You've Come a Long Way, Baby
As the hype surrounding electronica fades, the most inventive artists will start to stand out from the bandwagon-jumpers. Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, is one of the few who've been able to steer clear of overexposure while gaining fans and doing engaging work. As a former member of the Housemartins, he has mainstream music experience, which helped him hone the compositional skills evident on his solo electronica debut, last year's Better Living Through Chemistry. Like fellow Brit-hop artists the Chemical Brothers, Cook often creates songs that appeal to both club hoppers and mall shoppers; they're dance tunes that have enough pop-song structure and genuine hooks for rock fans to dig.
Baby maintains this delicate balance by starting with a foundation of beats and never losing sight of it. Cook builds up tension in the songs by layering them with sample after sample until a frenzied brew of sounds is bubbling and frothing. He then strips most of the samples away, leaving only drums and just a few other sounds.
Cook's rock 'n' roll past rears its head in his selection of instruments not traditionally found on dance records. Take for example the Duane Eddy-esque surf guitar that fuels the modern-rock hit "The Rockafeller Skank." The centerpiece isn't the incessant voice intoning "right about now"; it's the twanging, twisting guitar, which makes "Skank" sound like a '50s rocker. Meanwhile the drums (which, true to form, are given a solo halfway through the song) are definitely this year's model.
Problems arrive when Cook lets the dance side of his songwriting take over. Repeating inane vocal bits ("Skank" ends with a minute-long loop of a half-second blip of singing) and allowing songs to run for six and seven minutes slow the momentum and impact of the album. Nevertheless, You've Come a Long Way, Baby joins the two worlds of rock and dance, which seem to be getting closer every day.
-- David Simutis
Under the Western Freeway
When Pavement first snuck up on indie rock in 1989, the band benefited from the element of surprise. The unfinished melodies, the Dadaist lyrics, the slacker attitude caught everyone off guard. Where was this stuff coming from? That was the biggest surprise of all: Pavement hails from the unlikely town of Stockton, a podunk piece of farmland in central California. It's tempting to quote the old adage that only "steers and queers" come from Stockton, but what gay person in his or her right mind would live in such a pit stop?
If California held a "Piece of Shit Town" contest, Stockton's nearest rival would be Modesto, another dull dive about an hour's drive south. But lo and behold, Modesto has produced a rival to Pavement, a quartet of arty slackers called Grandaddy. Its debut album, Under the Western Freeway, bears striking similarities to Pavement's collection of tossed-off singles Westing (By Musket and Sextant), in which quirky noises, frail vocals, and melancholy melodies work to create a not-so-coherent whole. Yet it's only fair to mention that Grandaddy does boast its own, distinctive sound.
Grandaddy's 29-year-old singer and chief songwriter, Jason Lytle, cultivates simplicity. His song titles may be a bit cryptic, but the lyrics are usually straightforward. "If you come down we'll go to town," he muses on "A.M. 180." "I haven't been there for years/But I'd be fine wasting our time." Though augmented by loud guitars and a powerful rhythm, the melody itself is just a ditty played on a rudimentary keyboard, accenting Lytle's childlike voice. Lytle pares down his thoughts even further on "Collective Dreamwish of Upper Class Elegance," singing, "Here I sit and play guitar/And drink beer out in the country."
Like the slow, soporific songs of Giant Sand (a band Lytle admires, and one that helped him find a record deal), the tunes on this album evoke empty space, longing, and loneliness. The standout track, "Everything Beautiful Is Far Away," is the least Pavement-ish, an odd narrative about an astronaut stranded on an Earth-like but unpopulated planet: "He wasn't sure what to think when he/Saw swans and they were wading on/ The shores of a pale white lake."
Lytle certainly deserves credit for following his whims. In fact, Grandaddy as a whole has a lot going for it. But in a post-Pavement world, it lacks the element of surprise.
-- Rafer Guzman
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman
Randy Newman has long occupied one of the strangest niches in the world of popular rock music, one that spans the chasm between the edgy piano stylings of Tom Waits and the orchestrated smarm of Burt Bacharach. Guilty is an exhaustive (not to say exhausting) collection that -- weighing in at four discs and nearly six hours -- captures Newman in all his curiously eclectic glory.
Surely the most pleasing disc is numero uno, which documents Newman's early years as a piano prodigy with a knack for lazy Southern blues compositions. The sweet ease of songs such as "Suzanne" and "Old Kentucky Home" are balanced against Newman's punchier efforts, including "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Mama Told Me Not to Come."
Disc two is home to Newman's later studio music and contains a number of the novelty hits for which he still is best known. These include the thoroughly obnoxious but lethally catchy "Short People," "I Love L.A.," and "It's Money That Matters." But the strength of Newman's songwriting has always been his unembarrassed willingness to assume musical personae and drape them in lush song lines. "Sail Away" is a rousing comment on the slave trade that owes as much to Aaron Copeland as to Fats Domino, while "Lonely at the Top" (originally written for Frank Sinatra, though never recorded by him) is a melancholy study of fame that showcases the languorous alto sax work of Abe Most.
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As richly rewarding as these first two discs are, the remaining two are mixed affairs. Disc three is an odds-and-ends edition that includes half a dozen live tracks and more than a dozen Newman originals that were never released. A number of these (notably "The Goat" -- actually written by Sonny Boy Williamson -- and "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong") are full of infectious swagger. But a lot of the tracks here feel like what they are: rejects from previous outings.
The fourth disc, composed entirely of Newman's music for movie soundtracks, is for true aficionados. It's not that the songs are any less well-crafted or wry than his other compositions. But the medium -- with its requisite histrionic flourishes -- tends to dull Newman's edge.
As always, Rhino's packaging is a joy to behold and includes excellent liner notes and essays that help take stock of Newman's career. For anyone with even a passing interest in his inimitable stylings, Guilty will prove a rare, if distended, treat.
-- Steven Almond