The Original Superfreak
Aphex Twin's Sprawling, Stunning Drukqs

I’m not ready to write this column.

I usually like to spin any record I’m reviewing four times at least before I sit down to compose my thoughts. Most of the time, that’s enough for me to fully dissect the music, the meaning, and the record’s overall effect. Of course, I mostly deal with pop records, which means most of the time the music isn’t that hard to analyze, the meaning is pretty basic and my sense of the record’s overall effect doesn’t change from my first impression that much.

I’m right now on my seventh trip through Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, and I’m still wondering what I’m going to type next. The music is impossible to describe, the meaning is complicated by the lack of lyrics, and my sense of the overall effect is still forming and changing with each passing second.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Aphex Twin is one of those acts name-dropped to seem cool by your elitist music fan friends who, in reality, only dip beneath the mainstream every once in a while. Depending on who you talk to, Aphex Twin is either invisible or overexposed. AT is the brainchild of one man, who has gone to considerable lengths to disguise the fact that his name is Rick James. James pioneered a new form of music in the late ‘80s which, for lack of a more restrictive and inaccurate name, has come to be known as Intelligent Dance Music. Never mind the fact that you’d have to possess 18 legs, be able to move at lightning speed and perhaps suffer from epilepsy to actually dance to James’ work.

Anyway, in 1990 James released his defining masterwork, or at the very least the work he continues to be defined by, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. A two-disc set of lovely sound collages, this album marked the conclusion of one phase of the Aphex Twin story. James then spent the bulk of the ensuing 10 years working under various names, but mostly Aphex Twin, to explore the tension between ambient sound and frenzied percussive landscapes. On 1995’s Richard D. James Album especially, the beats got faster and the beds of synth sound atop them got more peaceful, and the resultant push and pull yielded a unique sound. James’ ’90s work is fascinating on a purely theoretical level, and bewildering as ear candy.

Nothing he’s done since Selected Ambient Works is as sprawling as Drukqs, a two-disc, 100-minute opus on which James finally crests the mountain he’s been scaling since 1992. Here, at last, is the sound he’s been building towards, a complete examination of the juxtaposition of pulsing frenzy and absolute calm. On roughly half the tracks, the drums blaze like never before, often sounding somewhat random in their fury. That they’re actually carefully constructed only becomes clear after multiple listens to the relationships between the percussion tracks and the placid waves of synths beneath and atop them. Everything is perfectly in place, and the sonic construction is miles ahead of his previous work.

Of course, that’s only half the tracks, and there are 30 of them. Drukqs also finds James bringing this new sense of composition back to his ambient work. He steps into John Cage territory more than a few times with lovely, dissonant prepared piano pieces. (What that means, for those not familiar with the term “prepared piano,” is that James physically altered pianos to create new sounds from them. Cage was famous for it – his pieces often required sheets of paper inserted between the strings, clothespins attached to other strings, and strips of metal glued to the hammers. The sounds this preparation creates are extraordinary, if a little sacrilegious to piano lovers.)

The result is a lovely batch of songs, a huge statement from a true original. It presents a surprising array of emotions, even for James’ work, which is known for its infusion of emotion and warmth into cold mechanical instruments. On your first listen through, you’d be forgiven for just having trouble keeping up with the density of the music, but subsequent listens make it easier to climb aboard James’ emotional spinning teacup ride, as it were. The listener is wrenched from one extreme to another pretty often throughout Drukqs, and it’s never more exhilarating than when it’s pummeling you with both extremes at once.

The major fault of this collection is that it’s simply that: a collection. James revisits certain sounds, such as the prepared piano pieces sprinkled throughout, but overall Drukqs feels scattered. More could have been done to unify the record, both to make it feel like a single suite and to help explain the massive running time. Instead, five seconds of silence have actually been inserted between each track, which only lends to the disjointed feel of the project.

This may explain the internet rumors that Drukqs is merely a collection of tracks James has had on his hard drive for years, delivered now to satisfy his record contract. I’d say the material itself argues against that. James has taken what’s become his signature sound over the last decade to new heights here, and it’s a shame that such exploration is weighed down by a few tracks of filler and an overall sense of disunity.

Minor quibbles, though. Pound for pound, Drukqs is the most challenging and rewarding record James has made since Selected Ambient Works, and like that record, it may signal the close of this particular chapter of his career. That’s sort of a shame as well, since no one currently working combines the meticulous and the emotional like James does. Despite all attempts to label him (I mean, come on, Intelligent Dance Music?), James remains the best there is in a field of one. This idiosyncratic and musically daunting work is not for everyone, but if you’ve ever wondered what a computer having a vomiting fit and a nervous breakdown at the same time might sound like, check this out.

Especially if that last sentence sounds appealing to you.

A quick note: you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any song titles throughout this review. That’s because James is an artist who either believes in the arbitrary nature of titles, or can make perfect sense of his own attempts at them. Either way, they bear no discernible relation to the songs themselves. Here are a few examples: “Jynweythek,” “Hy a Scullyas Lyf Adhagrow,” “Beskhu3epnm” and “Btoum-Roumada.” See what I mean?

The rest of the year is rounding out nicely with new ones from Paul McCartney, Prince, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan and a live album from Radiohead. Seven more columns, then we do the Top 10 List and call it a year. Where the hell did it go?

Next, Lenny Kravitz. Happy Halloween, for those of you who live in communities that haven’t cancelled it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Oh, Canada
Halifax's Sloan Offers Up Another Winner

I met someone from the State Department this week.

The cool thing about writing for a newspaper is you can meet people from the State Department, engage them in conversation and not have to face the usual questions, like, “Who are you,” and, “How did you find me,” and, “Where are my bodyguards?” This particular State Department employee came to Valparaiso to speak to high school students about Middle Eastern politics, since he interned in Uzbekistan for a year. He’s met the head of the Taliban, as well as the leaders of most of the countries involved in the current political quagmire over there.

I should also point out that this guy’s 25 years old, or two years younger than me.

Anyway, he had a lot of insightful things to say about the state of the Middle East, especially in terms of poverty and information control. He also found a unique way to put everyone’s minds at ease about the current anthrax scare in this country. “Three people have died of anthrax so far,” he said. “In contrast to that, 45,000 people die each year in car crashes. 460,000 people die each year from smoking. This is not a panic situation.”

In a related story, I saw on television tonight that you can now buy home anthrax testing kits, and they’re selling through the roof. I’m supposed to do a story on the potential drought of Cipro, the leading anti-anthrax drug, and what that could mean for our national health and security. Sometimes it’s difficult to defend the media against charges of needlessly scaring the public. I’m not sure I want to contribute to that, even innocently.

That’s why I like doing this silly music column. If I don’t want to talk about terrorists, or the al-Qaida network, or anthrax, or anything related to the real world at all, I don’t have to. My day job sometimes tests my patience for reality. Plus, nothing I write here could incite my readers to panicking in the streets. If you ever want a crash course on the power of the written word, become a journalist for a few days.

Thanks for indulging the airing of a personal dilemma. Now back to your regularly scheduled silly music column.

*****

I love Canada. Sure, I’ve taken some shots at them before, insinuating that they may as well be a decently-sized province of the northern United States and such, but I have a genuine affection for them. One of the things I like best about those silly Canucks is their progressive music scene. I mean progressive in the forward-looking sense, not the complex drama-rock sense, even though Canada did give us Rush, one of the best prog-rock groups of all time.

Just look at Sloan, one of the most popular bands in Canada. I’ll repeat that, just because I love typing such a giddily improbable sentence: Sloan, one of the most popular bands in Canada. Ten years into a constantly shifting and superlative career, Sloan is officially the Band that Wouldn’t Go Away, and God bless the Canadian music buying public for recognizing what a great group of musicians they are.

America, as per usual, had no idea what to do with Sloan. Their debut album, Smeared, came out on Geffen Records in 1991, and offered up a witty take on My Bloody Valentine’s reverb-drenched drone. When it came time to release the follow-up, Sloan delivered the wonderful Twice Removed, an album that sounded nothing like Smeared. Befuddled, Geffen let the album die and dropped the band unceremoniously. Guess what happened to it in Canada?

It was voted the best Canadian album of all time by ChartAttack, the Canadian music magazine.

In subsequent years, Sloan have only gotten better, releasing three great studio discs and a double live collection on their own Murderrecords. They followed up the minimalist indie-rock of Twice Removed with the smirking Beatlesque pop of One Chord to Another, the vintage-sounding ‘70s rock of Navy Blues and the conceptual retro-arena sound of Between the Bridges. Each was, if not necessarily better than, then at least jaw-droppingly different from the last.

By the way, good luck finding any of those records stateside.

All right, enough digs at the U.S. Someone might get the idea that I’m somehow pro-Canadian, and we wouldn’t want that.

Every Sloan album has been a radical departure from its predecessor, so it’s no surprise that the just-released seventh album Pretty Together sounds like nothing they’ve done before. The differences between this album and 1999’s Between the Bridges are worth listing, in fact: Bridges was written and recorded in six weeks, while Pretty Together took a year. Bridges was almost a series of four EPs – each of Sloan’s four songwriters got three songs apiece. Pretty was largely written by the band as a whole. Bridges cost almost nothing to make, while Pretty cost a small fortune, and it sounds like it.

Sloan have gone in a much mellower direction this time, advancing to the late ‘70s (and in a couple of cases the early ‘80s) for inspiration. It opens with one of their classic arena-rock anthems, “If It Feels Good Do It,” and yet if you listen closely you’ll hear sampled beats, synthetic blips and a definite sheen to the lead guitar. Keyboards (often vintage-sounding ones) permeate Pretty Together, especially on the Hall and Oates-ish “Who You Talkin’ To” and the wimp-rock anthem “Are You Giving Me Back My Love.” The textural quality of this album takes some getting used to, much like the lack of texture on One Chord and Navy Blues took time to sink in.

The band obviously labored over this album, and the result is some of their subtlest work. The songwriting continues to move in a more complex direction – you have to listen to “In the Movies” twice to be able to follow the melodic twists. In the more acoustic second half, Sloan offer up some of their loveliest tunes – “I Love a Long Goodbye” and “The Life of a Working Girl” chief among them – and for once, they don’t drown them in smirking irony. That approach works against them as often as for them, but if you can roll with their sentiments, Pretty Together is a swell listen.

The album does contain one embarrassing disaster, unfortunately: the Kiss tribute “Pick It Up and Dial It.” If you make it through Kiss’ fist-pumping pro-rock and roll anthems without chuckling, you may find this palatable. Otherwise, it’s a poorly crafted speed bump sandwiched between more thoughtful pop songs, and it’s one this album could have done without.

All told, though, Sloan have crafted another winner, one that finally presents their winsome songcraft in a full showroom sheen. It also features my favorite cover art of any album this year – slightly cheesy and yet oddly majestic, just like the album itself. Go to www.sloanmusic.com and check it out. If we Americans ever catch on to Sloan like the Canadians have, it’ll definitely be our gain. For now, alas, it’s just one more way that their music scene soundly trounces ours.

Ten years into an improbably long-lived career, Sloan have weathered the ever-changing music world through a policy of consistent inconsistency. They’ve released six studio records that sound like they may have been made by six different bands, and they’ve still managed to keep fans coming back. The title of the new album may well be a commentary on the state of the band: even though trends have come and gone, Sloan has followed their own muse and still managed to keep the group… well, pretty together. Kudos.

Next up, Aphex Twin. I’ve heard this thing only once, and I think I might need the whole week just to process it. Jesus, it’s good.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Longest…Column…EVER
Catching Up on Five New Releases

Welcome to the longest column…EVER.

The idea here is to play catch-up on new releases over the past few weeks. Even though I’m planning to use several thousand words this time, I’m pretty sure I’m not even going to get to roughly half of the discs I’ve picked up in the last month. You probably won’t see reviews of Jude, Curve, Suzanne Vega or the Verve Pipe this time – in fact, no “probably” about it. I’m drawing the line at four reviews, maybe five. You’ll just have to wait for my scintillating comments on the rest of September.

But damn, this month was packed with tunes. I’m probably going to set up a completely separate page for an ongoing Phish live series review – I have the first two volumes, which adds up to about five hours of material that I’m still digesting. For this column alone, I have my pick of 14 albums to review. As the Pope said to the astronaut, no fucking way, kemosabe. Just four or five. Then I’m going to bed.

*****

But first, a small digression. I went to see Bandits this weekend, which was mildly amusing. Like half his oeuvre, this film wasn’t quite worthy of director Barry Levinson. He’s made the stunning Diner, the half-baked Sleepers and the unwatchable An Everlasting Piece. This movie falls somewhere near the upper half of his output – not great, but amusing.

Anyway, Billy Bob Thornton is absolutely hysterical throughout, playing a hypochondriac bank robber who is, amazingly, the brains of the operation. Levinson really let Thornton have free rein, resulting in some gut-busting straight-faced line deliveries and sight gags. The moment that has stayed with me, for some reason, comes about an hour in, when Thornton is startled from his sleep. He lunges awake, but before he comes to completely, he half-shouts, “Beavers and ducks!” Why I find this so amusing is utterly beyond me, but I’ve been cracking myself up with the line ever since.

Anyway. Thought I’d share that.

Beavers and ducks!

*****

Some regular readers will find this surprising, but if I were to be money on any one band surviving the alt-rock revolution, that band would be Live. For four steadily improving albums, they’ve mixed equal parts accessibility and inscrutability, delivering it with a sly pretentiousness that hints at importance. That impression doesn’t quite stand up under close inspection, but every record Live has delivered has been solid and epic in sound and scope.

Also in their favor is the fact that every album they’ve done has been substantially different from the one before. Secret Samahdi, for example, presented a three-ton wall of sound, which contrasted with its successor, The Distance to Here, a gentle, melodic work. Holding the catalog together is the incontrovertible voice of Ed Kowalczyk, who makes you believe in every nonsensical string of lyric he utters.

Despite everything, they’re almost faceless, a band the world at large takes for granted. In that regard, they’re lumped in with Collective Soul, another successful group that doesn’t get recognized on the streets, finds a notable lack of teenage groupies surrounding their bus, and probably has to reintroduce themselves to their record company reps each time they deliver an album. Naturally, under these circumstances, the sellout just beckons – Live has so far missed out on that one enormous hit that defines their career. Their biggest smashes were “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes,” off their second album, Throwing Copper, and if you can sing either one from memory, you’re likely a fan of the band. The casual radio listener wouldn’t know them from Adam Ant.

In Collective Soul’s case, there’s just nowhere to go, sellout-wise. They’re already as bland and homogenized as they can get without going completely Hootie on us. Live, on the other hand, have always had a sense of integrity about them, and a refreshing lack of commercial intentions. Plus, they wrote good songs, ones that practically reek of earnest effort and craft. Long story short, there’s a plunge there waiting to be taken, and take it they have with V, their just-released fifth album.

It speaks volumes about the staying power of this band, though, that even their sellout record isn’t half bad. It starts off quite strong, in fact, with “Simple Creed,” a typically preachy and huge-sounding anthem. This could be the hit (it is the first single), but I don’t think so – further radio-ready gems await later on in the running order.

Alas, the record quickly falls apart, stringing petrified rock-like chunks next to stale fluff, like the cranberries and popcorn that adorned your Christmas tree. Sure, they look nice from a distance, but bite into them and you’ll find an appalling lack of flavor. (And the award for most strained metaphor goes to…)

It’s a steady downward slope from the repetitive psycho-sex of “Deep Enough” to the faux-rebellion of “People Like You” to the utter forgettability of “Transmit Your Love.” The record absolutely bottoms out with “Forever May Not Be Long Enough,” which sounds vaguely like Iron Maiden mixed with Enigma. Naturally, that’s the song on which the band received outside songwriting assistance for the first time, turning to Alanis Morisette’s best friend Glen Ballard. The band really tries to sell this overproduced pile of schlock, but it’s no use.

This seems like a good time to mention that one of the most disappointing elements of V is Kowalczyk’s lyrics. The man’s trademark impenetrability is nowhere to be found, replaced by a lame series of sub-Bryan Adams cliches. I’ve already mentioned “Forever May Not Be Long Enough,” but how about some of these howlers: “I’m one with the fools of love,” “Here I come again, playin’ the hero of love,” “You don’t need no money to truly fly away,” and “Tell your leaders that love is in town, to turn this whole thing upside down.” Sheesh, huh? I don’t believe there’s a song here that doesn’t make use of the word “love.” This is an unfortunate first for this band.

Thankfully, the album pulls its disparate pieces together by the eighth track or so and ends up as a halfway decent alt-rock collection. The Middle-Eastern elements in “The Ride” somehow work to the song’s advantage, while the earnest emotionalism of “Call Me a Fool” actually comes off well. They experiment constantly with the sonic palette, and end up delivering the first Live song with no guitars at all, the plaintive “Overcome.” This song will be the hit, mark my words. The sugary keyboards and schmaltzy strings come together in epic fashion through Kowalczyk’s awe-inspiring voice, so the effect is more R.E.M.’s “Nighswimming” than Motley Crue‘s “Home Sweet Home.” Thank Christ.

V is Live’s first major misstep, and even so, it’s at least halfway acceptable. There have been far worse sellout records, and if “Overcome” hits huge, well then, so much the better. The only thing worse than a sellout record is a sellout record no one buys, because then it’s a lose-lose situation all around. Hopefully this is a temporary aberration, but I also hope it sells enough copies to make it worth the band’s while. If you’re all humming “Overcome” around Christmastime, then I’ll consider V a success.

*****

It’s appalling that people still consider They Might Be Giants a novelty band. Here’s an example to illustrate my point: Right Said Fred were a novelty band. They showed up, desperate for attention, waving their silly hit single in everyone’s faces for a month or two, and then they went away. You look back on Right Said Fred and think, “Oh right, them. They were funny. I can’t remember why.”

They Might Be Giants, on the other hand, have been plying their trade for more than 15 years. Yeah, they’re clever, witty and often downright silly, but a novelty band? Never. There’s real songcraft in evidence all over their 10-album catalog, a fact that’s sometimes overshadowed by John Linnell’s quirky voice and lyrics. Just their 1994 album John Henry puts most horn-driven rock bands to shame.

TMBG is two Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, accompanied by the Band of Dans, three guys named Dan. Casual radio listeners know them from their 1991 hit “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” but they might also recall “Don’t Let’s Start” and “She Was a Hotel Detective.” Lately, you may recognize the Giants from their catchy theme song to Malcolm in the Middle, called “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” While they’re not quite an institution, the Massachusetts duo has had enough successes to be considered established.

Anyway, not counting their slew of EPs, the new Mink Car is the Giants’ 10th album. Unfortunately for the technophobes among us, TMBG have gone almost entirely ‘net-based, releasing MP3s of new tracks and even an entire album (Long Tall Weekend) online. As with many bands that have taken this route, the process of compiling and releasing CDs to record stores has become almost an afterthought. The CDs themselves are often made up of tracks the netheads have had for months, and almost always have a mix tape quality to them.

Mink Car is no exception, but TMBG records have always had that mix tape quality anyway. It’s an inconsistent recording, but then, they all are, and that’s part of their charm. There are odds and ends sprinkled throughout Mink Car, but if you weed through those, you’ll find some of the most engaging witty pop around. In short, it’s another They Might Be Giants album.

Mink Car opens with “Bangs,” one of the brightest spots. It’s actually about the hair that hangs in his girlfriend’s eyes. “I’m only holding your hand so I can look at your bangs,” Linnell sings, and somehow he makes the line romantic. You’re then jolted into the clanging “Cyclops Rock,” a monstrous love song which contains the line, “It was sweet like lead paint was sweet, but the after-effects left me paralyzed.” The concluding sentiment is my favorite – “There’s a whole new generation waiting to be wrecked by you.” Mink Car yanks you about both musically and emotionally, rarely settling for the easy laugh.

Sure, those easy laughs are there – dig “I’ve Got a Fang,” about a guy who… well, has a fang: “Glistening white triangular tooth, open up a can of tomato soup…” Also on the merely clever side is “Older,” whose lyrics read, “You’re older than you’ve ever been, and now you’re even older, and now you’re even older, and now you’re even older.”

TMBG is at their best, however, when they’re aiming for subtle wit. Observe “Hopeless Bleak Despair,” which concerns a fellow who finally finds a way to rid himself of the black cloud that’s surrounded his life. Then there’s “She Thinks She’s Edith Head,” a track culled from Long Tall Weekend. “She thinks she’s Edith Head,” Linnell sings with disgust, “or Helen Gurley Brown, or some other cultural figure we don’t know a lot about.” It’s a great recursive equation of a lyric, pointing out the singer’s hypocrisy while never wavering from the song’s self-righteous tone.

Other highlights include “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” a great Pet Shop Boys imitation concerning nightculb conversation, and “Mr. Xcitement,” a collaboration with M. Doughty of Soul Coughing. (It’s worth pointing out that superior versions of this song exist online.) When all is said and done, though, the Giants have written at least one absolute gem here, a sweet number called “Another First Kiss.” Completely original love songs are the hardest things to write, but Linnell and Flansburgh carry it off perfectly. Why this won’t be a hit is unfathomable, but of course it won’t.

Mink Car is another satisfying They Might Be Giants release, well-made and constantly surprising. For a more complete picture of modern TMBG, you should log onto www.tmbg.com. Regardless, if you can get through all 17 tracks of Mink Car and still think of them as a throwaway novelty band, I’ll be stunned.

*****

Ah, King’s X. Where do I start?

How about this: the only other band I can think of who has lost their own plot so completely is Radiohead. King’s X bowed in 1988 with a sound that was completely their own. The Texas trio laid down foundations of heavy, thudding riffs and layered gorgeous harmonies and atmospheres on top of them to spectacular effect. Their first three albums (Out of the Silent Planet, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska and Faith Hope Love) are all masterpieces, each outdistancing the last in ambition and execution. They were blazing a new sound, years before the melodic metal thing caught on. King’s X albums were labors of love, retaining their freshness even as the arrangements got more complex and impossible to play. Faith Hope Love still stands as their most musically baffling album, challenging young guitarists the way Rush’s 2112 had a decade and a half before.

And then… I don’t know what happened. Their last great album, 1992’s Dogman, eschewed the harmonies for a louder, harsher sound that towered over most of the albums that outsold it that year. In its wake, King’s X have floundered, releasing four half-assed efforts. Sadly, they sound resigned, as if they’ve convinced themselves that the brass ring will always remain tantalizingly out of reach, so why even try for it?

I saw this band live last year in Maine, and though all three (bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill) looked weathered and worn, they played like a machine, still knocking the assembled dozens out with skillful, emotional playing. The band I saw is nowhere in evidence on King’s X’s ninth album, Manic Moonlight. Once again, the trio has decided to forego challenging themselves and have made an album unworthy of their raw talent.

Manic Moonlight is a bad weekend jam session, a collection of repetitive one-note riffs and pseudo-funk. Each song starts out with a snatch of looped electronic drums, a first for the band. However, they don’t do anything with them – they’re just lazy sonic coloring. You could mix them right out and the songs would remain unchanged. As for the songs themselves, they exhibit the barest degree of composition, content to repeat themselves for five minutes and fade out. Yeah, the harmonies are back, but they don’t have anything to do either – there are almost no melodies to augment.

The King’s X sound still raises goose bumps, though, and its that residual feeling that carries Manic Moonlight. Ty Tabor has an unmistakable guitar tone, thick and airy at the same time, and though he doesn’t get off as many great leads or haunting atmospherics here as he has in the past, the pure sound of his six-string is breathtaking. When the band finds a suitable melodic line, as they do on “False Alarm” and “The Other Side,” they spin a masterful web of sound. When they stick in a redundant groove like the half-rap “Skeptical Winds,” however, they can deliver a tedious seven minutes.

One of the hallmarks of early King’s X that’s been sadly missing of late is Pinnick’s commanding vocals. The man used to scream his little heart out, and I know he can still do it because I heard him on stage last year. You have to wade through to track eight, “Vegetable,” to hear even a hint of the passion that used to burst from the speakers. That song isn’t half bad – it might have even made the cut on Dogman, but I doubt it. That it’s the undeniable high point on this album is a shame.

It’s even more depressing, though, when you consider that Manic Moonlight follows the best of their recent albums, Please Come Home…Mr. Bulbous. That disc found both the harmonies and the complex song structures making a comeback, and while it was nowhere near the brilliance of the first three, it was a step in the right direction. If you’ve never heard King’s X before, then Manic Moonlight may strike you as something entirely new and fascinating. If you’re a longtime fan, however, it merely represents the proverbial two steps back.

*****

Beavers and ducks!

*****

So before even spinning Roland Orzabal’s debut solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside, I checked the list of thanks to see if he acknowledged Curt Smith, his former partner in Tears for Fears. I do this whenever a member of a long-running band goes solo – it’s kind of a gauge on how amicable the breakup was. Well, he didn’t, but that’s no real surprise, since Orzabal has been the sole member of Tears for Fears for just about a decade now.

As Tears for Fears, Orzabal released what amounts to two previous solo albums. These came on the heels of three critically-acclaimed TFF records with Smith. The twosome imprinted themselves on the cultural consciousness with the ubiquitous hits “Shout,” “Head Over Heels,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (now the theme song to Dennis Miller Live) and “The Seeds of Love.” Occasionally, you’ll hear other semi-hits from this period, like “Advice for the Young at Heart,” “The Working Hour” or “Woman in Chains.” They were thoughtful when music at large was empty, and they were sonic innovators when musicians at large gave in to empty synth production.

The Orzabal-alone incarnation of TFF wasn’t quite as lucky, which is a shame. Both solo TFF works (Elemental and the great Raoul and the Kings of Spain) can hold their own with the classic Tears discs, and 1995’s Raoul is actually quite a bit better than any of them. Alas, with his contract up, Orzabal is free to put the Tears for Fears name to bed and sign his own to his new work. Unfortunately, not many people outside the TFF circle of fans could match that name up with the voice.

But what a voice it is. Roland Orzabal’s commanding tenor is his chief asset, capable of gentle reflection and anguished bellows within the same stanza. He gives that voice quite a workout on Tomcats, an engaging tonal waterfall that completely leaves behind the commercial impulses of his old band. While the songs don’t quite match up to the bounty of riches he delivered on Raoul, they do make for a challenging and worthwhile listen.

Tomcats starts organically and gradually becomes more electronic as it goes along. The opener, “Ticket to the World,” is a brash, loud, guitar-driven assault that comes out swinging. While the screaming tone of this tune somewhat belies the rest of the disc, it’s an awesome opener, and it displays the full range of that superb voice. “Low Life,” the first single, is reminiscent of Tears, but after that, the similarities pretty much end.

In light of current events, any song that calls for peace and an end to violent means would seem particularly poignant. The chilling pop song “Bullets for Brains” could have been written after September 11, so neatly does it address the world situation. (In truth, Orzabal’s record company has been sitting on this for a year, releasing it across the Atlantic a few months ago and finally getting around to a stateside release early last month. September 11, in fact.)

The final half of Tomcats is a swirling wonderama of programmed beats and celestial melodies. “Kill Love,” in particular, seems to float from the speakers in waves, each supercharged beat disintegrating to make room for the thousands behind it. Atop all this flutter, Roland Orzabal wields that voice, hammering the ether into the most grounded float music in some time. Tears for Fears fans will be excited to hear that Tomcats is, by far, Orzabal’s most sonically perfect recording. The two gorgeous closers, “Snowdrop” and “Maybe Our Days are Numbered,” grab hold of European techno and spin ambient-pop gold.

Tomcats won’t win Roland Orzabal his fame back, but for fans of his singing and songwriting, it offers a difficult, beautiful work of art that’s the equal of most of his Tears work. If you lost track of Orzabal after “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” this is a great way to find out what you’ve been missing. If you’ve been following this idiosyncratic artist all along, this album is just as good as you likely expect, and maybe even a bit better.

*****

You may recall reading in this column about Dream Theater’s ill-fated live album Live Scenes From New York. Released on September 11, the three-disc set boasted a cover image (crafted months previous) that depicted the World Trade Center, as well as the rest of the New York skyline, in flames. Being sensitive lads, the band immediately recalled the album and quickly re-released it with altered artwork – a big gold Dream Theater logo in place of the fiery image.

So I was quite surprised when I wandered into my local store to buy the re-release and the owner, apparently having determined my sensitivity level from my unshaven, unkempt appearance, offered me the original cover art. “Sure,” I said before I knew what I was uttering, and so now I have a Dream Theater live album that, to me at least, stands as a memorial to the events of the 11th. I also have a Dream Theater live album that I can never show anyone, for fear of giving great offense. Ah well…

Live Scenes From New York documents a mammoth show at the Roseland Ballroom last August. This was near the end of their tour supporting their latest studio album, Scenes From a Memory, a huge concept piece that they performed in its entirety at every show. That album makes up the first disc and three tracks of the second on this album, or just about 75 minutes. The remaining 110 minutes are filled with songs from every phase of DT’s career.

Why release such a thing, especially since the double-disc Once in a Livetime covered much of the same ground only two years ago? Two words: Jordan Rudess. He’s the new keyboard player, a virtuoso genius who once played with the Dixie Dregs. Rudess has energized this band to an inestimable degree – hearing the previous live album and this one side by side is like finally seeing one of those magic pictures of sailboats come into focus. (You know the ones – “Relax your eyes!”) Dream Theater were an amazing band before, but Rudess has provided the missing link. Now they’re unbelievable.

A Dream Theater live album is much more than a recitation of studio versions anyway. Simply reproducing this band’s mind-bendingly complex prog-rock on stage would be difficult enough, but DT is so tight and talented that they constantly improve upon the studio versions in a live setting. Most groups would be hard-pressed to keep all the sections of a song like “Just Let Me Breathe” straight, never mind adding whole new bits and tacking it onto a fiery new instrumental called “Acid Rain.”

Which brings us back to Rudess. The keyboard spot in Dream Theater has had a higher turnover rate than the drum position in Spinal Tap, and each of Rudess’ predecessors merely played atop the rest of the group, adding color and occasional solos. Rudess is the first to match his bandmates’ skill level, and he incorporates the keyboard as an essential part of the sound. He can take over rhythms and lead lines with equal grace and can harmonize with guitarist John Petrucci, no matter how complex the melodic line he’s playing.

And some of these melodic lines are pretty damn complex. Scenes From a Memory, which is tracks one through 13, is a classic rock opera, weaving melodies in and out of its running time. The band was smart not to break it up – it plays like a 75-minute symphony, albeit one with bone-crushingly heavy guitars. They even wrote a brand-new, complicated coda to the last tune, “Finally Free,” that brings it all together and closes it in fine fashion.

Dream Theater doesn’t leave you hanging after that, though. They burn through five classics, including “The Mirror” and “Metropolis Part One,” each song energized and improved by Rudess’ contributions. They finally slow it down with “Another Day,” featuring Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein on saxophone. Disc three consists of three songs, each right around 20 minutes and each breathtakingly complex. The three-part “A Mind Beside Itself” concludes with a full-band jam version of “The Silent Man,” “Learning to Live” breaks into reggae for the keyboard solo, and the complete “A Change of Seasons” handily outshines its studio version, even breaking into the Simpsons theme at one point.

Occasionally, vocalist James LaBrie reaches a bit beyond his range, but that’s the only weakness here. DT slams through three hours and 10 minutes of the most difficult yet melodic music you’re likely to hear. The real stunner is that this set is culled from one show – the band played all of this technically demanding and physically draining material straight through, no breaks. You’d think they might miss a note or two by the end, but the only acknowledgement the band makes to the marathon length of the concert is LaBrie’s wry comment at the end: “Sorry for playing such a short set.”

There’s a reason there aren’t any Dream Theater cover bands – only these five musicians can adequately play this material. With the addition of Jordan Rudess, they’re playing it better than they ever have before. Live Scenes From New York is an exhausting listen, but sure proof of the indomitable skill of this band. Their next studio album, the double-disc Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, ought to be worth watching out for.

*****

There are 4,273 words in my document at the moment, so I don’t see the point in adding any more, do you? Next week, Sloan. The week after, Aphex Twin. You’ve wasted enough time reading this mess – go outside, throw a frisbee around or something. Talk to you again in seven.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Angst Is the New Pop
Garbage Is as Beautiful as Ever

“Let’s bomb the factory
That makes all the wannabes
Let’s burst all the bubbles
That brainwash the masses…”

In the early ‘70s, that lyric would have signified a kinship with the burgeoning punk movement, and would almost surely have never popped up on the radio. It’s a symbol of the massive shift in popular taste since then that those words appear not on the latest Clash-inspired three-chord diatribe, but rather on the third and most radio-ready album from pure pop group Garbage.

In truth, Garbage is perhaps the most pure and quintessential modern pop act there is. Since their debut in 1996, they’ve excelled at dressing up sugary, disposable tunes in ear-catching modern production techniques. Their records sound amazing, which is no real surprise, considering that Garbage is a collective of session producers. (Butch Vig, perhaps the best-known member of the band prior to their debut, is the man who made Nirvana’s Nevermind.) That they’re also impeccably written is somewhat more unexpected, but three for three, Garbage has crafted some of the most winning and winsome pop music around.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of pop music. I’m a melody addict, a sure sucker for a well-crafted tune. Contrary to popular belief, the three-minute marvel is not an easy thing to write well – as exhibit A, the prosecution recommends that you flip the radio dial anywhere and listen for half an hour. You’re bound to hear some poorly written, sanitized, commercially-oriented crap posing as pop music, no matter what station you tune in. Pop, as defined by Gershwin, Newbern and the like, and as refined by the Beatles, has always been about the songwriting. It celebrates the power of a well-shaped melodic line. A perfect example is the Beatles’ classic “Here, There and Everywhere” – a single, unbroken melodic thought that doesn’t waste a nanosecond of its two minutes and 26 seconds.

This is the type of pop music that Garbage writes. Every song is labored over, because it takes an amazing amount of work to craft something that sounds effortless. The joy of a Garbage album lies in their ability to make classic pop sound thoroughly modern. Their records breeze by you in a blur of guitars, drums and nifty noises, and yet you remember every song when you’re done. You know those unforgettable records Phil Spector used to make? Well, if he were still making music today, he’d undoubtedly come up with something like Garbage.

Beautifulgarbage finds them shaking the formula up just a bit. The production is even more impressive this time than on previous discs, and more diverse. The first song, “Shut Your Mouth,” will leave your jaw on the floor if you’re not ready for it. Every few seconds the sonics shift, and when the guitars hit max volume and density for a few seconds, it’s only to accentuate the silence surrounding them. It’s the sharpest opening salvo they’ve fired yet, a quick, vulgar burst that’s still unmistakably a pop song.

Elsewhere, though, the band embraces more classic definitions of pop, from the doo-woppy “Can’t Cry These Tears” (which sounds like a Supremes cover filtered through Trent Reznor’s sensibilities) to the lilting “Drive You Home,” a song reminiscent of David Lynch’s forays with Julee Cruse. “Cherry Lips” is a stunner, a synthesized number that’s more about the holes in its sound than the notes plugging them. The closing track, “So Like a Rose,” is a torch ballad that builds in quiet intensity. None of these songs sound quite like anything the group has done before.

Sure, the old Garbage is firmly in evidence on superb rave-ups like “Til the Day I Die” and the first single, “Androgyny,” but even these numbers seem infused with a new, more intense verve. The song quoted above, “Parade,” is perhaps the best of these, built like a 40-story-high layer cake. There’s so much to it that you can peel away pieces of the sound all day, and you’ll always be left with more.

As usual, you can contrast the sheer joy of the sound with the self-destructive quality of Shirley Manson’s lyrics. Garbage’s main irony has always been its sugarcoated treatment of Manson’s uncensored sentiments, so much so that if you don’t read the lyrics, you’ll never know how utterly depressing each of their albums is. (Matthew Sweet also excels at this, as does Aimee Mann.) Truth is, angst is the new pop, largely thanks to Vig’s zeitgeist-altering proteges from Seattle. Garbage embraces this concept like few groups playing today. Oh, sure, those serious-looking alt-rock singers on MTV emote well, but they’re not enjoying their pain the way Manson is. She makes it fun to watch her implode.

The coolest thing about Garbage, to me, is their purposeful disposability. While the majority of modern acts work overtime to make Big, Important Albums that are Lasting and Meaningful, every Garbage record has a use-once-and-throw-away feel about it that’s refreshing. Even their band name reflects this. Ironically, the almost invisible songcraft inherent in each track on Beautifulgarbage gives these frothy ditties a better chance at immortality than any flavor-of-the-week hit you could name. Remember, most experts believed in 1963 that “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was a fad, and almost 40 years later, I bet every one of you reading this can hum it. Garbage is cut from the same cloth, and molded in the same tradition. There’s nothing self-important or earth-shattering about Beautifulgarbage, which is precisely why I like it so much.

I was thinking about this the other day. If I were to make the Year-End Top 10 List right now, with three months of releases left to go, it would be the best list in three or four years, no question. Just the top five, which at this point probably won’t change before year’s end, outmatches all 15 of last year’s picks combined. If Eminem had come out swinging this year, he wouldn’t have had a chance.

Anyway, next week, I play catch-up with the biggest column you’ve ever seen. Hope you’re ready…

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Remember to Laugh
Breaking the Silnece, Facing the Tragedy

I’m not usually the silent type.

Ordinarily, as anyone who knows me can attest, I have an opinion about virtually everything, and am willing to make said opinion known. Ask me about the time I spouted off my generally negative feelings on rugby and violent sports in general at my friend’s father’s wake. His best friend, you see, just happened to be the captain of his school rugby team, and also happened to be listening intently to my tirade, perhaps waiting for the right moment to ask me outside and smack the shit out of me.

On second thought, don’t ask me about that.

But the point is clear: I’m a loudmouth with a million opinions. Give me a forum, like a weekly column that goes out to all and sundry, and I’m a happy boy. Since the tragic events of September 11, though, I’ve been strangely silent about my feelings on the matter. Unlike just about every web writer I admire, I’ve kept my thoughts on the issue to myself.

There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is that nothing I could say would do any good. Trying to make rational sense of something this absurd is like trying to extinguish a bonfire with a squirt gun. The second is that my words, useful as they are to me, pale in comparison to the words of the survivors, or the family members, or the rescue workers. In the face of those testimonies, nothing I can say would hold a candle. I can’t change the world. I’ve been privately concentrating on my corner of it, away from this column.

Luckily for me, I’m not expected to have anything to say. No one’s been clamoring for the insights of the obnoxious music critic from Indiana. However, it’s been quite interesting to observe the reactions of those entertainers who couldn’t ignore the tragedy. Leno and Letterman, for example, have gone solemn, and rightfully so. Their first shows after the attacks were models of professionalism and respect. Saturday Night Live even shied away from the ongoing national crisis, marking the first time to my knowledge that they’ve ever done so.

For some, though, ignoring the tragedy was impossible. To wit: two of my favorite weekly entertainments have taken the issue head-on, and both have proven in their own small ways that it’s okay to laugh, to tackle the issue with humor and intelligence and respect and still produce works of the same quality to which their audiences are accustomed. In fact, I would argue that the quality has risen greatly, in no small part because of the courage these pieces took.

If The Onion isn’t part of your weekly routine, well, it should be. It’s the finest satirical publication on the planet, making short work of the issues of our time with biting wit and stinging pathos. Their misfires are greatly outnumbered by their direct hits, and they excel at putting a fresh spin on controversial news issues. No issue of The Onion has been as daring or as spot-on as last week’s, devoted entirely to the attack on America.

The writers took stock of the national mood and captured it perfectly. Most moving was their piece on a local woman who, desperate for some way to help, baked a cake in the shape of an American flag. You can complain all you want to about the recent outpouring of patriotism (and in fact I have heard several such complaints), but this piece deftly defuses those compliments with emotional directness.

Most effective, however, is the piece entitled “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” Describing a press conference given by God in front of the Twin Towers wreckage, this stunningly worded article gives the last word on killing in His name, and how He really feels about it. It, and the rest of last week’s issue, may be this little site’s finest hour.

One week before his season actually premieres, my hero Aaron Sorkin checked in this week with perhaps the best episode of The West Wing I’ve ever experienced. Titled “Isaac and Ishmael,” it details a few hours under security alert in the White House. While Leo McGarry interrogates an Arab member of the White House staff, the rest of the cast speaks to a group of students touring the nation’s capital. They answer tough questions about terrorism and our national security with the honesty and wit for which this show is known.

The best part about this episode is that it was hilarious. It made its points extremely well, and even showed all sides of the issue fairly, but never at the expense of characters and moments. You believe the sentiments expressed because you believe in the people expressing them. Even when the characters are espousing beliefs that Sorkin clearly doesn’t share, the script never slights their convictions. To be fair, this show has never done anything less. It’s the best-written program on TV, bar none.

If Sorkin’s sympathies lie anywhere in this episode, though, they’re with Josh Lyman, the character played by the wonderful Bradley Whitford. Near the end, he says something that encapsulates the America we all wish, hope and pray for. “If you really want to kill the terrorists where they live,” he advises, “keep accepting more than one idea. It drives them nuts.”

That’s the America I want to live in, especially post-tragedy: one that continues to accept a multitude of ideas and thoughts. At another point in the show, Rob Lowe’s Sam Seborn muses that the most striking thing about terrorism is its 100% failure rate. Terrorists never succeed in destroying what they set out to destroy, and in fact, they only make it stronger. As long as we as a nation continue to accept all points of view as valid and necessary, well, the terrorists’ losing streak will continue.

Next week, the new Garbage album. Be well, and remember to laugh.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hey Gene, We Remember You
The Lost Dogs Carry On With Real Men Cry

Hey, all.

A short one this week. Some people have commented to me that last week’s in depth examination of Tori Amos’ new album was a bit too dense, so we’re going for light and breezy this time. Some news, a small-ish review of a good new disc, and we’re out. Nothing you would, as friend and correspondent Chris L’etoile would say, need your “thinkin’ specs” for.

So, new releases news.

Just when I thought this year couldn’t get any bigger, better or more artistically-driven (witness great new discs by Ben Folds, Ani DiFranco, Daniel Amos, Tool, Tori Amos, They Might Be Giants, etc.), one Mr. Richard D. James checks in. Electronic music fans may know James by the name he uses most often, Aphex Twin. James will release his first all-new full-lengther under that name in six years on October 23. It’s called Drukqz, and that’s not a misprint. It’s also a 100-minute double-disc affair that reportedly mixes the more bizarre, aggressive style of his last two albums with the reflective soundscapes of Selected Ambient Works. If you’ve never heard James’ work before, trust me, he’s a genius.

Considering how the majority of my musical taste runs to the subtler, more thoughtful artists, the fact that I’m a huge Dream Theater fan may come as a surprise. DT is loud, bombastic, and almost jaw-droppingly pretentious. They’re also five of the greatest musicians you will ever hear in one place. Every Dream Theater album is a huge, breathtakingly technical undertaking. With the addition of Jordan Rudess on keyboards, the quintessential DT lineup is now complete, and they’re readying a one-two punch that sounds like their most ambitious yet.

Those of you who went to the record store over the last few weeks and were unable to find the promised three-CD set Live Scenes in New York, well, it was recalled. The original release date was September 11, a day that will live in infamy, and the band wisely decided that an album whose cover artwork coincidentally depicted the Manhattan skyline in flames would only add to the tragedy. They’re officially releasing the set with new artwork on October 23. Three months later, the new DT studio album hits, and it’s a six-song, double-disc set that runs 95 minutes. It’s called Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, and the title track alone clocks in at 40 minutes and takes up all of disc two. Sheesh. Can’t wait for this one.

Anyway, we move from there to the furthest point away from prog-rock, the traditional American stylings of the criminally ignored Lost Dogs, coming up right after the asterisks.

*****

I heard a radio report the other day that some scientists have discovered a link between music, food and sex. They say that music stimulates the same chemically-triggered feelings of satisfaction that are commonly associated with warm sex and a good meal. (Or good sex and a warm meal. Whatever.) The scientists postulate that people’s emotional connection to music is in fact linked to the same connection people have with intimate human contact and nourishment.

If that’s true, then the new Lost Dogs album, Real Men Cry, is the chemical equivalent of biting into a sugared lemon near the end of six months on a deserted island. It’s a sweet, sad, slow sigh, mixed with many different colors of loss and pain. It’s also the most consistent, unified record this assemblage of graciously aging gents have made. Considering the circumstances under which it came together, that’s remarkable.

The Lost Dogs are a supergroup of unknowns, a spiritual Traveling Wilburys formed from the ranks of four of the best bands to never sell a million copies. Between the four original members, the Dogs have participated in a few hundred superb records, and their bands are responsible for more than 50 should-have-been classic records over the past 25 years. I’ve mentioned quite a few of them in this column, and one of them (Daniel Amos’ Mr. Buechner’s Dream) is a shoo-in for this year’s Top 10 List. I won’t go into the Dogs’ respective careers here, except to mention the bands they came from – Daniel Amos, the Choir, the 77s and Adam Again. Anything bearing those names is worth your cash.

Together, the Dogs have embarked on a quest to unearth the roots of traditional American music, in much the same way that bands like Wilco and artists like Gillian Welch have been digging through this country’s rich musical heritage. In the past, Dogs albums have seemed like slapdash affairs, lunging from country to rock to bluegrass to blues with almost no navigational center. The songs were mostly spectacular, but the albums suffered somewhat from a lack of stylistic cohesion.

That mix-tape sensation all but disappeared on the band’s fourth album, Gift Horse. On this record, the songwriting reins were taken by Terry Taylor, guiding light of Daniel Amos, and the band settled on a sweet, updated country-rock sound. Gift Horse hung together, from first note to last, as a unified vision. It was the best record they’d ever released, and it was also their last with original Dog Gene Eugene, who died last year.

The tributes to Eugene have been many and varied, from songs on the new Choir and DA records to a moving concert given in his memory last summer. His band, Adam Again, released their own tribute album before calling it quits. As for the other band to bear the stamp of his heartbreaking voice, well, no one would have blamed the Lost Dogs for calling it a day.

Long story short, that’s not what they did. The three remaining Dogs got together earlier this year and laid down some of their best tracks. The resulting album, Real Men Cry, is the most authentic-sounding recording they’ve made, and though Eugene’s earthy vocals are sorely missed, the songs and performances here are better than they’ve ever been. Real Men Cry is a turn-of-the-century slice of arid desert yearning, a loping skyward gaze buried in sand.

The album sticks to a traditional Merle Haggard-Johnny Cash country sound throughout, bereft of the modern touches of Gift Horse. The best tracks are the slower ones, although the ironically titled “Three Legged Dog” is a silly, fun romp. More affecting, though, is Mike Roe’s lovely voice and guitar on the title song, Derri Daugherty’s angelic vocal on “No Shadow of Turning,” and the trio’s tear-jerking work on highlight “In the Distance.”

All these songs are tales of sadness tinged with spiritual hope. The record is saturated in loneliness and loss, and while it doesn’t specifically reference Eugene, one can feel the influence his absence had on this recording. The Dogs have never sounded more genuine, more honest about the painful stories they’re relating. Modern country is full of artifice, and when said modern country artists attempt the move to traditional music, the phoniness becomes even more apparent. This is the real thing, informed by a true love of simple, sad songs sung from the heart.

It’s worth mentioning as a coda that 11 of these 13 songs were written by Terry Taylor, and with Daniel Amos’ double-disc Mr. Buechner’s Dream, that brings his 2001 output to 44 tunes. And not a dud in the bunch. The man just never runs out of great songs, and in lieu of fame and universal acclaim, it’s those songs that will stand as his legacy. Real Men Cry is just the latest chapter in a long and varied career that, God willing, will continue for decades to come.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Words Like Violence
Tori Amos' Powerful Strange Little Girls

At one point in her new album Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos rewrites the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” singing, “Words are meaningless and unforgettable.” This is as much a mission statement as you’re likely to get for this experimental and largely effective collection. Amos has taken issue with the current idea that no one has ever been hurt by the words in a song, and has set out to prove that while we may not assign much immediate meaning to the violent and misogynist lyrics that permeate our pop music, they do have a potentially destructive effect.

Amos may very well be our most earnest and personal performer. The closest she’s ever come to acknowledging the concept of satire is “The Waitress,” a cautionary tale on her second album, Under the Pink. Otherwise, her songs are either first-person or third-person accounts of the emotional stress of life. Up to this point, she’s existed in an hermetically sealed self-absorbed musical environment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This has allowed her to give us some of the most honest and reflective works of the past decade, among them “Precious Things,” “Me and a Gun,” “Icicle,” “Professional Widow,” “Putting the Damage On” and, I grudgingly admit, “Jackie’s Strength.” Her fans are often privy to performances that must come from Amos’ very core. There’s just no way such powerful delivery can be faked.

This, of course, made the announcement of Strange Little Girls’ strange little concept all the more interesting. For the first time, Amos would release the floodgates and deliver a Big Statement. Could such a personal songwriter be as effective in the role of social critic, especially with other artists’ songs? Whatever the outcome, the latest chapter in Amos’ idiosyncratic career was a great risk, and in and of itself, that’s exciting.

Even more interesting is that Strange Little Girls fails in its stated purpose.

But that’s okay, because it’s stunningly successful at something even better.

Here’s the concept: Amos took 12 songs from the last 40 years, all penned and originally performed by men. She then endeavored to bring the female point of view into play, setting each of these numbers in strikingly different contexts to bring out the hidden violence in the lyrics. She even constructed alter egos for herself, women who either took part in the original songs yet had no voice in them, or women who were somehow affected by the events described. The idea seemed to be to deliver an indictment of the subtle misogyny that we hear every day and pay little attention to.

This is a great idea. Highlighting the masked destructive power of songs that exist in the cultural lexicon is an admirable notion, a marvelous strike back at the likes of Eminem, and it will probably be the basis for a great record one day. (Ideas for song selections: Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Matchbox 20’s “Push.”) That’s just not the record Amos made here.

Instead of taking from the national radio consciousness, Amos has mainly selected obscure cuts from marginal artists, ones you’re not likely to have had the chance to dismiss as harmless. Her alter egos, pictured and described in the CD jacket, often have nothing but the thinnest tether connecting them to the original song. (What, for instance, is gained by adding another character to the already large and heartbreaking cast of “I Don’t Like Mondays”?)

Adding to the mess is Amos’ Irony Deficiency Syndrome. The two glaring cases of IDS here are her treatments of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Eminem’s tune is a full-out satire, casting hip-hop violence in a frighteningly real setting and treating it as a pop single. It’s not funny, and he knows it. Should anyone take it seriously, they need only to refer to “Stan,” his masterful response to his own work, to see the truth. Similarly, only the most irony deficient would fail to recognize that the protagonist of “I’m Not in Love” actually is in love, and is trying to convince himself otherwise. Amos tackles both these numbers head-on, believing every word.

The implication here is that the record-buying public is just as irony-deficient, which I don’t believe is true. Satire does make several assumptions of its audience, however. First, it assumes familiarity with the material being satired. One needs a working knowledge of the last 10 years of gangsta rap to fully appreciate Eminem, for instance. Second, the satirist trusts his audience’s ability to discern his true intentions. Some people are, unfortunately, incapable of this. The best satire is often only effective when there are people who miss the point entirely.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to consider Amos one of those people, her work comes from a place of inviolable honesty. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine her assuming that all artists come from the same place. The unfortunate implication of delivering Eminem’s words irony-free is that all satire should be dumbed-down to the extent that even the most irony-deficient among us can understand it. Needless to say, this would kill the satirist’s art form. A side effect of good satire has always been that it can be taken seriously and out of context to extol the very thing the satirist wishes to condemn.

And Amos must be aware of this, because she’s taking Eminem’s words and claiming them as her own on this record. Should you look at Strange Little Girls as a work of satire, you’d have to admit that it makes some assumptions itself. It assumes that you’re familiar with the original works to a degree, or at least that they were all written and performed by men. In some cases, such as “I Don’t Like Mondays,” it makes the same assumption as the original – that you’re familiar with the school shooting it describes, and the answer given by the young perpetrator when asked for a reason: “I don’t like Mondays.” You’re also expected to have some knowledge of Amos and where she’s coming from.

And that’s where the true essence of the record comes out. Despite what she wants you to believe, these other points of view she’s purporting to express are all her own. Even though the CD booklet goes to great lengths to convince you that these are 12 separate experiences, each belonging to a different woman, Strange Little Girls works best as a progression of experience from one woman’s perspective. My advice, then, is to throw away the CD booklet without even looking at it, and immerse yourself in one of Tori Amos’ most effective song cycles.

One of Amos’ greatest skills is as an interpreter, placing songs we know by heart into perception-altering contexts. This album is all context. Every song reflects upon the ones surrounding it, almost as if they were meant to trace one person’s life. Much like the soundtracks to our own lives are made up of the songs we hear at certain points, these are the songs that express the effect violence has had on one woman’s life. While musically Amos’ renditions are either depressingly faithful or maddeningly unfaithful to the originals, she creates a mood and a sense of story with these songs. The result packs more emotional wallop than anything she’s done since Boys for Pele.

Lou Reed’s “New Age” sets the scene, describing what may be the protagonist’s parents in a shaky romance surrounded by lost souls. Amos begins delicately, with her electric piano shrouded in Adrian Belew’s lovely guitar swirls. As the song builds in intensity, she wails, “I’ll come running to you now, baby, if you want me.”

This somewhat hopeful serenade descends into “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” which retains all the horror of the original. The song is a first-person account of a father killing his young daughter’s mother, all the while explaining his actions to his daughter. Amos intones the lyrics in a decidedly creepy manner, setting the tale against dramatic synth strings. The effect is like hearing the song for the first time again. If nothing else, Amos has effectively highlighted just how scary this song is.

It’s easy to imagine the daughter in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” growing up into the “Strange Little Girl” of the Stranglers song Amos does next: “She didn’t know how to make it in a town that was rough, it didn’t take long before she’d had enough.” This deeply scarred soul spends the next few songs looking for love, and finding only a lack of communication in Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and a lack of emotional connection in “I’m Not in Love.” “Silence” is almost entirely piano and vocals, while “Love” is a complete departure. Amos retains the sing-song melody of the original atop a bed of spooky electronics that add a murderous edge to the song.

As obvious as it was that the protagonist of the original was secretly in love, it’s equally obvious that Amos wants us to believe the lyrics completely here. In the original, the singer refuses to give his love’s picture back, offering up the lame excuse that “it hides a nasty stain” on the wall. Considering the emphasis she places on these lines, Amos wants us to consider what that stain may be, and how it got there. This song can be seen as sung to or sung by the album’s subject, and either way, it adds to the sense of emotional collapse she goes through.

Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” finds our girl hardened and bitter. “A girl needs a gun these days,” she sings, “on account of those rattlesnakes.” This song is one of the album’s highlights, performed on electric piano with full band backup. “Her neverborn child haunts her now as she speeds down the freeway,” Amos sings, perhaps reflecting upon her own miscarriage. Whether or not our protagonist is Amos herself, it’s easy to see why this song was selected.

The album glides nicely into the sad, perfect “Time,” originally by Tom Waits. Death is the subject here, and the glorious pain of loss permeates a sublime piano-vocal performance. In direct contrast, Amos should be flogged for her mistreatment of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the album’s one true disaster. She abandons the original melody completely, settling on a three-note stomp that gets quite old quite fast. Above this, she screeches the lyrics, highlighting perhaps the damage that has been done. Our girl is, the lyrics assure us, still searching for a heart of gold, but it’s becoming more futile and dangerous.

The album concludes with a trilogy that exponentially increases the violence we’ve seen so far. The school shooting of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” leads into the widespread death hinted at by the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which in turn descends into the apocalyptic horror of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” While “Mondays” remains close to Bob Geldof’s original, the other two all but shed the definition of “cover version.” “Warm Gun” has been turned into a beats-and-bass extravaganza, while “Raining Blood” is a powerful meander on piano and fuzzed-out bass.

The centerpiece of the trilogy comes in “Warm Gun” when Amos repeats the line, “She’s not a girl who misses much.” We’re reminded in the midst of all this violent-sounding chaos that our protagonist is watching and taking it all in. Amos’ voice effectively renders the shattering effect present in the words. It’s easy to imagine “Raining Blood,” a tale of souls trapped in purgatory and of red rain seeping through “lacerated skies,” as the end destination of violence. Because of the song sequencing, it’s also horrifyingly easy to trace that destination back to the smallest of causes.

The album caps off with Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” a perfect bookend. Jackson has long been underrated as a songwriter and a satirist. “Real Men” is a song that sticks with you even in its original version, which Amos stays faithful to. It touches on every subject covered thus far, and on the origins of interpersonal and interracial violence. It even hearkens back to the original idea: the “real men” are not necessarily men. The impact of the final four songs will leave you sad and shaken, largely because of the context suggested by placing them together.

In the final analysis, while Amos may have set out to make a Big Statement, she only succeeded in doing what she’s been best at all along. Strange Little Girls is another highly personal effort. It’s Amos watching the world, taking in all the violence inherent in our daily lives, and detailing its effect on her. In all the important ways, the protagonist of SLG is Amos herself: damaged at an early age, hardened by experience and aware of the collective consequences of giving in to the violence in her heart. This is as big a statement as we’re likely to get from her, and its resonance is undeniable.

I mentioned throughout this review that context shades meaning. The original artists provided context, which Amos reshaped, both in the way she approached the songs and the sequence in which she approached them. Similarly, the context of the tragedies of September 11 adds new meaning and depth to this album. Though it could not have been intentional, Tori Amos has delivered an examination of violence and a plea to refrain from it at a time when the country needs it most. Everything is connected, she’s saying, from the smallest act of maliciousness to the largest act of terrorism. We’ve all seen up close the tragic effects of this cycle, and as the last four songs on Strange Little Girls indicate, there is only one end to it.

So yes, Strange Little Girls is a success, but not in its original intention. As a cover album by a talented artist, it’s hit and miss. As a satire, it’s a trifle. As a real dissection of our culture’s violent tendencies, it works. As a personal statement, it shines. It takes a special kind of artist to use the songs of others to open a window to one’s soul. Amos continues to be our most honest performer, even when the sentiments are not her own.

Whew. Next week, a MUCH shorter column about the new Lost Dogs, Real Men Cry.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Rockin’ the Suburbs Indeed
Ben Folds Makes His Wining Solo Debut

Our grandkids will be asking us about this.

That’s what, in the final analysis, strikes me the most about this terrible tragedy. Thousands are dead, including a girl I went to high school with and the uncle of one of my best friends, but beyond the body count and the personal effect this has had on me, I can’t help thinking about John F. Kennedy. Or, more precisely, the fact that every member of my father’s generation can remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. This is our unifying, defining national nightmare, one we will be discussing for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, it won’t get any worse than this.

I’ve finally realized that the emotional shutdown I’ve been in since hearing of the attack is exactly what the terrorists wanted. If we don’t bounce back and resume our lives, then they’ve won. That’s why, despite the fact that my whole being is fighting to slip into despair, I’m going to keep writing and posting these trivial little missives. Our lives are made of these things, and ceasing to keep up with them would be, at least for me, an admission of defeat that I’m not willing to make.

Fuck ‘em. Business as usual.

*****

One day, Ben Folds will make a truly great album.

It will be filled with all the passion, wit and sheer musical skill of which his fans (myself included) know that he is capable. While it probably won’t sell a quadrillion copies, it will stand with the greatest works of his idols: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Most importantly, it will be the crowning achievement in what promises to be a spectacular career.

All of which is to say that Rockin’ the Suburbs, his debut solo disc, is not that album. On the first couple of listens, in fact, Suburbs barely seems to hold its own with the three stellar records by the Ben Folds Five, his band for the last eight years. Give it time to sink in, though, and the album will emerge as what it undoubtedly is: the first in a series of lovely pop albums that will, God willing, comprise that aforementioned spectacular career. It’s a delicate promise of things to come.

That’s not to say it’s not worth picking up. Folds is a rare breed these days: an unabashedly pop songwriter. I don’t mean pop in the ‘N Sync vein, either. Folds plays and composes with a style that has been informed by the last 100 years of popular songwriters. His tunes contain big, memorable choruses, sweetly stacked harmonies and a sense of songcraft that’s missing from the majority of acts these days. Folds grew up during the age of albums, recordings that were labored over and fine-tuned to perfection. Like Jellyfish before him, Folds takes his biggest cues from the Beatles, the greatest pop band to ever walk the earth.

Folds is also the most unapologetically emotional of the volley of ironic songwriters that emerged in the ‘90s. His songs are often stories of heartbroken, lonely people reaching out in the only ways they know how, and it’s clear that he loves each of these characters. It’s never certain how much of himself he injects into this motley crew of lost souls, but he lavishes each of them with an amount of attention usually reserved for the autobiographical. All four Ben Folds albums are moving snapshots of modern life, and whether or not they represent his life is immaterial.

Eight new characters join the cast on this album, or at least eight new names are presented to us. The opener, “Annie Waits,” introduces us to a woman on the verge of changing her life: “Annie waits for the last time, just the same as the last time…” Mirroring Folds’ own transformation into a solo artist, many of these seven characters is approaching the precipice of a life-changing decision. “The Ascent of Stan” details the introspection of a one-time hippie who has embraced the establishment: “Being poor was not such a drag in hindsight, and you wondered why your father was so resigned, now you don’t wonder anymore.”

“Fred Jones Part 2” (a semi-sequel to “Cigarette” on Whatever and Ever Amen) gives us a man whose decision has been made for him: “He’s packed all his things and he’s put them in boxes, things that remind him that life has been good, Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper, a man’s here to take him downstairs, and I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.” Along the way, Jones lets us in on some of his insights: “Life barrels on like a runaway train, where the passengers change but they don’t change anything…”

Elsewhere we meet the title characters of “Zak and Sara,” medication-addicted teens who are invariably described as “Zak without a ‘c’” and “Sara with no ‘h’.” “Fired” gives us a woman named Lucretia who dismisses her whole staff because she wants to be alone. These stories are accompanied by Folds’ trademark piano, mostly in mournful, slow settings. (The one jarring exception is the title track, inexplicably the first single.) “Fired,” in fact, is the one song in which Folds cuts loose on the keyboards for a few exhilarating bars. While he is undoubtedly his generation’s finest balladeer, it would have been nice to hear him displaying his piano-pounding talents a la “Song for the Dumped” and “Philosophy” a bit more here.

That said, Rockin’ the Suburbs contains two absolute masterpieces. The first is “Still Fighting It,” a heart-wrenching letter from a father to his young son. This song can’t be excerpted, so here are the full lyrics:

Good morning son, I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt
You want a Coke? Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only $9.95
But it’s okay, you don’t have to pay, I’ve got all the change
Good morning son, 20 years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you all about today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain, sunny days and rain,
I knew you’d feel the same things
You’ll try and try
And one day you’ll fly away from me…
Everybody knows it hurts to grow up
And everybody does, so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what, the years go on
And we’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me, I’m sorry…

This beautiful verse sits atop of one of Folds’ finest melodies, easily outdistancing any of his previous piano-and-strings ballads. The other masterpiece, “Carrying Cathy,” takes a similar tack, evolving midway through into a glorious dream that gingerly touches back down on earth for the final verse, which gets maximum impact from repeating the title phrase. Again, no excerpting allowed:

Her window was hung like a painting
She worried it might come to life, she stared for hours
So obsessed was I, and self-absorbed that I
Didn’t see that she was crying
There was always someone carrying Cathy
There were times when I would find myself saying to friends,
You don’t understand, she’s different when it’s just me and her
And I’d close the door and I’d try to hang on
As she sank into the dark, I was over my head
There was always someone carrying Cathy
We gave you everything, you could have done anything
We gave you everything, you could have been anything
But to imagine a fall with no one at all to catch you
There’d always been someone…
Then one night she climbed into the picture frame
Out into the frozen air and out of sight…
I woke up sad from this dream I’ve been having
The last couple nights or so
With her father, her brothers, we’re all at the funeral
Carrying a box through the rain
And somebody says, yeah, it’s always been this way
There was always someone carrying Cathy.

I present these in full because they are the finest sets of lyrics I’ve come across this year, and they bode well for the future of this wisecracking troubadour. Another promising sign is “The Luckiest,” the closing track and the first true autobiographical piece Folds has written. It’s an imaginatively sentimental ode to his wife, which he sings from the heart. Consider one more piece of Foldspeak before I put these lyrics away:

Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you
That I know we belong
That I am the luckiest

Like the best songwriters, Folds crafts stories full of fascinating, lived-in characters that mirror his own sentiments. “The Luckiest” is the first time Folds has stepped away from his grand cast and shone the spotlight on his own emotions, and that he carries it off as well as he does shows incalculable promise for the career to come. Folds never gives in to mawkishness, the most common pitfall of the piano-based songwriter. The tunes are sentimental, but unfailingly inventive.

I’ve lavished a lot of space here on what’s most likely going to be remembered as a tentative first step in a lengthy solo career. Rockin’ the Suburbs is one of the finest records of the year, though, on every level, and if he had not prefaced it with three of the best records in my collection, I’d be hailing it as masterful. Someday, mark my words, Ben Folds is going to deliver on the promise of this album and create one of the best pop records ever made, one in which every song is as stunning as the best work on Rockin’ the Suburbs. Watching him get there will be half the fun.

Next up, Tori.

See you in line Tuesday morning, and God bless America.

I’ve Got Nothing
Except, That Is, a Weekly Deadline

Nothing to write about today.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Primarily, I’ve just bid my vacation adieu and have begun my “real life” in Hobart, Indiana. I’m still waiting (of course) for news of my rejection from Columbia College of Chicago, and I’ve yet to secure myself a job. Essentially, I’m in the midst of waking up.

Tying right into that “I have no job” thing is the sad state of my financial affairs. Sure, I have an IRA that will (hopefully) mature into megabucks by the time I’m 65 or so, but until then, I need steady income to survive. I truly miss the days when this column appeared in a magazine that was serviced by several of the major record labels and almost all of the minor ones. Reviewing music regularly when you haven’t got the cash needed to purchase said music is tricky.

Don’t worry, though. I’ve budgeted enough for the major releases this month – Ben Folds next week, Tori Amos the week after that – so more clever, insightful, witty reviews are on the horizon. And who knows, I might review them as well.

Unfortunately, none of those major releases came out this week. I’ve got nothing.

I thought about using this space to catch up on releases I’ve missed, like Cake’s invigorating Comfort Eagle. Which is a good record, by the way. It’s yet another in a long line of recent releases that barely crack half an hour in length, but the half an hour we get is quite adventurous. John McCrea still sounds like he dropped out of his M. Doughty wannabe class a few weeks early (and if you’re shaking your head at that line, you should really pick up Soul Coughing’s three excellent albums), but behind him, the band strikes out in a few new directions. Cake’s a pretty indescribable band, melding influences from rock, rap, reggae, ska, jazz and country with the occasional mariachi flourish. If you liked their first three records, this one is shorter, but better.

I also thought about going back even further to offer my thoughts on some of last year’s ignored releases. For example, there’s Peter Gabriel’s OVO, which I’ve mentioned a few times but never fully reviewed. My rationale for ignoring it was that it has yet to see a U.S. release. Sadly, it looks like there are no plans to distribute this semi-masterpiece stateside, but trust me when I say it’s worth the import price. OVO is the studio companion to Gabriel’s theatrical piece, written for the Millennium Dome in London in 1999. It tells the story of three generations of a family, which you can see in animated form in the enhanced material on the disc.

Apart from the story, though, the music is excellent, easily the best non-soundtrack work Gabriel’s done since Security. (I say non-soundtrack because Passion, his score to The Last Temptation of Christ, still stands as his finest work, in my ever-humble opinion.) The half-instrumental album combines his trademark synth beds and stunning drum army with traditional Irish reels, African chants, hip-hop and techno beats. It’s truly one world World music, and it also happens to contain some of Gabriel’s most indelible melodies. He hands the lead vocal duties over to other singers a few more times than he should have, perhaps, but that effectively recalls the theatrical roots of this disc. The closing track, the monumental “Make Tomorrow,” is everything “Secret World” wished it could be, and wraps all the melodies together with the skill of a master.

At the very least, OVO will help tide you over until Gabriel releases the long-awaited Up sometime next year. Or the year after that.

Another one I thought about discussing is Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor, which also has yet to see a U.S. release. It’s too bad his name is actually Kip Winger, because he’s made a startling artistic transformation since fronting the band that bore his name in the early ‘90s. There’s nothing more invigorating to me than watching an artist reinvent himself, and even though one would be hard-pressed to call the author of such classics as “Can’t Get Enuff” and “Seventeen” an artist per se, he’s worked overtime to earn that appellation on his solo releases.

Songs From the Ocean Floor completes his metamorphosis, leaving behind virtually all of his hard rock past in favor of deep textures and heartfelt lyrics. Burbling synths, driving acoustic guitars and a liberal sprinkling of strings coalesce into an album that sounds like it was recorded underwater. Don’t get me wrong – the sound quality is crystal clear, but the arrangements are purposely murky and atmospheric, especially the powerful “Landslide.”

It’s the songs, though, that keep me coming back to the Ocean Floor. The melodies are tricky and not immediately accessible, the arrangements are amazing, and the lyrics, largely dealing with loss and finality (Winger lost his wife shortly before recording this), are often painfully honest. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – tragedy brings out the best in any artist. With Songs From the Ocean Floor, Kip Winger has earned that title and then some. Unfortunately, it’s only available at www.kipwinger.com. His other two solo works, Thisconversationseemslikeadream and Down Incognito, are also recommended and available at the website.

But see? I don’t have too much to say about either of those, which still leaves me with a column to write and no topic. I also thought that perhaps I’d make mention of some newly announced releases for the next few months. There are some good ones, like the mighty Sloan’s return on October 16 with Pretty Together. After rapid-firing out their last three records, Sloan took an extended break to write and record this thing, which promises to be just as great as they always are. There’s also King’s X’s ninth album, Manic Moonlight, hitting on September 25. This follows their best album in ages, last year’s Please Come Home Mr. Bulbous. Also, Aphex Twin will be checking in with a double-disc affair called Drukqz, or some shit like that, on October 23. A week before that, Leonard Cohen delivers ten new songs on a record he’s wittily titled Ten New Songs. Finally, and most surprisingly, Billy Joel is slated to come out with his first classical recording for solo piano, Opus 1-10: Fantasies and Delusions, on October 2.

Yeah, I thought about talking about those, but I just spent a whole column doing that three weeks ago, and there’s only so many times I can use that trick to fill space before you fine folks come gunning for me. So, you’ll have to accept my apologies this time. I just couldn’t find anything worth my usual 1200 words. I’m deeply sorry, but as I said, next week, Ben Folds, and the week after that, Tori Amos. Until then, I hope you can forgive me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Two Bjorks are Better Than One
But One Vespertine is Better Than the Other

I find myself in an interesting position this time. I’m about to attempt one review of two albums that are actually the same album.

Let me explain.

Last month, while I was in Europe, I happened across a copy of Bjork’s new album, Vespertine. I’m a huge Bjork fan, as evidenced by the fact that she’s made my Top 10 List twice, in 1998 with Homogenic and last year with Selmasongs. Hence, I jumped at the chance to hear her new one a few weeks early. I bought it, listened to it a few times, sighed audibly and prepared to deem it below average when the U.S. release hit.

Cut to yesterday. Vespertine came out in the U.S., but the version that hit stateside record stores bears only a halfway resemblance to the version I picked up across the pond. Lo and behold, with the excision of a few sub-par tracks, the addition of a few superior ones and a complete resequencing, Vespertine has sprung to magical life. It’s almost a treatise on the last-minute fix.

So now it’s down to me to figure out what was wrong with the first version I heard, and what the “corrected” version got right. The overall tone has remained pretty much the same, which constitutes in either version a far cry from her previous work. Over a stunningly diverse solo career (since leaving the Sugarcubes, who didn’t deserve her anyway), Bjork has dabbled in quirky dance music, big band revival tunes and gorgeous, flowing pop. Her Telegram all but revitalized the remix album, and then she broke astounding new ground with Homogenic, her “technorchestral” album. There she combined the pitter-patter of electronic drums and noise with a full, sweeping orchestra to dramatic effect.

She then perfected and expanded that style with Selmasongs, the soundtrack to her acting debut in Dancer in the Dark. If not for a certain blond rapper with an equally impressive musical and more impressive satirical sense, she’d have captured the top spot on my list last year with a 28-minute EP. These were show tunes deconstructed and rebuilt with warped technology, and they retained the drama inherent to their filmed origins. In other words, Selmasongs was a hard act to follow.

Bjork has decided to follow it, though, with a low-key slice of ambience bereft of the melodrama she’s brought to just about every project. The tidal waves of strings in “Joga” and “I’ve Seen it All” are pretty much gone, and in their place are beds of subtle electronics and acoustic harp. This record chimes as much as it shimmers, and the effect is sometimes creepy, often boring.

Or, at least, it was in the version I first heard. I equated that disc with Radiohead’s dismal Kid A, because she seemed to trade melody for atmosphere. Bjork’s never done an OK Computer, but she’s always had an innate sense of melody, and her sonic adventurousness has always been in service to the songs, not the other way around. Here, though, the beds of electronics seemed repetitive, and everything else helped to drift the material further into the ether. It didn’t help matters that the European version opens with three of the most aimless and atmospheric numbers. In fact, you have to wade through five meandering tunes to get to the first one with a real compositional hook, “Hidden Place.”

The U.S. version wisely finds “Hidden Place” in the leadoff spot. This is the sort of tune that made Homogenic such a keeper. Bjork’s unconventionally appealing voice whorps and whirls about a knock-em-dead chorus laced with orchestration. “Hidden Place” exemplifies what I find most admirable about Bjork: she pushes the boundaries of technology’s place in pop music without forsaking the very things that make her music pop. Unfortunately, much of Vespertine comes down on the wrong side of that equation. The five aimless pieces that open the version I first heard are all on the U.S. version, most under different names and with somewhat different mixes, and all buried deep within the album.

Those that may have picked up the European pre-release version, by the way, may want to know which songs have been re-named. In order: “Blueprint” is now “Pagan Poetry,” “New” is now “Heirloom,” “Crave” is now “An Echo, A Stain,” and “Mouth” is now “Cocoon.” They’re all considerably different-sounding on the U.S. release as well.

Truthfully, the new version isn’t a dramatic departure from the original I heard. Why, then, do I find it so much more acceptable?

For starters, despite what some people may believe about the listener’s prerogative to choose the order in which he or she hears an artist’s work, the sequencing of an album does matter. The European Vespertine saddles the weakest, most ungrounded tracks next to each other, and it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between one harp-filled dollop of ambience and another. The U.S. version is varied and more complete, with poppier numbers interspersed between meandering ones. Original opening track “Aurora” now effectively bridges the new instrumental “Frosti” and the orchestrated ballad “An Echo, A Stain.” The new sequencing adds to the sense that Vespertine is a finished, inseparable work.

The judicious addition of terrifically melodic new tracks also comes down in the new version’s favor. The samey-sounding “Our Hands” is gone from the original release, and in its place is a lovely winner called “It’s Not Up to You.” That song is third, following “Hidden Place” and the lilting, sexually explicit “Cocoon,” making for a much more invigorating first quarter. Wading through the rest of the record suddenly seems a more attractive prospect.

All this talk of sequencing is really only interesting to audiophiles like me, though. The rest of you are probably only interested in how good the music is. Well, it’s an unfortunate step down from her last two masterpieces, in either version. The drama, the overriding sense of significance, has been bled out, and the sonic palette is a little less interesting here. Vespertine is a darker, creepier piece of work than anything she’s done, but it’s somehow not as satisfying. Still, in its new permutation, the record is much more vibrant, and a couple more spins should convince me that it’s worthy of at least the bottom half of the Top 10 List.

Vespertine does settle for atmosphere over melody a few more times than I’m comfortable with, but it never slips into space filler, and in its new sequence, the atmospheres really complement each other. While it would be far-fetched to consider it a great record, it wouldn’t be so far off the mark to call it Kid A done right. That’s kind of noteworthy right there.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles