Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight—as critics’ polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the ’90s) hadn’t been equalled since the ’80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck’s written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold—not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness of the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don’t know what to make of them—I infer that, like myself, many of the winner’s more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning—it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother’s milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.
The Mekons - OOOH! [Quarterstick, 2002] Their best album in a decade doesn’t exactly come up and give you a kiss. Half 9-11 fallout, half night thoughts of a band whose heyday is past, it begins with what seems a faux-folk trope until you realize that “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem” is also the new crusade, and ends with the impassive boast, “We pride ourselves that our memory/Will vanish from the memory of the world.” It’s slow, sour, dark, grim—obsessed with treachery, conflagration, and death. For years the Time Out of Mind fan club has been finding unfathomable fatalism in folk songs that rarely gather the grounded gravity sustained here. Inspirational Verse (really, think about it): “Everyday is a battle/How we still love the war.” A
From CG 80s Glossary:
overdisc: on the other side of the record (my coinage, from “overleaf”)
John Copeland - Make My Home Where I Hang My Hat [Rounder, 1982]
At the outset Copeland identifies himself as a “Natural Born Believer,” then applies himself to the bluesman’s dilemma of making that belief come just as naturally to us. On his debut album, an all-star horn section and a quarter century of pent-up ambition put him over, but here he opts for the homey (and perhaps overfamiliar) spontaneity of his road band and instead gets horns and songs that sound half-dead until he mixes in some covers overdisc. B
Shaver - The Earth Rolls On [New West, 2001] Always too rudimentary a singer and soft a writer to earn the unconditional love of anybody but his famous drinking buddies and the woman who married him three times, this good-hearted, weak-willed people’s poet cum no-good bum hasn’t given up on yon “Evergreen Fields” or that ol’ “Restless Wind.” But for once rank sentimentality is the exception. The thanksgiving of “Love Is So Sweet” and flipped bird of “Leavin’ Amarillo” are equally combative, equally cheerful. Nor is it just the New Year’s Eve OD of his guitarist son Eddy that gives “Hard Hearted Heart,” “Star in My Heart,” and “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” their resonance—though you do wonder whether Billy Joe saw the end coming and was doing what he could about it. A-
Stanley Silverman - Elephant Steps [Columbia, 1974] A mere Chuck Berry expert cannot judge the quality of the “classical” music herein contained, although he can mention that he does not intend to investigate it further. The “rock,” however, was apparently concocted by David Clayton-Thomas’s heir covert and the pit band from the Oslo production of Hair. And any English major can see through the “libretto.” C-
Mike Watt - Contemplating the Engine Room [Columbia, 1997] Credwise, Watt’s got it all. He was the fulcrum of a great band, he’s serious with a sense of humor about it, he’s got not just politics but class consciousness, he talks a great game, and, oh yeah, he networks like crazy. The only thing he isn’t is a compelling artist. He can’t sing at all, can’t write much, and still pretends the bass solo is a viable musical form. Like fIREHOSE (sic), like his name-dropping solo debut, this “punk rock opera” (“I just hate the words ‘concept record.’ That’s fucking tired-ass, where opera’s funny”) looks great on paper and hasn’t been played for a year by anyone it impressed. It will prove a valuable resource for the numerous forthcoming doctoral dissertations on the alternative rock subculture. C+
From Additional Consumer News, July 25, 1989:
As proof against writer’s block, Marshall Crenshaw put in time as an archivist with Hillbilly Music … Thank God! Volume 1 (Capitol). Maybe the better-versed will chafe at its unsystematic mix of 24 hits and rarities from the ’40s through ’60s, but Crenshaw always knows a good song when he hears one, in his ear or his head, and this irresistible California country compilation is nothing but—humorous, lively, and (as he remarks in his typically offhand notes) of an altogther different place and time, or maybe several.
Which brings us to two even more archival Billy Altman CD/cassette excavations from RCA. Are You From Dixie? Great Country Brother Teams of the 1930’s is like a dream—you know most of these songs, but you don’t know where from, and you’re positive it wasn’t as nice as this. That’s because nobody harmonizes like brothers, or so they say. Wonderful. Ragged but Right: Great Country String Bands of the 1930’s is even more classic, but also rougher, scrawnier, less irresistible.
Mouse on Mars - Iaora Tahiti [Too Pure/American, 1995] It’s a shuck to apply the postfelicitous prefix “post” to instrumental rock, which has been a nothing tradition for a long time. In 1995 as so often before, chops were laughable, compositional notions paltry, big concepts quickly exhausted, and from Pell Mell to Eno/Wobble to FSOL to four out of five ambient comps to two out of three dance comps, the records weren’t just forgettable, they were inconsequential. That’s not true of this German duo, who care far more about details than their obvious godfathers Kraftwerk and at least as much as their vocal labelmates Pram. They may be quiet, but they ain’t ambient—as background music, they’re pretty irritating. Unfortunately, they’re irritating up front as well. There’s plenty of variety, and a well-constructed multibeat fantasia called “Saturday Night Worldcup Fieber” tickles me every time. But all this occurs within an aural universe that has little use for the lefthand three quarters of the piano. Its philosophical roots are in the so-called space-age pop that will remain lounge-rock’s legacy long after joke bands from Black Velvet Flag to Friends of Dean Martinez have moved on to prostitution or website design—the vague sound/approach now reified in a three-disc RCA exhumation, a reminder that nothing released under the auspices of a major label stays incredibly strange for long. C+
They Might Be Giants - Long Tall Weekend [www.emusic.com, 1999] The biggest problem with Net-music utopianism is that no matter how fast and convenient downloads get, music itself will continue to exist in, if you’ll pardon the expression, real time. That’s its very essence. If 1441 minutes of music go up on the Web today, that’s a minute more than anyone can hear in that period, period. Might the Net be a useful way for consumers to sample their musical options? Sure. Might it help strapped artists get by? Conceivably. Are there good things there that are unavailable elsewhere? Certainly not as many as in the sum total of specialty shops in our metropolis, although the same may not hold in Wichita. This, however, is one of them. Human song generators whose metier is the miscellany, they’re ideally suited to construct a download-only album that isn’t an out file taking on airs. Although “They Got Lost” is on last year’s live album and patrons of their live shows and dial-a-song service may recognize other tunes, this is as enjoyable a CD as they’ve released in the ’90s. With love to the literal “Operators Are Standing By,” it peaks with “Older,” which is about real time. A-
His Name Is Alive - Stars on E.S.P. [4AD, 1996] Warren DeFever is the cook, but don’t expect extra helpings from his side projects. HNIA’s artistic flavor, half homespun mysticism and half hermetic cutes, is all in Karin Oliver’s cunning, simplistic verbal/vocal content. And the whole exercise in fey sexuality and childlike quietude would fall slightly flat without its greatest hit—three takes on a Woody Guthrie tune about how he was even more alienated than they are. A-