The Chinese Album
Sire/Warner Bros. Records
Spacehog has been characterized as David Bowie reincarnate, and the comparisons are not unfair. One could easily picture this British band's frontman, Royston Langdon, standing in front of the mirror as a child, hair dyed orange, face decorated with a glittered lightning bolt, singing into a hairbrush: "Ziggy plaaayed gi-taaa-har!" They don't make 'em like Bowie any more -- exaggerated personas, enigmatic lyrics, and dramatic music with grand finales -- so Spacehog will have to fill his old shoes.
Combining inventive yet uncomplicated songwriting with punchy rhythms and elastic vocals, Spacehog creates minidramas for the mind. Langdon, who also plays bass, shares songwriting duties with his guitarist brother Antony. Their tuneful tales reveal a world where mysterious castaways hide devastating secrets and live in the shadows of hopelessness and loss. Spacehog switches its musical tenor from discordant droning to quirky, perky pop without ever losing its air of mournful reflection. Like Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," these songs depict specific characters while addressing much grander issues.
The band takes generous liberties with traditional formats. "Anonymous" cohesively weaves juke-joint blues and country-western rhythms with electronic effects. The spry pop eulogy "Goodbye Violet Race" segues into "Lucy's Shoe," a melancholy piano-and-strings ballad about a woman with a long history of abuse and possibly insanity. The album's brilliant single, "Mungo City," has a brazen hook and a belt-it-out vocal coda worthy of Broadway.
Intriguing touches can be found throughout the album. Beatlesque background vocals blend into orchestral passages. Bouncing synth notes, robot voices, and monk chants round out the effects. Richard Steel, the band's guitarist, plays spare but surprisingly sweet solos. In fact, a guest appearance by Michael Stipe, singing lead on "Almond Kisses," seems downright superfluous among so many other musical idiosyncrasies. A true space oddity, Spacehog would no doubt do the Thin White Duke proud.
(Spacehog plays at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, at Peacock Park, 2820 McFarlane Rd., Miami. Call ZETA [WZTA-FM 94.9] at 954-426-4600.)
-- Larry Getlen
It's been four long years since the quintessential cult band the Mekons released Retreat from Memphis, their last set of original songs. If this group of arty, hard-drinking Marxists from England's working-class Midlands ever wanted to become a commercial success, now would be the time. A huge American audience supported The Full Monty, a movie about unemployed Sheffield steelworkers, and "Tubthumping," a song by the anarchist pop group Chumbawamba, is such a big hit that it's used during NBA time-outs to pump up the crowd. But the Mekons have done little to dilute their typically toxic cocktail of cultural critique, pornographic sloganeering, and drunken waltzes. They've always sounded simultaneously brave and ridiculous, and Me is no exception.
It takes some serious nerve to maintain the same brand of thinking for twenty years. The creative team is now separated by miles of ocean: Jon Langford (guitar) and Sally Timms (vocals) live in Chicago, while Tom Greenhalgh (vocals/witticisms) resides in London. They get together for a couple of months each year, in one city or another, to record songs and go on drinking binges. Unlike other bands that take long breaks between records, the Mekons don't seem to be making much creative progress. They've all hit age 40 by now, yet they're still revisiting the same sordid theme that has long interested them: the dehumanizing process of modern culture, which can only be alleviated by as much sex and booze as a body can stand.
Me follows the same song structures the Mekons established back in '85 with Fear and Whiskey. "Tourettes" is a sleazy sex-narrative cobbled together with dissociated phrases from commercials (such as "the best a man can get"). "Whiskey Sex Shack" continues the band's obsession with Southern culture, and the fake, twanging accents here are awful. The trance-inducing "Flip Flop" provides a brief respite from the clatter, and the album closes with a boozy shout-along called "Belly to Belly."
Susie Honeyman's fiddle and Rico Bell's accordion provide some earthy textures, but Me largely eschews the rootsy sound of the Mekons' late '80s efforts. Here fatalism is evoked by voices chanting over a pulsing dub groove. "Oh, shit, got some on me," they deadpan on "Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Hard Enough."
As always, the Mekons sound both politically and sonically sharp -- their albums always boast first-rate production, even on the lowest of budgets -- but how many more times can they recite lists of feminine hygiene products over music? Those who didn't love the Mekons before won't be swayed now. Kinder, gentler versions of the Mekons have captured the American imagination, but the genuine articles remain as uncouth as ever. As they state in "Men United," all they really care about is "vodka to get you pissed" and "soft tit to suck and suck."
-- Mark Rosen
The new label 3-2-1 is the dance-oriented division of Zero Hour records, a small indie that set up shop in Manhattan a few years back. Until now, Zero Hour has had nothing to do with hip-hop or rap. It's best known for handling off-the-radar altrockers such as Space Needle, Shallow, and the Multiple Cat. But the label has decided to branch out with 3-2-1, which recently released its premiere album, Connected. It's a compilation of mostly unknown hip-hop and acid-jazz artists, though a few bigger names (Blackalicious, Ultramagnetic MC's, Doug E. Fresh) serve as anchors. The ostensible purpose of the album is to benefit an "anti-gun/anti-violence organization" called PAX, but Connected is basically a way for 3-2-1 to demo possible artists and, in turn, prove that it's a serious contender in the glutted dance-music market.
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The label deserves kudos for pulling together an eclectic group of acts; no two tracks here sound alike. The disc kicks off with "Touch the Stars" by Blackalicious, whose lead vocalist, Chief Xcel, has a terrifically rubbery rap style that bobs along with the midtempo beat. "Ducking Lessons," an attack on New York's Mayor Giuliani from Sha-Key & Priest, is less a hip-hop track than a piece of spoken-word poetry set to a beat. Spida and the Tarantula Crew offer "Don't Stop the Reggae Music," a slice of minimalist ragga with a funk bass line. AyCE International weighs in with a commercial dance track called "Wrok" (say it) that features some maniacal scratching and quirky samples in between the obligatory nightclub chants.
There are also some compelling forays into the ambient-dub-trance realm. Badawi manages to take an overused sound -- the ever-mystical pan pipe -- and breathe new life into it with echo-effects and a propulsive rhythm on "Zikr (Whirling Dub)." Dubmarine's contribution, "Gimme-A-Breaks," combines a steady reggae beat, new-wave guitar, and a chunky bass line, resulting in a very tasty groove. The last cut on the album is one of the best, a live number called "C.B. Stories" by the dub artist Ticklah. It's old-fashioned but expertly made, with a spare guitar line, a boinging drum, and a muffled bass line. What makes it interesting and somewhat eerie are the sound bites of fuzzy CB radio conversations: The track ends with someone claiming: "Yeah, he drowned, man, that nigger drowned -- went out fishing, and the nigger fell in, and he couldn't come out."
Some of the acts on Connected have already been signed to 3-2-1, though the label hasn't said which ones. Almost all of them sound worthy of a full-length album. If this disc is any indication, 3-2-1 is off to an impressive start.
-- Rafer Guzman