erasing clouds

Nine Shorter Reviews of Music

[Richard Ashcroft, Chappaquiddick Skyline, dead prez, Nanci Griffith with the London Symphony Orchestra, Guided By Voices, Metroscene, Rhume, Sweet Trip, Tractor Tunes volume 1]

Richard Ashcroft, Alone With Everybody (Hut/Virgin)

by Erin Hucke

A few nights ago, I had a dream where Richard Ashcroft was driving a racecar at night. He was driving round and around a track, numbing his mind to everything that happened while he was lead singer of The Verve. He forgot the negative feelings between himself and guitarist Nick McCabe. He forgot the break-ups. He went around the track so quickly and so intensely that the concentration even made him forget how their music sounded. Then when his mind had been thoroughly cleansed, he howled like a dog at the moon while still speeding around the track. This scenario, of course, never actually happened. (Don't ask me where my subconscious came up with this stuff.) Absurd as that may sound, it's easy to imagine Ashcroft started from the same kind of blank slate when he created Alone With Everybody. Of course, in the broad spectrum of musical styles, this album doesn't sound vastly different from The Verve. It still falls in the mellow, Britpop category. Yet, comparatively speaking, Ashcroft has taken a substantially different musical path than his former band. There's nothing that sounds like "Bittersweet Symphony," abandoning the grandiose orchestral arrangements. He's also left the psychedelic jams behind this time. He's traded them in for electronic-tinged, British cowboy songs. Reinforced by pedal steel guitar, Ashcroft's songs contain an out-on-the-range loneliness. The lyrics tell about the ambition of conquering a "Brave New World" and recklessness of "Money To Burn." "A Song For The Lovers" uses a combination of orchestral strings and rock instruments (complete with muted trumpet) and has an upbeat tempo that no song in the Verve's catalog can match. This album sees Ashcroft abandoning The Verve's signature sound, and struggling to establish a sound of his own. Thankfully, he has succeeded. Ashcroft has definitely taken the right steps to establish his credibility as a solo artist with Alone With Everybody.

rest are by Dave Heaton

Chappaquiddick Skyline, s/t (Sub Pop)

Chappaquiddick Skyline is the latest project by Joe Pernice (The Pernice Brothers, Scud Mountain Boys). The material was apparently recorded a while ago, but the CD came out earlier this year. If you don't know, Joe Pernice has a knack at writing beautiful, sad pop songs. The Pernice Brothers' Overcome By Happiness is a gem of orchestral pop. This Chappaquiddick Skyline CD is in the same vein, but the songs aren't quite as good (so if you haven't heard Overcome by Happiness: get that first). It has 12 melodic, mostly mellow pop songs, delivered by Pernice with his great gentle voice. The songs that stand out from me are the ones with more rock touches, like "Courage Up" and the gorgeous "Leave Me Alone." The songs deal with love and loneliness in the really sensitive, sometimes sarcastic way that Pernice did with his previous work. It's just that this sounds a little more thrown-together, a little more of a collection of songs lying around than a cohesive album that a lot of time was spent on. Still, it has some great moments, and is really worthwhile if you're a fan of mellow, pretty pop songs.

dead prez, let's get free (Loud)

dead prez's debut CDs is one of those albums I badly want to like, but just can't get too into. They are hip-hop, pro-Black revolutionaries out to free their people's minds. Their mission is education and community organization. Their message is timely and, I think, important. They, along with the Coup, Black Star, and a few others, represent activist hip-hop musicians who are also community activists, who practice what they preach. Yet as serious as they are, and as articulate as they can be at times, this CD falls short for reasons that have more to do with music: the beats are boring, the production is almost nonexistent, the music on most songs sounds the same, and the MCs, while OK, aren't especially good at rhyming or at making you pay attention to what they're saying. They're trying hard to fight the good fight; now they might want to concentrate a bit more on the musical side of things since they are, after all, musicians.

Nanci Griffith with the London Symphony Orchestra, The Dust Bowl Symphony (Elektra)

This album, from 1999, came out a while after folk singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith said she wouldn't make any more albums, so I don't know what's up. It's a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra that consists of new recordings of some of her older songs, with new symphonic arrangements. It's a nice, pretty CD, but not necessarily essential, even for Nanci Griffith fans. The symphonic collaborations are a mix bag. They really add new texture to some of the slower songs ("Trouble In the Fields," "The Wing and the Wheel," "Late Night Grande Hotel"), but are next to invisible on most songs, and even a bit annoying, in an overblown Titanic soundtrack-sort-of-way, on a few songs ("These Days In an Open Book," "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go"). "Love at the Five and Dime" revised as a duet works really well, despite the "trying-to-hard" vocal contributions of Darius Rucker (you know, Hootie), who Griffith has sung with several times now. If you're not familiar with Nanci Griffith, you should definitely check her out, but I don't know that this album is the place to do it. For fans, there are a few songs she hasn't recorded previously (to my knowledge, at least), including "1937 Pre-War Kimball," a meditation on her songwriting career, and two covers: Buddy Holly's "Tell Me How" (performed with Crickets' songwriter Sonny Curtis on harmony vocals) and Frank Christian's "Drops From the Faucet." This is another nice addition to a pretty big catalog, but nothing amazing.

Guided By Voices, Dayton, Ohio-19 Something and 5 (Rockathon/Recordhead)

The latest release, #5, in Robert Pollard's Fading Captain Series is a 7" which spotlights the latest live GBV lineup on one side, and Pollard's more abstract ditties on the other side. Side A is a live version of the title song, originally a short lo-fi beauty from Tonics an Twisted Chasers. This is a decent live reworking of the song, a little longer and a bit more rocking. It's nice to have a live portrait of this lineup, as it's one of the best GBV lineups in a while. Side B is three songs, recorded on 4-track, featuring Pollard singing and playing guitar. These epitomize the side of Pollard that draws the most complaints from critics, the more bizarre, less rocking side. My first reaction to these songs was that they were the first Pollard songs I just couldn't get into. But of course, as is the case with GBV's music, they grew on me (and eventually won me over completely) the more I listened. They are not rock song or pop songs, so they're likely to be dismissed by people who only listen to straightforward rock or pop. All three, "Travels," "No Welcome Wagons" and "Selective Service," are little pieces of sung poetry which, put together, make a nice chain of pretty weirdness. This might not be one of the more important GBV releases, but the two sides together form a nice portrait of the mellower side of GBV. On a side note: GBV fans should watch for a handful (a really heavy handful) of interesting releases coming up soon, with the September release of Suitcase, a four-disc compilation of unreleased songs Bob recorded over the last twenty years (the name comes from the suitcase filled with cassette tapes of unreleased songs that Bob has said he has in his closet), and the upcoming release of The Who Went Home and Cried, a live performance video compiled from the last show bassist Greg Demos played with the band.

Metroscene, The Weekenders EP (self-released)

The Weekenders EP's cover is a photo collage capturing weekend nightlife: people getting dressed up and going out to drink, dance and meet people. The four songs on this Atlanta rock band's debut CD are about these people and what they do. Three depict love and lust; a man turned on by the way a woman looks in her tartan skirt, no matter which woman is wearing it, a man eyeing the object of his affection with her new boyfriend, etc. The fourth track, the title song, describes a scene where all of these characters and more are out looking for action ("we can take some pills, or even better still, we can meet some girls and get into their pants"). As far as I can tell, these songs aren't really criticisms or even necessarily celebrations of "the weekenders," just depictions of them against upbeat pop/rock songs. When I got this CD, Metroscene was described to me as Pulp-influenced, and I think that's true. Musically, two of the songs start out sounding just like Pulp (and by association, like David Bowie) but then get a little more like straightforward rock as they go on. They definitely don't share Pulp's wit or sense of humor, but these songs are pretty catchy so I don't know how much it matters. Intellectually I don't get much out of this CD, but realistically it rocks a lot, so it's worth my time.

Rhume, Snack of Choice (Kelp)

Rhume is the latest band from Jon Bartlett, who runs Kelp Records out of Ottawa, Ontario, and was previously in the band Steaming Toolie (self-billed as the worst-titled band ever). He wrote and sang the songs and did much of the instrument-playing on Snack of Choice, Rhume's first album, assisted by an assortment of musical compatriots. Rhume's music is rock and roll rooted in the legendary rock of the '60s and '70s. They're in the same vein as some other great Canadian bands like Sloan and The Flashing Lights, occasionally reminding me as well as of other similarly influenced "indie" rock bands, like Kleenex Girl Wonder, the Lilys and Guided By Voices. At times Rhume sounds sort of like these other bands, but at the same time they don't at all; the music and lyrics have personal qualities that makes Rhume distinct, including some great musical touches that spruce up the rock, like the horns on the first track ("The Boisterious Reunion") and the strings on the moody, mellow piece that closes the album ("Surprising Upenders"). This is a really enjoyable rock album, with a bunch of songs just begging to be blared. The best tracks, like "Caterpillar Moonbeam" and "Turn Up the Jets," rock hard while sounding like car-radio-ready singalong pop tunes. Overall, this is yet another of what must be an infinite number of killer rock albums being quietly released all over the world. It's there crying out to be discovered.

Sweet Trip, Alura (Darla)

San Francisco's Sweet Trip make dreamy dance music, mostly instrumental but with some spoken samples and the occasional pretty singing. Their first release, Halica (part of Darla's great Bliss Out series), drew My Bloody Valentine comparisons, and for good reason: wave after wave of sounds. I understand the MBV comparisons mostly because both groups are the best nap soundtracks ever; they remind me of Brian Eno's compliment to another musician (quoted in David Toop's Oceans of Sound book, I believe) that his performance put him to sleep. Alura, Sweet Trip's EP from last year, is four tracks that will not put you to sleep, but which have that same blissed-out, space dream quality. Here Sweet Trip use beats more, and the result is bit more dancey. But unlike most dance music, the purpose here isn't just to get you to dance. Instead of making stupid music with danceable beats, Sweet Trip make smart dance music which accomplishes many things at once: it's ambient backdrops to everyday life, gorgeous soundscapes to chill out to, melody-based songs cloaked in electronic music, and club-ready beats to move your body.

Tractor Tunes volume 1

Farmer P, North Dakotan farmer/rock, compiled this CD to accompany the fifth issue of his great zine Fresh Cow Pie. The zine itself is a real pleasure; his writing about music is heartfelt, insightful and often hilarious. When the zine's cover photo is a picture of Farmer P gleefully holding a keg of beer up next to a Replacements poster, you know this isn't your pretentious, hipper-than-thou sort of publication. His criterion for judging music is "Does it rock or does it not rock?" The Tractor Tunes CD is a nice grab bag of independent rock music being made all over the country (and the world, even) these days. It includes a couple big names (well, relatively big) masquerading under pseudonyms; namely, Donny Bosco (Kyle from Fuck) and Kuda LaBranche (Robert Pollard of GBV, whose "My Big Day" is a catchy little ditty), and a lot of bands previously unfamiliar to these ears, most of which have really won me over. I especially like "Pass Out," a lo-fi drinking song by Dave Poindexter, and the gentle, pretty "In the Grave" by June Panic. There's a little too much of the harder-style rock for my aging ears, but still, this is 21 tracks of music you've probably never heard before, and enough of it is good to make this a worthy item. Email Farmer P ( to find out if he has any left, and to pick up issues of his great zine.

Issue 2, July 2000 | next article

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds