Record Roundup

Porno for Pyros

Good God's Urge

Warner Bros.

           TWO SUMMERS AGO, while working on Good God's Urge, Perry Farrell told an interviewer, "I'm proud of [Jane's Addiction]. It's on a level that I won't be able to reach again because I'm not what I was in [that band]. The balance is that what I lose in energy, I gain in wisdom."

           Now, that could be the excuse of a lazy genius for producing lame work, or the strained rationalization of someone who has lost favor with the muse. Perhaps it's just the honesty of a man who's lived hard and, having become caregiver to a child, has decided he'd rather fade away than burn out.

           For those who have loved his work and worried for his health, the bottom line is that Perry Farrell is still alive, and still thriving on change. His frightening brilliance with Jane's Addiction may be strictly a memory, but his words above aren't entirely bullshit: Farrell is maturing, with subtler emotions, a more wide-ranging love of sound, a richer sensuality. That old feminist heart and infatuation with danger are intact, but Farrell's left Los Angeles and entered the World--or, rather, another world.

           With Good God's Urge, he watercolors a sun-drunk seascape of dolphins, islands, and tides that nearly drown him (literally: "Tahitian Moon" was written after Farrell tried to save a friend from the surf off Tahiti). Perhaps when one has glimpsed the edge of mortality, the pleasures of this life go technicolor; whatever the cause, this album is utterly pleasure-seeking. But too often the bliss seems private, something only between the musicians, and the listener feels like she's only catching echoes of some underwater party. The melodies are more drowsy than catchy, the rhythms lulling, not rousing. The violence and epic beauty of Jane's Addiction are history, but so too is the impish fractiousness of Porno for Pyros' first record.

           Guest appearances try to perk things up. Love and Rockets contribute to "Porpoise Head," the opening track; Mike Watt shows up here and there on bass; and Chili Peppers Flea and Dave Navarro (ex-Jane's Addiction) stamp their indelible prints onto "Freeway." A yearning Eastern European clarinet quivers on "Wishing Well," an apparent tribute to Farrell's dad, and a mariachi-style trumpet on "100 Ways" serves to remind us that, after all, this is still an L.A. band. (It's one of several overt love songs--and you know something's up when Farrell writes a love song without drugs, death, or threesomes.)

           For all its inventiveness, the album ends up only as very fine background music; great for an outdoor music fest, drug trips, or summer sex. Sure, one only need listen to its weakest track alongside the Chili Peppers' "Aeroplane" to remember that, when it comes to philosophizing L.A. rock survivors, Perry Farrell is as smart and talented as they come. But we all know he's better than this. (Kate Sullivan)

Nas

It Was Written

Columbia

           WITH HIS RHYME-within-a-rhyme tongue-twisting and Rakim monotone, Nasir Jones emerged from the Queensbridge housing projects in New York City to make one of the most chilling rap albums of the '90s, 1994's classic Illmatic. Taking in his surroundings with a hooded gaze, he saw nihilism merely as realism, a state of mind at the heart of his chart-topping new CD, It Was Written. Unrelentingly grim, yet rich in convincing details, this weaker follow-up about drug life is a step beyond the gangsta pulp diction that seems finally to be receding--Nas is appalled by what he sees, but he avoids "consciousness" in favor of red-eyed stream-of-consciousness. He won't let a message break his flow.

           It Was Written comes like a summer movie blockbuster, and a sequel, no less: Expectations are met with even more complex rhymes, stars are in effect (from AZ to Jojo Hailey of Jodeci), and formulas followed--from the cinematic slave-revolt intro (ever notice how rap albums are taking longer and longer to get started?) to the inevitable rhythm & blues crossover hit (the utopian "If I Ruled the World," with Fugees diva Lauryn Hill honey-dipping the chorus). Dr. Dre guest produces and makes East-West peace on "Nas Is Coming," but otherwise the album's strongest cuts come near the front and back. "Street Dreams" is a brilliant gangsta twist on the Eurythmics' tune, while "I Gave You Power" tells a spellbinding story from the point of view of a gun: "I see niggas bleedin'/runnin' from me in fear/stunningly tears fall down from the eyes of these so-called tough guys." The loops are East Coast-eery, straying from soft soul to sample orchestral easy-listening music and Chuck Mangione (?!).

           Still, It Was Written lacks the variety and leanness of Illmatic: A solid hour of "more money, more murder" may sound great in a cloud of Linx, but I found myself playing selector to skip the depressing revenge fantasies and ho-bashing. But the street buzz is justified by the solid songs contained within, and the young rapper's stupefying mic skills. You can get as lost in the rhyme gymnastics as Nas clearly is. (Peter Scholtes)

Ray Price

San Antonio Rose

Koch

           It's just about impossible not to like an album that starts off, "Hi neighbors, this is our new album...," especially when it's followed by songs as friendly as those on San Antonio Rose, Ray Price's recently reissued "Tribute to the Great Bob Wills." Wills is worthy of the tribute: A Texas fiddler of the '30s and '40s, he earned his place in American music history when he and his Texas Playboys virtually invented Western swing, the southwestern big-band country sound that combines elements of jazz and blues into the hillbilly mix (and anticipates early rock & roll). And Price is just the man to do the honoring: A fellow Texan who began his country career in the early '50s as a Hank Williams disciple and imitator (he even fronted the Drifting Cowboys after Hank's 1953 death), Price came into his own in the mid-'50s after embracing Wills's Western swing sound and peppering it with more contemporary honky tonk stylings. By September 25, 1961, when Price and band (which featured a young Willie Nelson on bass) cut the record in two four-hour sessions, Wills's influence on the singer was well-established, and had proved highly successful.

           Unlike Merle Haggard's 1970 Wills tribute, Price's homage didn't spur a Western swing revival. But with a classic country sound--twangy steel guitar, mournful fiddle, blue yodels--songs like the title track, "A Maiden's Prayer," along with a handful of Fred Rose tunes originally done by Wills, put today's Nashville product to shame. Though Price went on to make schlocky easy listening pop, San Antonio Rose remains the testament of a great singer to a even greater stylist. When Price ends saying, "...I want to thank you for being so kind to listen," he should know the pleasure is all ours. (Roni Sarig)

Electronic

Raise The Pressure

Warner Bros.

           DANCE MUSIC TRENDS spoil faster than skim milk. So why does the late '80s time capsule of Raise The Pressure, Electronic's second release, fare on the better side of average? Chalk it up to perfect craftmanship.

           Formed five years ago by New Order frontman Bernard Sumner and ex-Smiths guitar virtuoso Johnny Marr, Electronic (and its eponymous '91 debut) captured the zeitgeist of the rave explosion with its merge of guitar riffing over loads of sequencers and drum machines. But contrary to many airheaded peace-and-love anthems of that era, heavy on beats and bereft of melody, Electronic made pop song structure priority number one.

           Raise The Pressure follows that assembly-line blueprint for electro-pop. But with a load of real drums and Marr's careful, tight guitar work, it's surprisingly light on the pre-programming, quite the switch from the groove-heavy electronics of Electronic. Distorted robot vocals open up "If You've Got Love"--a voice which may well belong to Electronic's new guest star Karl Bartos, one of the man-machines of the '70s German synth pioneers Kraftwerk, who co-wrote half the songs with Sumner and Marr and contributes stark, sparkling keyboards. (Incidentally, a comeback release from Kraftwerk is due any day now.) Sumner's numb but endearing vocals and simpleton lyrics have been both his glory and his weakness. Does deadpan emoting translate to lack of interest on the dance floor? With the mainstream success of New Order and Electronic, it appears not.

           Trailblazing was never the mantra of Electronic. Visit dance music's realm in another five years: Sumner and Marr will still be making their distinct brand of cheesy, shimmering ditties in a cozy, anachronistic bubble, smiling and oblivious to DJs around the globe spinning something daring and fresh. (Matt Keppel)

Finn Brothers

Finn Brothers

Discovery

           WITH THE LONG history of fraternal feuding in rock--from the Everly Brothers to the Kinks' Davies duo to the Gallagher boys of Oasis--it's nice to see a pair of musical siblings who can't seem to get enough of each other. Ever since 1977, when Tim Finn invited his little brother Neil to join his modestly successful new wave outfit, New Zealand's Split Enz, the two have set separate courses in pop music that keep bumping into one another: Tim went solo in '84 and Neil took over Split Enz; two years later Neil broke up the band and formed Crowded House; Tim joined Neil's band in '91. This year, with interest in Crowded House long since waned, their self-titled debut release finds the Finns "going duo."

           Finn Brothers is a modest, understated album that successfully combines the conventional beauty we've come to expect from Neil's melodic work with Crowded House and the eccentric charm typical of Tim's edgy post-art rock Split Enz. So where the warbly synth of"Eyes of the World" is all new wave Tim, "Where Is My Soul"'s piano balladry reeks of popster Neil. "Only Talking Sense," meanwhile, does pretty well at combining Tim's angular minimalism with Neil's plaintive croon. But just when we begin to think we've heard it all before, the Finn brothers give us the bossa nova bounce of "Mood Swinging Man" and the tango sway of "Paradise"--evidence, perhaps, that the lounge revival has reached down under.

           Ultimately, though, it's Neil--the better singer and songwriter of the family--who makes the album memorable. Maybe that's why, more than any past rock sibling, the Finn brothers remind me of the unrelated Simon and Garfunkel. Which, come to think of it, explains a lot about Tim's less-than-inspiring solo career. (Roni Sarig)

Steeplejack

Kitchen Radio

Dejadisc

           WHOA, PARDNER. THIS alt-country thang is shore gettin' outta hand, innit? Ween just released a country album, for cryin' out loud, while C&W samples are turning up in everything from hip hop songs to the new Beck album. Let's just hope the recent twang influx doesn't obscure the integrity of Steeplejack's Paisley Park-recorded debut. Actually, Kitchen Radio isn't that twangy. And local songwriters Ben Connelly and Andy Sullivan, a couple of over-educated, wisecracking drinking buddies, are far from urban cowboys. Steeplejack itself is nothing more or less than a seasoned pop-rock band, souped up with a few "traditional" instruments (on which, if the lightnin' fiddle and banjo-pickin' on "Panning for Gold" is one of many indications, they've earned their chops).

           Besides, if "country" hints at music with local color, Steeplejack's got that aplenty. But they're not limited to check-ins from the road near Albert Lea and Bismarck. Back home in Minneapolis, Sullivan bemoans the traffic jam up and down Lyndale Avenue, and evokes the familiar loneliness of walking through Whittier in the dead of winter night. In "5'9" & Rising," Connelly gleefully channels winter frustration into the escapist fantasy of a new Ice Age. (The band's Texas record label must get a kick out of that one.) After all, in this town, you risk spending the winter alone if you don't get into the November-to-May love cycle--hence Sullivan's "Panning for Gold" analogy. Later on, Connelly's title-track yarn of a man considering suicide is both creepy and compelling.

           So, if the record suffers from anything, it's the absence of an epicenter to pull it all together. The Sullivan-Connelly songwriting duel contributes a schizo presence to the album, as does the contrast between Connelly's throaty barfly storytelling and Sullivan's earnest, near-feminine tenor. On the other hand, the pair's complementary skills come together in a versatile, backward and forward-looking band--one which piles on the hoedown velocity and the rock-band crunch, but mercifully, never at the same time. A fun, if somewhat random collection of impressions for us (not entirely) common people. (Simon Peter Groebner)

           In stores Tuesday. Steeplejack performs at 7th Street Entry on Aug. 17; call 338-8388.

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