Fantastic Four
New ones from Ryan Adams, King's X, Rob Dickinson and Sigur Ros

Serenity Now!

My admiration for Joss Whedon is legendary, so I have to urge everyone reading this to go see Serenity this weekend. If you do not share my Whedon-love, then please ignore the next few paragraphs. The rest of the column is Whedon-free, and full of record reviews of various types and lengths, sure to please anyone. Don’t let me keep you from it.

But if you don’t mind a little idol worship, here we go. Serenity is Whedon’s directorial debut, his first feature film, and it shouldn’t exist. In fact, until the opening credits roll during my screening Friday night, I will be wary of actually believing it does, for fear of jinxing it. I can honestly see in my mind’s eye an army of Fox executives, barging their way into theaters all across America, determined to shitcan this film like they cancelled the series that inspired it.

Serenity is the Firefly movie, the continuation of Whedon’s excellent Fox TV series. Now, movies get made from TV series all the time, so that’s nothing special, but this is the first one I can think of derived from a show that was canned after 11 episodes for low ratings. Fox dropped the ball on Firefly so badly that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they were taking their cues from Michael Brown. They aired the pilot last, showed the second episode first, and were somehow surprised when people couldn’t follow the story. They gave it no promotion, watched it wither, and killed it halfway through the season, with three episodes unaired.

But if they were surprised at the ratings, they must have had strokes when the DVD set came out. First, the fans demanded a complete series set, which was amazing anyway, but then they bought it in such incredible numbers that Fox greenlit a feature film. That’s right, they ended up giving Whedon a bigger budget, more time, and more creative control to develop a property they’d already cancelled, because the fans demanded it. That, I have to say, kicks all kinds of ass.

Hopefully, the film does, too. Some will be turned off because it looks like science fiction, and I can’t deny that it is – it’s set on a spaceship, after all. But listen, I hate science fiction, and I loved Firefly. Why? Because it’s more about people, and less about big ideas. Sci-fi so often concentrates on the latter at the expense of the former, and while there are big ideas here – it’s an outer-space western, complete with six-guns and horses and no aliens – the people are the most important element. I don’t care about Captain Picard, or Riddick, or Will Smith’s character from I, Robot. But I care about Malcolm Reynolds, and about River Tam, and about what Mal will do to keep River safe. I care about the people, and that’s what matters to me.

What I have seen of Serenity has been terrific, and advance reports are all positive. Fox has held about 75 preview screenings of this thing, a testament to the faith they have in the movie – if they hated it, they’d keep it under wraps until the first week. It sounds like Whedon has pulled it off. And that, more than anything, is the reason I am excited to see it, and excited to recommend it – when Joss Whedon is on, writing and directing at full strength, it’s something to behold. Hopefully movies will treat him and Firefly better than television has.

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Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Ryan Adams writes an awful lot of songs. You’d think a greater percentage of them would be stinkers.

He’s always been prolific, but 2005 is turning out to be a record-breaker for him. Just as I’m getting comfortable with Cold Roses, his double album from May and a serious contender for the top 10 list, he’s back with Jacksonville City Nights, his second of a planned three records this year, and it’s pretty wonderful as well. Here are 14 more Adams songs to join Roses’ 18, and none of them suck.

Jacksonville City Nights is credited to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals again, and one would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps these songs are the cast-offs from Roses, the ones not good enough for the opening salvo. One listen should dispel that notion – they are very different records. Where Roses could be considered country-rock, with its piercing electric guitars and borderline Neil Young approach, Nights is absolute country, all acoustics and pedal steels and weepy, twangy vocals. This is classic, Willie Nelson-style, Grand Ole Opry stuff.

And Adams absolutely excels at this sort of thing. Nights is full of tears-in-my-beer ballads, and every one of them sounds like a vintage gem. Once again, his gift for melody serves him well – listen to the chorus of “The End,” perversely sequenced second, for a sterling example. It’s a loping country waltz, but the catapulting vocal line elevates it. Adams duets with Norah Jones on “Dear John,” a decent little piano-driven number, and hearing Jones let her hair down and join in with sloppy harmonies is revelatory. Adams actually takes the high notes more often than not.

But full credit must go to the extraordinary band Adams has assembled. They were very good on Cold Roses, but here they are superb. The album sounds like it was recorded with a single mike, everyone standing around it and playing, and even though that’s not the case, the ambience is extraordinary. Catherine Popper sticks to acoustic stand-up bass, with its unmistakable thump, and John Graboff’s pedal steel gets a workout on nearly every song. The band just sounds like it’s lived in the skins of these songs, like someone rolled tape on a phenomenal rehearsal.

Hand to God, nothing here sucks. Nights ends with three of its best tracks, respectively the 31st, 32nd and 33rd Adams songs of the year, and he shows no signs of running out of gas. “PA” is a delicate ghost story, the wonderfully titled “Withering Heights” is perhaps the album’s best ballad, and “Don’t Fail Me Now” is a perfect ramshackle epic of a closer. Jacksonville City Nights is the sound of Ryan Adams doing what he does best, and while it’s not an out-of-the-box stunner like Cold Roses, it is a solid, swell little album.

Adams’ third outing of the year, 29, is scheduled for November 1, and if it closes out the trilogy with the same standard of quality, he will have accomplished quite a feat. Lost Highway is taking something of a risk, flooding the market with Adams material, but so far, it’s paying off, artistically speaking. If they’re all going to be this good, then I say let the man make as many records as he wants.

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X For the Win

I’m going to get in trouble with Doug Van Pelt for this one, but I haven’t really enjoyed a King’s X album in more than a decade.

When the Texas Three started out, they were unlike anyone else – heavy but melodic, atmospheric yet driving, mystical yet grounded. Their first four albums are pretty much perfect, one of the best examples of musicians forging their own sound. They had jackhammer riffs, and all three guys could thrash out with the best of them, but they also had an unerring sense of space, with full harmonies and otherworldly guitars. Other bands idolized them, and they even had a couple of minor hits with “Over My Head” and “It’s Love.”

And then it all went wrong. Their fifth album, Dogman, de-emphasized the harmonies and brought the power. It was their last really great album – everything since has felt half-hearted, as if the band forgot what made them special. You can only ignore your own best traits for so long before you actually stop being special, and the albums King’s X made for Metal Blade over the last 10 years are frustratingly typical. I like all of them, in one way or another, but it’s better for me if I consider them a new band, with Dogman the debut, Ear Candy the disappointing follow-up, and everything since then just one pretty good rock album after another.

The problem has been one of focus, I think. Since signing with Metal Blade in 1997, the band has produced its own albums in its own home studio, and with no one to push them, they didn’t bother to excel. The various side projects didn’t really help, especially since none of them were as good as King’s X could be – it was like they had denied that their sum was greater than their parts. Live, they were still a force to be reckoned with, as their concert album of last year proves, but in the studio they slacked off, content to just fill tape. They needed a producer.

Nothing bears that theory out like their new album, Ogre Tones. (Yeah, take a second and deal with that title.) They enlisted Michael Wagener, known for his work with ‘80s bands of every stripe, and with an outside force bringing out their strengths, they’ve made their best album since Dogman, easily. The riffs are here, of course, but the harmonies are back, the textures are in full effect, and the melodies are at near-classic levels. In short, they sound like King’s X again, and it’s about damn time.

They seem to know it, too. Nothing on Ogre Tones sounds rote. It’s like they’re discovering how to be a great band again. The playing is unassailable, as always – don’t trust anyone who doesn’t vote for Doug Pinnick and Jerry Gaskill in those Best Bassist and Best Drummer polls in Metal Edge magazine, and Ty Tabor knows ways to make his guitar sing and sigh that most of the six-stringers in lesser bands will never learn. But on recent albums, they have been excellent players as a matter of course, whereas here they sound invigorated, positively thrilled to be as good as they are.

The lyrics reflect this as well. King’s X has always been a spiritual band, but somewhere around 1992, they lost the faith, and the lyrics since then have been earthbound to the point of despair. Ogre Tones finds lyricists Pinnick and Tabor searching, reaching out again, and it’s a joyful thing. Granted, some bitterness remains, but this is an album that juxtaposes a sarcastic rant like “Freedom” with a genuine question to God like “Get Away.” The songs are magical again, too. “Fly” is a classic, reminiscent of “It’s Love” with its sustained three-part vocal chorus, and even something with the uninspiring title of “Mudd” is better than you’d think. “Honesty” is the first great King’s X ballad since “The Difference,” all acoustics and glorious harmonies. But the highlight is Tabor’s long, liquid mercury solo on “Sooner or Later” – man, I missed that sound.

I am not sure why they decided to toss the album into a ditch in its final stretch. Ogre Tones ends with a re-recording of “Goldilox,” a song from 1986, and a three-minute noise-and-sample party called “Bam.” It would have been a much stronger conclusion without either track, especially since “Goldilox” remains essentially unchanged from its original version.

But that and the title are the only examples I can find of the apathy that has plagued King’s X for far too long. Ogre Tones is the comeback they needed, a shot in the arm to a faltering career, and the best King’s X album since my high school days. It is such a relief to really enjoy an album by these guys again – they really are unlike any other rock band on the planet, and I’m glad they’ve started to believe that again.

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Reinventing the Wheel

My memory erodes with each passing year, so I am not certain who first played Catherine Wheel for me. It could easily have been Chris L’Etoile, who waxed ecstatic about “Black Metallic” back in the days of shoegazers. It could also have been Marc Zeoli, who brought a copy of Chrome with him to our dorm at St. Joseph’s College. Either way, I owe a debt to someone, because Catherine Wheel was a great band.

They started as feedback-loving My Bloody Valentine disciples with a well-developed sense of British melody, and Chrome stands as one of the best records of that period I have heard, all swirling thunder and underwater atmosphere. They turned more earthy on Happy Days, and stayed that way, but before they finally went to sleep, they did release a masterpiece called Adam and Eve. A more acoustic, emotional record than they had made before, Adam and Eve is just wonderful, rendering their swan song, Wishville, all the more disappointing.

Not that it was buried before, but the acoustic bent of Adam and Eve brought one of Catherine Wheel’s most potent features to the fore: the voice of Rob Dickinson. His tenor is deep and penetrating, bringing even the lamest songs (and there were some lame ones on Wishville) to a remarkable level. Five years after the band’s demise, here is Dickinson with his solo debut, Fresh Wine for the Horses, and it continues the acoustic theme admirably. The focus is on his chilling voice, and true to form, it levitates these little pop songs into orbit.

Fresh Wine’s first half is acoustic pop, far removed from the expansive sound of Catherine Wheel, and as such it’s a little disappointing at first. It’s a grower, though. The opening track, “My Name is Love,” is astoundingly simple, but when Dickinson launches into the title phrase in the chorus, it’s unstoppable. “The Night” is similarly stripped down, but the smoky reverb and Dickinson’s self-harmonizing keeps it from Bruce Springsteen territory. He includes a brief piano-vocal cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” rescuing the song from the cheesy synthesizers of the original version.

Things do get more Catherine Wheel-esque as the album progresses, which makes sense – several of the tracks in the second half are refugees from that band’s final writing sessions. Oddly, though, the more airy, organ-inflected tunes are less memorable than the straightforward ones. While the electric guitar slammers are sweet, especially “Handsome” and “Bathe Away,” the meandering bore “Don’t Change” shouldn’t have been included. Closer “Towering and Flowering” lives up to both adjectives, though, bringing the record to a crashing conclusion.

Dickinson seems torn here between continuing down the Catherine Wheel path and reinventing himself as a folky pop singer, and as a consequence, Fresh Wine doesn’t fully commit to either. Its second half feels disassociated from its first, as if he appended some leftovers to an EP of a sound in progress. Still, it’s good to hear his voice again, and if he scores a minor hit with “My Name is Love,” I won’t be surprised. We may have to wait until his follow-up to see which direction Dickinson’s solo career will ultimately take, but as a first act, Fresh Wine is decent enough.

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No Language in Our Lungs

Which brings us to Sigur Ros.

I am never sure what to say about Iceland’s best band. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even say that – for all I know, they’re Iceland’s only band. Last time I weighed in on one of their floaty masterpieces, I remarked that Sigur handily empties the reviewer’s bag of tricks – there are no English language lyrics to analyze, no liner notes to parse, no clever references to pick up on. Last time, they didn’t even include album or song titles – most people, myself included, called the album ( ), after the cutout shape on its cover. The only words included in the CD booklet were Sigur and Ros, yet the band swore the album was not self-titled. What else could we do?

They’ve graciously thrown us a bone this time: their fourth album is called Takk, which means “thanks” in Icelandic. They’ve also decided to dump their made-up Hopelandic language and sing entirely in their native tongue, but unless you speak the dialect, I dare you to notice the difference. For all intents and purposes, this is just another beautiful Sigur Ros record, with all the standard hallmarks. The instrumentation is otherworldly, the vocals are strange and processed, the melodies are big and bold. It is background music for sunrise on Venus, and it sounds like nothing else in the world.

With only other Sigur Ros albums left as a fair comparison, I can say that Takk is perhaps this band’s most upbeat and energetic recording. Many songs are succinct by their standards, with several clocking in under six minutes, and they trim their tendency to meander. Songs like “Hoppipolla” get right to the heart of things, bringing up the strings and horns early so they can be in and out in four and a half minutes. That’s not to say there aren’t epics here – “Se Lest” drifts lazily for five of its nine minutes before slipping into a brassy waltz, and “Milano” extends its slow build over a dreamlike 10 minutes.

But what does it sound like? I’m kind of at a loss. There are pianos, guitars, drums and strings here, but somehow Sigur combines them in ways that sound utterly alien. “Saeglopur” would be a piano-led pop song with Beach Boys harmonies, if it hadn’t been recorded in the Negative Zone, and “Gong” is a creepy guitar-and-brush-drums wonder that would be Radiohead if the guys in Radiohead a) still wrote good songs, and b) were all from Pluto. I can easily imagine “Andvari” with lyrics about some poor schmuck and his broken heart, with its lovely clean guitar and extended string coda, and can picture it as the closing song of a sweet movie. It’s almost enough to make you think you’re listening to humans making music, but then “Svo Hijott” comes in, with its widescreen deserts-of-Mars feel, and you’re back in uncharted territory.

I don’t know what else I can tell you. Sigur Ros sounds like the lost dreams of an alien civilization buried for a thousand years – it’s foreboding and sad, and you don’t know why it affects you, but it does. Takk is just another superb Sigur Ros album, distant yet surprisingly accessible, and fully worthy of its beautiful packaging. I have no idea what they’re singing about, but it doesn’t matter. Music this chillingly lovely doesn’t need to use my language to speak to me.

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Slight Return

Next week, an examination of three female artists in the throes of reinvention. Go see Serenity, and we’ll meet back next week and compare notes.

See you in line Tuesday morning.