By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Over the steady throb of bassist Zak Sally, Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker still sang their wistful harmonies with the patience of parents rocking sick children to sleep (something they'll be doing soon; the pair expects their first baby this winter). But their instrumental approach had taken a turn with the willfully experimental 1997 EP, Songs for a Dead Pilot, which built up quiet compositions with Optigan organ and strings before stripping them down to ambient noise or empty space. Such additions and subtractions weren't made lightly on Secret Name. "It's easy to bring in strings," Sparhawk says, "but it's another thing to find a place where they really fit. We didn't want it to be extraneous."
In contrast to the chilly pall of Dead Pilot, the new songs radiated an almost familial warmth, emanating mostly from the Fifties pop progressions at the core of each tune. But the mood might also be a reflection of the unusually close atmosphere inside the studio, where Albini's friends were building a new room. "I remember actually having Thanksgiving at the studio with everyone working there," says Sparhawk, laughing at the memory of his first exposure to vegan stuffing.
Even Sparhawk's typically nondescript lyrics flowered, becoming both vivid and direct while retaining the concision the band prizes in all aspects of its music. Fans who once snickered as he mumbled sardonically about "too many words" now leaned in close to catch every one. They were rewarded with such evocative couplets as the opening lyrics of "Soon": "Soon it will be over/I laughed under my breath, over your shoulder."
For Low, the album represented both the realization of previous ambitions and a sonic path for the future. "We've got this distant, vague picture in our mind of how we want things to sound and the feel of what we want to deliver," says Sparhawk. "And I think Secret Name is the closest we've ever come to the ideal that I've had in my head." (Anders Smith-Lindall)
See also: the convention-smashing noise-pop of Better Off Airport's Vivre.
The independence of musical acts from their mentors is a risky business. As often as not, when a band forgoes the guidance of creative buoys, its ambition exceeds its ability, and the musicians stray from their strengths into new and treacherous musical waters. But when the demise of Perspective Records (owned by Flyte Tyme's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) deprived Mint Condition of not only their record label but also regular access to Flyte Tyme's studio and production acumen, the sextet responded with Life's Aquarium, its sharpest, most varied and free-flowing album yet.
It didn't hurt that the group has always written and performed nearly all of its own material with a full, self-contained band, or that the musicians had gradually taken a greater role in the production of their previous three discs. But what's remarkable about this year's debut on Elektra is how playful and confident the ensemble sounds.
"What we did is tested a lot of songs, went to clubs and let the people pick their favorites," says singer Stokely Williams. "We all have separate studios, and we wanted to really capture the moment this time. We've usually done our demos [at home], then gone into Flyte Tyme to really get the quality right. It turned out great, but the demos have always been better."
The approach netted a loose-limbed immediacy that had been constricted on their previous albums. Life's Aquarium sounds closer in spirit to Mint's live sets, where feel-good, old-school funk numbers ("Touch That Body") and edgier hip-hop inflected tunes ("Who Can You Trust") are as memorable and sweet as the lush ballads that crowd the group's hit parade.
Beyond that, the preference for fun over quality control let these old friends from St. Paul explore a wider range of styles and instrumental wrinkles during Aquarium's nine-month gestation. "Spanish Eyes" is a squirrelly, tango-funk romp complete with handclaps and accordion. The unlisted "hidden tracks" include a campy blend of West Indian and Latin rhythms called "Decuervo's Revenge" and a Princely funk-blues number, "If We Play Cards."
Top it all off with lyrics that roam easily from bugged-out skits to "keepin' it real" romantic narratives that avoid bitch/gat rhetoric, and you've got a record that lives up to Stokely's current definition of the band. "The R&B style is our base, but [we also have] hip hop from the South, a soft acoustic thing, and we've got a little rock 'n' roll thing. It's a fusion of everything." (Robson)
See also: the dubby funk of the Sensational Joint Chiefs' Lost Stepchild and Vanguard's soulfully comic Play.
Woody McBride/various artists
Strangely Arranged, Volume One
Woody McBride is a pioneer in local rave culture, one of the first DJs to take techno into the warehouses of our aging mill cities. What's more, he put Minnesota on the genre's world map, cutting 12-inch singles that are as familiar to European and Japanese clubgoers as any Top 40 hit. Under the handle ESP, McBride spun, composed, and produced a blisteringly hard, relentlessly funky acid-techno throb. Bombast became his calling card.