Record Roundup

various artists

L.T.J. Bukem Presents Logical Progression


Spring Heel Jack

68 Million Shades...

Trade 2/Island U.K.

          THE MINORITY STATUS of jungle (a.k.a.: drum & bass) music in the local dance underground is understandable, I guess: House and techno have been around much longer than this upstart British movement, and more importantly, they have genuine midwestern roots. But to judge from recent jams (notably the steamy multi-system party hosted by Inneraktive Nettwerx a couple of weeks back), local junglists are making themselves heard. Which is a good thing, since at its best, this swiftly mutating style is the most fascinating pop sound to come along in quite some time.

          Goldie's pop stylings aside, a young Brit trading under the name of L.T.J. Bukem would seem to be the standard-bearer of sophisticated drum & bass, with a domestically released 2-CD set that features tracks performed, produced, or selected by the artist with the spaceman parka and the book nerd specs. These are no accidental signifiers, either. The idea that this is brainy, futuristic music is one that marketers in the U.K. are pushing on older, first-generation ravers whose lifestyle no longer accommodates early-morning warehouse clubs and monolithic techno beats that engage your attention only at high levels of decibels and psychoactives, if then.

          There is a complex, icy elegance to the mostly instrumental music on Logical Progression. The cuts almost all feature the signature sound of "artcore" jungle, which is as much Bukem's trademark as anyone's: breakbeat loops built from skittering, hyperdriven snare snaps, assorted filler beats, speedy reggae basslines, and cool blue washes of ambient drones. It's an Irish coffee sort of effect, allowing you to either groove wildly or just space out and listen. And unlike so much dance music, this does repay close listening--at least in the beats, which are so intricate I find myself playing tracks over and over just to try and figure out how they fit together.

          Unfortunately, there is a disappointing sameness to the various cuts here, which is ironic in light of the liner notes trumpeting Bukem's "groundbreaking movement away from 'formulated' music." And with an endless sampling palette to color the beats, why are the ambient swells and the jazzy melody lines so cheezy? My guess is cynical marketing; since new age and jazz fusion are the only instrumental styles that move records in pop quantities, those are the one's junglists are drawing on. Get these guys Eno's Apollo and Rhino's new Masters of Jazz series and let's see what happens next time out.

          For Spring Heel Jack, it already is next time out. I never did get a chance to hear their debut LP, which wound up on the top-20 lists of a lot of British critics last year. But those of you who've heard the title track of Everything But The Girl's drum & bass-fueled Walking Wounded (or the new Tortoise 12-inch, "Galapagos #1," on Thrill Jockey) have heard SHJ's dark, dreamy production style. While outfits like Future Loop Foundation and Photek (who have a cut on Logical Progression, though it's not as good as their Hidden Camera EP) have been pushing jungle past Bukem's basic equations, 68 Million Shades... strikes me as the most intriguing drum & bass record yet. Rhythm-wise, the group likes to micro-manage, packing beats between beats between beats and using the old Jamaican dub trick of doctoring each stroke so it sounds like a barrage of dissimilar percussion. Melody lines snake up unexpectedly, cobbled from lazy, acerbic horn loops ("60 Seconds") or weird electronic flourishes and dissonance ("Pan"), working against the beats like salmon swimming upstream. And the set manages to avoid (or at least transform) the pedestrian fuzak references that mar the Bukem collection, crafting something warmer and altogether weirder. (Weirder still, if less fully realized, is Versions, a slightly shorter CD of 68 Million remixes that turns up the dub effects and moves even further away from jungle formalism.)

          Not surprisingly, U.S. labels are at a loss for what to do with this kind of music--which is why Island is pushing the just-O.K. Alex Reece record, So Far, stateside, but has no plans whatever to release 68 Million Shades... domestically. For all you post-punkers who'd forgotten the days when revolutionary pop came mainly from the import shop--well, it's back to the cash machine. (Will Hermes)

Greg Brown

Further In

Red House

          FROM THE CARTOONISH line drawings of pear-shaped torsos on its cover, you might think the title of Further In refers to the status of middle-aged navels--and in a sense it does. These dozen songs, nearly all of them gems, revolve around the theme of aging gracefully and tenaciously. To Brown, settling down is an honorable form of retrenchment, a plumbing into the old-fashioned verities of love and decency so that the physical and emotional attritions of life don't ulcerate our souls. It's navel-gazing with a broader purpose.  

          In more ways than one, you can file Further In under anti-Urban Contemporary. Disdain for modern technology and its fleeting gratifications is palpable throughout the disc. "Control nothing remotely," Brown urges his lover on "Think About You," his bullfrog voice scraping against his libido as he playfully mocks the lingo of electronics with a series of sexual double entendres. Set to a gorgeous, simplistic melody, "Two Little Feet" is about skipping a plane flight for a transcendent walk through the woods in the rain. Brown's bucolic lyrics and rustic sentiments are reinforced by a cadre of string players--on bass, violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and lap slide guitar--whose interchanges are as spare, clean, and sparkling as a mountain stream. On tracks like "China" and "You Can Always Come To Me," they stoke an intimate momentum of their own that overshadows Brown's contribution, which is no mean feat.

          With a facile wisdom only the best songwriters can muster, Brown smudges the lines between stress and easygoing humor, personal growth and political statement. He is imp enough to name the giddiest tune "Not High" and the most heartfelt love ballad, "Hey Baby Hey." He is perceptive enough to find new depths of saving grace in such universal song themes as the need to love your children ("If You Don't Get It At Home") and the romantic tension between two people already committed to other relationships ("Someday When We're Both Alone"). When all is sung and done, he remains the unpretentious sage of middle-aged white people, a musical Gary Snyder, representing the best and brightest instincts of a discredited boomer generation, demonstrating that not all is hypocrisy and deceit, elision and illusion. While Greg Brown has never made a bad record (the mediocre Dream Cafe came closest), this is his strongest collection since One More Goodnight Kiss in 1988, another masterpiece to guide the way as we head further in. (Britt Robson)



Spanish Fly

          WHEN SAUCER FIRST emerged as one of the most inventive and inspiring Minneapolis rock bands this decade, its strength was precisely that each of the four members seemed so essential in his or her own right. But times changed: Major-label talks faded, tensions heated up, and the band's first record, Emergency Exits, was never released. Singer/guitarist Pam Valfer left to form Kittycraft, and drummer Peter Anderson defected to Polara. Many found it absurd, then, that the Saucer name should carry on. But the survivors have persevered by overhauling and inverting the original Saucer formula, thus rescuing the group from a mid-life slump.

          The default core of Saucer is guitarist, ex-bassist, and mad scientist Howard W. Hamilton, III-- possessed as always with a vengeful, obsessive creativity--and first-mate guitarist Ted Kersten. With a new rhythm section, Saucer spins off with five strong studio tracks, two of them instrumentals. The best is "She Used to Be the Bomb," a glam tragedy that seems to be about the fall of a scene queen. The remaining 40 minutes of the record consist of 25 short living room recordings: song snippets and cutting-room floor scraps; spontaneous concepts and micro-epics. By the end, you've been treated to surf ("Lil' Hatchback"), junk jazz ("Nimbus"), and drum-machine pop ("The New Catatonic"), in addition to the usual space-and-fuzz guitar FX and electronic gadget tinkering,.

          The refreshing aspect here is how Saucer refuses to ride any whim to perfection. Whereas the old Saucer focused on drawn-out noise jams, the imploded band explodes their muse into innumerable fragments. We're left with 30 boundless, fleeting ideas rather than 10 or 12 fully formed ones, and it's actually a fair trade. If you don't like one idea, the next is a moment away. And while this comparison will be relentless, the effect is much like a Guided By Voices record, especially when Hamilton's and Kersten's voices unwittingly resemble Robert Pollard's.

          The only danger now is the possibility of Saucer going off the deep end and forgetting how to write real pop songs. Unless "She Used to Be the Bomb" is a fluke, there's little need to worry. At the very least, treat Saucer as a "Bomb" CD single with 29 bonus tracks. But to the more adventurous ear, it's more like a weird 30-scene film than a rock record. Upon repeated listens, the suite's logic comes clear, unreeling a unique plot in one's imagination. (Simon Peter Groebner)

          Saucer performs Monday at 7th Street Entry with New Radiant Storm King and Teen Idols (338-8388) and Friday, October 11 at Cheapo Records in Uptown (827-8956).

The Cardigans

First Band on the Moon



The Genius of Komeda

Minty Fresh  

          FOR THOSE WHO don't know, the lightness and precision of Life by Sweden's Cardigans (released earlier this year on Chicago indie Minty Fresh) stands as a benchmark for pop musicians and marketers alike. A cover shot of dimpled and beaming Nina Persson in a powder blue, fur-cuffed skater outfit is bookended by a shot of guitar sharpshooter Peter Svensson in a mobster get-up. And song after song, the album delivers the same mystique. Tight, textured compositions cleanly executed by Svensson and the boys are topped by tinkerbell lyrics of shameless glint. Artless coquetry like "me and friends in Daddy's car/ to find out how summers are" and "we were swingin' oh so nice" earned the band an apt zine description as "the planet's most erudite lemon-lime drink."

          So where can you go after achieving such intoxicating harmony of intent and content? The moon? Maybe. Or maybe just back to bed to nurse that hangover. The Cardigans major label release, no lunar triumph, suffers from an earnest impulse to come clean--to show us that our paper doll is indeed a real live girl. Against our wishes, we now meet a different Persson, one who has loved and lost, who smirks as often as she smiles, who does things like "beg" and "pray" for a man to "come on and fool me." The music on Moon shows Svensson still weaving gold through some exquisite arrangements like "Step On Me," with its Beach Boys guitar tone on a bridge build, Zeppelin's Rain Song chords on the verse, ukelele bend transitions and theramin slides on the chorus. The disco "Lovefool" is worthy of a Xanadu production number, and "Great Divide" backs a Disney-esque melody with strictly contained bursts of psychedelia. Why these songs are trying to be "real," rather than describing counting clouds or splashing around in a Midori glass, I'll never know.

          Komeda, another Swedish "image band" on the international rise, has yet to show a crack in its lustrous veneer. I first heard their music this summer on the sound system in a Chicago bar, and as soon as I began paying attention to it, the surroundings took on the sardonic yet uplifting contrivance of a Kubrick scene. I was suddenly gleaming, made of mylar, being distractedly lofted on high by spangled cocktail partiers in a 1950s sci-fi space station.

          Named for '60s film composer Krystof Komeda, the group's cool melodicism has earned them comparison to Stereolab, but the effect is strikingly unique. That is, don't come here looking for fuzzy drone and one-chord vamps. With almost Doors-style drama, this is pure revved retro, full of groovy, Kraftwerky machines that go bing and low, sharp go-go kicks. Unlike Stereolab's pretty dispassion or even Nico's smoldering vacancy, Lena Karlsson's rich contralto is deliberate to the point of dare. Where the Cardigans Life invites us to effortlessly tingle in a glamorous ultra-brite bubble, Komeda's ominous undercurrents evoke the suspense of a sexy secret, the courted danger of the surreptitiously suggested party game. Grab a drink, spin your spinner, and dig the genius--while it lasts. (Laura Sinagra)


John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey

Dance Hall at Louse Point



          I DON'T KNOW where Louse Point is, but it's not near the sheep farms of Yeovil where Polly Jean Harvey grew up, nor the English beach house that she currently calls home. It more closely resembles the landscape of war-torn Bosnia, where even the most private acts are vulnerable to danger and betrayal. Listening to Dance Hall at Louse Point is like reading a first-person account of slaughter and atrocity, only the subject is love, not war.

          A collaboration between Harvey and longtime friend Parish, Louse Point is a new PJ Harvey album in everything but name. Parish, who co-produced To Bring You My Love and contributed guitar, organ, and percussion throughout, has written the music here; but it's Harvey's lyrics and vocal contortions that carry the day. The angry guitar attack of "Taut" and "Heela" are like blasts from an open furnace, to which Harvey adds a claustrophobic sense that lust edges her closer and closer to damnation.

          Even more harrowing is "Rope Bridge Crossing," a psychotic blues shuffle that finds Harvey trying to navigate herself to safety while cursing the assurances of a fickle lover who stands on the other side. Even when Harvey attempts to put a cold, distant spin on a sour relationship, she works herself into a froth: On "Civil War Correspondent," she tells a lover to "save your tears for the next who dies" and then promptly loses her patience, growling her blueswoman's complaint that "I shout but he don't hear."

          Whether it's the near-hysterical falsetto on "City of Sun" or the quiet, seething anger of "That Was My Veil" ("Give me back my veil/Give me back my life"), Harvey seems distraught over the wreckage of yet another love gone wrong. The only song where Harvey completely keeps her cool is a cover of Peggy Lee's bit of nihilistic kitsch, "Is That All There Is?" The church-revival organ is a bitter joke, since Harvey knows, in a way that Lee only suggested melodramatically, that love, life and even death fail to deliver salvation.  

          Accepting this, Lee chose to drink and dance the night away, while '80s art-superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat drugged himself into oblivion (Harvey's version of "Is That All There Is?" also appears on the Basquiat soundtrack). On Louse Point's closing track, "Lost Fun Zone," Harvey sounds like she's settled on her own course: She expected love, but she's willing to console herself with one last round of rough sex: "Take me one more time," she repeats over and over, each line working its way higher, until the slide guitar that's driving her wild stops cold and her voice goes silent. (Keith Moerer)


Agenda Item 1

Severed Records

          A WORD ABOUT Own's violin/cello instrumentation: With much underground rock getting so boring lately, musicians, fans, and critics have adopted an instant fetish for anything that isn't guitar-bass-drums. You don't need fresh ideas to get attention now--just work a Moog, violin, cello, et al. into the same old formulas. That's not what Jane Anfinson, electric violinist of Own, is about. Not merely copping trad instruments for novelty, this trio comes from the opposite direction to prove the gee-tar isn't the only kind of strings that can tie down pop.

          Not that you would really call Own "pop," either. Anfinson's deceptively simple vocal phrasings bypass verse-chorus conventions, and the songs run from three to nine minutes long. The mix tries to bridge the gap between chamber music and rock noise, though it sometimes comes out raw, echoey, and strange. Anfinson's violin is alternately mystical, anxious, and ambient, while Michael Severens's electric cello cuts a fat groove like a grungy, distorted bass. Agenda Item 1 is at its best ("Queen," "Agenda Item 1," "Rocks") when the shifting dynamics between Anfinson, Severens, and drummer David Lewis build into explosive peaks.

          Anfinson's first major appearance as a singer/lyricist is a fair success. It's hard to forget the exuberant alto's artsy roots when she sings a dissertation on the animal nature of human lust ("Appetite"), but Anfinson's lofty muse never reaches embarrassing proportions. Own seems to thrive on the contrast between beauty and ugliness--and Agenda Item 1 is for those willing to hear pop on a higher creative plane. (Groebner)


God's Musicians


          GARMARNA, AN ELECTRIFIED Swedish folk group, make American folk music seem awfully down-to-earth. Where are our trolls, knights, and werewolves? Such subjects are among the pleasures of the group, whose ominous melodies are carried in Swedish with glorious enunciation by Emma Härdelin (whose voice sounds a bit like The Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan, though far less annoying). Fretful violins and viola wind through the album, along with jew's harp, lute, hurdy gurdy, samples and synth bleats, and powerful drums that conjure images of ragged warriors rounding the horizon.

          It took a while to click, but within 10 minutes of listening to the group's sophomore effort I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, sketching a stone castle overlooking a barren sea. Later I found out that the CD's first song is in fact about a princess who escapes to sail away with her pauper lover. Coincidence? Latent D&D urges unsatisfied in junior high? Sure, sure. But this is potent, insinuating music. Critics have made much of the group's use of distorted guitars and samples to perform what are often ancient songs. But what's really striking is how subtly they integrate them. Not one instrument sounds strange or out of place; not one is used ironically. And Garmarna are equally serious in singing about haunted forests and women dying of broken hearts. If they make you suddenly feel that it is a deep and mysterious thing to be human, it's no accident. This is folk music at its best. (Kate Sullivan) CP

          Garmarna perform Wednesday, October 9 at the Cedar Cultural Centre; 338-2674.

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