The music biz has been buzzing about Propellerheads' debut album for almost half a year now. Part of the excitement surrounding this British drum 'n' bass duo comes from its hyperactive live shows, during which Alex Gifford switches between Hammond organ and bass guitar, while Will White alternates between turntables and drums. It doesn't matter that the pair's old-fashioned instruments are barely audible above the techno-noise being pumped out by the drum machines and sequencers on stage. Compared to the dull displays of button-pushing that most electronica outfits pass off as live entertainment, Propellerheads have all the energy of a kick-ass rock band.
They've captured only some of that energy on Decksandrumsandrockandroll. "Take California," Propellerheads' first British hit, opens the album with a midtempo club groove built around call-and-response sound bites. Propellerheads like kitschy quotes, and they use them to even better effect on "Velvet Pants," which builds up a '60s nightclub atmosphere with hokey lines delivered by young girls: "We hustled our way in/Everybody had long hair." It's an amusing technique, but it gets old fast -- and most industrial-dance groups from the late '80s discovered that long ago.
Propellerheads are at their best combining the spy-movie sound (horns and organs) with jungle beats (lots of high hat), as on "Cominagetcha," "Spybreak!" and a version of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." But the standout track here is "History Repeating," a delightful collaboration with the jazz-pop singer Shirley Bassey. Her growling, slightly slurred delivery, which made the old Goldfinger theme so memorable, lends Gifford's jazz-organ stylings some real authority.
The band's resident B-boy, White, gets short-changed on this album. His best moment came with a song called "Props Got Mo' Skills," included on last year's EP Propellerheads. That track utilized nothing but White's virtuoso scratching and his machine-gun human beat-box riffs, resulting in a stark but wild sketch of the basic hip-hop skeleton. Here, unfortunately, it's condensed into a 45-second piece of filler called "A Number of Microphones."
The Jungle Brothers appear on "You Want It Back," and De La Soul lends some rhymes to "360i (Oh Yeah?)," but neither song is particularly interesting. For all their rapid rhythms and marvelous noises, Propellerheads lack the one ingredient most electronica bands lack: funkiness. If only they had that, they'd really be worth buzzing about.
-- Rafer Guzman
Gone, Just Like a Train
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Building on the momentum of last year's much-acclaimed Nashville album, Bill Frisell continues to stretch his considerable talents as a guitarist and a composer. On his fourteenth solo album, Gone, Just Like a Train, Frisell sheds a layer of avant-garde cool and dips a toe in the mainstream. The result is possibly his most accessible recording to date.
A mainstay of New York's new-music scene in the '80s, Frisell was largely known for the banshee wails and shards of feedback he coaxed from his electric guitar. As a member of John Zorn's Naked City, he'd downshift through snippets of reggae, R&B, hardcore, and even country and western with precision and speed. His solo discs have been full of start-stop workouts and shimmering walls of sound. But Nashville was a cohesive set of instrumentals that had little in common with the country music capital. Restrained and understated, Frisell's playing was more focused and sharper than ever. As a bandleader he seemed to be coming into his own.
This time Frisell teams up with the country bassist Viktor Krauss and Jim Keltner, a drummer who's played with Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Eric Clapton. On paper the trio looks like a formula for long, unmoored noodling. But on disc it works. They play seamlessly, and Keltner manages to push Frisell into rockier terrain. "Blues for Los Angeles" unfolds like the plot of a film noir, with tension created by Frisell's picking and pinging; "Pleased to Meet You" is humble and soulful; and "Verona" mixes a catchy melody with blunted percussion. On the title cut, Keltner ups the ante (and the volume), and Frisell responds with head-bobbing riffs that surf the drummer's percussive wave. It's refreshing to hear Frisell rock, plain and simple. Stripped to his essentials, as he is here, he's rarely sounded better.
-- John Lewis