Nothing to See Here
Just Three More Rave Reviews

An informal poll – who is more annoying?

a) The “You’re getting a Dell” guy
b) The “Can you hear me now?” guy
c) The “Zoom zoom” kid

I can’t decide. I seem to hate them all pretty equally. Every time one of them appears on my screen, I think, ‘Yeah, that one,’ so I can’t quite make up my mind. I think my own personal hell, however, will prominently feature all three of them spouting their catchphrases for eternity.

Feeling a little punchy tonight, as you can probably tell. A quick word about next week first – I am going to the big, beautiful, annual Cornerstone Festival in Illinois for the first time. This week-long event features all those spiritual pop bands I can’t get enough of, in the flesh, including the Choir, Daniel Amos, the 77s, Starflyer 59 and dozens more. What this means for you: My column, if it’s done, will go up on Tuesday next week. If it’s not, that means I’m taking the week off, which I can do because I posted on my birthday, so nyah. The following week will be a roundup of sorts of the festival’s multitude of new releases, including albums from the 77s, Michael Roe, Terry Taylor, Michael Knott, Cush, and more. Big freakin’ column, and I have to get it done that week, because I need to make room for new ones by Counting Crows, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band, the Orb, Filter and Beth Orton, to name a few. It’s a tight schedule, but I think I can handle it. You’ll know whether or not I can by next Tuesday, anyway.

So. New stuff.

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For a band named Sonic Youth, Sonic Youth has aged remarkably well.

Who could have guessed in 1988 that the searing sheets of ugly beauty that made up their double album Daydream Nation in fact represented the band’s adolescence, and that the best and most complex material was yet to come? Over their first four albums for Geffen Records, SY perfected their signature sound, one that is at once delicately arranged and fiercely sloppy. You can never really tell how much of any given SY song was mapped out at the start and how much was made up on the spot.

One thing’s clear, though – the foursome (guitarists Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, bassist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley) have an almost telepathic connection with each other, and an exceptionally well-developed sense of harmonics. After a while of immersing yourself in Sonic Youth, it’s hard to go back to the standard chords proffered by most everyone else. SY create weaving walls of sound that flirt with dissonance and dance inches away from bedlam. That they almost always top it off with the most lackadaisical vocals you’re likely to hear is just part of the contrast.

Lately the band has been pushing the extremes of its sound, with 1998’s sprawling A Thousand Leaves and the double-disc avant-garde experiment Goodbye 20th Century. They really reined themselves in on 2000’s nifty NYC Ghosts and Flowers, offering a slice of Sonic Youth beat poetry to compensate for the lack of shifty soundscapes. Well, the shifty bits are back with the just-released Murray Street, named after the studio at ground zero in New York where they recorded it, but at 45 minutes, it’s still a bit of a comedown.

Ah, but it’s quite a good one, even if it never reaches the heights of Washing Machine or A Thousand Leaves. The band has, thankfully, cranked up the melody meter again, splicing their lengthy instrumental excursions into some of their most hummable tunes. Some will call that a sell-out, but I call it an achievement – they haven’t sacrificed any of their monolithic noise in crafting these arrangements. Murray Street is no more or less a pop album than Daydream Nation was, and is often just as gloriously chaotic.

Consider the sheer insanity “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” degenerates into, or the extended dissonant conclusion to the 11-minute “Karen Revisited.” Consider, also, Gordon’s spitting strut on “Plastic Sun,” which manages to evoke a danceable beat around a song that isn’t at all danceable. But best of all, consider the elegant, elastic arrangement of “Rain on Tin,” a classic SY song if ever there was one. The dual guitars pirouette around each other, sometimes coming dangerously close but never crashing into each other. It’s almost as though they arranged it for strings and then played it on guitars.

It’s worth noting that for this album, the band hooked up with famous Chicago noise-monger Jim O’Rourke, who also produced Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Finding the beauty in noise seems to be O’Rourke’s forte, and the same can be said of Sonic Youth. They’ve been making this kind of delirious, fascinating noise for two decades now, and no one even comes close to surpassing, or even imitating them. They’re in a class by themselves.

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Bruce Hornsby has called his ninth album Big Swing Face, thereby earning the prize for Most Misleading Title of 2002 so far. Simply put, folks, there ain’t no swing on here.

And while I was mildly disappointed at first to discover that Hornsby, one of the best piano players in modern music, doesn’t tickle the ivories once on this album, my sadness turned to elation as the disc unspooled. No, there’s no swing, but Big Swing Face is Hornsby’s most successful attempt to create a new idiom by mixing together all of his influences. The result is invigorating, a jolting trip to the 21st century by a genuine classicist.

If you look at Bruce Hornsby, or listen to him talk, you would think that funk and jazz would be out of this square white boy’s grasp. On the contrary, however, since disbanding the Range in the early ’90s, Hornsby has concentrated almost entirely on the jazzy side of his prodigious talents, with snippets of funk thrown in. His last studio album, the two-hour Spirit Trail, gave us the acoustic jazz-pop on disc one and the smooth electric pop on disc two, and his live album Here Come the Noisemakers brought the roof down with more than two hours of jazzy improvisation.

Pulling back from such huge statements, Big Swing Face is a mere 46 minutes, but I would easily trade the sprawl and inconsistency of both his most recent records for another trip through this thing. Hornsby’s stylistic amalgam defies easy description, but here goes: imagine Medeski, Martin and Wood mixed with the Grateful Dead and produced by Prince, combined with… well, with Bruce Hornsby, because his songwriting and playing style is as distinct as a fingerprint.

A good chunk of this album is set to slamming funk beats straight out of Prince’s Black Album, and when Hornsby augments his voice with wailing blues and gospel backups, the effect is a clash of organic and electronic that really works. Both “Take Out the Trash” and groovy closer “Place Under the Sun” thrive on that contrast, and the title track feels like a Delta blues jam session out of Paisley Park. Early favorite “The Chill” is epic, all electric pianos and soaring guitars surrounding a superb melody.

The album’s high point, however, and the apex of its concept is “This Too Shall Pass.” The song begins like a folksy reel played on electric piano, but two verses in, a flurry of electronic drums thunders in, elevating it to a new level. The organic and mechanical roughly caress each other for the duration, synth beds supporting a sweet guitar solo that leads back into the piano. It’s a stunner, and the closest Big Swing Face has to a mission statement.

Who could have guessed that hiding behind Bruce Hornsby’s adult contemporary facade in the late ’80s was an idiosyncratic artist willing to, as his song says, try anything once? Big Swing Face retains its experimental vibe even when delivering the sweet pop songs Hornsby is known for, and it manages the neat trick of updating his sound without feeling like a desperate measure. This is a keeper.

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There’s no question of truth in advertising with the title of Geoff Tate’s solo debut – he named it after himself, and he stuck his ugly mug on the cover. He’s not the best-looking guy anyway, but the cover shot is a particularly bad one, and certainly won’t sell him more copies of this thing by itself.

There is, of course, a question of who’s going to buy this disc anyway, and whether they’ll enjoy it once they press play. Geoff Tate is the lead singer of Queensryche, who never made it big as a late-’80s/early-’90s metal band to begin with, and has maintained a small cult following after their biggest success with Empire in 1990. Here’s the thing, though: cult followings don’t really like it when you radically alter the sound that they fell in love with in the first place, which sort of tends to temper artistic experimentation because no one outside your cult following is going to buy your new record. It’s a trap, and you have to have incredible faith in your devoted audience to pull the rug out from under them and expect them to keep coming back.

All that is a long-winded way of saying that Geoff Tate sounds nothing at all like Queensryche, even at their most experimental. (Promised Land, their most underrated record, f’rinstance.) Those looking for their dose of thinking-man’s metal, a tag Queensryche has been saddled with for years, are gonna be really disappointed. Tate has made the same stylistic choice that Kip Winger did when he went solo – he’s made a mature, well-constructed album of progressive pop music that only very occasionally rocks.

But hell, isn’t artistic growth what it’s all about? Winger’s three solo discs are far and away the best work he’s ever done, and similarly, Geoff Tate rises above most of Queensryche’s catalog on ingenuity alone. Songs float on synthesizers, acoustic guitars and drum loops, but never turn to radio-ready mush. Tate’s songs are typically cerebral, even when dealing with the mundanities of love, and his voice has been cast against walls of guitars for so long that the nuances revealed in these clean productions feel like revelations.

And what a voice it is, as Queensryche fans well know. The first time you hear Geoff Tate sing will send shivers, no matter the setting, but it’s impressive to hear him bend and shape that operatic bellow to these mellower foundations. He’s especially effective on “Helpless,” a latin-tinged pseudo-dance track complete with flamenco guitars, and on the gorgeous “Every Move We Make.” The middle section of the album is slower than the beginning and the end, and contains the best tracks, like the lovely “In Other Words.”

Simply put, Geoff Tate is a risk, but it pays off artistically. It remains to be seen whether Tate will alienate all of his existing fans or gain some new ones, but at the very least, he can say he’s made an album unlike anything he’s done before. Some will derisively snort at the lack of guitars and say it sounds like he’s gotten old, but I say that if this is what getting old sounds like, then sign me up.

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Next week, some discs I won’t rave as much about. Maybe.

See you in line Tuesday morning.