Beyond Beautiful
Duncan Sheik's Phantom Moon is a Quiet Wonder

Thought I wouldn’t make it, didn’t you? It’s still Wednesday by about 20 minutes…

Okay, first up, some random notes about album titles. Everyone seems to be changing their minds lately. First Radiohead decided to give up on that Kid A Kid B thing and call their new one Amnesiac. (It hits on my birthday, June 5, and would make an ideal gift, hint hint…) Now word has come down that Tool’s new one, slated for April 17 and originally titled Systema Encephale, is now called Lateralus. (I liked the old title better. It was like getting two non-words for the price of one.)

Also changed is Bjork’s album, ready to come out on May 22. It was Domestika, and now it’s called Vespertine. Either way, it should be excellent. Finally, even though it’s not a change, I wanted to mention that John Mellencamp, who stubbornly refuses to die, has wonderfully titled his new one Kiss My Mule. It’s between that and Amy Ray’s Stag for best album title of the year so far.

The title can tell you a lot about a record. For instance, from the name of Aerosmith’s new one, Just Push Play, you might expect some generic pop-rock without a lot of imagination, and you’d be right. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, because it’s a huge backslide from their last one, Nine Lives. Still, for a band whose collective age is right around 250, it ain’t all bad.

On the other hand, from the title of Duncan Sheik’s third album, Phantom Moon, you wouldn’t be remiss in expecting a hushed, acoustic album reminiscent of Nick Drake, and again you’d be right. This is the one I want to spent time on this week, though, because Phantom Moon is a lot more than a knockoff of Drake’s style. In fact, it’s my favorite album of 2001 so far.

Sheik’s always been more than the sum of his hits. His first album soared on the pop hooks of “She Runs Away” and “Barely Breathing,” which typed Sheik as a writer of literate yet accessible radio tunes. If one delved deeper on that album, though, one could hear the first tentative steps of a wunderkind. Even “She Runs Away” is a nearly perfect pop number, combining a finger-picked acoustic style with a great melody. The album, though, decried the singles, remaining a somber affair throughout. It was a genuine mood album, and the singles didn’t seem to fit.

His second effort, Humming, attempted to inject more momentum. In fact, the first three songs on Humming (“In Between,” “Rubbed Out” and “Bite Your Tongue”) were the most rhythmically rocking tunes he’d produced. Sheik’s voice is a somewhat unsteady tenor that never seemed to sit well with his more rollicking material, and hence most of the second album is an ill fit. Humming also showcased his burgeoning talents as a songsmith, however, and hiding behind the hits on this one were meditations like the Jeff Buckley tribute, “A Body Goes Down.” It was a delicate balancing act between pop sensation and serious artist, and Sheik seemed to be growing more adept at it.

Until now.

Phantom Moon is full-on artistry. It’s a gorgeous, accomplished work that makes no concessions to AOR format radio programmers or sales figures. It’s such a hit-free collection that Atlantic refused to release it. Hence it’s out on Nonesuch Records, a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros. (Isn’t everything a tiny subsidiary of Warner Bros., though?) It’s a disc that makes that rare leap from merely a set of songs to a complete album, one that is best listened to straight through. Preferably, in this case, by a roaring fire on a snowy Saturday evening with all the lights off.

Yeah, Phantom Moon sounds like Nick Drake. More than that, though, it captures the very essence of Nick Drake: that deep chill that begins at the base of your spine, the goosebumps that appear on the back of your neck when an artist decides to be so intimate with you, the listener, that you feel like you’re in the same room. Phantom Moon is hushed, somber, willowy and lighter than air, all at once. It takes more than a passing mimicry of Nick Drake’s acoustic style to get that mixture of emotions right. Duncan Sheik has finally got it right.

With one important exception, every instrument on Phantom Moon is acoustic. The guitar, of course, provides the web that holds it all together, but the sweet thump of acoustic bass is unmistakable, and the organic quality of a piano is impossible to emulate electronically. The album is structured in a wave, beginning with just a voice and a piano on “The Wilderness (Prelude),” which leads into “Longing Town,” one of the sparest songs here. Slowly, over the course of 25 minutes or so, Sheik adds instruments – piano on “Mr. Chess,” drums on “The Winds that Blow,” the full power of the London Session Orchestra on the amazing “Mouth on Fire” – until the buildup reaches full flower with “Far Away.” This song introduces the one plugged-in instrument, Bill Frisell’s terrific electric guitar, and though it remains subdued, it feels huge in context.

Then, slowly again, Sheik starts removing instruments. The last percussion on the album appears four tracks from the end, on the great “Mirror in the Heart.” He wraps it up with “The Wilderness” again, just piano and voice with subtle strings. The effect is like a journey. He starts off alone, meeting people one by one as he continues. One by one, though, they all disappear, and he reaches his destination alone once again.

The most striking aspect of Phantom Moon is the vocal work. Sheik, always more comfortable with the moodier material in his catalog, has chosen to go for intimacy at all costs here. He’s recorded his own vocals close and high, making one feel like he’s standing three feet away. The gutsiest move here is “Lo and Behold,” which Sheik sings almost entirely in a lovely falsetto. The unsteadiness that plagued his earlier vocals is all but gone, and even though he’s never tried something like this, he’s so dedicated to a particular sound that you can’t help falling in love with the effort. Sheik gets you so on his side that you’re rooting for him to perform the song flawlessly, and he comes through. It’s exhilarating.

Lyrics have always been Duncan Sheik’s Achilles heel, marring perfect melodies with banal sentiments. His smartest move on Phantom Moon was to turn the lyrical side over entirely to novelist Steven Sater. His poetry suits the music perfectly, and even though the subject matter remains familiar, the phrasing adds depth. Take this passage from “This is How My Heart Heard”: “I forgot the taste of fears, and how they haunt the lips you’re kissing, and how love’s just a waste of tears on someone who is missing.” It’s a vast improvement over “Oh, darling, don’t you know, the darkness comes and the darkness goes,” if nothing else. Plus, the hushed production makes even the sweetest lines melancholy and adds weight to even the slightest turn of phrase.

This is an important album for Duncan Sheik in a lot of ways. For one, he’s grown and matured as an artist here immeasurably. I can’t imagine the Duncan Sheik of five years ago producing anything like this. More importantly, though, he’s forsworn the simple pop life on this album, digging deeper in a real way for the first time. Phantom Moon is a glorious statement of purpose and the announcement of a serious musician. It’s an album that brings its own atmosphere into every room in which it’s played, and one that is instantly timeless.

There’s no doubt that Duncan Sheik is a fan of Nick Drake. Phantom Moon borrows the style and substance of Drake’s best work. Its true achievement, though, is in reflecting the soul and spirit of Drake, something that even the best imitators can’t do unless they really feel it. After spending a solid week with Phantom Moon, I feel confident in saying that were he alive today, Nick Drake would probably be just as big a fan of Duncan Sheik in return. That is an amazing thing, but Phantom Moon is an amazing record.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Isn’t He Famous Enough?
Dave Matthews Sells Out With Everyday

Fuck the Grammys, man.

The first part of this week’s column will upset Josh Rogers, my friend in England. He writes, “I enjoy your columns more when you’re not wasting your breath on things that will never be less stupid than they are.” That’s a fair point. The Grammys, and in fact most awards shows, will never be less stupid than they are. It’s a failing of my character, I guess, that ignorance makes me mad, and supposedly authoritative ignorance makes me self-righteous. The next few paragraphs are a full-on bitch session, and if you don’t feel like reading someone raging against something that will never be less stupid than it is, you can join Mr. Rogers in skipping about 400 words. (Sorry for the unintentional children’s television joke there…)

So, as I said, fuck the Grammys, man.

The Academy made a few major mistakes along with the usual slew of minor ones. First, it was insulting enough to Shelby Lynne to nominate her for Best New Artist after six albums and 13 years in the biz, but to actually award it to her was just silly. She handled it well, and doubtless she’ll never get this much nationwide attention again, but really. That’s like naming John Glenn Best New Astronaut.

Of course, I’m most upset about Steely Freakin’ Dan. Even if you disagree with my assessment of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP as album of the year, you had to be surprised at the Academy’s conclusion. Two Against Nature was the weakest album of the lot, exhibiting zero artistic growth from the duo’s last album in 1979. Even Radiohead’s Kid A showed more daring and musicianship than Steely Dan’s effort. Sadly, Dan had the safest album of the lot as well. Leaving Eminem’s foul-mouthed role-playing aside for a second, both Radiohead and Beck made culturally warping works aimed at the fringe, and Paul Simon presented a sparkling, mature record that taxed those with limited attention spans. Two Against Nature was the easy-listening, soft-rock cop-out that the Academy seems to need every year.

But then they went and made a huge deal about Eminem’s performance on the show, going so far as to have the president of the RIAA introduce him with a stirring speech about freedom and artistry. That speech alone made the three-hour broadcast worth watching, and the performance that followed was simple and understated, a refreshing change for the Grammys. All the press marveled at Eminem’s restraint. What did they think he was going to do, step to the mike and say, “Thanks for the fuckin’ Grammy, and by the way, I hate gays?” What the hell are they so afraid of? Awarding The Marshall Mathers LP Album of the Year wouldn’t be an endorsement of its content, just of the artistry that went into crafting it. Or something like that, since I’m paraphrasing, of course, from the RIAA president’s speech. The Academy’s learned to talk the talk, and now they need to learn the other half of the cliche.

Okay, Josh, you can start reading again.

I first heard the Dave Matthews Band in a record store. I was browsing, and every once in a while my ear would be drawn to some snatch of melody or tone color from the speakers. I didn’t think much of it until “Jimi Thing,” track nine on DMB’s studio debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, started up. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and I bought the record at once. This was two months before “What Would You Say” burned up the airwaves, and until that happened, I never imagined the Dave Matthews Band would be stars. They were too quirky, too organic, too musical to make a dent in the charts.

Silly, silly me.

Eight years into a decidedly unorthodox superstar career, I still don’t see the Dave Matthews Band as your typical popular act. Their lineup has always been acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax and violin. Their songs have often twisted into 10-minute workouts that made you sweat just listening to them. Three years ago they put out the second-best album of 1998 with Before These Crowded Streets, a huge, sprawling mess that showcased just how good these musicians really are. In fact, it’s been my experience that the Dave Matthews Band has spent most of their career being underrated because of their chart success. Streets was like a mission statement – “Yeah, we’ve had four top 10 hits, and all the women love us, but listen to this.”

Three years later, and DMB has just released Everyday, the album on which they’ve decided to start playing down to expectations. They’ve hooked up with human hit factory Glen Ballard, the guy who made Alanis Morissette into a household name, and they’ve discovered the electric guitar. The result is a fuzzed-out short pop album chock full o’ number one singles. The unfortunate side result is that it sounds anonymous. While there are only a few groups on the planet who could have played the songs on Streets, on Everyday they sound like just another band.

Ballard co-wrote all the songs with Matthews, and you can hear his touch all over this thing. The arrangements are thick and oversaturated, especially when Ballard piles on the synths and drum programs. (Yeah, electronic drum patterns, the current alt-rock rage. My feeling is, if you have Carter Beauford for a drummer and you use a drum machine, that’s an incredible waste of resources. That’s like landing John Coltrane for your jazz ensemble and having him play the triangle.) The songs all revolve around verse-chorus-verse flowchart patterns, and almost every track ends abruptly, as if the band kept playing for three or four minutes after Ballard chose to stop the tape. No song breaks the five-minute mark, which by itself isn’t a bad thing, but many of the songs are too weak to even sustain five minutes.

“Sleep to Dream Her,” for example, is the first DMB song I’ve ever found myself fast-forwarding through. It’s one part reggae and two parts crap. I never again want to hear a song called “Angel,” especially one this trite and boring. I also never want to hear another song sung from the point of view of a child asking his parents why the world is a mess, like “Mother Father.”

There are some good moments on Everyday, though when I first heard “I Did It,” the now-ubiquitous single, I never thought it would be one of my favorites. Sadly, it is, even though it bores me to tears. The second single is supposed to be “The Space Between,” an infinitely better song. I’d have preferred the stripped-down arrangement the band played on Saturday Night Live to the over-produced version on the album, but it’s a nice tune. So is “If I Had It All,” the album’s one moment of musical and lyrical depth. “Fool to Think” allows the band to strut their stuff, if only for four minutes, and its time signatures are pretty cool. (Standard four-four cuts to a chorus in nine-eight without missing a beat.) The closing title track is hummable and pleasant as well.

Still, most of Everyday is only one or two steps removed from later-period Sting. The tragedy is that there’s another DMB album, one they had completed before scrapping it to revamp their image and work with Ballard. One hopes that the unreleased effort holds all the musicianship and energy that Everyday is missing. Chances are this album will do very, very well sales-wise. It’s just discouraging that after eight years of outplaying their chart brethren, the Dave Matthews Band has chosen to prove all their detractors right.

I’ll be back in praise mode next week, with a surprisingly good disc that just came out. At least, I was surprised. Thanks to everyone who’s written me, and I’ll try to send replies by the end of the week. Honest, I’m just really busy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In English, It Goes Verb, Preposition, Then Noun
Alanis Morissette's Frustrating Under Rug Swept

It’s the 2/27 column, on 2/27! How do you like them apples?

Computer’s back, my health is strong, and it should be smooth sailing until another unforeseen disaster derails everything. I even have a choice of topics this week. I’ve recently picked up three really cool albums (Midnight Oil’s Capricornia, Neil Finn’s live album 7 Worlds Collide and Cerberus Shoal’s Mr. Boy Dog), but I’m not going to deal with any of them this week. I also have to write a massive review of the Alarm 2000 box set, which just arrived from Wales this week, but I’m not quite done absorbing that yet, so it won’t be this week.

No, I’ve chosen to write about the most annoying and frustrating of this week’s new releases, Alanis Morissette’s Under Rug Swept. This is simply because I relate to the second track, “Narcissus,” and enjoy causing myself great pain.

I first heard Morissette’s 15-quadrillion-googolplex-selling debut Jagged Little Pill on a bet. It wasn’t the first time I’d head the distinctive caterwaul of Ms. Morissette, though – like everyone else on the planet, I was unable to escape her trio of breakout singles in 1995. As people who knew me then can attest, her singular inability to even approximate the right notes on “All I Really Want” nearly caused me to burst both my eardrums with a sharp pointy stick. As each day wore on, I prayed that the general public would start to notice how brain-splittingly awful those singles were and come to its senses.

Because they’re the general public, however, they did the exact opposite and made Morissette a superstar and a poster child for whiny anger. “You Oughtta Know” basically boils down to, “My boyfriend left me and I’m REALLY MAD,” and apparently this sort of surface-level soul-baring struck a chord with most of America, and began the onslaught of one-hit ready-made confrontational females with not an iota of talent between them. (Remember Meredith Brooks? Didn’t think so.)

And then my old friend Jeff Maxwell, writer of e-column Twitch, bet me that I’d like the rest of the album. He in fact offered to pay for my copy of Jagged Little Pill if I didn’t dig it. As I said before, I like causing myself pain for some reason, so I bought it and prepared for 55 minutes of sheer sonic agony.

But it wasn’t like that at all.

Oh, the singles still grated, but Jeff was right. The rest of Jagged Little Pill pointed towards happiness instead of dwelling in miserable rage, and the songs were well-constructed enough that I could see the mature songwriter Morissette might one day become. Maxwell even predicted the phenomenal hit potential of “Ironic,” which incidentally contains almost no irony whatsoever. He was right. Morissette was worth my attention.

Had Pill not been a 60-times-platinum icon of suppressed fury, it might have been considered a decent start. The production is a bit too slick sometimes (except on the vocals, of course), the songs all have that “here comes the chorus” feeling that producer Glen Ballard brings to all of his work, and the lyrics occasionally slip into the silly, but it’s not bad. Regardless of the quality of her album, though, Morissette had to be dreading the eventual, inevitable backlash. Even though she had it all over people like Brooks and Tracy Bonham and Natalie Imbruglia, the originator of the trend found herself grouped in with it.

The harshest critics called her a product of her record company (Maverick Records, owned by the best manipulator of public taste around, Madonna), and postulated that without Ballard to co-write and produce her work, she’d fall on her face. She didn’t even need to ditch Ballard to prove them right with her follow-up album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. An extremely long and stream-of-consciousness effort, Junkie took several steps forward in every area but popularity. Thing is, it was considerably more sophisticated than its predecessor. It was risky and confident and occasionally mangled, but it was undoubtedly not the work of a record company product.

All of which brings us to the syntax-impaired Under Rug Swept. Morissette has finally left Ballard behind, electing to produce 11 new songs herself. And surprise, she’s actually better at capturing her own sound than Ballard was. If Pill was a mission statement to millions and Junkie was an overreaction to its popularity, then Swept is just a pop album, and that’s the way it ought to be. If you strip away the hype from her first two efforts and listen to them as pop albums, Swept is her most balanced and concise collection.

You’ll have to trust me on that and just bear with the first three songs, though, because they suck. “21 Things I Want in a Lover” is just a list put to boring and repetitive music, “Narcissus” tries to spice things up with a megaphone and fails miserably, and “Hands Clean” is just godawful. (As a quick side note, it doesn’t quite surprise me that “Hands Clean” is her most successful single in ages, because it copies almost everything I hated about her big hits. In fact, it almost seems like she got in a time machine and visited her 1995 self to ask for another chart smash.)

Ah, but starting with track four, Swept turns into the mature, almost satisfying album it thinks it is. “Flinch” is perhaps the most flat-out lovely song she’s penned, with “That Particular Time” in the running as well. Also noteworthy is “You Owe Me Nothing In Return,” a spooky number that revisits some of the lyrical themes of “Still,” which remains the best song in her catalog. For six straight tracks, Morissette stays afloat, eschewing her typical wail in favor of subtle singing and occasionally surprising songcraft. That the album crashes and burns with its last two tracks, especially the all-too-earnest “Utopia,” is a shame, but with my luck they’ll be the two next hit singles.

The only other sticking point, and it’s a big one, is Morissette’s tongue-twisting lyrics. Too often the words seem disassociated from the music, like they were two separate thoughts. It’s kind of amazing that music was written to “21 Things I Want in a Lover” at all. A sample stanza: “Do you derive joy from diving in, and seeing that loving someone can actually feel like freedom? Are you funny? A la self-deprecating? Like adventure? And have many formed opinions?” It feels like she composed a want-ad for her local newspaper, and then grabbed the wrong piece of paper on her way to the studio.

Even the best songs on Swept suffer from overlocution, which is actually a good example of a word she might try to shoehorn into a song one day. “That Particular Time” is a somber piano piece reminiscent of Counting Crows’ “Colorblind,” but when she gets to the line, “That particular month we needed to marinate in what ‘us’ meant,” it nearly sinks the mood, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t fit the melody very well. If there’s anything Morissette needs to work on, it’s sculpting the lyrics to complement the music.

The sad part is, she’s getting there. She’s starting to break her cocoon and stretch her wings, but because of the success of Pill, her fans are expecting another angry testimony that speaks to their own so-called pain. Swept speaks to no one’s pain but Morissette’s, which may be its downfall in the sales department. By the end of it, you feel more like her therapist than her comrade in arms, and though it’s obvious that Morissette considers herself a bit of a modern-day Joni Mitchell, even Mitchell gazed outward every now and then. Swept, though musically far better than its predecessors, remains self-obsessed, effectively closing Jagged Little Pill‘s audience out.

That’s too bad, because the fun of following someone like Morissette lies in watching her develop. She’s obviously taking baby steps on a long-term path, and if she can escape the blandness of half of this new album, she may get there. The question is, will our short-term-memory culture let her get there, or have they already moved on to the next singer willing to speak with their voice instead of her own?

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jonatha Brooke’s Steady Pull
Independence Never Sounded So Sweet

I’m almost ready for the Oscars.

This year I had the worst ratio of seen to unseen films (two films out of five for Best Picture) in many a moon, because I deemed most of what the studios lobbed my way in 2000 crap. The Best Picture category this year is the most random-seeming selection I can remember – a Roman gladiator epic, a Chinese-language martial arts picture, a bio-pic about a woman on a crusade, a grungy drug saga and a simple, sweet love story. Before last week, I’d seen only Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Gladiator is inspiring drama on the big screen and murky melodrama on the small one. Crouching Tiger is a sweeping film that will probably suffer the same problem, but it’s leagues better than its main competition.

I still haven’t seen Chocolat, but I plan to remedy that this weekend. Last week, though, I saw the Steven Soderbergh pictures, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. If he keeps up this standard, Soderbergh could easily find himself with a body of work to rival that other filmmaking Steven. Brockovich is serviceable and entertaining, with even Julia Roberts coming off well. (Usually, she’s the deal-breaker with me.) It has no business being nominated for Best Picture, especially over Almost Famous, but it doesn’t make a false move.

Traffic, now, that’s a wonder to behold. This film currently holds the spot The Insider occupied last year for me: it’s a terrific film that will most likely get robbed of its deserving award. Unlike The Insider, there are no bold, sweeping strokes in Traffic. It’s two and a half hours of moments, subtlety and character that combine to form a comprehensive and damning argument against the so-called war on drugs. Even the form the film takes is part of that argument. By its conclusion, Soderbergh has shown that bold, sweeping strokes will not make a difference. You can only fight this war one person at a time. This film should win Best Picture, and when it doesn’t, I’ll be upset, but I won’t be surprised.

Geez, look how I’ve rambled on. And I even have an honest-to-gosh new CD to review this time as well. Special thanks again to Bull Moose in Portland, Maine. My package containing Jonatha Brooke’s new album, Steady Pull, arrived today, and it was worth the wait.

Brooke started off as one half of the Story, with Jennifer Kimball. The duo made lovely, complex acoustic pop music, but the best songs were Brooke’s, so it was no surprise that when she went solo with Plumb, she made a perfect pop record. (To be fair, Kimball’s solo album, Veering From the Wave, is quite good in its own right.) It was her fourth album, 10 Cent Wings, however, that truly established her as a formidable songwriting voice. It’s one of those records on which each song, as it’s playing, is your favorite. It takes retrospection to find a standout track. For my money, though, that standout is “Because I Told You So,” a simple, elegant acoustic number that should have sent Brooke’s career into the stratosphere.

Instead, because MCA Records had no idea what to do with an album this good, the song wasn’t even released as a single. 10 Cent Wings languished unpromoted, a common story with an increasingly common result: Brooke bailed on major labels all together. Last year she followed Aimee Mann, another literate pop songwriter with a history of uncooperative record companies, into the realm of independent distribution. Brooke’s personal label is called Bad Dog, and her first release was Live, a collection of… well, live tracks.

Now, when an album is as good as 10 Cent Wings is, I don’t usually expect much from the follow-up. Oh, sure, I hope that an artist can recreate previous creative success, but it usually doesn’t happen. I call it the Sarah McLachlan Effect: two good albums followed by a stunner, and then a return to making merely good albums. McLachlan will most likely never make a record as good as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy again. I expected a similar pattern with Brooke (who, by the way, deserves McLachlan’s success more than McLachlan does), so it’s a pleasure to report that Steady Pull is just as good, if not better than, 10 Cent Wings.

For the first time, Brooke has produced herself here, and the creative freedom shows. The first single and leadoff track, “Linger,” is decent if uninspired, but from there the record soars. Brooke excels at crafting lush pop music that never goes where you expect it to. Following the twists and turns of a song like “Walking” is a constantly engaging surprise. The 12 songs on Steady Pull actually sound like they sprang from the pen of Neil Finn, a songwriter Brooke has obviously learned a great deal from. I’d accept any of these tunes (even “Linger”) from Finn, which from me is a high compliment.

Finn himself shows up on “New Dress,” which is about as delicate as this album gets. Brooke has expanded her sonic range here, which might upset some fans of her older, more acoustic material. She’s never recorded a full electric rave-up like “Out of Your Mind” before, and on 10 Cent Wings, she reserved the acoustic-to-electric dynamic for the epic “Crumbs.” Here that dynamic appears all over the place, most effectively on “Digging,” whose chorus makes better use of just two chords than any in recent memory. Elsewhere, Brooke sets up grooves and slips lovely melodies on top of them, like she does on the title track and “How Deep Is Your Love.” These tunes find her stretching her voice farther than she’s taken it before, to great effect.

And again, I have a favorite, but only on retrospection. It’s a statement of purpose buried near the end called “I’ll Take It From Here.” For all her righteous indignation, Aimee Mann has never written a declaration of independence this clear: “I’ll take it from here, I’ll succeed or I will fail but I will decide, Catch my breath and count to 10 and open my eyes again…” It’s brief, but it all but defines this set of songs. Despite how difficult it must have been to watch an album like 10 Cent Wings wither on the vine, Jonatha Brooke has delivered on her own confidence. She’s proven throughout her career that if one group of songs doesn’t bring her the recognition she deserves, she can always write more that are just as good. That’s something no label executive could ever do.

Oh, and I am going to make two copies of this album and deliver them to the managers of the record stores in my town that refused to stock it, just so they can hear what they’re missing. It’s a silly hope, I know, but maybe hearing how good Steady Pull is will change their minds. If not, well, at least two more people got to hear it. It’s the least I can do.

Hey, if your local record store doesn’t carry copies of this disc, you can always go to jonathabrooke.com and order them directly. I hear Brooke will even sign ‘em for you.

Let’s hope this is a portent of the year to come. We’ve got Dave Matthews, Duncan Sheik, Amy Ray, Semisonic, Our Lady Peace and Sepultura coming up, and if they’re as good as Jonatha Brooke’s album, I’ll be a happy boy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Piss and Moan
Death to Corporate Record Stores

Yeah, I know, I’m late. You should see the first draft.

I’m a bit angry this week, and I feel that it’s important to get these feelings out while they’re still fresh. I find that if you let these little frustrations bottle up without spewing them out in some (hopefully) harmless way, then they fester inside and cause bleeding ulcers and painful, early death. It’s crucial, I feel, that one finds an outlet (like, say, a weekly column) through which to vent these venomous, bitter emotions.

Like I said, you should see the first draft.

What’s got me upset? At the risk of sounding like Michael Moore, corporate America. Here’s my stupid story.

As I promised last week, the new Jonatha Brooke album, Steady Pull, came out yesterday. I live in a town with two music stores, so I thought I’d call both of them a week in advance and ask, quite nicely, if they’d order me a copy of the album. Both stores (corporate-owned mall-type stores, by the way) said they’d have it on the release date. Neither of them did.

A trifling annoyance, you may say. To me, though, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that I don’t want to overstate, but which seems like a big deal to me. People talk about the increasing availability of music these days, what with MP3s and Napster, but the truth is that most people still go to the record store to buy CDs. Like most things, the record shops are becoming more and more corporate, with larger chains overtaking the smaller stores and driving them out of business. This is bad because the corporate owners don’t give two rat’s butt cheeks about music, just the financial bottom line.

This attitude extends beyond the ordering process. One thing that I’ve always loved about small music stores is that the owner(s) almost always work in the shops themselves. You don’t start your own record store unless you really like music. Just as you’d expect the staff at a car dealership to know more than a little bit about cars, I expect the staff at a music store to have more than a passing interest in music. In smaller stores, the owner(s) do the hiring, and they base their decisions partially on knowledge of music. That just makes sense. If a customer has a question about an artist or an album, the customer service rep should be able to answer it.

Not so in huge corporate chain stores. If you have a pulse and can work a cash register, you can work in a huge corporate chain store. This is because, if a particular title doesn’t sell eight million copies in its first week and get three-times-an-hour rotation on MTV, the huge corporate chain store doesn’t care about it. Not only did neither corporate store have the disc I specifically requested, not a single staff member of the four total that I talked to knew who Jonatha Brooke is. Now, while I wouldn’t call Brooke mainstream, I certainly wouldn’t call her underground either. She has six albums, two with the Story, and four of those are major-label releases. If you know who Aimee Mann is, you probably know who Jonatha Brooke is.

I should mention that I finally tracked down the album. I called Bull Moose in Portland, Maine, a small chain that’s privately owned (and where I worked for a few months). I spoke to Katie, who not only knew who Jonatha Brooke is, but knew her whole history. Bull Moose had several copies of the album on their hit wall, and sold me one over the phone. I patronized Bull Moose for eight years while I lived in Maine, and I’m afraid they’ve spoiled me against other music stores. If I wanted something, they ordered it. If I had a question, they could answer it. If more stores were like Bull Moose, Amazon.com wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.

The truth behind corporate conglomerates is that quality of service doesn’t matter as much as quantity of profits. There are people, believe it or not, who don’t care about Jennifer Lopez’s ass or which Backstreet Boy has the best-primped hair. There are albums, believe it or not, that are still incredible works, regardless of how miniscule their sales figures turn out. There are artists, believe it or not, who go 30 years without selling what Britney Spears does in an afternoon, and yet have the ability to change the world with one note and one turn of phrase.

There’s no doubt that I get too worked up over this stuff. I just wish the good stuff was more readily available. Ah well. Let’s see how hard it’ll be for me to get the new Orb album in two weeks.

I wanted to mention the Oscars, because I’m terribly disappointed. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Best Picture nomination was a welcome surprise, and even though I haven’t seen Traffic (my town’s one multiplex hasn’t opened it yet, even though they’re still wasting theater space on What Women Want), I’m glad it got nominated. No, I’m disappointed that the best movie I saw this year, Almost Famous, didn’t get a nod. That means it won’t get a re-release, and those of you that haven’t seen it will have to make do with the video and DVD release in March. I highly, highly recommend it.

There was one nomination I heard about this week that gave me a warm feeling all over, though, and it had nothing to do with the Oscars. One of the best comic book novels I’ve ever read, Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. (The only comic ever to win was Art Spiegelman’s Maus.)

Pedro and Me is Winick’s examination of his time on The Real World in San Francisco, focusing on the life of AIDS educator Pedro Zamora. This has left him open to charges of exploitation in crafting this book, and if he needs any vindication (which those who’ve read the book can attest that he certainly does not), the Pulitzer nomination provides it many times over. Pedro and Me is one of the warmest, most human, and most accomplished graphic novels ever published. It’s hard to believe it’s Winick’s first novel. You can get Pedro and Me at any bookstore (or comic book store), and of course, I recommend that you do.

This is gonna sound familiar, but next week, it’ll either be Jonatha or controversy.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Miscellaneous
I Refuse to Use the Word "Miscellaney"

I had this great dream the other night.

I dreamed that there were five (count ‘em, five) new flavors of Trix, and that they were these indescribable, intergalactic-sounding fruity flavors, and that I could try each one, and the world was a much better place. Then I woke up to find that I was still stuck with generic, boring old one-variety Trix. Life has just been like that lately.

I had two things to talk about this time, and each feels like a large enough topic to fill a column by itself. One is controversial, one is not, and as much as I’d like to think I’ll get to one this week and one next week, I know that the new Jonatha Brooke album is coming out next Tuesday (2/13), and I’m sure I’ll want to wax something or other on that. For some reason, I’m not feeling all that controversial tonight, so I’m going to discuss VH-1’s latest exercise in debate-starting, the 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

As I’ve said previously, I like lists. I like the idea of rating one artist against another, and I also like seeing how people view their art. Everything’s subjective, and no one’s opinion matters any more than anyone else’s. (In fact, one could make a strong case that in matters of art, no one’s opinion matters at all, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going down that road.) When a semi-official source claims to have ranked the top 100 anything, though, a certain weight is added to that opinion. Take, for instance, the American Film Institute’s naming of Citizen Kane as the best film ever made. That film is 60 years old at this point, and the idea that no one’s topped it is debatable, but people for some reason paid attention to the AFI list as if it were gospel.

Here’s something I learned in Dr. Kasper’s religion class: even the Gospel is debatable.

These lists, nifty as they are, should in no way substitute for your own opinion based on your experience. If you watch Citizen Kane and all you see is murky black-and-white images acting out a boring plot about some newspaper guy, you’re entitled to that. If you think Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo is a finer film overall, you’re entitled to that, too. Many people (myself included) would tell you that you don’t know shit, but if that’s what you like, you shouldn’t let us culture snobs sway you.

That said, we culture snobs love artistic debate. An argument over music, film or any other form of artistic expression usually consists of one-upmanship in terms of knowledge and ideas. For instance, if you know that Citizen Kane was the first film to use deep-angle lenses to keep the foreground and the background in focus at the same time, you’ll likely be off to a decent start in the above debate. The merits of any given art form are, at this very moment, being dissected and argued relentlessly by lovers of that art form everywhere, right now, and will continue to be dissected and argued about until art is banned by the government, and even then we’ll do it in whispers in back alleys where they can’t find us.

There’s nothing like an “official” list of the best of anything to start such debate, and the first step down that road is realizing that VH-1’s opinion is worth no more than yours. Or, for that matter, mine. To prove that, I have a few issues with their list. Feel free to jump in at any time with your own gripes. (If you haven’t seen the list, it’s available at vh1.com, and can be seen, oh, like ALL THE TIME on their channel.)

Gripe number one is obvious, but glaring: OK Computer deserved to be higher on the list. In fact, any slot below 40 or so is too low for the best album produced in the last 20 years. Yeah, I mean that. The ‘80s and ‘90s have been surprisingly low on the creativity meter, except for Radiohead’s masterpiece. It’s a compositional and emotional stunner that pisses on everything after 1979. If we’re rating the absolute best, as opposed to the most popular or the highest selling, Radiohead needs to be ranked higher.

All in all, VH-1 did a decent job of not falling into the popularity trap. You’ll see no Elvis Presley on their list, thank Jesus, and some critical favorites made the list that on some lists get overlooked. The Velvet Underground and Nico is a good example, as is the Stooges’ Raw Power. They even did the service of including Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the first jazz album to incorporate rock styles and to acknowledge rock ‘n’ roll as a musical force.

It’s also telling that the Beatles don’t show up until the top 10. I can’t exactly argue with Revolver’s place at number one. It’s a terrific album, and every song on it can still be heard regularly on radio stations everywhere. I think they’re wrong, though. In my humble opinion, the best album of rock ‘n’ roll can be found six slots down on their list: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Here’s my argument. Revolver is a great group of songs, no question. In fact, up until that point, albums were just that: groups of songs. Even the wonderland of brilliance that’s at number three, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is just a group of songs. Sgt. Pepper, released in 1967, was the first album of the rock era that was meant to be heard from beginning to end. Sgt. Pepper introduced the album concept, songs linked thematically and sonically to form something greater than the sum of its parts. The Beatles not only rewrote the rules of pop and rock songwriting, they also created the rulebook for album sequencing, a book that people are still stealing from to this day.

With Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four presented the studio record as a work of art to the general public for the first time, refusing to tour and release singles so that the focus would be squarely on the album as a whole. If Citizen Kane is the best film ever made because filmmakers have been pinching ideas from it for 60 years, then Sgt. Pepper more than deserves top honors in the rock album category. Not only have artists been stealing from it for more than 30 years, they still have yet to catch up to it. Revolver is marvelous, but it’s definitely a prelude to the three albums that came after it, starting with Sgt. Pepper. (The other two, by the way, are also on the list: the “white album” and Abbey Road.)

Still, I can’t really complain about Revolver hitting the top spot. No, my big (and I mean big) complaint lies with the number two choice. If you’re gonna call your list the Top 100 Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll, people are going to assume you mean the 100 best. By “best,” people are also going to assume you mean the albums that stand out in terms of composition, delivery and production. In fact, most of VH-1’s list bears this out. So what the bloody blue hell is Nirvana’s Nevermind doing at second-best?

Nirvana was a sensation, no doubt. They threw the doors open for heavy, guitar-based music on the charts, no question. At best, though, they were a typical three-piece grunge-pop group, and one that fell far behind their peers (Soundgarden, Alice in Chains) in terms of ability. Nevermind is largely accepted (even by the band members) as the group’s worst effort, it being far glossier than Bleach and far less musically advanced than In Utero. No, it just happened to be the most popular. Listen up, folks: the voice of a generation can’t necessarily carry a tune.

Its presence on the list would be bad enough, but at number two? Think about that. VH-1’s panel of judges thinks Nevermind is a better album than Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Exile on Main Street, and (yes, I have to say it again) OK Computer. As John Travolta says in Pulp Fiction, that’s a bold statement. If eight million of you hadn’t bought the album and Saint Cobain hadn’t ventilated his own head, I promise you, you would not see Nevermind on this list. That’s a lot like the above example of rating Deuce Bigalow above Citizen Kane. Sure, you’re entitled to that opinion, but good luck backing it up.

Of course, that’s just what I think.

I love these debates, and I love the big, stupid lists that often spark them. Kudos to VH-1 for even undertaking this project, and for doing a decent job at it all around. Of course, they forgot Frank Zappa entirely…

Okay, I’m all out. Next week, Jonatha or controversy, depending on how I feel.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Nevermind? Bollocks! Where’s the Beatles?
The Dangers of Doing a Top 100 Anything

Funerals are weird.

Especially if they’re the funerals of family members. I feel as though I just spent a week away from my own life, in a strange parallel dimension where time remained in motion, yet suspended. The wake and funeral of a close family member means a week or so in an odd sort of haze, where you’re not expected to do anything but grieve, nor be anything but a griever. The odd part is, you still are the same multitude of things you’ve always been, and you still do the multitude of things you always do. If you happen, however, to collapse in the middle of a room and cry, for that one week, no one will hold it against you. You’re not expected to do or be anything else.

My Nana was 91 years old, which is pretty damn amazing, considering she wasn’t supposed to live past 50 or so. She contracted polio at 14 months, and had it her whole life. (The vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet in 1909.) She never grew past four-foot-one, and she never walked without the assistance of crutches, but that never stopped her from doing anything she wanted. I found it hard to feel sorry for Nana, because she never once felt sorry for herself. Sure, her passing was sad, but that was tempered with the joy that was her life, and the feeling shared by all present at her funeral that somewhere, right now, she’s dancing on the strong pair of legs she never had down here.

My sincerest thanks to everyone who sent condolences via e-mail, and to those who came to her wake. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have made friends with all of you.

We’re still in the post-Christmas dry spell, even though I thought we’d be out of it by now. Both Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon and the Orb’s Cydonia were pushed back to mid-March, and it looks like the first big release of the new year will be Dave Matthews Band’s Everyday on February 27.

Two weeks before that, though, is a release that I’m looking forward to more: Jonatha Brooke’s new Steady Pull. Brooke’s the latest artist to go the Aimee Mann route and start her own label up, which she did in reaction to MCA’s unbelievable bungling of her second solo album, 10 Cent Wings. I’m telling you, I haven’t seen a bigger case of a label not knowing what they had in a long time. There were four (at least) top 10 singles on this thing that no one ever got a chance to hear. “Because I Told You So” is the most criminally underpromoted song of the last five years. No kidding. Just a tiny marketing push behind this moving tune and Brooke would have been on her way to a very promising major label career. But no.

I’ve heard a bit of Steady Pull online, and it doesn’t sound as promising as 10 Cent Wings, but I don’t want to sell it short before I hear the whole thing. You can check both albums out at jonathabrooke.com, where you can also pre-order an autographed copy of the new record for no extra charge. If you’re into that sort of thing.

2001 might very well be the year that female performers drag the industry back to the heights of 1999 and before. There’s that new Bjork (called Domestika) coming in May, Amy Ray’s Stag hitting on March 6, and a new Shawn Colvin (she of “Sunny Came Home” fame) on March 27. That one’s called Whole New You. I’m most excited, though, by this bit of news that I picked up last weekend. For those of you (like me) who found it somewhat odd that Ani DiFranco remained uncharacteristically silent throughout 2000, especially after releasing a record three full-length discs in 1999, get ready. On April 24 the little folksinger that could releases a 28-song double disc called Reveling/Reckoning. Naturally, the songs are divided into those two categories and separated on two CDs. Still, each of her albums has been remarkably cohesive, especially lately, and even her bad ones (Up Up Up etc.) are fascinating. She’s evolved from a minimalist acoustic artist into a studio wizard, and Reveling/Reckoning should be the biggest-sounding thing she’s done.

In other scattered news:

I had the privilege of watching Aerosmith shame themselves on national television, appearing with musical talents the stature of ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and Nelly. (Tick, 14:58… tick, 14:59… I’m sorry, that’s your 15 minutes, Mr. Nelly, now go the fuck away.) The new single, “Jaded,” rips off David Bowie in both sound and stutter, and I have very few hopes for the quality of the album, Just Push Play, out on March 20. As for the Super Bowl haftime show, to quote Ben Stiller, it ‘N Sucked.

There are rumblings that this year could see the release of The Soular Return of Terence Trent D’Arby. The album’s reportedly been done for more than two years, and has been sitting about in a warehouse somewhere. You remember Terence Trent D’Arby, right? Heir apparent to Prince’s throne, equally funky one-man band, soul machine, strange cat? Come on, sure you do…

Tears for Fears fans (meaning you, Liz), rejoice, because Roland Orzabal’s solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside, will be released on March 19. Hopefully it’ll sound nothing like its title. TFF has been, for all intents and purposes, an Orzabal solo project for three albums anyway, so the solo thing shouldn’t be a major change. Incidentally, I dug out my copy of Tears’ 1995 album Raoul and the Kings of Spain recently, and was surprised at how much I liked it. “Sketches of Pain” is a terrific song.

In other solo album news, Glen Philips, vocalist/guitarist/lyricist for Toad the Wet Sprocket, will release Abulum (not a misspelling) on April 10. Reportedly, the album returns to Toad’s acoustic roots, which they sadly abandoned on their ho-hum final album, Coil.

Rumor control: We finally have a release date for the new Rufus Wainwright album, the long-awaited Poses. It’ll be in stores on April 17. Naturally, that’s as subject to change as the last four release dates we’ve been given for that album. Also on April 17 comes the new Tool studio disc. Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, I have it on good authority that the album will be called Systema Encephale. I think that’s bastard Latin for “the workings of the brain,” but don’t quote me.

Oh, and one more bit of info: the new R.E.M., slated for May, is called Reveal.

I wanted to mention one more thing before I go. There’s a movie coming out on February 9 directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in a reprise of his most famous role. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. Well, in preparation, I spent five hours reading Thomas Harris’ book, and all I can say is that I want my five hours back. Hannibal is a piece of feces. I took some time to think of ways the book could have been a bigger betrayal of Harris’ readers, and I couldn’t come up with a single one. There are frequent posters to Hannibal Lecter message boards (what a strange thought) that seem to know Harris’ characters better than he does. The final 50 pages are a backhanded stab to the kidneys of not just his characters, but everyone that made his characters famous. I’m not sure how much they paid Stephen King to call it “one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist,” but it was probably less than the 10 million Harris got to spew this thing out.

Let me try to approximate how poorly written, poorly researched and all-around sad this thing is:

We see a man, covered in shadows. Smell of oranges. Dripping cavern somewhere. Dare we move closer? It is Dr. Lecter. He ate a brain from a llama. Dr. Lecter has always liked the brains of llamas. Did you know that llamas are indigenous to the island of Crete, located off the shores of Italy? Slurp. A sound from somewhere else. Dr. Lecter turned his head, and sees… but no. Let us move on to another chapter. They are only four paragraphs each. Slobber.

I’m serious, it’s that bad. If the movie sucks as much as the book, the stink factor will be HUGE. As for those of you who already suffered through Harris’ mangled prose, I say we march on his house and demand our rightful share of that 10 million.

Next time, I’ll probably have something to say about that 100 Greatest Albums of Rock ‘n’ Roll nonsense. Yeah, it’s good to be back.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Cover This – We Dare You
Dream Theater Keeps Prog Alive

If any of you out there still harbor some doubts that rock ‘n’ roll is dead, I invite you to tune in to The Osbournes on MTV this spring.

You may have heard about this. MTV decided to give Ozzy “Where’s my rabies shot?” Osbourne his own sitcom, a standard single-camera laugh-track-laden effort that’s reportedly irony-free. Ozzy stars with his real-life wife, Sharon, and they share the comic misadventures that befall the home of one of rock’s more colorful figures. The joke is, apparently, that behind the makeup and stage persona, Ozzy is just like the head of any normal sitcom family. Aren’t you laughing? Isn’t it hysterical to see the former lead singer of Black Sabbath reduced to a middle-aged putz who forgets to bring home the two-percent milk?

And oh, next month Marilyn Manson is appearing on Sesame Street, and Rob Zombie is guest-starring in a very special episode of Yes, Dear. I swear to God, if Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes ever gets his own TV show, it had better be on Showtime, and it had better consist of nothing but drinking, swearing and fucking groupies.

End of rant, but the mention of the Black Crowes does bring up an interesting question. Is any musical art form dead if there’s still at least one band practicing it to the hilt? The Crowes are almost the only band on Earth still playing balls-out sloppy rock ‘n’ roll. As a social and cultural movement, evidence would seem to support the theory that rock is, indeed, dead, but as a musical force, does it still count if only one band is keeping it alive?

For instance, there’s an L.A. band called Danger Danger that poked its head up sometime in the late ’80s, playing a typical brand of hair-metal that garnered them a couple of hits. That band is still carrying on in the same style, putting them in a class of one. Said class is downstairs, past the boiler room, in a forgotten corner of the school, but still, it’s in session, and students are attending. Danger Danger has a grand total of seven CDs now, which someone must be buying. There are hair-metal websites all over the ‘net, too, so I ask you, is it really a dead art form?

And here’s another one: progressive rock. You remember the smarter-than-you bands of the ’70s, right? Songs that stretched beyond the half-hour mark, distinguished by unique instrumentation and a display of musicianship that was about as exhausting to listen to as it was to play? For a while there, prog was the style of choice for young bands, due largely to the imaginative freedom it offered. Somehow, though, it got associated with pretension and snobbery, and the major prog bands of the ’70s (Yes, Genesis, Rush) turned into goopy pop acts in the ’80s.

But there is one band who remembers the thrill of composing giant, epic songs that few other bands could play. That band is Dream Theater, and if you scan the credits of the more modern prog bands, you’ll find their members participate in most of them. Between the impossibly complex work they’ve done with Liquid Tension Experiment, Platypus, Mullmuzzler and Transatlantic, to name a few, it’s a wonder the DT boys ever find time to record and tour with their main band.

Surprisingly, though, these five amazing musicians work very quickly. Their last album, the epic concept album Scenes From a Memory, was composed and recorded in something like six weeks. (Which is nothing for these guys – both Liquid Tension Experiment albums were put together in seven days each.) Even though new Transatlantic and Mullmuzzler albums just came out, Dream Theater is back with their longest, most ambitious and most impossible-to-play album yet, the two-disc Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

If prog is dead, someone forgot to send the memo to these guys. Every ’70s prog band eventually got around to making their magnum opus, their multi-part suite. Genesis had “Supper’s Ready”, Rush had “2112”, Jethro Tull had “A Passion Play,” Yes had…well, half their catalog, really. Six Degrees features Dream Theater’s, the 42-minute title track that takes up all of disc two. Similarly, almost every prog band eventually made their Grand Statement double album. Yes had Tales From Topographic Oceans, Genesis had The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Pink Floyd had The Wall. Dream Theater’s 96-minute album effectively kills both birds with one stone.

Ambition, as Ed Wood could probably tell you, means nothing if you don’t have the talent to back it up. That has never been Dream Theater’s problem. They were doing 11-minute epics back in 1992, and have somehow weathered 10 years of changing musical climates on the same major label. With the addition of former Dixie Dregs keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999, the band finally gelled, and they’ve attained an entirely new level on Six Degrees.

Not content to just release a 42-minute epic, Dream Theater have also filled disc one with five lengthy, jaw-dropping tunes that tackle a variety of spiritual concerns. Six Degrees is almost entirely concerned with spiritual enlightenment, sending the protagonist of the 14-minute leadoff track, “The Glass Prison,” on a quest for knowledge that the remainder of disc one’s tracks explore. “The Glass Prison” is also the hardest-hitting collection of jackhammer riffs this band has ever assembled, despite its gentle opening.

“Blind Faith” and “Misunderstood” soar like the best ethereal prog always has, and both contain thoughtful treatments of spiritual content. “Misunderstood,” particularly, finds its protagonist in a humbled state: “I turn from a thief to a beggar, from a god to God save me…if I seem superhuman I have been misunderstood.” Both the music and the theology gets muddled by the end of disc one, with “The Great Debate” borrowing bits of Tool’s sound for 14 minutes on stem cell research (!), and “Disappear” sticking to one tone.

The real treat, though, is the title track, a triumph of sustained musicianship that rivals anything that came out during prog’s heyday. Subdivided into eight (not six, for some reason) parts, “Six Degrees” tells the interconnected story of a sextet of mental patients and their various methods of coping. The sweeping overture sets the tone – the music throughout veers from manic to depressive, symbolizing the “inner turbulence” of the title. The lyrics are typically banal – there’s a moment halfway through where singer James LaBrie has to softly croon the line “Those bastard doctors are gonna pay” over sparse, lilting accompaniment – but who cares about them anyway? As any connoisseur of prog can tell you, the words are not the important thing.

The important thing is the mind-expanding journey “Six Degrees” takes you on. Rudess has fully integrated himself with the group now, sharing the melodic weight with LaBrie and guitarist James Petrucci, and their interplay is a wonder to behold. “Six Degrees” never stops moving and changing, melodies and tones shifting into one another at superhuman speed. There’s barely a breath between the full-on assault of “The Test that Stumped Them All” and the sweet ambience of “Goodnight Kiss,” which in turn morphs into the acoustic pop of “Solitary Shell.” The whole thing builds to a grand finale, fittingly enough called “Grand Finale,” that ends with (what else?) the crash of a gong, fulfilling the final requirement for a classic prog epic.

The simple, brutal truth might just be that prog as a movement has died because there just aren’t many musicians these days that can pull it off. This is demanding, technical music that requires mastery of your own instrument and near-telepathy with your bandmates. Even Tool, much praised for those very qualities, can’t touch Dream Theater. Entertainment Weekly, in their favorable review of Six Degrees, praised the band’s cultural chutzpah for ignoring every musical style invented since 1976. While that’s not entirely true, Six Degrees does indeed, for 96 minutes, recall a time when aspiring to this level of musicianship and skill was considered cool.

Hopefully Wednesday I’ll check in with the Chemical Brothers.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Napster Rant
Don't Blame Me, I Was Sick

I saw a guy pissing into his car this week.

Now, I know I must be wrong about this. Who would piss into his own car? No one. But I swear to you, this guy was pulled over to the side of the road, standing in his own car doorway and urinating. That sort of added a surreal tint to my day.

Hello, everyone. I’m sick as the proverbial dog this week (an expression I’ve never understood – dogs have always struck me a perennially healthy creatures) and so my scattered ramblings might be a bit more scattered and rambling than usual. I’m just trying to keep my eyes open. There are a few things, in lieu of any actual new recordings to review, that I wanted to discuss, though, and they primarily deal with the vast musical resource that is the internet.

It’s taken me a while to formulate my feelings on Napster, and I don’t think I’m done yet. Napster is evil, but it’s just so damn cool. I think I’ve decided to use it every once in a while and then feel bad about it, sort of like prearranged guilt. One rationale that I’ve come up with for myself is that I now live in a part of the country where big hats, boots and songs about your truck are prerequisites for being played on the radio. It’s all country, all the time, which makes it harder to hear certain new releases without downloading them.

Take the new Dave Matthews Band song, “I Did It.” God forbid any radio station down here play this tidbit, the first single from their new album Everyday, to be released February 27. In order for me to hear it at all, I had to utilize Napster, but it’s okay because the band themselves authorized its presence there. There’s an enthusiastic announcement right on the title page of the site. And so, feeling justified, I took the 20-some minutes to download, and pressed play.

Right away, the song sounds unlike any DMB tune before it. The guitars are big, loud and electric, and the groove is fairly monstrous. It’s too bad the band was counting on the groove to carry the whole song. It doesn’t really go much of anywhere, and its slick sound makes me kind of leery of the new album. (Oh, and Boyd Tinsley raps…) In a way, though, the fact that I’m disappointed with it brings out what I like about Napster, especially when it comes to the big name groups. If you’re a major label act, your song will show up here. There’s no getting around it. That puts the onus on the band to sell their own product. If your song sucks, and it ends up on Napster a few weeks prior to your album’s release, your sales will most likely take a hit.

If, on the other hand, your song is good, hopefully it will help your album’s bottom line to have the single readily available to everyone. A case in point here might be Semisonic, whose sweet second album Feeling Strangely Fine brought them a whole new audience. They’re returning on March 6 with a new album called All About Chemistry, and the single is waiting for you to point and click. I dug this song, mostly because it didn’t try to do anything different. It’s a bouncy pop number that sounds just like most of Feeling Strangely Fine. Which is, strangely, fine.

Singles are one thing, but my personal Temptation Island is the complete album available for download. I have a CD burner, you see, so I can, theoretically, press my own copy of said album and never buy it. I know, deep down, that this would be wrong, but lo and behold, the complete new Radiohead release, Amnesiac, is just sitting there waiting for me. All of it. After the disaster that was Kid A, I’m a bit wary of tossing more money away to purchase something that may be awful. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation, but should I break down, I’ll let you know.

I’m actually going to cut this short this week to let Nick Allanach start downloading, but there is one other thing I wanted to mention. I found out this week, via the ‘net, that dada broke up. They were a great band with an inconsistent catalog, and if you know them at all it’s probably for their 1992 novelty single “Dizz Knee Land.” You can, of course, download dada tunes, and I recommend anything from their first and third albums (Puzzle and El Subliminoso), especially “Dorina,” “Posters” and “No One.” Then, after you fall in love with what you hear, go buy the albums, of course.

And that’s it. I’m going back to bed, to quote Pete Abrams.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hip Hop Nation
Four New Rap Albums Bring the Diversity

Still no computer, and people just keep dying.

Lately it seems that the universe is trying to remind me that, should I live the normal, expected course of my life, I’ll probably survive long enough to see every artist I admire die. For starters, I know Woody Allen is pretty high up on the list of expected expirations, and so I go see every Allen movie with the thought that it may be his last. Then there are those artists attempting lengthy works, like Dave Sim on Cerebus, which concludes its 300-issue run in March of 2004, unless some untimely death befalls him.

Neither of the most recent artists to shuffle off the mortal coil really affected me in any deep, genuine way, but their passing served to remind me that the same fate will eventually befall everyone I like, love, hate or ignore. I dunno, death has been on my mind lately, so here’s a cheery start to a late column: a pair of brief eulogies.

Ted Demme only made one movie I love, but I really love it. Beautiful Girls was released during the Miramax Renaissance that also gave us Pulp Fiction and Clerks, so I sort of ignored it in favor of the higher-profile stuff. Thank God for my friend Ray Tiberio, who nagged at me for years to see this film. It’s a delight, a sweet and funny examination of men and their tendency to idealize women. It also introduced me to the phrase “retard sandwiches,” which has crept into my vernacular like a tapeworm. Demme died of a heart attack (they think), and he was only 38. His most recent film, Blow, was one of his best as well.

The ’90s lounge culture owes everything to Juan Garcia Esquivel. He invented the very idea of space-age lounge music that groups like Combustible Edison went on to perfect. Like a lot of people, I first heard Esquivel’s work on the soundtrack to Four Rooms, and collected from there. Esquivel was in his 80s, and reportedly he died peacefully. Expect tribute albums to start coming out soon.

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And now, your regularly scheduled silly music column.

Hip-hop really asserted itself as a musical force in the ’90s, gaining a voice, a language and a style all its own. Whatever you think of the musical merits of rap or the cultural necessity of its attendant style, you have to admit that it’s not going anywhere. Thankfully, the music has broken out of its origins and taken the basic concepts of beats and rhymes to new places over the last two decades.

The best analogy is the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, which all relied on the same chords and meters and a similar lyrical structure. Basically, it all sounded the same, much like early rap. Look at how far rock has come as a genre, and in fact as a series of subgenres, all of which have distinctive sounds. Rap made huge strides toward that kind of diversity throughout the ’90s. While the basic structure remains the same (beats and rhymes), an examination of four recent rap records should draw into focus just how imaginative the music has become.

The producer made himself felt throughout the ’90s as the backbone of rap. In its early days, the division of labor was equal between MCs (the rhymers) and DJs (the beat merchants). With the advent of studio technology, however, the producer can now craft oceans of sound around the MCs, changing the entire tone of their lyrics with a few well-placed tones. Repetition is the bread and butter of this music, but a good producer knows how to vary the sound without drawing the focus away from the rapper. In many ways, though the MC gets the most attention, rap as a musical entity now belongs to the knob-twiddlers in a way that very few other musics do.

Most rappers keep their options open by employing many producers for an album. Take Busta Rhymes, for example, whose fifth album, Genesis, utilizes 12 producers on various tracks. This is nothing new for Rhymes, who often puts his cartoony growl in the hands of inexperienced and often inept beatmeisters. His last album, Anarchy, ran about 80 minutes and felt cheaper than the cellophane it was packaged in. Genesis is a step up, but not a big one.

If you go by just his album titles and covers, Rhymes has been crafting a cycle about the end of civilization. You’d expect those apocalyptic overtones to carry over into the music, but you’d be wrong. Every Rhymes album is filled with the same empty hip-hop boasting that you can find on dozens of unimaginative recordings from the likes of Jay-Z, and it’s almost an impressive feat that not an ounce of cleverness sneaks in. Add to that the Casio-quality beats and synth tones he seems to think are propulsive, and you have very little to recommend his work beyond the voice of Rhymes himself.

And what a cool voice it is. He snarls, he growls, he spits and above all, he injects his pitiful productions with the bile and character of which they’re otherwise bereft. Most often, Rhymes can’t overcome the plastic cheapness of the music blipping behind him, but on a few tracks on Genesis, he does it. It’s just too bad that those standout tracks are buried under an avalanche of posturing and pre-’80s production values.

The funniest thing about Rhymes is the posture he’s adopted. It calls for unwavering belligerence and attitude, which often forces Rhymes to sound like he’s willfully ignoring the awfulness of the tracks he’s rapping over. It’s like he’s daring you to point them out. Hell, it makes me laugh.

While Busta Rhymes gets the magazine covers and the notoriety, many other rappers languish in relative obscurity, producing superior product. (Sound familiar?) Nas is one of those, although thanks to a public feud with Jay-Z, that obscurity is slowly going away. Nas’ first disc was called Illmatic, and was an examination of his life in Queensbridge, New York. Since then, he’s put out a series of better-than-average releases detailing his alter-ego’s rise in popularity and social conscience.

To cap all this off, Nas has returned to his old stomping grounds and made a fully New York album called Stillmatic. This is quite a decent disc, and a smart pullback from the drama of I Am and Nastradamus, his pair of 1999 albums. Even though he opens with “Ether,” the next salvo in the Jay-Z brouhaha, he sticks pretty close to home throughout, discussing childhood, his neighborhood and the state of the state of New York.

While I used to find sampling abhorrent, tantamount to pure thievery, I now see it for what it is: the technological next step in what artists have been doing all along. As Todd Rundgren once said, “Louie Louie” is “More Than a Feeling” is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” forever and ever amen. A rap producer sampling is akin to a jazz artist making an entirely new song out of a John Coltrane progression, for example.

I mention that because there are two well-used and recognizable samples on Stillmatic that work quite well. The first is from Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” better known as the theme to the Sopranos, on “Got Ur Self A…,” a propulsive tale of inner city violence. Another great theme song (for Dennis Miller Live), Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” is put to good use on “Rule.” Musically, Stillmatic is a winner, re-infusing the stylistic life that seemed to bleed out of Nastradamus.

Lyrically, Nas has come home, and though his concerns remain the same, they’re couched in smaller and more intimate settings. It’s like he went out to see the world and brought back those experiences to his old neighborhood, which in a nutshell is Stillmatic‘s message. It unifies his catalog in a way that Busta Rhymes’ depictions of apocalypse never could.

Even though his album sounds like a whole work, he employs the same number of disparate producers as Rhymes. There are some hip-hop acts who see this as heresy, however, preferring to stick to one producer and one sound. The most obvious example is the Wu-Tang Clan, brainchild of the RZA, one of the most gifted producers in rap. Despite his clan’s strength-in-numbers credo and artful boasting, RZA’s work possesses a hushed intimacy that some mistake for laziness. In truth, his productions are finely crafted works of minimalism that strike just the right off-kilter notes.

No rap outfit makes records quite like Wu-Tang, and they’ve made another good one with Iron Flag, their fourth. The quality has dropped slightly from last year’s wonder, The W, but not significantly. If anything, Iron Flag is fuller and more beat-oriented, which ought to please some of the group’s critics. In polishing some of the rough edges, though, RZA has lowered the quirkiness quotient that has marked Wu-Tang’s finest efforts.

Still, though, Iron Flag holds up. I don’t know where RZA finds some of his samples, but in some cases he sounds like he’s raiding Fatboy Slim’s record collection. He’s one of the few producers that can integrate several samples into fresh new wholes. He even makes interesting use of “Jingle Bells” (really) on the album closer, “Dashing (Reasons).”

For all his sonic splash, Iron Flag ends up being about not much of anything, unfortunately. Even a first-verse mention of the World Trade Center in the amazing “Rules” peters out into a standard hip-hop throwdown. How many more rap songs do we need titled “Y’all Been Warned”? If you look past the sometimes clever, often useless rhymes of his cohorts, though, Iron Flag stands as another decent disc from a great producer. Hopefully next time, he’ll deliver something as haunting and memorable as The W.

While it’s true that no one’s making records quite like the Wu-Tang Clan, it’s also true that no one will ever make hip-hop albums like the first three De La Soul discs. Under the guidance of producer Prince Paul, De La made a slapdash trilogy that stands as the quirkiest and most original run in the music’s short history. The high point, 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, is the most successful melding of jazz and rap ever made, and listening to it, you just know that they will never make another one like it.

De La have definitely moved on from there, but after severing ties to Prince Paul, they unfortunately settled into a fairly typical groove. Last year they announced their intention to release a triple album called Art Official Intelligence in three installments, a truly ambitious undertaking. Sadly, they began with Mosaic Thump, the saddest, most boring album the trio has ever produced. It was crowded with guest stars, honed to a showroom sheen and indistinguishable from the hordes of MTV-ready crap clogging the airwaves.

But wait, all is forgiven. The second installment of AOI, called Bionix, is quite simply De La Soul’s first great album since the original trilogy. It’s a laid-back, quirk-filled affair that doesn’t quite ascend the heights of their heyday, but at least makes the attempt. Tracks like “Simply,” “Watch Out” and “Am I Worth You” announce themselves quietly and effectively. Produced almost entirely by De La and Dave West, Bionix holds together as an album instead of a collection of disconnected songs like Mosaic Thump.

De La brings their quirky social conscience back to the fore on this one, as well. “Baby Phat,” the swell first single, is a diatribe against the pop culture image of beauty that manages to be uplifting without being mawkish. The same trick is pulled off on “Trying People,” which features the first effective use of a children’s chorus I’ve ever heard. Best of all, however, is the epic “Held Down,” which is sent into the stratosphere by an ethereal gospel choir. That song is worth the whole disc by itself. De La seems poised to reclaim their former glory, and if installment three of AOI is as good as installment two, they just might do it.

Rap as a genre makes room for all of these different styles, and many more. There’s the live instrumentation of the Roots, the clear social unrest of Dead Prez, the mish-mash melding of Black Eyed Peas, and the spiritual yearning of P.M. Dawn. We’re right now in the early ’70s of rap’s evolution, when the innovations have been laid out for anyone to grab hold of and ride. If commercialization didn’t ruin rock, then it won’t ruin rap. Like any other form of music, the good stuff is out there.

Next week, new stuff. The week after that, Dream Theater makes an early bid for the Top 10 list.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles