What with Jazz Fest and all (see my wag-tongued babblings, re: same, elsewhere in this ish), I shall now take this time to rummage through the New Releases stack, seeking recommendations for your cocooning pleasure. Slash recording artists Grant Lee Buffalo’s record Fuzzy opens with “The Shining Hour”’s skiffle drumming and bounding chord progression, which brings to mind The The’s “Beat(en) Generation,” which is odd. From music press write-ups (“dustbowl” this and “sagebrush” that), I was led to believe that this new Cali band was the next college-level roots-rock savior.
Past the confusion, though, there certainly are eleven gen-u-ine tunes here, and the glowing reviews are well-deserved. This is some kind of perverse folk off-shoot, lyrical tales told with sparkling clarity and Grant Lee Phillips’ front-and-center vocals. His crooning style often recalls another singer from overseas (Mike Scott of the Waterboys), and we could also trot out that trusty reference point, the Beatles.
All these UK comparisons fly in the face of the fact that Phillips’ main thematic concern revolves around things hopelessly American: the convertible, drive-thru diner kind (Check out “America Snoring” or the refrain “got you on my handy cam” from “Stars and Stripes”). These are complete songs, done the old-fashioned way, not riffs puffed up into facsimiles of songs. Note of local color: “Dixie Drug Store” is a Dylan-esque sung-spoken aural postcard about a chance meeting in a snake oil shop on Rampart Street.
Every self-effacing super-power-pop aficionado likes Bob Mould’s latest creation, Sugar, making my job in this instance an easy one. If you are one of that ilk, pick up Beaster, Rykodisc’s “short-form” release containing six tracks of electric-storm one-offs from the tail end of the Copper Blue recording sessions. The outing lapses one time only, into an incongruously perky fanfare riff on the song “Feeling Better.” Other than that, it’s a scream—Mould’s always been a great one for exercising some cranium-testing catharsis for the consumer’s vicarious enjoyment, and Beaster is no exception. Fun fact: Mould is an outspoken Grant Lee Buffalo admirer, having broken that band on his Singles-Only label.
The Swirlies are the latest ultra-groovy exporters of “chimp rock,” which is currently the most up-to-the-minute denomination of alternative rock. “Chimp” rock (what will those crazy kids think of next?) has the simplest of premises: make music lo-fi, as you would in your bedroom, stoned, in your tighty-whities, without the trappings and amenities of rock stardom.
In fact, leaders of the new DIY genre, such as Sebadoh, Ween and Pavement, really do tape some stuff on clunky handheld recorders, and the Swirlies are fellow sound-quality shirkers. Though it sounds as though some gizmo geek actually toiled a bit over their Taang! records debut Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, this band remains true to the chimp rock credo: Sing like you did on the jungle gym, fake ’em out with My Bloody Valentine-style hypnotics, and become the overseas flavor-of-the-week (Implied synopsis: here today, history teachers tomorrow).
Kurt Ralske’s Ultra Vivid Scene have a nicely done new record out on 4AD/Columbia entitled Rev. Often a virtual one-man band, for Rev Ralske trashed the studio wizardry route in favor of a real NYC-based band and got a warm-sounding collection of brooding dirges and right-on T. Rex imitations. It’s psychedelia and it’s glam, while deftly avoiding the sense of rehashed nostalgia which so often plagues derivative bands, which is why Ralske has been a critical favorite since he crawled out from under a pile of laundry in ’88 or so.
Not much to be said for his band’s live show at Tip’s on May 12, however. Despite strong new material like “Candida” and the set-closing “Blood and Thunder,” Ralske’s crew never came close to the heady exultant heights one hopes to reach in a club setting with a mood band like this one. Blame it on the sparse turnout.
I caught a mini-set by local uncategorizables Blood & Grits on the 19th, a Monday. They’re a schizophrenic amalgam of Tom Waits lounge lizard croaks, core New Orleans powerfunk a la the Meters, and everything in between, which is a lot.
Percussion-heavy on their butt-shakin’ passages, B&G divert their focus abruptly and regularly, as if it’s empowered by the switch of the junk-shop lamp that adorns bandleader Nicholas Sanzenbach’s keyboard. And that parlor fixture is a natural when Sanzenbach sets to waxing boozy and bluesy. B&G are tweaked just enough to appeal to music lovers on all the fringes of the New Orleans scene.
On Friday the 7th of May, I attended a DGC Records schmoozefest at Jimmy’s involving two bands, the Posies and Ceremony. The Posies are perfectly OK at what they do. What they do was spelled out rather conveniently on this night by their garb—one front guy wore a Nirvana t-shirt, the other a Big Star hat. Case closed.
The real story was Ceremony, the opening act, a sort of retro-“Rhoda” era Wilson-Phillips led by none other than Chastity Bono. That’s right, Sonny and Cher’s little girl with the quizzical moniker and a catalogue of guitar chord knowledge more pathetic than mine. This time out (it ain’t the first time she’s attempted to fill her folks’ stupendous shoes), she’s hired not one but two David Koresh lookalikes and a Chastity lookalike (the other lead singer).
After Ceremony’s colossally mediocre set, which consisted of cadges from the lost playbooks of bands like the Eagles and ELO, I was tempted to hound Cher’s billowy offspring for an autograph, if only for the sheer camp value of that scribbled cocktail napkin. Out of a deference to journalistic sobriety, I restrained myself. After all, she’s gracious enough to provide those of us in the holier-than-thou press with an unmissable bullseye for our charlatan-targeted cannons, and I had a good belly laugh over the whole affair.
Speaking of Belly (can this man segue, or what?), ex-Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donnelly has stepped out dandily on her own. Her band’s first record (Star, on Sire/Reprise) is a trip, a real candidate for next-big-alternative-goes-mainstream thing. Tanya proves herself not just ready but maybe overdue to take the helm, after stints in the shadows first of her half-sister Kristin Hersh in the Muses and then her buddy Kim Deal (of the Pixies) in their wintergreen side project, the Breeders.
At the New Orleans Music Hall on Monday, April 26, Belly allayed any doubts I brought as cargo, which stemmed from their debut performance at Boston’s Axis club last spring. At the time, they relied too heavily on Brit-style “shoegazing” guitar playing and foggy effects, if I remember correctly. They were trend-conscious; I was bored. But oh what a difference a year can make—Belly positively wowed me this time around. The band’s repertoire spans from lively jingle-ish rock .(“Slow Dog” and “Gepetto”) to ominous pop-poetry chansons like “Angel” or “Untogether.” I’ll lay off the comparisons with similar music-makers for once. Let’s just say she’s waif-like and yet threatens to be tough as nails if need be. Wotta woman!