By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
THE OLD ADAGE "No sex please--we're British" was always bunk. The British love sex. Check their pop music history: From Bowie to Boy George, Morrissey to (Suede's) Brett Anderson, the male sexual eccentric has reigned for decades. Enter Jarvis Cocker, Pulp's frontman and the U.K.'s latest media darling. All skinny limbs and floppy fringe, Cocker comes off as a disco-friendly Morrissey, a scene-maker bold enough to disrupt a recent Michael Jackson performance on the British Music Awards in front of millions of TV viewers and get arrested for his trouble. Suffice to say, a star is born.
His N Hers, Pulp's 1994 major-label debut, laid out the blueprint: Cocker's droll, sing-song delivery buoyed by Candida Doyle's bubbling antique keyboards. On Different Class, Cocker ups the ante, taking heavy-breathing pleasure in his first-person role-playing, as voyeur ("Underwear"), adulterer ("I Spy") and a combination thereof ("Pencil Skirt"), while a sort of lo-fi Roxy Music soundscape floats in the background. For the most part, Pulp is Jarvis Cocker, and he peddles his shameless self with the charm of a gawky swinging single, a naughty-minded 32-year-old teenager. "It's not chocolate boxes and roses," he mumbles and purrs on "F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.," "it's dirtier than that."
Pulp now carries the soiled torch of glamour once held by Marc Almond, who's been treading similarly sleazy ground for more than a decade. This British cult star loves to flirt with mainstream success (he brought "Tainted Love" to the masses) as well as obscurity (anyone know the sales of Absinthe, his 1993 album of covers sung entirely in French?), and mixes a little bit of both on Treasure Box, a double CD compilation of 12-inch remixes, B-sides, and demos. While most such compilations cater to avid fans only, Treasure Box provides a coherent and surprisingly catchy overview of Almond's late '80s tenure with EMI, with enough emphasis on drum machines and keyboard hooks to keep the uninitiated interested. Leaving his mid-'80s cabaret dreariness behind (most of it teetered on unlistenable), Almond frosts these tales of street waifs and doomed bullfighters with enough glitz to make his hedonistic lowlifes almost becoming; he presents his own share of voyeurs ("The Sensualist") and adulterers ("A Lover Spurned"), while exploring even darker alleys than Pulp. Between Treasure Box's commercial sheen and Pulp's current success (A Different Class debuted in the U.K. charts at Number 1), record-buying Brits seem bent on quashing their prim image once and for all. (Matt Keppel)
Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti
IN 1945, FOLKWAYS Records founder Moses Asch commissioned Woody Guthrie to document in song the tale of Sacco and Vanzetti. The two Italian immigrants, both anarchist labor organizers, may have been wrongly convicted of murder, and were executed in Boston in 1927. Compare their case to O.J. Simpson's: Their trial featured a publicity circus, questionable witnesses, tainted evidence--even a hat that didn't fit--and it too brought a nation's deep social divisions to light. Compare the music Guthrie made to the recently released Dead Man Walking soundtrack, with its themes of dignity, justice, and capital punishment. Better yet, compare these songs to The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen's Guthrie-esque look at the still-hot issues of immigration and worker exploitation. Whatever you compare it to, the newly reissued Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti--with its 50-year-old songs and 70-year-old story--is as relevant today as ever.
With only his rambling guitar and raw voice, Guthrie offers 11 takes on the first "trial of the century." Using stock folk melodies and techniques, the songwriter starts by painting a backdrop of post-war prosperity and growing worker unrest ("The Flood and the Storm"), then introduces characters ("Two Good Men"), tells details of the trial ("Suassos Lane," "You Souls of Boston"), explains political motivations ("Red Wine"), reports the city's mood ("Root Hog and Die"), relays the men's last plea of innocence ("Vanzetti's Letter"), then ends by musing on a world full of misunderstanding ("We Welcome To Heaven"). A people's poet if ever there was one, Guthrie never combined humanism and politics better than he did here; few album reissues have been more worth hearing. (Roni Sarig)
Message From Home
THE GREAT PHAROAH'S first major-label release in 12 years begins with a 10-minute novocaine riff-and-chant titled "Our Roots (Began In Africa)" that should disappoint listeners who remember when Pharoah broke genuine African American jazz ground with records like Thembi in 1971. But the next five tracks sparkle. "Nozipho" juxtaposes Pharoah's scalding tenor sax lines and fidgety meditations against a delicate, New Agey acoustic backdrop mobilized by bassist Charnett Moffet. On "Tomoki," Pharoah slides into the slipstream of producer Bill Laswell's burbling, spacious funk mix, occasionally frothing the waters, while "Ocean Song" has a deeper, more beautiful liquidity--a procession of keyboard and percussion effects, McBride's brooding bass, Pharoah's sunrise sax calls, a piano solo that pretends to be a harp, Michael White's violin accents, Pharoah's sunset prayer, and a smattering of bird samples and metallic crickets. "Kumba" is a contemporary African folk tune featuring the sage dignity of kora-playing griot composer Foday Musa Suso, who hijacks the disk for eight minutes with his own crew of singers and instrumentalists. And "Country Mile" closes up the project on a buoyant note, its smooth, juju-oriented grooves shot through with some of Pharoah's finest bull elephant shrieks. Even more than the fat white beard and a big grin that this 56-year-old Coltrane disciple sports in his publicity photo, those long, guttural cries attest to his good humor on this mostly celebratory return. (Britt Robson)