Big Head Todd and The Monsters
The live album is inherently problematic. Some bands that are good in the studio are great on stage, but, when the fire of a stage performance is translated back into the recorded medium, the results rarely satisfy. In all of contemporary music, only a handful of great live albums exist: Humble Pie's Performance -- Rockin' the Fillmore, the Stones' Got Live If You Want It, the Jefferson Airplane's Bless Its Pointed Little Head, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Four Way Street, and Elton John's 11-17-70.
Another big problem is one of image, and for that the major players are responsible. By using the live album as a means to fulfill contract commitments, artists and labels have relegated the medium to a musical ghetto, which it may never transcend. Today's performance album is little more than a fan totem, a collectible bit of ephemera to remind the faithful of their favorite band's last tour.
Todd Park Mohr's blues-and-psychedelia-drenched Monsters are not likely to change that view. As good as it is, Live Monsters will not be the next great live album, simply because the era of the great live album may well have breathed its last. That's sad, because Mohr's expanded trio has delivered the next best thing to the classic concert album, which is an exciting and representative document of the live experience.
Mohr and the Monsters have long lived under the cloud of "you gotta see 'em," due in large part to Mohr's guitar histrionics, a wild display that has forced more than a few folks to whisper "Hendrix" into cupped hands. Plenty of the material on Live Monsters supports that contention, especially Mohr's simmering solos on "Sister Sweetly" and "Circle." But, thank goodness, he's never bought into the Hendrix myth too deeply, preferring to merely pepper his work with a Jimi reference here and there.
In most cases it's the incredible translation of the Monsters' postmodern blues material into the live spotlight that makes this a memorable album. Their most successful single, "Resignation Superman," is given a particularly thorough and satisfying workout, as are a couple of early chestnuts ("Vincent of Jersey" and "The Leaving Song," both from 1990's Midnight Radio). The songs from the Monsters' major-label debut, Sister Sweetly, are as stunning now as they were six years ago. Perhaps the best move in the Big Head Todd camp is the addition of keyboardist Corey Mauser to fill in the bare spots -- although Mohr's guitar leaves very few of them.
Live Monsters isn't just a bone thrown to fans in place of another new album. It's a credible and welcome addition to their catalog and a better-than-average live disc.
-- Brian Baker
Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo
Strange but True
Monomania often rules side projects, and this loose, single-idea disc recorded in two day-long sessions in 1994 and 1996 is no exception. David Fair (Jad's brother) composed a set of lyrics based on supermarket tabloid headlines (e.g., "National Sports Association Hires Retired English Professor to Name New Wrestling Holds"). Yo La Tengo, the trio from Hoboken, then improvised accompaniments, and Jad provided the voice.
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In the style of the Fair brothers' usual vehicle, Half Japanese, the 22 tracks of Strange but True flirt with skittish avant-garde-like jazz and sniveling antirock, as well as with musical competence. The one-take nature of the recording emphasizes spontaneity, which occasionally yields charming ephemera (the slippery "Minnesota Man Claims Monkey Bowled Perfect Game"), although more often it leads to everyone taking a solo at the same time (see "Three-Year-Old Genius Graduates High School at Top of Her Class"). A random song or two would sound great in the middle of a mix tape somewhere, but, in its 40-minute entirety, the CD quickly becomes tiresome.
As much as YLT claims to revere Fair's spastic, warbling, '80s geek-rock, they're not especially well matched in this collaboration. Fair once said of his own live performances that, when he was ready to sing, an out-of-tune guitar wasn't going to get in his way. But that approach contradicts the patient, layered sound YLT has developed on its last three masterful records, beginning with 1993's Painful. While Fair sounds the same no matter who's backing him up, YLT shunted most of their sloppy stuff (including one track from these sessions) to the 1996 B-side/outtake compilation Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. Its members don't seem to be working too hard here, either; they've willingly accepted the project on Fair's chaotic terms and rarely settle into anything resembling a satisfying groove.
I caught the Fair/YLT tour recently in San Francisco, and it immediately became clear that whenever they strayed from the static sounds of Strange but True, the show picked up considerable steam. Daniel Johnston's "Casper the Friendly Ghost," the Modern Lovers' "She Cracked" (a long-time staple of Fair's live show), and YLT's "Big Day Coming" seemed endless, minimalist, and thrilling compared with the disjointed collages of Strange but True. And the excitement with which Fair and YLT lit into the other songs indicated that a more successful collaboration is possible -- one that goes beyond noodling snippets and isn't bound by a single undeveloped idea.
-- Mark Rosen