Peanut Butter Wolf
My Vinyl Weighs A Ton
Maybe it's just the amateur sociologist in me, but I always find it interesting the way trends come & go in music -- boy bands, cheesy faux-soul, grunge, ska-punk, and so on. And sometimes it's refreshing to see a trend come back. In this case, I'm happy as hell to see the focus of hip-hop swinging back from the overblown personalities to the music itself. Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak) has been showing off his turntable skills for years in SF, and damn, the boy can cut shit up.
"But wait," I can hear the confused MTV-junkie hordes reply, "he doesn't get behind the mic even once on the CD, but instead lets a bunch of MCs do that job for him; how can that possibly be good?" We've been so brainwashed by lame hip-hop "artists" like Snoopy Doggy Dogg and Puff Daddy (to name only two) that we've forgotten that back in the day the DJ was just as important as the guy jumping around and rhyming. Folks like Dr. Dre and Terminator X weren't just backup singers for PE and NWA -- they ran the whole mess (and remember Valley of the Jeep Beets?). Lately, though, the popular trend has shifted so far away that hell, I can't even name most of the rap DJs out there these days, which is pretty sad.
Like I said, though, things are going back to the way they used to be, and that's a major relief -- now people like The X-ecutioners, Mix Master Mike, and Peanut Butter Wolf, among others, are taking the stage and running their own show and blowing shit up. You won't hear 'em on the radio most places, unfortunately, and I'll have a heart attack if they ever wind up on MTV, but the scene is out there, and as My Vinyl Weighs A Ton proves, it blows the mainstream away. PBW lays down some awesome, jazzy, hardcore beats and samples, with help from a Who's Who of the best modern hip-hop has to offer: El-P (Company Flow); Kazi; Planet Asia; Babu, Rhettmatic, J. Rocc and Shortkut (Beat Junkies); Rob Swift (X-ecutioners); Kid Koala; Rasco; Q-Bert (Invisibl Skratch Piklz); and an army of similarly-talented MCs and turntablists. The result? One of the finest, smoothest, most varied hip-hop LPs of the decade -- and I don't say that lightly. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Copasetik Recordings -- +44 (0) 171 482 4345; Fax: +44 (0) 171 482 4350; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.copasetik.com/)
I'm pretty sure that whitechocolatespaceegg is Liz Phair's attempt to totally rebut everything she's done up until now. She takes her cue from "Ride," which fades out with Phair repeating a rather telling mantra of "regeneration." The sound of a former bohemian and shitstirrer coming to terms with "adulthood," the album stands as something of an complement to Amy Rigby's Middlessence (about the transition from adulthood to the unknown beyond). In subject, anyway; in quality, it's the polar opposite. While Rigby's is a wonderful album that often doesn't sound very good, Phair's sounds terrific but doesn't make the grade where it counts.
The problem is that Phair is capable of anything (yes, anything), and as a result, there's no sense of focus. And when she can't latch onto something, it's a mess. Listen to "Headache;" sure, it sounds great, but that only underscores how empty the song really is when you listen closer. It's an interesting paradox: unfinished songs (with which Phair's previous albums are littered) can sound great only when they sound unfinished (go ask Guided By Voices).
When songs show their heads, though, they're worth the wait. The opening "White Chocolate Space Egg" thunders for the first time in Phair's short (ha!) career, twisting around in a melody that flirts with discord before resolving in a surprising major-key declaration of absolute acquiescence to her life-altering baby. "Johnny Feelgood" may be masochistic and misogynistic as hell (two avenues Phair has explored in the past), but it finds a melody and a groove, rides both until it hurts and provides, when Phair's voice fails her at the end of the first chorus, one of the album's genuinely thrilling moments. The folky "Perfect World" makes an appealing plea for the life of simplicity that escapes you when you're living like, well, Phair (or her characters) seemed to on her previous albums. The album's last great song, "Ride," hits at the 3/4 mark, but the buzz lingers long enough to make you think the rest of the record's pretty good (it's not). The good cuts are reminders that Phair's in love with melody, these days a rarity and all the more ironic considering her trademark deadpan, still in evidence. In fact, that may well be the key to the album's overall failure: distanced boredom may work when trying to defuse sexuality but it can kill attempts at honest emotion.
Bigger blunders mostly happen when Liz tries to sound like anybody else. Or maybe she doesn't try, maybe it just happens. Either way, it fails her, and big. "Big Tall Man" possesses a chorus that resembles nothing so much as Bettie Serveert on a good day. It's enjoyable in its fashion and normally wouldn't be something to quibble about, but it's a liability for someone used to setting precedents, not following them. So when "Only Son" decides it wants to be "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," intentional or not, it doesn't indicate a change for the better. Faring worse are the Casio country and western of "Baby Got Going" and the pseudo-worldbeatish "Uncle Alvarez," in which the narrator creates a smug and precious made-up family history of the anonymous picture on the wall.
In "Big Tall Man," Phair brags, "I can be a complicated communicator." Thing is, she spends the rest of the album neglecting to back it up with hard evidence. That's basically the story with the whole album, which has an exceptionally cool cover (with hair like the day after There's Something About Mary) wrapped around an uneven product. It's a superficial triumph of sound that caves in if you prod it to far, leaving you with a whiff of stale air. This egg is hollow. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Matador Records/Capitol Records)
I'm OK...You're on Fire
I should preface this little review by saying that no matter how cool this CD is, it can't measure up to an average Gauge show, no-way-no-how. These guys are great musicians, but more than that, they're bona fide entertainers, and their stage antics (particularly those of frontman Jim Denk) and silliness are an integral part of the fun. To give you an idea of what I mean, the release party for this disc (their debut) featured a registration table in the back for a Houston Public Library card, a mid-show auction of fake autographed records, a bunch of freaky cowboy folks (who I think were at the wrong club, but seemed to enjoy it anyway), lots of dancing, a birthday party going on on top of the pool table, several random dogs wandering around, and lots of fancy suits.
The music, believe it or not, fits the above -- it's a bizarre, unique mess of funk, ska, ragtime (no, really), country, pop, jazz, big-band and spaghetti western sounds, with lots of instrument-switching. The songs themselves are silly stories about evil Metro drivers ("Metro Incident"), desperadoes ("Fresca Expressca," "Outlaw"), sexy ladies ("Backdoor Sushi"?, "Foreplay"), and plenty more wackiness. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll love this album (and yes, I definitely do). (JH/Fall 1999)
Rigging the Toplights
Can I just say "buy this record"? Okay, a little description: a very "western sound," with a desolate vibe through most of the record, which doesn't mean that it doesn't rock (okay, it doesn't ROCK, but it doesn't just sit in the corner and whine, either), but what's more important is that it has a unified sound and fits together wonderfully, even though the gazillions of instruments (accordion, marimba, melodica, Ken Vandermark clarinet tape loops, and so much more) could have sunk this production in lesser hands, and with Darren Nelson's vocals (sounding for all the work like Jay Farrar's brother, which isn't a bad thing in the slightest) binding the whole thing together, I get the feeling of being around a campfire, huddled under a blanket, hearing stories of the open road and being happy for being warm and with friends even though the stories are dark at the core. Look, I can't speak intelligently about this -- but if you've bought more than one record that you could call "country" in any way (other than "young country," of course), then odds are you'll be very satisfied. Go now. Buy. (DD/Fall 1999)
(Atavistic/Truckstop Records -- P.O. Box 578266, Chicago, IL. 60657-8266; http://www.atavistic.com/)
Summer Season Kills
Y'know, there're only so many guitar-rock-with-melody albums you can listen to before you wanna scream and smash every damn "emo" (can we all admit the term means nada, now?) album you own. I'm about two steps away from that, which is bad, because honestly, I do really like a lot of this stuff -- it's just the current glut of it that gets to me. Whenever I get an album like this, especially one by a band formed by ex-members of this and that (in this case, Austinites Mineral and Feed Lucy, I believe), I cringe in anticipation of, well, more of the same. The good thing is that occasionally an album will completely sidestep all my preconceptions.
Despite the first track ("Follow You"), which is pretty much slow-rock-by-numbers (although not bad, for that), there're scarcely any now-traditional "emo" trademarks here. Instead you get a bunch of very decent indie-rock songs, more indebted to Pavement than Sunny Day Real Estate. "Tipping the Scale" is quiet and melodic, but doesn't go the cheap route into melodrama, instead keeping things understated and nicely poppy. "Ink & Paper" has some awesome synth parts, and brings to mind lackadaisical popsters St. Johnny, of all people, especially in the vocals (and that's a pretty cool thing), while "This Guy's Ready For Bed" could be an outtake off the first Weezer album. Overall, a nice change from what's become the norm. Shows what I get for taking stupid music-critic terms (like, say, "emo"?) to heart. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Deep Elm Records -- P.O. Box 1965, New York, NY. 10156-1965, 212-532-3337; PopVinyl@aol.com; http://www.deepelm.com/)
"There Goes The Patience"/"Mass Transit At Midnight"
It's hard to get away from your past. And I'm not talking about past mistakes, mind you, but past in general -- I mean, even if your former band (in this case, Jessica Six) was pretty revered, do you really want to constantly be reminded of it, no matter what you do? It's tough, though, especially since singer/guitarist Lance's distinctive voice defined Jessica Six for a lot of people. Anyway, don't let that fool you into thinking this is just a continuation, because it's not; the songs on this 7" are more pop than indie-rock, cool and melodic and mellow. I still can't make heads or tails of the lyrics, but hell, I don't care as long as I can bop along to "rock roxxanne, rock roxxanne" in "Mass Transit at Midnight." Cool stuff. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Ojet Records -- 2055 Westheimer, #165, Houston, TX. 77098; http://www.ojet.com/)