Mixed Emotions

For perhaps a decade, the weedy galaxy of sound called DJ music has fascinated pop musicians. This seemingly wide-open stronghold of freedom and innovation is the club-driven aural utopia that has made Björk jump, Garbage draft and redraft, U2 temporarily ditch rock conventions, Oasis ring up the Chemical Brothers—not to mention leaving Everything but the Girl relevant, Madonna jealous, and Fatboy Slim platinum. Its continuing allure is why, a few years ago, even some hip-hoppers returned to scratching on sturdy Technics tables.

Always an inspiration and now a full-blown offshoot of the overseas techno franchises the U.S. record business marketed as electronica, DJ music offers new composition or remixes, but sometimes just relies on the canny selection and sequencing of pre-existing dance tracks. The field, like the countless styles it dreams up and presents, seems a fairly contented mishmash of sonic procedures. Even for followers of pop music, long familiar with all manner of plugged-in rattle, from rhythm-mad disco to structurally impolite hip-hop to 20 years of remixing itself, DJ music can still come as a shock; you’d never really guess it to have evolved quite so intricately. It’s almost as if you looked up and found a thriving universe of guitar-tech music. On David Alvarado (DMC/Razor & Tie), the eponymous L.A. spinner stirs up a sweetly toned set of steaming r&b-ish house tracks; his album is already Volume 15 of the United DJs of America series.

“What galls me is when reviewers say it’s a deep-house bassline when really it’s ambient. I’d far rather that they just write ‘funky bassline.’ ”

By this point, DJ functions as a fully intact international sensibility. Strobey, complicated, unerring, easy, hushed, loud, DJ of course loves beats, but it’s as different from the disco method of repowering obvious tunes with synthetic rhythms as Formula One racing is from NASCAR. Extroverted, furtive, glistening, rough, soulful, mechanical, DJ doesn’t flatter genre; however it’s often downright batty about classifications. (“What galls me,” Everything but the Girl’s Ben Watt complained one otherwise pleasant afternoon, gazing out over the landscaped grounds of the Ohio statehouse, “is when reviewers say it’s a deep-house bassline when really it’s ambient. I’d far rather that they just write ‘funky bassline.’ “) And as for the ’80s tradition of remixing as sonic redecoration—of Arthur Baker making a Bruce Springsteen track, uh, danceable—well, DJ now is more like Puffy, who decided that remixes were the main game, not just exotic accessories.

Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and others have all issued charismatic albums on which they renovate old records, weaving them into uninterrupted dance suites. And as star electronica denizens, they have profited indeed from DJ music’s sexy chance factor of conjuring sensation with the unexpected choice, the brilliantly timed drop of a stylus. But what, you may ask, of actual honest-to-goodness DJs? Of the people who jet around to play prestigious sets in metropolitan clubs throughout the world, editing and showcasing mountains of dizzyingly obscure dance tracks? The answer is that, after years of remaining on the velvet ropes of buzz, they’re now coming into view. A West Virginia girl I know has stuck it out DJ’ing in London for several years, as dedicated to her career objective as any trembling Mariah Carey aspirant stateside.

For her, the goal might be the status of a Nick Warren or John Digweed, both of whom have new albums in Global Underground’s Boxed series. Like ex-Underworlder Darren Emerson’s recent Uruguay, which eventually edges into outright funk but always with a stern-minded obliqueness, Warren’s and Digweed’s favorite mode is trance, not exactly a fun-and-games proposition. Happy with nervous successions of elongated moments, these trance studs think nothing of giving the lead voice on a track to, say, a countermelody buried within a counterrhythm. They aren’t looking for regular kicks; they’re trying to design extraterrestrial ones.

My own introduction to these odd U.K. releases came a couple of years ago, when I happened across Warren’s Brazil. Here was a glossy two-CD set of records spun by the DJ who’d once worked with Massive Attack; photographed in darkest rock-star shades for the package, Warren could scarcely have received more colorfully authoritative and iconic star treatment if he’d been Eric Clapton. “Nick Warren is the kind of DJ whose record box you’d like to own,” the back of the package assured me, a quote from the dance music publication Mixmag. Progressing from bassy, hardcore-ish stuff to jizzier, fizzier tracks, the first CD sought to enact “a true reflection of Nick Warren’s recent sets in Brazil”; on the second CD, subtitled “Nick Warren’s Travelogue,” Warren seamlessly and without mercy strung together one spectral and darting record after another as he international-DJ’d around Russia and Florida, Scotland and South Africa.

Warren is not cuddly. “Narrow-eyed nastiness scowling over rib-shaking levels of Jamaican bass . . . Muscle-clad grooves slam into their targets with the kind of surgical accuracy NATO can only dream of”: Those descriptions fill the back cover of Warren’s new Amsterdam collection. Basically a trance set, in which pop niceties get swept aside in favor of ongoing pulses of militantly subtle sonic differentiation, Amsterdam makes for a less severe set than Brazil did. By the time Warren cues up Soul Driver’s “States of Mind”—and then, on Disk 2, plays jangly, jungly stuff like DJ Good’s “Ajuna” and Nick Hook’s nervous and conversational “Enhanced”—he practically succumbs to funkiness. Still, in Warren’s sets the ravishment of individual records seems less important than their cumulative effect. Listening, you don’t so much take the pieces to heart as look at them as elements of a larger plan and construction. Of course it’s about the build. But it’s also about the building.

Digweed, a native of Hastings, England, who has spun at New York’s Twilo for two and a half years now, is as determined as Warren, but more playful. Along with the Northern Exposure collections he has released with his sometime collaborator DJ Sasha, he is best known for the track his label/club/collective Bedrock did with KYO, “For What You Dream Of,” which appeared on the ’96 Trainspotting soundtrack, the DJ Saturday Night Fever. That strange piece of music, a midtempo beat fantasia in which melody falls in and out of harmonic keyboard scaffolding and repeated bass thumps as though it is neither irrelevant nor central to anything, still provides a good blueprint of Digweed’s unbothered manner. The same lithe perfection informs “Heaven Scent,” the track that leads Foundations (Pioneer), a collection of Digweed’s Bedrock singles. This is dance music that wants you to feel its emotional construction, not memorize or hum it. The effect’s like getting lost but feeling inexplicably at home, somehow, spiritually, in a particular lobby or landing.

Los Angeles finds Digweed spinning last October at the Mayan Theater. He begins with a somewhat leisurely record by Pole Finder & CP entitled “Apollo Vibes” in which the tranquil voice of a space station control worker announces things like “We’re predicting third-stage shutdown at 11 minutes, 42 seconds” while the piece’s effortlessly elastic beat keeps slowly rubber-banding around. Before it can end, though, Digweed segues into Satoshi Tomie’s “Love in Traffic,” wherein slightly ominous, submerged female soul voices hold forth on vehicular passion, as a heartbeat pumps. Of course this pairing of futurism and automobiles is apropos for L.A., and from there Digweed spins endless variations on sound and silence, compression and release, space and sculpture. As on 1999’s Bedrock, where he unhesitatingly pulled out C12 featuring Jole’s spectacularly hooky “Judy,” a tale of a young drug abuser that seemed almost old-fashioned with its winning lack of abstraction, on Los Angeles he brings on Medway’s “My Release,” in which voices never explain the nature of their release, but the totally fast and involving beats tell the story.

These DJ excursions are useful—especially good for long drives and runs in the country. Yet I wonder where they’ll go beyond the austere realm of trance. It’s not as if DJ—a form, after all, whose deepest roots are in partying—can’t be a barrel of monkeys. From Holland recently comes a curious item called Mixed Up in the Hague Vol. 1: Special Sequence Mixed for Dancing (Panama), by I-f, who a couple of years ago released a genius single entitled “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass,” which was like electro unbound by slightly rotten techno-tubbies. I-f on Hague returns to that language but with more force and less fizz, weaving together candy choruses, brazen Moroder lines, snappy little Bee Gee samples, and anything else tough and kicky. Lots of times he’ll let a keyboard synth sing like it’s a pop tenor or Kenny G’s sax. But the flow never stops, always taking your ears along for the ride. I’d book him in Cairo.


Everything for Everyone

The packaging of Sing When You’re Winning, the second North American release from British superhero Robbie Williams, presents a series of stills that look like scenes from a British football (er, soccer) fantasy, in which every character is Robbie: home team, opponents, referee, coach, cops, fans in the loo, drunken lout at the bar. The implied message here seems to be: It’s Robbie’s world, we just buy tickets for it. Unless, of course, you’re American and you don’t know jack about soccer. That’s the first mistake Williams makes—if indeed one of his goals is to break big in the U.S. (and I can’t believe someone so ambitious would settle for less). His second mistake is in rapping all comic and Cockney on Sing‘s first single, “Rock DJ”—Phil Daniels didn’t get away with it in Blur’s “Parklife,” nor did Ian Dury in “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,” nor Captain Sensible in “Wot.” Americans, it seems, are most fascinated by British pop when it presents a mirror image of American pop; it’s not as significant that the Beatles and Stones stole from American sources as it is that they masked their own accents enough so you couldn’t—initially, anyway—tell the difference.

Beyond those two nagging concerns, Williams has enormous potential to take over not just America, but the entire planet. Every pop musician in the world these days consumes genres and styles termite-like, but Williams is that rare breed with outward cross-cultural, cross-genre appeal: a former teen popper (he was a member of Take That, a mid-’90s U.K. sensation with one U.S. hit, “Back for Good”) who still sends young girls into fits of ecstasy; a classic song stylist with middlebrow charm for moms and dads who still harbor fond memories of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; a beefed-up hetero with undeniable homo rumor mill (is he or isn’t he?) possibilities; a white pop star with just enough romanticism and rhythm to lure the same type of black audience that once upon a time turned out in droves for his idol George Michael; a cocky lad with credibility among Oasis fans who admire the attitude, and—so long as he limits it to interviews—the funny accent.

Of course, all this could work against Williams—in America, it maybe already has. Though he scored a minor hit single in 1999 with “Angels,” Sing When You’re Winning has, after just a few weeks, dropped off Billboard‘s Top 200 (highest chart position: 110). The danger in being all things to all people is that you end up being nothing to nobody, and in the tight demographic requirements of the American airwaves, Williams isn’t multigenre so much as he’s—at least in the perception of tightwad programmers—genreless. Not hard enough for Alternative, not jiggy enough for Urban, too brash for AC, too poncey for AOR, too old for Radio Disney.

The even worse danger in all-things-to-all-people is that you end up stuck in the middle of the road, and for this reason, Williams will have a difficult time wowing American critics. “Rock DJ” is symptomatic of the problem. The first dozen times I heard the song I assumed he was singing, “I don’t want a rock DJ.” Just another “rock’s dead, let’s dance” proclamation? A glance at the lyric sheet suggests otherwise: What Williams actually sings is “I don’t wanna rock, DJ.” The difference between not wanting a rock DJ and not wanting to rock (insert comma) DJ, is major, and if you have the gall to shout, “I don’t wanna rock” in your chorus, you’d better do something interesting with it—like maybe rock especially hard.

So Williams comes up a little short on that one (albeit important) musical function, but there are a lot of other things he can do. All across Sing, he cruises mindlessly through riffs and gestures: the Beatles (“Let Love Be Your Energy” wrings guitar notes out of “Dear Prudence”), Beck (the central hook in “Forever Texas” is from “Where It’s At”), Nick Drake (the wistful opening of “The Road to Mandalay” has “Volkswagen ad” written all over it). “Supreme” (in two versions, English and French) is a clever, dramatically arranged rewrite of “I Will Survive,” that campiest of disco anthems; “Better Man” (also done in bilingual takes—he must really like his Canadian fans!) is a power ballad that’ll make everyone but Bon Jovi and Poison fans wince.

But it’s when Williams imitates George Michael that he most jells, even if the resemblance borders on eerie. “Kids,” a spirited, trashy duet with Kylie Minogue, has a “Freedom ’90” bongo beat and vocally exhumes “I Want Your Sex”; it even flaunts a lyrical nod to “serial monogamy” (do you think he stenciled that on Kylie’s back in the studio?). And no one with ears for prettiness could resist his dusky “Father Figure” falsetto in the ballads “If It’s Hurting You” and “Love Calling Earth.”

So maybe Robbie’ll win America over with a sweet slowdance—nothing wrong with that, is there? Or maybe, given his own fixation on his Britishness, that’s really not a concern. You can be sure that regardless of whether or not he cracks Carson Daly, he’ll go about the business of being a pop star anyway; like his immediate predecessors in British superpop, Oasis and the Spice Girls (whom, musically and philosophically, he’s perched smack-dab in the center of), Williams was declaring himself one practically before he was out of his diapers. So why stop now?


Don’t Go Chasing Wonderwalls

Because (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is my favorite hard rock album of the ’90s, and because Noel and Liam Gallagher look so damn cool in dark shades, I always find myself a little more absorbed than is probably healthy for a person my age in the comings and goings of Oasis. I was hooked from the moment they so rudely—contemptuously, even—cleared a path on my local modern-rock station with “Supersonic” in the mid ’90s. Though there’s a clumsy, self-conscious, paint-by-numbers aspect to even some of Noel Gallagher’s better songs—think of the awkward couplets in “Champagne Supernova” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” or the shameless Coca-Cola commercial that is “Shaker Maker”—his arena-size pop hooks are as technically masterful as T-Rex’s or Slade’s or Hysteria-era Def Leppard’s. More importantly—and the main reason I can obsess over Oasis but not over any of the above—they’re fronted by Liam Gallagher, my favorite rock voice of the past 10 years. And I mean “rock” as a personal style, not merely a genre; as a coworker recently gushed, “He’s full-on rock!” (He was partly talking about how dumb the guy is, but it’s a point well-taken.) Save Johnny Rotten and the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, Liam can get more mileage out of a sneer than anyone else I can think of (pity that Axl wasn’t born a cockney; otherwise you might include him in there too), but his vulnerable side is just as affecting; when he sings, “There are many things that I/would like to say to you/But I don’t know how” in “Wonderwall,” you can feel the whole world wishing they were his mother.

Or at least the entire population of Great Britain. Though Oasis eventually, on the strength of “Wonderwall,” a few flashy videos, and the Gallagher brothers’ well-timed third-finger salutes in the press, became superstars in America, there was less a backlash against them on this side of the ocean than perhaps an inevitable realization that, in a marketplace where no one really knew or cared if there was a significant difference between Third Eye Blind and Sister Hazel, Oasis were merely the most visible of the mid-’90s Brit-pop storm. (It’s instructive to note that the members of Blur couldn’t get a good table at Burger King in Illinois, but minus all the fanfare that their rivals so brilliantly exploited at every turn, it was their “Song 2” that pumped up NHL crowds and hawked lots of beer.) Furthermore, the Gallaghers followed up an alterna-corn classic (Morning Glory) with a huge, Arthurian thud (1997’s Be Here Now, all fox-trots and topographic tarkuses); their 15 minutes were up before you even got to the second chorus of “All Around the World.”

For Anglocentrics like myself, though, they’re still the most compelling pop icons on the planet, so it pleases me to report that the group’s new CD, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, is, if not exactly a return to Glory days, at least a more frolicsome jaunt through the pretensions that clogged up Be Here Now (they haven’t ditched the Mellotron just yet, but they’ve employed it to more charming, possibly even self-effacing, effect). Not surprisingly, many of Standing‘s strongest moments belong to Liam. His sandpaper rasp, which once soared above Noel’s more spacious mix, is now forced to scrape its way through. But he’s still, er, tops, man, especially in the acid-washed “Who Feels Love,” the turgid but irresistible bombast of “Roll It Over” (featuring the clunker “Look around at all the plastic people/who live without a care”—it’s still maybe the best song here), and the artillery-powered single, “Go Let It Out,” the group’s most explicit foray into hip-hop yet (which I guess just shows how far they still have to go. . . . Where are the Chemical Brothers when you need them?). Even some of the wince-worthy numbers—and what’s an Oasis album without at least a couple of those?—benefit from Liam’s larynx: His first self-penned song, “Little James,” an ode to his son, is a nursery cryme of the highest order—”live for your toys/even though they make noise,” etc.—but damn if he doesn’t come across like the world’s most caring papa since Eminem anyway. Even on “Put Yer Money Where Your Mouth Is,” the most pathetic song of the set, the vocalist inexplicably manages some great knockabout fun with the phrase “judgment day.”

In fact, toward the end of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, there’s a whole limp stretch of songs whose melodies could barely carry the weight on a Kula Shaker album. And how you can stand on one shoulder of more than one giant—or why you’d want to do such a thing—is a riddle that’s not even much fun to think about. But for a genre that has slid from Oasis-Blur-Suede-Pulp to Beta Band-Travis-Mansun-Gay Dad, this record is at least a thumbs-up to (and not just for) the fans. They might be giants after all.


Spacely odyssey

A couple years back when Stevan Spacely left the Imperial Pints, there were enough bad feelings swirling around that the Long Island version of the Oasis/Blur feud seemed inevitable. Things seem to have cooled since then, and the Pints put out a second record without Spacely. Meanwhile, Spacely (a Long Island Voice contributor) formed Rocketship Park with his brother Chris and bassist Joseph “JB” Brodtman and has spent the better part of the last year recording upstate with longtime engineer Jaques Cohen, playing some of the same suburban watering holes he did with the Pints. Although Spacely had led both Style and Porcupine 9 in the early ’90s, it had been a little while since he was in the driver’s seat, and I looked forward to RP’s manifestation.

An early Rocketship Park show at the Spot left me ambivalent. Spacely was a bit too, uh, impaired, and was relying too much on Pints-esque bar-band antics. But when I caught them for a second time at the Spot again last month it was a whole different story, much more about the songs, the majority of them crackling with warmth, humor and melody. Bar-band antics were delivered in a more tongue-and-cheek fashion, both critiquing and relishing in the audience’s preconceptions of what a “rock ‘n’ roll band” is. I was thoroughly convinced. Now the challenge for Spacely and the gang is to find their audience, which is somewhere between the Guinness-and-darts crowd of the North Shore bars and the arty indie bands of Avenue A. A while ago I dubbed the Imperial Pints “the thinking man’s drinking band,” and the same goes for Rocketship Park, except that Spacely and the lads have filled up the pretzel bowl with more unexpected goodies than ever before.

Their first single, Two for the Road, is about to be released on Spacely’s own Cloned Human Records and will surely help them grab ears. It features two songs, “Crown Victoria” and “California,” that both serve to establish where Spacely’s songwriting is at. “Crown Victoria” is a splendidly sleazy mix of (if you can imagine) blues, metal and reggae. Hearing Spacely name-checking roads in Holtsville as he goes about making a case for his amorous potency has to bring a smile to your face. When they all take turns soloing during the middle eight, it becomes like some sort of performance-art piece about the consequences of listening to too much WNEW. Spacely, and I repeat only Spacely, could get away with this. And not only get away with it, but actually get it stuck in my head for a couple days.

“California,” on the other hand, is a classic Spacely folk song-breezy, earnest and ultimately heartbreaking. Dissonant melody lines chime over lush acoustic guitars as he contemplates the distance between Blue Point and San Francisco. Stripped of the psychedelic allegory that filled his lyrics during Porcupine 9, “California” is the work of a writer brought back to earth by his own struggles, yet still looking defiantly at some fiery horizon. It has that same sort of sneaky tenderness that the Replacements would frequently display, and moreover it really does sound good while driving.

The single works and, judging by their last live show, there are a fistful of other intriguing tunes to follow. Rocketship Park are still in the process of reckoning with the ghost of rock ‘n’ roll and where they want it to lead them, but at least it’s in good hands. And I’ll drink to that. E-mail Spacely for more info at

Satellite of Love

On the subject of long-awaited releases, Long Island native Tara Emelye is set to release Music Makes Me Think of You, a compilation of singles and unreleased tracks from her former band Mad Planets in association with Florida’s Papercut records. Emelye, who now resides in Brooklyn, released a handful of acclaimed compilation tracks and DIY cassettes while she and her bandmates John Kapp and Erik Robinson attended and/or lived near SUNY Stony Brook. They even represented Long Island at the Northwest Pop Fest a few years back. The album includes tracks from their gloriously tinny four-track recordings, including the charming strummer “Happy Morbid.” Among the unreleased fare is longtime live favorite “Franny,” which deconstructs J.D. Salinger in ways few bands have ever dared to try. Mad Planet’s particular mix of jangling guitar pop and punk energy is captured in full, as is Emelye’s romantic prose. In the end the album promises to be an important document of a band that touched a small audience deeply, as opposed to brushing against a huge one. And that is what independent music is supposed to be about.


Sasha Zand

According to this site, Sasha Zand is a native Long Islander back in Glen Cove after stints in California and London (where he was in a band called Feather). The three tracks available online are unified by a jangling, strumming mid-tempo guitar style that forms the meat of his sound.

This inverse ex-patriot has definitely brought back some of the Brit’s crisp approach to pop in addition to a laid back West Coast breeziness. The Long Island influence? I presume it’s the angst.

On his favorites list, Zand names The Smiths and R.E.M, whose influence can be heard on the subtle melodic lines crawling across the song “Wrong.” This is a moody bit of guitar pop with a nice, plaintive Bob Mould quality that is hampered only by a pretty unimaginative beat. The highlight is a sparkling guitar break that adds a nice layer of melody to the track’s constant strums.

“Talk About It” changes gears ever so slightly, bringing a sort of shoegaze Beatles feel to the proceedings. Zand’s deadpan declarations even have, dare I say, a Ringo-esque quality, leaving “Talk About It” feeling like a post-Nirvana “Octopus’s Garden.” There is a dreamy wall of chorus-drenched guitars on this track, but the overall sound quality suffers in comparison to “Wrong.” Still, I would take it over the most recent Oasis.

Zand says the track “Diamond in the Rough” is about homeless teenagers he encountered in San Francisco. His cautionary tale is put to a mod-ish, early Who-type arrangement that is a nice break from the straight-ahead rhythms of the previous two.

The strength of these songs, their consistent strong guitar work and disciplined pop craftiness also leaves me somewhat wanting for an unexpected vocal harmony or flourish of synth. Still, Zand has a classicist’s approach to guitar pop that is refreshing after an afternoon car ride full of embarrassing rap/metal fusion acts. All he needs to do is stick around on the Island, go a little out of his mind like the rest of us and add that touch of madness to what he already has.



That Olde Collage Try

The bursting of Britpop’s bubble has left the UK’s rock scene in the doldrums. A&R’s and hacks alike twiddle thumbs, wondering why nothing’s happening. For one thing, Britpop’s make-it-big triumphalism has virtually obliterated the independent ideal. Another reason is that all the purely musical intellect around has entered the dance arena, leaving rock to those whose only virtuosity is auto-hype and the gift of gab.

Surfacing in this cultural void, Position Normal’s wondrous Stop Your Nonsense is a flashback to the far more formidable UK music culture of 1979–81—the postpunk ferment which spawned genuinely independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely musical bands like Pop Group and This Heat, and the countless one-off DIY flashes aired nightly by John Peel. Back then, bands still believed absolute novelty was absolutely possible.

Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based, its homespun imprecision feels closer to hand-made tape loops than digital seamlessness; collage-wise, think Faust Tapes meets 3 Feet High and Rising. Only Nonsense‘s stoned-to-say-the-least aura locates the album in the post-rave ’90s—Position Normal’s Chris Bailiff is as attuned to the timbral colors of sound as Aphex Twin. His favorite production trick combines reverb and filtering to make instruments glint like they’ve been irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight. He EQ’s a Lotte Lenya soundalike until her voice crumbles into a billow of gold dust, gives an uncanny glisten to a pizzicato mandolin refrain, and reverbs stark piano chords so they sound as poignant as Erik Satie trapped in a dub dungeon. On “Bedside Manners,” a lustrous mirage of echoplexed guitar backdrops a surreal medical monologue perfectly capturing the condescending cadences of an English doctor.

Stop Your Nonsense comes off like a semi-conscious essay about Englishness and its inevitable evanescence. The album’s dream-drift haze is peopled with spectral echoes of all those eccentric relatives (Mark E. Smith, Ian Dury, John Cooper Clarke, Vini Reilly) written out of the will when Britpop pruned its family tree down to the straight-and-narrow:
Beatles —> Pistols —> Stone Roses —> Oasis. Perhaps because its samples are pulled off crackly vinyl platters and reel-to-reel tape spools foraged from thrift stores and garage sales, Nonsense plangently evokes the bygone crapness of Olde England—the quaint, musty parochialism banished by New Labour’s modernising policies and by the twin attrition of Americanisation/
Europeanisation. Some of Nonsense‘s most enchanting tracks aren’t really music, but melodious mosaics of speech expertly tiled from disparate, sepia-tinted sources. On “Hop Sa Sa” Bailiff varispeeds a kiddies’ choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle-aged man’s quizzical “why not for donkeys?,” and then, for an inexplicably heart-
tugging coda, transforms the title’s nonsense phrase into an ostinato hanging in space.

Position Normal’s fondness for “found sound” interludes, like the patter of Cockney stallholders in a fruit’n’veg market, reminds me of Saint Etienne’s penchant for punctuating their early albums with movie dialogue and cafeteria chat eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. The trio started out as part of that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of later Britpop’s loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod—fervently English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-pop, ’90s Italo-house, and A.R. Kane’s halcyon dub-noise as it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield. Trouble was, the trio’s futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to gradually iron out all their experimentalist excrescences. Reconvening in 1998 after a four-year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker still on Good Humour, abandoning sampling altogether for Swedish session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired by “Lovefool” Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi’s lite-jazz Charlie Brown music.

A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne’s six-track EP Places to Visit is an unexpected reversion to…everything that was ever any good about them. “Ivyhouse” is angel’s breath ethereal like they’ve not been since their debut album’s dubtastic “London Belongs To Me.” Produced by Sean O’Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas, “52 Pilot” features sparkling vibes, an elastic heartstring bassline out of “Wichita Lineman,” and radical stereo separation (don’t try this one on headphones). And “Artieripp” is a tantalizing tone-and-texture poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars.

Drawing on diverse talents like O’Hagan and Chicago avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O’Rourke, Places resituates Saint Etienne among the sound-sculptor ranks. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration with German art-techno outfit To Rococo Rot). They’re aesthetes in love with Pop Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places to Visit will work like Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them back on a truer course.


Enter Planet Love

I hear a love story on the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender. It’s about two brothers from a different mother—sad, ordinary kids who went to a rave and found themselves seduced by a big beat. Time stood still in a nonstop now-ness, the past only good for sampling and the future merely one more life-changing record away. The brothers loved the big beat, and the big beat loved them.

But eventually the brothers had to come back down to a normality that left them sadder than before. They couldn’t get back to the big beat, only its memory. Yet it was those memories that told them what they must do. The brothers learned they had to hear the beats in the world around them and love them unconditionally. Every kind of beat then felt brighter and more beautiful because the brothers had willed it that way. Life became one big beat.

It’s a happy story lacking the aggression that warmed extreme-sports fans and rock critics alike to ’95’s Exit Planet Dust and ’97’s Dig Your Own Hole, and so Surrender may disappoint listeners expecting another batch of bitchin’ breakbeats. With their hazy Beth Orton interludes and laddish cameos, those earlier albums attempted a narrative, but buried it under a dumb bravado that tried to shake off house and disco’s feminine side, ending up more gratingly repetitious than those two musics ever were.

As its title hints, Surrender is much more tender, accepting, spiritual even. With its encyclopedic rhythms, sweeping tempo shifts, ornate arrangements, and expansive melodies, the latest by Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands suggests a cross between those wildly lavish Eurodisco concept albums where Voyage and Alec R. Costandinos with his Syncophonic Orchestra would take dancers on fanciful journeys and the best Krautrock LPs by Can and Amon Düül II that packed more psychedelia than the Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground discs from which they stole. There’s no filler here, and the bridges between euphoric peaks are nearly as absorbing as the highs they’re meant to support.

The trip begins with the midtempo warm-up “Music: Response.” A practically unrecognizable sample from Nicole and Missy’s “Make It Hot” beckons, “I got whatcha want, I got whatcha need” as toytown melodies ricochet between bass and treble, rumble and twitter. “Under the Influence” picks up the pace with synth squiggles layered in bizarre harmonies dashing between hissing hi-hats. It’s one of the least tuneful cuts, but it’s catchy and bouncy in that absurdly compelling French house style, and it sets up the suspense for the album’s biggest payoff.

Just as “Shudder/King of Snake” on Underworld’s recent Beaucoup Fish pays tribute to Giorgio Moroder’s epochal synth arpeggio in Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” “Out of Control” sports a manic two-chord sequencer riff learnt from Bobby Orlando’s punkier production for Divine’s “Native Love,” a rowdy hi-NRG anthem previously pillaged by Nitzer Ebb, the Prodigy, even New Order. That band’s Bernard Sumner returns to revisit his past with an extended track recalling the pioneering act’s moody wordy verses, cracking syn-drums, and clanging guitars. The Brothers punctuate the ends of Sumner’s deadpan phrases with their wackiest sci-fi sound effects until the beat suddenly drops out, a key change materializes, and New Ordered guitars take over. Then the sequencer returns, an unexpected additional verse arrives, and Sumner’s chorus comes back for one last climax. I can’t wait to hear a deejay brave enough to play this.

“Orange Wedge” provides a funky breather before “Let Forever Be” announces Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and his corny-ass George Harrison impersonation. It’s not as good as his previous one on “Setting Sun” because he’s much more recognizable, because I hate him more than ever, and because his lyrical grammatical errors prove how stupid he is. But the slap-happy beat kicks, and all the backward strings are quite groovy. “Got Glint?” recalls Mr. Fingers and the early days of house, while the current single, “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” recycles old-school rap snippets, looped Kraftwerk madness, and a lotta churning sonic mutation. “Dream On” brings the whole shebang to a close by wrapping a simple lullaby by Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue in a sweeter variant on My Bloody Valentine’s symphonic feedback din.

It’s an album full of allusions and illusions, but love stories are often like that. Although it’s not the radical departure it might have been with different guest stars, Surrender announces a shift in the English dance mainstream the Brothers now represent, away from the reckless goofiness of big beat into something more melodic and deeply felt. Unlike the pair’s previous work, it’s not a model that can be easily duplicated by a million bedroom deejays, so it won’t be as influential underground. But I bet enlightened sectors of the rock world will get with its narrative flow, sonic splendor, and all-embracing beat devotion. It already suggests what OK Computer might have sounded like conceived by a dance act, with love as its subject rather than Radiohead’sdread. It could also make the dancefloor a nicer place this summer. And that would be the happiest ending of all.


Take This

Robbie Williams is, the considerable hype goes, as complicated as any pop persona worth your time should be. The back story, which you could trace from Brit-tab headlines alone, is compelling— teenybopper escapes boy band (Take That), hangs out with Oasis, gets loaded, gets fat, releases string of flops, sobers up, slims down, releases weepy megawatt ballad, is instantly transformed into demographic-busting superstar. Apparently, the reinvented, contradiction-flaunting Robbie is sexy enough, cuddly enough, butch enough, camp enough, committed enough, and ironic enough to appeal to you, whoever you are. Musically, he’s Elton John meets George Michael meets Noel Gallagher; and even if MOR bombast isn’t quite your thing, that’s OK, because Robbie is, you see, just having a laugh— note literally arched eyebrow and wink-wink lyrics (“Early morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the make-up/And that’s a good line to take it to the bridge”).

Williams’s first U.S. show, last Tuesday at the Bowery Ballroom, was ecstatically received— but how could it not be, with mostly media types, expats, and Anglophiles in attendance, all disproportionately responsive to cheap pomo thrills. Introduced by the Star Wars fanfare, Robbie was ruthlessly, cheesily showbiz from the get-go— but in a knowing, within-quotation-marks fashion. He did an endearingly terrible Eminem bit (“My name is . . . Robbie Williams”). He changed lyrics to flatter the locals, never mind that “Your cool New York sun” makes little sense. He got everyone to sing along to, apropos of nothing, “Hey Jude.” And for “Angels,” the aforementioned sledgehammer sob song, he left the chorus to the crowd, and whipped out a cigarette lighter.

It’s not as much fun without Robbie in the room. His first American release, The Ego Has Landed (which samples his two multiplatinum European LPs), is easy-enough listening, a big, brash, tuneful pastiche, the best stuff being the most smartly derivative. “No Regrets” has the tart eloquence and lush melancholy of a Pet Shop Boys ballad (in fact, Neil Tennant sings backup). “Let Me Entertain You” is a glammy, hammy, rock-operatic monster that, even on record, neatly embodies his chest-out-cocky/hands-on-hips-effete dialectic.

And yet, for all Williams’s calculated archness, it’s a primal imperative that takes over live. His nominal statement of intent, “Let Me Entertain You” (which invariably opens his shows), is the tip-off. The sentiment isn’t cordial, but frantic and imploring. It’s really as simple— and as touching— as this: Robbie Williams just wants to be loved. —Dennis Lim

Getting Personal

“Are you all having fun? Because fun’s what it’s all about!” the male MC-DJ from Z-100 assured the crowd of hopeful fronted-by-a-woman acts and their supporters at the Lilith Fair Acoustic Talent Search in Westbeth Theater last Wednesday. But as the auditions began this information didn’t seem to fit with the Sarah McLachlan­esque parsing of inner emotional states and broken relationships that was the content of most of the entries.

Since each of the 20 acts got to audition with just one song, and “acoustic” here appeared to mean “any instrument onstage except a drum kit or a turntable,” there was a lot of setup time, and hence a need for a lot of the “Are you having fun?” patter and flinging of free hats and T-shirts into the crowd. As the evening settled into a rhythm of psychic pain and commerce, the modulation that might have been provided with a funny song, a novelty tune, or an unpredicted cover came only from those acts far off the beaten path of internal-parsing-accompanied-by-guitar-etc. So as the night progressed I found myself relieved by the acts that didn’t fit— the a cappella­ites, the acoustic rapper, and the loungey trio. Until I caught myself and remembered the gaps of age and gender that separated me from audience and auditioners.

Sure enough, although I had only noted two sisterhood acknowledgments from the stage (“It’s great to be here with all these amazing women”), the crowd was nodding thoughtfully to each other’s songs. Not bored, they were paying attention, encouraged and encouraging. And that included the rather large contingent of male backups. For the record, there were, in fact, no backup women musicians, although there were female duos, trios, and quintets. There were very few eccentric but lovable eyeglasses, hairdos, or clothes, and only one nod to c&w, but there were two cellists. The winners were Amy Fairchild, Rachel Sase, and Jenny Bruce, and I think one of them gets to open the acoustic stage at the two area Lilith shows this summer but all three won that new best friend of a struggling singer-songwriter: their own Web site!

After the winners were announced the good-natured crowd bubbled out onto Bank Street. I may have begun by finding the mixture of partying and introspection peculiar. But when I thought about it later, I had to admit that being allowed to pursue the dream, if only for a night, that probing your inner life and personal relationships could make you rich and famous, is . . . well, fun. —Tom Smucker


Hating the Obvious

The Delgados are trying to escape the clichés of British indie-rock by aiming for nonobviousness in sound and form. Their stylistic contortions work on their second album, Peloton (Beggars Banquet), but they hit some snags onstage. At Fez last Monday, the Glasgow quartet-plus-friends guided fluffy little tunes on their way with the aid of a couple of auxiliary string players and a flautist, then let their very electric core group claw and snap through the softer timbres. The extra instruments thicken and flavor the guitar tone on the record; here, they simply got drowned out.

Noble as it is for the Delgados to avoid ostentatious rock gestures, it sometimes gets in the way of their songs. Singer-guitarists Emma Pollock (compact, intense, tuneful) and Alun Woodward (tall, scattered, reedy) struck sparks when they flexed their stage presence and let their voices clash, but they mostly kept to their own sides and their own songs. “Pull the Wires From the Wall” (No. 1 on John Peel’s Festive 50 last year!) could be Pollock’s big ballad if it were allowed to: its melody curls around fragrantly, and the band holds back to let her dry, sturdy voice ring. Just when it’s starting to promise a dramatic climax, though, it simply halts. The biggest trap of overfamiliarity the Delgados face is the one they stumble straight into. Their precise arrangements reward close attention on record; played note-for-note live, they take the edge off songs that could be more obvious, but also more dramatic. —Douglas Wolk


Crossing Atlantic It may lack the flash of feuds like Puff Daddy vs. Steve Stoute or Marilyn Manson against . . . well, just about everyone, but the internecine squabble between Atlantic Records and Entertainment Weekly looks to have more far-reaching repercussions.

For several weeks, the media Goliaths— both of which fall under the Time-Warner corporate umbrella— have been waging a war that has seen the label cut off all relations with EW. Allegedly at the direction of CEO Val Azzoli, Atlantic has been refusing to grant interviews or provide promotional CDs, and even declined to verify information for fact-checkers.

Entertainment Weekly insiders insist an unflattering profile of Atlantic cash cow Jewel that depicted her as a self-absorbed prima donna precipitated the trouble. But a source close to the label says, “That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and cites a litany of acts (including Brandy and Sugar Ray) that Atlantic feels were treated unscrupulously by EW.

“They’re basically using the names of these artists to sell magazines and then simply fucking them,” says the source. “Atlantic isn’t asking for any sort of favorable treatment, just a fair shake for the artists— something we get from other publications.” Several Atlantic employees grant that the label has tried to throw its weight around in the past, strongly “suggesting” that certain writers not be used on stories, but none remembers an effort as concentrated as the current one. “Nothing has been written in black and white, but we’ve all been told exactly what can and can’t be done,” says one.

At the EW offices, a “what, me worry?” attitude prevails. Senior editor John McAlley, who declines to discuss the spat, simply insists that he and his fellow editors “stand by the Jewel story as it was written.” That story, which appeared several weeks after Rolling Stone‘s soft-porn lionizing of the Alaskan yodeler, was the last major feature on an Atlantic artist to appear in the mag’s pages.

According to a nonaligned Time-Warner observer, an uneasy peace accord is likely. “When EW slams a Warner Bros. film,” he says, “they go ballistic on the West Coast, thinking that the studio will lose millions, but it blows over before long. If they know what’s good for them, these people will do the same.” —David Sprague

Taking a Peep

You probably don’t associate portable toilets with positive sensory stimulation, but that shouldn’t stop you from spelunking through an interactive multimedia exhibit that opened last weekend at Long Island City’s P.S. 1. The show (credited to Low Flame, a partnership between Adria Petty, Ana Gabriel, and Thin Lizard Dawn’s Howie Statland), contains a maze of Mylar-lined porto-potties, outfitted with peepshow-style video projections that trawl the psychosexual subconscious of a blue-collar everyman. Proud papas Peter Gabriel (with camcorder in tow) and Tom Petty hung in the back room, where Statland and DJ Stress provided live accompaniment to the installation’s film centerpiece. Both found time to peep at the porn reels— presumably out of parental duty. —D.S.


Tender Mercies

It may not surface in a Nike ad anytime soon, but Blur’s new single, “Tender,” is the real bittersweet symphony. Floating in on a brittle folksy twang, given maximum Appalachian resonance by guitarist Graham Coxon, it evolves into a gospelized eight-minute elegy, somewhere between a hymn and hoedown. Throughout, singer Damon Albarn tosses off self-help bromides (“Come on, come on, come on/Get through it”), and at first it makes you cringe. What gets to you is how he’s singing— wistful but direct, veering off into helpless falsetto, more sincere and urgent than ever before. “Tender is the touch,” he cautions, “of someone that you love too much,” and it’s all too clear he means tender as in bruised. Killer moment: as the choir chimes in, Albarn’s voice abruptly dips, and an improbably rich, goosepimply baritone delivers the song’s cruel punch line: “Love’s the greatest thing.”

It’s a loaded sentiment in the context of Blur’s new album, 13, which has been widely presold as Albarn’s breakup album (he and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann ended their eight-year relationship last year). And context counts double with this band, always Britpop’s savviest and most emblematic players. Sure, Oasis exemplified yob rock, but Blur, a concept band that made and still make concept albums, were largely responsible for perpetuating ’90s Britpop’s stubborn insularity. Yet it was partly thanks to Blur and their natural bent for pushing too far too fast that Britpop devolved into farce.

On balance, Blur have always been easy to like— tuneful, thoughtful, boy-band cute, and just perverse enough to be interesting. You could begrudge them their upper-middle-class art-school background— they were the ones who wanted to live like common people, or at least write affectionately mocking songs about them— but Damon wore his wiseass pretensions with disarming pride. Still, even he must have known his reflexive cleverness was a dead end— what do you do for an encore after you’ve rhymed Balzac with Prozac?

Their last album, 1997’s Blur, was widely interpreted as ground zero for Blur Mk II, part calculated bid for the U.S. alt-rock market, part genuine attempt at atonement for all those chirpy, knees-up, music-hall piss-takes. But gnarled and lo-fi as it was, the album came off like a studied pastiche. 13 is a far less forced sort of reinvention: it’s their first response to a real-life crisis (not just the Damon-Justine situation, but souring intraband relationships), where in the past their gear-shifting has mostly been solipsistic, in reaction to their own back catalogue, or to the vagaries of a popscene they helped define.

Having effectively renounced almost all their pre-Blur material, Blur’s options at last Tuesday’s Roseland show, billed as their only New York appearance of the year, were severely limited. In another potentially alienating move, they played 13 in its entirety, and in order. A sense of ritual clung to the set, which, drained of all suspense, was mainly about a need to, well, “get through it.” They say they won’t be touring 13 extensively— a reasonable decision. It may be the nature of breakup songs that they don’t hold up well, not for the person who wrote them anyway.

There was a certain logic in preserving the track listing. 13 isn’t overarchingly conceptual, but it has its own particular trajectory. Unmistakably a coming-to-terms record, it opens with “Tender” (declamation, or maybe denial) then coughs up a couple of sputtering fuzz-blanketed freakouts (distraction, and more denial, perhaps) before settling into resigned, deceptively becalmed mode for the second half.

Somewhat free-form yet amazingly textured, 13 is supposedly a jam session that superproducer William Orbit layered and edited into shape in the studio. Live, necessarily forsaking Orbit’s detail-oriented approach, Blur attacked the new songs head-on. “Tender,” despite spirited spiritualizing from the Harlem Boys Choir, was a letdown, with Albarn lapsing into bad evangelical shtick. Coxon ensured that the hard-rocking songs, especially the glam explosion “Bugman,” were more muscular and to-the-point than on the album. But slower songs depended on the problematic replication of musique concrète.

Tuesday’s encores— including two 1992 favorites, the baggy classic “There’s No Other Way” and the flailing Ritalin-rock of “Popscene”— proved how much fun Blur can still be when they let themselves. Relatively sedate and polite till then, Damon finally unleashed his demented, thrashing Iggy-isms. With the opening drumbeats of “Song 2” (still miraculously unblemished by its numerous brand-name associations, from Intel to the NHL to Starship Troopers), the crowd went ballistic. And really, could you blame them for preferring the woo-hoo to the boo-hoo?


They Luv Mekons

Dennis Anderson and Lois Kahlert stand alone in the feckless cult of Mekons fans. Not because they claim to have seen the band “around 1000 times,” but because they cling to a vision of superstardom even the Mekons have surrendered. “They have great songs and so much personality,” says Anderson. “If they could just do a live thing on MTV, so people could see them interact. . . . ” The couple first saw the Mekons in 1978. “We didn’t think much of them,” Kahlert says. Like most loyalists, they didn’t fall in love with the band until the Sin Records period, when the Mekons acquired a country bent.

“It was a sound check at Maxwell’s in 1985,” recalls Anderson. “I heard one song, and that was it.” Anderson and Kahlert, who have day jobs in “customer relations,” have become part-time Mekons themselves, staffing the merchandise table at gigs and providing housing at their Bensonhurst apartment. Known by the band as the “Toy People” for their legions of action figures, they have not given up fandom. “I collect towels Jon Langford has used on tour,” says Kahlert. “And bottles they leave on stage.” (Their one foray into the business was booking a disastrous tour by The Fall.) “They aren’t fans, they’re collectors,” says Sally Timms. “They’ve collected us.” The Toy People have also collected Happy Mondays, who recorded a song (“Dennis and Lois”) about them, and Oasis, who adopted them on their last tour. “The Mekons make fun of us because Oasis aren’t communists,” says Kahlert. She may be missing the point. “We get enough fans,” complains Timms. “We want more groupies.”

The Mekons play at Bowery Ballroom on Saturday and at Maxwell’s on Sunday.