…And Four to Go
A Rousing Roundup of Recent Releases

I get weird looks from record store employees all the time.

It’s because I buy so much music, and in such strange combinations. I’m often asked if I’m buying for other people, and I have to explain that, yes, I plan on listening to everything I buy, and if I’m lucky, enjoying all of it. Music store clerks are so used to compartmentalization these days that the very thought of someone harboring an appreciation for both Harry Connick Jr. and Sepultura, for example, is enough to get them scratching their heads.

I mention this because I bought all four of this week’s discs at once, and I got one of the strangest looks I’ve ever received from the girl who rang me up. I’m betting it’ll work on anyone, so try it. Come to the counter with all four of this week’s review subjects and see what reaction you get. (If you truly want to duplicate my experience, throw in a copy of Wyclef Jean’s The Masquerade, which I also bought at the same time.)

And we’re off…

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The last time I trashed an Our Lady Peace album, I lived to regret it, so I’m wary of doing it again.

Last year’s Spiritual Machines didn’t do it for me on first listen, or on second, so I let ’em have it in this column. I charged that OLP was nothing more than a standard alternative rock band with an interesting singer, and that the 10 songs on Spiritual Machines didn’t reach to the level of the futuristic concept the band had hung on them. There’s nothing special about it, or about them, I declared.

And then the album grew on me like a fungus on hormones. I found myself humming the songs at odd hours, and reaching for the album more often than I thought I would. I now consider it one of their best, and while it’s true it rarely transcends the realm of alt-rock, sometimes that’s enough, especially if the songs are well-crafted, as these are. The most striking element of Our Lady Peace’s sound remains the unique and elastic voice of frontman Raine Maida, who loops and swirls all over these memorable melodies. I almost put Spiritual Machines on my Top 10 List last year, which is saying something, considering the overall quality of that list.

And I will admit that Gravity, the Canadian foursome’s fifth album, is starting to grow on me as well, but I can’t imagine that it will come anywhere near the best records of 2001. This album is everything I charged Machines with being – it’s full of typical songs that disappear from memory 10 seconds after they’re over, and it sounds like just about every other alt-rock act on the radio.

Only Maida’s still-striking voice separates Gravity from similar-sounding works by the likes of Matchbox 20 or Everclear, and even that is muted here. Maida, who normally reaches for split-second high notes in his flawless falsetto mid-melody, here intones stuff that would make Rob Thomas yawn. Granted, he wrote most of these songs himself (as usual), so he’s not being forced into it, but there’s very little here that one could call interesting. It’s a shame to waste a talent like Maida’s, even if the rest of the band isn’t quite up to his standard anyway.

But it would seem that the band realizes what they’ve made – Gravity, true to its title, remains earthbound, never taking flight even when the arrangements make you think it will. There are, I think, a few reasons for this, beginning with the fact that Gravity is the first OLP album not produced by their “fifth member,” Arnold Lanni. While all the elements of the band’s sound are present in Bob Rock’s production, it’s missing the character that has set the band apart for four albums. Rock is also one of those guys that a label hires to “punch up” a band’s sound for maximum radio consumption, and Gravity sure sounds like it’s designed just for that purpose.

It’s not just the production, of course. The songs are all fairly standard, as if dictated by the label as well. First single “Somewhere Out There” has “big hit” written all over it, as do “Made of Steel” (perhaps capitalizing on Five for Fighting’s success with “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”) and closer “A Story About a Girl” (which practically apes the title of Nine Days’ hit from two years ago). Maybe it’s just my cynical nature, but this album feels to me like a desperate grab for an American audience. The band even appears on the cover for the first time, displaying the rugged good looks that will help teenage girls part with their parents’ money.

It’s possible that I’m going to be eating these words come December again, but I don’t think so. Gravity is every cheap and simple thing Spiritual Machines isn’t, and while it may signal the death of the band’s American record contract, that will hopefully open the door to a more artistically satisfying career in Canada, where they’re already household names. While I’d previously said that Our Lady Peace just isn’t that good a band, Gravity compels me to add that they’re much better than this.

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You’ve gotta wonder if Jerry Cantrell is a Type O Negative fan.

The former Alice in Chains guitarist has recently signed to Roadrunner Records, the home of Type O, and released his second solo album, Degradation Trip. The cover is classic Type O, funny and scary at the same time, and full of that unnatural green color the band loves so much. And the album itself is a 72-minute slow plod, just like Type O’s last three records.

The similarities largely end there, however, and that’s sort of a shame. One thing Cantrell could learn from Type O is how to take himself less seriously. Degradation Trip, like his solo debut Boggy Depot, is a sloppy, sprawling pile of bitterness and simmering rage. There are serious songs on here with titles like “Psychotic Break” and “Hellbound,” and Cantrell sells us lines like “reside in darkness, thrive where most won’t go” without the wink and smile that accompanies all of Type O’s work. Maybe it’s just that I’m numb to this kind of thing, or that I’ve turned 25 and thus exited Cantrell’s target audience, but I just don’t buy it anymore.

It doesn’t help that, musically speaking, the album is chock full of very little. Back in ’92, Cantrell and Alice in Chains released Dirt, a compact and complex slab of tricky, twisty, slow metal that still stands up today. Degradation Trip is further proof, if any were needed, that Dirt was a fluke, a one-time deal with the devil for skill and imagination Cantrell has never displayed since. This album is nearly twice Dirt‘s length, and yet nothing sticks. Songs stay within a set groove, usually made up of two or three notes repeated, and Cantrell’s guitar slathers it in sloppy vomit. Former Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin plays on every track, and is hardly ever required to do more than plod along in 4/4 time.

There are some exceptions – “Give It a Name,” for instance, would have fit well on the final, self-titled Alice in Chains album, and “Solitude” is nicely constructed. For the most part, though, Degradation Trip is not one worth taking. It’s eerie, as well, to hear Cantrell’s voice out front. It’s a fine voice, naturally, but one can’t help but imagine the departed Layne Staley singing lead on top of it. The sad truth is that, for Alice in Chains fans, Cantrell’s solo work is always going to sound like half of what it should.

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All right, enough with the negatives.

In 1998, Peter Gabriel announced the imminent release of his new album, called Up. In fact, he was quite distressed to learn that R.E.M. also had an album that year called Up, concerned as he was about the possible confusion that might create. (In a bout of hilarious synchronicity, Ani DiFranco also released an album that year called Up Up Up Up Up Up.) Gabriel announced he would voluntarily delay his own release date so as not to conflict.

Four years later, here we are, and still no Up from the Gabriel camp. They’re promising it sometime this year, but don’t hold your breath. The strange thing is, though, that Gabriel’s been just as busy as always. Last year he released OVO, a miraculous work that finally brought together all of his diverse world music influences into a seamless whole. OVO was the soundtrack to a show at London’s Millennium Dome, which Gabriel also oversaw. It was a huge, expensive, elaborate production worthy of the stellar music he composed to accompany it.

Additionally, he’s recently remastered and rereleased his whole catalog, front to back. The eight studio albums and two live records he’s made since splitting from Genesis in 1975 are all the evidence one should need that this guy’s a frickin’ genius. Anyone that can jump from the orchestral grandeur of his first solo album to the creepy soundscapes of his fourth in a mere five years is worth following, ’cause you never know what he’s going to do next.

Case in point – his new album that isn’t Up is called Long Walk Home, and it’s the soundtrack to a low-budget Australian film entitled The Rabbit-Proof Fence. Gabriel has long had a miniature side career as a writer of film scores, and in fact his finest work to date remains Passion, his amazing soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. On that record he melded his synth-laden dreamscapes with the glorious cacophany of dozens of African musicians, creating something ancient, modern and timeless.

He thankfully doesn’t try to repeat that trick here, although the recipe is the same. Long Walk Home features Gabriel’s synthscapes alongside percussion, vocals and traditional instruments from some of Australia’s most celebrated musicians. Just for effect he tosses in the London Symphony Orchestra and the Blind Boys of Alabama choir, and the result is marvelous. The story of The Rabbit-Proof Fence is that of a 14-year-old girl kidnapped from her family, who uses the titular landmark to find her way home across the outback. While most of the score is of necessity dark and foreboding, there are moments that swell and practically burst with well-earned hope.

Long Walk Home has one thing over Passion – it plays like a single piece of music. It ebbs and flows with a consistency not found in the previous work. Like Passion, though, its soaring moments are deep and powerful. “Running To the Rain,” in particular, has a wondrous crescendo of treated strings that may be this album’s finest half-minute. “Ngankarrparni,” which reportedly also appears on Up, is a stirring track that even finds room for Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green to chime in on guitar. He builds on that on closer “Cloudless,” which is simply beautiful, one of Gabriel’s best pieces.

Of course, this is not the Peter Gabriel of “Sledgehammer” and “Digging In the Dirt,” but rather his deeper, more spiritual twin, and Long Walk Home is a beautiful piece of work that will stand among his most important musical contributions. Like the best scores (and both of Gabriel’s previous ones), it exists as a separate entity from the film, and is evocative enough to conjure images rather than being chained by them. In short, I can wait for Up, because there’s no way it’ll be better than this.

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The back cover of the new They Might Be Giants album, No!, announces it as their first disc made for the whole family. It figures that just as I make the case against thinking of them as a novelty band, they go and make a full-fledged novelty – a children’s album.

Or so it would seem, although TMBG fans would be hard-pressed to come up with many ways in which this album differs from their usual fare. It’s still twice as clever as anything around, it’s still catchy as hell, and it’s still wonderfully, hysterically weird. It’s also a bit revolutionary, in some ways, considering TMBG’s insistence on refusing to talk down to their younger audience. Johns Linnell and Flansburgh have basically made just another really cool album of really fun songs.

Take “Four of Two,” for example, a classic TMBG song if ever there was one. It’s the story of a guy who gets stood up, but has eternal hope because, according to the broken clock in the town square, his date still has four minutes to show up. He even nods off at one point and pulls a Rip Van Winkle: “At once I awoke to a futuristic world, there were flying cars and gigantic metal bugs, I’d grown a beard, it was long and white, but I knew that the girl would be coming very soon, for though everything had changed there was still that clock and it still said four of two.”

“John Lee Supertaster” is the tale of a guy with a superpower of sorts: “When he tastes a pear, it’s like a hundred pears, he’s got superpowers!” “The House At the Top of the Tree” is a recursive yet wholly logical story about the machinations one goes through to keep from being eaten. “I Am Not Your Broom” is a brief emancipation proclamation from a put-upon household item: “I’ve had enough, I’m throwing off my chains of solitude, I am not your broom…” Fabulous closer “Sleepwalkers” makes a potentially scary nocturnal activity seem less so.

And on and on. No! is one of the best albums for four-year-olds ever recorded, and the best part is that there are interactive animations included on the disc for 13 of the 17 tracks. I admit some skepticism when I first heard of this project, but John and John have pulled it off by making it just as cool as anything they’ve done. If there were a hundred more records like this, and a few hundred less from the likes of Barney and Elmo, I wouldn’t feel so cynical about the younger generations these days.

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Next week, another bevy of bountiful delights, including the new Sonic Youth and the debut of Page McConnell’s Vida Blue.

See you in line Tuesday morning.