Artists Of The Year

Beni Matias is director of The Center for Arts Criticism.

LIONROCK W/MC BUZZ B

by Jeff Salamon

Tricky deserves all the props he gets, but when it comes to socially-conscious trip-hop, sometimes I'll take the merely somber over the hopelessly bleak. When I wanted that in 1996, I put on Lionrock's "Straight at Yer Head," off their An Instinct for Detection CD (Deconstruction import). "I want to taste a new dessert/To see how other people work/To see them irrigate the dirt/With water from a bank," MC Buzz B raps at the song's beginning, setting a tone of curiosity that's unusual in popular music. The couplet that follows--"I took my tape and tape recorder/And made my way up to the border"--establishes a journalistic sensibility that, along with Buzz's throaty, slow-mo delivery, places you in Gil Scott-Heron territory. The backing track is loping and spooky, and you feel yourself settling into a narrative master's hands. Then you're rudely brought up short: Buzz completes his AAAB rhyme scheme with the lines "Where I received a legal order/From a man who drove a tank." The border patrol in question is no Sphinx or wizened Gatekeeper who'll reward wit or wisdom; shove off, he tells our narrator, "the only way to enter is with gold."

After the first verse, the song loses its specificity, but never its sense of calm outrage (though never actually mentioned, Buzz's skin color is a subtext here). Oddly, most of Instinct for Detection is made up of the sort of techno/wordless dance music that, in my 30s, I've wound up embracing in a flight from rock's incessantly-teenaged lyrical concerns. Yet here, of all places, I've wound up renewing my faith that pop music might still have something to say. Which is as good a buzz as I've gotten all year.

Jeff Salamon is a writer currently living in Austin, Texas.

PARKER POSEY

by Matt Keppel

"I think I'm a Martian," Parker Posey said in an interview this year. "The distance appeals to me." The statement seems appropriate coming out of the saucy mouth of this 28-year-old actress. So many of the characters she has played--Mary Boone, the manipulative art gallery owner in this year's Basquiat; or Mary, the club kid-cum-library clerk title role in last year's Party Girl--have an eccentric, deadpan distance that plays up Posey's best assets, namely a sarcasm sharp enough to cut glass.

A Laurel, Miss., native educated at SUNY, Posey sped through the commercial pap of her early acting years (the teen brat Tess on As The World Turns being a good example) to reach character-actress royalty in the realm of indie film by the mid-'90s. Time and again she winds up as the sole redeemer of mediocre indies (1995's Kicking and Screaming, Frisk, The Doom Generation) and even the highlight of more successful fare (Hal Hartley's Amateur and Flirt). Starring in no fewer than six movies set for release in 1997, including the eagerly awaited Richard Linklater adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play subUrbia, it should prove to be manna from Posey heaven. Considering the backlog of films she has in-waiting, do you think her sass and skills will win over any new fans? If not,who cares? "I would like to get really big and huge so I could go to space. I would like to be the first actress in space," she says, "You think they would let Barbra Streisand go in the space shuttle if she wanted to?"

Matt Keppel is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.

THE DIVAS OF SWEDISH POP

by Simon Peter Groebner

Sweden, a country inhabited by only 8 million people, produced a ridiculously high number of pop records in 1996, many of them among the year's best. Deconstructing American and Anglo pop-forms with exotic production and compositional talent, the best "Swedepop" bands had about three things in common: shared memory of the loungy jazz-pop of '70s Swedish children's TV; the inexplicable ability to sell thousands of records to hip teens in Tokyo; and finally, astonishingly delightful vocalists.

To wit: Singer Lena Karlsson's stoic elegance complimented the genius of Komeda (Swedepop plus Krautrock), who are succeeding in America after a decade of obscurity at home--perhaps because Americans are so hot for irony these days and Komeda are one of Sweden's few, juicily detached players. Jennie Medin gave a warmer glamour to Linkoping's Cloudberry Jam (Swedepop plus Solid Gold Soul), who are big in Japan but hopefully not too romantic for future acceptance here. Emma Härdelin summoned the spirits of ancient Norse god(desse)s in folk-rockers Garmarna (Swedepop minus 300 years), who draw heavily on tradition without conceding an ounce of modernity. Solo songwriter Sophie Zelmani's major-label debut was a peculiar mix of Stockholm and Nashville. And I'm just getting started.

But if anyone is the unwitting icon of the 1996-97 Swedepop Explosion, let it be Nina Persson of the hitmaking Cardigans. "Who else do you think she sounds like?" asked the friend who introduced me to her alternately defiant and lulling alto. The answer, in fact, is no one. I'll defer the discussion of her comeliness to Details, except to say that the way she uses her sexuality is by practically refusing to. In the seven months between the Cardigans' two U.S. albums, Persson morphed from the famously cutesy snow queen on the cover of Life (which was tongue-in-cheek, silly) to the smart satirist of bad relationships on First Band on the Moon; that angelic coo only sharpening her barbs. Knowing Americans, we may still dismiss the band as novelty. But c'mon: If the best rock heroine the Angry Woman backlash can produce is No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, aren't we ready for something with a bit more substance and style? My advice: look to Sweden.

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