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)
Offbeat: A Red Hot Sound Trip
ONE OF THE many interesting things about the new DJ/electronic music movement has been a reemphasis on the art of making albums rather than just songs, using the full length of a CD (or often two) to create an expansive sonic environment/ narrative. This set, another in the series of AIDS-education/benefit recordings put together by the Red Hot Organization, presents a bunch of progressive musicians and sound sculptors in just this way. And it's quite the head trip.
Caveat emptor, though, to those who would grab this for the starpower of its lineup. Moby's "Republican Party" is a few minutes of tape loops of drunks laughing and babies crying (get it?), David Byrne's collaboration with cut-up conspirators Tomandandy is a slight spoken-word/sound collage piece, and the track credited to "Mark Eitzel Meets My Bloody Valentine" is a 50-second mix of drone and poetry that sounds made up on the spot. (The other cut featuring MBV, a highly ambient collaboration with Skylab, doesn't offer much more explanation of what they've been doing in the five years since their mind-bending Loveless, except perhaps lots of drugs.) There are some moments that stand out--a groovy jam by Midwest abstractionists Tortoise, a trip-hoppy rap by Laika, an abstract meeting between DJ Spooky and poet Amiri Baraka ("Black Dada Nihilismus"), and a stream-of-caffeinated-consciousness workout by Soul Coughing. The full effect, though, transcends the sum of its parts. Offbeat draws you into a cubist world where meaning and music get cut into discrete planes, and where, if you close your eyes and give it some creative attention, you can build a reality of your own liking. (Will Hermes)
Van Morrison with Georgie Fame & Friends
How Long Has This Been Going On?
VAN MORRISON'S INFATUATION with jazz has been going on for quite some time, actually--although it's always been overshadowed by his love affair with R&B. As far back as Astral Weeks, furtive jazz elements were lurking in the shadows. But How Long is Morrison's first jazz immersion. It's a plunge into standards and jazz arrangements of some Morrison tunes, and features an agile band of British musicians: fellow vintage jazz/R&B fanatic Georgie Fame, former James Brown sax stalwart Pee Wee Ellis, and notable jazz vocalist Annie Ross.
It's not the triumphal arrival of some new Celtic jazz, but it is a bright and swinging collection that rises and falls on Morrison's vocals and, to a lesser extent, the band's versatility. As a singer, Morrison can wring emotion from a tune, which he does in fine style on bluesy fare like "Early in the Morning." And few can milk such dramatic flair out of the spaces in phrasing as Morrison does on the introspective "Who Can I Turn To?" But his vocals embellish tunes rather than reinvent them, and his failure to improvise with the expansive ingenuity of a pure jazz singer like Jon Hendricks is the album's lost opportunity. Still, Morrison hints at it, scatting at the end of an initially desultory, but later marvelous "Moondance," and with Fame on "Heathrow Shuffle." Another frustration is the band's reluctance to really stretch out, although it swings nicely most of the time: A jaunty, hipsterish swagger through Cannonball Adderley's "Sack O' Woe" is a delight, along with a sizzling "Blues in the Night" and Mose Allison's jiving "Don't Worry About a Thing." Venturing out of the mystic and into the jazz realm seems to have revived Morrison's enthusiasm for musical fun and adventure--at points it sounds like Van still wants to be the Man. (Rick Mason)
IMAGINE IF ALL the artistic gin and juice flowing in American G-funk--the ear for vintage sounds and loving attention to detail--were somehow pipelined across the oceans to fuel its whitebread opposite: Swedish cocktail pop. You'd no doubt get a band nearly as good as the Cardigans, a hyper-stylized quintet so cool they put their name in the plural (an American band would call itself "Sweater") and have already sold something like 400,000 copies of their second CD, LIFE, to those savvy kids in Japan. While hip-hoppers get blunted on '70s soul, these Swedes indulge their love of jazzy '60s pop with songs that make catchy, danceable sense on their own terms, but sound either quaint or trippy when compared to anything else.
Singer Nina Persson's voice is so silky and assured, you can get lulled into believing that LIFE is what all pop records sound like: shapeshifting guitars, keyboards, horns, flute, strings and percussion, all cheerfully trading compliments. (The band claims Swedish children's television music as an influence.) Still, the happy factor can overwhelm: Any CD that begins with a "Carnival" and ends with a "Happy Meal" will have problems with creeping alienation; I suggest small doses. Like the cover-sleeve photo of Persson, all dimples and teeth, posed on her belly in a fluffy ice skater costume, some of the songs are at once exquisite and banal. But the plasticness betrays a seeping melancholy in the lyrics, as when Persson, on "Sick and Tired," croons, "symptoms are so deep/something is so wrong" over the most perky riff imaginable.
LIFE isn't too deep, though, and the Cardigans can't touch the lyrical impact of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, their anti-rock labelmates in Minneapolis who released their epochal debut last year. But the switches in mood and setting between the songs on LIFE do begin to suggest a story. I imagine a movie musical about a sad girl who tries nearly everything to have a little fun--a road trip to Amsterdam ("Daddy's Car"), some head-bobbing in a trip-hop tent ("Our Space"), and the inevitable cocktail party ("Gordon's Gardenparty")--before she realizes that her problem isn't where she is but who she's with. So she chills to a Black Sabbath cover in a hotel lounge ("Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"), dumps her boyfriend and gets a new one ("Happy Meal").
Swan-diving into waters tested by the Pizzicato Five and Stereolab, the Cardigans make dance music Inspector Clouseau could get down to. And if this American debut is a bit emotionally restrained, think of this as merely the first wink in a long transatlantic seduction. (Peter Scholtes)
Manfred Hubler & Siegfried Schwab
Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party
FOR DIE-HARD FANS of low-budget cult cinema, Jess Franco is among the great directors, his style somewhere between European versions of Roger Corman's mondo sexploitation and Andy Warhol's hardcore improv. His films--Vampyros Lesbos, The Devil Came From Akasava, She Kills In Ecstasy, all starring Franco's doomed Spanish seductress Soledad Miranda--perfected "horrotica," a mélange of B-grade horror and twisted erotica. By collecting original music from the films' soundtracks, Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party pays tribute to Franco, Miranda (who died in a 1971 car crash), and the films they made together.
German composers Manfred Hubler and Siegfried Schwab, recording as Vampires' Sound Incorporation, created music sufficiently groovy and go-go to accompany Franco's freaked-out vision. Their crazy sounds (released on record in 1970 as two separate albums, Sexadelic and Dance Party) are a speedy swingers' orgy of blaring trumpet, booming trombone, slinky organ, and spacey sitar, with a beefy foundation of basic mod guitar/bass/drums. Instrumentals like "The Lions and the Cucumber," "Droge CX 9," and "The Six Wisdoms of Aspasia" manage to be psychedelic both in the way of the Doors' spooky, bad-trip rock and the Fifth Dimension's fizzy, up-up-and-away pop. Music ripe for the current cheese revival, Sexadelic Dance Party falls somewhere between the glorious lounge orchestrations of Esquivel and the cheap Casio-funk porn music championed by bands like the Beastie Boys. It's just one more interesting nugget mined from the overflowing heaps of past decades' trash culture. (Roni Sarig)
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
THE VIDEO TO Los Fabulosos Cadillacs' 1994 "El Matador," one of South America's most popular rock hits this decade, had singer Vincentico lying in a coffin in the middle of a colorful funeral procession, looking uncannily like Johnny Rotten and surrounded by shimmying Latin women. The camera jump-cut through Catholic saints, whorehouses, ghost town barrios, and slow-motion death-squad bullets spilling blood onto jail cell floors, but somehow it all came off like a carnival, a veritable fiesta. Los Cadillacs' newer "Mal Bicho" video is even more violent-cow corpses on crucifixes, whip-cracking dominatrices, steak being sliced, then a band assassination one by one, onstage. This time the singer looks more like Eric Burdon. Somebody dressed as a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Hitler shouts out "Mambo!" and people dance in the jail cell blood, splashing red everywhere.
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are nine guys from Argentina whose best music sounds as erotic, hilarious, and destructive, as simultaneously disco and punk, as those two videos look. Last year's best-of CD, Vasos Vacios, had a percussively upgraded remake of The Clash's "Revolution Rock," a Rancid/West Side Story hybrid called "V Centenario," and a Celia Cruz salsa cameo, plus various detective-movie horns, vocals-imitating-maracas, and drunken "Yankee Doodle" parts. Rey Azucur's "Mal Bicho" is mainly just a lesser clone of Vacios's titanic "El Matador," but it's still one of 1995's most complex singles: Revolving around a hard-rocking avalanche of marching-band drums dancing in and out of tropical rhythms, horns punctuate in two different directions as Vincentico's pretty high voice alternates with a harsher low one, both laughing and chanting and speed-rapping Spanish.
Despite a few unexceptional genre exercises, the rest of Rey Azucur is loaded with surprises. Mariachi-chatter reggae bounces into skinhead moshpit pogos; Black Sabbath rumbles speed toward bongolated Eurodisco; roller-rink organ echoes old spaghetti-western soundtracks; and Vincentico winds his wail into voluptuous Arabic bellydances. Clash and Talking Heads alumni and Jamaican toaster Big Youth lend a hand, and even Debbie Harry coos sweetly along to a ska "Strawberry Fields Forever."
The noise and eclecticism seem to arise naturally from the music's core; it's not like the band's showing off. Maybe the secret is that Los Cadillacs are crossing over to loud angry rock from Afro-Caribbean rhythms, not the other way around--just like a fistfight breaking out in front of a dance club makes more sense than a dance breaking out in front of a fight. (Chuck Eddy)
The Gray Race
IN THIS PERPETUALLY decadent civilization, hardcore punk will always feel both tragically ahead of its time and quaintly anachronistic. For its part, Bad Religion has been reeling around pointing fingers to the blunt but surprisingly tuneful cadence of three-chord thrash for more than 13 years now, spouting impossibly earnest, clunky political diatribes and rallying cries that are either blatantly obvious or poetically impenetrable, like the opening lines of The Gray Race's "Them and Us": "Despite that he saw blatant similarity/He struggled to find a distinctive moiety/All he found was vulgar superficiality/But he focused it to sharpness/And shared it with the others/It signified his anger and misery."
Fans of this seminal L.A. "underground" band, including this writer, forgive them such tripe because it's so honestly tortured. You can tell they believe every word, in part because lead singer Greg Graffin favors Joe Strummer's full-throated angst over Johnny Rotten's fiendish sneer, but mostly because, despite embellishments that have come and gone, the band kicks the same tight little ass year after year, song after song.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter that someone named Brian Baker has replaced guitarist and founder Brett Gurewitz, or that fuckin' Ric Ocasek of the Cars has been brought in as producer to give Bad Religion that Rancid punk sheen. Fourteen of the 15 tracks are under three minutes, and all of them lace up the Doc Martens and mosh. And while The Gray Matter isn't the best Bad Religion has offered (that would be 1983's Into The Unknown and 1993's Recipe For Hate), it's still plenty reliable. The best musical rush is "Ten In 2010," a piece of quasi-speed/thrash adorned with some futuristic blather I doubt I'll ever figure out. The best lyrics are in "Punk Rock Song," which captures the irony of punk's powerlessness even as it strives to be something more. But the song's most inspirational line is probably the way Graffin hollers "Let's go!" just before the band hurls itself into another inimitable blitzkrieg. In these times, "Let's go!" seems about as pertinent an anthem as one could hope for. (Robson)
Bad Religion perform April 30 at First Avenue.
BARDO POND'S REACH just exceeds its grasp. One of the bands who began in the early '90s as punk was dissolving into the mainstream, they bring a different sensibility to rock, one born of free jazz and No Wave. Bardo Pond is interested in sound and noise, rather than notes and songs, but rather than intentionally destroying musical ideas like No Wavers, Bardo Pond simply began knowing nothing about music, building their pieces up through collective improvisation. The result is free playing within a punk format, searching for something it doesn't actually find. In a sense, High Frequencies is an attempt to play music that doesn't yet exist.
Bardo Pond makes progress, though. Stretching riffs into motifs and echoing noise squalls back and forth, the guitars forsake rhythm to build a heavy wall of sound. The drums and bass aren't there to move that sound along, but to give it density. And vocalist Isobel Sollenberger doesn't articulate anything; rather, she floats feminine mystery above the cacophonous mix, her flute weaving an ethereal thread into the band's noise sculptures.
Perhaps that's as far afield as a rock band can get at this point and still be a rock band. Further exploration, perhaps in the production department, could get them past the built-in limits of collective improv. But for now the band ends up with a heavier version of the slow-core style droned out by bands like Codeine. I hope Bardo Pond's experimental aesthetic, and the indie-rock audience's new tolerance for tunelessness, will spur them into a freer, or at least stranger, zone. Stay tuned. (Stephen Tignor)
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