The 2001 Year-End Top 10 list
Magic and Loss and 10 Works of Art

Art is cyclical, and it reflects the times. It’s interesting to note that while 2001 was perhaps the worst year socially, politically, emotionally and economically in recent memory, it really held up well artistically. Music – and I mean real, honest, powerful music – made a serious comeback in 2001, especially after the cultural wasteland that was the year 2000. This was one of those years that made you grateful for the spiritual uplift that the best music provides. Thankfully, it was abundant this year, and though it wasn’t possible, this year’s art did everything it could to fill the empty spaces left by two gleaming towers and thousands of lives.

Considering how much music (and all art) is a reaction to the times it exists within, 2002 should be a year to watch. September 11 was one of the worst tragedies ever visited on Americans, so vast that it affected every corner of the globe. Tragic times, whether they be personal or national, quite often produce outstanding artistic statements about them. How we survive is in how we react, and musicians can only react with the truth and skill of their emotional outpourings. Once the insipid tributes have faded from memory, the real artists will start to speak. If 2001 was the year we woke up, then 2002 will be the year we start facing the world with our eyes wide open.

But we still have to finish talking about 2001. And so, I present to you my annual Year-End Top 10 List, the best one I’ve compiled in quite some time.

As with any list that its author takes way, way, way too seriously, there are rules that apply to the Year-End Top 10 List. First, only new studio albums are eligible. No live records, no covers albums, no previously released titles, and no greatest hits-type things. Only original artistic statements released between January and December need apply.

Second, my whole readership needs to be able to find and purchase every entrant. That means only national releases count – if you can get it through your local record store or amazon.com, it passes muster. Albums released only through artists’ web sites are ineligible. That leads directly into regulation number three, which is that I try to hear everything eligible within a given year, as much as my finances will allow. Of course, this rule is impossible to follow to the letter, but I do try, and I hardly ever feel, at the end of a given year, that I’ve shortchanged anyone. At the very least, I’m much better at keeping track of the onslaught of new releases than the voting members of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are.

I need to make this note here, though, because it concerns an act that got an honorable mention last year: I have not yet heard the new Wu-Tang Clan album, Iron Flag. I own it – I’m looking at it right now – but I haven’t been able to devote the time to spinning the damn thing yet. Should my thoughts on the album impact the list you’re about to read, I’ll let you know. I have serious doubts, considering said list’s overall quality, but you never know…

While last year’s list was largely a product of elimination by default, resulting in a number one choice that would have been six or seven slots down in any other year, 2001 offered me the opportunity to play favorites. The content of the top five was determined by the quality of the albums, but the order in which they appear on the list is totally subjective. I spent the last few weeks listening to my top five, just to make sure they were all as good as I thought they were (they are), and when it came time to assign slots to them, I had to go with the ones that affected me the most deeply. Truth be told, there isn’t an album in my Top 10 this year that I don’t think is a treasure.

Just to illustrate how tough a competition it was this year, I have 13 honorable mentions. Some of these also-rans actually appeared on early drafts of this list as recently as last month. Just about all of them would leave last year’s list in the dust.

My rules don’t allow me to recognize three of this year’s great records in the list proper, but here are recommendations for them anyway. Two are live albums, and both Sting’s All This Time and Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong take serious chances and successfully reinvent the studio material. Too many live albums are mere recitations of studio material with crowd noise. Sting pulled together a masterful group of jazz musicians to recast some of his strongest songs in reflective new lights. And as for Radiohead, their brief eight-song live disc lends energy and inventiveness to the studied, repetitive Kid A/Amnesiac material, and should be used as a template for their next studio project.

The third non-competitor is Tori Amos, whose covers album Strange Little Girls is more successful than it has any right to be. More enjoyable, heartfelt and affecting than her last two studio albums combined, Strange Little Girls would have at least rated an honorable mention if Amos had written the songs. Her version of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men” is by itself worth the price of admission.

The honorables this year are all over the map. There’s the pure, perfect pop of Weezer, whose third self-titled album was exactly what it should have been. There’s the eccentric metal of System of a Down’s Toxicity, which refuses to be nailed down for longer than 20 seconds. Then there’s the rumbling, ominous slab of seething fury that is Tool’s Lateralus, a continuation of the longest, most inaccessible statement of vision that any band is releasing these days.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the frothy pop of Garbage’s third album, beautifulgarbage. There’s the proto-rock sounds of the 77s, whose A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows outshone virtually every band their age. Speaking of rock and roll, there’s the Black Crowes, who made their sixth great album with Lions. And then there’s Starflyer 59, whose sparkling, ambient Leave Here a Stranger grows deeper with every listen.

I’m surprised now when I reread my review of Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines. I dismissed it as typical alt-rock, which it is, but the searching melodies have really grown on me. I listen to this one more often than my original review would lead one to believe, making it another example of a record that takes time to sink in. There’s nothing at all wrong with it, and I admit my mistake and take it back.

Now we get into the discs that could have easily shown up on this list, and in fact did show up on recent drafts. Built to Spill made a great little album with Ancient Melodies of the Future, hearkening back to their early days as one of the most winsome pop bands in the country. Also great for different reasons was Mark Eitzel’s The Invisible Man, a group of seriously depressed yet oddly uplifting tunes produced to off-kilter perfection. Upon reflection, this is most certainly Eitzel’s best work.

Prince made a comeback and a half with The Rainbow Children, a jazz-inflected spiritual manifesto that shows, once again, that he’s one of the most talented musicians around. At the other end of the longevity spectrum is Ours, whose debut album Distorted Lullabies is the musical find of the year. Johnny Gnecco sounds so much like Jeff Buckley it’s uncanny, and he wrote a dozen superb, dramatic songs to accompany that unearthly voice. No one’s made a debut this strong in a long, long time.

If you’re counting, we’ve reached 12, which leaves only the album that came closest to the list. That would be Roland Orzabal’s wonderful Tomcats Screaming Outside, which could easily sit at number 10 (or even number nine). Excluding Orzabal from the top of the heap was a difficult decision, because his album is very nearly perfect. Had his original U.S. distribution deal gone through last year, he’d have handily walked away with the 2000 number one spot. This year, he has to settle for number 11, but that doesn’t mean his album is any less brilliant for it.

Okay, without further ado (and because I’m almost at 1500 words already), here’s the 2001 Year-End Top 10 List:

#10. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

Coming off of 10 Cent Wings, one of the finest pop albums of the last 10 years, one could certainly expect a sharp drop in quality from Jonatha Brooke’s follow-up. That she self-financed and self-released Steady Pull on her own Bad Dog Records wouldn’t seem to bode all that well for it, either. Surprise, though – Brooke pulled off a heavier, more melodic and all-around better album than her last one. It’s missing that one perfect song (like “Because I Told You So” on Wings) to put it over the top, but the 12 numbers here exhibit Brooke’s overall growth as a songwriter. Find me a statement of independence as sweet as “I’ll Take It From Here,” or a windy pop epic as nuanced as “Walking.” Go on. I dare you. Steady Pull is a triumph for this unjustly unknown artist, and a good omen for her continuing career.

#9. Sloan, Pretty Together.

After a brief absence from this list, Canada’s Sloan reclaim their spot with their most ambitious and successful album to date. Pretty Together takes the band’s ‘70s-inspired sound into new directions, which is nothing new for the foursome. What is new is the refreshing sense of purpose the album exhibits from first note to last. It’s an adventurous, risky, finely crafted record, and it’s also the first one since One Chord to Another that feels like a true band effort. If you haven’t discovered this band yet, Pretty Together is a great place to start.

#8. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

Phillips, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket, turned in the finest set of lyrics I heard this year. Considering the wordsmith that sits at number five on this list, that’s an impressive feat. Phillips’ tales of joyful homelessness, gender wars and killing the neighbor’s dog practically radiate with the spark of honesty and cleverness, two great tastes that most often don’t taste great together. He pulls it off brilliantly, and his instantly likeable voice and soft-spoken melodies complement the lyrics well. There are songs on Abulum that you’ll never forget once you hear them, particularly “Men Just Leave” and “Drive By.” It’s a great start to what will hopefully be a long and productive solo career.

#7. Aphex Twin, Drukqs.

If this list were based solely on musical skill, Drukqs would have number one all wrapped up. At more than 100 minutes, it represents the most complex and comprehensive Aphex Twin album, a study in the relationships between disparate tones and moods. There’s a palpable tension to the best pieces on Drukqs, a kind of emotional hold that’s not normally ascribed to instrumental electronic music. But then, Richard James is not your normal instrumental electronic musician. He’s in a class by himself, as this exhausting and exhilarating album ably demonstrates.

#6. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.

Nearly rendered ineligible when the band’s first distribution deal for this, its 13th studio album, fell through, which would have been a damn shame. Mr. Buechner’s Dream is a sweeping double-disc encapsulation of everything that’s been great about Daniel Amos for 25 years. Much attention is paid to artists like Wilco and Whiskeytown who draw on ‘70s rock and American musical traditions to inform their sound. No attention was paid to MBD, a true American classic in every sense of the word. For those of you lucky enough to have heard it, MBD offered up 33 straightforward rock songs without a bum track in the bunch, and infused them with a spirituality and a passion hardly seen in the modern music world. It’s the crowning achievement of a long, undignified career that’s left them no closer to the acclaim and status they deserve.

#5. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

Speaking of crowning achievements, Ani D. turned in her most ambitious and enthralling work to date on this double-disc wonderama. The jazz influences have crept into even the darkest corners here, especially on the more sedate Reckoning. This album feels like the culmination of a decade-long journey, and for most of the album’s 120-minute running time, Ani seems content, as if she’s finally arrived. Fans of her early work will miss the anger that’s all but absent here. For those of us who have been gladly following her through the various stages of her evolution, though, this album is the equivalent of reaching the summit, especially since she arrived at this sound with no label interference whatsoever. The best part is, at times on Revelling/Reckoning, you can hear Ani searching for another 10-year mountain to start climbing.

#4. R.E.M., Reveal.

The title of this album is a spectacular irony, since it obscures nearly everything, from Michael Stipe’s voice to the true character of the lyrics, behind waves of bright, lush production. Even without the layers of sound, though, Reveal would represent the best set of songs the Athens foursome have written in nearly a decade. The blissful sound of this recording is the band taking hold of the melodies they’ve crafted and holding on. Too often R.E.M. has a great album in its grasp and lets it get away. Reveal is one of the rare instances in which they managed to maintain their grip all the way through. It joins Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People as their fourth truly great album.

#3. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs.

Poor Ben Folds. For the fourth time in a row, Folds has crafted an album that deserves the top spot, only to see it stolen away from him by one or two slightly superior efforts. This is one of those instances where personal preference definitely came into play, as Rockin’ the Suburbs is every bit as good as the two albums ahead of it. It’s witty, it’s heartfelt, it’s delightfully idiosyncratic, and it’s extremely well put together. In addition to his trademark genius on the piano, Folds acquits himself surprisingly well on drums, bass, guitar, and a bevy of other instruments – nearly everything on the record, in fact. Top that off with a wonderful set of biting, soaring lyrics and you have a pop album that’s just this side of perfect. It’s not Folds’ fault that he’s only number three. Better luck next time, Ben.

#2. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

If you thought his classically-influenced debut was something, check out Wainwright’s measurably more accomplished sophomore effort. No one’s doing this sort of twisty, catchy baroque pop, and even if they were, Wainwright would be doing it better. Poses is remarkably self-assured, perfectly composed and performed, and just flat-out one of the best records I’ve ever heard. If Wainwright has as lengthy a career as his father’s ahead of him, he’s really thrown down the gauntlet for himself with this breathtaking album. Here’s hoping he tops this one as handily as he bested his fantastic debut.

Which brings us to the top of the heap:

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

This album came out before any of the others on this list – February, in fact – and it took hold of the top spot and refused to let go. For the second year in a row, I feel compelled to defend my selection for album of the year, since most everyone else has dismissed Phantom Moon as a pleasant distraction at best. To me, it’s a lot more than that. How do I love this album? Let me count the ways:

First, it’s a clear triumph of art over commerce. Sheik’s previous two albums found him tempering his considerable skills for commercial concerns, balancing the art and the product capably, but frustratingly. Phantom Moon is pure art, a glorious leap for Sheik as a melodicist and a player. The album is almost entirely acoustic, it contains no hit singles and was designed to be heard as a complete work. This is Duncan Sheik’s mission statement, a true outpouring of his soul.

Beyond that, though, it’s simply and completely beautiful. Every song unfolds like elegantly spun wisps of cloudy skies and rainy window panes. This album brings a chill into every room in which it’s played. It never argues its own case, but rather sits quietly in a darkened corner on a knotty wooden chair, quietly humming beautiful tunes to itself and anyone who cares to listen. It’s a chronicle of pure, undiluted creation, so intimate at times that it’s frightening.

No album this year provoked such a reaction from me. If Sheik never does anything like this again, it won’t matter, because for 53 minutes of music, he found that place that most artists search their whole lives for, he lived in it for a while, and he remembered to write down everything he saw and heard. Phantom Moon is nothing short of perfect, especially when it dares to be imperfect in all the right ways. I said repeatedly that this list is subjective, and nowhere more than here at its apex. Though no one else may ever feel the way I feel about it, Phantom Moon delivered everything I look for in music wrapped up in one beautiful package.

As always, e-mail me your lists. I’d love to take a gander at ‘em.

This column wraps up my year, the first full calendar year of TM3AM. I’m taking next week off, but I’ll be back and ready to go on January 2, 2002. Thanks again for reading throughout Year One, and I hope you’ll join me for Year Two. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and remember, if you love life, life will love you back.

See you in line Tuesday morning….and to all a good night.

It’s a Very Good Life
Richard Julian Makes a Grand Comeback

Quick and dirty this week. I was going to do a year-end roundup of all the stuff I didn’t get to, including De La Soul and Butterfly Jones, but the hell with that. I’m running on fumes, my head is killing me, and I have the beginnings of a monster of a sore throat. There’s an ocean of dead space in January when nothing, and I mean nothing, hits record stores, so we’ll play catch-up then. I have just enough energy tonight to review one disc, and this one’s something special, so let’s get to it, ‘kay?

‘Kay.

*****

I discovered Richard Julian by accident, which is always the best way.

As most regular readers know, I worked for a music magazine for the second half of the ‘90s, and at that job I got literally hundreds of free CDs a year from bands and artists I’d never previously heard of. I made it a point to listen to all of them, and not just because it was my job. I knew that somewhere in that pile of low-budget dreck I would find an artist or two to cherish, one I might never discover if I let the opportunity slip away.

Late in 1997, after spending countless hours of my life that I can’t get back sifting through one badly recorded grunge rip-off after another, I found one. Blackbird Records, which I think has subsequently gone out of business, sent me a nondescript self-titled record by a guy named Richard Julian, and from the first horn-driven strains of “Sick Sick Love,” I was sold. The rest of the album was even better . To name a few, “Living With Ramona” is a twisty slice of life with wit and heart, “You and the Roaches and Me” is one of the coolest acoustic rave-ups I’ve ever heard, “Siberia” shimmies and shakes on Julian’s accomplished falsetto, “Bottom of the Sea” is a windy pop epic, and “Charlie Lewis” hurts like the most honest songs always do, cutting to the core of everything you are with simplicity and raw strength.

Richard Julian is a rarity – a perfectly produced acoustic troubadour album with not one bad song. I shudder to think how much money Julian lost on it, and how much more he lost on the spectacular follow-up, Smash Palace, the next year. Smash Palace is a huge production, littered with electronic-sounding beats and strange percussion, all in service of 16 great songs. “The Restless Sea” glides along on a percolating wave of clang and clatter, “Pussycat” is a jazzy romp, “Sleepin’ In’ is simply gorgeous, and “Old Lovers” builds its winsome melody to a pair of fabulous climaxes. Moreover, songs like “Broken Watch” and “Love Is the Only War” revealed a wrist-breaking fury not heard on the debut. While it takes time to sink in, Smash Palace is ultimately a better album than the first one.

So it seemed Julian was on a roll, and then… he disappeared. No website, no record company, no nothing. Still, even the perennially unproductive Marc Cohn managed a third album, so I held out hope.

I came across Richard Julian’s third album much the same way I came across his first: by accident. I stumbled onto his website one afternoon, and it was like getting a letter from a friend you had thought long dead. I should point out that Julian’s website is hilarious – on one page, there’s a picture of his cat Brownie, with a pleading message beneath it, to the effect of: “Please buy a CD so that Richard can feed me.” Well, I’m a sucker for hungry animals, so I did.

Good Life, Richard Julian’s third disc, is as remarkably different from his second as his second was from his first. While Smash Palace constructed intricate sound puzzles, Good Life is as intimate as a living room concert performed just for you. The focus is squarely on Julian’s acoustic guitar and voice this time, and the range of moods he traverses with little accompaniment is diverse and impressive. Good Life is a stripped-sown singer/songwriter album in the best senses of that term.

For the first time, Julian opens with a gentle number, albeit one with a subtle bite. “Please Rene, Not Now” is a sweet portrait of tough love, set to a lovely acoustic melody. It sets the tone for the album, which often disguises its sarcastic, jaded viewpoint in lilting instrumentation. No less than Randy Newman – Randy Fucking Newman – has called Julian “one of the best songwriters and record makers I’ve heard in a long time,” and you can hear Newman’s influence in quietly angry songs like “Your Friend John” and deeply ironic jaunts like the title track.

Julian has grown as a songwriter here by leaps and bounds. “So Damn Beautiful” is a delightful portrayal of lovers who can’t help but be together, “The Wrong Bus” is a captivating bit of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and “Everything’s Cool” is nostalgic pop personified. “Amy” treads into Elliott Smith territory with its falsetto vocals and windy melody, and he pulls it off effortlessly.

The most striking thing about Good Life is the real self-deprecating bite some of the lyrics possess. “Trick Candle” ends with the following couplet: “A real man would have stayed in bed/Good thing you called me instead.” “Ragged Point” is all about a car crash, and its chorus reads, “If it should happen suddenly, it might as well,” set to a hummable pop melody. (It’s the kind of sweetly disguised fatalism that lightweights like Freedy Johnston can only dream about.) “Florida” seems like a dig at Jimmy Buffett, and it is, but it’s also a shifty-eyed portrait of a traveling musician “caught in the bungle of a promising career.” Most effectively, the mostly-spoken piece “Your Friend John” finds Julian shifting genders to play a nagging, jealous girlfriend. This song has an arresting turnabout of an ending that would make Randy Newman even prouder.

Good Life will hopefully see a national release on Julian’s own My Good Man Records in 2002. For now, though, you can log onto www.richardjulianmusic.com and buy all three of his records. The money, of course, goes directly to Julian when you do that, and assuming he’s not overstating the financial desperation of his website, such a gesture would likely be appreciated. How Fred Durst can rake in billions for repeatedly coming up with minor variations on “I’m pissed off” while an honest, lyrical songwriter like Richard Julian can remain an unknown is beyond me. If it’s true that it’s the music that matters, though, then Good Life matters as much as any record I’ve heard this year.

Next week, the best Year-End Top 10 List in many a moon.

See you in line Tuesday Morning.

And the People Sing…Cush! Cush!
A Revolution in the Making

I’ve been trying to figure out just what it was that I dug about George Harrison. Certainly there’s the songs. During his 40-year career, Harrison wrote a number of good tunes and one truly great one (“Something”). He also taught the people who make pop records that guitar solos could be good things. And absolutely, his position as one-fourth of the greatest band that ever existed makes his passing a significant event.

To me, though, Harrison always seemed… well, unremarkable.

And that, I finally figured out, is what I dug about him.

He was in the Beatles – the Beatles, for Christ’s sake – and rather than becoming an icon like John and Paul or a joke like Ringo, George Harrison managed to come off as just a regular bloke. He somehow never suffered in comparison to John or Paul, even releasing a triple album of songs they rejected (All Things Must Pass from 1970) after the Fabs broke up, an album that stood toe to toe with the Beatles’ work. He also never convened an “All-Starr” band or took on a Vegas-style “play the hits” tour. In his final 20 years, he concentrated on home and family, with an occasional pop album every six years or so, and no one ever expected more from him. No one looked to George Harrison to save the world, and no one was disappointed when he didn’t.

It’s weird, but unlike any of his bandmates after the breakup, George Harrison was always good enough. And he got to play guitar in the best band in the world, and then he got to live a quiet, spiritual life, and the world basically left him alone. Who wouldn’t want a life like that? It’s a shame that his death was so painful, and he will certainly be missed. He’ll be remembered, at least by me, as a great guitarist, a good songwriter and one of the luckiest men who ever lived.

*****

You can trace a straight line from the Beatles to every artist that enjoys creative freedom with label backing today. Before the Beatles, pop artists never wrote their own songs, never had a hand in the production of those songs, and never were allowed to craft their own image. If that sounds like ‘N Sync to you, well, go to the head of the class, because the mechanics of popular music haven’t changed much since 1961.

But the treatment of artists has. As much as Aimee Mann might bemoan the state of the record industry, it was a lot worse before the Beatles. The Fab Four made the first artistically driven pop albums, no doubt, and used their platform as the biggest band in the world to strike a major blow for creative rights. Sgt. Pepper was the first shot in a revolution that has led to thousands of creatively-driven records given national and international distribution each year, to artistic concerns winning out over financial concerns (seldom, but it does happen, and pre-Beatles it didn’t happen at all), and to artists being granted the freedom to experiment and create any type of music in any form they wish.

So, really, you can trace a straight line from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Prince to U2 to Frank Zappa to Nirvana to Radiohead, and now, to Cush.

Who is Cush? Glad you asked…

Cush is not a band. Cush is a revolution. To prove it, they even have a manifesto. Here’s some of it:

“Cush is willing to change and grow with others. Willing to have anybody play any role, whoever is most suited for it at the time. Willing to be anonymous. Willing to be produced. Sharing, being selfless, letting go. Being Honest. The song winning. Soul. Letting your ego get you there, and then sacrificing it when the time comes. Music being able to be performed in any way, by any combination of people, in any setting.”

It’s that last part that defines this band – music performed in any way, by any combination of people, in any setting. Cush is not a group of musicians, it’s a philosophy that any like-minded musician can contribute to. Here’s some more of the Cush Manifesto:

“Cush feels the best, and hurts the most at the same time. Cush sounds familiar, like the best songs you’ve ever heard, but feels new. Cush is an Action. Cush is not a solo project. Cush is not a band. A Cush song does not have to be 3:30 long. A Cush song can be 68 minutes long. A Cush song is already a greatest hit.”

Pretty amazing stuff, huh? In an age of ego-grappling superstars, the two Cush releases so far have been refreshingly anonymous. Each disc is simply titled Cush. No band photos accompany the CD booklets. Contributing musicians are listed, but no mention is made of who did what on which song. The complete creative credit on both CDs reads: “All songs written, performed, produced and engineered by Cush.”

This puts the focus squarely back on the music, where it should have been all along. And the music is spectacular.

I will admit familiarity with some of the contributors of Cush, including all four members of the late, lamented Prayer Chain, an art-pop band from California. The Prayer Chain fizzled after their wondrous second album, Mercury, and the first Cush album represents the first time all four have appeared on record since. Most of the lead vocals on the first record are handled by Michael Knott, a 20-year veteran of bands like Lifesavers Underground and the Aunt Bettys.

But Cush doesn’t want you to think of them as a group of musicians, but rather as a single creative being that bleeds gorgeous music. The first album certainly qualifies on that score. It’s a dreamy affair that glides from one gorgeous melody to another on Andy Prickett’s lighter-than-air and yet heavier-than-anything guitar playing. Mentioning individual songs would be beside the point, but “Angelica,” “The Clouds Are All the Same” and “Arching Heart” are all standouts.

The recently released second disc is shorter, sharper and more raucous than the first. This 26-minute romp sounds as if the New York Dolls met the Smiths on the set of Velvet Goldmine, so glam is its gloom. True to the Manifesto, Cush’s second album features different musicians and a completely different sound, and it’s just as wonderful in a completely different way.

Cush the second is a concept piece about a religious rock star on the rise. (Some say it’s the story of their former singer, Mike Knott, and the similarities to his career are pretty striking…) It goes from the messy fury of “Blessed to Kill” to the sprightly lilt of “Sailing Sounds” to the cascading beauty of “A Rock and Roll King,” touching on both the Ramones and Catherine Wheel along the way. It’s like the best garage rock album you’ve ever heard.

Beyond just the music, though, both Cush albums sound indescribably alive, in a way that only complete creative freedom can bring forth. Their record label, tiny Northern Records, lets Cush do whatever they want, and in fact consist of whomever they want, and you can hear the exuberance of such liberation in every note here. Cush, both as an idea and as a musical entity, is exhilarating.

As I said, they’re not a band, they’re a revolution.

Get both Cush records at www.northernrecords.com. The second one is a fairly limited edition, so hurry up.

Next time, the second-to-last column of the year, with a hip-hop wrapup before the Top 10 List.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

For My Birthday, I Want…PAIN!!
Metal Madness With System of a Down and Slipknot

I can’t remember being a year old.

In fact, my earliest childhood memories come from my fifth year or so, sneaking next door at night just to drive my parents crazy. I did nothing remarkable in my first year, my parents assure me, nothing that they felt necessary to notify the newspapers or the authorities over. I started walking, I said my first word (“cracker,” believe it or not), and otherwise I just made a lot of noise at odd hours, signifying nothing. It was a completely unremarkable first year.

I mention this because my baby, this weekly outlet for my artistic, musical and personal concerns, is as of this column one year old. Like a proud father, I’ve watched it grow into itself over the past 12 months, at a much faster rate than I did. (Some would say I still haven’t grown into myself, while others might cruelly point out that I really haven’t stopped growing since high school…) And sure, like any infant, this column fell on its face as often as it ambled forward, but to its credit, it kept getting up and coming back week after week. You’d be surprised how little I had to do with that.

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who’s been there since the beginning, everyone who witnessed Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. start walking and say its first few words. And while it sure did make a lot of noise at odd hours, often signifying nothing, I’d have to say that this first year has been anything but unremarkable.

So, thank you.

*****

Now, then.

Some of you have noticed that the majority of records reviewed here are of the soft, intimate variety, and have in fact inferred from that the unreasonable conclusion that your faithful author is a bit of a wussy-boy. That he likes to prance around in fields of flowers, wearing a skirt and picking daisies to give to his mom. That, in short, you all could kick his ass. Twice.

Does this artsy-fartsy, left-leaning, bleeding heart peacenik listen to nothing but soul-affirming pussy music, you ask? Does he not ever feel the need to bloody his own nose, so to speak, with the guitar-laden screams of the tortured and the righteously pissed? Does he honestly consider Ani DiFranco “confrontational”? Does this preening pile of pathetic passivity, who even had nice things to say about Sting’s new live album, not ever throw himself bodily into a kinetic expression of rage, fueled by the incessant crushing tones of real, honest-to-Christ heavy shit music? Does his amp not go to eleven? Does he not ever, if you’ll pardon the phrase, tear the motherfucking roof off the joint, metaphorically speaking?

Listen up, you ungrateful sacks of shit. You’re talking to the guy who, in 1991, thought the best album ever made was Megadeth’s Rust In Peace. You’re talking to the guy who knew who Pantera was before the world did. You’re talking to the guy who covered John “Nuclear Assault” Connelly’s “L.H.A.” with his high school band. And, you’re talking to the guy who’d like to point out that if you’re actually talking to me, I can’t hear you.

Real, seriously heavy shit metal has been on the wane for some time, sadly, and has been eclipsed by this “nu-metal” thing, whatever that is. Metallica’s all about sales figures, Megadeth hasn’t made a decent record since ‘91, and even though Slayer soldier on, their schtick has turned tired and repetitive. The best metal band in the world, in this nancy-boy’s humble opinion, is Brazil’s Sepultura, who took grinding, downtuned speed metal and infused it with tribal elements to make a new hybrid. Real, crushing metal appears to be a thing of the past.

While the two-guitars-bass-drum-growl lineup has faded somewhat, there are new practitioners of heavy music that know what they’re doing, and proudly wave their fuck-all flags. Two of them had new albums this year, and in between swooning over estrogen-laden folkies, your milquetoast hippie of a columnist managed to hear ‘em both. Metal, like all musical trends, must adapt to survive changing tastes and technologies, but these new breeds testify loud (repeat: LOUD) and clear that the form is long from dead.

When stacked next to the endless, faceless assembly line of nu-metal acts that have crawled out of the post-grunge sludge since Korn, Armenia’s System of a Down are, comparatively, insane. Never content to ride a groove into the ground, System’s nimble foursome dance the fandango all over their tunes. Vocalist Serj Tankian, especially, swoops from carnival barker to hell demon in a heartbeat. The phrase “from a whisper to a scream” has been used to describe every vocalist that’s ever aped Kurt Cobain’s dynamic sense, but how many of them actually whisper, and then milliseconds later, scream? Tankian’s range and fearless vocal command is one of the primary draws of this band.

Thankfully, it’s far from the only one. System of a Down writes quick, complicated mind games that pose as songs, and they all bleed into one another, even more so on their exponentially better sophomore release, Toxicity, than on their debut. Seriously, don’t even cue up the manic, blistering opener, “Prison Song,” unless you want to commit to all 45 minutes of this constantly surprising record.

System have increased their political content here as well. Toxicity is almost an old-school punk record lyrically. Observe the aforementioned “Prison Song,” a rail against minimum sentences and prison overcrowding. Interspersed with sobering statistics (“The percentage of Americans in the prison system has doubled since 1985”), the song finds Tankian turning the line “They’re trying to build a prison” into a shouted singalong. Metal has always borrowed its social consciousness from punk, even though that consciousness often gets lost in a mire of medieval imagery and satanic verse.

In some ways, System of a Down’s sprightly genre-jumping works against them from a metal standpoint. Really crushing metal has always had a single-mindedness about it that defies diversity. System’s mentally exhausting acrobatics are admirable, but in a completely different way, the physical exhaustion you get from Slipknot is just as admirable. If ever there were an album that’s not for the faint of heart, it’s their sophomore slab Iowa.

Slipknot’s a nine-member ensemble that attacks high-speed rage-core with stubborn fury. Their sound deserves the tag “extreme.” Everything is set to maximum, and no dynamic range is allowed. Scream, pummel, assault, then breathe for four seconds before screaming, assaulting and pummeling some more. Slipknot goes to the added extreme of practically punishing the listener for purchasing their record. Most extreme metal records (Slayer’s, for example) have the good sense to be no more than 40 minutes, out of sensitivity to the human pain threshold.

Not so the 68-minute Iowa, which never relents. Halfway through, you’ll feel like George Foreman came to your house and beat the shit out of you. By the time you hit the 15-minute title track, an exercise in extended monotone, your tolerance level will have been severely tested. Iowa is positively punishing, there’s no other word for it.

The lyrics never lift the veil of gloom and rage, either. What can you say about a song (“Disasterpiece”) that begins with the line, “I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound”? The album is 68 minutes of bile, spite and violence, the sort of thing that in a pre-September 11 world played like harmless venting. Who knows how such an uncompromising pile of venom will affect those with already frayed sensibilities? It’s probably a moot point, because those folks won’t buy Iowa, and they sure won’t hear this shit on the radio. Still, it begs the question of how harmless this lyrical style really is.

Slipknot is a prodigiously talented band, able to stop on a moment’s notice and play with counter-rhythms like a single organism. Their roster includes a pair of percussionists to add to their already propulsive nature, and a turntablist who confines himself to slashing bursts of noise. The sound, as you may imagine, is huge, almost monolithic, and all geared to cause sheer physical pain. Only masochists will enjoy this record, but musicians of all stripes will likely find themselves sitting in stunned admiration, both of the band’s musical prowess and its single-minded vision.

Say what you will about my gentler musical leanings, I made it through Iowa three times. So there. I will brook no further besmirchment of my masculinity, for as I have just proven, I am the original fucking metal god.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to the new Jewel record while dancing in a moonlit meadow.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

King of Pop or King of Poop
Let the Debate Commence...

Jeff Maxwell has been making me laugh since the eighth grade.

I met him at the Mount Saint Charles Academy for Wayward Youths in Rhode Island. He looked like Jeff Daniels, had the martial arts skills of Jean Claude Van Damme, and was funnier than both of those guys put together. He was the only one brave enough to do stand-up comedy at our school talent show. He would occasionally organize “emergency fund drives” so that he could afford to travel the country. On one such trip, he drove to Florida, stayed just long enough to send postcards, and drove right back. He sang a song for my band that almost got me kicked out of high school. (That’s a story…) He taught me what a “time fuck” is.

And he has faithfully sent me letters, usually one a month or so, since 1992. I remember the first one I got posed the question, apropos of nothing, “Wouldn’t it be weird if we all had one arm that came straight out of our chests?” These letters never fail to make me crack up, and I’ve often wished I could share them with everyone I know.

And now I can.

Jeff Maxwell has started an e-column, one which he plans to write every Sunday. He’s wanted to be a writer ever since I’ve known him (that or a CIA agent, it was a toss-up for a while…), and he’s taken the bull by the horns and started his own thing, which he’ll send to anyone that wants it. If these columns are anything like the letters I’ve been getting for 10 years, then all of you will really enjoy his work. It’s free and easy – just write him at bostonmaxwell@excite.com.

And I wanted to add a quick shout-out to Jeff’s lovely wife, Melissa, whom I read about for at least a year before I met her. If ever two people were perfect for each other, it’s these two. If you subscribe to his column, I’m sure you’ll read nothing but nice things about her. Believe every word.

*****

It seems to me that being the King of Pop is a lot like being undisputed ruler of a septic tank. All you really have to offer people is second-hand crap.

Which would be an apt analogy if pop music weren’t so… well, popular. What passes for pop these days probably wouldn’t pass for Muzak in the ‘70s, when even the sappiest musicians were at least that: musicians. (Okay, except Cher.) These days, we accept the most minor variations in sound and style as “personality,” even though most pop music is made by the same three studio guys. New Kids on the Block are the Backstreet Boys are ‘NSync, just as En Vogue are SWV are Destiny’s Child, forever and ever amen. The only differences are in the packaging.

Hence, it’s become the standard in popular music to shift the focus onto the package, as opposed to the rancid candy inside. Does anyone really like Britney Spears for her songs? If you answered yes, then imagine the same music sung the same way by a 350-pound black woman. There’s no way those records would sell with that woman’s picture on the cover, but the music would be exactly the same. That’s the miraculous tragedy of marketing.

Hype has become a central component of pop record releases. New albums can’t just be new albums, they have to be complete revolutions of pop culture. Every new disc has to be perceived as the biggest, best thing ever undertaken by humans, or else why bother? Who wants to buy a collection of songs when you can buy a lifestyle? Never mind that the albums themselves are very much like the wizard behind the curtain. They’re small, ineffectual things that the flashy marketing is hoping you won’t pay any attention to.

If this is the case for your average pop act, imagine how much bigger and better an album by the King of Pop must appear? Michael Jackson has inexplicably put himself in this position, where every new release has to be viewed as the culmination of centuries of human history and the dawning of a grand new age. Expectations are so high for his stuff that anything short of God almighty descending from Heaven with the 11th through 15th commandments would be a disappointment. It’s a wonder he releases anything at all.

But he has. Jackson’s sixth solo album, Invincible, hit last month after an eight-year wait. Angels did not sound trumpets. The earth’s tectonic plates did not shift. The planet did not go spinning out of its orbit. Jesus Christ did not request “You Rock My World” as a personal dedication to Mary Magdalene on TRL. Obviously, Invincible was a big fat failure.

The tragedy of Invincible, and in fact of Jackson’s entire post-Bad career, is that it isn’t that awful. Compared to a lot of listless pop records that have come out recently, it sparkles with character and class. Jackson’s legion of fans, at the very least, should be pleased with all 16 songs, but even more discerning music lovers could find one or two surprises here.

Invincible’s biggest problem as an album is that there are too many producers. The whole thing sounds drowned in money, so much so that Jackson himself, unarguably the album’s biggest asset, is often obscured beyond recognition. Young punk Rodney Jerkins, responsible for six tracks here, seems especially overawed by the chance to work with Jackson. Just about every second of his productions is on skittery beat overload. I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent months polishing these tracks to ridiculous extremes.

There are two superb songs on Invincible, and not coincidentally, they’re the ones that sound the least overworked. “Speechless” is a classic Jackson ballad, produced by the man himself, in which he makes the trite and Disney-esque work like no one else can. It’s almost a capella in its arrangement, and sequenced as it is after seven giant studio creations, it’s like a breath of fresh air. “Whatever Happens,” meanwhile, is a suspenseful number that actually makes tasteful use of Carlos Santana. Both of these songs point in the direction this album should have gone, and probably would have gone were they making an album instead of a royal proclamation.

The problem with being crowned King is that you’ve suddenly got a long way to fall. Just ask Paul McCartney.

He’s one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, a title he’d have earned just for writing “Here, There and Everywhere” back when he was fab. As the poppiest of the Beatles, it seems that if anyone can lay claim to the title of King of Pop, it’s McCartney. He obviously doesn’t want it, though, because album after agonizing album, he churns out tripe that even his disciples would reject. It’s terribly depressing.

Driving Rain is McCartney’s first album of new material since his wife Linda’s death, and by McCartney standards, it’s a very good effort. That may be because those standards have been eroded by decades of silly love songs, but nevertheless, Driving Rain is the best new McCartney album in about 25 years. Which unfortunately says more about those 25 years than it does about the album.

Like his last effort, the covers album Run Devil Run, Driving Rain sounds like it was done in a weekend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For a guy who spent two decades sounding washed up, this album finds him expressing a surprising amount of energy and passion. He lets that energy overtake all reason by the album’s dreadful conclusion, the 10-minute repetitive slog “Rinse the Raindrops,” but on the shorter tracks, it adds tremendously to what could have been a soggy, sappy pile of dreck.

The lyrics, without fail, drag the record down considerably. Long-suffering McCartney fans have come to expect drivel from him, and Driving Rain certainly delivers. Try this bit from the title track: “Something’s open, it’s my heart, if something’s missing it’s when we’re apart, if something’s good it’s when we’re back together again.” Or how about this, from “Your Way”: “I like it, please don’t take my heart away, it’s happy where it is so let it stay.” Or how about this, from “Your Loving Flame”: “When we kiss, nothing feels the same, I could spend eternity inside your loving flame.” He even goes on to rhyme, “What am I to do, if I don’t have you, I’ll be feeling blue.” That’s a step or two away from Mr. Rogers land.

The music does make up for it, especially the sweet “From a Lover to a Friend,” the pulsing “Tiny Bubble” and the rollicking title track. It’s no surprise, though, that the best song is almost entirely instrumental: “Heather” is three minutes of joyous piano and guitar, and brings to mind those lengthy bridge sections Wings would sometimes do.

Overall, Driving Rain isn’t that bad, but you’ll probably find yourself asking if an album by one of the greatest living songwriters shouldn’t be better than this. Yeah, it should, but after decades of being fed dog biscuits, even a greasy cheeseburger can taste like filet mignon. This album definitely puts him back on track, as long as you don’t think about the fact that with a little more effort, McCartney could easily outclass anyone making pop music today.

So, okay, if McCartney abdicated the throne in 1970, Jackson lost it in 1990, and none of the new guys seem capable of claiming it, who gets to be King of Pop? If we’re talking about music and not marketing, the obvious choice would seem to be Elvis Costello, but he’s gone all classical on us and taken Billy Joel with him. Elton John is a shadow of his former self. The King of Pop, it would seem to me, has to have been at it for a while, or else Ben Folds would be a good suggestion. So, who?

Well, there is one guy who’s been making deep, powerful pop music for about 25 years. He’s always overlooked because of his public persona, but his musical genius is undeniable. He even has a royal nomenclature. And while I may be laughed at for suggesting this, he seems to be the strongest candidate, one that has never really gotten his due. Give up?

His name is Prince, and he is funky.

Here’s a guy who’s a perfect example of packaging being more important in the culture’s eyes than music. Prince is definitely a self-obsessed weirdo who dresses funny and preens for the camera whenever possible. He’s also amassed one of the most consistent catalogs in pop music history. There has been no downward slide, no descent into sugary radio balladry, and no VH-1 special. The last (and only) rocky patch in his catalog was 1990’s mixed-bag Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. It’s been smooth sailing from there, punctuated by moments of towering excellence.

He’s also a marketing moron. In 1992, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in an attempt to screw Warner Bros. Records. His insistence on being called The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (or just The Artist for short) capsized whatever good will he had gained with Diamonds and Pearls, one of his most commercially successful works. He complained endlessly until Warners released him from his contract in 1996, and he celebrated with Emancipation, a three-disc set of amazing material on his own NPG Records.

Of course, at $25, no one bought it, but that didn’t stop Prince from releasing a four-disc set next, the stunning Crystal Ball. Packaged with this set was The Truth, one of the man’s finest works, which no one heard. Thankfully, he marked his return to major label status in 1999 with Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic on Arista Records. Sadly, the album was merely good – if he’d released The Truth through Arista, it would have been a smash.

True to form, Prince has reclaimed his name for his first new album as Prince since 1992. He’s also gone back to NPG Records to release The Rainbow Children. He’s also made another absolute masterpiece that no one will hear.

The Rainbow Children is being misinterpreted as a Bible-thumping evangelical record. Not true. Midway through, he samples Martin Luther King’s famous quote – you know, the only one anyone ever quotes – about people coming together to sing the old Negro spiritual, “Free at Last.” Well, The Rainbow Children is an attempt to write a new Negro spiritual. It’s a concept album about the people of God and their spiritual history, and it’s as much about sex and race as it is about religion.

Musically, Prince has encapsulated 100 years of so-called black music into his funk-pop style. Imagine Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, the Delfonics and LL Cool J all getting down at a southern Baptist church and you’ve got the idea. Complex jazz fusion melds seamlessly into silky R&B, which morphs into slamming funk with blistering guitar solos weaving in and out. It’s nearly breathtaking how Prince can jump from the orchestral pomp of “Wedding Feast” to the smooth soul of “She Loves Me 4 Me” to the loose anger of “Family Name” with such ease.

Prince played the majority of the instruments himself, but you’d swear that a band the size of Parliament Funkadelic was jamming out these sounds. Prince has always been about God and sex, so the subject matter of The Rainbow Children is really nothing new, just more overt. Even so, you’d think he really had found religion, so reenergized does he sound throughout. The album ends with 16 of the finest minutes in Prince’s massive catalog, swelling from the giant funk workout “The Everlasting Now” to the gospel-tinged majesty of “Last December.” Even if you’re an atheist, you’ll be clapping along.

The Rainbow Children is undeniably weird, like all of Prince’s best work, but it’s genuinely about something, and it’s a musical work of wonder. He seems not only freed of commercial constraints here, but of commercial concerns, striving only to make the greatest art he can. The Rainbow Children is among the very best Prince albums, which is really saying something. It’s the pop equivalent of a good Spike Lee film or Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields: an ambitious, polarizing work that paints its author as a true artist.

In the end, Prince may not want the title of King of Pop either, but he deserves it for 25 years of uncompromisingly great music. While Michael Jackson’s been believing his own hype and Paul McCartney’s been floundering about in search of a good record, Prince has been delivering, year after year. If that were the criteria, he’d have this competition all wrapped up. Okay, next week, I dunno, but probably a hard rock roundup of sorts. Top 10 List in four weeks…

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

David Hayter Must Die
Before He Ruins Everything

David Hayter must die.

Seriously. I don’t call for the elimination of another human being lightly, but this guy has simply got to go.

Before he ruins everything.

Who is David Hayter? Glad you asked. This is the hack behind the hackneyed script to the X-Men movie from last year. You remember it, right? Captain Picard vs. Richard III in a battle for mutantkind? Director Bryan Singer’s first bad film? Remember?

Let me tell you about that first. The buzz in the comic book community (yes, there is such a thing) was that the X-Men movie, the first major Hollywood production based on a comic book since the death of the Batman franchise, would re-energize the industry. It would single-handedly prop the dying comics medium up and infuse it with hundreds, nay, thousands of new readers. The world would finally understand the complexities and subtleties of the comic format, and accept it as the art form it undoubtedly is.

The X-Men movie was supposed to save comics.

What the industry hasn’t quite learned yet is that only good comics will save comics. And there are good comics, ones that should be marketed and made into movies and given mass exposure. From Hell is an excellent example, a superb comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Eddie Campbell. It delved into the secret history surrounding the Jack the Ripper case, balancing equal parts whodunit and conspiracy theory into a rich, masterful whole. The movie, adapted by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, came out a couple of months ago.

It was a disgrace.

They chopped up Moore’s meticulous research and added a ridiculous Hollywood ending. They cast beautiful people with perfect teeth as poor prostitutes, and (by necessity) gutted huge chunks of Moore’s overarching hypothesis. This film didn’t make a single moviegoer interested in the book it came from. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a big deal – the filmmakers really don’t care if you read John Irving’s The Cider House Rules or John Grisham’s The Firm, for example – but comics is the only mass communications medium in the world that seems to rely on other mediums to provide its own success.

Which brings us back to X-Men. Ideally, Hayter and Singer’s film was supposed to bring new readers to the comics. X-Men is already one of the top-selling books in the industry, ranking at about 150,000 copies an issue. That, by the way, is a pathetically small number, even when compared with comics of 10 years ago that were selling in the millions per issue. The film was supposed to improve that number, and while it may have slightly, the film sucked. It only served to confirm to those not reading comics that they remain what their detractors consider them to be: adolescent superhero fantasies with no depth at all.

Here’s the thing, though: X-Men the comic book sucks, too. As the industry’s public face, it’s a pretty poor ambassador, chock full of static characters in funny costumes beating the shit out of each other for the flimsiest of reasons. If anything, the movie was better than the comics, so those potential readers who saw the film and then sought out a comic shop were greeted by a convoluted mess of a comic with trite dialogue and lousy artwork.

As I said, only good comics will save comics. The last time the industry saw a resurgence was in the early ‘80s, culminating in 1986 with one of the best comics ever produced. It was a massive, perfectly executed examination of the superhero mythos and cold war politics. It was subtle, complex and literate, a true work of literature and, in many ways, the last word on superhero comics.

It was called Watchmen, and to this day few comics have surpassed it in scope and craftsmanship. It was written by Alan Moore (him again), simply one of the finest writers working today, and drawn by Dave Gibbons, an artist so sublime that you only understand how good he is through subsequent readings. Watchmen is a mystery at heart, and all the clues you need to solve it are there in Gibbons’ artwork. You should know the main villain’s identity before he even appears on stage.

Watchmen is an ideal choice for mass exposure. It works on numerous levels, and can be read as a superhero adventure, a commentary on mutually assured destruction, a psychological treatise on costumed heroics or a condensed history of comics from the ‘30s to the ‘80s. It is, hyperbole aside, a near-perfect comic, a synthesis of the finest elements of the art form, and as such, translating it to other media has proven nearly impossible.

Terry Gilliam tried it. He was gung-ho to write and direct the Watchmen film in the late ‘80s, and then he gave the treatment a go, and came up with an 8-hour, hundred-million-dollar outline. He deemed it an impossible project, even though he goes back to it every few years. Now, think about it. This is Terry Gilliam, the man who makes sense of the labyrinthine on a regular basis. He’s filmed books that were deemed unflimable before (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and wrapped complex structures into finely woven tapestries (12 Monkeys, for one). If he thinks Watchmen is unflilmable, well, I’m inclined to take his word on it.

But not David Hayter. Oh, no.

Here’s a guy who thinks he can do it, and do it in two hours. In fact, based on the strength of X-Men, he’s been given Watchmen as his directorial debut. The thinking probably goes that one comic is just as good as another, and if he can do X-Men, why not give him this other comic. That’s like saying, “Well, this guy did a pretty good job of adapting the latest Stephen King book, let’s give him Love in the Time of Cholera. A book’s a book, right?”

Jeezus.

Strikes against him: First, he’s never made a film. Terry Gilliam’s made 12, and even he can’t get his mind around Watchmen. Second, he wrote fucking X-Men, in which a character actually says, “Do you know what happens to a toad that gets struck by lightning? The same thing as everything else.” That line’s almost a master’s thesis on bad grammar and shitty dialogue, and should be listed under “Don’t Do This” in the scriptwriter’s handbook. Third, Hayter thinks he can do this with no problem, which says to me that he has no idea of the scope and importance of the work he’s adapting.

Why am I so worked up over this?

Because while it’s true that only good comics will save comics, the industry can be brought down by bad representations of it in other media. Do you think any new Batman readers were gained through Batman Forever or Batman and Robin? No. And yet Fantagraphics noted a huge upswing in sales of Daniel Clowes’ work after his graphic novel Ghost World was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film this year. Those outside the industry can only judge comics on what they see and hear of them. For 15 years they’ve been hearing about how great Watchmen is, but the film is what most people will experience first. If the movie makes them want to read the book, then terrific. If it doesn’t, that was our one shot to sell Watchmen to the non-comics-reading world.

This project is going to happen. And it’s going to suck.

So David Hayter has to die. That’s the only thing that might derail the film. Comics are in too much of a slump to allow this travesty to continue. Find this arrogant bastard, this young Joe Eszterhas, and club him to death like a baby seal. And let him know that he’s dying for the sake of art, for the sake of a work that he won’t be allowed to mangle. And then club him some more.

And then go read Watchmen, if you haven’t. It’s worth it.

Next week, I promise to be more serious, and to talk about music. It should be a big one, all about the King of Pop.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Lenny Happy Returns
Karvitz' Latest Nostalgiarama Sounds All His Own

THE YANKEES LOST!!! HA HA HAH!!! FUCK THE YANKEES!!!

Now, I’m not a baseball fan, not by any means. I can name four or five players, maybe, most of them Red Sox, and up until last week, I had no idea what the infield fly rule was. (Go ahead, chuckle away.) But I was born and raised in Massachusetts, in a house with a die-hard Red Sox fan, so I can credit both genetics and environmental influences with my inborn hatred of the New York Yankees. Generally speaking, I don’t care who wins, as long as the Yankees lose.

God has been laughing at us Yankee haters for three years, and now it’s our turn.

*****

The sudden upset of the hated Yankee dynasty only added to the sense of the surreal that tinged last week for me. I have decided that I want to go work for MuchMusic, Canada’s version of music television. By all indications, it looks like MuchMusic is what MTV was in 1981 – a loose collective of music fans who basically screw around and get paid for it. Much is a low-budget affair which gets by on charm and a genuine love for the music.

What really made up my mind was this: I was flipping through channels last week when I came across a two-hour special on MuchMusic celebrating Sloan’s new album. Let me repeat that: a two-hour special celebrating Sloan’s new album. An album, I’d like to point out, that you won’t find in the U.S. without working for it.

I felt like I’d slipped into a parallel dimension. First they aired an hour-long “countdown” special filled with interviews and videos from the band’s career. (Who gets career retrospectives down here in the States? Britney Spears? “And now, teen porn videos from all two of Spears’ past records!”) Jeezus, and they played all the good ones from Sloan: “Coax Me,” “Money City Maniacs,” “Losing California,” etc. After the countdown, we went “live” to MuchMusic’s studios, where a crowd of screaming fans watched a four-song concert and got to ask questions of the band. It was like TRL, but with a good band.

And they were quite good live, playing new songs “If It Feels Good Do It” and “The Other Man” as well as “Money City” and “The Lines You Amend.” These songs are not pre-packaged hits, they’re not overproduced, teen-marketed schlock, and yet the young audience (which was probably 200 strong) loved every second of them. It was one of those life-affirming moments for me – a genuinely good band finding an appreciative audience on international television.

*****

Speaking of acts with roots in past pop music, here’s the new one from Lenny Kravitz. Who’d have thought that Kravitz would have lasted six albums? First he shamelessly rips off John Lennon on his debut, and then winds his way through every hoary ‘60s and ‘70s rock cliche in the book on subsequent records. His latest, 5, was a lengthy funk workout that stole from George Clinton and Stevie Wonder in equal doses. It also yielded a pair of hits in “Fly Away” and his cover of “American Woman,” which just added to the list of bizarre successes in Kravitz’ career.

And now here’s Lenny, a subdued, serious, altogether decent rock record that directly rips from no one in particular. Kravitz has always been good at what he does, which helps to explain his success somewhat. He synthesizes styles, sounds and whole guitar riffs from ‘60s and ‘70s chestnuts and repackages them as his own, wrapped in retro style. Lenny is just another Kravitz album in a lot of ways, but it’s also the first record on which he seems to have developed his own sound and style.

That might be pushing it a bit. Ten of the 12 songs on Lenny are straight-ahead ‘70s pop-rock, balanced off by rich, lush strings and Kravitz’ own three-part harmonies. Kravitz gives himself the Prince credit here (which is actually the Stevie Wonder credit) of producer, arranger, writer and performer. With very few exceptions, he’s responsible for every sound on the record. “Battlefield of Love,” the opening track, is a perfect example of the stripped-down one-man rock tune that Kravitz has spent his career perfecting. It’s all pretty simple and visceral stuff.

And maybe it’s just that he’s been heading towards this sound for so long, but a sweet acoustic pop tune like “A Million Miles Away” sounds like no one else but Kravitz. Since his fourth album, Circus, his material has coasted on this workmanlike groove, and the further he gets from his years of inspiration, the more original his work sounds. I mean, “God Save Us All” rides the same wave as David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” and yet it doesn’t bring it immediately to mind. Perhaps it’s just that we’re used to Kravitz by now, but it seems he’s learned how to make good use of his influences without recalling them.

All of which makes the two technorchestral pieces here that much more surprising. Both “Believe in Me” and the mammoth “You Were In My Heart” set beds of strings and synths over fluttering techno drum patterns. The sound is so incongruous with the whole of Kravitz’ output that it’s something of a surprise to hear his multi-tracked voice over these tracks. Both these songs slam Kravitz headlong into the present, and it’s interesting to note how comfortable he sounds there. Again, he played all the instruments, arranged the strings and produced these songs himself, and they come off remarkably modern.

Lenny is a self-assured effort that, for all its ‘70s rock vibe, refuses to sound antiquated. It’s the first Kravitz album that expresses musically the confidence he has always expressed personally. In its small, working-musician way, it’s his best, simply because it doesn’t try to say anything or be anything other than a collection of good songs. Even the righteous fury of “Bank Robber Man,” a story of racial profiling taken from personal experience, is less grating than previous efforts in this vein (“Mr. Cab Driver” especially).

Lenny is the kind of rock record Todd Rundgren used to make – a one-man show that’s about the music more than anything else. Now, if he can do like Rundgren and release a follow-up album of similar quality every six months for the next eight years, I’ll be impressed. That probably won’t happen, but by itself, Lenny is a pretty good group of pretty good songs done pretty well by a pretty talented guy.

Next week, probably Paul McCartney, but who can tell?

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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.

a column by andre salles