Blue Days Black Nights
When Freedy Johnston hit the chart jackpot in 1994 with "Bad Reputation" from his startlingly good third album, This Perfect World, no one was more surprised than he. He knew beyond a doubt that he was a good writer and performer and that success, even if only moderate success, would eventually come his way. But the groundswell of radio and TV support garnered by "Bad Reputation" was completely unexpected, leading to appearances on late-night talk shows.
Johnston's subsequent album, the equally balanced Never Home, didn't offer any track as chart-friendly as "Bad Reputation," perhaps for a reason. Johnston may have been eager to prove that he wasn't about to start writing hits on demand just to cash in on his recent success. In so doing, he crafted an album that was short on hit singles but long on wonderfully melodic short-story songs filled with quirky characters and flawed lovers.
On Johnston's fifth album, Blue Days Black Nights, he stays in the melancholy electric-folk groove that he's perfected since his 1990 debut, The Trouble Tree. His minor-key brilliance and lyrical mastery are once again exhibited on the evocative and heart-wrenching "The Farthest Lights," the almost sprightly sentiment of "Changed Your Mind," and the slow ache of "Caught as You Look Away." No songwriter on the planet writes about heartbreak and betrayal better than Johnston, perhaps because he has such a magnificent way of sympathetically dealing with his characters' perspectives and failures.
The most significant change in Johnston's work comes from something that took place in the studio. The co-producers this time around were TBone Burnett and Roger Moutenot, who, along with Johnston, stripped everything down to the kind of sonic and emotional nakedness that hasn't been evident since the singer-songwriter's Bar/None releases. Blue Days Black Nights is also Johnston's first album since that same period in which he's dealing almost exclusively with broken and twisted affairs of the heart, his area of expertise.
As far as artistic evolution goes, Blue Days Black Nights doesn't move the needle considerably farther than Johnston's quiet and subtle first album. But what he's done is even more impressive: He began his career with an almost impossibly raised bar and has successfully hit that same mark each time out. While logic suggests that Johnston will stumble eventually, he hasn't done so yet. -- Brian Baker
Atari Teenage Riot
60 Second Wipe Out
There are few bands as noisy and abrasive as Atari Teenage Riot. But in this case it's the good noisy -- the polarizing and divisive kind; you either hate it or embrace it as the soundtrack for revolution (or at least road rage). 60 Second Wipe Out is techno punk rock, a blistering cacophony with sheets of sampled guitar dissonance, hyperspeed electro beats, and punishing tempos that sound like a broken drum machine.
Today's punks don't slash out three chords and the truth; they convert the sampler into a weapon, turning music on itself. The German quartet, led by über-noise merchant Alec Empire, shouts antifascist and antigovernment slogans (song titles: "Revolution Action," "By Any Means Necessary," "Death of a President D.I.Y.!") with the punk-inspired hope of sparking insurrection.
Riot sounds produce riots, Empire has said. And the group walks what its musical manifesto talks; its members recently got arrested at an anti-NATO rally and smashed beer bottles on the heads of neo-Nazis. The group's third album continues the assault on ears and minds. Distortion is the main ingredient, variously coloring vocals, drums, keyboards and other instruments and samples and giving the entire album a grimy ambiance. Too grimy. What little melody the guitar offers in "Too Dead For Me" is buried beneath hoarse vocals and ultramanic drums.
When the tempos slows down, briefly, on "Western Decay," the music is at least listenable. Booming dance beats, a looped string sample, and a braying synthesizer complement the vocals, which turn the party call, "Throw your hands in the air," into a "throw your fists up" call to arms.
60 Second Wipe Out is not pointless discord; angry people make angry music. It's just that it often sounds didactic. Guests from New York hip-hop crew the Arsonists and ex-Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna add non-European rage. But few records are this brutal and cacophonic -- a musical approach that makes one wonder whether Atari Teenage Riot isn't just out to preach to the converted. Even if you like this kind of stuff, this is not a record to be listened to lightly. -- David Simutis