Girls, Eels and Jars – Oh My!
Plus Two Live Discs From Across the Pond

Before I get rolling on this monstrosity, let me satisfy my inner geek, who’s growling at me to mention this…

Did everyone see the Star Wars trailer on TV? Doesn’t it look exactly like Phantom Menace? What in hell took so long to make this movie? It appears as though they just cut and spliced CGI shots from Episode One and tacked new dialogue on top of it. And the dialogue’s not even that new, really – still a bunch of bureaucratic back-and-forth about not wanting to go to war. Okay, it’s not all that bad, but I’m really in this one for the nostalgia, and the cool-looking action scenes. And I will admit, the six-year-old in me gasped in shock and dread at that first sweeping shot of the army of stormtroopers. I knew the story, I knew it was coming, and still I gasped. That’s got to be a good thing, and will hopefully offset those clones, which have always sounded like a weak plot device to me. The seeds of the Empire are evident even from the trailer, and if the film sticks with that sense of foreboding, this one and the next could be really good.

Plus, no fucking Jar Jar. Bonus points for that.

Still, Lucas, you’re on probation, especially since your ratio of good movies to bad is all tied up right now. (For the record, A New Hope and Empire are the good ones.) You need to knock this one out of the park, if you’re capable. You need to make the origins and history of the Empire believable and frightening. Having spent the last 20 years building your very own empire, you should have plenty of insight to draw from, right? Right. The Fanboy Nation stands in judgment in less than two months.

Speaking of judgments, here’s a bunch of ’em:

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I knew this was going to happen.

If you’re a fan of the Indigo Girls, you probably shared in my moment of prognostication. I was sure it would happen a lot sooner than it did, though, which surprised me. Back in 1996, when the Girls released Swamp Ophelia, an album so much bigger, louder and ballsier than anything this unassuming folk duo had done before, I figured it for an experiment, and predicted that they would be back to making sweet acoustic folk music by their next album.

They fooled me. It turned out that Ophelia was the first step in a progression, which continued with building force on 1998’s mammoth Shaming of the Sun and 2000’s overblown and somewhat forgettable Come On Now Social. The guitars got more ferocious, the lyrics more biting, and the tempos more relentless. In places on Social, in fact, the twosome experimented with dissonance that would have made Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore smile like a proud papa.

The Girls have always had a dichotomy going on, with Emily Saliers’ more melodic folk leanings brushing up against Amy Ray’s more explosive rock tendencies. It was little surprise, then, that the buildup finally reached its head on Ray’s propulsive solo album, Stag. This was Ray in pure punkus outus mode, screaming over stunningly noisy rhythms and feedback-drenched electric guitars. If you were to play this album and Nomads, Indians, Saints back to back, you’d never guess it was the same Amy Ray.

After that, of course, there was nowhere to go but back down, and the Girls have done so gracefully on their eighth studio album, Become You. This is an album I expected in 1998, but it sounds even more nostalgically wondrous in 2002, after the last few outings. It’s completely acoustic-based, the emphasis is on harmonies, and it’s the sweetest album they’ve made since Rites of Passage, which it brings to mind constantly. There’s no bitterness, no bile, just a lovely, simple album of love songs. And I didn’t realize how much I’d missed this sound from these two.

Honestly, I’d love to hate Become You for the backslide it represents, for the fact that it blithely ignores the last eight years of the Indigos’ musical development, but I can’t. It’s such a winsome creation, made with such obvious joy, that attacking it would seem petty and small. Unlike some of their recent works, Become You wants nothing more than to provide 40 minutes of sweet, enjoyable folk-pop, and its very unimportance in the Girls’ catalog is sort of its prime feature. If you’ve ever liked the Indigo Girls, you’ll like this album. A lot.

One major thing in this album’s favor is that it features the return of the gorgeous harmonies that buoyed the Girls’ first five albums. Can anyone name two other modern singers whose voices sound like they belong together, like they were sculpted from the ether specifically to complement each other? I can’t. When the pair winds their way through Saliers’ beautiful piano ballad “Deconstruction,” it’s like welcoming an old friend home. It’s soaring and intimate at the same time, and listening to it and its 11 counterparts on Become You, you remember why these two coffeehouse folkies became stars in the first place.

Like many artists who are personally as well as musically involved, Indigo Girls albums have always had an emotionally charged edge. It’s fairly apparent when they’re writing songs about each other, and lately they’ve been moving away from that, chasing individual concerns. In many ways, Become You is a breakup and makeup album, an often painful examination of a creative and personal relationship that still yields rewards, more than 15 years after its start. The title track, reminiscent of “Power of Two” from Swamp Ophelia, sums it all up: “It took a long time to become the thing I am to you, and you won’t tear it apart without a fight, without a heart, it took a long time to become you…”

Even more revealing is Saliers’ “You’ve Got to Show,” about connections and compromise: “Why don’t we both agree we’re both afraid and too afraid to say, if I say count to three and move toward me would you meet me half the way, there are a thousand things about me I want only you to know, but I can’t go there alone, you’ve got to show.” The prevailing mood is one of learning to work with and love someone all over again, and is filled with the sense that any relationship, be it personal, musical or whatever, takes work and time and compromise.

Become You is the first “classic” Indigo Girls album in a long time, and it easily rekindles the abiding love these two have engendered from the start. While the previous few releases may have taken time to settle and sink in, this one is immediate. Had they followed my prediction and released an album like this in 1996, it would have seemed safe and cowardly. They’ve more than earned this return to their roots, and the album is all the sweeter when you consider how far they journeyed from home.

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Beck gets an awful lot of credit for what amounts to standing outside the music industry, at a safe ironic distance, and commenting on it. He’s got an amazing sonic sense, I’ll grant, and his patchwork albums are marvels of cut-and-splice wizardry. The thing is, though, he’s never, not even in his quieter acoustic moments, emotionally invested in his music.

All of which is a long way of opining that the Eels, often lumped in with Beck as ironic collage studio nerds, have the edge because the emotion is always there. Beck albums are sonically satisfying, but Eels albums go the full nine by engaging your heart, mind and ears all at once. It’s no real surprise that they’re on Dreamworks Records, because no other major label would allow them to make the records they make.

I keep saying “they,” and I guess Eels is technically a band, but in truth it’s a shield of relative anonymity for the mastermind, a guy named Mark Everett who usually just goes by E. Every Eels album is as personal a project for E as any strumming folkie’s work, a fact that’s often lost behind his bizarre studio sensibility. An Eels song just doesn’t sound right unless it sounds somehow wrong, and the best part about E is that he’s completely unselfconscious about the off-kilter nature of his music. It probably all just sounds right to him.

I often liken Eels music to a satisfying independent comic book. The indie comix ethos strives for work that is honest at the cost of just about everything else, and the development of style out of limitations. Hence, many indie books are acquired tastes, because the work seems sketchy, almost unfinished, but once you’re finished with the book, you realize that the style is inseparable from the effect of the story. Essentially, if you strip everything else away, honesty animates even the sketchiest of outlines, and dishonesty is doubly easy to spot.

Similarly, Eels songs sound somewhat unfinished upon first exposure to E’s singular style. This isn’t quirky for quirky’s sake, however – it’s E expressing himself in the only way he knows how. When I mention to people that the last two Eels albums, Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy, deal exclusively with the suicide of E’s sister and the wasting death from cancer of his mother, they’re often left with the understandable expectation that both CDs are really depressing. Astonishingly, they may be the most realistically uplifting albums about death ever recorded.

Electro-Shock Blues in particular presents its ruminations on suicide and loss amidst a carnival of unlikely sounds and trippy beats. Daisies is more subdued and acoustic, but no less winsome, as if it’s working overtime to cheer its author up. Electro-Shock is about denial and Daisies is about acceptance, and they fit together like two halves of a great comic book novel. They’re mirror images of each other: Electro-Shock is a bunch of sad songs about learning to be happy, while Daisies is a bunch of happy songs about learning to be sad.

With this tiny magnum opus behind him, E has thankfully simply gone back to work. Eels’ fourth album, the just-released Souljacker, is just that: another Eels album. It’s 12 great unconnected songs about funny, strange, sad people, made with E’s trademark quirky genius. Think of it as an anthology of short comic book stories.

And most of them are stories in their own right. Consider “Jungle Telegraph,” about (and I’m quoting the hilarious liner notes here) “a man who was born during a terrible storm, grows up to be a teenage prostitute, kills a man in self-defense and flees to the jungles of Africa to live out the rest of his life in a tree.” Really. “Bus Stop Boxer” is an examination of the psyche of a guy who beats people up at bus stops. “Dog Faced Boy” is actually about a boy with a dog’s face, and it revolves around the line, “Mommy won’t shave me, Jesus can’t save me.” I can’t make this shit up.

The truth is that E loves and identifies with each of his characters, and he intersperses their stories with his own. “Fresh Feeling” might be the most unironic love song in the band’s short history, buoyed by a terrific string arrangement, and it’s particularly surprising on the heels of “That’s Not Really Funny,” a studio wonderama about emasculation. Closing rave-up “What Is This Note” is absolutely heartwarming lyrically, and surprise surprise, “World of Shit” is actually a sweet love song: “Baby I confess, I am quite a mess, so let’s get married and make some people more than equal in this world of shit.” Well, sort of sweet.

While not as personal as past albums, Souljacker is perhaps E’s most enjoyable effort to date. And, if you’re lucky and run to the record store quickly, you can get the version that comes packaged with a four-song EP called Rotten World Blues. It’s caustic, it’s hilarious, and it begins with a semi-parody called “I Write the B-Sides.”

E’s off-kilter songcraft is not for everyone, of course. It’s also not going to set the world on fire, nor will it even make my Top 10 List, most likely. But as long as he’s allowed to make these little missives from his unique corner of the world, then the rest of the world is all the more improved for it. And if the general public somehow comes around to his way of hearing things, so much the better. Souljacker is another little window into this strange little universe that exists in E’s head that we get to experience for 40 minutes or so a year, in which E tries to explain to us what it’s like to live there full time.

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Why is it that so many bands that start off with a cool, original sound end up wanting to sound like everyone else?

The most grating example I can think of is The Moon Seven Times, who traded the blissful dream-pop of their first two wondrous albums for the compacted and radio-friendly rock of their third (and final). Admittedly, they might not be the best example, as it’s easy to imagine such a decision being made for sales concerns. But what about the bands and musicians that start out selling like gangbusters with a unique sound? Michael Penn comes to mind – while I like his subsequent albums, none match the nifty acoustics-and-computers vibe of his debut, March, which outsold the others combined.

And then there’s Jars of Clay. Their self-titled debut was described to me by my friend Chris L’Etoile as “Toad the Wet Sprocket moves down south, finds Jesus and a drum machine,” and I can’t come up with a better summation of the sound. The debut sported soaring acoustic pop augmented by dance club loops, combined in a way that few acts had done before. It also brought Jars their only real hit, a frenzy of six-string fury called “Flood.”

Now you’d think that the band would consider the sound of the record an integral part of the success of the record, but no. Subsequent albums have become gradually more normal and average, and on the band’s fourth full-lengther, The Eleventh Hour, the descent bottoms out. You couldn’t tell Jars apart from 90 percent of the crap on the radio now, and that’s a shame.

What’s doubly interesting about the band’s collapse this time out is that they produced Hour themselves. One can almost understand a product this bland and uninspiring coming from a label-sanctioned production team, or a songwriting committee, but no. The band sequestered themselves away from distraction, poured their creative energy into what they’re calling their finest work, and this is what they came up with. They have no one to blame for its facelessness but themselves. There are one or two hooks on the album that catch the ear, but not many. The chorus of “Something Beautiful” is interesting, and… and, well, that’s about it.

Jars also abandon Jesus for the most part on this album, which some will see as an improvement and some will call a sell-out. I just think it points to the overall sanitized blandness of the whole production. There is one exception – the genuine expression of doubt that is “Silence,” in which singer Dan Haseltine whimpers, “All I pray is wrong, and all I claim is gone, I got a question, where are you?” However, a couple of tracks later, he’s back praising God (or a girl – it’s just vague enough that we can’t tell) with a joyous, “Your love can make these things better.” It’s such an empty set of lyrics that the religious and the heartbroken can fill in their own blanks and come away with completely different messages, which, from a marketing standpoint, is probably the goal.

I find it hard to believe that a band that was once as creative and energetic as Jars of Clay can’t, when given ample opportunity, come up with anything better than this. My hope is that eventually they’ll realize that no one ever made great music by trying to please everyone who hears it. In time, their sales figures will fade, their fame will disappear, and they’ll be left with nothing but the music, a permanent record of commercial concerns winning out over artistic ones.

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The Corrs are a study in strange irony. The four siblings have been described as “obscenely attractive,” and they’re superstars in Europe for their trademark blend of sugary pop and traditional Celtic folk. In fact, the Corrs are famous pretty much everywhere else but America, and they’ve been trying for years to crack our defenses. Each album has included an increasing amount of MTV-style dance-pop, de-emphasizing the Celtic elements in the process. There were two versions of their second, Talk on Corners: a worldwide version that balanced the sounds and a “special edition” for America that cranked up the beats. And there was nary a fiddle to be found on their third, In Blue.

Oddly enough, it just isn’t working. The more “American” they sound, the less popular they are in America, and the end result has been a couple of depressing albums from a group that can do much better. How do I know? There are at least two pieces of recorded evidence that the Corrs can be a great band if the want to be. The first is their Unplugged CD, pretty much unavailable in the U.S. The second has just been released courtesy of VH-1, and it’s called Live in Dublin. You know, Dublin, Ireland? Where they’re famous?

This album is what the Corrs always should have sounded like. The balance between their pop and traditional leanings is in full effect, especially on their pipes-laden cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” Their originals, mostly from the last two beat-happy albums, thrive in this organic setting. The hit “Breathless,” especially, has never been better, sugary harmonies and all.

A lot of live albums are just rehashes of album tracks, but the Corrs know better, and they’ve given over roughly half of Live in Dublin to swell covers of unexpected tunes. The previously mentioned “Little Wing” stands next to Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” featuring that band’s bassist Ron Wood. The Celtic instruments get a workout as well on the traditionals “Joy of Life” and “Trout in the Bath,” appended into an energetic medley.

The most fascinating cover here, though, is of Ryan Adams’ glorious “When the Stars Go Blue.” This song is buried halfway through Adams’ 75-minute Gold, but it’s given a chance to really shine here. The band brings the ubiquitous Bono on stage to sing, and I would think that for Adams, that would be one hell of a compliment. If the singer of one of the biggest bands in the world was in Dublin crooning my song, well, I’d have been on a plane to see the show, and in line at the record store the second the disc became available. As expected, the band does a great job, but it would be hard to mess up such a great song.

Hopefully this release is a taste of things to come, a sign that the Corrs understand that they may never crack a fickle America, and that they’re too good to pander to the teeny-bopper set, and they should just sound like themselves. We shall see…

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The Corrs would have the title of Best Star-Studded, Covers-Laden Live Album From Across the Ocean all wrapped up this month, if not for one Neil Finn.

Finn has had such bad luck in his career that he’s due for a run of the good stuff, I’d think. He fronted two semi-successful bands, Split Enz in the ’80s and Crowded House in the ’90s, neither of which managed more than one or two hits in the U.S., despite the fact that between them they released maybe three bad songs out of nearly 100. His solo debut, Try Whistling This, died on arrival here in America, although its minor hit status in Finn’s native New Zealand secured him a second solo disc, One Nil, in 2000. Of course, we have yet to see this disc stateside.

Thank God Nettwerk Records has picked up the ball and run with it. They plan to release One Nil (inexplicably retitled One All for the U.S.) on May 21, and they just put out the warmup, a new live album called 7 Worlds Collide. This 17-track stunner belongs in a textbook with instructions on how to create the perfect live album.

First, it’s important to make the concert you’re recording an event. Finn invited six other worlds to New Zealand to come collide with his own – Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, Lisa Germano, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Finn’s brother Tim, and his son Liam. Then he selected a wide variety of tunes from both his career and those of his guests. In short, if you’re looking for a comprehensive Neil Finn overview, this’ll do ya. Songs range from his earliest work with Split Enz to three tracks from the upcoming album (which of course everyone in the audience had heard already…grrr…).

Those three tracks, if they’re indicative of One Nil/All‘s overall sound, point towards a collection of classic Neil Finn. He’s one of the world’s greatest living pop songwriters, no question. Just listen to the gentle melodic uplift of “Turn and Run,” or the meandering beauty of “Anytime,” perhaps the second-sweetest song about dying in a car crash ever penned. These songs stand alongside old favorites like “Weather With You” and “She Will Have Her Way” with confidence and grace.

Finn isn’t the only one on display here, though. Vedder takes an early vocal turn on Split Enz’ “Take a Walk,” and Tim Finn’s piano ballad “Stuff and Nonsense.” Germano steps forward for her own “Paper Doll,” and Johnny Marr sings his own “Down On the Corner” before stepping aside to let Finn display his Morrissey impression on the sweetest song about dying in a car crash ever penned, the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” Neil and Tim duet on a couple of tracks from the forgotten Finn Brothers album, most notably “Angels Heap,” and they perform “Edible Flowers,” a gorgeous track that for some reason didn’t make the record.

Top all of this off with a lovely acoustic version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and you’ve got a well-spent 74 minutes. Finn (as I’ve said many times before about many other artists) doesn’t get the recognition his talents deserve. Hopefully this stateside push will be just the boost his career needs, mainly because I don’t want to have to pay import prices to hear his new stuff from now on. Come on, America, help a brother out. Check out 7 Worlds Collide.

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I’m just about at 4000 words, and thanks for wading through all this, but there’s one thing I need to mention before I go. I had the chance to see Mike Roe play guitar this week in Livonia, Michigan. Seriously, if this guy is anywhere near you (and I drove 3.5 hours for this show), go and see him. Even if you don’t know any of the songs, it’s worth it just to hear what he can do with an acoustic guitar. He ended the show I saw by finger-picking one of his most heart-wrenching songs, “Ache Beautiful,” and segueing into a drop-dead gorgeous rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song.” The show landed somewhere in my top five I’ve ever seen, and remember, I used to review live music for a living. Seriously. Go. Check for tour dates and CDs.

Next week, I dive into the Alarm 2000 box set (a mere two years late). The week after that, you and I both get acquainted with guitarist Peter Calo.

See you in line Tuesday morning.