SST Records Legend and Music Scribe Joe Carducci on His New Book and Throwing Sonic Youth’s Cassette Into the Demo Pile in 1985

By Brad Cohan

Joe Carducci not only played a monumental role in helping run and co-own SST Records in its glorious 1980’s heyday when Black Flag, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Meat Puppets were the reigning kings of the Amerindie underground, but he also famously penned the lyrics for the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime classic “Jesus and Tequila,” and later on, wrote tunes for Mike Watt.

But above his legendary SST Records pedigree is Carducci, music scribe figurehead and film and political pundit. He penned the definitive manifesto sprawl of the history of rock music called Rock and the Pop Narcotic (originally released by Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 imprint in 1991) and recently authored Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That, an inspirational yet gut wrenching account of his SST friend and punk rock photographer Naomi Petersen, who tragically passed away from liver failure in obscurity in the mid-90’s.

Since 1995, Carducci has lived in Wyoming, banging out screenplays, short stories, keeping an extensive blog that hardcore godhead Keith Morris love and running Redoubt Press, his own DIY-operated publishing company. He just self-released Life Against Dementia: Essays, Reviews, Interviews 1975-2011, the comprehensive Carducci collection righteously on par with that of Richard Meltzer’s A Whore Just Like the Rest and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs.

Sound of the City sat down with Carducci to talk about his new book, the SST days and the false reportage that he was averse to signing Sonic Youth to SST. He reads tonight from his latest book Life Against Dementia: Essays, Reviews, Interviews 1975-2011 (Redoubt Press) at BookThugNation at 7:30pm in Williamsburg (100 N. 3rd Street; between Berry St. and Wythe Ave.)

Did keeping your blog The New Vulgate serve as the inspiration to compile the content for your new book, Life Against Dementia?
I was thinking about the collection before we started the blog. But the Vulgate made me get productive and wound up providing about half of Life Against Dementia. It also allowed me to chop down the interview sections to just a short piece of the older interviews that haven’t been posted online.

For someone who seems to be a proponent of old media, you are certainly engaged in social and new media. You are on Facebook and running The New Vulgate blog is use of a new media contraption.Is engaging in new and social media done reluctantly on your part? Was putting out Life against Dementia your way of keeping the printed page alive?
I like doing the NV and fishing around Googling for images is sometimes the most fun part of it. But I really regret it can’t be a publication, even as an annual. I only stopped thinking about that when Tower (Records) went under. After that it seemed impossible to believe it could be in print. My next book, Stone Male, is the end of these run of titles. After that I hope to be getting screenplays produced and have reason to write new ones. That’s really what my writing is geared for, and probably why my nonfiction essays and critiques don’t read like most others in that game.

Looking back at Rock and the Pop Narcotic, is there anything in it you got wrong? Do you have a desire to write a “sequel” for it?
I did want to revise it slightly before reprinting it, but I had the 2.13.61 film ready to go and there weren’t material changes, just typos and a few informational mistakes, where this or that band was from, etc. I do feel I understand several things much better than I did. In my essay, “David Lightbourne & Outlaw Folk in ’70s Oregon,” the relationship of parts of the folk music scene and acoustic country and blues music going back to the turn of the century to rock and roll is featured, whereas there’s almost nothing of that in R&TPN as I didn’t know enough to care back then. A lot of what might have been improved or added to R&TPN is in LvD; in the title essay I write about the way the repression of punk in the ’70s by radio, even major label punk, proved to be a kind of oxygen deprivation which has retarded the music culture in ways that can’t be repaired. I start the collection by talking about a certain oxygen deprivation leading to retardation, culturally. It’s what happened when the punk bands on the major labels were rejected by Lee Abrams’ radio consultancy. His judgment, backed up with Jann Wenner’s at Rolling Stone, meant that the majors stopped trying. Thereafter we got the rock culture Lee Abrams and Jann Wenner determined. That we hear the Ramones at baseball games now can’t undo that 15 or 20 years of oxygen deprivation.

Where does the title of the book come from?
The title refers to Norman O. Brown’s book, Life Against Death, which with Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and a few others, was one of the books that started the ’60s. Those were the intellectual sociological paperbacks that were littering the bookstores. I think my title works, and that was its title when the earlier version ran in the first issue of Arthur Magazine. In a way, it’s a more accessible book because you can pick the film stuff to read, or the music stuff, or my take on the CIA in Tibet.

On to the SST Records days. Do you keep in touch with any of the SST folks?
Henry (Rollins), the most consistently. He put the Rock book out at one point. It’s not every year but if I go out to L.A. I’ll usually see if he’s in town or maybe (Raymond) Pettibon. With (Chuck) Dukowski, it’s mostly email. When I first saw Chuck’s Sextet, they didn’t have a guitar; they had a saxophone. I had just seen Thurston Moore and a percussionist at The Stone and I thought “Man, Chuck’s band as it was then would have fit into an artier thing in New York.” I’m glad Chuck is happy. He looked like he was under a lot of strain back in ’83 [laughing]. When the strain was only the LAPD, he was happy. He loved that fight. But when it was him versus Greg, that was really, within the band, rough on Chuck.
When you joined SST in ’81, did you know what you were getting yourself into?

Not entirely [laughing] but I wanted to get back to L.A. I knew it had been a mistake because Rough Trade did not want to live in L.A. or neither did my partner in Systematic. I remember hearing the (SST) stuff on the commercial FM stations. They’d have an import program or Rodney would be on on the weekends on KROQ. So I knew that there were business chances. I didn’t know until we got to the Bay area and we reissued the first Dead Kennedys singles and the Pink Section 45. But there was no pressing plants in the Bay area so we were pressing in Cincinnati. There’s no way to time anything because you’re last on their list of priorities. That was a big mistake but what little I knew about Black Flag I liked. I had written a very bad rock and roll band script two years earlier and that’s what I had named my band (Black Flag). So I was already a torublemakin’ anarchist before the music involvement.

What were you into when you went to SST in ’81?
I was really into Flipper when I was in Berkeley and in Portland The Wipers were playing. Up there I saw all the New York bands played. Television was on their second tour, The Ramones were probably on their third tour. The big ones would play The Paramount–The Ramones and Patti Smith played the Paramount. Television played a little bar.

Did you agree with Richard Meltzer that L.A. punk was superior to New York punk?

I’m glad he says that because he’s right that that [L.A.] was the place to be because the depth of the scene and everyone thinks its superficial, but it never ends. I hoped the Naomi book, where I just keep redrawing the circle of what was going on there, because Brendan Mullen was very protective of the scene he was a part of. His relationship with Greg was interesting because they went up and down over the years and he never thought Black Flag was functional enough to play the Masque when they complained they couldn’t give a hooky but it was mostly Keith, complaining.
I didn’t know he (Brendan) was gonna be ill and die so quickly; I figured I’d be on a panel with him someday and we’d argue this out.

How did it ultimately work out that you wound up at SST?
I met Black Flag a couple times in the Bay area and in Chicago actually when I was visiting family. I knew they were doing it, in a way that the Dead Kennedys weren’t. The Dead Kennedys were split. I think Jello wanted to do it but he didn’t know he could do it so he wouldn’t demand it and Ray had been the guy we had bought singles from; we put on their show in Portland. This is where we met them, talked to them, came down and they said “Come down” because they weren’t happy with the options in the Bay area at the time. So we (Systematic) ran a second thousand of the first single. It wasn’t a raging hit but they eventually sold the first thousand. It started growing and we did the first run of “Holiday in Cambodia” and that became a big deal. They took that away from us because they thought we couldn’t handle it because again, we had no pressing plant. You can’t run across town for an emergency. All we could do it call somebody in Nashville and try to talk to them about a band called Dead Kennedys [laughing]. Right after I got down to SST, Dead Kennedys played the Whiskey or something and Jello stayed over at SST and he said that they were looking for a guy, “a Carducci,” to run their label, because when I had left them for Black Flag, they must have thought “Well, we coulda done something.”

Why did you leave SST in 1986?

Well, Greg was glad I was goin’ because I sort of broke the logjam. The practical matter was Mugger and I had more and more planning to do with more bands, even in the early years when it was really just five bands maybe six bands. So in the end, we had to say “No” about budgetary planning on certain projects or whatever. If you look back and see how many records Black Flag did, we didn’t really say no to too many things and I didn’t want to say no to Greg–it was his label, always. In retrospect, and I told this to Chuck, we never should have split the band from the label. We were all in one office and it was kind of difficult. Hence, we had to store our records and we had more records to store. So, we were gonna keep moving into new places but we had this place for 150 bucks that we didn’t want to lose and they wanted a practice pad, as well. It just came to be that once the band was out of the label building, the typical paranoia down there made it impossible to then reconnect when you had reason to at a gig or to talk about matters. Phone was enough [laughing]. Those guys favorite sport was trying to figure out what song lyrics were about who and the grand accusatory “you,” which is, in the old days, that was the style. So the question is “Who is ‘you?'” The Minutemen were into that theme and Saccharine (Trust) and Descendents and Black Flag.

Did you consider yourself punk or hardcore?
No. I never shaved my face my whole life. If you look at the old photos, there’s always some bearded guys in the 70’s in the punk rock bars. But by ’80 in the hardcore years, there’s nobody with a beard in the place. Then there were photos taken right before Ian Curtis killed himself and those guys had whisky, little beards. Then you found some of the goth people playing around with Frank Sinatra records and the legend of Joy Division. Beards and Frank Sinatra. But they were not at our gigs. I was never beat up because I was recognized as being “Oh yeah, that’s Henry’s hippie or Greg’s hippie.”

Did you keep in touch with Ginn after you left SST?
I tried to stay in touch through the mail, if I had an idea or just a comment or send him a tape. I was getting promos for about a year (after I left SST) and they were doing a lot of stuff. I don’t know where the cutoff point was–it was probably when Ray Farrell got fired. As it went, I was researching my Rock book, which didn’t come out ’til ’90, so for another four years I was running around record stores buying. Everyone was dumping their vinyl for CD’s so it made it real easy and cheap to buy ones of every band you ever picked over and ignored for research.

Writing the Rock book must have been an exhaustive process. What went into it?
Rock and the Pop Narcotic started in L.A. after I left SST. I began reading back issues of Slash, making notes and doing stuff. I moved to Chicago and spent ten months rehabbing a building, but that downtime helped me figure out the structure of the book. In the end, its two books really, because the history back end–if I hadn’t done that, I don’t think people would have known what I meant by the first half of the book. You really have to run the history through the theory then people go “Oh, this is what he meant.”

It’s been documented that you were against SST signing Sonic Youth. Is there any truth to that?

Alec Foege, who wrote the first book (Confusion Is Next: The Sonic Youth Story), has something in there that’s just wrong. He never talked to me about any of it. But people assumed I was the A & R guy and I said “No.” That’s absurd.

People think we had an A & R department when it was really just mostly Greg and Chuck and me and then Henry had an influence and Mugger and Spot brought bands in–if we could do it and we would talk about it. I hadn’t seen Sonic Youth. They had sent their records to Raymond and I had read Kim had written about Raymond and the records his art was associated in ArtForum. That was from left field, as far as I can tell; I didn’t know she was in Sonic Youth. Thurston had sent–I don’t know, maybe it was Bad Moon Rising on a cassette, with his ‘fanzine. I told David Browne (author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth) that I took the ‘fanzines and threw the cassette in the demo box and the demo box went over to Global. So I never listened to the Sonic Youth album there. But I was collecting ‘fanzines and I still have those (desperate) Killer ‘fanzines that Thurston was doing. Ray Farrell came down so he was really into Sonic Youth, Naomi was really into Sonic Youth, Henry was really into Sonic Youth. When I heard their records at Pettibon’s I said “This is what they sound like?” and he said “Well, they’re doing something with the culture.” But in the end, they got a good drummer–two good drummers–and I’ve liked what they’ve done. I think with Washing Machine and the later period (records), they don’t sound contrived to me–I think they got to be better songwriters. The new Lee (Ranaldo) album–I liked that.

Was it Bad Moon Rising you listened to back in the day?
No, it wasn’t. I liked Bad Moon Rising when I finally heard it. I got a copy from Joe Pope at Systematic. I liked Bob Bert as a drummer. I never saw him play with Sonic Youth live but I didn’t like Richard Edson as a drummer. I’ve liked Edson since then–I’ve met him and he’s a great character, a great actor. The other thing was Greg had seen them play and what struck Greg was they had these little amps–I don’t know how big they were. Lee and Thurston had these little amps and Greg thought they were just hamming it up and making fun of rock music.

Finally, will you shop Stone Male to major publishers instead of doing it yourself?

They won’t take it as is–I know they won’t. So, the hell with it. I got one more self-published book in me. I might as well do it myself.


Iggy Pop Taught Mike Watt How To Be A Better Bassist

By Katherine Turman

Mike Watt is a jack of all trades, and master of most. Since founding hardcore punk legends Minutemen in 1980 and contributing the phrase “We Jam Econo” to the cultural lexicon, the bassist and “spieler” has added much to America’s left-of-center musical landscape. From the two-bass band dos to late 80s-early 90s alt-rock heroes fIREHOSE to solo albums featuring the likes of Eddie Vedder, Adam Horovitz, Dave Grohl and Thurston Moore, Watt is seemingly never without a new-fangled idea and the guts, talent and cool friends to wondrously implement it.

See Also:
Q&A: Mike Watt
Another Mike Watt Q&A


His muscular playing and flexible mind earned Watt touring spots with both Jane’s Addiction and The Stooges. And Mr. Iggy Pop has taught Watt a thing or two. “Ig has big time learned me to be a better bassist,” he says. “Sometimes we caught up in our operating of our machines and can’t see the big picture. Ig’s taught me lots about this, like a conductor in some way. His ethic about working a gig where he devotes everything to being there for that gig and nothing halfway or sleepwalking. The moment is everything and essential–not to be taken for granted. Some of this reminds me of [late Minuteman guitarist] d. boon, for me a special kind of integrity.”

Integrity is an apt adjective for Watt as well, as he tours with his Missingmen (since 2005: Tom Watson, guitar, vocals; Raul Morales, drums) in support of his hyphenated-man opera, the tale of a mid-50s punker (Watt) that concludes the operatic triptych that began with 1997’s Contemplating the Engine Room. “I didn’t mean for the parts [of hyphenated-man] to tied together in a linear way but what could I do? In a sense it’s supposed to be more like a wheel than a choo-choo train,” Watt explains. “The drama in hyphenated-man is existential and [not involving] any other characters except myself, though I don’t hardly use the “I” pronoun in it. The piece deals with what I find a trippy part in my life–a sickness that pert-near killed me.”

New lease on life or no, one of the reasons Watt remains an arresting performer who deserves the reverence of a packed house is his current take on the long-ago “econo” ethos. Back then, “punk in the U.S. was very small and you really had to love it and do what you had to do to make it happen,” he reminisces. “I feel those ethics we got into back then still apply now, especially if autonomy is important to you, and it is to me. That’s where the comfort is, not being afraid to let the freak flag fly or feeling like a dick for lame compromises.”

If you miss the uncompromising Mr. Watt this time round (not recommended), fear not, the next few months finds the indie icon releasing an album cut in Italy with Italian musicians; output with guitarist Nels Cline and Greg Saunier of noise band Deerhoof, plus and about a million other pet projects. For someone who still jams econo, Watt is one prolific spieler.

Friday, October 12, Mike Watt + The Missingmen, The Bell House, Brooklyn, 7:30pm Doors / 8:30pm Show / $13 adv / $15 dos


Mike Watt and Friends

To celebrate the release of the Minuteman’s photo-driven memoir, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass, the ever-unpredictable four-stringer has assembled a star-studded release party. The main draw is his performance with Dinosaur Jr. vocalist-guitarist J Mascis and drummer Murph, but considering that he has spent time in a bevy of underground rock’s finest (the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, the Stooges, Ciccone Youth), the book excerpt portion could prove just as interesting, especially since they’re promising “very special surprise guests.” With Appomattox and Dead Trend.

Wed., May 2, 7 p.m., 2012


Lou Barlow & the Missingmen

With both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh on hiatus (not to mention Folk Implosion), indie staple Barlow now has time to bone up on his solo career, touring with Mike Watt’s Missingmen band. The format for the shows has been Lou starting out solo, then the band joining in, then Lou solo again. Interesting concept, and a shame that another Lou (Reed, to be exact) won’t consider the same for his own shows. With Wye Oak.

Wed., Sept. 1, 9:30 p.m., 2010


Lou Barlow

After a reunion tour last year, Sebadoh is back on the shelf again (as is Folk Implosion) while the Dinosaur Jr. reunion roars. Meanwhile, common thread Mr. Barlow follows up on his own career with another solo album, opening for Dinosaur Jr. alone on occasion. For his shows, he’s recreating his upcoming sweet little record (think of it as a big aural hug) by corralling bassist’s Mike Watt’s band, the Missingmen. Someday, it’d be great to see “An Evening With Lou,” covering material from all of his bands. With John de Vries.

Tue., Oct. 6, 9 p.m., 2009



Pitchfork scribe Michael T. Fournier teaches a course on the history of punk rock at Tufts, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his recent book on the Minutemen album Double Nickels on the Dime—part of Continuum’s celebrated 33 1/3 series of album explorations—takes a rather scholarly approach to the influential SoCal band’s defining document: Fournier wends his way through each of the 1984 set’s four dozen songs, unpacking the often-surprising ideas and influences and inspirations that combined for each in the restless minds of guitarist D. Boon, drummer George Hurley, and bassist Mike Watt, the latter of whom Fournier visited in San Pedro for an in-depth interview. For this reading, Barbès promises a multimedia component, which may or may not consist of Fournier’s rumored-to-be-killer Watt impression.

Sun., Jan. 4, 7 p.m., 2009


Disastrous Disco

Silver Daggers
“Faithful Unlawful”
Split 7″ with Silver Daggers (Not Not Fun)

Part of last year’s Not Not Fun Records 7″ Singles Club, “Faithful Unlawful” provides a dirty introduction to these L.A. skronkcore monsters, whose Load debut drops in April. Borbetomagus-friendly saxes slowly unfold like a fine compliment to mid-’00s doom drone. When the band finally joins in, it’s typical no-wave boogie down to the Lydia Lunch yelps—’cept the cowbell-happy drummer has probably listened to one too many Refused records, the bass player plucks with Mike Watt-precision, and everyone plays this traditionally “innocent” music like a total badass rock star.

Friend Paste 7″ (Tigertrap)

Seemingly one sweet Moog-tainted 51-second dollop of Melt Banana pudding burned onto vinyl three times in quick succession (for maximum obnoxiousness), this offering from these London-based no-wave Numbers-crunchers is actually one brilliant four-minute slab of extreme Devo—choking on its own cheekiness with lots of free-noise breakdowns and a fake Vines coda. The “fuck you, Dad” spawn of Duran Duran’s “Too Much Information,” courtesy of young ‘n’ modern minds polluted by Sparks and Wikipedia. Hear it:

“Song X”
Split 7″ with Made in Mexico (Rampage)

Gnarlier and sloppier than the version that made their Crucial Blast debut LP, “Song X” by Pittsburgh noisebangers Microwaves would be yet another undersexed raid on Arab on Radar’s metal-on-metal no-wave wail, were it not wheedled out by some dudes who probably own more than one Voivod record. They also claim to have “a familiarity with Ralph Records insanity,” and the atonal googoo at the fadeout is just the perfect amount. Hear it:

Femme Covert
upcoming split 7″ (Fatso)

Their MySpace page claims “new wave/punk/electro,” but Femme Covert from “Dogdick, North Carolina” are only like Dance Disaster Movement if you take out the dance and the movement. (They spelled catastrophe wrong, for fuck’s sake.) They flop about like spazzy DNA fans hate-fucking some Casios on this fantastic neo-noizer update of Jad Fair-style splatter-tantrums—hardcore hooting over a dopey synth, lo-fi drum machines crunching into oblivion, and a one-second drum solo that kicks everything into chaos. Hear it:


‘We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen’

Earlier this month Green Day sent a tidal wave of change through the offices of Lookout Records, the Berkeley-based indie that released the California punk trio’s first two albums. Citing nonpayment of back royalties, Green Day revoked Lookout’s license to sell the early records, causing the label to lay off much of its staff and halt the acquisition of new talent.

In We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, about another California punk trio, Mike Watt observes a smaller change rippling through his hometown of San Pedro, just south of L.A.: The music store where he and his bandmates used to buy records and guitars is now a Petco. The charm of Tim Irwin’s documentary, which charts via archival footage and talking-head reminiscences the arc of the band bassist Watt shared with guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley in the early ’80s, is that emphasis on the personal—the idea that the Minutemen, with their open-minded musical appetite and their thoughtful political engagement, affected individuals, even if they didn’t achieve a Green Day–size stature.

In this age of VH1-sponsored hyperventilating over the Doobie Brothers’ legacy, it’s refreshing to see a doc in which the biggest boldfaced name is Flea, who gushes over Watt and Boon’s reluctance to tune their instruments. Hurley admits that the band took more time than they ever had to record
Double Nickels on the Dime, their 1984 masterpiece: “A week or two,” he figures. Watt explains that the trio’s name, often mistaken as a reference to the brevity of their songs, was actually meant to tweak right-wingers: minute—as in little—men. Near the end, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye displays the handwritten note Henry Rollins sent him notifying the East Coast of Boon’s death in a 1985 van accident. It’s tiny too.


Consumer Guide

The records worth hating located by this annual Thanksgiving anticelebration are generally turkeys on the run, not fish in a barrel. Cynicism saps criticism, and only by going in with my hopes up can I muster enough hurt feelings to get mean when the argument requires it. So I really believed those Latin lovers would be hot, those Puffy toughs street realists. You gotta believe.

CAT POWER: Moon Pix (Matador) At least Chan Marshall’s not trying to fool anybody. From “she plays the difficult parts and I play difficult” to “the music is boring me to death,” she’s an honest heroine of the new indie staple—not noise-tune and certainly not irony, both as passé as the guilty pop dreams they kept at bay, but sadness. Slow sadness. Slow sadness about one’s inability to relate. And not to audiences. Hell is other people. C PLUS

EAGLE-EYE CHERRY: Desireless (Work) Watch out for this mild-mannered simp: underneath his lite croon, refabricated truisms, and avant-garde pedigree, he’s got the tunes. The title track, an instrumental-with-chant composed by his trumpeter dad, points up how flimsy they are. B MINUS

DC TALK: Supernatural (Virgin)
If the scruffy yokels of Jars of Clay are tent preachers, these hunky moderns are televangelists, their well-riffed Queen homage the musical equivalent of Tammy Faye Bakker’s false eyelashes—considered sinful excess in an earlier era, but claimed for Christ now that it is known not to herald the end time. Reports that they have something—anything—to do with rap are apparently based on the presence of a certified Black Person in the group. Instead, they do up a jolly ska tune whose love object is, shall we say, not female, and address a generically whiny-sarcastic selling-out put-down to Collective Soul, trumping their assertion of spiritual superiority by insisting that they still “love” their backsliding brothers. They should remember I Corinthians 13:4: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” C

JOHNNY DOWD: Wrong Side of Memphis (Checkered Past) The vitae that mark this middle-aged Ithaca moving man as a genuwine everyman reduce just as readily to boho-with-a-day-job, and lest you look down on him he’s careful to stick an “existential” into the one about the “Average Guy,” so-called. When he finds “tender love,” his tropes pick up considerable—”Like beans and rice she’s a total plateful,” nice and homely. But soon it’s back to murder and misery in the dismal swamp quote unquote, with malnourished blues to match. Gangsta folk—not only are the stories old hat, the beats suck. B MINUS

FASTBALL: All the Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood) “We just wanted to make a personal statement with our music,” aver these three Austinites with a sincere look in their eyes. And so they yoke popcraft worthy of Three Dog Night, the Doobie Brothers, perhaps even Matchbox 20, to lyrics that speak of the dark things—institutionalization, methadone, lovers left bleeding, highways going nowhere, and, quite a few times, their own inordinate careerism. Is that personal enough for you? C PLUS

GOLDIE: Saturnzreturn (London/ FFRR) The only one fooled for a minute by this 152-minute time-stretch was Goldie’s mom, who occasioned the more candidly textural of the two CDs, a movementless, and motionless, “symphony.” But why was anyone surprised? He was an instant figurehead because he was pretentious enough to poke his head out of jungle’s welter of beats. Having fallen flat on his face with a lifetime’s worth of self-expression, he can now proceed to the soundtrack work he was born for. C MINUS

HOT LATIN HITS/EXITOS LATINOS CALIENTES: The ’90s (Rhino) Doing my bit to nip a world-lounge fad in the bud, I hereby deplore not just a record but an entire sensibility—the florid Spanish-language romanticism at the root of the international ballad style. Performed mostly by one-named singers like Mijares, Lucero, Cristian, and Julian, these early-’90s cris de coeur are all the excuse any young Spanish speaker needs to believe Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are the Beatles. Emotion so deeply in love with itself is why irony was invented. D PLUS

NATALIE IMBRUGLIA: Left of the Middle (RCA) Compared to the diluted simple syrup of Swirl 360 or the teen-idol rappa-billy of Jimmy Ray, Imbruglia’s modern pop is Rumours. Not only is she extraordinarily pretty without being too blatant in her babitude, she’s got the brains and will to make up her own songs (and did I mention how pretty she is?). Thus she’s earned our respect. But under all their state-of-the-studio-art, her competent songs are no more distinctive than the competent songs of hundreds of less pretty women. This was no stiff—RCA milked platinum and a follow-up single out of the sure shot she didn’t write herself. But we should be proud that iconicity proved beyond Imbruglia’s means. It’s three cheers for democracy every time someone goes even a little broke underestimating the taste of the American public. C PLUS


THE LOOK OF LOVE: THE BURT BACHARACH COLLECTION (Rhino) Now it’s official: Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach were the best things ever to happen to each other. She’s a bore without him, and he brings out the best in none of the other singers here. If anything, his fancy hackwork diminishes them—whether it’s starters like the Drifters, the Shirelles, and Dusty Springfield or second-stringers like Gene Pitney, Jackie DeShannon, and end-of-the-bencher Chuck Jackson, all sound about as good as you’d expect and all peaked elsewhere. Then there are Lou Johnson, B.J. Thomas, Bobby Vinton, and the hapless Bacharach himself, not to mention horrid one-shots by Richard Chamberlain, Bobby Goldsboro, Trini Lopez, Jill O’Hara, gad. It’s enough to renew your faith in Elvis Costello.


LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES: The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) Inglés, español, japonés, lo que sea—as members of the international brotherhood of bored middle-class collegians, their specialty is crappy music with a concept. And the concept is—crappy music! See Combustible Edison, Pizzicato Five, lo que sea. C PLUS

THE LOX: Money, Power and
(Bad Boy)
As a statement of principle, the title track is scary-good and creatively derivative; put into practice it’s scary-stupid and oppressively ordinary. How do we get MPR? By play-acting bully-boy scenarios that sound petty enough to be from life and making up others we’d never have the guts for—one production number climaxes with, eek, a hand grenade! And by showing an endless profusion of imaginary bitches who the man is—the other production number climaxes when three gold-digging skeezers, as they were called in the good old days, end up with their blood all over the tracks. C PLUS

MARILYN MANSON: Mechanical Animals (Nothing) If only the absurd aura of artistic respectability surrounding this arrant self-promoter would teach us that not every icon deserves a think piece, that it’s no big deal to be smarter than Ozzy Osbourne, that the Road of Excess leads to the Palace Theater. Instead, his banned-in-Wal-Mart slipcase job will fade into the haze of records people found interesting at the time. Its strategy is to camouflage the feebleness of La Manson’s vocal affect by pretending it’s deliberate—one more depersonalizing production device with which to flatten willing cerebellums whilst confronting humankind’s alienation, amorality, and failure to have a good time on Saturday night. Catchiest songs: “The Dope Show” and “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me).” Duh. C PLUS

AUDRA MCDONALD: Way Back to Paradise (Nonesuch) Compared to Streisand, Garland, and Callas, said to augur a New Era of Popular Song, this two-time Tony winner proudly situates her big range and Juilliard technique on the far side of the chasm now separating Broadway theater from American music. Aficionados may follow the (satiric?) logic of, for instance, the sudden high note that punctuates the Adam Guettel–William Makepeace Thackeray trifle “A Tragic Story.” But we who prefer our singing speech like will figure she’s just showing off again, which given the songs is perfectly appropriate. Ignorant of groove, eschewing verse-chorus-bridge, orchestrated to suggest the demon jazz only insofar as 20th-century European composition mooched off it, these are not tunes playgoers will hum as they flag cabs on West 45th Street. They are the sterile spawn of Stephen Sondheim and Ned Rorem, and although they signify little when sundered from their paltry dramatic contexts, serious they remain—what few comic moments they countenance duck their heads as McDonald prepares for her next octave leap. C PLUS

MOMUS: Ping Pong (Le Grand Magistery) In one of his many clever songs, Nick Currie compares his quest for fame to God’s and wonders why the big fella gets all the coverage. The answer is that God is a nicer guy. Performers like Currie believe “all interesting behaviors, whether moral or not, are salable in our culture” because they don’t have much choice—it’s that or a day job. But no matter how well-turned the lyric, very few listeners actually enjoy songs in which snobbish dandies trot out their sexual egomania and baby envy. Deep down, most people have some cornball in them. And this is a good thing. B MINUS

PLUSH: More You Becomes You (Drag City) Feature: “The lonely, ever uncool, always corny piano man.” Bio: “Liam Hayes’s new record is not just about pop, it IS pop in the classic (circa 1973) sense of the term.” Wha? Has Chicago moved to another planet? (Again?) Hayes’s closest relative by far is Palace Inc. CEO Will Oldham whittling mountain music down to a doleful whisper. If he’s anything, and his aesthetic is so attenuated you have to wonder, he’s cool, and if his aesthetic is about anything it’s about being about. Hayes’s snaillike, lachrymose presongs resemble no pop in history, much less 1973. (1973?) And while it’s possible to imagine a piano man this anonymously self-absorbed, no cocktail lounge would permit him to sing—unless he owned it, I guess. C PLUS


THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA: The Dirty Boogie (Interscope) Big bands still can’t rock, Setzer still can’t sing, and that’s only the beginning. There is for instance chief arranger Ray Herrmann, Bernard’s black-sheep grandnephew, whose dad was 86’d from Stan Kenton’s band because he didn’t have any soul. There’s the hyperactive desecration visited upon Rosemary Clooney’s perky “This Ole House,” the croakin’ belt an’ croon of “Since I Don’t Have You,” Leiber & Stoller’s obscure “You’re the Boss” retouched so heavy-handedly you’d think Setzer wrote the thing himself. But no, that was—dig these titles!—”This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Hollywood Nocturne,” the Elmer Bernstein–influenced “Switchblade 372.” With its Doc Severinsen blare and Paul Schaffer beats, its gross secondhand nostalgia and show-off guitar, the most preeningly stupid record to mount SoundScan all year. C MINUS

MIKE WATT: Contemplating the Engine Room (Columbia) 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 PLUS

BRIAN WILSON: Imagination (Giant) Wilson’s genius has never been as indelible or universal as worshipers believe. Generating illusions of eternal sunlight or crafting frames for crackpot solipsism, he was magical; stripped by Don Was or cambered by Van Dyke Parks, he was at least interesting. Submitting to adult-

contempo tycoon Joe Thomas, however, he’s just what you’d fear: a middle-aged pop pro who’s proud he’s no longer nuts and knows even less about the world than when he was. The lead cut has a happy tune, the dark finale some dysfunctional intimations. In between, he makes too much of attendant hacks and gestures at old glories from a failing high end. C