The Apple Bed
Early '80s pop phenoms Haircut 100 were a frothy antitoxin to the British music scene that spawned the punk movement and angry young men such as Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. Haircut fans didn't crave emotional bloodletting or political crucifixion, just some clean-looking boys playing bouncy, percussion-heavy songs about love. Singer-guitarist Nick Heyward wrote and crooned the biggest hit singles, "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" and "Love Plus One," but departed after the release of the band's 1982 debut album, Pelican West.
In the 15 years since, Heyward has cranked out a string of Top 20 U.K. hits, but his solo work has gone largely unnoticed on this side of the pond. The one exception is "Kite," the single from 1993's From Monday to Sunday, which rose to No. 4 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart.
His latest U.S. offering, The Apple Bed, features brawny electric-guitar work and robust singing. Heyward's songs are still all about love, but this self-produced set is Britpop run through a Seattle car wash. Each bit of swoon-y charm and string-fed benevolence is expertly matched by marching piano lines and coarse guitar blasts.
"I'd like to be a supernatural freak," he sings on "The Goodbye Man," but Heyward still can't deny his passion for hooks. Even the blazing rock songs "3 Colours," "The Brightest Pearl," "Stars in Her Eyes," and "Today" feature big, bold, radio-friendly choruses. Lovely piano and string parts thread through the record, making even the dirtiest guitar parts seem elegant.
Heyward's admiration for Paul McCartney has much to do with the rich atmosphere here, as most of the tracks contain a reference or two to his work with the Beatles. "The Chelsea Sky" and "My Heavy Head" emulate the wistful buoyancy of "Penny Lane," the latter right down to the mannered strings and bubbling coronet solo. "Closer" follows the can't-let-go-of-that-girl theme to a superharmonic Beach Boys break and a "Good Day Sunshine" ending. And on "Dear Miss Finland," Heyward covers all the Beatles bases, even proclaiming "Here I am, nowhere man" in Fab Four-style harmony.
In "The Man You Used to Be," Heyward ponders a particular pitfall of fame, fans who need a star to stay at the height of his powers so that they can keep living vicariously through him. An open letter to Paul McCartney? Perhaps, but Heyward could also be speaking of his own ongoing struggle to be known for more than just his teenage success. Judging by The Apple Bed, he's doing just fine writing his own legend, using a few classic-rock Cliffs Notes and a honey-tipped pen.
-- Robin Myrick
The Last Dog and Pony Show
Even though he's announced that his next tour will be his last with a full rock band, alternative and punk-rock legend Bob Mould has turned in a wryly titled album that is surprisingly upbeat. Though Mould was a key player in two influential bands -- grunge inspiration HYsker DY and the decidedly more pop-oriented Sugar -- he's experimented more on his solo records. His second solo record since Sugar's breakup (and fourth overall) is a mixture of acoustic textures, electronic sounds, and the ever-present distorted guitars.
Mould has said that making this record was like hitting the "reset" button on a computer, and it does have the crisp feeling of a spring cleaning. But it also sounds like a transitional record, a work in which Mould is trying to figure out where to go next.
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While Dog and Pony is the happiest record he's made in years, there are still plenty of downhearted songs. Mould has learned to adapt his melancholic twists to even the happy songs, juxtaposing cheerful lyrics with minor-key music and bitter words with cheerful pop. "Moving Trucks," a breakup song offering hints of self-doubt, rises above the depressing subject matter and turns into a life-affirming moment. The song begins quietly but builds in intensity as Mould goes from being sad to realizing that the breakup is a good thing, a new beginning. He repeats "No moving trucks to hold me down" while playing power chords on his guitar until he's convinced himself that he'll be OK. Rather than wallow in misery, Mould moves on.
His experimentation with various sounds is proof of his restlessness with buzz saw guitars and the rock format. Low ambient growling starts off "Skintrade," a mid-tempo, downtrodden pop song with blasts of squealing noise buried in the mix. As the song comes to a close, the noise is isolated, looped, and distorted for a full 20 seconds. He also throws in lots of little sonic tricks, like panning the guitars from left to right and clanging on a pipe during the intro of "First Drag of the Day."
The most obvious example of Mould's hunt for a new direction is the rapping (yes, rapping) of "Megamanic." He's no Beck, and he's admitted that "Megamanic" is a nonsense song, but it demonstrates what makes Mould vital: his desire to challenge himself after 20 years.
-- David Simutis