Happiness is a Short Record
Built to Spill Strike Back

The Weinstein Brothers are very smart, as evidenced by the fact that I’m about to play right into their hands and do some of their work for them.

Miramax (headed by the Weinsteins) made the smart decision to sneak preview Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back last weekend, and I caught one of the screenings. The idea of these sneak previews is to build up advance word of mouth. The producers hope that everyone who sees the flick early will like it enough to see it again opening night, and bring five or six friends along. This is an ideal situation for Smith, as his career has been built upon steadily increasing word of mouth. Being a Kevin Smith fan is like belonging to an exclusive club, albeit one that grows exponentially with each new film. His movies all have the feel of something your childhood buddies put together for a laugh.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the perfect film for one of these sneaks, for a few reasons. First, it’s the funniest film you’re likely to see this year. It’s 100 minutes of rapid-fire hilarity, some of it devilishly clever, some of it unbelievably sophomoric. You’ll have to see it twice because the audience’s laughter will drown out a good chunk of the jokes the first time.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s the closing chapter in Smith’s View Askew-niverse films, and as such it features characters from Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma, his four previous features. The film is loaded with in-jokes, and serves as a somewhat touching goodbye and heartfelt thanks to Smith’s fans. Even so, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film so inclusive, so ready to let you in on its good time. Here’s what’s happening right now across the country: hardcore Smith fans who saw the sneak preview are telling their friends how funny J&SBSB is, and making them watch the first four so that they’ll be ready.

The film never makes you feel like you’ve come in at the end, even if you haven’t seen any of the previous four. If you’ve been with him all along, though, this movie is definitely something special. It’s a stupid film that knows how stupid it is, pointing out its own flaws as it goes along and thereby defanging the critics. Really, though, this movie is so good-natured and so willing to laugh with you that harping on it seems petty. It’s full-on flat-out fun from first shot to last (stay through the end credits). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen $20 million pissed away with such wild abandon, and just on that level, it’s hilarious.

Here’s where I do the Weinstens’ jobs for them: go see Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when it opens on Friday. ‘Nuff said. Noodge.

*****

The compact disc can hold 81 minutes of music without losing sound quality.

More than any other factor, that technological leap has dictated the longer records we’ve seen over the last 10 years. An album used to be 30 to 40 minutes long. These days, in order to make the consumers feel like they’re not being ripped off, discs have ballooned to twice that length. Often, the artists in question just don’t have that much material, and 80-minute albums end up feeling padded.

This year, though, we’ve seen the comeback of the tiny album, and the complaints have flown freely. The most egregious offender was Weezer, whose comeback record after a five-year absence clocked in at 28 minutes. Never mind that they were 28 perfect minutes, the fans expected more, and for the outrageous CD prices most people are forced to pay, how can you blame them? As a commercial product, it’s a bit of a rip-off, but as an album, Weezer is everything it should have been: tight, compact and infused with the sense that there’s more where that came from.

Built to Spill have entered the small album sweepstakes with their 39-minute Ancient Melodies of the Future, released last month. This follows their live record, imaginatively titled Live, which stretched nine songs to over an hour. As thrilling as Live was, it followed a pattern of pushing songs to their breaking points, one that has happily been broken with the new record. Ancient Melodies is the sharpest pop record Built to Spill has come out with since their second, There’s Nothing Wrong with Love.

Let’s back up, because I’ve just lost every non-BTS fan.

Built to Spill are Boise, Idaho’s most famous export, right behind the potato. Masterminded by guitarist/singer Doug Martsch, they combine the indie-rock sensibility of Sonic Youth with the pop songwriting of early Sloan. Martsch helped to pioneer the sloppy-yet-sharp style of guitar playing. He often sounds as if he’s going to slip right off the fretboard at any time, yet he delivers these lovely melodies that rise above the sludge to lodge in your head.

I hope I’m making this sound appealing.

Anyway, after three lovely independent releases, BTS signed with Warner Bros. and delivered their longest, loudest record to date, Perfect From Now On. The songs got longer and sloppier, the melodies got more sparse, and the guitar work took center stage over the songwriting. That trend culminated on Live when Martsch and his bandmates stretched a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” to more than 20 minutes. Martsch appeared to have lost himself in the ether somewhere.

Ancient Melodies of the Future is a bracing re-entry, its title referencing the look back and the look forward it hopefully represents. None of the songs exceed four minutes, and all of them are well-crafted and melodic. The guitars have been scaled back, and vintage-sounding keyboards have been introduced. Despite a reliance on the same chords a few times too many, Ancient Melodies recaptures the sharp pop of the band’s first few albums, albeit on a slightly grander scale. While there are precious few surprises, the record ambles along briskly, buoyed by Martsch’s nonchalantly sweet voice. “Happiness,” especially, is a hit that will never be one, propelled by a Led Zeppelin-esque slide guitar riff. Still and all, by track eight or so you feel like Martsch has exhausted his bag of tricks.

That’s when he pulls out “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” the most winning piece of fluff BTS has ever put together. The song is almost a mission statement, if such a weighty title can be given to such an effervescent tune. It’s here that Martsch fully breaks free from the morass he’s surrounded himself with for three albums. His guitar flits hither and thither, surrounding a big wide grin of a melody that never lets up. Surrounded as it is by Built to Spill’s most accessible material in years, “Little Miss” hopefully signals a new direction for the band towards the kind of light, engaging pop they made it so easy to love.

After all, as Martsch himself once said, there’s nothing wrong with love.

Next, probably Bjork.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

We interrupt This Column for a Big Fat List
Two Months of Musical Excitement

I don’t feel much like doing one of these today.

When I was in the Czech Republic, I happened to wander into Europe’s largest music store, just down the block from our hotel. Actually, that’s a lie. I did everything in my limited, weak-assed power to stay away from Europe’s largest music store, because I knew that what fragile hold I had been keeping on my finances would evaporate upon contact with such a place. You know that scene in Clerks where Randal goes to the real video store and falls to his knees in worship? That was me.

Anyway, while in Europe’s largest music store, I happened across a record by Devin Townsend called Infinity. I mention this just to show the anal-retentive attention to detail I can muster when music is involved. Townsend is the sole member of Strapping Young Lad, and under that guise he produces the loudest and most spine-shattering noise you’re likely to come across. His one and only solo record under his name, however, was never released in the U.S., and finding it in Europe was a thrill. Of course, I bought it.

While checking out, I tried to convey my excitement to the poor register girl, who of course spoke no English. “Not available in the U.S.,” I said triumphantly. “I’m so happy I found this.”

The girl hit me with a look of bewildered disdain and muttered something annoyed-sounding in Czech. She then doubled her speed in the hopes of booting my sad American carcass out of her store as quickly as possible.

And that, my fine friends, is how I’ve been feeling lately, writing this column. I seem to be singularly unable to communicate my excitement about music as an expressive and beautiful art form in any real and meaningful way. When I steer clear of musical topics, the column’s a hit. When I write about one of the real passions of my life, which I love to do, I get a look of bewildered disdain and occasionally a mutter of something annoyed-sounding in some other language. So to speak.

The thing is, I really enjoy dancing about architecture. I started this column for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted an outlet for the tintinabulating din of musical thoughts that fill my skull at any given time. Second, though, and more important, I wanted a way to share and communicate the wonder, joy and heartbreak of truly great music with people. More than just a way of recommending tunes, I wanted Tuesday Morning to be a conduit for the almost unbearable excitement of new music, of the chance to discover the soundtrack to your own life.

I find myself in a bizarre position. I’ve somehow managed to sustain this excitement for new music through the years, and yet I feel I’ve become less adept at communicating it. I’ll gladly keep doing it, of course, but any sign that I’m not shouting into a vacuum here would be most appreciated. I love this stuff, and it’s my everlasting goal to get some of that love across. If by some chance a glimmer slips through the words here, let me know.

*****

I’m going to bypass the every-four-months format of upcoming hype and insert a fifth one this year, because September and October simply rock. There’s so much great stuff coming out that it makes me wish I had a job. Here’s what to look out for in the upcoming two months:

September starts off with a new Orbital record, the long-awaited Altogether, and then kicks into high gear on the 11th with Ben Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs. It’s his first record without the Five, and it looks surprisingly serious in nature. None of the song titles contain that immediate Ben Folds Five sophomoric humor (“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Your Redneck Past,” etc.). This looks like it may be (shudder) a true artistic statement. Fingers crossed so tightly that they’re turning purple.

Also on the 11th, Bob Dylan officially wins the Grammy award for Album of the Year, no matter how bad Love and Theft turns out to be. Mark my words. They Might Be Giants kick back with Mink Car, and the Verve Pipe hope for another commercial go-round with Underneath. Jude, he of the astonishing falsetto and former residence in Jamaica Plain, returns with King of Yesterday. Finally, former Tears for Fears main man Roland Orzabal sees the stateside release of his Tomcats Screaming Outside. If it’s anything like “Ticket to the World,” the first song, it’s a heavier piece of work than anything TFF.

The following week, of course, is Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls, a cover album that lays bare the misogyny in today’s popular music. Or so the press material would have us believe. The more I think about this, though, the more I like the idea. Here’s hoping she pulled it off.

Also rocking your world on the 18th is Curve’s fourth record, Gift, and Live’s fifth, which they’ve helpfully titled V. The big expense, however, comes at the hands of Phish, who will be following Pearl Jam’s example and releasing six multi-disc live sets. In Phish’s case, though, the songs are never played the same way twice. They’re the one band I know of who could release an interesting slate of six three-disc live albums every six months and never run out of ideas. It’s no surprise, then, that that’s exactly what they’ll be doing for the foreseeable future. Phish Live is the unimaginative name of the series of consecutively numbered live records, released six at a time. Each will cover three discs and retail for 20 bucks or so, a great deal. If you dug the Hampton Comes Alive set from a few years ago, you’ll go apeshit over this.

The 25th sees Zach de la Rocha, former lead screamer for Rage Against the Machine, striking out on his own. By the way, as a side note, Chris Cornell has been tapped to replace de la Rocha in Rage, which is kind of like if the Sex Pistols asked Paul McCartney to cover for Sid. It won’t work.

Anyway, also on the 25th is a new Days of the New, a highly underrated band, and the debut record from Tenacious D, a satirical folk-rock duo that contains actor Jack Black (High Fidelity). Somebody convinced Michael Jackson that the world could use two more CDs of his crap, so we get Invincible on the 25th as well. Dream Theater will check in with a three-CD live album called Live Scenes in San Francisco. It contains the whole of their latest and greatest album, Scenes from a Memory, as well as two more discs packed to the gills with impossible musicianship. Finally, Suzanne Vega returns (after the critical darling and commercial crapnapkin Nine Objects of Desire) with Songs in Red and Gray.

October gives us (deep breath) a new double-disc Aphex Twin called Drukgz, a new and hopefully improved Bad Religion called The Process of Belief, a new John Mellencamp called Cuttin’ Heads, the third Garbage album beautifulgarbage, a new Lenny Kravitz called simply Lenny, and the debut bow from super-jam-group Oysterhead (featuring Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Primus’ Les Claypool and the Police’s Stewart Copeland) called The Grand Pecking Order. Take that, Mr. Monkeywrench.

Okay, I’m all out. I should have a real column next time discussing any of the following records: Built to Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, Cake’s Comfort Eagle or Bjork’s Vespertine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

George Lucas In Love…
With Awful Movie Titles

So I’m looking over the latest financial statement from my Individual Retirement Account when a sadistic friend who enjoys my pitched fits of misery e-mails me the just-announced title to the new Star Wars movie.

If you haven’t heard it, get ready. Here it is:

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

I’ve been feeling old for a while now, what with my 10-year high school reunion coming right up and 30 staring me in the face and laughing, so this news wasn’t altogether welcome. The first film I ever saw in the theater was The Empire Strikes Back (sorry, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back), a captivating experience for a six-year-old, and I’m afraid to go back and watch it again. There are precious few parts of my childhood that I’d like to hold on to and remember fondly, but Star Wars is one of them.

Hence, I go through every rationalization in the book for each boneheaded move George Lucas makes in his quest to permanently sully the treasure of my youth. “Jar-Jar wasn’t that bad,” I’ll say. “In fact, I kind of liked the little shit.” And deep down, I’ll pretend I believe that. Oh sure, the accent got a little grating, and I could have lived without the feces and fart jokes, and okay, it might not have been necessary to put him in every scene, infecting the film like a cancer, and shit, there’s no way I can do this anymore because oh holy Jesus, did Jar-Jar suck.

Still, it’s important to me to think well of Lucas and his work. Thus, the little pained smile comes out, and I speak drivel like, “Little Anakin was really cute,” or, “I dig the Ewoks.” Lately it’s been a bit harder to breathe through my gritted teeth, but I manage.

And then this.

If you think about it, the titles for these films have never been very good. Putting The Phantom Menace aside for a second, look at the so-called classics: The Empire Strikes Back, for example. “So there’s this Empire, right,” Lucas may have said to his incredulous staff, “and in the first movie, which is really the fourth movie, they got their collective asses handed to them by these rebels, so I was thinking that maybe in the second movie, which is really the fifth movie, I’d have the Empire strike back. What do you think?”

Even the very name Star Wars is stupid. Admit it. Say the name out loud, and try to think of it as something you just heard, as opposed to something ingrained in the cultural consciousness. Stupid, isn’t it? Star Wars. A five-year-old could have come up with it. That’s why I can cut the episode titles some slack. It’s all in the spirit of campy fun adventure serials, even if the movies aren’t so much.

But Attack of the Clones? Come fucking on.

“There’s these clones,” Lucas may have said to the same incredulous staff, “and in this film, I think they should attack. See? The clones… they attack. Attack of the Clones. Get it?”

I hate the title of this film. It’s not the mid-level distaste I had for The Phantom Menace, an awful title in its own right, but one which leaves questions and some sort of overarching sense of dread. Attack of the Clones is just downright stupid, and will only serve to make me feel more retarded when I wait in line for 20-some hours again to get into the first showing. I did the same for Menace, and even saw it seven or eight times, convincing myself that it sparked my childhood sense of wonder. I’ll no doubt do the same this time, though I’m already finding that repeating Attack of the Clones aloud is diminishing my excitement by degrees.

The fact that this is the real, actual title of the film and that no “just kidding” e-mail seems to be forthcoming may mean one of two things.

One: George Lucas is an idiot who wouldn’t know good cinema if it crept up behind him and violated him with an R2-D2 doll. There’s much evidence to support this, including a good chunk of Menace. A mythical grand vision notwithstanding, there was no need for most of that film, especially the aforementioned atrocity named Jar-Jar, and that pointless game of “I’m the Queen” that gets dragged out for an hour and a half. Still, I’d like to think that he knows what he’s doing, and that he’s purposely put together the grandest and greatest stupid adventure serial ever filmed. Besides, the concluding lightsaber battle was pretty cool.

Two: George Lucas has somehow retained his childlike sense of whimsy, and he really believes the kid in all of us will respond to a title like Attack of the Clones with exuberance. “Cool,” he thinks we’ll say. “Attacking clones.”

Believe it or not, I think this is the more likely of the two. Lucas remembers being of an age when attacking clones were an important part of any moviegoing experience, right behind murderous zombies and 50-foot-tall monkeys. What this unfortunately means for your faithful author is that I’ve grown up. While the kid in me is still psyched about the lightsaber battles I’ve heard about (including one in the rain – think about that), the adult in me is looking for depth of character, motivation and truth in his cinema. He’s unable to muster up the innocent excitement this film is going to require, and a title like Attack of the Clones is only going to make it harder for the child in me to convince him to go.

Thing is, I want to like this movie. I want to sit down in 10 years with the complete six-movie DVD set and be transported back to my early adolescence. And so, I’m probably going to practice gritting my teeth and lying to myself. “Those clones were pretty cool,” I’ll say. “Did you see them attack? Awesome.”

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Czech Your Head
Oh, I've Been to Prague

Czech Your Head: Oh, I’ve Been to Prague

When I was a junior in college, I took a trek north from Maine to Canada. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Canada continues to hold fast to the idea that it and the United States are separate countries, and so I was filled with a sense of exploration, of entering an uncharted wilderness, of breaking free of the shackles of my narrow-minded American viewpoint. That sense all but faded when, mere seconds after cresting the final hill and passing the sign that read “Welcome to Canada,” I spotted both a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s. There’s nothing more disheartening than learning that the rest of the world wants to be like the corner of it you’ve just escaped.

I’m not a particularly geographically adventurous person. I can live basically anywhere. I feel that if my parents had told me as a youngster that the family would soon be living in Provost, or Waco, or Three Mile Island, I’d have been able to take that in stride. I’ve also never been filled with the desire to see exotic locales. One place is as good as another to me, generally. Even my sex life is a succession of nondescript bedrooms, mostly mine. My trip to Canada did little to instill wanderlust in me, and so I greeted my second opportunity to leave the USA with nonchalant acceptance. While I didn’t exactly turn up my nose at the chance to spend a week in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, I didn’t jump for joy, either. I figured it would be just another place.

I’m not very good at predicting my own reactions.

*****

My sister Emily calls the Czech Republic “Paveland,” after my mother’s boyfriend, Pavel Vodicka. Pavel is in his 40s and was born in Prague under communist rule. Ten years ago, he emigrated to the United States to become a professional ballroom dancer here, after winning several awards in his native country. He met my mother, also an aspiring dancer, and though it’s taken me some time to come around to him, he’s been very good for her. Together they’ve opened their own dance studio in Bellingham, Massachusetts. They call it Metronome.

Every year, my mother and Pavel travel to the Czech Republic to see Pavel’s parents, and this time, I was invited. I in turn invited my old roommate Gary to join us. Gary had enough visible excitement for the two of us, and I believe he had the time of his life.

Had it been just the four of us, I probably would have had nothing to complain about, which would have been so far out of character that my mother may not have recognized me. Fortunately, she invited two dental practitioners from her day job to come along, and they may have been the most unintentionally, unknowingly obnoxious people I’ve ever been stuck in a limo with.

Dr. Ed is wealthy beyond measure, and yet he dresses more slovenly than I do. He bears a passing resemblance to Dr. Who’s Tom Baker, and speaks with a fading Brooklyn accent. Lydia, his companion of 20-some years, is almost as broad as she is tall and never stops talking. She probably speaks endlessly to herself in her sleep, on the toilet and in the shower, and I often fantasized about sending her into a coma to see if that might shut her up. This pair has traveled the world, not really taking in any of it. They’re the sort that believe that just having been to a place entitles you to the last word on it.

In the final analysis, though, I’m glad they came along, because they gave me a perfect example of the noxious American tourist I didn’t want to be on this trip. We’re submerged from an early age in the jingoistic notion that America is the greatest place on earth, and I wanted to seize the opportunity to look through a different lens.

With that in mind, I tried to adopt a widescreen point of view. I would not, I resolved, refer to anything I came across in the Czech Republic as “strange,” “weird” or “wrong,” preferring instead to use words like “different,” “unfamiliar” and “fresh.” Within hours, though, I had dubbed the Czechs’ idea of beds, toilets and showers “bizarre” and “stupid.” Our hotel room was on the fourth floor, the beds were only slightly less comfortable than sleeping upon a jagged boulder, the toilets didn’t flush until the third or fourth try, and the shower came complete with free-floating head that had to be turned off before one could lather one’s hair, lest the room and all its contents resemble a bad day on a flood plane.

Other than that, though, the hotel was quite nice. Because of the six-hour time difference, we were encouraged to sleep a bit to ease into local time, advice Gary and I resoundingly ignored, preferring to shuffle through our first day in Prague like somnambulant mopes.

*****

Prague is breathtakingly beautiful. If you plan to go, I can wholeheartedly echo the advice of one of Gary’s 735 guide books – “Look up.” All of the buildings are ancient, ornate and lovely, and even the most insignificant buildings are adorned with impressive statues and bronze work. Of course, if you choose to look down, you’ll be equally impressed by the endless, complex pattern of cobblestones that make up every square inch of the city’s surface. Walking though Prague is an exercise in sensory overload. You can’t possibly take it all in.

Historically, the Czech Republic is in an interesting place, with Prague as its cultural and political center. The city was constructed mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries, which accounts for the jeweled magnificence of its buildings, cathedrals and such. Czechoslovakia enjoyed centuries of democracy before the Germans advanced on it in 1939, occupying it. The Americans and Russians liberated the country in the early ‘40s, and the Russians simply stayed, setting up a communist government. 50 years of occupation culminated in 1989 in the Velvet Revolution, the major events of which took place a few streets up from our hotel, in Wenceslas Square. Following the ousting of the Russians, the Czechs and the Slovaks split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in what became known as the Velvet Divorce. The first and current president of the Czech Republic is Vaclav Havel, noted playwright and dissident, which would be a lot like the U.S. voting in David Mamet.

On the way to his parents’ apartment, Pavel tells us something interesting about the Square. “It’s where everyone celebrates,” he says. “Whenever Czechs beat Russians at anything, the square fills up with people, all celebrating.” I ask, and find out that “anything” extends to the smallest of sporting events – chess, arm wrestling, tiddlywinks, whatever. If the Czechs beat the Russians, it’s party time.

*****

Pavel’s parents are the second-nicest people on earth. We would meet the nicest people on earth two days later, but for the time being, the Vodickas held the crown.

Prague is divided into 16 numbered sections, with Prague 1 being ground zero – Wenceslas Square, our hotel, etc. The further away from the center you get, the more the architecture begins to look like those depressing pictures of communist-occupied countries in your third grade history book. To promote sameness, the Russians constructed mile after mile of cookie-cutter apartment buildings, with each individual unit the same size as all the others. They’re quite small and square, and the buildings perhaps aren’t stultifying by themselves, but the cumulative effect of hundreds of them all lined up is claustrophobic.

After the Velvet Revolution, the occupants of these units were given the option to own them. Most took the government up on it, including the Vodickas, who live in a four-room apartment in Prague 5. They speak not a lick of English, except for the few words my mother has taught them over the years. Their faces are expressive enough to break the language barrier, though, and get their point across.

The Vodickas never once sat down and ate with us. Instead, they served us and cleaned up after us as if we were paying guests in a four-star restaurant. The food by itself lent to that impression even more. Between the pork and dumplings, the soup and the rich chocolate, it’s a wonder I didn’t gain 50 pounds. Even if I had, I’d have walked it off by the end of the week anyway.

Our first visit to the Vodickas’ place culminated in a lengthy, heated political discussion, in English, between Ed, Lydia, Gary and myself. I’m certain our hosts didn’t understand a word. Our second visit was punctuated by Ed’s boisterous and drunken demands for more food, in as obnoxious a voice as he could manage. Through all that, the Vodickas remained gracious and welcoming, long past the point when I’d have thrown our American asses out on the street. We tried thanking them with little gifts at the end of our stay, but they didn’t seem like quite enough.

*****

Our second day took us all over the city, and “sensory overload” barely does the feeling justice. While the rest of us were interested in historical buildings and works of art, it quickly became obvious that Ed and Lydia were there to shop. Our procession ground to a halt numerous times while the pair stopped to gaze into another tourist trap crystal shop. Hand-crafted crystal is the chief product of the Czech Republic, or so the stores littered about would have you believe. Most of it is quite nice, but unlike cathedrals, if you’ve seen one crystal shop, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

The Charles Bridge is, impressively, one of a kind. It connects two sections of Prague 1, and it’s constructed of an intricate confluence of stones and mortar. It looks hundreds of years younger than it probably is, thanks to the incredible restoration efforts of the Czech government. Whatever the Russians left standing (which is, remarkably, just about everything) has been renovated and restored painstakingly, so that Prague is something of an old/new city.

The bridge is dotted with stunning statues, each of a religious figure, and each more than 50 feet tall. There are dozens of these, and underneath them sit booths and stands where fantastic artists peddle their works. We’re talking intricate, detailed linework drawings of the cityscape, incredible black and white photos of landmarks, and handmade ornaments. While these are just as tourist-oriented as the crystal shops, their homegrown ambience somehow sets them apart. The bridge is also home to musicians and performers, notably a man with a marionette that plays along with recordings of classical guitar music. Cliched as it may sound, everywhere one looks there’s something to see.

The Jewish quarter, Josefov, is impressive in an altogether different way. The Holocaust Museum includes the names of each Czech Jew taken to the camps, written in six-point type, and the list covers the surface of every wall of the two-story, multi-room building. Most devastating were the displays of children’s drawings from that time, when the Jewish parents were moving heaven and earth to hide the possibility of imminent death from their kids. The illustrations of train cars, guns and people struck down in the streets proved beyond a doubt that the children knew what was going on.

The Jewish cemetery is smaller than a football field, and contains thousands of bodies, some buried 12 deep, one atop the other. It was the only place, by law, that Jews were allowed to be buried. The place has a quiet, persistent horror about it, as if the cemetery itself knows what might happen if we forget this part of our history, and keeps nudging us.

Despite the presence of several signs advising against it, Lydia took several photographs and chatted loudly all the way through the burial ground. Some people learn nothing, no matter how patiently they’re taught.

*****

The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments is an experience.

Not only do they have several wince-inducing devices on display, but they provide helpfully graphic illustrations of these devices in use. The only lesson one can possibly take from this is that people are endlessly inventive in their cruelty. We got out of there pretty quickly.

*****

On our third day, we rented cars and drove across the country to one of the many castles that rise forth from the otherwise flat and unremarkable landscape. Each room of this monstrosity is more opulent and extravagant than the last, with massive statues, paintings, woodcarvings and brass work strewn about in delirious fashion. I noted several intricate hanging sculptures that seemed to serve no purpose, but which each must have taken months to produce.

Our tour guide was irrepressibly cute, and she fumbled her English a few times, which only increased her cute factor. Tours were given in English, Czech and German, and so several French-speaking parents who also understood English came along on our tour, translating for their children. Naturally, this incensed Lydia, who must have said a dozen times, “Why can’t they take their own tour? This is the English-speaking tour.” I wanted to impale her on one of the many sharp metal weapons in the castle’s extensive armory and leave her dying, rotten corpse six levels underground, where future civilizations could dig her remains up and speculate on where our society as a whole went wrong.

Ed remarked that the castle reminded him of Disney World. I replied that making a statement like that is akin to listening to the Beatles and being reminded of the Monkees.

*****

Pavel’s brother is nothing like him or his family, which is why he got the American-sounding name: Martin. Martin joins us at a gorgeous beer garden to sample Czech pride in a bottle, also known as deep, rich beer. According to Pavel, Sam Adams is the only American beer that comes close. This particular brand is only brewed in Prague and is not exported. The story is the same for the most famous Czech liquor, Becherovka. I can’t help but feel for the Czech immigrants in the U.S., forced to consume Budweiser and Zima as if it were a worthy substitute.

This is the first and last we see of Martin. He’s an electrician by trade, a gruff, hard-drinking individual who seems like he’d be fun to hang around with, if not for the insurmountable language barrier. I know Czech beer is “bivo,” which brought a smile to Martin’s face, though, so it all turned out okay.

*****

Gary and I caught a showing of Tmavomodry Svet, also known as Dark Blue World, the closest thing the Czech Republic has ever had to a blockbuster film. It’s the story of Czech pilots who flew with the RAF during World War II, and how the Russians rounded those pilots up in camps when they took occupation, considering them a threat. Overall, it’s not bad, despite its unfortunate similarities to Pearl Harbor, but it’s infused with a palpable sense of Czech national pride. The film was written and directed by Jan Sverak, the maker of Kolya, and the foremost Czech filmmaker of the moment. As an historical document, both of the war and the current period of national identification, it’s intriguing.

Also satisfying is the traversal of the language barrier the film demands. Most of it is in Czech with English subtitles, but since a lot of it takes place in Britain, the British speak English with Czech subtitles. If that weren’t interesting enough already, the Germans speak German with both Czech and English subtitles. The movie forces you to listen and read simultaneously instead of tuning out the languages you don’t know. You’re never certain when it will switch.

At this point, I had learned about a dozen Czech words, most helpfully “prosim” (please) and “dekuji” (thank you). The language is impenetrable, however, for those of us brought up in the romance languages. Czech contains nine or so vowels, some only separated by the length of breath required to speak them. Each noun is assigned a gender, a policy which seems to have been carried out randomly. Adding to the confusion is the system of implied vowels they use. For example, “bn” is “bin,” with an implied “i.” All things considered, I think I did okay.

On the way back from the film, Gary and I were propositioned for the first time by a Czech hooker. An aging, toothless hag carelessly propped against a wall in an alley called to us in the only phrases I’d bet she knows in English: “Ah, sex? Ah, blowjob?”

“Ah, no,” I replied in a delirious mimic, discovering that perhaps sometimes I should reign in that smartass gene. “Ano,” you see, is Czech for “yes.” Whoops.

*****

On Thursday we met the nicest people in the world, Yurislav and Mijka. Yurislav is the father of Pavel’s ex-wife, Inez, and Mijka (pronounced “Micah”) his new bride. This man, who struck me as wholly Italian, took us the secret, backwoods route to a wondrous restaurant called the Blue Rabbit. There he paid for all of our meals, which must have run in excess of 7500 crowns, or 200 bucks. (A crown is worth about one-thirty-fifth of a U.S. dollar.)

I like to have some historical or blood relation to those people who buy my meals. Here’s how I’m related to Yurislav: I’m the son of his daughter’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend. That’s to say nothing of Ed and Lydia, boisterous as always, who have no relation at all. Yurislav and Mijka were infinitely warm and open, even when we thought he might be taking us the secret mob passages in order to kill us. The next day, they presented us with gifts as well. America could use a few more like them.

*****

Gary and I took to wandering the city at night, getting somewhat lost and finding our way back. Gary had a map of Prague 1 in his head, all of which was based around a large construction crane that could have been moved at any time and thrown us into chaos. As long as the crane stayed put, though, we could find our way back from anywhere.

One of the city’s most bizarre attractions is the astronomical clock, a huge edifice that, on the hour, puts on an animated show for the hundreds of assembled admirers. The twelve apostles come out of two large windows, look down and retreat back in. A skeleton rings a chime. At the end of it all, an obviously genetically altered rooster crows like a deranged chimpanzee, to uproarious applause from the crowd below. It’s worth seeing once.

The Charles Bridge is worth seeing over and over again, especially at night. As Gary and I were making our way to it one evening, cursing our swollen and throbbing feet, we came upon a blind, crippled old woman with the voice of a choir of angels. She stood, hunched over and leaning on her wheelchair, beneath the ratted sign of a jewel shop. Suffering through a hacking cough, the woman launched into an aria that made the stone statues around her weep. She then picked up a tattered violin and proceeded to sing through that with the same glorious quality of voice. Words cannot describe the beauty and do it justice.

When we moved on, as we had to eventually, we felt that we were stepping out of a magical zone, and that this drooping yet somehow soaring woman possessed secrets that we would never know.

*****

I could have stayed all year.

Unfortunately, our trip was a finite one, and it ended on a rooftop restaurant near the bridge. From there, you could see the entire cityscape, wrapping around you like a 360-degree hallucination. While the others reminisced and cajoled each other, I stepped away without leaving my seat, and took one last look around. I wondered what it might have been like to grow up here, and to take all of this for granted.

Just then, a group of impetuous American teenagers pushed past me and stormed down the stairs toward the mezzanine, one screaming to the other, “Fine, we’ll just walk the whole Prague. You don’t even like it here.”

It could have been a reminder that self-imposed unhappiness exists everywhere, regardless of one’s surroundings. I suppose, had I been listening, I might have seen some of my own former disdain for the magic of places in her outburst, but I was miles above it all, looking down and committing the great city to memory, making plans to return and, above all, liking it here.

Uvidime se ve fronte v utery rano.

Spiritual Pop Overload Part Two
Daniel Amos' Instant Classic Mr. Buechner's Dream

Well, 14 hours and 40,000 slaughtered insects later, I arrived in Massachusetts for my extended vacation. The house in Indiana is huge and wondrous, and all my stuff arrived intact. Basically, I’ve been having a good week so far.

A quick housekeeping note before I jump into this week’s review:

At the start of this enterprise, I stated that I would be taking two weeks off a year, one for Christmas and one for my birthday in June. Almost none of you noticed that I delivered one on my birthday anyway (6/5), and now it’s time to collect on that. Next week I’m going to Prague.

“Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t been to Prague been to Prague, but I know that thing. That stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, realize how bad American coffee is thing.”

Sorry. Obscure film reference.

Anyway, I’m going to Prague next week, so no column for you. Don’t take it too hard, okay? If I come back and find that any of you committed suicide because you missed me and couldn’t live without my stunning, brilliant insights, I’m going to be pissed, okay?

Okay.

Weird mail day yesterday. I got a rejection letter from the grad school I really wanted to attend, and I also got the new Daniel Amos album, Mr. Buechner’s Dream. Guess which one I enjoyed more?

Daniel Amos has been around since 1975, constantly shifting styles under the direction of one of America’s great ignored geniuses, Terry Scott Taylor. It’s amazing to me that Taylor has amassed such a huge body of superb work (26 studio albums between three bands and a solo career) and he still remains unknown. Even the most knowledgeable of music fans will often shake their heads in bewilderment when Taylor’s name is mentioned.

As a case in point, I only became aware of Taylor’s oeuvre a year and a half ago. How such a great songwriter got by me is almost as depressing as the fact that Taylor has to hold down a day job to pay the bills. This man has never written an unsatisfying song, and if some of his projects don’t stack up to some of his others, it’s only because his best work is just that good.

Named after two Old Testament prophets, Daniel Amos started in California in the early ‘70s with a heavy-handed gospel message and a sound reminiscent of the Eagles. They quickly grew out of both, Taylor turning his spiritual concerns further inward and his musical concerns further outward. By the time they arrived at their magnum opus, the four-album Alarma Chronicles, DA was a musical force to be reckoned with, one that embraced a darker spirituality filled with doubt and questioning. Post-Alarma, Taylor re-formed Daniel Amos into the fun-loving Swirling Eddies, started the Lost Dogs with three other great spiritual pop musicians (The Choir’s Derri Daugherty, the 77s’ Mike Roe and the late, great Gene Eugene) and embarked on a wildly diverse solo career.

I’m not going to delve deeply into Taylor’s history here in this column. If you’re interested, though, I have constructed a Terry Scott Taylor buyer’s guide, and you can read that by clicking here. It’s a lot of history, and all of it is worth hearing, but I’m not going to dive into it here because the new one deserves a lot of space.

Daniel Amos has been on hiatus for six years, ever since their strange concept record Songs of the Heart in ‘95. Say one thing for Terry Taylor, he knows how to come back in style. Mr. Buechner’s Dream, the soon-to-be-released 13th DA album, is a 33-song, 100-minute, two-CD set that just might be this man’s best work. If you’re a Taylor fan already, you know how good something would have to be to attain that position. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is that good.

In fact, MBD is perhaps the strongest argument yet for Terry Taylor’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In the tradition of Blonde On Blonde, Exile on Main Street, The River and Being There, it’s a classic, timeless American double record that stands toe to toe with the great rock records of the past 30 years. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t heard it. (By the way, I know the Stones are British, so don’t e-mail me. Exile on Main Street is a pretty American-sounding album, though.)

None of MBD’s 33 songs fail to satisfy in that classic, primal melody addict way. The discs are titled separately, even though the album works best in a straight shot. The first disc (called Mr. Buechner’s Dream) is pure, undiluted American rock, the kind that Wilco does so well. The melodies are sweet and perfect, the guitars sound imported right out of the classics, and Taylor’s voice has never been better. This guy just turned 50, and he hasn’t lost a note.

Highlights include the dirty “Who’s Who Here,” the lilting “Rice Paper Wings” and the Lennon-ish “Over Her Shoulder.” The acoustic “I Get to Wondering” is extraordinary, as is the psychedelic “The Staggering Gods.” The first disc is bookended by tiny piano pieces detailing Mr. Buechner’s slip into and crawl out of slumber, and it ends with the round robin “Joel,” a perfect conclusion. The first disc contains the most immediately likable Daniel Amos material since their second album, but Taylor doesn’t sacrifice quality for accessibility.

The second disc, titled And So It Goes, truly shines. It’s a bit looser in places, and a lot more menacing. Disc two takes you on a ride akin to listening to the whole DA catalog in miniature. The emotional heart of the album lies on this disc as well, exemplified by “Flash in Your Eyes,” a tribute to fellow Lost Dog Gene Eugene, who died last year. Taylor is typically real here, emotional without being sentimental: “Now you’re the catch in my throat, was I in your dreams of last goodbyes, now you’re the thorn in my heart, was I a flash in your eyes?”

It’s typical of Taylor that he can balance his heartfelt tunes with hilarious ones like “She’s a Hard Drink” and not seem incongruous. The album ends with two beauties, “Steal Away” and “And So it Goes,” songs about finding peace amidst loss and pain. There has certainly been enough of it in Taylor’s life recently. In addition to Eugene, he also lost his father early this year, and the loss permeates this surprisingly optimistic work.

Sure, there are songs I could do without on here, but unlike those from most double disc affairs, the list is surprisingly short. (Like, three.) Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a stunner that will never get the recognition it deserves. That’s never stopped Taylor before, and it won’t stop him now, I’m sure. (The fifth Lost Dogs album, Real Men Cry, hits in October and contains yet another 12 Terry Taylor songs.) MBD is a statement of maturity and artistic growth that feels like the destination point of a long, strange trip. It plays like the best of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen, all rolled into one. It’s one of the great classic rock albums of the modern age, and will remain so whether it’s recognized as such or not.

Next week, Europe for me, nothing for you. I’ll regale you with stories when I return.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Spiritual Pop Overload Part One
The Choir's Never Say Never

So I was having this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Thursday. All of my potential news stories fell through, and when I went home for lunch most of my furniture was gone and the rest was packed in boxes and plastic wrap in preparation for Saturday’s move. Not a good day.

And then I opened my mailbox, and found waiting for me an autographed copy of the Choir’s box set, Never Say Never. As Cleese says in the Holy Grail, “It got better.”

I’ve been a Choir fan for more than 10 years. The first album of theirs I heard was 1990’s Circle Slide, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it changed my life. I heard it just as I was rejecting pat religion in search of deeper answers, and just as I was rejecting ’80s metal and trite pop in search of deeper music. Here, from the previously unexplored (by me, anyway) ghetto of Christian music, was an album that had everything I was looking for: real, honest, probing, and often dark spirituality couched in swirling, beautiful, unearthly soundscapes.

Incredibly, Circle Slide has grown with me. With every spin, with every passing year, I relate to it in a different way, and I find new insights hidden within it. I’ve picked up each Choir album I could find since then, and kept up with subsequent releases. While Circle Slide remains their artistic peak, every Choir record is worth owning, and most are worth cherishing. They’ve mellowed nicely with age, and they’re not spiritually searching as much as they used to be, but they remain one of the few bands that continue to have a lasting impact on my life, both personal and artistic.

The Choir has released 12 records, if you count their two live albums. The first nine of those are collected in their entirety on Never Say Never, so it’s an ideal introduction to the band. For a while, the band was including a copy of their latest studio record, Flap Your Wings, with the box set. That deal might still be going on, so after you read this, rush on over to www.thechoir.net and find out.

Never Say Never might be the most lavishly produced cheap box set I own. The Choir put this thing together on their own, and released it on sax player Dan Michaels’ new Galaxy21 Music label. Considering I was paying $60 for eight CDs and a 100-page book, I expected something less attractive. It’s a nice looking set, one that nearly conveys the beauty of the music within.

As for the music itself, well, I just took a trip through all eight CDs, and the flood of emotions is surprising, even for me. This band has existed for 20 years on the fringes, their audience never numbering more than a few thousand. Despite their ability to articulate the universal yearning for truth and grace without preaching, they’ve never managed to escape the Christian realm. I’ve tried every way I know over 10 years to get people to listen to this band. You don’t share a band like the Choir to prove how knowledgeable you are for having heard of them, you share a band like the Choir because it would be unforgivable to keep them to yourself.

The Choir started as Youth Choir in California in the early ’80s, a collaboration between the two guys most associated with the band, guitarist/vocalist Derri Daugherty and drummer Steve Hindalong. Though the lineup has changed considerably through the years, the core group of Daugherty, Hindalong, bassist Tim Chandler and sax player Dan Michaels has emerged as the soul of the band. At their best, you can hear these four distinct musical personalities pushing off of each other, and ending up with a sound like no other band out there.

Never Say Never‘s comprehensive book can give you the often humorous history of the band. I want to talk about the music.

The debut, Voices in Shadows, came out in ’85, and it sounds like it. In fact, the first three are weighted down a bit by their sometimes synthetic production. Shadows actually doesn’t suffer as much as the others, since the songs are relatively synthetic themselves. It’s a surprisingly listenable collection of Christian new-wave cliches, but you can hear Daugherty earning his wings as a singer. His glorious voice is one of the biggest draws of this band.

Shades of Gray, a five-song EP, hit less than a year later, and the difference is remarkable. Most notably, Hindalong began writing the lyrics here, hitting on a fine metaphor with “15 Doors.” The songs grew measurably in depth and scope.

Diamonds and Rain, the first under the Choir name, was another step forward, despite the interference of producer Charlie Peacock. His “Kingston Road” is a plastic speed bump in the middle of the record, which is especially grating considering the leaps Hindalong and Daugherty were taking in their own songwriting. “Render Love” remains a favorite, as does “Black Cloud.” Diamonds and Rain still fell short of the band’s vision, and was the last straw. From then on, they’d produce their own albums in their own Neverland Studio.

If you’ve ever heard an album like 1988’s Chase the Kangaroo, I want to hear about it. The Choir’s sonic palette exploded here, as Daugherty’s guitar took on monolithic, disturbing overtones drenched in reverb. The songs became landscapes, and the lyrics took darker, even murderous twists. This is an album that has the courage to point out the jagged edges without offering simplistic answers, something unheard of in mainstream Christian music, even today. Even the record’s gentler moments (“Sad Face” especially) are wise enough to hold your hand without dragging you anywhere.

Not content to stick with the new sound they’d created, the Choir then made a perfect pop record with Wide-Eyed Wonder in 1989. It’s a paean to children and families, and it manages to be sweet and honest without being trite or obvious. Coming as it does between their two darkest works, Wide-Eyed Wonder is a lovely shaft of soft-focus light that still manages to darken the corners (“Happy Fool,” “Car, Etc.”), all buoyed by the most effervescent guitar-pop in the band’s catalog.

I’ve already mentioned how I feel about their next album, Circle Slide. There’s enough sadness, joy, beauty and pain on this album to last a lifetime or three. Again, there are no easy answers, just a deep, honest search rendered in stunningly powerful words and music. The unquestionable centerpiece is “Merciful Eyes,” which carries in its four minutes a depth most artists don’t achieve even after 20 years. From first note to last, Circle Slide is one of the best records ever made.

With that in mind, where they went next was quite a surprise. Sick of the Christian rock ghetto, they dumped their record label and produced the eight-song Kissers and Killers independently. It’s a surprisingly loud morass of feedback and melody, trading the Choir’s signature clean reverb sound for distortion and power. For all that, Kissers is a pop record at its core, containing a number of indelible melodies (“Weather Girl,” “Gripped”) that shine through the fuzz. Also surprisingly, as the music took a darker, more menacing turn, the lyrics got brighter. Kissers is about love and devotion and how difficult, yet rewarding, those disciplines are.

Never Say Never includes both Kissers and the national release of the same material, called Speckled Bird. The band cleaned up seven of the Kissers songs, recorded five new ones and called it the official follow-up to Circle Slide. The differences in the recordings are pretty negligible, but each record has its own identity, and hence including both makes sense. Speckled Bird adds some musical brightness (“Spring,” “Never More True”) to the mix, ending up with a raucous pop record that balances out nicely. For me, hearing it on CD for the first time was a revelation.

The same goes for Free Flying Soul, the band’s return to dreamy soundscapes. They spent a mere six weeks on this record, and it’s more layered and atmospheric than almost anything else they’ve done. Soul is a culmination of sorts, bringing together the clean-and-reverbed and the distorted-and-grungy sounds, in service of a terrific set of songs. Soul is also the first record that hints at answers lyrically. “The Ocean” is practically a worship song, balanced nicely with “The Chicken,” its dark cousin. The final two songs, “Butterfly” and “The Warbler,” contain Daugherty’s best guitar treatments and Hindalong’s least oblique lyrics. Overall, Soul is the most difficult and challenging record the band has ever released, one that takes time to seep under your skin.

The eighth disc of Never Say Never is called Nevermind the Extras, which is a great joke referencing the line “nevermind the stars” on Chase the Kangaroo. Unlike some box sets that only give you one or two demos as incentives, the Choir has provided over an hour of rare stuff. Here’s what you get:

Two new songs lead it off, the sweet and layered “Follow Me” and the silly “Noon Till Whenever.” Both are worthy inclusions. The new stuff is followed by the first recording they ever did as a band, “It’s So Wonderful.” This and the six early demos that follow put the maturation of the group in sharp relief. You then get an acoustic reading of “Wilderness” from Speckled Bird, originally released on the Browbeat collection.

Then you get the solo material, all of which is intriguing. Hindalong contributes three, including a children’s song (“Mommy’s in the Circus”) and one of the weaker tracks from his solo record, Skinny (“Winnipesaukee”). Dan Michaels’ two pieces from his solo EP Reveal are surprising, especially the swirly title track. Finally, Daugherty checks in with a tune (“All the World to Me”) from his still-incomplete solo album, and it’s gorgeous. Still and all, the Choir works so well together that any solo material suffers in comparison.

The disc is rounded off with a Choir cover of Mark Heard’s “Tip of My Tongue” and a super-cool electronic remix of “Cherry Bomb” from the new album. Nevermind the Extras is a hodgepodge, but a cool one.

And hell, if you’ve read this far, I may as well finish the job.

Last year the Choir released Flap Your Wings, their first album in four years. It’s a mellower collection of pop tunes that plays like a less daring Free Flying Soul. It’s certainly their most traditionally beautiful record, containing lovely acoustic pieces like “Mercy Lives Here” and “Flowing Over Me.” There are still some risks here, especially on the production of “Sunny,” but the prevailing sense is that the Choir has settled into a mellow, contemplative groove. That’s not a bad thing, just a less immediately impressive one.

I also just received the band’s new live album, Live at Cornerstone 2000. It’s a powerhouse recording, even if the band loses its footing every once in a while. (That comes from only playing out once or twice a year.) That these guys can produce the sheer volume and mass of sound that they do on stage and not have it sound like mud is impressive in itself. Their previous live album, Let It Fly, holds up a little better, mostly because it was culled from a number of concerts. Live at Cornerstone is a flawed yet lovely portrait of the Choir, 20 years in, playing their hearts out.

If you’ve sloughed through this whole lengthy review, you probably know what it was like to have been around me for the last 10 years as my love for this band grew. Never Say Never is an unexpected collection, in that I never thought I’d see these recordings get their due. The Choir deserves a set like this, a full-on retrospective of a remarkable career. As I stated before, I didn’t spend 2000 words trying to share them with you just to prove how knowledgeable I am, but because not sharing a band like this would be unforgivable.

I hope it changes your life.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Twelve Strings, Four Hours, 86 Billion Little Notes
New Live Albums From Joe Satriani and Steve Vai

Short and sweet this week, because I’m in the middle of packing all my earthly belongings for my move to Hobart, Indiana. My furniture leaves tomorrow. I don’t leave until the 14th. I’m not sure how we settled on this arrangement, but as the date looms ever nearer, I find my schedule growing ever tighter.

So, short and sweet.

I found out a lot about the new Tori Amos album, Strange Little Girls, out on September 18. It turns out Jay Tucker wasn’t fucking with me – I was sure he was when he mentioned that Tori was doing a cover album. Strange Little Girls is a reworking of 12 songs by male authors, meant to bring out the female perspective and accentuate the hidden misogyny that exists within popular music. Obvious choices (conceptually, not musically) include Eminem’s “97 Bonnie and Clyde” (for real) and Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” but there are some other very interesting choices here. Songs by Joe Jackson, Neil Young, 10cc, etc. that on the surface probably wouldn’t lend themselves to the piano-and-vocal covers Tori’s done in the past.

This strikes me as something I might like more in concept than in actuality. Tori has fashioned 12 alter egos for herself from the lyrics of the songs she’s covering, and she sings each one in character. (“97 Bonnie and Clyde” ought to be terrifying.) What I don’t like about it right off the bat is that she didn’t write the material. That disappointment is tempered by her willingness to enter into the debate Eminem has started. Tori’s so far the only person who has even tried to craft a meaningful rebuttal to Em’s assertion that songs never hurt anyone. The more I think about this concept, the more it feels like it could work brilliantly.

Or, it could be a total cock-up. That’s what’s neat about taking huge creative risks.

Anyway, short and sweet.

I promised a guitar-fest this time, so here we go. I’m not sure which label rep is responsible for this, but two of the most amazing six-stringers playing today not only both signed with Epic Records at the same time, but have just released double-disc live albums simultaneously. Prior to their Epic tenure, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai couldn’t have been further apart, despite the fact that both play instrumental guitar music. Satriani perfected his melodic rock vibe with his second record, the classic Surfing With the Alien, and has in large part been riding that wave ever since. Vai, on the other hand, has never been creatively stagnant. As with his mentor Frank Zappa, you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a Steve Vai record.

For a lot of people, guitar instrumentals are useless. They sound like extended versions of those 20-second bits in the middles of other songs where the guitar player gets to show his stuff. Joe Satriani has been railing against that particular notion for years by crafting hummable, memorable songs without words, songs that rarely slip into fretboard wankery. In large part, he’s been quite successful, especially on his earlier records. Surfing and The Extremist, especially, are the kind of guitar albums that you get stuck in your head.

It’s too bad, then, that Live in San Francisco makes so few strides away from what you’d imagine a typical guitar instrumental show would sound like. The songs are nearly exact replicas of what you hear on the studio albums, with an unfortunate injection of the aforementioned fretboard wankery. The tone and style hardly varies at all from song to song, which is mostly the fault of the selection. There are plenty of Satriani songs that make use of a more diverse tonal palette, but they’re not here.

Instead, we get rock song after rock song, and while they’re all played well, especially by Satch’s crack band of bassist Stu Hamm, drummer Jeff Campitelli and keyboardist Eric Caudieux, they get tiresome stretched one after another. Live in San Francisco drags on for two and a half hours, and while there are highlights (“Raspberry Jam Delta-v,” “Summer Song,” the closing “Rubina”), the overall effect is just wearying.

Adding to my disappointment is the fact that his last album, Engines of Creation, broke some interesting new ground for Satriani by injecting electronics and drum loops into his mix. Even though that album’s tour provided the tapes for this live album, Satch only does one song from Engines (“Borg Sex”). I’d have liked to have heard some organic band versions of the more technologically dependent tunes on that album, but alas, it’s all old stuff all the time.

Not so Steve Vai. In fact, his new Alive in an Ultra World would have been cool even if the songs weren’t magnificent, which they are. The concept (and with Vai, there’s always a concept) here was to create a live album of new tunes, each written for and incorporating the traditional music of the country in which it was recorded. This is a great idea, and Vai and his superbly talented band have carried it off, even though just getting through this project apparently took quite a toll on the musicians.

You can hear why, though, and all the blood and sweat was worth it. These songs are not quick knock-offs or excuses to solo endlessly. They’re sublimely crafted and orchestrated pieces that sound like products of months of rehearsal time. In actuality, Vai would often finish writing the pieces a day or so before the live recording session, giving his band members very little time to learn and practice. The band (bassist Philip Bynoe, drummer Mike Mangini, guitarist Dave Weiner and keyboardist Mike Keneally) is incredible throughout, no matter what style Vai is throwing at them.

And he does hop styles quite frequently here, from the crunching thud of “The Power of Bombos” to the powerful Irish lilt of “Blood and Glory” to the gorgeous acoustic orchestration of “Whispering a Prayer.” Most importantly for a guitar player’s live record, every song has its own distinct identity, and listening to Alive in an Ultra World is never a chore. Despite its overarching concept, there’s a disarming lightness to the whole proceedings, especially when Vai breaks a string two minutes into “Devil’s Food” and the band is forced to entertain the audience while he re-strings. Vai’s not so full of himself that he felt the need to edit that sort of thing out.

The concluding trilogy of tunes here cements Vai’s reputation as one of the most emotional guitar virtuosos around, especially “Brandos Costumes (Gentle Ways),” the lovely finale. This is what a guitar player’s live album ought to be, and like Frank Zappa’s live albums of new stuff, the sound reproduction is so crystal clear that this may as well be a 90-minute studio album. This is that proverbial extra mile that Satriani just didn’t walk, and it puts into sharp relief the differences between these two masters of the guitar.

Short and sweet, huh? Geez…

Next week, we launch into spiritual pop overload with the Choir’s eight-CD box set, Never Say Never.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Resistance of Memory
STP and the Importance of Being Unforgettable

You’ll have to excuse the next paragraph or so. I’m a little wound up, and I’m going to try to approximate the feeling.

Ahem.

HOLYGODDAMFUCKINGHELL!! A TORNADO!! LIKE, A REAL ONE!! LIKE, A MILE FROM HERE!! ON THE GROUND, KNOCKING OVER SIGNS AND SHIT!! HOLYMOTHEROFGOD!!

Yeah, I saw my first ever tornado. It touched the ground a few miles from the office where I work, and whoever described those things as the finger of God wasn’t far off. It took down the big sign in front of the local Burger King, it whipped up dust and dirt in a visible spiral several hundred feet off the ground, and it was accompanied by winds and hail the size of quarters. We all watched it form, hit the ground and slowly dissipate from our flimsy shelter in the pressroom. It was totally fucking cool, and I never want to do it again.

We got some great pictures, though. I’ll post some if I can.

Anyway, a little jittery today, but jacked up and ready to write this puppy. We now join your regularly scheduled column, already in progress.

***

Stone Temple Pilots are a better band than they have any right to be.

Riding the Seattle wave of the early ‘90s, this California band aped Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains so perfectly that they fit right in on the burgeoning alternative radio scene. Their debut album, Core, sold extremely well, despite ringing hollow from first note to last. If you asked me then, I’d have suspected that their only claim to fame would have been as one of the bands responsible for the three songs named “Creep” that shared the airwaves in ’92. (The other two were by Radiohead and TLC.)

In fact, if you’d postulated in 1993 that STP would outlast bands like Alice in Chains and Soungarden, you’d have been laughed right out of Lollapalooza. The grunge wave self-destructed along with its most important bands, chiefly Nirvana, but lo and behold, Stone Temple Pilots keep soldiering on, and growing artistically while they’re at it. Their fifth and best album, Shangri-La Dee Da, is playing right now, and I must confess a steadily growing respect for it.

I have to say this right up front, though, and I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has had a similar experience. The truth is, I have the album playing right now because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to review it. Ten minutes after I shut this record off, I won’t remember a note of it, I guarantee you. STP is the only band I really like that doesn’t stick in my memory at all. I glanced at the track listing for Shangri-La Dee Da before pressing play, in fact, and I found I couldn’t hum a single one of the tunes, even though I’d heard the album six times before.

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember a single song off their last two albums, either. I remember their names (Tiny Music and No. 4), and I remember a couple of song titles, but if I were to dig them out and listen to them again, it would feel like I’d never heard them before. STP has an odd facelessness about them, one that probably comes from mimicking so many styles so well.

Let’s back up.

Round about their third record, STP expanded their range of influence, taking a little bit from Zeppelin, a little from Bowie, a little from the Beatles, and a lot from the good, solid rock of the time. They fashioned a more classic rock sound that was leaps and bounds above their first couple of efforts in composition, style and texture. Tiny Music was good, or so I wrote at the time. As I’ve said, I don’t really remember it. I do remember thinking that nearly every element had changed, especially Scott Weiland’s voice, which now seemed to fluctuate with the type of song they were emulating. Tiny Music was a mix tape with almost no identity attached.

Shangri-La Dee Da (and I have to say, I love that title) is a better mix tape, but there’s still no identifying Stone Temple Pilots sound to it. Every song, though, and I mean every song, is more melodically complex and well-crafted than you’d expect it to be. “Dumb Love” is pure rock, “Days of the Week” is Matthew Sweet-style guit-pop, “Coma” works some nifty production touches around a powerhouse melody, etc. There are standouts (the lovely “Wonderful,” the epic “Hello, It’s Late”), but there are no weak links.

In a way, though, the whole album is a weak link, and I’m not really sure why. I’m on track 12 now (“A Song for Sleeping”) and I barely remembered enough about tracks one through five to write the above paragraph. If STP played simple, disposable pop, I could perhaps explain my inability to commit their tunes to memory. They don’t, though. Shangri-La Dee Da is a decent, well-written album that wisps away like smoke the second it’s over.

I can’t for the life of me think of what the band should be doing differently. While Shangri-La Dee Da is playing, it’s borderline extraordinary. I’d explore this strange phenomenon in greater detail, except the last track just ended, and I can’t remember enough about it (or the other 12) to keep writing.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are those bands you hear once and never forget. I discovered one of those this past week. I’m randomly flipping through music video channels, right, and I come across this dark, moody-looking clip that catches my eye for a second. All of a sudden, I hear Jeff Buckley’s voice coming out of the body of Trent Reznor, and he’s singing this unbelievable song, and I just have to get this disc. Now. Tonight. Without delay.

The band is called Ours, the CD is called Distorted Lullabies, and it’s at least as good as I hoped it would be.

For all intents and purposes, Ours is one guy, and his name is Jimmy Gnecco, which explains why he didn’t use it. Sweet Christ, though, can this guy sing. He alternately sounds like Buckley, Bono and some unique combination of the two. He also writes these sweeping, dramatic songs that implant themselves in your consciousness after just one listen. The song with the moody video clip is called “Sometimes,” and you will never forget it. The rest of Distorted Lullabies is just as good.

I wasn’t too surprised to see that this record came out on DreamWorks. I don’t know where they find these artists, but as I mentioned earlier, they’ve filled their roster with true musicians, as opposed to marketable radio fodder. Nothing about Distorted Lullabies says “major label debut.” Everything about it says “labor of love,” and God bless DreamWorks for finding it and releasing it as is.

The second half of this album is among the best material released by anyone this year. I almost feel like I should be harder on Gnecco for sounding so much like Buckley, both vocally and compositionally, but here’s how I look at it: Jeff Buckley was so supernaturally talented that you’d have to be nearly that talented yourself to pull off a good imitation. Distorted Lullabies is more than a good imitation. It’s almost a reincarnation, and it packs enough originality and majesty that you’re carried away in the sweep of it all.

I hope this record isn’t a fluke, and that Gnecco gets to enjoy the long, artistically satisfying career that Jeff Buckley never had. Even if that doesn’t pan out, though, Distorted Lullabies is the musical find of the year so far.

Next week, a guitar-filled double feature with live records from Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

All New England, All the Time
New Ones by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones

It’s all New England all the time this week, but before we launch into that, I wanted to share some pretty cool announcements. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of that unclassifiable group of spiritual pop rock bands that sprouted up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These are bands that have survived for 20 years or more in near-total obscurity, deemed “too church for radio and too radio for church,” even though none of them are as “Christian” as, say, U2 or Jars of Clay. Anyway, two of the more long-lasting bands have announced cool new projects that make it a good time to get into them, if you’ve never heard them before.

All of my friends are probably sick to death of hearing about the Choir. I’ve been raving about them for more than 10 years, and the band themselves have just come up with an ideal way for anyone to find out what I’ve been talking about. Never Say Never is an eight-CD box set that includes, oh, everything the band has ever done. All nine albums (Voices in Shadows, Shades of Gray, Diamonds and Rain, Chase the Kangaroo, Wide-Eyed Wonder, Circle Slide, Kissers and Killers, Speckled Bird and Free Flying Soul) are here in their entirety, as well as two new tunes and a disc full of rarities. It goes for the absurdly low price of $60, and if you rush to www.thechoir.net and order it, they’ll throw in a copy of their 10th album, Flap Your Wings, for nothing. This is the deal of the century, folks. You get the whole story of an amazing, overlooked band for an unbeatable price.

Daniel Amos is another long-running spiritual rock band, only they’ve been around since 1975. They’re the brainchild of Terry Scott Taylor, a prolific and ignored genius. Between DA, the Swirling Eddies, the Lost Dogs and his numerous solo projects, Taylor’s released 27 albums. For the last five years, he’s been focusing on solo works, but Daniel Amos roars back on July 3 with Mr. Buechner’s Dream, their 14th full-lengther. It’s a 33-song double-disc affair that’s being hailed as Taylor’s finest work, a claim that I find difficult to believe considering his history. Expect a full-blown analysis and retrospective when this baby hits.

Okay, time to head north.

My time at Face Magazine was, overall, a positive experience. For those unaware of Portland’s long-running music mag, Face started in 1988 under the ownership of Bennie Green. It was a bi-weekly underground paper that touted local bands and basically did everything it could to support the local music scene. I’m all for that, so I started working for Face in 1996. I was editor-in-chief by 1999, and I left under less-than-optimum circumstances in September of 2000.

During those four years, I met dozens of bands struggling for attention from the major labels, and I got a pretty revealing glimpse into the process of managing and marketing an original act. This is not an easy thing, and the more I learned about it, the more amazed I became at northern New England’s wealth of talent and perseverance. Even though there have been many worthy contenders, there hasn’t been a major label album out of Maine or New Hampshire in nine years.

Until now. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

I often wondered what else labels could be looking for that the bands I was encountering weren’t providing. An excellent case in point is New Hampshire’s Motorplant. On the surface of it, they have everything. They write great songs, they play them with energy and skill, they’ve built up a sizeable fan base all on their own, and their live shows are terrific. They’ve released two good records by themselves, Inside the Walnut and the new American Postcard. Oh, and they’re all pretty damn cute.

So what’s missing? Why the hell aren’t these guys on a major label?

I have no idea. I’ve bought several major-label records recently that aren’t as tight, polished, well-played or well-written as American Postcard. (I’m listening to one right now, in fact – Dave Navarro’s Trust No One.) They play an invigorating, no-bullshit style of melodic rock, the kind that pulls you in from the first note. It doesn’t waste any time – Postcard’s 13 tracks clock in at a lean 48 minutes – and it never wears out its welcome. It comes in, kicks your ass and goes home.

Motorplant most impresses me when they’re making inventive use of their multiple guitars. The great first single, “Awkward Girl,” spins a web of electric guitar lines, and the band keeps enough distance between each one that the song fills in the holes. Vocalist Steve Blanchard sings his ass off on this song, and in fact on the whole record. I can’t think of a single reason why pseudo-rockers like Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20 are all over the radio and this tune isn’t.

Motorplant keeps the crunching guitars and upbeat tempos throughout, and yet varies the production enough so that Postcard is never stale. “Mary,” just by itself, is a great example, slipping as it does from double-guitar and three-part harmony in the chorus to a hushed bridge section, to vocals, bass and drums in some parts. This record never slows down, though. It’s a masterful chunk of classic power pop-rock, and if you like the sound of guitars at all, you’ll dig it. The only thing that could have made it cooler is if they’d included their live version of Ratt’s “Round and Round.”

So what’s the problem here? Let’s get Motorplant on a major label. Go to www.motorplant.com and order American Postcard. If you like it, lobby your local radio station to start playing it. Then, start going to local shows and supporting local bands, because no matter where you are, there are bands like Motorplant struggling to get a major label deal.

The other side of the coin seems to be this: when these bands get major label deals, they often seem to muck it up. The major label record is nowhere near as good as the independently produced records, for some reason. As much as it saddens me, I’m talking about Portland’s golden children, Rustic Overtones.

When Rustic was signed to Arista Records in 1998, it was a big deal around the state of Maine. Finally, it seemed, two things had happened: one of the local scene’s best and brightest would get a shot at the big time, and the doors of the scene would blow wide open. Rustic Overtones landing a major deal was good for everyone.

And then the songs started leaking out. The major label record, which was at different times called Volume Up and the even more hideous This is Rock and Roll, was produced by Tony Visconti, and obviously had massive funding poured into it. All manner of embellishments were used: electronic drums, synthetic noises, David Bowie, etc. The songs, though, were pretty damn weak.

After a year and a half of delays and legalities, Arista rescinded its claim to Rustic, and the material was shelved, as were the hopes of every local act that Portland would become the new Seattle, circa 1992. But now, Rustic has landed a deal with super-cool rap label Tommy Boy, and given their major-label dreams new life. Hence the (finally!) terrific title of their Tommy Boy debut, Viva Nueva. If only the album were as good as its name.

If this is the first Rustic album you’ve tried, you should know a few things. First and foremost, they have never, ever sounded like this before. Viva Nueva is over-produced, bass-heavy and relatively tuneless. Over half of it is the Visconti sessions, mixed with five superior new recordings and two inferior re-recordings of old tunes. You’d never know it, though, because thankfully Viva Nueva flows remarkably well. The new stuff (“C’mon,” “Love Underground,” “Baby Blue,” “Combustible” and “Boys and Girls”) sounds like the Rustic of old somewhat. The Visconti sessions are an aberration.

I’d highly recommend trying their older stuff, particularly Long Division and Rooms By the Hour. Those sound like the work of a band, and make much better use of the three-piece horn section. Track ‘em down, they’re worth it.

That said, Viva Nueva is a challenging, accomplished, schizoid record that may grow on me over time, but I kind of doubt it. The band went to some new places on this disc, but they should have known that not all side paths lead to brilliance. “Gas on Skin,” for instance, strips the sound down to a repetitive bassline over an electronic drumbeat, and that gets real old real fast. “Crash Landing” sounds remarkably like Dave Matthews covering Ricky Martin. And don’t even get me started on “Sector Z,” the track featuring Bowie and lyrical references to both rejected album titles. I give them credit for trying new things, but I take that credit away for not realizing that new is not always better.

Again, if this is your first Rustic album, this may not matter to you. These guys are far better than this record, though, and it seems they’ve fallen victim to the major-label slump. I don’t know if it’s just the added pressure or the additional cash at one’s disposal, but this happens a lot to some really good bands. I hate to do it, but I have to number Rustic Overtones among them. Next time, guys…

While we’re on the subject of local bands, I got another e-mail from Broken Clown drummer Shane Kinney, who reports that his band’s badass anthem “Feelgood Hit of the Summer” is in contention for the top spot on garageband.com. You can help out by surfing over there and reviewing the tune. Last I checked, they were at #19 on the main chart, and #4 on the metal chart. Congrats, guys, now take it all the way.

As a quick aside, when Rustic Overtones announced in 2000 that the title of their album would be This is Rock and Roll, Kinney confided in me that Broken Clown would be titling their upcoming record No, THIS is Rock and Roll. That would have been too damn funny.

Next time, Stone Temple Pilots, maybe.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

My Fingers Hurt From Typing
Six Reviews, 3600 Words

I tried a little experiment the other day.

I mentioned in my review of Radiohead’s disappointing new wank-fest that the band’s last two albums (Kid A and Amnesiac), recorded simultaneously and originally planned as a double album, would work much better edited down to a strong single disc. Well, guess what. It works.

My edit runs 53 minutes, plenty short enough for a single disc and plenty long enough to be considered an album. I called it Kid Amnesia, and I’ve found myself reaching for this edit far more often than either of the records it came from. It’s still pretty weak, but it flows surprisingly well and sets the paranoid mood the group seemed to be after.

In case you’re curious, here’s my running order: “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song,” “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “You and Whose Army,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Idioteque,” “Morning Bell,” “Dollars and Cents” and “How to Disappear Completely.”

Radiohead fans who might want to try this are encouraged to send me their running orders, should they differ from mine. This, naturally, flies right in the face of my philosophy of listening to an artist’s work the way they intended it, and I’m working on a rationalization for this lapse as we speak. (Well, as you speak, if you’re reading this out loud.) I’ll let you know what I come up with.

I promised a long-assed column this week, and here it is. I hope to play catch-up on about half a dozen new things. I’ve broken the column up into bite-sized, digestible chunks for you if you just don’t want to commit to reading the whole thing at once. That’s just the kind of considerate guy I am. You’re welcome.

Okay, here we go.

*****

In what’s being termed the Battle of the Brit-Poppers (by someone, somewhere, I’m sure), Radiohead’s Amnesiac is being followed up one week later by Radiohead wannabes Travis’ third album. It’s no contest, really. While Radiohead have wallowed in ego for the past two releases, Travis have named their delightfully ego-free release The Invisible Band. While Radiohead were off in the stratosphere somewhere praying to the atmosphere faeries, Travis were writing songs to hang their atmospheres on. While it once may have been true that Travis at their best couldn’t outdo Radiohead at their worst, these two new releases prove that’s no longer the case.

One reason that it’s hard to knock Travis is that they’re such a nice band. Everything they do is grounded in contentment and happiness. Even when Fran Healy is bemoaning his current state of affairs, he does so with such a sunny outlook that you’re pulling for the guy to get over his minor slump. (See their big hit, “Why Does it Always Rain on Me.”) While I often wish something bad would happen to my favorite artists to inspire them artistically, I find it’s impossible to bear Healy and the boys any ill will. They’re so honestly, genuinely sweet that I feel like an ass for criticizing them.

I will, though, but only a little. Travis’ songwriting is fairly stagnant on The Invisible Band, gaining no ground from their wonderful breakthrough, The Man Who. The guitars still shimmer and shine, Healy’s voice still soars without whining, and the lyrics are (with a few exceptions) typically sunny. This album exhibits exactly zero growth.

Travis fans everywhere may breathe a sigh of relief at that. They didn’t forge ahead with some grand artistic vision, they didn’t embrace electronic beats and blips, and they certainly didn’t use their popular platform to engage the ills of the world. They’re just four blokes who like to make lighter-than-air pop music, and it shows through winningly. There’s not a moment of The Invisible Band that breaks new ground, but there’s not a moment when you’re wishing it would.

I want to say a few things about Nigel Godrich, the album’s producer. I just found out that this guy is only 27 years old. That’s my age. Godrich has, over the past few years, impressed me more than any other producer working. I’ll check something out just because he had something to do with it. (Even the last two Radiohead records sounded impeccable – the fact that the songs were lacking isn’t Godrich’s fault.) The Invisible Band is another perfect production, filled with beautiful touches that only this guy seems to bring to his work. Finding out that he’s the same age as me gives me the same feeling I got when I learned how old Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane. He’s too young to be this brilliant.

Godrich’s input is paramount to this record’s success. Like he did with The Man Who, Godrich has woven glorious sound tapestries out of Healy’s simple songs and elevated the whole project. What was cloying on their first record (called Good Feeling – don’t seek it out, it’s not worth it) is delightfully earnest here. Healy bases whole songs on sentiments like “let the caged bird go free” (“The Cage”) and “the grass is never greener on the other side” (“Side”). The first track is about convincing his girlfriend to sing in front of him. Really. There’s even a track called “Dear Diary,” which, like the rest of this band’s output, is totally irony-free.

What sounds sickeningly sweet on paper is refreshingly honest on record. Try not to sing along with “Flowers in the Window” or “Indefinitely,” a lighter-raiser if ever there was one. And brace yourself for “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song,” a layered epic whose chorus actually goes “You’ve got the glue, so I’m gonna give my heart to you.” I’m telling you, it works, and you won’t crack up once.

Travis does step over their own line once on this disc, in the relatively haunting “Last Train.” Over a great organ bed from Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner, Healy moans, “I’m gonna buy a gun, gonna shoot everything, everyone, and then I’m coming for you.” In context, “Last Train” is a jarring piece of work, one that might point to future artistic experimentation. In almost any other case, this might be a good thing, but a few more miserable sentiments might have cast a fatal pall over The Invisible Band. Very few groups these days sound happy to be happy, and losing one of them would be tragic.

Near the end of this record, Healy sings, “I’m gonna be here indefinitely.” For Travis fans like myself who love their silly little epics, let’s hope he means it.

*****

And on the sixth try, they got it right.

Rufus Wainwright’s second album, Poses, has blown through six release dates in the last year. Certain fans of his terrific first album wondered if the follow-up actually existed and would ever be released. Fret no more, because here it is, and man, was it worth the wait.

Rufus Wainwright sounds like no other current performer. God bless Dreamworks Records for finding this guy and setting him up with a record contract. I doubt any profitable label would have touched him with a 10-foot stock option. Dreamworks is one of those integrated companies that can indulge artistry. They make enough money on their film projects to float the recording careers of non-sellers like Eels, Creeper Lagoon and Wainwright. When one of their bands hits (like Lifehouse has), it’s cause for celebration.

I don’t see Wainwright making a similar commercial splash, but regardless, he’s made one of the best records of the year so far. Poses is several leaps above his self-titled debut, both in songwriting and production. His voice has even improved immensely, with all the minor quirks smoothed out into a soaring even tone.

Ah, it’s the songs, though, those glorious, dramatic, Broadway-ready songs. Imagine a dandily-dressed young lad sitting on a barstool center stage, with a spotlight softly illuminating him, as he sings “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” with a bittersweet grin. “Cigarettes and chocolate milk, these are just a couple of my cravings, everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me…”

Every song on Poses seems to flow forth from the mouth of a fully realized character in a well-written play. How many of these characters may be Wainwright himself we’re left to guess, as he dances his voice atop these lovely piano musings, just out of reach. His lyrics are a dance as well, skirting their subjects (and the characters who sing them) with artful grace.

Song after song, Wainwright achieves near-perfection. It’s like he’s performing a revue of the best of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Ira Newbern, and yet they’re all originals (except for his cover of his dad Loudon’s “One Man Guy”). He even slips into Sondheim territory once with “Evil Angel.” These are lovely, dance-on-air pieces of music, filled with strings and dramatic shifts. Even when he piles on more typical pop instrumentation, like guitars and drums, he maintains that classic sense about his work.

For all its traditional leanings, Poses is a series of modern riddles, speaking obliquely through character studies on what it means to be young, gay and style-conscious. Wainwright’s point of view is one you don’t find very often in the pop music field, and that’s as refreshing as his attitude about what, exactly, constitutes pop music in the first place. His songs, if nothing else, certainly hearken back to the origins of the pop song, and drag that sound into the modern world with a dapper elegance.

The long and short of it is, Poses is terrific. Rufus Wainwright certainly didn’t need much improvement, and the fact that he did improve, immensely, makes this album a lock for the Top 10 List. I can only hope that his songs endure as long as those of his influences, because they deserve to.

*****

About a month ago, I brought a little stereo system into work, because as anyone who’s known me for more than a day or two knows, I can’t live for very long without music. I didn’t set up this CD player at my desk specifically to drive my co-workers batty, but it sure has had that effect. I listen to some weird shit, as sports writer Gale Cavness, who sits to my left, can attest.

Gale’s a dyed-in-the-wool music fan who hasn’t liked much of anything from the last few decades. He’s into Aerosmith, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and the like, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. He just happens to have the misfortune of sitting next to the writer of a new music column. He’s been very good, all things considered, about rarely telling me to shut my damn noise off.

I told you all that to tell you this. I can remember just one time that Gale asked me to turn my music up. I can also remember just one time that he requested a certain album. It just happened to be the same album both times, and that album just happened to be Michael Roe’s Safe as Milk.

In my experience, anyone who hears Michael Roe ends up liking his stuff. As I mentioned when reviewing his live record It’s for You, Roe’s career has been long and varied. Though his solo material is wonderful (especially the aforementioned Safe as Milk), he’s best known as the voice and guitar of the 77s. That band’s career has been marked by terrific songwriting, solid albums and interminably long waits between those albums. The last one, Tom Tom Blues, was in 1995.

In true feast or famine tradition, there have been four new 77s discs over the last few months, culminating in the release of their new full-length album A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows. First came an EP (cleverly titled EP) described as a taste of the new record. Then came Radioactive Singles, a bunch of remixes of tracks off the new album. Then, after Golden Field blew its third release date, came the aptly named Late, a collection of everything from the EP, most of Radioactive Singles and a few new things. Then, finally, the album itself. Late makes the two that preceded it redundant, so that and the new album are all you need to catch up.

I’ve heard it said that the 77s have been creating a season cycle with their records, and that theory holds up. They started as a summery blues-rock band, slowly darkening their sound over their first three albums. Pray Naked from 1992 was largely as gentle and sad as an autumn rain, and the follow-up, Drowning with Land in Sight, raged like a winter storm. Spring sprung with Tom Tom Blues, a more optimistic record, and now the group has come full circle with Golden Field, the happiest, sunniest album since their debut.

Fans of Roe’s solo work will probably be surprised at how loud Golden Field is, but this band has always rocked. They became a trio with Tom Tom, and Golden Field is the sound of that trio having a grand old time. Even the slower tracks, like “There Forever,” end up swimming in electric guitars, and when they lock into a groove, like they do on “Mean Green Season,” they don’t sound anywhere near their mid-40s. Which they are, of course.

Highlights include the single “Mr. Magoo,” a fun rocker that begins with the line, “I may be Mr. Magoo but I see through you,” and “Down From You,” one of the most energetic and melodic pieces in the band’s catalog. A standout is “Related,” which sounds like nothing the band has done before. It’s all jacked-up hip hop beats and phased guitars, and it works, though nothing else on Golden Field even tries to be that modern. Roe and company save the best for last with the ironically titled closer “Begin,” a classic Roe semi-acoustic piece.

As good as Golden Field is, I have to mention my vague sense of disappointment with it. The songs are decent, but they’re not extraordinary. Roe never really cuts loose with a solo here, and I could listen to him play guitar all day and not get bored. The album is solid, quick and raucous, but it’s nowhere near as good as the 77s can get. It still ranks higher than a good 80% of what’s out there now, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the band.

For that, you should get Late. The five songs from the EP are definitely extraordinary, especially the opener, “Unbalanced,” which contains one of Roe’s best lines: “You’re so inviting but I still can’t come.” “The Years Go Down” exists in a state of divine fury, and it’s balanced off by the sweet “Sevens.” Where Golden Field sticks to one style throughout, the EP flits from mood to mood marvelously.

The alternate takes of “Flowers in the Sand,” “Outskirts” and “You Still Love Me” from Tom Tom Blues are all superior versions, particularly “Flowers,” with its stripped-down instrumentation and terrific guitar work. The 77s’ version of Daniel Amos’ “Shotgun Angel” is note-perfect. Late closes with three outtakes from It’s for You, including a longer, better version of “Go With God, But Go.”

If you want to check out Michael Roe and the 77s, and you do, my recommendation is to snag Late first. It’s an almost-perfect document of the different styles this band does so well, and of the guitar-playing master at its helm. Last time I mentioned Roe, I couldn’t recommend a starting point. If nothing else, Late provides that, and Golden Field thankfully continues the band’s sterling output. The 77s may be the best band you’ve never heard.

*****

Speaking of bands you’ve never heard, there’s a new Starflyer 59 album. Starflyer fans are encouraged to write me, for two reasons. First, I don’t think there are that many of you out there, and second, if you dig this band, you’re probably pretty interesting.

Leave Here a Stranger is Starflyer’s sixth full-length album on tiny Tooth and Nail Records. (They’ve also released three EPs, a host of singles and a box set that collects ‘em all.) They’re a great example of mutual loyalty between company and band. Starflyer’s self-titled debut was the third album to come out on Tooth and Nail, and the new one is almost the 200th. Along the way, T&N broke MxPx big, losing them to A&M Records, and they’ve nearly done the same with a half-dozen of their other acts, but not Starflyer, even though they’d get my vote for Most Likely to Succeed. Jason Martin (the brains behind the band) is happy with Tooth and Nail, and they’re happy with him.

Plus, Martin gets to record and release deep, bizarre pop records like Leave Here a Stranger. A calliope of often-depressing lyrics and vocals atop bright, swirling accompaniment, Stranger is the group’s most fully realized effort. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering it’s a collaboration between Martin and ignored genius producer Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs, Swirling Eddies, and a host of production credits). Taylor elevates Martin’s signature guitar lines and vintage keyboard sounds from cheese to magnificence.

Not that Martin hasn’t always been magnificent on his own. The first three Starflyer albums have some of the thickest, heaviest, slowest guitars you’ll ever find, layered atop each other in a near-infinite blanket. With album four, The Fashion Focus, Martin dropped the guitars and focused on acoustics and synths, maintaining his high melodic standard. The new Starflyer sound hasn’t really coalesced until now. Leave Here a Stranger is a quirky, soaring suite, and the only complaint Starflyer fans should have with it is the same one they’ve had all along: it’s over too quickly.

*****

I don’t usually review soundtracks, but this one’s really hooked me, largely because of the movie it accompanies. I’m talking about Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling wonderama, Moulin Rouge.

I highly recommend seeing the movie before hearing the soundtrack, but then, I highly recommend seeing the movie anyway. I can scarcely believe this thing got made at all, and I’d have liked to have sat in on the original pitch: “I want to make a modern musical that sucks up the last 100 years of popular songs and Cuisinarts them, and I’d like it to look like a drug-addled live-action cartoon with, oh, three times the regular number of cuts, and I want the actors to do all their own singing, and by the way, let’s release it opposite Pearl Harbor. What do you say?”

I say bravo, Baz. This is the type of film that makes you want to applaud after every musical number, and most of those numbers are present on the soundtrack. Most exciting to me is the inclusion of the “Elephant Love Medley,” which needs no explanation for those who’ve seen the film, and will get none from me for those who haven’t. I spent the whole scene with a wild, manic grin on my face. This movie is a music lover’s dream.

The soundtrack’s not so bad itself. The highlights are, of course, the film’s sly rewrites of classic (and not-so-classic) pop tunes, but apart from the film, the soundtrack features Bono’s great rendition of “Children of the Revolution,” Fatboy Slim’s reworking of Jim Broadbent’s lines in “Because We Can,” Beck’s terrific take on David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” and the aforementioned and always brilliant Rufus Wainwright’s “Complainte de la Butte,” in which he proves that he rules in any language. (That was quite the run-on sentence, huh?)

Baz Luhrmann even adds dramatic heft to newly-written trifles like “Come What May.” If you can see the film and still dismiss this fluff as weightless, I’d be surprised. Luhrmann has tapped into what makes a popular tune work, what makes one cry at a silly love song, what makes one agree wholeheartedly with the most banal statements of passion uttered by pop singers. In so doing, he’s given new life to the most ephemeral, disposable music of the last century. The film is a heartfelt work of wonder that doesn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, make a false note.

And the soundtrack ain’t half bad, either.

*****

Damn, huh? Could I possibly babble any more?

Next time, it’s an all New England throwdown with new releases by Motorplant and Rustic Overtones. Be there or be…not there. Um, whatever.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles