Angst Is the New Pop
Garbage Is as Beautiful as Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Remember to Laugh
Breaking the Silnece, Facing the Tragedy

I’m not usually the silent type.

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

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

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

There are a number of reasons for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

Hey, all.

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

So, new releases news.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Words Like Violence
Tori Amos' Powerful Strange Little Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

Our grandkids will be asking us about this.

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

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

Fuck ‘em. Business as usual.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, Tori.

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

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

Nothing to write about today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Happiness is a Short Record
Built to Spill Strike Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope I’m making this sound appealing.

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

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

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

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

Next, probably Bjork.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

George Lucas In Love…
With Awful Movie Titles

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

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

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

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

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

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

And then this.

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

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

But Attack of the Clones? Come fucking on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles