Forget Amnesiac
Radiohead Spaces Out on Us Again

I don’t know what’s wrong with Radiohead.

For a while there, they seemed flawless. Their first three albums are a perfect model of ascendancy, each improving on its predecessor at a breathtaking rate. Their average debut Pablo Honey offered the barest hint of the sweeping melodicism of The Bends, which in turn couldn’t have prepared anyone for the genius of OK Computer. Plus, they attained major-label acceptance and great standing with the critics. Like many artistic wunderkinds when they hit this stage of their careers, the only people who could stop Radiohead’s ascent were the members of Radiohead themselves.

And so they did.

It’s taken me a long time to like Kid A, the band’s fourth effort, and I’m still not sure I do like it. They took their creepy soundscapes just a step too far into stratospheric meandering, and the album sounds like a weak collection of b-side experiments strung together. It’s quite cohesive in its tone and style, but it still constitutes an appalling lack of effort on the compositional side. Stacked next to OK Computer, it’s a deeply painful disappointment.

I can’t say that I’m as disappointed in Amnesiac, Radiohead’s just-released fifth album, but that’s simply because its predecessor didn’t leave me with the same level of expectation. Recorded at the same time as Kid A, this new one is another impeccably produced slab of wispy, tuneless slop that evaporates before your ears.

I’ve listened to Amnesiac four times now. After the first go-round, I barely restrained the urge to tear the disc from my stereo, hurl it to the ground and step on it. After the fourth, I’m still not convinced that I shouldn’t have followed through on my impulse. Amnesiac is maddening in its inconsistency, its simplicity and its depressingly marginal quality. The only reason I keep looking to this disc (and to its predecessor) for hidden qualities that obviously aren’t there is that I believe it’s impossible to make the best album of the past 20 years by accident.

The true accomplishment of OK Computer was its creation of otherworldly atmospheres wrapped around intelligent, moving melodies. A song like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” lives up to the care and time put into its sonic architecture. A song like “Paranoid Android” or “Karma Police” has sections and movements and a deep sense of musicianship lying beneath its multicolored palette. OK Computer synthesized studio wizardry and musical artistry like few records before it, and like none since. If you’re looking for a distorted-reflection equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, well, there it is in all its shimmering dystopian glory.

Kid A and Amnesiac were rumored to have been conceived as a double album, and the stylistic similarities are certainly abundant. The tragedy of these two albums is that you could edit roughly half the tracks out and make a decent single disc out of the remainder. The real tragedy is that the best song on that resultant single disc wouldn’t even be the equal of the worst song on OK Computer. The atmospheres are all here in spades, but the songs are missing.

Amnesiac actually starts strong, which may lead to false hope for the rest of the record. “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” (trust me, there are no typos there) is very nearly the demo version of “Everything In Its Right Place” from Kid A. It’s based around pitter-patter electronic drums and electric piano, like so much of Kid A, but it has an instantly memorable melody. “Pyramid Song,” inexplicably the first single, sounds like a series of false starts at first until the drums kick in, cementing the piano rhythm. The tune is buoyed aloft by the string section and Thom Yorke’s vocal, in one of the few cases here that makes good use of him.

The paradox of Thom Yorke is this: when he has a melody to wrap himself around, he’s one of the best, most powerful singers working today. The man can sing the paint off a battleship. Unfortunately, when he’s given nothing to work with and must meander about melodically, he’s terribly annoying. He whines, he wails, he caterwauls, and you sometimes find yourself wishing he’d stumble across a tune or just shut up. Yorke’s not the only one given no grounding here. If you’ve ever heard this band act as one to attack a song, you’ll come away from Amnesiac wondering how they could release something in which they never once come fully together.

Like Kid A, Amnesiac contains its share of throwaway tracks. When it comes to repetitive clanging like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” or tuneless interludes like “Hunting Bears,” this band needs to ask itself what purpose would be served including them on their record. Likewise “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a lethargic reprise of Kid A’s “Morning Bell” that’s here for no apparent thematic reason. Considering how much the rest of the disc sounds like filler, that these three stand out is impressive.

Another striking thing about Amnesiac is how defensive it is. Songs like “You and Whose Army” and “Knives Out” seem reflexive, even reactionary. Yorke intones the phrase “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” repeatedly in “Packt Like Sardines…,” and one can’t help but wonder at whom he’s lashing out. It can’t be the critics, because as usual, they’re falling all over themselves to praise this thing. As was the case with Kid A, the emperor is still running about stark raving naked, and Rolling Stone is complimenting his designer suit.

What’s undeniably depressing about an album like Amnesiac is that Radiohead is a far better band than this. I hope this is just a phase that they’ll snap out of soon. Both Kid A and Amnesiac are ear candy, sonic wallpaper that never gets under your skin because it has no substance. There’s a mild irony in the title they’ve chosen for such a forgettable record, but irony certainly isn’t enough to excuse this slump. Even more disconcerting is that Yorke has said in interviews that the band is quite proud of this disc. If that’s true, then they may truly have lost it, and that would be a shame.

Anyway, I’m working on a big, huge, gigantic column for next time that plays catch-up on just about everything I’ve gotten recently. As a bit of a preview, though, I present my half-year Top 10 List below. This is a silly experiment that will bear no resemblance to the final list at the end of the year, I hope. If I had to rank the top 10 discs now, though, this is what they would be:

#10. The 77s, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows.

#9. The Black Crowes, Lions.

#8. Tool, Lateralus.

#7. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

#6. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

#5. Mark Eitzel, The Invisible Man.

#4. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

#3. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

#2. R.E.M., Reveal.

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

Don’t read too much into this list, because if the second half of the year is as good as the first half has been, it will change. So next time, Travis, Rufus Wainwright, the 77s, Starflyer 59 and whatever else I find lying about unreviewed.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Hang On to Your Depression
Mark Eitzel's Gloriously Sad The Invisible Man

I came to a disturbing realization the other day.

For those of you just joining the ongoing saga of my scintillating existence in this west Tennessee town, I’m the education and features reporter for the State Gazette here in Dyersburg. This means that, by and large, I cover school events. So I was lining a bunch of third-graders up for a photo the other day when it struck me that since I started in this position (three months ago), I have yet to meet anyone my own age.

At first I thought it was just a side effect of my beat, since most of my time is spent in schools and at school functions. Then I started looking about this town, trying to discern the ages of the people milling about me, and remarkably, there just aren’t any twenty-somethings here at all. I’m not sure where they all go between the ages of 19 and 30, but it’s not Dyersburg.

Yeah, I know, not very interesting, but I had fabled first-line writer’s block this time, and I needed something to start with. There you go, and piss off if you don’t like it.

Some random notes to begin:

All you Portlandites have this info already, I’m sure, but I just found out, so I thought I’d spread the good news. Portland’s own Rustic Overtones have salvaged their major-label career by signing with Tommy Boy Records, the long-running purveyor of ground-breaking hip-hop. Tommy Boy is also famous for sticking with artists through thick and thin to watch them develop. Witness De La Soul, who hit huge with their debut and haven’t had a hit since. When the trio proposed the idea of a triple album, released in stages over a year and a half, Tommy Boy went for it. Most labels would have laughed in their faces.

All of which leads me to believe that the Rustic Overtones /Tommy Boy relationship will be a long and fruitful one. If you’re not from Portland, Rustic is a long-running (like 11 years) band that mashes several styles into a horn-driven stew. They’ve gone through several stylistic shifts, which culminated in a big contract with Arista in 1999. The proposed album, This Is Rock and Roll, died on the vine, which is okay because that awful title would have haunted them to the grave. They’ve regrouped and reassembled the new album, calling the finished product Viva Nueva, which means “new life.” That’s out sometime in June, or so says the Tommy Boy website. Congrats, guys, and may this second shot be the keeper.

There are a number of artists who are contenders for my Top 10 List every time they release something, just by dint of their past excellence. Two of them have new records this year, one week apart. I’ve already reported that Tori Amos will release Strange Little Girls on September 18. A week before that, Ben Folds will unveil his solo album, his first without the Five. He’s called it Rockin’ the Suburbs. Can’t wait…

On to the review:

I’ve heard it said that everyone should own one Mark Eitzel album. The reason for this is simple, at least to me: no one does sadness like Eitzel. He is perhaps the most honestly depressing songwriter currently working. Listening to his haunted vocals alone lends the impression that this guy has never had a good day in his life, and the lyrics and arrangements of his tunes do nothing to alter that notion. Eitzel’s music is soul-deadening, numbing, powerful stuff.

Whether or not it should be mandatory to own one of his long-players, everyone should at least hear “Saved,” the highlight (or lowlight, depending on your perspective) of Eitzel’s first solo album, 60-Watt Silver Lining. It was on this tune that he abandoned the indie-rock roots of his former band, American Music Club, for a richer, more jazz-oriented sound that perfectly complemented his sad-sack voice. “Saved” has lyrics and a melody that would have been almost uplifting if sung by anyone else. In Eitzel’s hands, it’s a melancholy wonder that plays like a dialogue between singer and instrumentalists, the vocals daring the music to cheer them up.

To his credit, Eitzel has wildly varied his approach each time out. West was a jangly pop collaboration with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck that transformed the dialogue to an all-out argument, and the stripped-down Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby showed that Eitzel could be just as chillingly effective with little or no instrumentation at all. (That album, in fact, was the product of a very strange clause in his Warner Bros. contract that allowed him to do albums for other, smaller labels if those albums evidenced “no commercial appeal.”)

And now we have number four, The Invisible Man. It’s so titled because of a lyric in the gorgeous “Shine” that reads, “The only costume prize I’ll win is if I go as the invisible man,” a typical sentiment here. Eitzel has definitely not lost his touch, even though he’s spent the last two years reportedly working on the complex production of this album. What’s cool about The Invisible Man is that it’s still an Eitzel album underneath it all.

On the surface, though, Eitzel has expanded his sonic palette greatly here. He’s incorporated subtle electronic percussion, backwards loops, strange synth noises and an overarching sense of studio wizardry. Every track is layered several times over, and it’s very easy to imagine this album as a stunning disaster. That it isn’t is a testament to the skill with which Eitzel has assembled the sonic building blocks here, never losing sense of the songs he was augmenting or of the voice that leads the whole production.

In typical Mark Eitzel fashion, The Invisible Man is undoubtedly his biggest album sonically, yet it still sounds small and intimate. Eitzel has a particular talent for making even the most optimistic songs into mournful elegies, and his lyrics are fantastic models of stream-of-consciousness observation and emotion. Take, for example, the entirety of “Christian Science Reading Room”:

“I was so high I stood for an hour outside the Christian Science Reading Room and suddenly I could not resist – I became a Christian Scientist – and I studied light and I studied sound and every question that I asked was suddenly profound – the holy martyrs of gravity, the absolute measure of being free. I was so high that I even scared the cat, and using the language of his tail he said he had a vision a thousand white flags circling around my hat and then he hid under the bed, and his eyes were as big as bells, and suddenly he could not resist and he became a Christian Scientist, and together we explored our world, and found it became more beautiful as its teeth were revealed.”

Eitzel’s worldview is represented in the words here. Everything would be funny, if it weren’t so depressing to actually laugh. He has spent a good chunk of his solo career mourning his sense of humor, and unlike most pseudo-depressives in pop music, he never dwells on death. Far worse, it seems to him, to remain alive and not be able to enjoy a single thing.

All of which makes the closing track, “Proclaim Your Joy,” such a strange revelation. It is, by far, the happiest and most irony-free piece of music to bear Eitzel’s name, and it finds him repeating in nearly giddy tones, “It is important throughout your life to proclaim your joy.” Even though the liner notes call this tune a joke, it’s impressively sincere-sounding, as if it’s taken Eitzel years to reach the point where he can make his voice dance. He simply revels in it, and from such an honest musician, it’s explosive in its pure emotional turnabout. That song alone is worth the price of admission for Eitzel fans.

If it’s true that everyone should own one Eitzel album, well, there are four of them now to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The Invisible Man is another idiosyncratic achievement from a true depressive, and it’s impressive both for the growth it exhibits as well as the glorious stagnation it represents. Mark Eitzel is truly one of a kind.

Next time, the long-awaited Radiohead album, the subject of more dread and anticipation than any other record this year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Five Years is a Long, Long Time
Tool and Weezer Remind Us That They're Alive

I’ve got two reviews this time, and I thought I might size my reviews to the respective lengths of the albums in question. Shall we?

I’m not sure how Weezer has sustained their popularity. They’ve been gone for five years, following a disastrously unpopular second album (Pinkerton) that, no matter what Rivers Cuomo might say, isn’t that bad. Their just-released third album had a lot of strikes against it for me. First, it’s an obvious attempt to regain past glory – it’s self-titled, the cover art is strikingly similar to that of the first album, and they called producer Ric Ocasek back to punch up the hit potential. Plus, the thing’s only 28 minutes long.

Surprise surprise, though, Weezer is great: ten short, sharp songs that come on stage, state their business and leave without wearing out their welcome. “Photograph” is terrific pop, “Crab” will stay in your head forever, and if “Island in the Sun” isn’t the hit of the summer, it won’t be the band’s fault. Weezer(also known as the Green Album) is an old-time pop record, perfect for short attention spans. It’s the best example of spending five years on 28 minutes and making them all count.

Tool has also been missing in action for five years, but their return album, Lateralus, is nearly three times as long as Weezer’s. It needs every second of it.

There is no band in the world that sounds quite like Tool. The quartet uses the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals, and in fact Presence-era Zep might have been one of their primary influences. They write twisty, progressive epics that hardly ever clock in at under six minutes, and they have a pronounced disdain for radio-fodder choruses. Their albums take time to digest. In fact, the first listen will probably leave you a little bewildered.

If Lateralus is your first Tool album, I don’t envy you. The band has been pretty good about easing their audience into their vision. Even so, their last album, Aenima, gave me more trouble as a reviewer than almost anything else that year. Listening to the 78-minute Aenima straight is quite a bit like being run over by a steamroller in slow motion. Each song pummels you at an agonizing crawl, never varying from the same three or four notes. Aenima sounds like the missing link between Helmet and Dream Theater. I found that it was best in small doses, one or two songs at a time.

Lateralus is best all at once. That may be because I’ve heard and digested Aenima, though. Lateralus builds upon the sound they created on that album, and like skipping a grade in school, if you don’t have the basic foundation, you’ll probably have no idea what the band is going for. Even for those of us familiar with the group’s sound, Lateralus doesn’t offer easy answers.

For starters, the album contains exactly two instantly memorable hooks, one in “Schism” and one in “Ticks and Leeches.” While the rest will leave you in slack-jawed silence, it purposely won’t stick in your head. The songs all shift, move and mutate beyond their original riffs. The opener, “The Grudge,” weighs in at eight minutes, and exists in a state of perpetual motion. The dynamic shifts alone are breathtaking, and when vocalist Maynard James Keenan (the not-so-secret weapon of the band) opens up full throttle, even if only for a slipped-in two-beat measure, Tool achieves a power the guitar-rock bands they’re usually lumped in with can’t match.

In fact, one of the main reasons you won’t find universal praise for Lateralus is that very alt-rock environment they’re associated with. The members of Tool have, to their credit, done everything possible to avoid that very association. They never appear in their own videos, they hardly ever print pictures of themselves in their CD jackets, and they tend to perform incognito. The foursome could walk down virtually any street in America and not be recognized. The idea is that the focus should be on the music, not the people making it.

Unfortunately, the great majority of music critics don’t have any idea how to talk about the music, so they’re forced to comment on the social and cultural environment, the moody atmosphere of the lyrics, the theatrical masks – anything but the actual musical art. Yes, Tool came to prominence during the grunge-rock era of the early ‘90s, and yes, Keenan’s lyrics have an indecipherable gloom, but the band comes from an entirely different, much more musical place than Saint Cobain and his Not-So-Merry Men. They’ve gone to every effort to make timeless music, and to distance themselves from any cultural phase they may have existed alongside.

But here I am, commenting on something other than the music.

Lateralus plays like a single thought, a 79-minute suite that builds and recedes at perfect intervals. At times, it’s difficult to believe there are only four members, the mass of sound is so huge. Paradoxically, at times it’s difficult to believe the sound wasn’t created by a single organism, the band is so tight. There are no solos, no random moments. Each song has so many sections and turns that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the transitions from song to song.

On top of all that, the 22-minute trilogy that closes the album (not counting the noise sculpture “Faaip de Oiad”) is unlike anything the band has done before. It takes their trademark buildup to new levels, unfolding at a snail’s pace, and adding strange textures. “Reflection,” the middle section, soars with a shakuhachi flute melody. Keenan’s contributions are atmospheric and subtle, and they provide the only concessions to traditional songcraft.

If I’ve made Lateralus sound daunting, well, it is. Not only do you have to devote 80 minutes of your time to digesting it, you’ll have to do it three or four times at least. Unlike Aenima, it can’t be taken in chunks. It has to be swallowed whole, another admirable stance in the face of the single-oriented alt-rock revolution. If you let it, though, Lateralus will blow your mind.

To sum up, then: Weezer’s Green Album is a satisfying snack, while Tool’s album is a filling seven-course feast. It depends on what you’re hungry for. Sometimes a box of Cracker Jack will do it for you, and sometimes you need a lasagna feast with a side of garlic bread.

And sometimes a metaphor should be put out of its misery before it causes irreparable harm.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Just Like Brian Wilson Did
R.E.M.'s Pure Pop Excursion Reveal

Douglas Adams died on Friday of a sudden heart attack. He was only 49 years old.

I wanted to say a couple of words about Adams because he was one of three writers (Stephen King and Stan Lee being the other two) who inspired a slightly overimaginative grade school kid to start stringing sentences together. Before I discovered Steinbeck, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis or Alan Moore, I believed Douglas Adams was the best writer in the world.

That’s not to say he wrote children’s books. In fact, his central work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, gains more resonance for me as I age. While Adams was thought of primarily as a comedy writer, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly very funny, what Adams did best was to mirror the absurdity of modern life through a unique use of language. His only peer in this regard was Joseph Heller, and the similarities between the Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Catch-22 are many.

I started reading at an early age, and by fifth grade I was already somewhat bored with the books I was being given to read. Douglas Adams got me excited about the language again. His sentences were twisty, run-on affairs that had to be read twice to be fully understood. His characters and situations were original and deceptively thoughtful. Besides, if you can make a 12-year-old laugh on every page, you’ve pretty much got him hooked.

As I grew older, though, I began to really get Adams’ joke. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is an utterly ridiculous, often frustratingly clever read in which things that seem to have no rational explanation are later explained in maddeningly rational detail. Adams’ universe is strange and complex, and yet every event or circumstance has behind it a web of improbable, yet wholly explainable reasoning. The world, I’ve discovered, is actually like this. Everything is frustrating and absurd and ridiculous, but it all makes an odd sort of sense. Even the anticlimactic conclusion to the bleak final book, Mostly Harmless, seems, like the anticlimactic conclusions to all of our lives, inevitable and strangely beautiful.

Adams’ work doesn’t exactly lend itself to somber reflection on its author’s life, so I just want to say this. Mr. Adams, the 12-year-old me will be eternally grateful for your stories, and more often than you’d think, the 26-year-old me still enjoys them. Even though it’s no doubt been overused by now, I can think of no better send-off than the one you penned yourself.

So long, Mr. Adams, and thanks for all the fish.

* * * * *

Glory be, people actually voted. I got the most votes for R.E.M. (and Wally Fenderson didn‘t even vote…), so that’s what I’m going to talk about, but I want to add that this week in music made me very, very happy. The Weezer album is short, sharp and perfect pop, the Cowboy Junkies issued another wondrous slab of somnambulant melancholia, and Tool, well, Lateralus blew my fucking mind. They’re all worthy of your hard-earned cash.

If you look at the R.E.M. catalog as a whole, you can see the ebb and flow of their inspiration. The band definitely goes in cycles, letting their muse lead them to green pastures, even if they have to go through dung-strewn minefields to get there. Over a 20-year career, they’ve never sat still long enough to get sedentary. Pick any three R.E.M. albums at random and you’re guaranteed three totally different listening experiences.

I believe the band has only made three truly great albums: Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant and Automatic for the People. Diehards could, no doubt, make a substantial case for the worthiness of all of their 13 studio albums, and I’d agree to a point. While R.E.M. has never made an album that’s not, in some way, worth owning (even Monster), the three I’ve mentioned are the only flawless works in their canon. Amazingly, they sound nothing alike, to the point that one unfamiliar with the band might not believe the same musicians produced all three. Such are the rewards of being a constantly growing artist.

I’m coming around to the idea that Reveal, the group’s 13th album, is their fourth truly great record. It’s shorter and more focused than Up, their first album without drummer Bill Berry, and the songwriting borders on the sublime in more than a few cases. It’s certainly the group’s best work since Automatic for the People in 1992.

And again, if you played this disc immediately after any of their three other great albums, you’d never think it was the same band. Reveal is big-sounding, covered in layers of texture and color that only occasionally threaten to drown out the songs themselves. The songs win out, though, because Reveal is the most tune-centric R.E.M. album to date. The melodies are sweet and satisfying, and Stipe’s tendency to lyrically roam all around his enormous consciousness has thankfully been reined in. I’ve been struggling with how to describe the sound of this album, and I’ve settled on this: it’s Brian Wilson in space. If Wilson had recorded Pet Sounds in 1983 from orbit, it might sound a bit like Reveal.

The sheer mass of sound is achieved largely without the use of electric guitars. Only sporadically does Peter Buck whip out the amplifiers, and then only to send songs like “She Just Wants to Be” into the stratosphere with a soaring lead line. Acoustic guitars, piano, synthesizers and giant string sections make up the rest of the sonic pattern, and for the most part, they sit quietly next to each other, playing nice. Buck called this album “lush” in interviews, and that might be a super-sized understatement.

The star of the show is Stipe’s voice, mixed high and clear throughout. The vocal melodies sparkle and shine, and nowhere here is there an incomplete, unsatisfying song. (R.E.M. has given us those in the past: “Hairshirt,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Airportman,” etc.) “The Lifting,” which opens the record, twists and turns in lovely ways, the bridge section being my favorite. “Summer Turns to High” is glorious, as is “Disappear.” Note for note, these might be the best songs to come out of the band in 10 years.

(It’s ironic to note that just as Stipe’s vocals became clearer and his lyrics less oblique, the band began printing those lyrics on the sleeve. Guys, what we really need is a lyric sheet to Fables of the Reconstruction…)

It’s that excellent songwriting, though, that causes my biggest reservations about the production style. “Saturn Return,” for example, is a beautiful piano-vocal number, but it’s coated in bizarre sonic blips and swirls that almost obscure the heartbreaking clarity of the melody. The same can be said of “I’ll Take the Rain” and “I’ve Been High.” The latter is forced to support synths, strings, electronic drums and all kinds of little noises.

The production here makes Reveal one of those pure pop albums that’s instantly suspect. The consistent sunniness of the lyrics only adds to the impression that the band isn’t quite sincere. R.E.M. has never been a happy pop band (“Shiny Happy People” notwithstanding), and the frozen smile that faces outward at all times on Reveal feels like a lie. The preponderance of additional instruments makes sense if you’re trying to hide an inner sadness behind a sunny wall of sound. In many ways, that Brian Wilson analogy seems right on.

Suspicious intentions aside, though, Reveal is a great pop record, one that makes the last three transitional works worth it. This band has felt like a group of profoundly unhappy people for a long time now, with Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi opening wounds and Up salving them with melancholy. Reveal is a see-thru mask, a terrific exploration of one of pop music’s most confounding cliches – the tragic clown. There’s a lot of facepaint to wash off here, but Reveal hides itself so well that you can enjoy the show without digging deeper. If the members of R.E.M. were attempting to honor the spirit of Brian Wilson, they did it masterfully.

Next time, Tool. Uh-huh.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World
The Black Crowes Strike Back with Lions

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

As you’ve probably guessed, this is going to be one of those columns where I make a bold, blanket statement and then spend the rest of several thousand words defending it. The cool thing about doing it this way is that those that violently disagree with me have already stopped reading and are readying their vitriolic return e-mails. Bring ‘em on, I say. Spirited debate is the lifeblood of passionate, intelligent people, and I’m sure you all consider yourselves both of the above. One more time for the world:

The Black Crowes are the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

How you feel about this statement probably depends largely on your definition of rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of bands purport to play rock ‘n’ roll simply because they have the guitars-bass-drums lineup. Of all the bands to appear in the last 10 years or so, only one has come forth to challenge the Crowes, and that’s Buckcherry. They’re a band whose roots go back farther than Nirvana, and whose whole attitude screams that almost indefinable spirit of rock.

Some fool with a magazine column said of Radiohead’s Kid A that the British quintet had “redefined the rock band.” Radiohead is not now, and has never been, a rock band. Rock as a style requires a near-bypassing of the cerebrum entirely. Real rock ‘n’ roll sounds as if it’s being made up on the spot, and fired with an energy that can’t be planned, thought out or faked in any way. Whether or not you like Buckcherry, you can’t deny their energy and sloppy passion.

But we’re not here to talk about Buckcherry. We’re here to talk about the Black Crowes, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.

Admittedly, the Crowes have attained their title largely by default. I have a long-running argument with my old publisher, Bennie Green, who would scoff, “As long as the Rolling Stones are still playing, they’ll be the greatest rock band in the world.” I think that statement can only be made by ignoring the last quarter-century of sheer, monumental crap the Stones have consistently produced. At one time, yeah, they had it, but at this point the Stones have sucked for 25 years and no one’s had the heart to tell them.

Aerosmith is another contender, or they were before Diane Warren and a host of awful studio producers got their hands on them. They’ve alternated between glimmers of greatness and torrents of awfulness since re-forming in 1985, and they seem genuinely pleased to warble crap like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and share a stage with Britney and Nelly at the Super Bowl. The tragedy of Aerosmith is that when they’re on, they’re terrific.

Besides those two, though, who’s the competition? On sheer attitude and consistency, the Crowes have had the field to themselves ever since their 1990 debut. When you put on a Black Crowes album, you feel it. They’re a band that hearkens back to the grand resurgence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, drawing on influences like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grand Funk Railroad and, yes, the Rolling Stones. To call them clones is to miss the point. They’re torch-bearers, and without them, the ‘90s would have been intolerably rock-free.

As something of an acknowledgement of their royal position, the Crowes have titled their sixth album Lions, after the king of the jungle. Like all of their works, this record could have been released in 1972 and no one would have bat an eye.

Lions most resembles the Crowes’ second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. In fact, they seem to be going in a bit of a cycle. Their debut was a slick rock record, and they followed it up with Companion, a glorious mess. After the challenging double album that became Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm, the boys returned to the sound of the debut with the powerhouse By Your Side in 1998. Lions, like Companion, follows up a slick rock record with a wondrous, sloppy mess that sounds spontaneously created.

Indeed, it even kicks off with a false start, a feedback-drenched mistake that only cements the impression that Lions is a live recording. A little checking found that the basic tracks (guitars, bass, drums, keys and lead vocals) were laid down live, a rarity these days. Even Phish is assembling their studio albums rather than performing them. What you get with Lions is a great rock band being just that.

Even notorious over-producer Don Was couldn’t sink the vibe the live recording created. He occasionally piles the strings on, which almost ruins “Losing My Mind,” one of the weaker tracks to begin with. His production touches are appreciated in the closer, “Lay It All On Me,” though. Remember on those great Zeppelin records when Jimmy Page would let loose a wailing electric guitar solo in the midst of a flurry of orchestration, and the effect was monolithic? A similar effect is achieved here, and even though we’ve heard this sort of thing before, it still soars.

Don Was also learned well the lesson Paul McCartney taught on the second side of Abbey Road: a bunch of unrelated songs can be made to sound like a suite simply by segueing them. Every track on Lions flows directly into the next (except, of course, for the last one), and even though the songs mean nothing to each other, they seem inseparable. In this age of the three-minute single, it’s a defiant statement that Lions is meant to be heard as a whole.

Driving the whole train, however, is the awesome rock ‘n’ roll presence of the Crowes themselves. Guitarist Rich Robinson has perfected his deceptively messy style, and his tone here is harsh and distorted. A Hendrix parallel wouldn’t be too far off. His singing brother Chris is, God bless him, absolutely live here, just like he was on Companion. Remember “Sometime Salvation,” in which he sounded on the verge of snapping his vocal cords at any second? Remember how invigorating it was to hear a singer thrust that much of himself through the microphone and onto the disc? Robinson hits wrong notes, flubs rhythms and strains his little heart out to reach the high notes, and all the while he presents himself with unrestrained conviction. He is a born rock ‘n’ roll singer.

In an age of computer-adjusted pre-fab pop stars and safe-for-radio “modern rock,” whatever the hell that means, it’s a rare, refreshing treat to hear a great band just get down and play. That’s an opportunity that Lions affords you, and in all its unkempt imperfection, it’s a joy. If you can get through the whole thing without playing air guitar once, you may want to invest in that Steely Dan box set, ‘cause rock ‘n’ roll has passed you by.

End of review proper. Here’s a few scattered notes that couldn’t be squeezed in:

In keeping with what seems to be a ridiculous tradition these days, the album’s weakest track, “Lickin’,” is also the first single. I’m not sure why they did this, especially when the very next song, “Come On,” would have been a far superior choice.

The Crowes have long been supporters of the Internet as a music distribution outlet. Their live album with Jimmy Page first appeared as a download months before it hit stores. For a limited time, when you purchase Lions, you get a password that links you to a site chock full of Crowes live performances. You can stream whole shows, download highlights and even download one entire show, and the band endorses your next impulse, which would be to burn it onto a CD. For the price of one disc, you get a free live album out of the deal. That’s pretty cool, and it also shows this band’s devotion to the ‘net as the future of artist-fan relations.

That’s all for now. Next week is huge, with Tool, R.E.M., Weezer and the Cowboy Junkies. I’m not sure which I’ll choose, but if you have a preference, e-mail me and let me know. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Open Skies, Electric Miles and a Guy Named Glen
Three Good Reasons to Like 2001

I got an e-mail from Shane Kinney, drummer for the Portland band Broken Clown. Kinney’s one of the funniest people you’d ever hope to meet, as well as one of the nicest, and his band is one of the only Portland-area groups to remember what real rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. They’re loud, abrasive, distinctive, hilarious and terrific. If you don’t believe me, go to brokenclown.com and check them out.

I’m going to ask a favor on Shane’s behalf. Go to wcyy.com, website for Portland’s only “modern rock” station, and request Broken Clown’s tune “Feelgood Hit of the Summer.” The band’s trying to get the tune into rotation on the notoriously local-phobic station, and your votes could seriously help them out. The Portland music scene provided me with my first professional writing gig, and I’d take it as a personal favor if you’d help me give a bit back. Thanks.

Oh, and while I’m shamelessly plugging the boy, surf on over to shanekinney.com to read his columns and other funny bits. His second (and rapidly becoming first) career is as a stand-up comedian, and he’s a natural.

The new music well is overflowing in the next couple of weeks, especially on the 15th, when we’ll get the new Cowboy Junkies, the new R.E.M., the new Tool and the long-awaited new Weezer. Megadeth lays another egg on the 15th as well, called The World Needs a Hero. I logged onto megadeth.com in the vain hope that this record would be better than the last three. My spirits rose when I saw that Vic Rattlehead, the band’s erstwhile mascot, will make another cover appearance for the first time since Rust in Peace in 1992.

And then I heard the song, “Burning Bridges.” Feh. Crap. Ass. It sucks mightily. I think I’m all done with Dave Mustaine.

Anywho, with the new Black Crowes coming next week, and no end in sight for the new stuff until October or so, I realized that if I wanted to mention some of the great new releases I’ve picked up in the past month, I’d have to do it this week. Already, 2001 has it all over 2000, and here are three of the reasons why:

I can’t understand why G. Love is not a superstar. His laid-back, hip-hop-inflected funk has actually gone in and out of vogue twice since he started his career in 1993. To his credit, he’s never done anything differently, and yet he remains ignored by the radio gods. Meanwhile, Sugar Ray cops his style (badly) and gets rewarded with hit after hit. I don’t get it.

The fifth album by G. Love and Special Sauce, titled Electric Mile, sounds just like the fourth album, which sounds just like the third album, and so on. Ordinarily I’d be adverse to this lack of artistic growth, but it meshes perfectly with G. Love’s easygoing style. For the entire running time of Electric Mile, Love sounds like he’s just woken up in a peaceful field of flowers and smoked a big fat doob. This is not a tortured soul. In G. Love’s world, everyone can just get along.

I was a big fan of Love’s first album, and since he hasn’t changed a thing since then, I’ve liked everything since. Electric Mile shimmies and shakes in all the right places, and Love seems to know exactly when in a song to demonstrate that he really can play that guitar. Love was merging folk and hip-hop years before Ani DiFranco got around to it, and he turns in another couple of acoustic-based, Bob-Dylan-meets-the-inner-city anthems in “Free at Last” and “Sara’s Song.”

Electric Mile, like all of Love’s albums, wafts on a sweet, sweet vibe. Even when he’s decrying social ills (“Parasite”) or describing his own death (“Poison”), that vibe remains. Electric Mile is another in a series of G. Love albums that never try too hard and succeed winningly because of it. Now, if we can just get “Unified” or “Shy Girl” on the radio…

I have a friend (hi, Chris) who thinks that Glen Phillips, singer for the now-defunct acoustic pop group Toad the Wet Sprocket, is a great lyricist. While I’ve always liked Toad, I never paid too much attention to their lyrics, so when it came time to hear Phillips’ solo album, called Abulum, I read the words first.

Chris, you were so right.

Maybe it was there all along, or maybe the breakup of his band brought something out in him, but Phillips has crafted a great set of lyrics for his solo debut. If the music doesn’t quite match up to the standards set by the lyrics, well, that’s okay. Every song is, at the very least, memorably singable, and that just puts the focus back on the lyrics anyway.

One thing I’ve always liked about Phillips is that he’s one of the only male songwriters who seems to hate men as much as some female songwriters do. (For a good example, see “Hold Her Down,” on Toad’s third album, fear.) Here he takes deadly aim with a song called “Men Just Leave” that’s a definite highlight of the record. Dig this:

“There’s a place in the desert where the men all meet/They park their vans in the shade and talk about Kerouac and the works of the Beats/Let their dogs play together, drink beer and they sing/They’ve all got a secret treasure, wallet pictures in their pockets of the kids they never see/One and one ends up to be three, don’t need to have love, don’t need to be sweet/But when the air gets heavy and it’s hard to breathe, the women get stuck and the men just leave.”

If you can imagine this, that’s sung to a jolly acoustic accompaniment. Later on, he offers a cautionary tale about men who prey on women called “Professional Victim”: “They can smell the weak ones and just pick you off like a pigeon/And each one is worse than the last one until you’re a professional victim.” My favorite is the last line of that song: “All the pretty girls and the stupid boys make the same mistakes until they’ve got no choice.”

For all his gender politics, Phillips is at his best when he’s observing and describing. “Fred Myers” is a terrific portrait of happy-go-lucky homelessness, and “Trainwreck” describes its protagonist thusly: “She was as desperate as a salesman at a company that’s folding, but they haven’t told the staff yet that they’re bankrupt and backordered, and they’re funneling the pensions to the CEO’s back pocket so in one week they’ll have nothing.” That fits the melody perfectly, by the way.

In “Drive By,” Phillips remembers a fateful trip with his dad to shoot the neighbor’s dog. Along the way, the young Phillips prays to God: “Dear God, if you save this dog, I will never get high, I will never jack off/I will be all the things that I should but have not/ I’ll be a good boy from now on.” I won’t spoil how the song ends up, but it’s poetic storytelling.

The whole record is filled with gems like those. They’re all sung in Phillips’ sweet tenor, and much of the aggressive nature of the last two Toad albums has been thankfully excised. Phillips, like Freedy Johnston, never sounds right with swirls of electric guitar all around him. He’s better with a bed of acoustic guitars beneath him, and all of Abulum fits
that bill nicely. It’s a sweet surprise, and one that makes me want to go back and read the lyric sheets from his old band’s records.

I mentioned Iona’s new one about three or four weeks ago, and never got around to reviewing it. As much as I despise labels, the one Iona has come up with for themselves works as well as any: they’re a Celtic progressive band. In other words, imagine Dream Theater and Clannad getting together for a jam session. It sounds much better than you’d think.

Open Sky, the seventh Iona album, is worth getting just for the panoramic wide-angle photography that adorns the cover. The music inside is just as beautiful. The idea of a Celtic progressive band works so well that it’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before. The opener, “Woven Cord” (reprised from last year’s live album of the same name), is like a mission statement: thudding, cinematic drums and powerful bass guitar supporting a complex yet hummable melody played simultaneously on soaring electric guitar and uilleann pipes. There are synth washes atop tin whistles, violins and Celtic harps, and every once in a while, there’s a stunning Dave Bainbridge electric guitar solo. Floating above everything, an instrument in its own right, is the voice of Joanne Hogg.

Open Sky is the most complete Iona album. It flows like a single piece better than any of their other works, connected by lovely instrumentals like “A Million Stars” and buoyed by some of their most transcendent melodies. “Hinba,” especially, is a stunner. The album’s centerpiece is unquestionably the 22-minute “Songs of Ascent,” which drifts perfectly from melody to melody, instrumental save for a short section at the beginning. Unlike some progressive rock, this doesn’t noodle about. It sets glorious moods through jaw-dropping musicianship and arrangements, and somehow, it makes its bizarre blend of styles work. It’s best in one long 73-minute sitting, since it’s one of those albums that makes you feel as if you’ve been somewhere when you’re done with it.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t finish this whole thing on my lunch break. It’s now well past 10 p.m., so I’m going to say goodnight. Next week, Lions by the Crowes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Mark Your Calendars
New Releases Through the Summer

I’ve got to start this off with a recommendation for a film that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it.

Christopher Nolan’s film Memento is an entirely new kind of movie-watching experience, or at least, it was for me. You may have heard about it, and you may have noticed that it’s been receiving the best reviews of any film released this year. Memento is so critically adored that pretty soon it’s going to be fashionable to hate it.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I didn’t hate it. Memento is disguised as a standard thriller – good guy must hunt down the bad guy who raped and murdered the good guy’s saintly wife. Steven Seagal’s done that plotline three or four times, I think. There are a number of things that distinguish Memento, though, and I’ll just list a few of the more interesting ones:

1) The main character has short-term memory loss. He was injured in the assault that left his wife dead, and while he can remember everything up to that point, the recent present fades away every few minutes. Hence, he must leave notes for himself and take photographs to remind himself where he has been.

2) The film is mostly edited in reverse chronological order. Each sequence you see happens in the film directly before each sequence you just saw. (It makes sense. Really.) The stunning effect of this is it puts you in the same position as the main character – each scene is like waking up suddenly, with no context. In a revenge thriller film, that effect is spine-tingling.

3) The film races towards a towering mindfuck of a conclusion that I wouldn’t even dream of spoiling here. In fact, I’ve only spoiled as much as I have to make Memento sound intriguing enough for you to hunt down. It’s playing on only about 120 screens across the country right now. Wherever you live, it’s worth the drive.

For once, I think Roger Ebert missed the boat on this one. While he dug the film, he calls the backwards editing a device. On the contrary, it’s integral to the story and the audience’s appreciation of the character’s plight. Non-chronological editing has been used as a device before – in Pulp Fiction, for example. If you re-edit Pulp Fiction chronologically, the story remains the same. If you do the same with Memento, it doesn’t work at all. The way the story is told is, in fact, more important than the story. You’ll understand when you see it.

But I digress…

It’s time for the seasonal new releases roundup here at Tuesday Morning. I’m going to try to work this out so that every three months I provide you with a handy list of the interesting new music coming your way. None of this is information you couldn’t go get yourself, if you wanted to, but why would you when I’ve been so kind as to arrange it all here for you?

Think of this as a coming attractions sort of thing. For the next few months, here’s what I’ll be writing about:

On May 8, Mark Eitzel, the most depressed man in pop music, releases his fourth solo album, The Invisible Man. Eitzel used to be the frontman for American Music Club, but his solo stuff (especially West, which featured Peter Buck of R.E.M.) has really shined.

Speaking of R.E.M., their new one, Reveal, hits the following week, on May 15. I can’t say I’m a fan of “Imitation of Life,” the first single. It sounds to me like the Out of Time-era band covering Matthew Sweet, but worse, because ordinarily that description would be intriguing. Also on the 15th is Lions, the new Black Crowes disc. The cover alone is worth it. Oh yeah, the new Tool, Lateralus, also hits on the 15th, as does Open, the new Cowboy Junkies. Oh, wait, and some band called Weezer is putting out The Green Album on that date as well. Other than that, though, nothing on the 15th.

The 22nd sees the estimable comeback of Deep Blue Something, as well as the completely unwarranted return of Stabbing Westward. Both albums are self-titled. The French invade our shores again (HA!) when Air releases their fourth album, 10,000hz Legend, on May 29.

On June 5th, I was born. As if that wasn’t enough reason to celebrate, you can also dig Radiohead’s fifth album, Amnesiac. I’m quite looking forward to this, and I must admit I caved and listened to a few seconds of the first song. Instantly better than Kid A, and I can’t wait to hear more. The 5th also brings us Fatboy Slim’s wittily titled A Break From the Norm, Rufus Wainwright’s long-awaited Poses (date subject to change at God’s childlike whim), and Starflyer 59’s longest and fullest album yet, Leave Here a Stranger. As a side note, that was produced by long-ignored genius Terry Taylor.

June keeps rocking on the 12th with Travis’ follow-up, The Invisible Band. (I’m betting this record and Mark Eitzel’s back to back would be an experience.) Plus, the debut of Brian Setzer’s new rockabilly band, ‘68 Comeback Special. They call their first album Ignition.

Perry Farrell finally surfaces on June 19 with an album long rumored to be called The Diamond Jubilee. Guess what, though. It’s now called Song Yet To Be Sung. In the immortal words of Frank Barone, I could have eaten a box of Alpha-Bits and crapped something better. You don’t work for five years on something and then call it Song Yet To Be Sung unless you don’t like it much…

The 26th of June is quite promising, promising as it does the second Basement Jaxx album Rooty, the new Lindsey Buckingham solo disc Gift of Screws (and boy, is that guy underrated), and a double-disc effort from Stone Temple Pilots called Shangri-La-Deeda. At least it’s not called Robert Downey Jr. Made Me His Bitch In Prison.

July kicks off with Slayer (yes, fucking Slayer) and their new album, which they’ve sunnily titled God Hates Us All. The 3rd also sees the re-emergence of a great pop band called PFR. Their fifth album, to be released on Steve Taylor’s financially struggling Squint Entertainment label, is called Disappear. That’s only funny if you know that they’ve been away since 1994. Squint Entertainment is also promising us the new Sixpence None the Richer album sometime this year.

Wilco checks in on July 10 with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a week later, Built to Spill hits with my favorite pretentious album title of the year so far, Ancient Melodies of the Future. Thing is, those guys always live up to titles like that…

And now we’re into stuff that may or may not come out on these dates. No guarantees from here on out:

Fantomas is the name of Mike Patton’s (of Faith No More) and Trevor Dunn’s (of Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle) new project, and it’s supposed to come out on July 24. They Might Be Giants are following the trend of re-naming a perfectly well-titled album with something dumb by changing their August 15 album Nooooo!! to Mink Car. Silly decision. Busta Rhymes slinks back with Genesis on August 21, and Bjork’s Vespertine is slated for August 28. Finally, the one I’m most looking forward to, and naturally the furthest away: Tori Amos returns with an album called Strange Little Girls on September 18.

Other stuff that may or may not hit this year: Brand New Heavies are rumored to be working on Heavy Rhyme Experience Volume II, and if you remember the first one, you know how cool that was. New ones this summer are expected from Cake, De La Soul, Filter, Ben Folds (making his solo debut), Garbage, Freedy Johnston, Jude, Korn, Live, Alanis Morissette, Grant Lee Phillips, Prodigy, Seal, Wu-Tang Clan and a supergroup called Oysterhead that consists of bassist Les Claypool (Primus), drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police) and guitarist Trey Anastasio (Phish). More news as I know it.

If you hate these long lists, I’m sorry. More music next time.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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.

a column by andre salles