erasing clouds

11 short music reviews

[Apples in Stereo, Beachwood Sparks, Tony Bennett, Billy Bragg and the Blokes, Drum & Bliss v. 2, Ani DiFranco, Flying Saucer Attack, Guided By Voices, Luna, Main Source, Q-Tip]

by Dave heaton

The Apples in Stereo, Look Away +4 (Spin Art)

It constantly amazes me how Robert Schneider, lead singer/songwriter for The Apples, can build an amazing pop tune out of so little. Their songs essentially consist of an idea/feeling (i.e. "boy do I enjoy sitting around doing nothing") transformed by killer melodies and hooks into songs you can never get out of your head no matter how hard you try. This isn't to belittle what they're doing, at all. There is a lot of genius in the simple act of crafting a memorable pop song. Over two albums, a b-sides/singles collection and a mini-album, The Apples have churned out a ton of absolutely great songs, built around lyrical ideas that are simple but easy to relate to. Their new EP includes one song from their new album and 4 B-sides. The great news is, not only does the title song bode extremely well for their upcoming album but the b-sides are nearly just as good, some of the best "throwaways" you'll hear. Overall, the songs indicate that the Apples are further developing their sound without losing any of the catchiness. These songs have more developed sonic textures, including horns and electronic beats, but don't sound like the band's trying to be "artsy" or anything like that. They also aren't all as straightforward (verse-chorus-verse) in terms of songwriting as much of their previous work. Basically, all 5 songs are fantastic. "Look Away" and "Everybody Let Up" are the catchiest of the bunch, but "Her Pretty Face" is absolutely beautiful, "Behind the Waterfall" has some surprising guitar-led shifts in tone, and "The Friar's Lament" is nice, sad little ditty about a clergyman's regret that he can't express love in a morephysical way.

Beachwood Sparks, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop)

On their self-titled debut album, Californians Beachwood Sparks sound like a 1960s psychedelic country rock band, not unlike a slightly more psychedelic version of the post-Sweethearts of the Rodeo Byrds. Most critics/press types are hanging on the country side of that equation, but the other part is what attracts me to this album. Their vocals have a really dreamy quality which, combined with their lyrical nods towards the natural world, makes this album remind me of desert landscapes (not that I've really seen a desert). The slower songs especially give a pretty, hazy feeling without being slow as a tortoise or seriously "ambient." At the same time, this album really reminds me of other bands who combine country and psychedelia (mainly the Meat Puppets' Up On the Sun), and especially the bands who did that in the 60s (like, for example, some early Grateful Dead albums). At other points, it reminds me of the better pop/rock bands of the 60s (like the surprise Zombies-esque part in "This Is What It Feels Like"). In fact, I can't listen to a song on this album without thinking of some other song, band, or album from the part, especially those from the late 1960s or those who try to sound like they're from the late 1960s. This is the quality that both attracts me to and repels me from Beachwood Sparks. This album is a great listen, comfortable and enjoyable, but mostly because it reminds me of music I like. For the same reason it makes me feel a little empty.

Tony Bennett, The Playground (RPM Records/Columbia)

I admit it; I got sucked into Tony Bennett's music around that time period when his son decided it'd be a wise marketing decision for Tony to sell himself to today's "disaffected youth" by singing duets on MTV with people like J. Mascis (a song which, by the way, never got released). But Bennett sings with a certain sense of grace that I think is missing from a lot of male jazz vocalists. I like him better than Frank Sinatra even. The way he phrases the words he sings feels right to me. Plus, he's got a sense of humor; he likes to have fun, even if it makes him look like a cheesy old guy. Evidence for that is The Playground, his children's album from 1998. In short, this album has everything a children's album needs: repetitive songs that are easy for kids to sing along with, references to talking animals, playtime, imagination and other kid-like things, and duets with the Muppets. Oh, and the token song about how great Mom is. It also has everything I look for in a Tony Bennett album: jazz standards sung with Tony's sense of style and timing. Plus it has "The Bare Necessities," one of the best songs ever, from one of the best animated Disney films. So, if you like Tony Bennett albums or children's albums (as I do), chances are good you will like this album. It's got "Accentuate the Positive," "Paper Moon," Kermit and Tony singing "Bein' Green," Elmo and Tony singing about the "Little Things" in life, and pictures of Tony B. playing hopscotch with a carefully selected group of multicultural, multigendered children: what else do you want?

Billy Bragg and The Blokes, Mermaid Avenue Tour CD (sold at concerts)

Billy Bragg seems to have come out of his Mermaid Avenue sessions with Wilco (where, if you don't know, they wrote and recorded songs for lyrics Woody Guthrie had written a long, long time ago) not just with a fantastic album, but with a lot of energy and inspiration that he's been carrying along on tour. On last year's tour, he had an excellent band called The Blokes, featuring a bunch of talented musicians, including Ian McLagen from The Faces. This CD is their document from that tour, a disc they sold at the shows. I don't know if it's still available anywhere, but it is a great recording of a solid band backing one of the finer singer-songwriter-types around. The songs chosen for the CD include songs from Mermaid Avenue (including some sung on the album by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy), two songs written for that album but never released (the odd "My Flying Saucer" and the raise-your-fist and sing along activist anthem "All You Fascists Bound to Lose"), and a bunch of older Bragg songs. Most of these have been revamped (and in some cases, revitalized) from their album versions. Some of the numbers are more rocking ("The Milkman of Human Kindness," "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," "A New England"), one is much more emotionally moving ("Eisler on the Go"), and several have interesting or unusual musical touches. The most interesting to me is the nicely reworked version of "California Stars." It not only has the slightly more harmonic chorus (the way Wilco's been playing it live as well) but also a New Orleans-style rolling piano part (note: see Professor Longhair article) and, a bit from "This Land Is Your Land" sung in Spanish, a surprising choice which works to amazing effect for some reason. The other surprising song on here, in a head-scratching way, is "Hoodoo Ska Voodoo": yes, a ska version of "Hoodoo Voodoo." It's a weird thing, but a lot of fun, especially at the actual concert, where Bragg did some of those "ska dances" that you see those kids nowadays doing. Overall this is a great album by Billy Bragg fans to search eBay for (or beg friends for dubs of); non-fans should really check out any of his albums, filled with pop/rock gems, moving love songs and nice progressive lyrics of substance.

Various artists, Drum & Bliss v. 2 (Darla)

For a couple years now, Darla Records (, has been releasing great, beautiful records by musicians who fall into a category they are calling "drum and bliss." These are groups like Junior Varsity KM, Sweet Trip, Technicolor, Color Filter, and Flowchart. They make music that sort of fits into the "electronica" realm, because it is mostly electronic music, but which also has the expansive beauty of ambient music and the catchy melodies of pop music. This is the second compilation Darla has put out of tracks by these musicians (though they've also released most of these groups other works), and in no way does it fall into the trap of repeating the success of the first. This is a unique, really interesting follow-up. While the first included unreleased tracks by four artists, this album consists of six tracks where the five aforementioned artists teamed up to remix each other's material. Of course, this makes an interesting complement for those who already are into these groups, but it is also a great introduction to these artists and the beautiful, unique music they make. Though these five artists work in vaguely the same terrain, they each have qualities they set them far apart. Though they've been grouped together, each of them pretty much stumbled into this musical area individually, and their homebases range from San Francisco to Japan. The highlight for me is hearing how their different personalities interact and what they come up with. Though this whole thing is great, my favorite track is the final one, Technicolor and Flowchart's "Casio Jawn," which uses a repeated melody to slowly mold itself into a pulsing dance track.

Ani DiFranco, To the Teeth (Righteous Babe)

I'm a back-and-forth fan of Ani DiFranco, and this is by far my favorite album by her yet. Though lately her experiments with supplementing folk with a variety of other musical styles and instruments have sounded a little forced to me (especially on Up Up Up Up Up Up Up), here she manages to combine folk with elements of funk and soul in an entirely natural way. Musically this album is beautiful to me; the instruments used and the styles played in completely match and complement their corresponding songs, on the entire album coheres in a really listenable, sophisticated way. And she's done all of that without losing her edge. In fact, the main reason I love this album is because her lyrics are so direct and she delivers them so matter-of-factly, much more so than she's done in a while. The opening title song is a great example. She delivers the song's anti-gun message in a completely open and angry way, without pulling punches (which is the best way to get a strong message across when you have something to say), leaving with a killer line, and then lets the musical coda, a jam with sax great Maceo Parker float the song away in a way which musically suggests both hope for a better world and a longing for some healing for our country's violence. The whole album captures me as much as this song does, from "Wish I May," with the biting chorus "Don't tell me it's gonna be alright/you can't sell me on your optimism tonight" to the trio of songs delving into spirituality (including a collaboration with the Artist formerly known as Prince) and the great gentle closer, "I Know This Bar," a beautifully detailed portrait of a neighborhood bar, a hangout from times past.

Flying Saucer Attack, Mirror (Drag City)

Flying Saucer Attack's music evokes for me the image of a man singing to himself, alone amidst an expansive landscape, like a desert or an ocean. On every FSA song, vocalist/main man Dave Pierce sings expressively, with lots of feeling, but quietly, like his words are directed toward no one in particular, private thoughts sung aloud. His voice is perennially surrounded by a sea of noisy, gentle sounds, usually dominated by electric guitar and feedback-type stuff, enough to nearly entirely conceal the nice singalong melodies and introspective, at times abstractly poetic lyrics. FSA is one of those bands with albums that, generally speaking, sound a lot alike. Their new album, Mirror, is being considered a "departure" by many, but the differences will seem fairly minimal to most people. That isn't a bad thing, however. Their music is beautiful. Any of their albums is a gently intoxicating experience. The main changes on Mirror have to do with sonic textures. A few of the songs ("Chemicals," "Rise," "Winter Song") have electronic, techno-ish beats; they sound almost like dance remixes of your traditional FSA song. And "Rivers" has some more traditional drum and electric guitar playing, the kind you find in what's generally thought of as a rock song. To me, though, none of these touches sound artificial or like attempts to jump on the latest bandwagon, but more like more additions to the range of sounds FSA uses. Overall, yes this is "just another Flying Saucer Attack album," but what that means to me is a collection of dreamy, beautiful songs and sounds just waiting for you to immerse yourself in them.

Guided By Voices, Hold On Hope EP (TVT)

This is not only another step in Guided By Voices' quest to make their ballad "Hold On Hope" a hit single (next stop: they're singing it on Conan's show on May 9). It also includes 8 previously unreleased songs, a grab bag of numbers mostly recorded in the Do the Collapse sessions. And the good news is that 6 of the 8 are as good as anything that made the album (In fact, I really wonder why a few of these songs didn't make the cut; they would have benefited the album greatly). "Underground Initiations" and "Avalanche Aminos" (and songwriting collaboration between GBV leader Robert Pollard and guitarist Doug Gillard) are great upbeat power-rockers in the vein of GBV's recent material. "Tropical Robots" is the kind of brief little pretty acoustic ditty that used to show up on GBV albums, but recorded a lot more crisply. "Fly Into Ashes" is a great pop song, it has that "should have been a hit" catchiness that makes me wish more people would hear it. "Interest Position" is a fantastic rock song with great low-key singing and mellow melodies; it really reminds me musically of some tracks off of the first few GBV albums (the ones included in Box, the 5-cd box set). The lyrics seem to muse on music business politics ("we have to nominate the single, we can't understand"), and the song really picks up and rocks out near the end. The song that surprises me the most, yet another sign that Pollard hasn't lost a bit of his creative edge, is "A Crick Uphill." It starts off as this weirdly countryish marching shuffle and keeps building until it rocks as hard as anything they've done. The rest of the EP is filled out with the title song (of course) in its album version, and two songs that I personally could do without, a short instrumental called "Do the Collapse" (basically an instrumental version of "Girl from the Sun," on the Tonics and Twisted Chasers CD) and "Idiot Princess," an odd little song that GBV has, oddly, released three times now, under three different names (the others: "Snuff Movie (Now She's Gone)" and "Reptilian Beauty Secrets"), though this version rocks it up a bit more. Anyway, if you're a GBV fan you know you need this stuff. If you don't know who GBV is, this review has probably made no sense to you, but you should pick it up anyway; treat yourself to some rock.

Luna, The Days of Our Nights (Beggars Banquet)

In my mind, Luna has made one absolutely perfect album (Penthouse, of course) and a handful of really really good ones. Their most recent album (belatedly released in the U.S. due to yet another story of boorish major label bullying artists) strikes my fancy a lot because it sounds more like a Penthouse follow-up than their last album Pup Tent, which had some odd (and for me, unsatisfying attempts at sounding more "experimental" (though it still has some fantastic songs). The Days is overall pretty mellow and dreamy, with the lyrical dry wit of their music in general. It has a similar musical vibe as Penthouse (if not as many great hooks), but it doesn't like they're just ripping off what they've done in the past. This album is uniquely its own, from the lightly electronic beat of the rocking "Hello, Little One" and the added sonic texture of the string-laden "The Rustler" to the odd "The Slow Song," sung in German except the final phrase ("to the Tennessee Waltz"), and the closing, surprisingly faithful cover of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O Mine." A few of the songs also have some really nice rocking guitar parts, like on "Words Without Wrinkles" and my favorite, "U.S. Out of My Pants!" Overall, I love this album, but, then again, even the worst Luna songs have a great sense of atmosphere, memorable guitar hooks, smart lyrics and Dean Wareham's calming vocals.

Main Source, Breaking Atoms (Wild Pitch)

This album is old (well, 1991) but lately I've found that, for some weird reason, a certain evil corporate music/video conglomerate (you know, starts with a B, rhymes with duster) have a ton of copies of this CD for $2. So, I write mostly to encourage you, dear reader, to scoop this gem up if you have any interest whatsoever in hip-hop music. Main Source had a really minimalist, funky sound that, unlike a decent amount of older music in this ever-changing genre, doesn't sound the least bit dated. Most of their songs are basically vocals over beats, with bits of funky guitars and a few old R&B samples. The star of Main Source (and a great "whatever happened to?" candidate) is Large Professor, a nerdy looking guy who is one hell of an MC, with a distinct voice and an interesting take on the world (exhibit #1: "Just a Friendly Game of Baseball," a direct attack on police brutality, as timely a subject as ever, delivered through baseball metaphors). This album has some classic tracks that deserve to be remembered, like "Looking at My Front Door," about the emotions one feels when moving on with your life and inevitably leaving others behind, "Peace Is Not the Word to Play," a really hard-hitting riff on the word peace and the way it's casually thrown around (sample lyric: "I've seen people on the streets shoot a man, turn around and say peace"), and "Live at the Barbecue," a party jam /"posse cut" featuring the first recorded appearance of Nasty Nas. Pick this album up if you see it.

Q-Tip, Amplified (Arista)

On Q-Tip's strong solo debut, Amplified, he makes a point of expressing his self-motivation and determination to continue blazing new trails while leaving his past (with the legendary Tribe Called Quest) behind. Self-assertion is pretty much the theme of the album, which is filled with lyrics similar to this: "I guess I really got to do it, put my game down." Though the album feels in a way as a motivational speech by Q-Tip to himself, I'm OK with that. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. This albums represents Tip staking his own ground, setting out a path for him to follow. And he does a pretty good job of it. Musically this album is tight. The Ummah (Q-Tip and Jay Dee) build off the production work they did on the last two Quest albums, with crisp beats and R&B-influenced hooks, but they add a certain new sound, which has an artificial sort of furture-ness to it which gives this album a really unique sound. There's lots of other great musical touches throughout, from the jazzy guitar on "Let's Ride" to the hard-hitting, vaguely electronic-ish beats of the singles "Vivrant Thing" and "Breathe and Stop." Lyrically, when he's not boosting himself forward in his musical journey, Q-Tip's all about having fun, either meeting women or just having a good time in general. "Things We Do," one of my favorite tracks, is the one point on the album proper (meaning, not counting the fine bonus track "Do It, Be It, See It," a great summary of his years with Tribe) where the introspective qualities he's always hinting at are put on display. It's a wonderfully understated tribute to open communication in all relationships, from those between individuals to those between citizens of a country. Other highlights include "Do It," where Tip adopts a sort of LL, smooth lover type of persona, and "NT," a funky collaboration with Busta Rhymes (his presence on an album highly increases the chances that the album will be worthwhile). The only low notes for me are that a few tracks have unnecesary and occasionally corny choruses, especially "Higher," and that the collaboration with Korn, "End of Time," hardly spotlights Tip at all. Still, this is the mark of a great MC stepping away from his past. It's a good album, but it's mostly exciting because it signals the start of a solo career that is bound to just get better.

Issue 1, April 2000

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