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U.K.-based Stereolab has always been hard to peg. Purposefully fashioning kitsch out of electronic and traditional instrumentation, the group has occasionally shown flashes of brilliance, and at other times it has passed as merely banal. Frustratingly, Stereolab does not resolve its identity crisis with Sound-Dust, their latest album.
At its outset, Sound-Dust has the markings of sublimity. The opening track, titled “Black Ants in Sound-Dust,” is a synth-driven instrumental piece that opens with a bassline and one-note melody but builds to a crescendo of insistent hums, chirps and honks. The piece has a latent tension that uncontrollably bursts, and for Stereolab, whose works are meticulously arranged, it is a tantalizing development.
The next two tracks deliver on the overture’s promise. “Spacemoth” is a genre-fusion that starts out as a campy rendition of Danny Elfman film score, but halfway it is unexpectedly broken up by a frenetic drum beat, interspersed with wailing horns. Suddenly, these horns lead into a rollicking 1960s R&B finish. “Captain Easychord” is an engaging interplay of pop genres. It starts out with a John Lennonesque piano melody, lapses briefly into slide guitar (á là the Beatles’ “Get Back”), then rides out in electronic mode.
Curiously, the rest of the album is sapped of the energy that made the opening such a pleasure to listen to. “Baby Lulu,” a lounge-act number, slows down the album into a malaise that it never recovers from. Moreover, the flourishes, especially the horns, that peppered the opening reappear constantly throughout the album to the point of tedium. Shifts and breaks become less spontaneous and more calculated. At the halfway point the album starts to sound like thick syrup. The tempo starts to pick up in the last quarter, but it is too little, too late. Unfortunately, Laetitia Sadier’s characteristic vocal monotone and dense lyrics do not dispel Sound-Dust’s narcotic effect. After listening to Sound-Dust, you will wonder how an intro, and group, with such potential could have resulted in this mediocre recording.
—William K. Lee
Preston School of Industry
All This Sounds Gas
Not so long ago, a minimum of two Pavement albums was de rigeur for anyone who took their indie rock cred seriously. With the band’s break-up, this is perhaps no longer the case, and it remains to be seen whether Stephen Malkmus will fly his solo flag quite as high as the Pavement. In the meantime, the other smithereen of the Pavement disintegration, led by ex-Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs (all guitarists should have names this cool) has come into its own under the moniker Preston School of Industry. Preston’s debut album, All This Sounds Gas, is an album of shameless, shambolic and possibly pointless waster-rock, it is also a wonderfully pretentionless record of a band diving head-first into their record collection like one of those big foam-rubber pits and throwing stuff around to their hearts’ content. It is hard to imagine that the School take their music half as seriously as many of their Pavement-mourning listeners will. Others, however, can simply enjoy the infectious irreverence of it all.
The music bounces around between pop (“Falling Away,” sounds like endearing high-school rock), country (the tobacco-chewing slide guitar on “A Treasure @ Silver Bank”) and the indie sound that made him famous. Stairs has a voice that is half American Damon Albarn and half John Frusciante—often lazy, never overbearing, which means that his voice becomes just another instrument. The lyrics are either so nonsensical or sufficiently obscure that it’s tricky to tell the difference between the two: “Driving the whalebones home / 18 hours ago / Lots of water in tow.” But it is difficult not to fall for lines like, “Optometrist to the stars / Had it lucky with tarot cards.” The music is in the best imitation-is-the-highest-compliment derivative style: “History of the River” borrows its guitars from Neil Young’s “Sleeps with Angels,” while “Take a Stand” purloins its melody from an old Grandaddy tune. It seems that the break-up of the ever-higher profile Pavement has allowed Stairs and his cronies to relax and enjoy themselves a little more, and maybe let us do the same.
—Andrew R. Iliff
Change is Coming
(Emperor Norton Records)
In an indeterminate future, you stand in a crowd in the Great Glass Elevator. Like all elevators, this one comes wired for sound—soulless, slick, electronic muzak. Yet something is not quite right—rather than being the irritatingly-pacifying background-stuff, it keeps sneaking into your frontal lobes with growls of distortion, electronic shrieks and incendiary little licks. As the elevator gathers pace, your colleagues strip off their suit-jackets and ties, and the elevator becomes a sky-rocketing disco…
Money Mark, former keyboardist in the Beastie Boys’ live show, has created a lyric-less disc of processed vibes and snarls that winds up tasting a bit like elevator music on acid. While the soul of it may be elusive at times, the surprises keep coming. Much of the album is reminiscent of the recent explosion of electronic jazz, headed up by the likes of St. Germain and Karl Denson, but “Another Day,” is an electronic fantasy on Santana’s “Guajira,” (though unattributed). “Soul Drive Sixth Avenue” digs a little deeper into funk territory as the keys croak with wah-wah and a baritone sax enters the mix. “People’s Party (Red Alert)” starts to layer the horns over a groovy, yet still camp bassline. One has to admire the talent of the Money man: Although he does recruit various friends on drums and suchlike (including Sean Lennon on electric bass), almost everything is played by himself, from flute to nylon guitar. The album might have benefited from the presence of some words (perhaps even delivered by a Beastie?) but that would have detracted from the monolithic simplicity of the groove, in which the keyboard (or Korg Triton, or arp odyssey synth, or whatever) is king.
Enjoyable elevator music! Glorious oxymoron! Perfect for those too-suave-for-real-music parties, and anyone who likes all mirror decor.
—Andrew R. Iliff
It’s hard to place Grant-Lee Phillips among the current crop of male singer-songwriters. More folksy and intimate than Rufus Wainwright or Ben Folds, yet more ambient and textured than Pete Yorn or Ryan Adams, Phillips seems destined for a niche market. And that, according to him, is just fine.
After six years and four critically acclaimed albums with Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips decided to part with both the band and their major label backing in 1999. “Embrace the solitude,” he sings on this year’s Mobilize, his second solo effort, “It’s doin’ me good.” Freed from relentless touring and mass-marketing ploys, Phillips recorded 2000’s Ladies’ Love Oracle over three days in the basement studio of über-producer Jon Brion. A product of complete creative autonomy (it was released through Phillips’s web page), the album exposes Phillips as a masterful songwriter, not just a dynamic frontman.
For Mobilize, Phillips is once again doing it all, acting as writer, performer and co-producer with Carmen Rizzo. This time, though, he is with a record label (Cambridge-based Rounder Records Group subsidiary, Zoë) and has brought back the funky Grant Lee Buffalo vibe and use of production machinery. An amalgamation of psychedelic folk and bluesy rock, Mobilize captures both the epic and the intimate, sometimes in the same breath. The 12 tracks glide together seamlessly, combining textured, atmospheric instrumentals with mildly hypnotic guitar melodies. Phillips’s honey-coated, slightly haggard voice is alternately plaintive and playful as he turns his introvert’s eye to the outside world. “See America,” showcases Phillips’s embrace of soft electronic ambience,a la U2, while “Beautiful Dreamers” has a decidedly 70s psychedelic flair. The closest thing the album has to a breakthrough single—“Spring Released”—is so bouncy that it is almost hard to believe its author could also create the brilliant misery of “Sadness Soot.” The title track is perhaps the album’s weakest, but even its eeriness is beautifully crafted, which speaks volumes for the quality of the record as a whole.
—Stacy A. Porter
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