CD Reviews

These are some of the CD reviews I wrote for Chart magazine when I first started out.



So by now we’ve all heard that this is not the follow-up to Odelay. Understand? Not the follow-up! Hey, Odelay should be so lucky. This is one fine album, proving once again that you only need two weeks to produce greatness. Like his previous One Foot in the Grave effort, here we find Beck returning to folkier “wooden music,” but it’s timber with a strange grain to it. Melodies and song structures twist and turn in unexpected ways, yet all with a vaguely traditional and timeless feel. Like other great albums, it has that transporting quality—it takes you to a place that it defines. It’s sedate and somber (“We Live Again”) but it also offers the plucky “Bottle of Blues” and the saucy salsa of “Tropicalia”. The lush sitar-and-cello-enriched 12-string modal drone of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is worth the price of admission by itself. And though some claim his lyrics are senseless, they’re a big part of this album’s appeal. In “We Live Again” he sings “O hungry days in the footsteps of fools/Gazing alone through sex-painted windows.” What’s not to understand? But mostly the lyrics shuffle images more than paint pictures and the effect is just as compelling. With Mutations, Beck proves he’s the real deal. No, it’s not son-of-Odelay, because in many ways it outshines it.—JK

Jim Cuddy
All In Time

Like his best Blue Rodeo material, after only a few listens to Jim Cuddy’s first solo effort the songs become as familiar as a childhood country lane. You know every bend in the chorus, every bump in the voice; know them like the back of your heart. The sunnier tunes have the fresh glint of a light summer ale, though Cuddy’s not averse to dipping into the darker bitters, as in the hard-edged “Disappointment.” And the handful of heart-tugging ballads are sure to be a god-send for practitioners of slow-dance diplomacy. Guests include Melanie Doane on fiddle and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett. No real surprises here, but like a nice, breezy day in the country, none were expected or, for that matter, desired.—JK

Chuck E. Weiss
Extremely Cool
(Slow River/Rykodisc)

Chuck E. Weiss is an L.A. scenester, Viper Room co-founder and a long-time pal of Tom Waits (who produced this album). But he’s perhaps most widely unknown for inspiring Rickie Lee Jones’s 1979 hit “Chuck E’s in Love.” For only his second album in 18 years Weiss assembles a fine collection of L.A. session players to stir up his neon-lit, bluesy-jazzy concoctions. A couple of tracks stand out, particularly “Jimmy Would” and the unmistakable Waits collaboration “It Rains On Me”. But the main problem with Extremely Cool is reflected in the title. Confucius say: Only by aiming at Cool is one assured of missing the mark. Like any good scenester, this is precisely what Weiss does. I say: Save your money for the upcoming Tom Waits album.—JK

Liz Phair
whitechocolatespaceegg (Capitol)

Liz Phair returns from exile in momville to reclaim the title of 90s Pop-Rock Queen from the recent spate of pretender progeny. Her first full-length effort since 1994’s Whip-Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg boasts a core of more fully realized pop creations, sporting hooks so infectious you’ll need a penicillin shot (if the chorus of “Big Tall Man” doesn’t make your ears smile, you’re beyond medical help). While the guitar grit is still there, many tracks are dipped in a more well-rounded sound, lightly coated with keyboards and organ, even sprinkles of dance beats and electronica. Lyrically, Phair’s famous sexual tartness is tempered with a more mature outlook, though she still doesn’t pull any punches, as songs like “Johnny Feelgood” and “Headache” attest. Crunchy shell; rich and sweet inside … Mmmmm.—JK

Mitchell Froom

Exploring this producer/musician’s first solo album is like finding pawn shop treasure: a mysterious steamer trunk adorned with travel stickers from strange lands and exotic locales. It takes you to bizarre Middle-Eastern bazaars, through Sheryl Crow’s cacophonous “Monkey Mind”, drops you off in some half-demented, jazz-a-phonic juke joint, and returns to pick you up in a borrowed gypsy wagon. Interested yet? Did I mention the celebrity tour guides include Mark Eitzel, Suzanne Vega, Ron Sexsmith, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty and Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori? Then there’s the off-beat instruments Froom hauls out, including Indian banjo, toy piano, orchestron and Marxophone, not to mention the several species of organ, clutches of horns and a shot or two of vibes. It’s a trip worth taking. Send me a tacky postcard.—JK

The Smugglers
Growing Up Smuggler: A Ten Year Anniversary Live Album

To paraphrase a famous saying, writing about a live punk rock record is like slam dancing about architecture. But what the hell. Vancouver’s The Smugglers celebrate their tenth year of fun and feisty rock misadventures with this live set recorded in that bastion of all things punk, Madrid, Spain. (Huh?) (Never mind.) Come on along and enjoy this raucous and raw performance featuring songs like “Alan Thicke” “Your Mom’s The Devil” and “Kiss Like A Nun”. Follow the band’s madcap history as chronicled scrapbook-style in the hilarious liner notes, where you’ll also learn of the life-saving thermal qualities of “rotting meat farts.” Invite all your craziest friends over, crank up this rockin’ party record and, above all, have fun. These guys did.—JK

The Luv Album
(Royal Goddess Records)

Spackle poses the musical question: how do you take the vacant, superficial musical platitudes of yesteryear and make them even more banal? Answer: with a lot of Luv. But Spackle stretch the spandex luv groove way beyond the breaking point. With their self-conscious attempts at Prince-ly raunch and hackneyed lyrics like “I wanna grind it down with you,” they manage to turn funk into dys-funk-shun. Their triumph is in retrofitting ’70s disco-funk, ’80s synth-pop and ’90s pseudo-glam into one big, saccharine glob of nothingness—the void inside the mirror ball. In a perverse way it’s kind of admirable. Maybe it’s like one of those Escher prints that you can read two ways. Turn it one way and it’s a collection of vacuous booty tunes; turn it the other way and it becomes a cult classic (hey, stranger things have happened). Some may even enjoy this record precisely because it is unfulfilling, light-weight musical Pablum. But bring your own Coleman stove, because these guys don’t supply the camp. Whether it leaves you shaking your booty, or just shaking your head, I’ll leave it up to you knuckle-headed kids to decide. But personally, I think The Luv Album is one of the wurst things I’ve hurd in munths.—JK

(Tommy Boy/BMG)

If music was poker, this Toronto foursome presents a strong hand with their debut CD, a full house of insistent beats, dynamic vocals and dense salvos of reverberant guitar. The band’s strong suit is its use of texture as much as structure, and the disc’s finest moments are those that best combine these two aspects, such as the first single, “Beautiful”, a Jekyll and Hyde number that goes for the jugular of the vain. Other standouts include the kinetic opener “Fizz”, the dreamy “Strawberry Marigold”, and the spacey-cool acoustic prayer “Dog Star Radio”, a worthy relative of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The trump card, however, is singer Tara Slone. Exuding oodles of confidence, she deftly executes stylistic turns from sultry to saucy to supersonic. Her incredible vocal range is judiciously used to great effect, especially on “Breakdown” and “No One”, where she glides easily from dulcet, velvety purring to hair-raising, blow-the-roof-off power. Slone’s soothing vocals enchant the final track, “Until”, along with the gentle rhythm loop and tremo-luscious backdrop, giving the song a warm vibe that endures long after the music fades, like a lover’s heat print lingering in an empty bed. And even though the band or producer Ron St. Germain (311, Bad Brains, Soundgarden) occasionally obeys some nefarious need to fill up the available space with extraneous electronic tinsel, when all is said and done the combination of good songs, strong textures and passionate performances overcomes this slight distraction. The result is a promising debut effort. Deal me in.—JK

The Bonaduces
The Democracy of Sleep

The second full-length by these pop-punksters from the ’Peg proves a spirited amalgam of energy, craft and attitude. There are enough guitar hooks and tasty lyrical morsels dangling from these tunes to lure your soul from the blue depths of its winter hibernation. Comprising former members of defunct Winnipeg bands Cheerleader and Banned From Atlantis, the Bonaduces dole out austere packets of corrosive guitars and spunky singing. They also continue the fine indie tradition of penning song titles that are hilariously entertaining on their own (witness “The Second Annual National Depression Awareness Day Sleepover Party” and “I Nominate My Kitten for the King of the Dead”). To some extent they can be accused of mining the same frenetic musical vein a little too often; like the Partridge Family child star from whom their name derives, there’s a danger of things getting old too fast. But partly that’s just an occupational hazard of being a punk band, and I’m sure their devotees won’t mind the sonic homogeneity. To their credit, the final track, “Damage Deposit”, does provide a change of pace—and the record’s finest moment. At once vulnerable and tough, it’s the song you hear when you’re leaning against a wall of Regret, hands submerged in pockets, staring blankly at a piece of broken glass at your feet, hoping for a diamond. A classic album closer and further evidence that Rock and Roll isn’t dead; it’s just a little lost and lonely. And sometimes that’s a good place to be.—JK