All posts by Andre Salles

There Are No Frontiers
The Alarm 2000 Box Set

As we barrel towards Oscar night, I feel the need to share this true story:

The newspaper I work for holds an Oscar contest every year, offering some form of fabulous prize for the readers who predict the winners in the Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress category. We run a multiple-choice ballot in the paper that lists the nominees in each category, so readers can fill it in and mail it back to us.

Well, we goofed a bit last week and ran last year’s ballot. That means the choices printed were up for Oscars last year – Best Picture listed Gladiator, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Chocolat, for example. It didn’t take long for people to start sending these ballots in with their “predictions,” and we all wondered how we would handle the situation. Would we credit last year’s ballot, considering it was our mistake? If so, how would we separate those who actually predicted the winners from those who (if they didn’t already know) looked them up on the internet?

Turns out, we needn’t have worried. We’ve received several ballots from several readers to date, and all of them failed to predict last year’s winners. One guy guessed Gladiator, then crossed it out in favor of Traffic. One woman selected Juliette Binoche for Best Actress. We’ve contacted each of these people and sent them new ballots, and I wish them all the luck in the world, because apparently, they’ll need it.

* * * * *

I don’t care what anyone says, the Alarm was a great band.

The Welsh quartet was around for 10 years (1981-1991), and in that time, they never got the respect they were due, but by all accounts, they never achieved the height of their capabilities, either. They were always unfairly and unfavorably compared to U2, whom they shared a stage with on numerous tours. The sonic similarities are there to support such an argument – it’s possible that both bands discovered punk, reverbed pop and American traditional blues-rock at roughly the same time in their respective careers, but it’s unlikely. The way the bands explored those influences, however, was vastly different.

The real difference lies in the way both bands approached their own passion. While U2 has long been about giving the people a voice to look up to, the Alarm was always about being amongst the people, and singing with their voice. While their five albums are all wildly different from one another, that philosophy remained constant.

Lead singer Mike Peters has carried that torch through his solo career. He’s a successful artist in his native Wales, although he could walk down any street in America anonymously. The passionate fury of his voice is, along with Dave Sharp’s blistering guitar work, the defining characteristic of the Alarm, and the man’s commitment to his fans is legendary. There’s no other way to explain the existence of the Alarm 2000 box set, a phenomenally comprehensive document of a band few have ever heard. The Alarm’s sales never warranted such a retrospective from their label (or any label, for that matter), so Peters took it upon himself.

What he’s done with this set should be the blueprint for boxed compendiums. I have never spent so much money on any one piece of music – in United States dollars, the Alarm 2000 set is $180. That, my friends, is an absolute bargain. It’s almost as if someone handed Peters a handbook on creating the perfect box set. Here’s what he did:

First, he included every song from every album. Box sets are notorious for mixing and matching, providing random samplings of an artist’s career. This is crap. If an artist’s work is worth releasing in a deluxe set, then most likely the albums are meant to be heard as a whole. Expensive box sets shouldn’t be marketing tools, they should be lasting monuments. You shouldn’t have to seek out the albums afterwards to get the complete picture.

Hence, all 67 tracks from the Alarm’s career are present, in digitally remastered form. Each album appears on its own CD as well – none of that non-chronological scattershot technique you find with most sets of this nature. That alone would have been enough to get me excited about this project, but that’s just the first step.

Next, Peters filled out each CD with unreleased tracks, live versions, acoustic renditions, b-sides and more. Every album here benefits from this insight into the process and overall sound of the band during the period in which it was recorded. Most notably, the self-titled EP that launched their career in 1981 has been expanded to 22 tracks and more than 77 minutes, offering a full measure of the Alarm in their early stages. Even the six-track EP Electric Folklore Live has been transformed into a true live album, with 14 tracks over 78 minutes. All told, you get 128 tracks, nearly double the running orders of the original albums.

After all that, you’d never expect that there would be an additional eighth CD of rarities, but there it is. Rare Tracks includes 18 previously unreleased goodies, and offers another 78 minutes of music. All together, the Alarm 2000 collection serves up 146 songs, many of which appear in extended, previously unreleased versions. But of course, that’s not all.

What would a set like this be without detailed liner notes? These are more detailed than most, offering a complete history of the band from the first rehearsal to the final show, most often in the words of the four band members. (Besides Peters and Sharp, the Alarm included bassist Eddie MacDonald and drummer Nigel Twist.) Each album comes with its own extensive booklet, including the original cover art to each and lyrics to every song. Plus, since Peters dispensed with the original running orders on these discs (sequencing them in the order they should have appeared in the first place), each booklet offers information to program your CD player to duplicate the original sequences. All of this comes packaged in a deceptively small travel case, with sleeves for each disc and booklet.

But just you wait, because I haven’t mentioned the coolest thing of all. When you order the Alarm 2000 set (only available at www.thealarm.com), you can select your favorite song, write a dedication, and Peters will perform that song and dedicate it to you on a ninth CD. This is the ultimate extension of the Alarm’s commitment to their fans. Peters swears that he performs each of these requests individually, no matter how many people ask for the same song.

I asked for “No Frontiers,” a soaring anthem off the Change album from 1989, which has always been my favorite Alarm song. I requested no dedication, because I’m uncomfortable with the concept of music being tied to an individual, or of imposing that much of myself on Peters’ art. But I thought of one, and I mentally say it to myself whenever I play the disc. Peters performs “No Frontiers” like a world-weary songwriter looking back and trying to capture the youthful innocence of a forgotten time. His solo acoustic version trades the original’s ambition for an earthly realism, and somehow it suits the way I hear the song now, more than 10 years since I first fell in love with it. Plus, he kind of screws it up at the end, which is nifty.

Despite all my concerns about branding Peters’ version of “No Frontiers” with my own words, I confess a certain reverent thrill upon pressing play for the first time, and knowing that I was only the second person alive to hear that particular rendition. While that’s faded over time, I still get tingles when I hear it, and that feeling alone justifies the price for me. It’s the perfect icing on such a huge cake.

The Alarm 2000 set is exhausting to plow through, but ultimately more exciting than anything I’ve bought since the Choir’s similar comprehensive box, Never Say Never. It starts with both sides of the band’s first self-financed single from 1981, the ragged acoustic “Unsafe Building” and even more ragged electric “Up For Murder.” Amazingly, the passion is there from the start, with Peters’ often erratic voice riding on pure emotion and Sharp’s wrist-breaking acoustics setting the tone. The first disc jumps through five early demos before plunging into the meat of the eponymous EP and a seven-song mini-concert. (It’s a startling feature of this set that you often get multiple versions of songs you’ve never heard before, like “Reason 41,” which appears in demo, live and studio renditions, but never made an album.)

The Alarm is an angry, rough recording of anthems and rebel songs, especially the charmingly naive “Marching On.” The Alarm was a band that knew the value of a good “whoa-oh” in the chorus, something they likely nicked from the Clash, and that fist-pumping stridency reached its apex with one of the band’s best-known songs, “Sixty-Eight Guns,” which appears in demo and single versions on this first disc. Despite its thunderous chorus (“Sixty-eight guns will never die, sixty-eight guns our battle cry”), the group’s later maturity is hinted at even here in the plaintive middle section: “Through all the raging glory of the years, we never once thought of the fears for what we’d do, when the battle cry was over…”

“Sixty-Eight Guns” made its full appearance on the Alarm’s first album, Declaration, in 1984. Produced by Alan Shacklock, this record smoothed out the ragged edges while leaving the rough intensity of the EP. Performed almost entirely on furiously played acoustic guitars, Declaration is a slice of folk-punk that feels like a flower coming into bloom. (The Alarm’s trademark symbol, which appeared on every album cover and on the cover of this box, was an exploding blood-red poppy.) It manages to be diverse and unified at once, another trait they learned from the Clash, and it delves deeper into the spiritual side of the band’s rebellious nature.

Declaration jumps from the finger-pointing rage of “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke” to the menacing throb of sniper tale “Third Light” to the crunchy electric blues of “Howling Wind,” but if any one song defines this period of the Alarm’s history, it’s the epic “Blaze of Glory.” It’s a twisty number that incorporates military drums, trumpets and banjos seamlessly, fades off into a mournful fanfare midway through, and comes charging back for Dave Sharp’s rousing finale. With lyrics about picking yourself up and learning how to fight back, it may be the ultimate rebel song.

This disc also includes seven unreleased contenders for the album, including the bluesy “Reason 41” and the surprisingly pop “The Chant Has Just Begun.” You also get covers of traditional folk tune “Bells of Rhymney” and Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory,” as well as the single version of the song the band released with visions of stardom, “Absolute Reality.” It’s a precursor to (and appears on) one of the most consistent Alarm albums, 1985’s Strength.

The band went electric for their second full-length, and they wrote some of their best songs. The title track is a standout, as is the epic “Spirit of ’76,” the pure punk “Deeside,” the sweet “Walk Forever By My Side” and the masterful, heartbreaking “The Day the Ravens Left the Tower.” You get a couple of unreleased cuts (“Majority” being the best), a roughshod electric version of later standout “One Step Closer to Home,” and a quartet of live tracks, but mostly, the highlights are the 10 fantastic, invigorating songs that made up Strength. Some maintain they never got better than this.

While I can’t join in that opinion, I will concede that they sort of lost their way on 1987’s Eye of the Hurricane, but since it s the first Alarm album I heard, I have a sentimental attachment to it. Eye is the most altered of the discs, since it turns out that the band was only partly to blame for the way the original release sounded. This album found the band caught between trying to make a hit record and an Alarm record, and the results were predictably strained. Synthesizers and drum machines took over, especially on pseudo-hit “Rain in the Summertime,” and the band sounded unconvinced that this was the right way to go.

Well, surprise surprise, the version of Eye I’d been listening to all these years is a poorly edited mix the label foisted on the group, with the guitars mostly removed or subdued. The Alarm 2000 set corrects this blight by offering the mix the band gave the label, intact. And it’s a bit of a revelation – “Newtown Jericho” now sounds like the anti-anthem it was always meant to, “Summertime” is more of a full band groove than a computerized one, and “Shelter” cranks up the electric guitars over sections that were once just acoustic. Sure, the songs are still poppier than they’d been, especially the ballad “Presence of Love,” but the sound is less tentative. Finally, Eye sounds like an Alarm album, like the band is as invested in it as they are the rest of their catalog.

The Alarm were a bit of a rarity in the ’80s: a great live band that also made great records. The stage, however, is where they shone, and Electric Folklore, expanded to a full document of the Alarm’s stint with U2 on the Joshua Tree tour, is the proof. I’d almost recommend new listeners checking this out first, because this is one hell of a live album. I’d always been bothered by the sequencing of the original release, and apparently Peters has been too, because he corrects every one of my concerns. Rightful opener “Strength” now kicks off the set, “Blaze of Glory” nests comfortably in the middle, and the one-two punch of extended renditions of “Rescue Me” and “Spirit of ’76” now appear in the showstopper positions they always should have. In many ways, this is the height of the collection.

Fresh from the biggest tour of their lives and determined not to make the same mistakes they made with Eye, the band huddled down with producer Tony Visconti and in 1989 released their finest work, the lengthy Change. Here they explored American blues and English pop, traditional folk and Welsh choral arrangements. It’s a stylistic departure, and yet the semi-hit “Sold Me Down the River” sounds like a direct descendant of “Howling Wind,” off of Declaration. Change lives up to its title, but it progresses nicely from what came before. Most impressive, though, is Peters himself, who finally learned to harness that powerful voice of his to suit the various styles.

Peters has called this album “the double album that could have been,” and here he gets the chance to rectify that a bit. Many songs on Change were edited down to fit on one piece of vinyl, but the original versions appear here, including Dave Sharp’s wonderful jam outro to “No Frontiers.” Three unreleased tracks join the 14 originals, and if you’ve never heard the album, you’d be hard-pressed to pick them out. They’re just as good as the album tracks. Change concludes with one of the band’s finest moments, the fully orchestrated “A New South Wales,” performed with a Welsh male voice choir.

In essence, Change was the band’s swan song. Their final album, Raw, released in 1991, is not so much an album as it is a slipshod collection of the final studio tracks the Alarm recorded. Dave Sharp took over vocals on several tracks, heralding his upcoming solo career. The recording is, in fact, quite raw, considering most of it was done live and self-produced. The original album consisted of three new Peters tracks, three new Sharp songs, three old numbers the band had been playing for years, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

But as released here, Raw takes its place as the band’s sad farewell. Peters bumps the running order up to 15 tracks, including two that were recorded for the best-of collection Standards. With the full picture, the lyrics to “Moments in Time” take on resonance as a wave goodbye. As a capper on their career, the band recorded updated versions of both sides of their first single (“Unsafe Building” and “Up For Murder”), and covered John Lennon’s wistful “Happy X-Mas (War is Over).” The final track, and most heartbreaking, is a newly discovered recording on “the last few inches of tape on the last reel of the last recording session,” an acoustic duet between Sharp and Peters on “Walk Forever By My Side.” Rarely has a band made their final album so final.

And the Rare Tracks disc? All intriguing stuff, especially for the longtime fan. My favorites are an impromptu acoustic version of “Absolute Reality,” a demo for an unreleased song called “Firing Line,” a live version of “Rivers to Cross” with a jamming violin player, and a hushed and caustic acoustic reading of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Rare Tracks ends with an acoustic version of “No Frontiers,” which, when paired with Peters’ version on my dedication disc, adds a nice symmetry to the whole set.

It’s rare that a band will offer up such a complete version of itself, with none of the edges smoothed out. The Alarm 2000 set is the ultimate example of a band having nothing to hide. If you think, as I do, of musical entities as living, breathing organisms that change and grow over time, then a set like this is a dream come true, the total evolution of a musical entity in a single box. Most importantly in my mind, a set like this, so lovingly and painstakingly crafted, signals that the music of the Alarm is as important to Mike Peters as it is to me and thousands of others, and thanks to his efforts and commitment, Alarm fans new and old will always be able to enjoy it. So thanks, Mike.

“There are no frontiers
That we can’t cross tonight
There are no borderlines
To keep us apart…”

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Girls, Eels and Jars – Oh My!
Plus Two Live Discs From Across the Pond

Before I get rolling on this monstrosity, let me satisfy my inner geek, who’s growling at me to mention this…

Did everyone see the Star Wars trailer on TV? Doesn’t it look exactly like Phantom Menace? What in hell took so long to make this movie? It appears as though they just cut and spliced CGI shots from Episode One and tacked new dialogue on top of it. And the dialogue’s not even that new, really – still a bunch of bureaucratic back-and-forth about not wanting to go to war. Okay, it’s not all that bad, but I’m really in this one for the nostalgia, and the cool-looking action scenes. And I will admit, the six-year-old in me gasped in shock and dread at that first sweeping shot of the army of stormtroopers. I knew the story, I knew it was coming, and still I gasped. That’s got to be a good thing, and will hopefully offset those clones, which have always sounded like a weak plot device to me. The seeds of the Empire are evident even from the trailer, and if the film sticks with that sense of foreboding, this one and the next could be really good.

Plus, no fucking Jar Jar. Bonus points for that.

Still, Lucas, you’re on probation, especially since your ratio of good movies to bad is all tied up right now. (For the record, A New Hope and Empire are the good ones.) You need to knock this one out of the park, if you’re capable. You need to make the origins and history of the Empire believable and frightening. Having spent the last 20 years building your very own empire, you should have plenty of insight to draw from, right? Right. The Fanboy Nation stands in judgment in less than two months.

Speaking of judgments, here’s a bunch of ’em:

* * * * *

I knew this was going to happen.

If you’re a fan of the Indigo Girls, you probably shared in my moment of prognostication. I was sure it would happen a lot sooner than it did, though, which surprised me. Back in 1996, when the Girls released Swamp Ophelia, an album so much bigger, louder and ballsier than anything this unassuming folk duo had done before, I figured it for an experiment, and predicted that they would be back to making sweet acoustic folk music by their next album.

They fooled me. It turned out that Ophelia was the first step in a progression, which continued with building force on 1998’s mammoth Shaming of the Sun and 2000’s overblown and somewhat forgettable Come On Now Social. The guitars got more ferocious, the lyrics more biting, and the tempos more relentless. In places on Social, in fact, the twosome experimented with dissonance that would have made Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore smile like a proud papa.

The Girls have always had a dichotomy going on, with Emily Saliers’ more melodic folk leanings brushing up against Amy Ray’s more explosive rock tendencies. It was little surprise, then, that the buildup finally reached its head on Ray’s propulsive solo album, Stag. This was Ray in pure punkus outus mode, screaming over stunningly noisy rhythms and feedback-drenched electric guitars. If you were to play this album and Nomads, Indians, Saints back to back, you’d never guess it was the same Amy Ray.

After that, of course, there was nowhere to go but back down, and the Girls have done so gracefully on their eighth studio album, Become You. This is an album I expected in 1998, but it sounds even more nostalgically wondrous in 2002, after the last few outings. It’s completely acoustic-based, the emphasis is on harmonies, and it’s the sweetest album they’ve made since Rites of Passage, which it brings to mind constantly. There’s no bitterness, no bile, just a lovely, simple album of love songs. And I didn’t realize how much I’d missed this sound from these two.

Honestly, I’d love to hate Become You for the backslide it represents, for the fact that it blithely ignores the last eight years of the Indigos’ musical development, but I can’t. It’s such a winsome creation, made with such obvious joy, that attacking it would seem petty and small. Unlike some of their recent works, Become You wants nothing more than to provide 40 minutes of sweet, enjoyable folk-pop, and its very unimportance in the Girls’ catalog is sort of its prime feature. If you’ve ever liked the Indigo Girls, you’ll like this album. A lot.

One major thing in this album’s favor is that it features the return of the gorgeous harmonies that buoyed the Girls’ first five albums. Can anyone name two other modern singers whose voices sound like they belong together, like they were sculpted from the ether specifically to complement each other? I can’t. When the pair winds their way through Saliers’ beautiful piano ballad “Deconstruction,” it’s like welcoming an old friend home. It’s soaring and intimate at the same time, and listening to it and its 11 counterparts on Become You, you remember why these two coffeehouse folkies became stars in the first place.

Like many artists who are personally as well as musically involved, Indigo Girls albums have always had an emotionally charged edge. It’s fairly apparent when they’re writing songs about each other, and lately they’ve been moving away from that, chasing individual concerns. In many ways, Become You is a breakup and makeup album, an often painful examination of a creative and personal relationship that still yields rewards, more than 15 years after its start. The title track, reminiscent of “Power of Two” from Swamp Ophelia, sums it all up: “It took a long time to become the thing I am to you, and you won’t tear it apart without a fight, without a heart, it took a long time to become you…”

Even more revealing is Saliers’ “You’ve Got to Show,” about connections and compromise: “Why don’t we both agree we’re both afraid and too afraid to say, if I say count to three and move toward me would you meet me half the way, there are a thousand things about me I want only you to know, but I can’t go there alone, you’ve got to show.” The prevailing mood is one of learning to work with and love someone all over again, and is filled with the sense that any relationship, be it personal, musical or whatever, takes work and time and compromise.

Become You is the first “classic” Indigo Girls album in a long time, and it easily rekindles the abiding love these two have engendered from the start. While the previous few releases may have taken time to settle and sink in, this one is immediate. Had they followed my prediction and released an album like this in 1996, it would have seemed safe and cowardly. They’ve more than earned this return to their roots, and the album is all the sweeter when you consider how far they journeyed from home.

* * * * *

Beck gets an awful lot of credit for what amounts to standing outside the music industry, at a safe ironic distance, and commenting on it. He’s got an amazing sonic sense, I’ll grant, and his patchwork albums are marvels of cut-and-splice wizardry. The thing is, though, he’s never, not even in his quieter acoustic moments, emotionally invested in his music.

All of which is a long way of opining that the Eels, often lumped in with Beck as ironic collage studio nerds, have the edge because the emotion is always there. Beck albums are sonically satisfying, but Eels albums go the full nine by engaging your heart, mind and ears all at once. It’s no real surprise that they’re on Dreamworks Records, because no other major label would allow them to make the records they make.

I keep saying “they,” and I guess Eels is technically a band, but in truth it’s a shield of relative anonymity for the mastermind, a guy named Mark Everett who usually just goes by E. Every Eels album is as personal a project for E as any strumming folkie’s work, a fact that’s often lost behind his bizarre studio sensibility. An Eels song just doesn’t sound right unless it sounds somehow wrong, and the best part about E is that he’s completely unselfconscious about the off-kilter nature of his music. It probably all just sounds right to him.

I often liken Eels music to a satisfying independent comic book. The indie comix ethos strives for work that is honest at the cost of just about everything else, and the development of style out of limitations. Hence, many indie books are acquired tastes, because the work seems sketchy, almost unfinished, but once you’re finished with the book, you realize that the style is inseparable from the effect of the story. Essentially, if you strip everything else away, honesty animates even the sketchiest of outlines, and dishonesty is doubly easy to spot.

Similarly, Eels songs sound somewhat unfinished upon first exposure to E’s singular style. This isn’t quirky for quirky’s sake, however – it’s E expressing himself in the only way he knows how. When I mention to people that the last two Eels albums, Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy, deal exclusively with the suicide of E’s sister and the wasting death from cancer of his mother, they’re often left with the understandable expectation that both CDs are really depressing. Astonishingly, they may be the most realistically uplifting albums about death ever recorded.

Electro-Shock Blues in particular presents its ruminations on suicide and loss amidst a carnival of unlikely sounds and trippy beats. Daisies is more subdued and acoustic, but no less winsome, as if it’s working overtime to cheer its author up. Electro-Shock is about denial and Daisies is about acceptance, and they fit together like two halves of a great comic book novel. They’re mirror images of each other: Electro-Shock is a bunch of sad songs about learning to be happy, while Daisies is a bunch of happy songs about learning to be sad.

With this tiny magnum opus behind him, E has thankfully simply gone back to work. Eels’ fourth album, the just-released Souljacker, is just that: another Eels album. It’s 12 great unconnected songs about funny, strange, sad people, made with E’s trademark quirky genius. Think of it as an anthology of short comic book stories.

And most of them are stories in their own right. Consider “Jungle Telegraph,” about (and I’m quoting the hilarious liner notes here) “a man who was born during a terrible storm, grows up to be a teenage prostitute, kills a man in self-defense and flees to the jungles of Africa to live out the rest of his life in a tree.” Really. “Bus Stop Boxer” is an examination of the psyche of a guy who beats people up at bus stops. “Dog Faced Boy” is actually about a boy with a dog’s face, and it revolves around the line, “Mommy won’t shave me, Jesus can’t save me.” I can’t make this shit up.

The truth is that E loves and identifies with each of his characters, and he intersperses their stories with his own. “Fresh Feeling” might be the most unironic love song in the band’s short history, buoyed by a terrific string arrangement, and it’s particularly surprising on the heels of “That’s Not Really Funny,” a studio wonderama about emasculation. Closing rave-up “What Is This Note” is absolutely heartwarming lyrically, and surprise surprise, “World of Shit” is actually a sweet love song: “Baby I confess, I am quite a mess, so let’s get married and make some people more than equal in this world of shit.” Well, sort of sweet.

While not as personal as past albums, Souljacker is perhaps E’s most enjoyable effort to date. And, if you’re lucky and run to the record store quickly, you can get the version that comes packaged with a four-song EP called Rotten World Blues. It’s caustic, it’s hilarious, and it begins with a semi-parody called “I Write the B-Sides.”

E’s off-kilter songcraft is not for everyone, of course. It’s also not going to set the world on fire, nor will it even make my Top 10 List, most likely. But as long as he’s allowed to make these little missives from his unique corner of the world, then the rest of the world is all the more improved for it. And if the general public somehow comes around to his way of hearing things, so much the better. Souljacker is another little window into this strange little universe that exists in E’s head that we get to experience for 40 minutes or so a year, in which E tries to explain to us what it’s like to live there full time.

* * * * *

Why is it that so many bands that start off with a cool, original sound end up wanting to sound like everyone else?

The most grating example I can think of is The Moon Seven Times, who traded the blissful dream-pop of their first two wondrous albums for the compacted and radio-friendly rock of their third (and final). Admittedly, they might not be the best example, as it’s easy to imagine such a decision being made for sales concerns. But what about the bands and musicians that start out selling like gangbusters with a unique sound? Michael Penn comes to mind – while I like his subsequent albums, none match the nifty acoustics-and-computers vibe of his debut, March, which outsold the others combined.

And then there’s Jars of Clay. Their self-titled debut was described to me by my friend Chris L’Etoile as “Toad the Wet Sprocket moves down south, finds Jesus and a drum machine,” and I can’t come up with a better summation of the sound. The debut sported soaring acoustic pop augmented by dance club loops, combined in a way that few acts had done before. It also brought Jars their only real hit, a frenzy of six-string fury called “Flood.”

Now you’d think that the band would consider the sound of the record an integral part of the success of the record, but no. Subsequent albums have become gradually more normal and average, and on the band’s fourth full-lengther, The Eleventh Hour, the descent bottoms out. You couldn’t tell Jars apart from 90 percent of the crap on the radio now, and that’s a shame.

What’s doubly interesting about the band’s collapse this time out is that they produced Hour themselves. One can almost understand a product this bland and uninspiring coming from a label-sanctioned production team, or a songwriting committee, but no. The band sequestered themselves away from distraction, poured their creative energy into what they’re calling their finest work, and this is what they came up with. They have no one to blame for its facelessness but themselves. There are one or two hooks on the album that catch the ear, but not many. The chorus of “Something Beautiful” is interesting, and… and, well, that’s about it.

Jars also abandon Jesus for the most part on this album, which some will see as an improvement and some will call a sell-out. I just think it points to the overall sanitized blandness of the whole production. There is one exception – the genuine expression of doubt that is “Silence,” in which singer Dan Haseltine whimpers, “All I pray is wrong, and all I claim is gone, I got a question, where are you?” However, a couple of tracks later, he’s back praising God (or a girl – it’s just vague enough that we can’t tell) with a joyous, “Your love can make these things better.” It’s such an empty set of lyrics that the religious and the heartbroken can fill in their own blanks and come away with completely different messages, which, from a marketing standpoint, is probably the goal.

I find it hard to believe that a band that was once as creative and energetic as Jars of Clay can’t, when given ample opportunity, come up with anything better than this. My hope is that eventually they’ll realize that no one ever made great music by trying to please everyone who hears it. In time, their sales figures will fade, their fame will disappear, and they’ll be left with nothing but the music, a permanent record of commercial concerns winning out over artistic ones.

* * * * *

The Corrs are a study in strange irony. The four siblings have been described as “obscenely attractive,” and they’re superstars in Europe for their trademark blend of sugary pop and traditional Celtic folk. In fact, the Corrs are famous pretty much everywhere else but America, and they’ve been trying for years to crack our defenses. Each album has included an increasing amount of MTV-style dance-pop, de-emphasizing the Celtic elements in the process. There were two versions of their second, Talk on Corners: a worldwide version that balanced the sounds and a “special edition” for America that cranked up the beats. And there was nary a fiddle to be found on their third, In Blue.

Oddly enough, it just isn’t working. The more “American” they sound, the less popular they are in America, and the end result has been a couple of depressing albums from a group that can do much better. How do I know? There are at least two pieces of recorded evidence that the Corrs can be a great band if the want to be. The first is their Unplugged CD, pretty much unavailable in the U.S. The second has just been released courtesy of VH-1, and it’s called Live in Dublin. You know, Dublin, Ireland? Where they’re famous?

This album is what the Corrs always should have sounded like. The balance between their pop and traditional leanings is in full effect, especially on their pipes-laden cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” Their originals, mostly from the last two beat-happy albums, thrive in this organic setting. The hit “Breathless,” especially, has never been better, sugary harmonies and all.

A lot of live albums are just rehashes of album tracks, but the Corrs know better, and they’ve given over roughly half of Live in Dublin to swell covers of unexpected tunes. The previously mentioned “Little Wing” stands next to Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” featuring that band’s bassist Ron Wood. The Celtic instruments get a workout as well on the traditionals “Joy of Life” and “Trout in the Bath,” appended into an energetic medley.

The most fascinating cover here, though, is of Ryan Adams’ glorious “When the Stars Go Blue.” This song is buried halfway through Adams’ 75-minute Gold, but it’s given a chance to really shine here. The band brings the ubiquitous Bono on stage to sing, and I would think that for Adams, that would be one hell of a compliment. If the singer of one of the biggest bands in the world was in Dublin crooning my song, well, I’d have been on a plane to see the show, and in line at the record store the second the disc became available. As expected, the band does a great job, but it would be hard to mess up such a great song.

Hopefully this release is a taste of things to come, a sign that the Corrs understand that they may never crack a fickle America, and that they’re too good to pander to the teeny-bopper set, and they should just sound like themselves. We shall see…

* * * * *

The Corrs would have the title of Best Star-Studded, Covers-Laden Live Album From Across the Ocean all wrapped up this month, if not for one Neil Finn.

Finn has had such bad luck in his career that he’s due for a run of the good stuff, I’d think. He fronted two semi-successful bands, Split Enz in the ’80s and Crowded House in the ’90s, neither of which managed more than one or two hits in the U.S., despite the fact that between them they released maybe three bad songs out of nearly 100. His solo debut, Try Whistling This, died on arrival here in America, although its minor hit status in Finn’s native New Zealand secured him a second solo disc, One Nil, in 2000. Of course, we have yet to see this disc stateside.

Thank God Nettwerk Records has picked up the ball and run with it. They plan to release One Nil (inexplicably retitled One All for the U.S.) on May 21, and they just put out the warmup, a new live album called 7 Worlds Collide. This 17-track stunner belongs in a textbook with instructions on how to create the perfect live album.

First, it’s important to make the concert you’re recording an event. Finn invited six other worlds to New Zealand to come collide with his own – Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, Lisa Germano, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Finn’s brother Tim, and his son Liam. Then he selected a wide variety of tunes from both his career and those of his guests. In short, if you’re looking for a comprehensive Neil Finn overview, this’ll do ya. Songs range from his earliest work with Split Enz to three tracks from the upcoming album (which of course everyone in the audience had heard already…grrr…).

Those three tracks, if they’re indicative of One Nil/All‘s overall sound, point towards a collection of classic Neil Finn. He’s one of the world’s greatest living pop songwriters, no question. Just listen to the gentle melodic uplift of “Turn and Run,” or the meandering beauty of “Anytime,” perhaps the second-sweetest song about dying in a car crash ever penned. These songs stand alongside old favorites like “Weather With You” and “She Will Have Her Way” with confidence and grace.

Finn isn’t the only one on display here, though. Vedder takes an early vocal turn on Split Enz’ “Take a Walk,” and Tim Finn’s piano ballad “Stuff and Nonsense.” Germano steps forward for her own “Paper Doll,” and Johnny Marr sings his own “Down On the Corner” before stepping aside to let Finn display his Morrissey impression on the sweetest song about dying in a car crash ever penned, the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Neil and Tim duet on a couple of tracks from the forgotten Finn Brothers album, most notably “Angels Heap,” and they perform “Edible Flowers,” a gorgeous track that for some reason didn’t make the record.

Top all of this off with a lovely acoustic version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and you’ve got a well-spent 74 minutes. Finn (as I’ve said many times before about many other artists) doesn’t get the recognition his talents deserve. Hopefully this stateside push will be just the boost his career needs, mainly because I don’t want to have to pay import prices to hear his new stuff from now on. Come on, America, help a brother out. Check out 7 Worlds Collide.

* * * * *

I’m just about at 4000 words, and thanks for wading through all this, but there’s one thing I need to mention before I go. I had the chance to see Mike Roe play guitar this week in Livonia, Michigan. Seriously, if this guy is anywhere near you (and I drove 3.5 hours for this show), go and see him. Even if you don’t know any of the songs, it’s worth it just to hear what he can do with an acoustic guitar. He ended the show I saw by finger-picking one of his most heart-wrenching songs, “Ache Beautiful,” and segueing into a drop-dead gorgeous rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song.” The show landed somewhere in my top five I’ve ever seen, and remember, I used to review live music for a living. Seriously. Go. Check www.michaelroe.com for tour dates and CDs.

Next week, I dive into the Alarm 2000 box set (a mere two years late). The week after that, you and I both get acquainted with guitarist Peter Calo.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

No Sweeter Sound in the World
Cerberus Shoal's Artistic Triumph, Mr. Boy Dog

There is no greater sound in the world than that of a group of talented musicians doing whatever the hell they want.

That’s the guiding philosophy behind Tuesday Morning, and in fact my life as a music fan. When circumstances, passion and talent align, the result is more often than not sublime. A really great piece of music, written and recorded by great musicians with no concerns other than the artistic, can bring you closer to whatever God or guiding force that holds the universe together. It can speak of better worlds just out of the reach of this one, and provide windows through which you may glimpse them and believe.

Unfortunately, 90 percent of all recorded works don’t even attempt to draw back the blinds and reach for whatever waits beyond. 90 percent of all musicians are blinded, clouded or otherwise held back by financial or personal constraints that prevent them from even trying to act as the conduit to something greater. Of the remaining 10 percent that try, most of them fail in one way or another. The sheer number of coincidences that can derail even the finest and purest artistic plans point towards the making of a truly great creative work as a statistical near impossibility.

If this is getting a little too metaphysical for you, well, let me bring it back to earth. I’ve recently been taken to task (not unkindly, mind) twice by two separate readers for the rules I use to formulate my Top 10 Lists. Most pointedly, these readers both agree that my decision to only include those albums released stateside during a given year is bogus and ill-conceived. More than likely, I’ll be changing the rules at some point to accommodate my newfound worldwide audience (which I still can scarcely believe, so if you’re reading this someplace outside of the continental United States, thank you), but I’d like to point out that I’ve broken them before. One band has forced my hand on at least one occasion to include their discs on the list, even though you can’t find them in record stores, because the music was so original and fantastic that not including them would be criminal.

That band is Maine’s own Cerberus Shoal.

Without my time at Face Magazine, I might never have stumbled across this band, and I’d never know what I’d been missing. I got the opportunity to meet them as well, and to discover just how artistically driven they are. At the time of our interview, the band had just restructured itself into its boldest and best six-man lineup, and was just about to embark on a musical trip with no clear destination. I caught them at the cusp, and they knew just how great they could be then. Four years later, they’d burned brightly and dissolved, but they left behind a three-hour testament to art for art’s sake.

The sextet lineup, which included the three members of local soundscapers Tarpigh, made three albums. Designed as a trilogy, the discs came out slowly. The fascinating, layered Homb descended in 1999, followed by the stranger, denser Crash My Moon Yacht in 2000. Both featured webs of exotic percussion wrapping around intricate guitar and trumpet melodies, augmented by dozens of instruments from around the world. The resulting sound is nearly impossible to describe. Dreamy, atmospheric, cascading, heavy, unfettered and almost entirely wordless, Cerberus had practically created a new art form all their own.

The final part of the trilogy languished, delayed and incomplete, for more than a year. During that time, the band split amicably, with the Tarpigh trio striking out on their own again and Cerberus taking on two new members (and an entirely new sound) and moving forward. Their final album together, rumored to be a double disc that would set the other two records on their ears, looked as though it would join the annals of the great lost recordings.

But lo and behold, Mr. Boy Dog is here. The rumors were right – it’s a double disc set, even though the 68 minutes of music it contains would fit nicely on one CD, and it sets the other two records on their ears.

The unfortunate thing about pure art, from a reviewer’s standpoint, is that it defies efforts to reduce it to words. Mr. Boy Dog has confounded my attempts to review it for a few days now. I can’t pin it down with proper comparisons or contexts, so I’m reduced to fluffy adjectives that tell you pretty much nothing. I can only compare it to other Cerberus Shoal albums, because I know of no other band moving in the direction they moved to arrive at this work. I can only tell you that it is a destination point, a grand finale, a huge and daunting final sprint across the finish line.

Whereas both Homb and Moon Yacht were exercises in drawing out moods, the nine longer tracks on Mr. Boy Dog are relatively concise. The songs are infinitely more complex and dizzying this time out, drawing influences from acid jazz, progressive rock and tribal rhythmic circles, usually all at once. Melodies spring out of nowhere, building on the steadiest foundation this band has ever laid down. The album feels tense and dramatic, even when the melodies are not, as on “Vuka” and “Nod.” This tension makes the 11-minute release of the final track, “An Egypt that Does Not Exist,” seem monumental. In fact, the whole album feels massive, even monolithic.

As towering an achievement as Mr. Boy Dog is on its own, it gains new dimensions when heard as the final act of a trilogy. The occasional aimlessness of previous albums now feels like winding paths toward a well-earned goal. Considering how much the band grew between albums, it’s amazing how much Mr. Boy Dog makes it sound like they knew where they were going all along.

Perhaps the finality of the record wouldn’t sound so…well, final if the band hadn’t split before its release. We (and, I suspect, they) will never really know where they could have gone next. Neither of the musicians’ new incarnations show the promise of Mr. Boy Dog, either: Tarpigh’s new album, Monsieur Monsoon, feels small and scattered in comparison, and Cerberus Shoal, with the addition of two singers, has gone in an off-kilter and vocal-driven direction with their single, Garden Fly Drip Eye. Since both projects’ release preceded Boy Dog, they’re both unfortunately reminiscent of the Beatles’ solo work that came out before Let It Be, reminding everyone that the band was much more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps sadder than the funereal aspect of Mr. Boy Dog is that relatively few people will ever hear it. It’s been released on tiny Baltimore label Temporary Residence, and is only available through one of two websites: www.cerberusshoal.com or www.temporaryresidence.com. If you agree with the first sentence of this column, and you can think of no sweeter sound than that of a group of talented musicians doing whatever the hell they want, then you won’t find sweeter sounds than those contained on Mr. Boy Dog.

Next week, a big huge column with at least five reviews. You’ll just have to wait and see what they are.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

It’s No Bull
But Say Zuzu's Every Mile Ain't Bad

Well, this was supposed to be the first Tuesday Morning column in about six weeks that was actually delivered and posted on a date that resembles the one atop the column, but no such luck. This week I battled valiantly against a hacking, wheezing, snotty sort of illness that set up shop in my throat and proceeded to sell huge amounts of gooey green liquid to all takers within my skull. I went to work all mopey and leaky, hoping to spread my viral infection to the most deserving asswipe of an assistant editor ever visited upon the journalism industry, but otherwise stayed unconscious. We’ll see next week if it was all worth it, if Huggybear the Grim (as we’ve come to call him) collapses, his lungs aflame and his head dissolving to liquid. Such thoughts keep a smile on my face.

* * * * *

I need to mention the Oscars for a second, simply because it will annoy Josh Rogers, and I haven’t heard from him in a while, and this should incite him to write me a hateful e-mail about stupid awards shows, which I will enjoy reading. So, the Oscars.

I’m overall happy with the selections this year, even though A Beautiful Mind is going to mercilessly sweep through the top awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay are all but in the bag. It’s a shame, really, because two much more deserving films are nominated (In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge), but that seems to be the case every year, and why should this one provide that glimmer of faint hope that would sustain millions of moviegoers’ faith in the Academy? Screw that, give it to Russell Crowe again.

But beyond that, I need to mention the most egregious snub of the lot (besides the single solitary major nomination for Memento, which deserved much more than Best Screenplay – I mean, jeez, not recognizing Guy Pearce, at least, is just silly). How can the voters nominate Moulin Rouge for Best Picture without recognizing Baz Luhrmann for Best Director? If any film this year stands as the very image of its director’s singular vision, it’s this one. No one else alive could have made this film, and granting nominations to Robert Altman for directing Masterpiece Theater…er, I mean, Gosford Park, and to David Lynch for coming up with yet another masturbatory chunk of obscure whimsy is simply insane. Luhrmann is one of a handful of modern directors willing to commit completely to a style, a scope and a worldview that is utterly his own. He already won the prize in my head, so to not see his name on the list was a surprise.

Enough of that. And don’t even get me started on the damn Grammys…

* * * * *

How Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Say Zuzu haven’t ridden the alt-country wave to a major label contract is beyond me. There are a number of fabulous bands in northern New England, but Say Zuzu comes in at pretty near the top of the heap. They’ve been around for a decade, perfecting and plying their brand of vaguely twangy rock ‘n’ roll to a depressingly small audience. In 1998 they released their masterpiece of a fourth album, the one they’d been building towards since their inception, and they called it Bull. It’s the kind of record that you put on to listen to alone, and instantly wish you had 500 friends who could come over and listen to it with you. In my Face Magazine column of that year, I called it “the best alt-country album released since the breakup of Uncle Tupelo,” and each time I listen to it, I decide that I wasn’t exaggerating.

Say Zuzu is fronted by a couple of top-notch singers and songwriters in Cliff Murphy and Jon Nolan, kind of the Lennon and McCartney of the band. Even though he signed my copy of Say Zuzu’s new album “Yours in rock,” I’ve always kind of preferred Nolan’s work, but over the years both have grown considerably. It’s sad, then, that very little of that growth is in evidence on Every Mile, their just-released fifth album. The songs and tones stay within pretty strict confines, and none of the wild experimentalism of Bull shows up for the party. It’s almost like listening to a different band.

And, in fact, that’s what’s happened. Murphy and Nolan remain the only original members, having welcomed bassist Jon Pistey and drummer Tim Nylander to the band. If Bull was the sound of one unit spreading its wings, Every Mile is the sound of four guys feeling each other out musically. The songs are straightforward, and the record hardly ever deviates from the guitars-bass-drums format.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s often fascinating to hear this new Say Zuzu coming to terms with itself, and Every Mile is a satisfyingly raw, messy album that documents the process nicely. It also contains some great tunes, the best of which surprisingly sprung from Murphy. “Good Girl” is a sad, slow wonder, and “Don’t Leave” makes its pleading case well. Nolan’s “Postcard” is quite good, and the closing acoustic number, “Still,” is also well done, if not haunting.

Still and all, though, one can’t help comparing this album to the Say Zuzu of old, and it comes up a bit short. The banjo part on the tentative “Sugarbowl” only brings to mind the superior (nay, stunning) “Maylee” on Bull, and rockers like “Doldrums,” fine as they are, recall older, less confident albums. Nolan and Murphy still sing like mud-splattered angels, and their guitar tone, though a bit thicker than on past releases, remains a fine mix of thud and twang. All the ingredients are there, we just need to let this mixture bake a bit longer.

Don’t get me wrong – Say Zuzu are still one of the best bands from the northeast, and Every Mile is worth your purchase. (You can get all their records at www.sayzuzu.com.) For fans who followed them from their early days into one of the best bands in their field, though, it’s kind of depressing that we may have to repeat that process. It’s the paradox of the modern music fan – we want this incarnation of the band to be just as good as the last one, if not better, and we want it right now. Given time, this new Say Zuzu will likely ascend to the heights of their predecessor. That they’re not there yet is cause for anticipation, not alarm.

Next week, too many options. Who can tell?

See you in line Tuesday morning.

A Guitar, a Voice and a Heartbreak
The Sad, Sweet, Unchanging World of Chris Isaak

Previously on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

My computer remains broken, shattered, in several pieces and awaiting the assistance of a pot-addled man named Dave. However, despite all the trauma that these weekend columns have visited upon my life (yeah, trauma – wanna make something of it?), I still managed to give good reviews to Dream Theater and the Chemical Brothers. Check the archive, I’m not lying.

Also, my twin brother slept with my twin half-sister before chopping her into several pieces, feeding those pieces to her dog, and then tossing her dog down a deep well. Despite all this, my disgustingly rich uncle (who may also be my father, and who owns half the quaint seaside town we all live in) has hatched plans to kill her again should she somehow return, with a new face and a new name and a long-lost daughter we never knew existed. Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly suspicious that my half-brother has been spying on the sly dalliance I’ve been having with his mother, and may be plotting to use his occult knowledge to summon some form of vengeance from beyond. I should watch out for that.

So, just another day.

* * * * *

On today’s episode of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

I’ve always said that, if forced at gunpoint to have sex with a man of my choosing, I’d have sex with Chris Isaak. I mean, look at the guy. Who wouldn’t have sex with Chris Isaak?

Apparently, almost everyone, if you’re to believe the lyrics of his songs. Isaak has long been the master of the ’50s-inspired sad-sack heartthrob pose, the teen idol with the great hair that’s constantly getting his heart stomped on by one woman after another. I was half-hoping that, given the success of his Showtime series The Chris Isaak Show, he’d title his new album As Seen on TV, but upon further reflection, that sort of postmodern self-referentialism doesn’t suit Isaak at all. He’s a genuine throwback, a glimmer of an earlier time when a guitar and a heartbreak made a pop star irresistible.

The title he chose for his first album in four years is Always Got Tonight, and that fits right in with the rest of his collection. Isaak has never changed, thank God. He’s always been content to sing the same sad songs the same way, running over the same broken-heart cliches and making them sound like genuine pain. He’s an old-time crooner who just happens to have one of the finest sad-song voices ever granted to a model-handsome hunk. It’s no secret why his records don’t sell – he’s playing to Elvis Presley’s audience, and they’re all busy looking for their King in outlet malls and convenience stores.

Those that get Isaak, though, are in for more of the same with Always Got Tonight, and they should be quite pleased with it. The song titles say it all: “Let Me Down Easy,” “Worked it Out Wrong,” “Life Will Go On,” “Nothing to Say,” and on an on. You’d think he’d get tired of singing about love gone wrong, and more to the point, you’d think that after eight albums, his fans might get tired of it as well. Not gonna happen, for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, there’s that voice. Isaak bends his vocals around his ringing, melancholy guitars and your heart breaks right along with his. He sends it soaring into a flawless falsetto on “Worked It Out Wrong” (for one) and you can’t help the chills that run up and down your spine. He’s a wonderful vocalist, no matter what he’s singing (as his collection of acoustic beach songs, Baja Sessions, proved), but he’s stunningly effective when delivering what otherwise might be a hackneyed weeper.

Second, though the songs remain the same, the trappings often change from album to album, and this one’s no exception. Isaak started out playing minimalist, reverbed guitar-pop, moved to acoustic country-rock and has ended up in platinum-produced rockabilly land, without altering the basic appeal of his simple, direct songs. Always Got Tonight shines in the production department, with bendy electric guitars adding touches of melancholy to “Courthouse,” a string section on “Worked It Out Wrong” and a basic sheen that straddles the too-slick, too-raw line quite well.

Ah, but the music and the production are all just trappings for that voice, and that’s what people respond to. Isaak has always been able to wrap a pop music fan around his little finger with just a few well-placed notes, and the new album is further proof of that. No matter what efforts he makes to convince us that he’s just a regular “American Boy” (the title song to his show, included here), as long as he keeps using that voice, he’ll be anything but typical. Always Got Tonight is another collection of sad, sad songs from Isaak, and if you’ve fallen under his inexplicable spell before, you likely will again.

* * * * *

Coming up on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

February’s half over? How the hell did that happen?

Anyway, there are some interesting musical distractions coming your way in the next few months, and while none of them smack of Top 10 List quality, they should be worth a listen. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

On February 26, Neil Finn makes his latest stateside gambit with the first of his one-two Nettwerk Records punch, the 17-track live album Seven Worlds Collide. Also, Alanis Morissette angsts her way back onto record store shelves with Under Rug Swept, featuring the worst single in her short history, “Hands Clean.” I mean, yikes. This is a bad song. Let’s hope the record transcends it, but from early reviews I’ve been reading, it sadly falls short.

March 12 is a big, big music week. First, there’s the new Eels, called Souljacker. These guys have made some of the coolest quirk-pop of the last few years, and the new album contains a song called “World of Shit,” so it can’t be all bad. Also, the Indigo Girls return with Become You, their eighth album. Bob Mould (formerly of Husker Du and Sugar) launches the first album in a trilogy with Modulate. Me’Shell NdegeoCello returns to her funky roots on Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. The Corrs, who remain highly underrated, give us their first live album, and Jars of Clay release their first self-produced effort, The Eleventh Hour.

Coming in April are two new albums from Tom Waits, called Alice and The Red Drum. Apparently these mark a surprising shift in direction for America’s favorite crazed, growling, freaky genius. Phish puts out the next six volumes of their LivePhish series, and before they do, I promise to post my reviews of the first six. Elvis Costello gives us another cynical rocker (and about damn time) with When I Was Cruel, Wilco finally releases the “too musically adventurous” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Weezer gives us another half an hour of joy with Maladroit.

Obviously, no Say ZuZu this week – maybe next week? Tune in to find out.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Let Me Take You Down ‘Cause I’m Going Soon
The Chemical Brothers Invite You to Come With Us

A quick computer update first.

So I finally get in touch with Dave, our friendly neighborhood computer technician, who always sounds like he’s just downed a big fat bag of weed. Dave isn’t much on interpersonal communication, but he knows his shit, or so I’ve been assured. Thus, with all the positive thinking I can muster, I hand Dave the broken old hard drive like a ritual sacrifice and say, “Do your thing.”

Hours later, Dave is still kneeled over the scattered carcass of my computer, muttering to himself. Occasionally I can make out phrases, none of them comforting: “I was afraid of that,” or, “This isn’t too good.” I start pacing like an expectant father, until finally, Dave looks up and, with a sad voice, proclaims the computer “broken.” Dave then proceeds to call technical support, which doesn’t fill me with all the confidence in the world.

Long story short, we’re going to try replacing the mother board and see if that works. Then we’re going to attack the old computer with a sledge hammer and just buy another one. Either way, it looks like Sunday columns for a while yet. Stifle your cries of dismay, faithful readers. Neither Dave nor I want to hear them.

* * * * *

Some upcoming items of interest:

New Hampshire’s best band, the superb Say ZuZu, has a new album out called Every Mile. With any luck, it will be the subject of next week’s review. If you’ve never heard this band, your first stop on www.sayzuzu.com should be to purchase their terrific fourth album, Bull. To my ears, it’s the best alternative country album since Uncle Tupelo broke up. If Every Mile is as good, I’ll be thrilled, and you’ll read it here first.

Speaking of alt-country, and of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy’s band Wilco has finally secured a U.S. release date for their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. As you may have heard, the album was rejected by Reprise Records for being “too musically adventurous,” whatever the hell that means. Advance reports are calling it alternately a masterpiece and a pile of cow puckey, with some pundits proclaiming that it will kill their career. For music fans that enjoy risky works, this news is thrilling beyond measure. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be out on Nonesuch Records on April 23.

Finally, Mark Eitzel, the saddest man in music, returns on April 9 with an album called Courage and Confidence. Before you start to think that he’s taken those patented Robert Smith happy pills, you should know that it’s a covers album. It’s so Mark Eitzel to only be able to find courage and confidence in other people’s songs. More on this soon.

* * * * *

The Chemical Brothers are an odd case. They hit huge in 1996 with Dig Your Own Hole, and then rapidly proceeded to take their album title’s advice, producing work that veered sharply away from the club-happy beats of their first couple of albums. They’re known primarily as an electronica act, and if I can pause for one second, I’d express how much I vehemently despise that appellation. We’re so concerned with putting music in compact little boxes that we lump everyone who uses programmed synthesizers into one category. The sub-categories (jungle, house, trance, etc.) are not any better, either.

That’s why the Chemical Brothers are to be treasured. They have complete disdain for those little boxes, breaking them down as often as possible. Dig Your Own Hole was praised for its single-minded sonic warping, but also for its willingness to add live vocals, guitars and violins to an otherwise computerized mix. To my mind, the Chems are no more an electronica group than the Beastie Boys are a rap outfit. It’s all about tearing down myopic boundaries.

The sad fact is that the further the Brothers move away from the repetitive thudding of their roots, the fewer albums they sell. Case in point: In 1999, the Brothers released Surrender, the culmination of a bunch of melodic paths they’d been taking for years. It was the first ’60s-influenced psychedelic dance album, simply drowned in backwards soundscapes and heavenly guitar. It was a pulsating wonderland, and it sold for shit. The legions of fans who came aboard with “Block Rockin’ Beats” dove overboard and swam for shore as if there were sharks on their tails.

Undaunted, the Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, totally unrelated) have pressed on and released the second ’60s-influenced psychedelic dance album with Come With Us. God bless ’em, because this disc is more of the same ecstatic boundary-pushing that they’ve been doing all along, and it probably won’t make a blip on the sales charts.

That’s not important, though. What is important is that once you get through the opening trilogy (a somewhat loose assemblage of beats and samples that recalls their early work), the remainder of Come With Us is a mind-altering psychosphere of joy. Blissful synths sit alongside trumpets, guitars and enough backwards tape looping to drive John Lennon’s ghost mad, and it all works. Call it flower power trance dance absurdica, or whatever you like. No one in this field is making records quite like this.

Come With Us offers the Chems’ fourth collaboration with the amazing Beth Orton, on “The State We’re In,” a melancholy and atmospheric piece. They also close the record with “The Test,” a rambling, overjoyed set piece for The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft that has some fans up in arms. Those same fans, however, decried similar collaborations with Noel Gallagher (“Setting Sun”) and Johnny Marr (“Out of Control”), and have been resistant to any hint of change.

Well, the hell with them. The Chemical Brothers know that music has to change. They’re in the vanguard of artists that, for the majority of the ’90s, have been smashing the boundaries that marketing and demographic research has placed on music. Yeah, Come With Us can be seen as just another Chemical Brothers album, only building slightly on the last one, but in truth, they’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to their expansive vision. They want you along for the ride, not watching from the side of the road. Why else would they have called the album Come With Us?

Next week, hopefully Say ZuZu.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Pretty Regret Machine
NIN's Live Album, And All That Could Have Been

Got my car back.

There is no sweeter feeling than unhindered mobility, especially after you’ve been traveling solely on the kindness of strangers for a while. Trust me. The car looks brand new, and so naturally I’m petrified to drive the thing, lest I smash it up again. It’s almost too shiny and perfect for me to be comfortable behind the wheel. I know, the depths of my neuroses know no bounds…

As for the computer, well, that’s another story. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably have to endure one more of these ultra-late Sunday columns before I get back on track. I figure there are two big new releases next week (Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and the Chemical Brothers’ Come With Us), so I should be able to do one on Sunday and one on Wednesday on my fully healed word cruncher. I believe that saying things out loud helps them to come true, so I include this tentative schedule in this week’s missive in the hopes that the universe gets the hint.

Thanks for your patience. With any luck, you’ll be getting Tuesday Morning on Wednesday evening again before long. (Only in my world does that make a reassuring amount of sense.)

* * * * *

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is so far ahead of the curve he’s caught up with his own backlash. It’s so fashionable to hate him that the bleeding-edge alternative critics have gone back to praising him again as if megahit “Closer” had never happened. The people who approach Reznor from a musical standpoint, meaning those who aren’t looking for someone in black fishnets to define their vague alienation for them, have never stopped praising his work, however. Reznor remains one of our most talented sonic architects, and thanks to a few MTV hits, he’s also our only fully-funded one.

Here are the facts. In 1989, Reznor, with a little album called Pretty Hate Machine, popularized a certain computer-driven sound that had become known as industrial. That record has always sounded cheap and clangy, but it influenced the creation of mainstream industrial acts the same way the first Velvet Underground album influenced garage rock. Almost every idiot with a sequencer who heard this record started a band, or rather, a “band,” clogging the airwaves with barely musical depresso-montages. Reznor himself has never done another album like it.

In 1992, the reclusive Reznor returned with Broken, a six-song EP that introduced layered, noisy guitars to the equation. Broken is a merciless 25-minute burst of rage that, again, influenced hundreds of less talented hacks like Gravity Kills to start screaming and overloading their tracks with noisy mayhem. Broken retains an artfulness that still sets it far above the oceans of imitators, even though, again, Reznor has never done another album like it.

Instead, he embarked on a quirky and satisfying artistic journey with 1994’s The Downward Spiral, a diseased look inside the mind of a violent criminal. Rarely has such a difficult and uncompromising work yielded such a popular hit single, but “Closer” really put Reznor on the map, which naturally fueled cries of sell-out. How anyone can listen to The Downward Spiral and hear sell-out is beyond me. It’s a deeply emotional and complex album, filled with off-kilter sonic constructions that constantly threaten to collapse upon themselves. From a purely musical standpoint, it’s a modern masterpiece.

1999’s double-disc follow-up, The Fragile, was even better – a sprawling, thematically linked stunner that sounded like the culmination of all of Reznor’s disparate musical threads. In this age of downloadable hit singles, it’s impressive enough that such a high-profile artist decided to release a 100-minute work that cannot be successfully separated or broken down. The Fragile is an all-or-not-at-all proposition, and it rewards complete listens like few albums from the ’90s do.

All of which is a lengthy way of stating that Reznor deserves every ounce of respect he’s given. His journey has been an utterly fascinating one so far, and he’s one of a handful of modern artists who reveals more of himself with each subsequent release. Just when you think he’s through surprising you, he jolts you again with something utterly unexpected.

Which brings us to his new two-disc set, And All That Could Have Been. It’s a strange, yet oddly fitting title for an overview of older material that brings new emotions into focus. As advertised, And All That Could Have Been contains a live album, Reznor’s first, and it provides a terrific sampling of material from all four albums. The live band hasn’t changed in 10 years – it’s still Reznor, Charlie Clouser, Robin Finck, Jerome Dillon and Danny Lohner. What has changed from that disastrous first Lollapalooza tour is the volume of emotion NIN brings to the material.

The live album documents last year’s Fragility 2.0 tour, voted by many music publications as the best tour of the year. Yes, the band plays with programmed backing beats, but you’d be surprised just how difficult that is to pull off, especially since the arrangements often deconstruct the songs in surprising new ways. The blips and beats are treated as the songs’ essential skeletons, over which Reznor and company build new beasts. Most effective is the extended ending to “The Day the World Went Away,” a slowly cascading powerhouse of simplicity.

Reznor has always excelled at giving cold mechanical backdrops a flesh and blood treatment, and on stage he’s just as good as in the studio. The live disc brings the rage, as Reznor screams his way through “Terrible Lie,” “Wish,” “Gave Up,” “Head Like a Hole,” rare b-side “Suck” and “Starfuckers Inc.” like an unhinged demon. Surprisingly, though, he also carries off quieter, more orchestrated material like “The Great Below” with grace. Closing track “Hurt” (also the closer on Spiral) is just as effective live as on disc. Far from the studied precision of his studio works, And All That Could Have Been gives us a raw, fully human Reznor we’ve never heard before.

If you’re going to buy this thing, though, you need to get the two-disc version, because the second album here is the biggest and most pleasant surprise. It’s called Still, and it’s 43 minutes of stripped-down, piano-centric reflection. Reznor steps out from behind the curtain here and invites us to gaze at him, cracked and broken, with nowhere to hide. It’s the most affecting work he’s ever released, and the most effective deconstruction of his signature sound.

Still opens with a piano-and-vocal take on “Something I Can Never Have” that sets the tone – sparse instrumentation and naked vocals that crack and falter with emotion. Similar takes on “The Fragile” and “The Day the World Went Away” work just as well, and even when he adds pitter-pattering drums and synths to “The Becoming,” the tone remains somber. Still contains five new songs, four of which are gorgeous instrumentals that explore the territory Reznor mined with The Fragile‘s mood pieces. It’s capped off with new song “And All That Could Have Been,” a worthy addition.

Thematically, Still revisits every phase of the NIN trip so far with the kind of reflective hindsight that comes with age and distance. If Reznor has indeed been writing a strange form of autobiography, then Still is him looking back with regret. It’s tinged with a sadness that’s only hinted at in previous works, and it sustains that mood throughout. Closing track “Leaving Hope” may be the most emotional piece of instrumental music you’re likely to hear. That and the rest of Still serve as a perfect capstone to what hopefully is only the first chapter. The live album is just the bow on top. Still is the prize, another grand surprise in a grand and surprising career.

Next week, Dream Theater.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In a New York Minute
Everything Can Turn to Crap

I had a freak-out in New York last weekend.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve experienced one of those – a genuine, synapse-collapsing meltdown. I was meant to have been visiting a friend, with whom I’ve recently reconnected after seven years. Everything was set – on my way to Maryland, I would stop in for a few days, staying at her apartment on First Avenue. I had decent directions (given to me by a nifty individual who doubles as a Presbyterian minister and a sex therapist), I had a plan, and I thought I had control over my biggest fear.

You see, the only thing in the world I’m really afraid of is other people. I’m not scared to fly, I’m just frightened of the other people on the plane. Likewise, I have no fear of driving, but I’m terrified of the other people on the road. This phobia has mutated over time to provide me with a pathological fear of cities. I just hate them. I especially hate driving in them – so many other drivers, all with divergent destinations, and none of them give two rat’s shits whether you make it to yours alive.

Of all the cities I’ve driven through, New York City is the worst. At any given time, there are millions of people trying to navigate roads that are only wide enough to accommodate two horse-driven carriages. The streets themselves seem to harbor a dislike of drivers, particularly those unfamiliar with the city. They appear to twist in upon themselves, providing only one-way outlets going the opposite way one wishes to proceed. It’s impossible to retrace your steps in New York, as I discovered on Saturday.

One thing you need to understand about me for this story to make sense – I don’t have a cell phone. I hate those things, too. I find them inherently annoying whenever I encounter them, and consider them only useful in emergency situations. Despite my tendency to find myself in emergency situations in which a cell phone could be extremely useful, I haven’t broken down and bought one yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. So don’t email me asking why I didn’t just call someone. That’s why.

So, okay, I arrive in New York at about 3:30 in the afternoon, only about three and a half hours later than I intended in the first place. (Late night, oversleeping, late start in the morning, etc.) My first destination is the Triboro Bridge, a teeming disaster area of semi-mobile vehicles, crammed into five tiny lanes. I entered, by necessity, on the left side of the bridge, and had to somehow maneuver my way through three lanes of backed-up traffic to get to the right lane, which turned into my exit in roughly a quarter-mile. To top that off, everyone else on the bridge seemingly needed to get over into whatever lane I was inhabiting at the time as well, and most of them just turned towards my vehicle without a second thought.

I think I almost died four times.

Still and all, I got over the bridge and onto FDR Drive. My directions then specified that I was to look for an exit sign with no number or street name – one just marked “Exit.” That’s the kind of city New York is. Needless to say, about an hour later, I was completely lost, with no idea of how I’d managed to get where I was, or how to get back. (See previous comments re: retracing one’s steps.) Depressingly, there appeared no place to park, either – all the spaces were taken, sometimes twice, and traffic wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. Plus, given my fear of other people, I wasn’t about to leave my car anywhere unattended.

At one point, I asked a friendly police officer (who was risking his life directing traffic) how to get to First Avenue. He told me to “take a left on Centre Street and then a right on HOW-ston.” At least, that’s how it sounded to me, so I asked him to repeat that last street name, and he said it again: “HOW-ston.” When I asked him to spell it, he looked at me as if I had just crawled up from the evolutionary muck. “It’s spelled ‘Houston,'” he grunted. “Well then,” I thought, “why in fuck’s name didn’t you just SAY ‘Houston’ in the first place.” I didn’t say that, however.

No, I was just about in the throes of my freak-out, which came on full force when I took that right onto HOW-ston and found that it didn’t quite lead me where I wanted to go. The next hour or so is a blur of sharp turns, near-misses and hyperventilation, and when I stumbled upon the way out – blessed Route 495, which must lead to Route 95 – I jumped at it. I even pulled into a gas station and asked the fine gentleman behind the counter which 495 (east or west) would get me back to Route 95.

“East,” he said.

“Right-o,” I replied.

Half an hour later, I was screaming at my mental picture of that fine gentleman, calling him a filthy cocksucking liar. I kept thinking that the road would loop around, perhaps, or connect in some way south of the city, but no. I ended up pulling off into another gas station, and meeting the nicest New Yorker ever, who gave me a map and directed me to the Cross Island Expressway, which hooks up with 95 after the Verrazzano Bridge. I thanked him and hurried back, thinking I might give the city another shot.

Of course, the Expressway was backed up for miles and miles, so I didn’t reach 95 until 8:30 p.m. The decision to just go south to Maryland was a pretty easy one – I really couldn’t spend another minute in that city. By the time I hit the highway, I was a twittering, shaking, sweaty mess. I know I’m going to have to get over this at some point, but my fear of cities is so great that I can barely breathe when I’m in one. I don’t think I’m afraid of other people individually so much as in nameless, faceless groups – which extends to religions and political organizations as well. They scare the shit out of me.

Naturally, my friend was frightened out of her gourd that I might have died along the way, and I didn’t catch up with her until about 11 p.m. If the fear and anger in her voice wasn’t enough convince me that I need a cell phone, I don’t think anything will be. Over the last few days, I have found myself glancing with interest at Verizon Wireless stores as I walk past, so we shall see.

As a hopeful epilogue to this stupid little tale, however, I made my first tentative drives into Baltimore this week, and they didn’t go as badly as I expected. Baltimore is like a slightly larger Portland, Maine, in that people seem to all be going the same direction most of the time. Plus, it has the biggest freaking Barnes and Noble I have ever seen, and I’m really looking forward to driving back in and checking it out.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to find a job, which is why this column contains nothing of substance. Plus, this week saw a complete absence of noteworthy new music, which will hopefully be rectified by next week, when Jeff Tweedy’s Loose Fur project hits, as well as Billy Corgan’s debut with his new band, Zwan. In the meantime, drive safe, and try to think about the other drivers now and again. Especially if you live in a big city.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Death and Rebirth
And Changing to a Butterfly Jones

So I was going to start this column with a justification for its lateness and a giant rant against technology, both of which were precipitated by my computer dying on me. My two-year-old typewriter-with-a-TV has decided, all on its own, that the hard drive upon which I’ve placed everything I’ve written since 1999 (including every one of these columns) doesn’t actually exist. I can’t convince it otherwise. It’s probably something small and stupid, like a loose wire or a broken needle, but my Circuit City service contract only covers replacements. Hence, an all-new hard drive will be on its way to me in a day or two, I hope.

So yeah, I was going to start in about how everything breaks and dies just when you’ve become dependent on it. And then a real person died, and that sort of put things into perspective.

The biggest problem with being a comic book fan (which I am) is that no one’s ever heard of the art form’s best and brightest. Being the most famous and influential comic book artist is like being the world’s greatest tile grouter. In tile grouting circles, you’re a superstar. To the rest of the world, you’re kind of weird for thinking that tile grouting is a big deal.

All of which is a way of saying that when a great comic book artist, a true architect of the modern form, passes on, no one but the fans really notices. John Buscema was one of those, though – a true architect of the modern form. He worked with Stan Lee to bring Marvel Comics its heart and soul, especially on a title called Silver Surfer that was epic and small at the same time, mostly because of Buscema’s art. Every comic book artist who’s ever tried to depict the massive and world-spanning on a human scale has used Buscema as a guideline, and they’ll all tell you so.

I don’t want to eulogize the guy too much, because I didn’t know him. He did, however, have a lasting impact on my childhood, whether I knew it or not at the time. I also figured that since no major news organizations were going to memorialize him, I’d better say something before another superb artist passed into the ether without notice.

Rest in peace, John.

* * * * *

I’m playing catch-up this week with a brief review of an album I never got around to last year. I say ‘brief” because my lack of computer is forcing me to type this at the office, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do non-newspaper work for very long while my bosses are roaming about. By the time they read this, if they do, I hope it’ll be too late.

I first heard dada the same way most people did, I’m sure. I caught their novelty hit “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio in ’92 and laughed my throat raw. If you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Dizz Knee Land” is a clever send-up of those Disney World commercials that ran in the early ’90s. (You know the ones: “Jeffrey Dahmer, you’ve just carved up three innocent people and ate them, what are you going to do next?” ‘I’m going to Disney World!”) “Dizz Knee Land” was full of anti-social behavior (“I just robbed a grocery store, I just flipped off President George, I’m going to Dizz Knee Land…”), but it broke the first rule of career longevity: never lead with a novelty song.

True to the rule, dada never had another hit. They did, however, produce four albums that ranged in quality from very good to superb, without another novelty tune in the bunch. Guitarist Michael Gurley in particular established himself as a singular talent, one of only a handful of modern guitarists with his own signature sound. You can always tell a Gurley tune from the guitar tone. Try saying that about the guy from Godsmack.

If any one thing characterized dada, it was their unwillingness to be pigeonholed. They tried everything, from three-chord jams to complex Beatlesque pop to haunting blues-influenced showcases. The trio (also including bassist Joie Calo and drummer Phil Leavitt) was always best, however, when they relied on nothing but their chemistry as a unit, stripping down to three instruments and a voice and somehow filling the room with a huge yet minimalist sound.

As you’ve probably gathered by the frequent use of past tense verbs in this column, dada broke up a while ago. Well-researched readers have probably also surmised that the CD I didn’t get to last year is the debut from Gurley’s new band, Butterfly Jones. This album has sold like wool sweaters to sheep, which is to say not very well, and that’s not unexpected, but unfortunate. Butterfly Jones’ Napalm Springs (love that title) is, at the very least, a better-than-average dada album, and ought to be doing better than it is.

Alas, the American public seems to be allergic to smart, well-constructed pop music, which is what Napalm Springs offers in spades. Gurley’s guitar tone remains enticingly original, and drummer Leavitt is in Butterfly Jones as well, so it’s almost a dada reunion. Instead of the minimalist approach his former band took, though, Gurley has widened the sound here without oversaturating it, making room for strings and horns and the sampled sounds of Soul Coughing keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni. It’s a mainstreaming move, to be sure, but it works well with the material.

And the material is almost entirely musically excellent. To name three, “Suicide Bridge” is another hit that will never be, “Blue Roses” is sweet and subtle, and “Alright” recasts Gurley’s lead guitar in a similar setting to “Dorina,” off of dada’s debut, and lets him loose. Throughout, Gurley’s voice floats atop these tunes, and even though Joie Calo isn’t around to harmonize with him, the result is pretty close to dada’s most melodic work.

The weak point here, as always with Gurley, is the lyrics. On Napalm Springs they jump from witty to wretched fairly often, a weakness that also marred the final dada album. “Wonder” is almost laughable, with its “where did we come from, where are we going to” pseudo-metaphysics. “When People Are Mean” also suffers from its kindergarten-level moralization: “When people are mean, when people are bad, it usually means that somewhere inside they are sad…”

But then Gurley whomps you with “The Systematic Dumbing Down of Terry Constance Jones,” a smirking depiction of pop culture marketing’s effect on the American female. This tune’s a serious prize, one of the several instances on Napalm Springs where the lyrics rise to the challenge of the music. Another is ‘It’s Cool Dude,” which could have been a throwaway and ends up surprisingly affecting.

Gurley is obviously fishing for a hit with this album, but he hasn’t watered himself down to attain chart status. He’s just sent his considerable songwriting skill into more acoustic and melodic waters. While Napalm Springs may not please every dada fan, especially those looking for more of their three-piece rock band sound, those who miss Michael Gurley’s voice and guitar would be well advised to seek it out. If you’ve never heard the man outside of “Dizz Knee Land” before, he’s created a good starting point here. Butterfly Jones is, in many ways, dada for the masses.

You lucky masses.

Next time, probably a round-up of several year-end hip-hop releases. After that, new stuff. Yaaaay!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Don’t Call It a Comeback
Post-Hiatus Phish Disappoints With Round Room

It’s fitting that as I embark upon my first column about the mighty Phish, the band lands in the news here in Massachusetts.

Maybe you heard about it. At a recent show up here, the band brought out a man they introduced as Tom Hanks, the final punchline in a lengthy gag regarding their song “Wilson.” (You can probably figure it out.) Obviously, it wasn’t Tom Hanks, but rather a similar-looking relative of one of the band members, but the local media seized upon the story, touting Hanks’ appearance with typical celebrity-hungry fervor. The retractions the next day were funny, and it struck me that such a ruse is right out of the Frank Zappa Screw-With-Your-Audience Handbook.

I’m not sure what level of Phish fandom I can rightfully claim. As of this writing, I’ve never seen them live. I have all the albums, of course, and all of the officially released live recordings, but except for a few gifts from friends hooked up to the tape-trading circuit, I’ve never been into their bootleg network. And I’ve always admired them for what they took from Frank Zappa as opposed to what they got from the Grateful Dead, meaning I’m more into their arrangement and technical skills than their improvisation and sense of community.

Make no mistake, what Phish didn’t get from the Dead they got from Zappa – the jazz-rock tendencies, the nonsensical lyrics uttered in a low voice that dances all around the pitch, the prolific and diverse nature of their catalog. Which is the bigger influence is an argument for another time, but one that would certainly have its share of evidence on both sides. F’rinstance, Zappa played and recorded several songs from his 1984 rock opera Thing-Fish long before unveiling the whole thing. Likewise, Phish have Gamehendge, a lengthy and fantastical rock opera that they’ve never recorded, but have played pieces of in concert for as long as they’ve been a band. (“Wilson,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Punch You In the Eye,” to name a few.)

There is one thing, however, that they took from the Dead that elevates them above most bands playing today. It’s not the quality of the musicians – Zappa’s bands had some of the most technically amazing players you will ever be fortunate enough to hear, but they were lorded over by Frank himself, conducting and dictating the sound and style according to his own compositional ear. Plus, as Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side project Oysterhead (with Primus’ Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland) showed, you can put the best musicians together and still not achieve that spark that turns them into a band.

Phish is a band. In fact, they’ve often gone beyond band, playing like some 16-limbed, four-throated, 800-pound monstrosity. Like the core members of the Dead, the four Phish guys have spent so many years listening to each other play that they’ve turned it into a form of mind-meld. In their best moments, the four musicians not only anticipate what each other will do next, but challenge each other to reach further into new directions.

This bold exploration is fascinating if you’re a musician, but can be understandably tiresome if you’re not one. I think Phish recognizes this as well, which is why their studio and live outputs have been so different of late. Critics and fans have harped upon every release since Hoist for not capturing the sound of the band live, but that hasn’t been the point for many years. The last four studio releases have been small affairs, consisting of 12 or so short, melodic songs without much of the grand spectacle of the live shows. (Naturally, there’s the LivePhish series and the Hampton Comes Alive box set, which provide all the live spectacle one could need.)

Which is why Phish’s return to the studio is so surprising. The foursome took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording to pursue side projects, most of them fruitful – Anastasio had a solo album and tour, keyboardist Page McConnell led the jazzy Vida Blue, and bassist Mike Gordon recorded with guitar hero Leo Kottke. When they reconvened this summer to rehearse for their first tour since 2000, they liked their new material so much that they pressed the record button, and four days later emerged with Round Room, their new album.

What’s surprising is that Round Room seems to go against the philosophy of the recent studio direction. At 78 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut, the epic Junta, and if it does nothing else, the album certainly captures the sound of Phish playing live. It all but shuns the finessed sheen of their last album, Farmhouse, in favor of rough edges and extended jams.

So why am I so disappointed with it? I suppose it’s because I’ve been spoiled by the LivePhish series, especially the recent round of Halloween shows (vols. 13-16). This series selectively showcases only the best nights of the Phish experience, and as any fan of improvisational live music can tell you, there’s never any guarantee that you’ll be seeing the band on one of their best nights. By recording Round Room live in four days, Phish rolled the dice, trusting that these four days would find them completely in tune with each other. As you may have guessed, they didn’t, at least not entirely.

There are four extended jams on Round Room, each approaching or breaking the 10-minute mark, and while I like them fine, I don’t consider them the best examples of what this band can do. Opener “Pebbles and Marbles” starts with a swing beat, then escalates masterfully over its 11 minutes to become the most successful of the longer tunes. Also excellent is “Walls of the Cave,” although neither of those songs has the spark of, for instance, the version of “Chalk Dust Torture” on LivePhish Vol. 2. Less successful is “Waves,” the pseudo-epic closer, which actually finds McConnell fumbling for notes.

It’s the remainder of the record, however, which could have used the most editing. As usual, the shorter numbers reach for simplicity, and often end up with banality. Of the shorter numbers, “Anything But Me” stands out as a winner. It’s soft and emotional, in the same vein as “Fast Enough for You” from Rift, still my favorite Phish record. Unfortunately, we also get drivel like “Mexican Cousin,” which I never have to hear again as long as I live.

Anastasio may not be the best singer on the planet, but he sounds like Jeff Buckley when compared with Gordon, who gets two songs all to himself. It doesn’t help that his round robin title track doesn’t really go anywhere after the first 30 seconds or so. But it hardly matters who’s singing some of these songs, since they weren’t given time to gestate beyond the sketch stage. “46 Days,” for example, made for a nifty three minutes on Saturday Night Live, but doesn’t really evolve beyond the repetitive chorus phrase (“46 days and the coal ran out”) and the one-chord stomp of the main riff.

I know I’m asking a lot of a bunch of songs that weren’t road-tested first, but Phish’s return should have been better than this. The best of the band’s live material starts in the stratosphere and gradually ascends into orbit. Most of Round Room never even gets off the ground. It would be an interesting experiment to hear the band re-record this album after bringing the songs out on tour to watch them grow up, but for now, the album is a mixed bag that feels too rushed and too rough. Much of Zappa’s later material suffered from the same maladies, and I hope Phish has enough sense not to emulate their hero that closely.

Next week, Prince, I hope.

See you in line Tuesday morning.