labored. Retrospection is an funny thing — at the time, Nevermind seemed unassailable, but in context of the band’s other work, it sounds as commerical as it became.

In the disc’s liner notes, writer David Fricke recounts how Cobain said he ran out of songs and had to start from scratch after In Utero. With “Rape Me” and “Dumb”, Cobain was starting to echo himself, as “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comparably demonstrates.

But before Nirvana’s star even had a chance to set, the story ended. Cobain recorded one last song and joined that “stupid club”.

Even as a stop gap measure before the release of an alleged boxed set, Nirvana does a satisfactory job of capturing the big picture. It may not tell us anything we don’t already know, but it certainly does remind us how things were may not have been what they seemed.

That’s a round about way of saying I ought to get Bleach.

Clarity of vision

Despite having worked with a myriad of producers and despite the progressive upward arc of her work, the best word to describe Björk’s music can be taken from the title of her third solo album: Homogenic.

“Homogenic” is usually used as a pejorative when describing a musician’s work, but as demonstrated on Björk’s Greatest Hits, the Icelandic singer has managed to ground her work in a single aesthetic, even when she’s bouncing from collaborator to collaborator.

On their own, Björk’s albums have felt like autonomous works, individual collections that share some similiarities with each other but diverge greatly in the detail.

There’s no mistaking the half-baked skeletons of Debut for the richly realized epics of Homogenic, nor the bizzare minimalism of Vespertine.

But when the different creative eras of Björk’s work are collected onto one disc, the similarities become more striking than the differences.

If the strings on “Hyperballad” were given more prominence, they would have fit nicely on Homogenic. If “Possibly Maybe” employed more esoteric samples, it could be mistaken for a track on Vespertine. “Hunter” from Homogenic and “Hidden Place” from Vespertine almost sound like they came from the same album.

Even the more radio-friendly songs — “Human Behavior”, “Army of Me” — fit snugly in Björk’s grand singular vision.

The non-chronological track listing goes a long way in stringing together Björk’s diverse output. Instead of presenting her career as a progression, Greatst Hits posits the influences which inform her music — an orchestral foundation supported by fluttering beats — has always been there.

Björk fans were solicited to vote for the collection’s track listing, a tricky proposition since a musician’s most popular works aren’t necessarily their best. (Case in point: Japanese band L’Arc~en~Ciel’s Clicked Singles Best 13.)

For the sake of continuity, remixes of certain tracks — “All Is Full of Love”, “Big Time Sensuality” — were chosen over their original versions. A smart move.

Even a brand new song, “It’s In Our Hands”, manages to weave itself seamlessly into what’s gone before.

At the time, it seemed Björk was taking steps to become the artist she is. In fact, she was become more of the artist she already was.

In a way, Greatest Hits rewrites Björk’s own history. She didn’t arrive at her aesthetic so much as she settled into it.

Revisionist history

U2 would like you to forget a lot of things.

When the band released Best of 1980-1990 back in 1998, they wanted you to forget four Dublin lads barely out of their teens could hardly play their instruments, let alone write music.

Boy? October? What are those?

They’re trying to pull the same stunt again.

With Best of 1990-2000, U2 wants you think they’ve improved upon some of its missteps, learned from its mistakes. But covering up mishaps only serves to shine a harsher light on them.

What’s more? Some of these improvements don’t improve a thing.

No, “Discotechque” was not a shining moment in the band’s history, nor was it a very good single. But it was interesting and certainly something that deserves attention in a career spanning retrospective.

But the “new mix” of the song on Best of 1990-2000 sounds worst than the original. So too with “Numb” — that song was one of U2’s wildest and best moments, which the “new mix” strips of its charms.

Guys, take a lesson from the late-Brandon Tartikoff of NBC — if ain’t broke, don’t fucking fix it.

The problem with being the biggest band in the world is that even when they’re trying to admit their shit does stink, they still act like it doesn’t. What U2 chose to include and exclude shows it still hasn’t found what it’s looking for.

“Gone”, which also sports a “new mix”, has fascinating guitar effects, but it’s no “Elevation”, which didn’t make the cut. “The Fly”, also one of its least successful singles but most interesting moments, is also absent.

U2 did do one thing right — they left “Lemon” off. Man, did that song ever suck.

Like the re-recording of “The Sweetest Thing” before it, the new songs on Best of 1990-2000 — “Electrical Storm” and “The Hands that Built America” — don’t contribute to the continuity of the collection. In fact, they’re not even terribly memorable.

Unwittingly, The Best of 1990-2000 demonstrates U2’s humanity. Even when they’re trying to rewrite history and present itself in the best light possible, they’re still fucking up left and right, doing some things wrong and a lot of things right.

They’re still running on instinct, as they have for the past 20 years. And even if that instinct tells them to hush things up when they shouldn’t, at least they’re following their gut.

I hope.

Different name, same music

For once in his life, Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes actually garnered good reviews for his work.

The British press actually looked kindly on The Devils, Rhodes’ side project with the Lilac Time’s Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy.

Of course, Duran Duran historians know the significance of this pairing — Duffy was one of Duran Duran’s first singers, before the then-upstart band recruited Simon Le Bon as a frontman.

Dark Circles, the result of this pre-historic reunion, does the unlikely job of transporting Rhodes and Duffy back to their past, while grounding them in the now.

(Diety help me not use the word “electroclash”.)

For Duranies salivating at the prospect of a new studio album featuring Duran Duran’s original line-up, Dark Circles is a playful appetizer, a collection of robotic, deadpan pop as familiar as it is new.

I’m not impressed.

For all its retro-charm, exaggerated excess and, to its credit, orchestral scope, there’s something utterly lifeless and forgettable about Dark Circles.

At some points, Duffy could be mistaken for John Taylor, whose own solo albums sport weak singing that’s alternately charming and grating.

Rhodes, unfortunately, has been trapped by his own stubborn refusal to let Duran Duran go into that good night. Even though Dark Circles sounds like it’s played on different instruments by different people, at its core, it’s a Duran Duran album.

The guitar work even apes departed axeslinger Warren Cuccurullo, and those two aren’t even on good terms! If that’s not Tessa Niles singing back-up on these songs, that woman certainly sounds like her.

Don’t buy it? Exhibit one: “Come Alive”. Forget for a moment the conversely-titled “Come Undone” — the intro sounds alone sounds like “Girls on Film” redressed.

Maybe the British critics are right. Perhaps there’s something cool and unusual about the Devils.

And yeah — I’ll be the first to admit I’m a lapsed Duranie totally skeptical about the upcoming reunion.

But despite my own attraction to robotic rhythms, strange effects, soulful back-up singers and piercing guitars, there’s something too familiar about it all. In short, Rhodes has gone as far as he can go, and even working with friends from days of olde isn’t enough to shake it up.

Head music

Although clocking in at 35 minutes, John Vanderslice’s Life and Death of an American Fourtracker sounds more realized than most albums twice as long.

On the surface, Vanderslice sounds like one of those precocious indie rock types, a knob twiddler with a burnished voice and large vocabulary. But his snappy songwriting is underscored by an even-handed orchestral sensibility.

Right from the noisy, dissonant start of Life of an American Fourtracker, Vanderslice’s third album, it’s evident the chamber music flourishes on “Fiend in a Cloud” or “Me and My 424” aren’t merely after-thoughts. Even when he uses drum loops and sythesizer effects, Vanderslice treats them with an orchestrator’s touch.

Life and Death of an American Fourtracker has been alternately described as a song cycle or a quasi-concept album. Vanderslice’s obtuse lyrics don’t serve to thread a thematic element through the album, but a compositional arc does tie the album together.

Tracks segue into one another (“The Mansion” into “Nikki Oh Nikki”; “Greyhound” into “Interlude #5”), and hints of a later track (“From Here On”) are introduced close to the beginning of the album (“Interlude #4”). Then, Vanderslice ties everything together by reprising the album’s opener.

Impressive? Shouldn’t be.

For quasi-concept albums, this kind of intra-track interplay is normal. It does, however, serve to keep a listener engaged through all 35 minutes of Fourtracker, regardless of any implied theme.

Vanderslice’s scratchy voice fits well within the lo-fi context of the album’s production value, but like those classical underpinnings in his songwriting, his diction hint at something far more lofty.

Smart though Life and Death of an American Fourtracker may be, Vanderslice doesn’t sacrifice the pop song at the heart of all the studio finesse. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the chain gang percussion and ominous drones of “Nikki Oh Nikki” impress your inner Ingram Marshall — not when Vanderslice insists “We’re going to die/We’re going to die”.

Life and Death of an American Fourtracker offers a lot more than most troubadours produce without being overly sufferable about it.

Unlike this review.

Night music

The title pretty much says it all.

The Late Album.

Best played after hours, when the clubs are closed, the children are asleep and there’s nothing good on TV.

David Poe, like namesake David Mead, traffics in the kind of six-string storytelling not allergic to a radio-friendly melody.

In a just world, tracks such as “Echo Box” and “The Drifter” would reveal John Mayer for the treacly bullshit artist he really his. (Not that “Your Body is a Wonderland” doesn’t already do that.)

Poe’s deep, smokey voice serves him especially well on “Deathwatch for a Living Legend”, a country-tinged romp told through the eyes of a hard-drinking, hard-living star. Poe lets your imagination fill in the blank: Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

But it’s when Poe dresses down with little more than brushes on a drum that his songs really shine.

When Poe sings the title lyric of “Your the Bomb”, he lets the understatement of his delivery reinforce the overstatment of the slang. The watery guitars on “Never I Will” gives his voice a cool, ethereal setting.

“Love in the Afternoon” could almost be mistaken for one of Bill Frisell’s more melodic moments.

Poe’s crooner tendencies are less pronounced on “The Late Song (Je Ne Suis Pas Mort)” and “Wear Your Best”, but the intimacy is no less there.

The Late Album’s mainstream appeal might make it a difficult sell at first, but it doesn’t take long for Poe’s hushed performances to draw a listener in and, ultimate, seduce.

Play it whenever you feel like it.

Your new favorite band

News flash! Asylum Street Spankers go electric!

No, not really.

But if the Austin-based vaudevillean ensemble attempted to recreate some of the sonic acoutriments on its latest long player — the confidently-titled My Favorite Record — on stage, it would need to plug in a sampler.

My Favorite Record is the first album the band has released for another label since its well-publicized battle in 2000 with Watermelon Records. The band and the label sparred over master recordings of the Spankers’ first albums, which has since been reissued on Bloodshot.

(The group formed its own label, Spanks-a-Lot, that year and has released a number of EPs, live recordings and solo projects by itself.)

My Favorite Record feels like a proper follow-up to 1999’s expansive Hot Lunch. Both recordings share the fidelity of a studio project.

In some ways, My Favorite Record feels like the umpteen-member ensemble have gone through some creative downsizing of its own. In the past, the Spankers leap-frogged from jazz to country to blues to comedy to Hawaiian to … you get the idea.

The new songs focus more on blues and roots music. It’s not as wildly diverse as previous albums, but that clarity gives the album a forceful confidence.

Asylum Street Spankers can be jokesters, but they can also be poignant when they wannabe. In the past, those moments of gravity didn’t fit so snugly with the band’s pranks.

This time around, those moments don’t feel so incongruous. The sweet sentimentality of “Smile” doesn’t seem out of place next to the honky-tonk imagery of “Wingless Angels”. The playfullness of “The Minor Waltz” serves as a nice lead-in to the smoldering “No Song Sad Enough”.

Of course, the Spankers are best when its offering biting commentary on modern foibles.

Donning on his best Dashboard Confessional, Guy Forsyth vows to take up any and all political causes for the loftiest of all goals — “to get in bed with you”.

Wammo indulges his inner Ozzy Osbourne on “Wammo’s Blues”, bragging how he’ll “go on a blind date to Disneyworld with Charles Manson, Loreena Bobbitt and Lizzy Borden and … still be the only one who gets naked”. That’s before he “suck[s] the formaldehyde out of the jar holding Kurt Cobain’s brain while using Hemingway’s shotgun as a straw”.

The band gets most ambitious on the album’s title track. Half way through the song, the Spankers turn into John Zorn, splicing parodies of metal, Mike Patton and doo-wop (“oh, baby sit on my face ‘cos I love youuuuuuu!!”), concluding with its own version of a skipping needle.

The confidence of the album’s title isn’t misplaced. My Favorite Record is the Spankers’ tightest studio effort yet, and it deserves many multiple spins.