On Death and Rebirth
And Changing to a Butterfly Jones

So I was going to start this column with a justification for its lateness and a giant rant against technology, both of which were precipitated by my computer dying on me. My two-year-old typewriter-with-a-TV has decided, all on its own, that the hard drive upon which I’ve placed everything I’ve written since 1999 (including every one of these columns) doesn’t actually exist. I can’t convince it otherwise. It’s probably something small and stupid, like a loose wire or a broken needle, but my Circuit City service contract only covers replacements. Hence, an all-new hard drive will be on its way to me in a day or two, I hope.

So yeah, I was going to start in about how everything breaks and dies just when you’ve become dependent on it. And then a real person died, and that sort of put things into perspective.

The biggest problem with being a comic book fan (which I am) is that no one’s ever heard of the art form’s best and brightest. Being the most famous and influential comic book artist is like being the world’s greatest tile grouter. In tile grouting circles, you’re a superstar. To the rest of the world, you’re kind of weird for thinking that tile grouting is a big deal.

All of which is a way of saying that when a great comic book artist, a true architect of the modern form, passes on, no one but the fans really notices. John Buscema was one of those, though – a true architect of the modern form. He worked with Stan Lee to bring Marvel Comics its heart and soul, especially on a title called Silver Surfer that was epic and small at the same time, mostly because of Buscema’s art. Every comic book artist who’s ever tried to depict the massive and world-spanning on a human scale has used Buscema as a guideline, and they’ll all tell you so.

I don’t want to eulogize the guy too much, because I didn’t know him. He did, however, have a lasting impact on my childhood, whether I knew it or not at the time. I also figured that since no major news organizations were going to memorialize him, I’d better say something before another superb artist passed into the ether without notice.

Rest in peace, John.

* * * * *

I’m playing catch-up this week with a brief review of an album I never got around to last year. I say ‘brief” because my lack of computer is forcing me to type this at the office, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do non-newspaper work for very long while my bosses are roaming about. By the time they read this, if they do, I hope it’ll be too late.

I first heard dada the same way most people did, I’m sure. I caught their novelty hit “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio in ’92 and laughed my throat raw. If you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Dizz Knee Land” is a clever send-up of those Disney World commercials that ran in the early ’90s. (You know the ones: “Jeffrey Dahmer, you’ve just carved up three innocent people and ate them, what are you going to do next?” ‘I’m going to Disney World!”) “Dizz Knee Land” was full of anti-social behavior (“I just robbed a grocery store, I just flipped off President George, I’m going to Dizz Knee Land…”), but it broke the first rule of career longevity: never lead with a novelty song.

True to the rule, dada never had another hit. They did, however, produce four albums that ranged in quality from very good to superb, without another novelty tune in the bunch. Guitarist Michael Gurley in particular established himself as a singular talent, one of only a handful of modern guitarists with his own signature sound. You can always tell a Gurley tune from the guitar tone. Try saying that about the guy from Godsmack.

If any one thing characterized dada, it was their unwillingness to be pigeonholed. They tried everything, from three-chord jams to complex Beatlesque pop to haunting blues-influenced showcases. The trio (also including bassist Joie Calo and drummer Phil Leavitt) was always best, however, when they relied on nothing but their chemistry as a unit, stripping down to three instruments and a voice and somehow filling the room with a huge yet minimalist sound.

As you’ve probably gathered by the frequent use of past tense verbs in this column, dada broke up a while ago. Well-researched readers have probably also surmised that the CD I didn’t get to last year is the debut from Gurley’s new band, Butterfly Jones. This album has sold like wool sweaters to sheep, which is to say not very well, and that’s not unexpected, but unfortunate. Butterfly Jones’ Napalm Springs (love that title) is, at the very least, a better-than-average dada album, and ought to be doing better than it is.

Alas, the American public seems to be allergic to smart, well-constructed pop music, which is what Napalm Springs offers in spades. Gurley’s guitar tone remains enticingly original, and drummer Leavitt is in Butterfly Jones as well, so it’s almost a dada reunion. Instead of the minimalist approach his former band took, though, Gurley has widened the sound here without oversaturating it, making room for strings and horns and the sampled sounds of Soul Coughing keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni. It’s a mainstreaming move, to be sure, but it works well with the material.

And the material is almost entirely musically excellent. To name three, “Suicide Bridge” is another hit that will never be, “Blue Roses” is sweet and subtle, and “Alright” recasts Gurley’s lead guitar in a similar setting to “Dorina,” off of dada’s debut, and lets him loose. Throughout, Gurley’s voice floats atop these tunes, and even though Joie Calo isn’t around to harmonize with him, the result is pretty close to dada’s most melodic work.

The weak point here, as always with Gurley, is the lyrics. On Napalm Springs they jump from witty to wretched fairly often, a weakness that also marred the final dada album. “Wonder” is almost laughable, with its “where did we come from, where are we going to” pseudo-metaphysics. “When People Are Mean” also suffers from its kindergarten-level moralization: “When people are mean, when people are bad, it usually means that somewhere inside they are sad…”

But then Gurley whomps you with “The Systematic Dumbing Down of Terry Constance Jones,” a smirking depiction of pop culture marketing’s effect on the American female. This tune’s a serious prize, one of the several instances on Napalm Springs where the lyrics rise to the challenge of the music. Another is ‘It’s Cool Dude,” which could have been a throwaway and ends up surprisingly affecting.

Gurley is obviously fishing for a hit with this album, but he hasn’t watered himself down to attain chart status. He’s just sent his considerable songwriting skill into more acoustic and melodic waters. While Napalm Springs may not please every dada fan, especially those looking for more of their three-piece rock band sound, those who miss Michael Gurley’s voice and guitar would be well advised to seek it out. If you’ve never heard the man outside of “Dizz Knee Land” before, he’s created a good starting point here. Butterfly Jones is, in many ways, dada for the masses.

You lucky masses.

Next time, probably a round-up of several year-end hip-hop releases. After that, new stuff. Yaaaay!

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Don’t Call It a Comeback
Post-Hiatus Phish Disappoints With Round Room

It’s fitting that as I embark upon my first column about the mighty Phish, the band lands in the news here in Massachusetts.

Maybe you heard about it. At a recent show up here, the band brought out a man they introduced as Tom Hanks, the final punchline in a lengthy gag regarding their song “Wilson.” (You can probably figure it out.) Obviously, it wasn’t Tom Hanks, but rather a similar-looking relative of one of the band members, but the local media seized upon the story, touting Hanks’ appearance with typical celebrity-hungry fervor. The retractions the next day were funny, and it struck me that such a ruse is right out of the Frank Zappa Screw-With-Your-Audience Handbook.

I’m not sure what level of Phish fandom I can rightfully claim. As of this writing, I’ve never seen them live. I have all the albums, of course, and all of the officially released live recordings, but except for a few gifts from friends hooked up to the tape-trading circuit, I’ve never been into their bootleg network. And I’ve always admired them for what they took from Frank Zappa as opposed to what they got from the Grateful Dead, meaning I’m more into their arrangement and technical skills than their improvisation and sense of community.

Make no mistake, what Phish didn’t get from the Dead they got from Zappa – the jazz-rock tendencies, the nonsensical lyrics uttered in a low voice that dances all around the pitch, the prolific and diverse nature of their catalog. Which is the bigger influence is an argument for another time, but one that would certainly have its share of evidence on both sides. F’rinstance, Zappa played and recorded several songs from his 1984 rock opera Thing-Fish long before unveiling the whole thing. Likewise, Phish have Gamehendge, a lengthy and fantastical rock opera that they’ve never recorded, but have played pieces of in concert for as long as they’ve been a band. (“Wilson,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Punch You In the Eye,” to name a few.)

There is one thing, however, that they took from the Dead that elevates them above most bands playing today. It’s not the quality of the musicians – Zappa’s bands had some of the most technically amazing players you will ever be fortunate enough to hear, but they were lorded over by Frank himself, conducting and dictating the sound and style according to his own compositional ear. Plus, as Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side project Oysterhead (with Primus’ Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland) showed, you can put the best musicians together and still not achieve that spark that turns them into a band.

Phish is a band. In fact, they’ve often gone beyond band, playing like some 16-limbed, four-throated, 800-pound monstrosity. Like the core members of the Dead, the four Phish guys have spent so many years listening to each other play that they’ve turned it into a form of mind-meld. In their best moments, the four musicians not only anticipate what each other will do next, but challenge each other to reach further into new directions.

This bold exploration is fascinating if you’re a musician, but can be understandably tiresome if you’re not one. I think Phish recognizes this as well, which is why their studio and live outputs have been so different of late. Critics and fans have harped upon every release since Hoist for not capturing the sound of the band live, but that hasn’t been the point for many years. The last four studio releases have been small affairs, consisting of 12 or so short, melodic songs without much of the grand spectacle of the live shows. (Naturally, there’s the LivePhish series and the Hampton Comes Alive box set, which provide all the live spectacle one could need.)

Which is why Phish’s return to the studio is so surprising. The foursome took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording to pursue side projects, most of them fruitful – Anastasio had a solo album and tour, keyboardist Page McConnell led the jazzy Vida Blue, and bassist Mike Gordon recorded with guitar hero Leo Kottke. When they reconvened this summer to rehearse for their first tour since 2000, they liked their new material so much that they pressed the record button, and four days later emerged with Round Room, their new album.

What’s surprising is that Round Room seems to go against the philosophy of the recent studio direction. At 78 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut, the epic Junta, and if it does nothing else, the album certainly captures the sound of Phish playing live. It all but shuns the finessed sheen of their last album, Farmhouse, in favor of rough edges and extended jams.

So why am I so disappointed with it? I suppose it’s because I’ve been spoiled by the LivePhish series, especially the recent round of Halloween shows (vols. 13-16). This series selectively showcases only the best nights of the Phish experience, and as any fan of improvisational live music can tell you, there’s never any guarantee that you’ll be seeing the band on one of their best nights. By recording Round Room live in four days, Phish rolled the dice, trusting that these four days would find them completely in tune with each other. As you may have guessed, they didn’t, at least not entirely.

There are four extended jams on Round Room, each approaching or breaking the 10-minute mark, and while I like them fine, I don’t consider them the best examples of what this band can do. Opener “Pebbles and Marbles” starts with a swing beat, then escalates masterfully over its 11 minutes to become the most successful of the longer tunes. Also excellent is “Walls of the Cave,” although neither of those songs has the spark of, for instance, the version of “Chalk Dust Torture” on LivePhish Vol. 2. Less successful is “Waves,” the pseudo-epic closer, which actually finds McConnell fumbling for notes.

It’s the remainder of the record, however, which could have used the most editing. As usual, the shorter numbers reach for simplicity, and often end up with banality. Of the shorter numbers, “Anything But Me” stands out as a winner. It’s soft and emotional, in the same vein as “Fast Enough for You” from Rift, still my favorite Phish record. Unfortunately, we also get drivel like “Mexican Cousin,” which I never have to hear again as long as I live.

Anastasio may not be the best singer on the planet, but he sounds like Jeff Buckley when compared with Gordon, who gets two songs all to himself. It doesn’t help that his round robin title track doesn’t really go anywhere after the first 30 seconds or so. But it hardly matters who’s singing some of these songs, since they weren’t given time to gestate beyond the sketch stage. “46 Days,” for example, made for a nifty three minutes on Saturday Night Live, but doesn’t really evolve beyond the repetitive chorus phrase (“46 days and the coal ran out”) and the one-chord stomp of the main riff.

I know I’m asking a lot of a bunch of songs that weren’t road-tested first, but Phish’s return should have been better than this. The best of the band’s live material starts in the stratosphere and gradually ascends into orbit. Most of Round Room never even gets off the ground. It would be an interesting experiment to hear the band re-record this album after bringing the songs out on tour to watch them grow up, but for now, the album is a mixed bag that feels too rushed and too rough. Much of Zappa’s later material suffered from the same maladies, and I hope Phish has enough sense not to emulate their hero that closely.

Next week, Prince, I hope.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

I May Have Killed Bambi
Oh, and Here's the Next Two Months of New Music

I spent New Year’s Eve with someone I’d never met, in a place I’d never been.

If you live in Sturgis, Michigan, I’m sorry. I’m apologizing in the same way that I would apologize to a casual acquaintance that I happened to see at his or her worst – vomiting his or her guts out, let’s say, or shaking his or her booty to Prince songs well past his or her bedtime. Well, I caught you doing the Prince thing, Sturgis, and perhaps the vomiting thing, though I didn’t actually see it, but might have if I looked hard enough. Point is, I’d bet I’ve seen you at your most embarrassing worst, Sturgis, Michigan, and for that, I’m sorry.

The whole night was surreal, in the best way, actually. If you’ve ever shouted theology back and forth with a stranger in a crowded bowling alley-slash-bar on New Year’s Eve, then you know what I mean. You’ve been there. It was one of those end-of-the-year things that leads people to believe that the coming 12 months are just full of possibility, and that anything can happen.

Three or so hours after midnight, it did. I sideswiped Bambi with my car.

There were three of them, all right, and I missed the first two (full-grown adult deer) and couldn’t avoid the last one (a smaller, more frightened baby deer). Happily, the little guy got up and hobbled away seconds after I struck it, but my car remains a frightful mess. So there I am, at three in the morning, by the side of the road, thinking all sorts of thoughts about karmic retribution, and entertaining the notion that for this to have happened three hours into the new year isn’t exactly a sunny omen for 2002. And suddenly, this big, wide grin appears on my face and I laugh myself sick at the absurdity of the whole thing.

So far, it’s been that kinda year.

*****

But enough with the looking back. Onward, I say.

Last year, the tone-setters for the year’s musical quality were set early. This column’s choice for number one, in fact, Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon, came out in February, preceded by Jonatha Brooke’s top 10 entry Steady Pull. By mid-March, I just knew it was going to be a good year.

If 2002 follows the same path, then the relative excellence or suckiness of January and February’s releases should give us some idea if subtle art will reign, or if Eminem has a shot at the top spot again. The slate isn’t too full, but it isn’t too bad, either. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

First out of the gate this year is Michael Roe, the 77s guitarist, who’s releasing an instrumental disc called Orbis on January 10 or so. I say “or so” because it’s only available through his website (www.77s.com) and they’re sometimes fast and loose with release dates over there. Regardless, this is the second installment in Roe’s ambient series, begun years ago with the just-re-released Daydream. Should be interesting to hear him play guitar in an unfamiliar musical setting.

By the way, the 77s Christmas EP, Happy Chrimbo, was wonderful. Probably the best rendition of “Blue Christmas” I’ve ever heard.

On January 22, Bad Religion storms back with an album called The Process of Belief. It had better be better than their last one, The New America, which was all but ruined by an ill-fitting collaboration with producer Todd Rundgren. This one’s been getting some nice notices, but I’ll reserve judgment until it hits stores.

Also on the 22nd is a double CD from New England’s best and most original band, Cerberus Shoal. Before their legendary six-man lineup split in 2000, the group made a trilogy of spooky, lush and mostly instrumental albums. The first two (Homb and Crash My Moon Yacht) are all but indescribable, floating on waves of ornate instrumentation and surprising melodies. With the band having completely restructured itself, I had given up hope of ever hearing the two-disc finale, Mr. Boy Dog, but lo and behold, North East Indie Records is finally releasing it. If it’s anything like the first two installments, it will be bizarre and beautiful.

The following week, January 29, sees another double-disc record, this time from Dream Theater. Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence features a 43-minute title track that takes up all of disc two. Undoubtedly, the album will be chock full of more physically exhausting music that no other band on the planet can play, just like the rest of their catalog. Reportedly, it’s more melodic than they’ve been in the past, too.

The Chemical Brothers also return on the 29th with Come With Us, an unpromising title for what promises to be another evolution in this electronic rock duo’s sound. The Brothers have never stood still, and no two of their discs sound the same. Looking forward to this one.

February 12 sees a new one from Chris Isaak, which is sadly not titled As Seen On TV, like I was hoping, but Always Got Tonight. VH-1 has just started re-broadcasting The Chris Isaak Show, minus the nudity and swearing, of course. If you don’t get Showtime, though, it’s at least an opportunity to see this thing. Hopefully this album will revive Isaak’s flagging music career, but if not, he’s always got his day job.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello has titled her fourth album Cookie: The Antropological Mix Tape. Apparently, it brings the funk, something some people thought was missing from her last one, Bitter. I wasn’t one of those people, so we’ll see if Cookie leaves me cold on February 12.

Believe it or not, Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House fame, has had a successful solo career across the pond, especially in his native New Zealand. He’s released two solo discs (one of which, Try Whistling This, barely made a dent over here) and a live record to much acclaim. Well, Nettwerk Records has stepped up and is releasing both the live album (called Seven Worlds Collide) and the second solo disc (called One Nil) in the States. Seven Worlds hits on February 26, and One Nil comes your way in April. This guy is a vastly underappreciated songwriter, and it would be nice, however unlikely, if he got his due in America.

Finally, the singer we love to hate to love, Alanis Morissette, returns on February 26 with album number three, Under Rug Swept. The big twist this time? No Glen Ballard. Morissette went out on her own, and we’ll see next month what she came up with.

I’ve got some catching up to do (still haven’t heard that Wu-Tang album), so the next two weeks should be filled with 2001 releases I just didn’t get around to. Thanks to everyone who wrote me regarding the Top 10 List. I’m still interested in your thoughts on the year that was, so send ‘em on in.

Year two – here we go.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#10. Jonatha Brooke, Steady Pull.

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

#9. Sloan, Pretty Together.

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

#8. Glen Phillips, Abulum.

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

#7. Aphex Twin, Drukqs.

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

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

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

#5. Ani DiFranco, Revelling/Reckoning.

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

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

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

#3. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs.

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

#2. Rufus Wainwright, Poses.

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

Which brings us to the top of the heap:

#1. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Kay.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday Morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

Who is Cush? Glad you asked…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

I can’t remember being a year old.

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

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

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

So, thank you.

*****

Now, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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

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

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

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

And now I can.

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His name is Prince, and he is funky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

David Hayter Must Die
Before He Ruins Everything

David Hayter must die.

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

Before he ruins everything.

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

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

The X-Men movie was supposed to save comics.

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

It was a disgrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not David Hayter. Oh, no.

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

Jeezus.

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

Why am I so worked up over this?

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Lenny Happy Returns
Karvitz' Latest Nostalgiarama Sounds All His Own

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles