Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
Ani DiFranco's Superb Double Disc Revelling/Reckoning

There are people who think Ani DiFranco’s gotten too mainstream, too popular for her own good. Here’s a little story to dispel that notion, and it’s got a familiar chorus to it:

I tried to order her new album from both local record stores. To my knowledge, they still don’t have any copies in stock. One clerk I talked to had never heard of DiFranco. Here in Tennessee this new double album retails (if they ever stock it) for $27. I got mine (sing along now) from Bull Moose in Portland (thank you, Allison) for a grand total of $17.82. Tax included. The moral of the story is, not only does heartland America have no clue who Ani DiFranco is, they couldn’t afford her anyway. Mainstream? Not by half.

In fact, DiFranco has always been the furthest thing from mainstream you’d be likely to find. Over 12 years she’s afforded the serious listener the chance to watch the growth and maturation of an amazing artist on her own terms. DiFranco has never done anything musically for anyone but herself, as the legions of fans who have abandoned her as she’s turned away from her confessional folk roots will attest. She’s been on a trip since 1996’s Dilate, one that’s led her to create a series of strange, twisting records that defy easy categorization and casual listening. Since Righteous Babe Records, her label, is owned and operated by DiFranco herself (and always has been), she’s also able to release these records quite rapidly. In 1999 alone she had three full-length discs on the shelves, and they were all defiantly musical and oddly rewarding, but only after several listens.

She took all of 2000 off to write and record, and the fruits of her labor are now here. It’s called Revelling/Reckoning, it’s two hours long, and it’s her finest achievement. In fact, it’s so good that she can misspell “reveling” all she wants. I won’t mind.

In the truest sense, Revelling/Reckoning is not a double album, but rather two complete works packaged together. Her last few albums have managed a delicate balance between her sparse guitar-vocal material and her increasingly fuller jazz-folk stuff. The new one discards that balance completely, separating the two styles. Revelling is full of tasty horns and upbeat folk-pop, and Reckoning is a slow, peaceful, emotional slice of melancholia. The two records complement each other nicely, though, and the elaborate packaging emphasizes this. Instead of presenting a constantly shifting roller coaster, like she has in the past, here DiFranco has expertly simulated just the first treacherous rise and sickening drop. In slow motion.

If you take DiFranco’s catalog as a whole, it becomes apparent that some records are practice sessions for other ones. Now that Revelling/Reckoning is here, it puts her recent output into perspective. Every album since Little Plastic Castle has been a trial run for this beast – the arrangements have gotten more complicated, the jazz elements have been a little more prominent, and everything has slowed down. Completely absent from this two-hour tour is the wrist-breaking acoustic troubadour that made Puddle Dive, Out of Range and Not a Pretty Girl, to name three. In her place is Ani the studio wizard, Ani the constantly blooming songwriter, Ani the sonic innovator. Like it or loathe it, this is where she is now. I love it.

The great thing about Revelling/Reckoning is that each disc can stand on its own. Either one would have been an acceptable, even terrific new album. Together, though, they form a tour de force, the most consistent argument yet that this woman is a national treasure. Two hours of music this idiosyncratic, this emotional, and yes, this non-commercial would have had an uphill battle at any major record company. Ani produces her own records and owns the company that releases them. From no other living artist could you be so certain of experiencing an honest, uncensored artistic journey over an extended period of time.

And I haven’t even talked specifically about the record yet.

Revelling, taken on its own, is the culmination of DiFranco’s fascination over the last few years with melding jazz and folk into a new musical form. The horn arrangements that jump off of this disc are her most harmonically complex, and the songs are the most complete they’ve ever been. “Ain’t That the Way” grooves along while the wonderfully dissonant horns try to derail it for four minutes. “Marrow” is a big, bold pop song, “What How When Where (Why Who)” is almost ridiculously enjoyable, and “Rock Paper Scissors” is deep and lovely. Revelling also contains the most experimental tracks, especially “Kazoointoit,” which does indeed contain a kazoo part, albeit one played through an answering machine. By itself, Revelling feels like a destination, one that’s been a long time coming.

By contrast, Reckoning feels like a rediscovery. It’s almost entirely guitar and voice – only three of the 16 tracks contain drums. Even on her last few records, DiFranco has kept her slower tunes pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Here, she allows the jazz influence that permeates Revelling to inform her acoustic songwriting and arranging, and the result is her best material in ages. The tempo never rises above glacial, but those tasty horns come in at perfect intervals, and the whole thing sets a mood that she’s never tried to set before. It almost comes off as an hour-long song, stitched together by five small electric guitar pieces that really unify it. For all that, though, “So What,” Grey” and “Subdivision” are standouts.

But together, ah, together these discs paint a complete picture of the current state of Ani DiFranco. I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics, and I won’t do her the disservice of excerpting them, but suffice it to say that her reputation as a wordsmith remains unblemished. Revelling/Reckoning, like all of her albums, is as enjoyable to read as poems as it is to hear as songs. These tunes probe themes of faith, trust, identity and justice, as always, and she finds new and striking ways to broach each of these topics, like always.

Listening to Revelling/Reckoning as a single work is quite an experience. Instead of taking you to many different places, this album gives you in-depth knowledge of two musical landscapes, one sunny, one snow-covered, and to its credit, you end up not wanting to leave either one. Sure, two hours may seem like a long time to invest in a single release, but unlike a lot of double disc sets, this one doesn’t feel padded at all. Each record stands on its own, and the genius of pairing them is that each one prepares you for the other. You could listen to them as a circuitous whole for days and not get tired of them.

It’s amazing, really. Before our eyes, the little folksinger that could has developed into one of our most literate and original singer/songwriters, and all without losing touch of her emotional core. If you’re one of those pining for DiFranco to return to her old style, let this album serve as the final nail in that particular coffin. If, however, you’re one of those willing to trust an artist to take you places neither one of you has been, then this ride’s for you. In an astonishingly small amount of time, Ani DiFranco has grown into a musical force to be reckoned with. And revelled in.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Why Is Shawn Colvin So Bored?
Whole New You Sounds Neither Whole Nor New

Did everyone watch The West Wing last week? I want to be Aaron Sorkin in the worst way.

So, happy Easter. This is the first year since I met him that I won’t be spending the holiday with ex-roommate Gary Porro and his family. In fact, I won’t be spending it with anyone. I have a rousing day of comic books and bad movies planned, though, so don’t worry about me.

If you scroll on over to the Onion, that wonderful satirical online newspaper, though, they’ve got one of the funniest Easter features I’ve ever seen. It’s a list of least popular Easter Sunday sermons. My favorites were “The Jew Who Couldn’t be Killed” and “See You At Christmas.”

All right, enough miscellaneous crap. My Shawn Colvin album finally came in, and I’ve heard it enough times to form some coherent comments, methinks. I was going to discuss the incredible new Iona album, Open Sky, but I’ll get to that, probably two weeks hence. I’ve got that double-disc Ani DiFranco album winging its way to me for next time (hopefully). Still, I want to put in an early recommendation for Open Sky. It’s neat.

Anyway.

Shawn Colvin’s album is called Whole New You, which can be taken several different ways. Sweeping changes seem to be in store from the moody cover shot and the title, but the album itself belies that. This is not a whole new Shawn Colvin, even though she’s had plenty of time to develop a new sound if she wanted one. Her last album, the great A Few Small Repairs, came out in 1996, and it spawned a huge hit in “Sunny Came Home.”

That album was inspired by a messy, painful divorce. Whole New You seems to be inspired by nothing at all, which leads me to a confounding idea. I’m always torn between personal and artistic concern for my favorite musicians. While I never wish another human being harm (well, not a lot of harm…), I have found that the best art comes from suffering. When bad things happen, great art is often the result, and while I don’t take any joy in seeing artists racked with personal pain, I can’t deny the tinge of excitement I get when I hear about the horrible circumstances under which a new project was birthed.

There are people who believe that art should be pleasing to the senses, and any art that doesn’t engender that warm feeling somehow has missed the mark. I strongly disagree. Art should engage the senses, true, but from there it has free rein to sicken, disturb, excite and otherwise move us. Some of the best art comes from a sense of internal healing, and if it does its job well, that piece of art forces the viewer (listener, reader, whatever) to go through the healing process with the artist.

Pain is the most difficult thing to communicate effectively, since the human mind is designed to wipe those experiences from the memory. Great artists not only communicate their pain, but put you through it vicariously. If it’s done well, a true communication of pain is unforgettable. (For a good example, listen to Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun.” You’ll only ever have to hear it once.)

My point here is that while I’d never wish Shawn Colvin any personal catastrophes, she’s a considerably better songwriter in their wake. If Whole New You is any indication, her life is going quite well. The record, sad to say, is inexcusably boring.

My problems with it extend beyond the lack of compelling subject matter. Plenty of great records have been made about nothing at all. In fact, most of the Beatles’ catalog fits that bill. If Colvin had just written a bunch of airy songs, I wouldn’t be as disappointed. My main difficulty here is how disinterested Colvin seems in her own record.

While her name and photo appear on the cover, Colvin at best owns a 40% share of Whole New You. Her frequent collaborator, John Leventhal, has commandeered this recording like an invading army, and Colvin doesn’t sound like she put up much of a fight. Leventhal co-wrote every song, and played 85% of the instruments as well as producing. For the first time on any of her records, Colvin contributes nothing here but vocals. (Most amusing to me was her endorsement credit: “Shawn Colvin uses D’Addario strings.” Not on this record, she doesn’t.)

Colvin apparently decided that since Leventhal did such a good job on Repairs, a 50-50 partnership album all the way, she’d hand the reins over to him entirely. Consequently, the songs all sound similar (except for the moving closer, “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now”), and Colvin herself just sounds bored, like she’s been standing around the studio with nothing to do.

Absent from this record is any sense of the passion that infused Repairs. Colvin all but screamed “Get Out of This House” on that album, and you could feel her fury. The primary emotion she projects on Whole New You is apathy, which brings us to the more depressing interpretation of the title. “I used to care,” she seems to be saying, “but that’s not me anymore.”

The real bummer here is that some of Colvin’s lyrics are terrific. “Nothing Like You” is a nifty double-twist, and “One Small Year” speaks of perseverance in hushed tones that bring Aimee Mann crashing to mind. It’s Leventhal, though, who obliterates any sense of the Colvin of old on some of the potentially best tracks. There are some who feel that the lyrics are all that matter. (There are, in fact, some who feel that the author of the lyrics should get full songwriting credit.) I’m not one of those, having always argued that lackluster music can bring down even the most poetic lyrics. Whole New You contains a few master’s theses on this point.

Take “Another Plane Goes Down,” which could be in the top five best Colvin lyrics. I can’t give the full effect by excerpting it – you need the whole four verses and two choruses for that. It’s the story of a woman dreaming about her life after watching a news story about a plane crash, and it delivers some spine-shivering imagery. Okay, I’ll excerpt: “He says the way that it happens is your heart is so heavy, it rips away upon impact/and then you just bleed inside, you don’t even feel a thing/they found her on a hill in Columbia, intact among the debris.”

You’d think that Colvin and Leventhal would want to accentuate the lyrics with some haunting melodic lines and production touches, but no. The music is bland, the delivery is trite, and everyone involved sounds like they’re eyeing the time clock. As a poem, it’s moving and powerful. As a song, it’s dull and forgettable. This sort of miscalculation is inexcusable. The same mistake is made on “Roger Wilco,” in which you can hear an incredibly disaffected recitation of the line, “MIA or KIA, it’s up to you, it’s not for me to say.”

The emotions come out on “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now,” a sweet, touching coda that, at two minutes and change, doesn’t make up for the rest of the record. My feeling is, if you’re going to take five years to create 45 minutes of music, make sure that all 45 minutes are worth those five years. Whole New You has some decent songs, but overall it’s uninspiring in ways this artist has never been before. Not only was it not worth the five-year wait, it wasn’t worth the 15-day delay it took to show up at my local record store. (Had to get that dig in there before I signed off.)

Nex week, two hours of Ani D. Happy bunny day, and check out the website: www.tm3am.com.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

On Elves, Stags and Not Putting Your Hand Down
What Amy Ray and Drew Hayes Have in Common

I wish I could talk about Shawn Colvin today.

Her new record, Whole New You, came out a week ago (3/27). I don’t have it. I ordered it 15 days ago. It’s not here. This has gone beyond funny.

Luckily, I have a backup. One of the discs I ordered in February finally showed up. It came out on March 6. (See what I mean about unfunny?)

Before I get to that, though, I want to talk comic books.

In fact, a specific comic book called Poison Elves. Even if you have no interest in the sequential art of graphic literature, this should intrigue you: Poison Elves creator Drew Hayes has just signed another contract with his publisher, Sirius. The intriguing part is that the contract is exclusive, and good for the next 50 years.

That’s not a typo. 50 years.

I should point out that Hayes is in his mid-30s. Provided he lives to see the end of his contract, he’ll be in his mid-80s. This is the closest thing to a lifetime compact that I’ve ever seen.

A bit about Drew Hayes, his book, and Sirius, just in case you don’t read comics, which you should. (Last pitch, I swear.) Drew Hayes has been writing and drawing his own monthly comic, originally called I, Lusiphur, since 1986. He self-published 20 issues under Mulehide Graphics, and in 1994 he made the jump to Sirius, a company started by Robb Horan and Lawrence Salamone. Here’s what’s cool about Sirius: they’re just a publishing firm. They don’t produce the books they publish, and they don’t have any say in the creative process.

For those of you used to traditional publishing houses (Random House, etc.), that may not seem like a big deal, but for a comic company, that’s pretty radical. Drew still writes and draws Poison Elves, but with considerably more regularity than he used to when he was self-publishing. The reasons are entirely financial. When self-publishing, Drew often couldn’t afford to print his new issues, which is why he only did 20 in eight years. Since signing up with Sirius, Drew’s published 64 issues and a couple of specials, all written and drawn by him. Sirius foots the bill and recoups their publishing costs. Drew writes and draws and gets a salary. Publisher and artist split the profits.

Sirius, like a few other publishing houses, most notably Image, is like self-publishing with someone else’s money. It’s also a creatively-focused deal, as opposed to a financially-focused one. Drew’s arrangement allows him to do the book he wants to do, when he wants to do it. It’s up to him to dazzle you or not. He gets no help, and he brooks no interference. Essentially, by signing his life away to Sirius, Drew has bet on himself. He’s betting he can dazzle you on his own for the rest of his life. Sirius, in turn, has bet on Drew Hayes, choosing to associate with him until the end of his creative life.

Man, that’s admirable.

If we could translate that energy to the music business, we’d get artists with full creative control of their work, and record labels that treat these artists as lifetime commitments. We’d get uninhibited creative growth, and musical relationships instead of quick, mass-marketed one night stands. Most importantly, we’d get artists betting on themselves, making the music they want to make, for as long as they want to make it.

There are some examples of this in the current musical world, and I think the Indigo Girls are a pretty good one. For more than 10 years, they’ve been doing their own thing, and evolving constantly. It’s true that they’ve been on the periphery as far as sales are concerned: two hits (“Closer to Fine” and “Galileo”) off of nine albums (two of them live). Somehow, they’ve convinced Columbia Records to bet on them for a decade.

I mention the Indigos because one of them has just decided to bet on herself, at least for one album. Not that it would be possible for these two to remain apart, personally or artistically, for very long. Amy Ray has called her solo album Stag, but she’s chosen a cover picture featuring both her and Emily Saliers. Long story short, they’re not breaking up.

The Indigo Girls have always been able to surprise me. Their last three studio albums (Swamp Ophelia, Shaming of the Sun and Come On Now Social) have all been markedly different from each other, yet heard in sequence, they tell an increasingly raw and angry story. Even with that buildup to jump off from, Stag is surprising. It’s powerful, vicious, electrified and vitriolic. It was obviously recorded over a matter of days, which accounts for its brevity (32 minutes) and its startling power. It’s a short, sharp burst of anger that feels like nothing Ray’s done before.

Oh, and it’s pretty terrific.

“Johnny Rottentail,” the bluegrass-inflected opener, is about a minute and a half long. (For that matter, so are “Black Heart Today” and “Mtns of Glory.”) It and “Lazyboy” comprise the only tracks not covered (nay, drowned) in feedback and electric guitar. “Laramie” sounds like the best song Neil Young hasn’t done in the last 20 years. “Lucystoners” rips Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner a new one (by name) to the accompaniment of thudding drums and blistering guitars. Joan Jett does a nifty cameo on “Hey Castrator,” which sounds exactly like you’d think it might.

If Stag had been nothing more than low-budget punkus outus for half an hour, it wouldn’t rank so highly with me. There are moments of wonder here, like “Measure of Me,” perhaps the most lovely song Ray’s ever written. (Take that for what it means, since Saliers is almost entirely responsible for the quiet, reflective side of the Indigos.) Every song on Stag comes from a place of pain and rage, and Ray’s decision to record this stuff raw and unadorned makes it surprisingly affecting. Ray doesn’t hide behind studio sheen or contemplative lyrics. She bets it all and delivers mightily. Now, if only it were longer…

Speaking of betting on yourself, I typed this column while watching David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickens character) nearly kill himself on national television by standing inside a flaming tornado. I like to think he did it just to give me a thematically relevant example to include here, but that’s mostly because I can’t think of any other reason to stand inside a flaming tornado. So, thanks, David.

I wanted to close this time with the coolest quote I’ve read recently. It’s from wunderkind director Robert Rodriguez, he of Desperado and Spy Kids fame. Rodriguez likes to handle almost every aspect of his films himself, from writing and directing to editing, sound editing and special effects. That’s how he brought the 100-million-dollar-looking Spy Kids in at 36 mil. This is his quote, from the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly:

“If you ask a bunch of kids, ‘How many of you can sing or dance or write an opera?’ they’ll all raise their hands. But if you ask the same group 20 years later, maybe one person will raise their hand. I want to be the kid who grew up to be the guy who didn’t put his hand down.”

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Michael Roe’s Acoustic Live Album
Trust Me, It's For You

Let’s do the Oscar wrap-up first.

I predicted most of the top awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and both Best Screenplay awards. I was, of course, most surprised and elated that Cameron Crowe came away with the Best Original Screenplay award. It’s about time one of the best writer-directors working today gets recognized, at least for half of his talents.

I was also surprised that Soderbergh won Best Director for Traffic, and that led me to a few moments’ faint hope that Gladiator wouldn’t claim Best Picture. Both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic were far superior films, I thought, and Traffic should have walked away with the top prize.

Steve Martin’s best line: “If Tom Hanks wins tonight, that means between the two of us, we’ll have a combined three Oscars!”

Of course, these awards don’t mean anything, but as it’s the last major awards show of the year, and I get off on awards shows for some reason, I had to touch on it. I’m done now. Really.

There have been a few really cool CD releases over the past few weeks, like Sepultura’s Nation and Shawn Colvin’s Whole New You. I’m not going to discuss them yet. I also finally got my hands on Amy Ray’s solo album, Stag, and it’s terrific, in its small and surprising way. I’m not going to talk about that, either. Instead, I’m going to use this platform I have to hopefully shine the light of exposure on a disc (two, actually) that hasn’t been more than two feet away from my CD player since I got it two weeks ago. It’s not exactly new, but it may as well be, and it’s probably unavailable in your local record store. Hence, I hope, with the following words, to inspire you all to hunt it down and check it out.

It’s called It’s For You, and it’s a live album by Michael Roe.

In order for me to tell you about Michael Roe, I’m going to have to tell you about his band, the Seventy Sevens. These guys rock. They have nine albums, counting the new collection, Late, and their tenth, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, should be released sometime in May. The Seventy Sevens have languished on small labels for their entire terrific career, a career that spans almost 20 years. They were once thought of as the Next Big Thing, and signed to Island in 1987. Their self-titled third album, known to fans as the Island album, came out mere weeks before U2’s The Joshua Tree, and since U2 was also on Island, you can guess what happened.

The Island album was just the beginning of the band’s artistic ascent, though. In 1992 they put out a mostly acoustic stunner called Pray Naked (a title the label forced them to remove), and they really haven’t looked back since. The follow-ups, Drowning With Land in Sight and Tom Tom Blues, were equally magnificent. Drowning was heavy and dark, and Blues had the feel of one of the greatest bands on Earth just jamming for a weekend.

Not that the Seventy Sevens are one of the greatest bands on Earth. They’re just one of the most consistent, and the driving force behind their sometimes progressive, sometimes acoustic, sometimes bluesy rock is lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Michael Roe. First off, the man can sing. He’s got a great range, and he invests everything with a genuine feeling that can’t be faked. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, tries to fake it.) Second, the man can play guitar. Acoustic, electric, whatever, the man can play, and in a variety of styles. On Pray Naked, for example, he slips from the Led Zeppelin-esque power of “Woody” to the acoustic pop of “Phony Eyes,” and it sounds like you’ve just changed channels on your radio dial. Third, the man can write a song. If you’re a Seventy Sevens fan, you’ve probably tried to stop humming “Happy Roy” or “The Jig is Up” or any number of other great pop songs Roe’s penned. Roe has also had two great solo albums, Safe as Milk and the cheekily titled The Boat Ashore. (Say his name, then the album title.)

In 1998, while on one of his many solo breaks from the Seventy Sevens (and his other band, the great Lost Dogs, but that’s a whole other column), Roe, broke and desperate, came up with a novel idea. He’d contact his small yet loyal network of fans and do an acoustic tour. He’d play wherever people wanted him to, as long as they could pay his miniscule fee and put him and the band up for the night. Plus, he’d let the fans pick the songs on the night of the show. He booked enough of these things to call it a tour, called Seventy Sevens guitarist David Leonhardt, bassist Mark Harmon and drummer Brian Meyers, and hit the road.

The result is captured on It’s For You, named after a song on Safe as Milk. If you’ve never tried Michael Roe’s music before, this 140-minute set is a near-perfect introduction. The songs really shine in these acoustic renditions, and there’s a lot of them (29 in all), from every phase of the man’s career. Plus, the laid-back atmosphere of the disc makes this one of the most enjoyable of Roe’s projects. He finishes the second song, “MT,” and then announces, “That’s the prepared portion of our program,” and he’s not kidding. Just about every song on disc one is preceded by an audible request from the audience.

The first disc is the more spontaneous of the two, filled with covers and off-the-cuff renditions of favorites. Roe’s version of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” shies away from the Led Zeppelin rewrite and instead recalls the original Blind Willie Johnson blues version. A fan asks for “King of the Road,” for some reason, and a game Roe spins the first verse, commenting, “No request will go unconsidered.” He does a heartrending take on “The Jig is Up,” one of his best love songs, and two songs later he’s mocking himself mercilessly, fumbling through an acoustic re-arrangement of the Ozzy-esque “Snake.” (Trust me, even if you’ve never heard the original, this new take is a gas.)

Disc two is the superior one, though, centering more on performance and musicianship. The thing with acoustic shows is that there’s nowhere to hide if you suck. That’s why the best performers shine acoustically. Roe definitely doesn’t need to hide, and this second disc proves it indisputably with a stretch of seven pure acoustic readings of some of his best works.

First, though, you’re treated to a trio of awe-inspiring electric blues pieces – “Perfect Blues,” “Nuts for You” and “John Lee’s Blues.” Roe’s extended solo on “Nuts” is breathtaking, and it helps that it’s a great song as well. It has nothing, however, on the sweet seven tunes that close out It’s For You. Most notably, Roe’s voice takes on new dimension in “I Need God,” a soaring gospel number. “Do It For Love” is soulful and invigorating, and the closer, “Ache Beautiful,” is simply lovely.

As I said earlier, this hasn’t left the vicinity of my CD player in two weeks. To get similarly afflicted, you should log onto www.77s.com. There’s info there on each Seventy Sevens release, including the new one, and links to purchase each album directly from the band. It’s For You is highly recommended, of course, as is Pray Naked, Tom Tom Blues, Safe as Milk… hell, anything Roe’s done. I sing this song a lot, but it’s a shame he isn’t more well-known.

One last thing I want to mention. Roland Orzabal, he of Tears for Fears fame, has a solo album called Tomcats Screaming Outside. You can’t get it in American record stores, and you most likely will never be able to. There is hope, though. If you log onto www.rolandorzabal.co.uk, you can order it. Shipping overseas takes a while, but probably less time than waiting for Orzabal’s U.S. record deal to materialize.

Next time… well, if you still have last week’s column, you can cut and paste the last paragraph to the end of this week’s missive and it’ll still be true.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

40 Years in 50 Minutes
All About Chemistry is Semisonic's Homage to Pop

Ladies and gentlemen…

Announcing the grand opening of the big ol’ website that houses this here column. It’s up and running (which doesn’t necessarily mean up to date) at www.tm3am.com. The site will get updated very soon, but for now everything from February 14 backward is online. Check it out, and then e-mail Mike Ferrier and tell him what a great job he did. His address is at the bottom of the “New Readers” page.

This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to e-mail the column to all of you. Once a week, this beast should show up in your e-mailbox, unless I suddenly die or something. So fear not.

Anywho, last week, if you remember, I mentioned that I wanted to take some time and collect my thoughts on Semisonic’s All About Chemistry. Well, I’m glad I waited a week. Buckle up…

One of 1998’s biggest surprises was the quality of Semisonic’s second album, Feeling Strangely Fine. This trio rose from the ashes of rightly-ignored pop group Trip Shakespeare in 1996 to release Great Divide, a trite mess of an album that bombed like Nagasaki. The strange thing about Great Divide was that it was obvious how much the record company was behind this group. The album was a production, with big guitars and a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar sound. It spawned a semi-hit (“Delicious”) and died on the vine.

A second album seemed iffy, but somehow Semisonic put one together. The strange thing about Feeling Strangely Fine was that it was also obvious how little the record company was behind them. This little record was made for, like, a hundred bucks, and it often sounds that way. Miraculously, though, the lack of production brought out the honesty in Dan Wilson’s songs. Feeling Strangely Fine was a modern pop album that played like a confessional folk album, with resonant songs that won you over in spite of themselves. Oddly, it spawned two huge hits, “Closing Time” and “Singing in My Sleep,” and sold like naked pictures of Jeri Ryan at a Star Trek convention.

There seemed to be a pattern forming, and a disturbing one at that. When Semisonic has no money, they make great records. When they have a big budget, they overindulge and make poo-poo. Does the third album bear this out?

Sort of.

It’s important to note that All About Chemistry is the biggest-sounding album these guys have ever made, both as Semisonic and as Trip Shakespeare. This thing is huge, layered, and sonically massive. I was all set to pan the hell out of it last week, but a few more listens tipped me off to what they were doing. I think All About Chemistry is Semisonic’s attempt at a tribute album to the last 40 years of pop music.

And believe me, brother, this thing is pure pop. I haven’t heard an album this purely pop in many a moon. It reminds me, in its multiple-personality way, of nothing so much as a latter-period Queen album. The Works springs immediately to mind, as does The Game. Wilson, John Munson and Jacob Slichter have too much love for all forms of pop to confine themselves to one style, or even a couple of styles. Every song is utterly different from every other song. Oh, and none of the songs sound anything like Feeling Strangely Fine.

Queen made a career out of albums that sound like mix tapes, so there is a decent precedent. For Semisonic, this feels like expensive career suicide. What saves the album is the group’s obvious joy at producing this stuff. My first couple of stabs at a review tried to sum it all up, to take it all in as a whole. Can’t be done. I’ve decided the only way I can accurately describe All About Chemistry is one song at a time. Besides, the band put so much work into each tune here that they all deserve their own review anyway. Here goes:

Track one – “Chemistry.”

I’ve had the longest amount of time to deal with this one. I first downloaded it from Napster more than a month ago. It’s been described by others as a great lost Hall & Oates single, but I think it’s better than that. To me, this tune sounds like Todd Rundgren at his cheeky best. The rhythm is carried by lovely repeating piano chords, the guitar has a nifty melody that rests atop them, and the lyrics tread that fine line between stupid and clever that Nigel Tufnel was talking about. It even contains a great “Oh-oh-oh-o-o-ooh” lead-out from the chorus. This is a quintessential pop song, but then, there’s a lot of those on here.

Track two – “Bed.”

Now, this one sounds like Hall & Oates, but only if they were complete assholes. Wilson gets in touch with his inner bastard in this paean to physical relationships. “If you think I’m asking too much, we can stay in touch and I’ll find someone else to bed.” That’s right, it’s “bed” in its rarely-used verb form. Musically, it’s pure ‘80s blue-eyed soul. This may as well be the backing track to “Maneater.”

Track three – “Act Naturally.”

From Hall & Oates to Chris DeBurgh. “Act Naturally” is a synth ballad that sounds an awful lot like DeBurgh’s “The Lady in Red,” or, for that matter, any one of a number of Phil Collins songs that also sound like “The Lady in Red.” There are no guitars in this song, the drums are minimalist and programmed, and the synth washes are the instrumentation. That’s not to say this doesn’t work. As a keyboard-driven pop ballad, it’s great. Wilson’s lyrics here start to show signs of the same multiple personality disorder that affects the album. Coming right off the harsh “Bed,” “Act Naturally” is a plea for his lover to keep their troubled relationship hidden from the public. “’Till we get it figured out, don’t give them anything that they can doubt…” It’s hard to feel sorry for him after his turn as an ass in the last song.

Track four – “She’s Got My Number.”

The pop epic. All the trappings are here, from the cascading pianos to the lovely minor chords to the huge orchestrated finale. Like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” it manages to be gigantic in scope and yet under six minutes in length. This is one of my favorites.

Track five – “Follow.”

If you have an aversion to pop cliches, I’d get out now. Dig the chorus lyrics: “Take me wherever you go, make me forget tomorrow, love me the best that you know, all of the rest will follow.” In the wrong hands, that smells like week-old limburger. It’s a good thing, then, that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Wilson sets this sentimental claptrap against a breezy, James Taylor-in-a-good-mood guitar line that’s no less cliched, but together the lyrics and music seem to click. This is another quintessential pop song, the kind the Gin Blossoms tried to write 20-some-odd times.

Track six – “Sunshine and Chocolate.”

I hope Jeff Lynne hears this, and I hope he’s amused enough not to sue. “Sunshine and Chocolate” may as well be one of the hundreds of songs Lynne has produced, both with Electric Light Orchestra and otherwise. They even got the chirpy lead guitar sound down perfectly. The song isn’t too bad either.

Track seven – “Who’s Stopping You.”

Another mean-sounding one, but when you’re trying to sound like Steely Dan, mean comes with the territory. Adding to the disassociated feel is John Munson’s one turn at lead vocals. (He does one an album, usually.) This one has hints of the Beatles in it as well, but the lyrics (about a man kicking his dependent lover out) are pure Becker and Fagen.

Track eight – “I Wish.”

This monster is the group’s homage to garage-pop. It’s bare compared to the rest of the album – just guitars, bass, drums and vocals – and it sounds an awful lot like Aimee Mann’s “Par for the Course.” This tune is also Wilson’s opportunity to trot out the most durable of pop cliches, the “highest-mountain-deepest-sea” lyric. No kidding, it goes like this: “I’d swim the high seas for you, get down on my knees for you, swing from the trees for you…” They pull out of this tailspin by appending a three-minute searing guitar solo to the ending, which is really worth it.

Track nine – “One True Love.”

Get this. “One True Love” is not only a perfect sad-sack lonely-in-love ballad, it’s also a collaboration with Carole King, who co-wrote, sings and plays piano. Carole King! She’s almost a pop cliche by herself, but the tune is sweet, and her voice fits right in. Where has she been?

Track ten – “Get a Grip.”

Ah, the pop novelty song. This is, of course, a long-standing tradition dating back before the Chipmunks, and one that survives to this day. (See Eiffel 65’s “Blue,” or the A*Teens’ cover of “Dancing Queen.”) “Get a Grip” is, of course, about masturbation: “Get a grip on yourself, you know you should/Get a grip on yourself, it sure feels good.” It’s set to a bouncy pop-punk backbeat, and it’s three minutes of fluffy fun. Its message, as well, cannot be overstated…

Track eleven – “Surprise.”

The album’s one tip of the hat to modern pop-rock, a la Everclear (especially volume one of Songs from an American Movie). They turn the genre on its ear, though, by infusing “Surprise” with winningly optimistic lyrics: “I’m gonna surprise them all when they look and I’m gone, gone, gone…” This is the one tune here that might be a hit.

Track twelve – “El Matador.”

Elton John has always ended his albums with a simple, big-sounding epic that serves as a curtain call. (He even called one of them “Curtains,” from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.) “El Matador” is one of those, an absurdly simple pop song that builds in orchestration and intensity until its crescendo of a conclusion. It’s a plaintive plea for someone to “stay a while,” which makes for a fitting last song. It’s all piano, acoustic guitar and orchestra.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time on this effervescent little creation, but then, the band spent an awful lot more time on it than I did. All About Chemistry is surprisingly ambitious for an album that’s as disposable as a paper towel, and for all its hugeness, it fails to connect in even the simplest ways. Semisonic’s traded emotional resonance for sonic resonance, and even though I like them both in different ways, I’d have to recommend Feeling Strangely Fine over this one. There’s something so direct about that album that gets lost here in layers of sound.

Still, All About Chemistry isn’t bad for what it is. If you were a Queen fan, you might even find it suits you perfectly. Me, I’m sort of looking forward to it falling off the sales charts, so that Semisonic can go back to miniscule budgets, smaller concepts and the simple, perfect music they did so well last time out.

Next week, depending on how I feel, either Sepultura or Shawn Colvin. Also on the horizon is Celtic prog band Iona’s new Open Sky. I might listen to all three in a row. It’s neat being me.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Our Lady Typical
Our Lady Peace's Spiritual Machines Doesn't Rise to its Own Challenge

Almost Famous is out on video and DVD. Go rent it if you haven’t seen it. If you don’t like it, I mean really don’t like it, e-mail me and I will personally go to your house and give you 50 bucks.

Hello. How are you? I know you, I knew you, I think I can remember your name. I’ve had a pretty eventful seven days, and I’m slowly remembering the unfortunate side-effect of writing for a living. Put simply, you just don’t feel like coming home and writing some more. This is take two of the column for this week as well. I got two new albums on Tuesday, and I thought I’d split them up over this week and next week, so I picked one – Semisonic’s All About Chemistry – to write about this time. It was a good plan, but it hit a sizeable snag.

I have nothing whatsoever to say about Semisonic’s All About Chemistry.

Oh, it’s not a bad record, it just doesn’t seem to inspire the flowing verbiage. Hence, I’ve scrapped take one with the intention of ruminating all this week on Semisonic and getting back to it. This leaves the second of the two records, Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines. Nothing else even remotely interesting has come out or has happened in the world of music lately to fill this column, so here we go…

Our Lady Peace is one of the only bands I know that I like immensely for almost no reason. Ninety percent of their charm comes from lead singer Raine Maida, and I can’t really put my finger on why I dig him, either. His voice is an odd combination of Billy Corgan, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Davis and Rufus Wainwright, yet somehow it works. His whining, acrobatic warble is completely idiosyncratic and yet totally appealing in an indescribable way. This is a good thing, since it’s his band’s one remarkable strength.

Our Lady Peace has never felt the smiling gaze of fame, and for once there’s a pretty good reason for that. The band is sturdy, steady, tight and utterly faceless. They’ve always hawked the brand of heavy-guitar alt-pop that made bands like Everclear famous, and their songwriting has always been just this side of really good. They had a pair of pseudo-hits from their second album, Clumsy, namely the title tune and “Superman’s Dead,” and I’m betting that’s as close as they’ll ever come to mass exposure.

Thing is, I can’t pan them, either. There was nothing wrong with their third album, Happiness Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, except the asinine title. They play with textures that augment their typical crunchy rock well, and of course, they have Maida singing for them. I can’t say that I haven’t liked anything they’ve done, even though I’d never recommend them as a sterling group of musicians. They’re too typical.

That typicality has plagued this band from the start, and on their fourth album, they’ve taken some steps to shake it. Spiritual Machines is a futuristic concept album based loosely on Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines, and it concerns mechanical beings developing emotions and fighting for basic human rights. (At least, that’s what the book’s about.) The songs are segued together with excerpts from Kurzweil, and the cover art is decidedly futuristic.

If all this is reminding you of Radiohead’s OK Computer, go to the head of the class. That album serves as the inspirational base for Spiritual Machines, and one could certainly do worse than to try to emulate the best record of the last eleven years. There’s just one tiny problem. Our Lady Peace are not even in Radiohead’s league. It would be impossible (and believe me, I’ve tried) to categorize Radiohead, or even succinctly describe their work. Our Lady Peace is an alternative rock band. Period.

Spiritual Machines doesn’t quite benefit from the space-age concept the band has forced upon it, but the theme doesn’t hinder the record, either. Honestly, you can just ignore it. The songs are only marginally connected to Kurzweil’s work. It feels like the band tried to shoehorn the concept onto a group of songs they’d already written. Sure, it works – “In Repair,” for example, could easily be about both emotional and mechanical breakdowns – but it’s not necessary.

Stripped of its pretensions, Our Lady Peace’s album is nothing more than another strong set of decent alt-rock. And again, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing remarkable about it either. You’ll hum “Made to Heal” for about 10 minutes, and then you’ll forget it entirely. I’m looking at the track listing right now, and despite the fact that I’ve heard Spiritual Machines six times, I can’t remember anything about either “Middle of Yesterday” or “Everyone’s a Junkie,” except that I liked them while they were playing.

At times on this album, Our Lady Peace make small attempts to transcend their sound, most successfully on the concluding three tracks. “All My Friends” builds admirably over a suspended chord pattern, “If You Believe” stands out as the most memorable track with its piano-based chorus, and “The Wonderful Future” is a pleasant clean-guitar closer. None of them really rise above the alt-rock stigma, but the effort is appreciated.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the real reason to listen to Our Lady Peace is Raine Maida. Like Jon Davis (of Korn), Maida is completely unafraid of his own voice. He wields it, sending it to stratospheric heights with stunning confidence. He also extends that confidence like a forcefield, covering the rest of the band. With any other singer, Our Lady Peace might be intolerably boring, but Maida makes it almost impossible to dislike them.

For example, take “Are You Sad,” one of the album’s best tracks. The chorus lyrics are the epitome of trite: “Are you sad? Are you holding yourself? Are you locked in your room? You shouldn’t be…” The music is sweet and textured, but it’s Maida’s falsetto delivery that carries the tune. Try to imagine, say, the guy from Bush trying to sell that song, and when you’re done laughing, you’ll appreciate Maida’s contribution. Our Lady Peace is lucky to have him.

There’s very little to set Spiritual Machines apart from a slew of alt-rock albums available in your local record store. (As a quick side note, the one wretched song, “Life,” is naturally the first single.) Still, the last three songs hold out some hope that, record company willing, they might one day release something that rises above the guitar-drenched mire they’ve been in since the beginning. While it’s not a bad effort, Spiritual Machines isn’t it.

Next week, I’ll try to coalesce my thoughts on All About Chemistry. Now shut the computer off and go rent Almost Famous. There could be 50 bucks in it for you. But I doubt it.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

Fuck the Grammys, man.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, Josh, you can start reading again.

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

Silly, silly me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t like that at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Jonatha Brooke’s Steady Pull
Independence Never Sounded So Sweet

I’m almost ready for the Oscars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles