Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby
It's hard to imagine a better title for an album by Mark Eitzel, the verbose and despondent singer-songwriter who once led San Francisco's much-heralded band American Music Club. This solo CD (which takes its title from Elvis Presley's old chestnut "Suspicious Minds") is Eitzel's third since the collapse of AMC in 1995, and it recalls the gloominess of his earlier work: The lyrics are about introspection, inner torment, and general emptiness. Here too are the desperate whispers and operatic dirges that surfaced on Eitzel's previous album, West (1997).
What made that album so colorful was the presence of the guitarist Peter Buck, whom Eitzel borrowed from R.E.M. Likewise, fresh instrumentation by alterna-heroes from Sonic Youth (Steve Shelley), Yo La Tengo (James McNew), and the Bad Seeds (Kid Congo Powers) saves Caught in a Trap from terminal Eitzelitis. Throughout the album these players embroider Eitzel's acoustic guitar with a tremulous Hammond organ, the haunting echo of electric guitar, and shuffling drumbeats. There is plenty of breathing room for Eitzel's singing, and breathe he does over this perfectly appropriate gothic music.
The first song, "Are You the Trash," is almost as cheeky as the album's title. While a guitar plunks out happy chords, Eitzel sings offhandedly about a manipulative relationship: "Evil wears a big smile/Evil loves your mind/Evil gets what he wants/Evil leaves you behind/Are you the trash he left behind?" Elsewhere Eitzel touches on violent fantasies ("If I Had a Gun") and the pain of loss ("Goodbye") before reaching the album's climax in "Queen of No One." The likeliest candidate for radio play, "Queen of No One" describes the hollowness of nightclub romance; a slinky vamp leads to a chorus so heart-rendingly triumphant it would likely make Morrissey shiver with ecstasy.
Recorded in a mere two days in New York, Caught in a Trap has been released by Matador because Eitzel's current label, Warner Brothers, has a contract with him for just one album per year. Eitzel appears to have trouble fitting his abundant thoughts -- and album titles -- into his CDs. Thankfully, in this case, he had some help.
-- Daniel Lovering
Gov't Mule's third album begs to be played loud. Only then, when you can't hear your own thoughts and the bass threatens to unravel your intestines, do you realize what's going on: You're in the '60s, man, where heavy, repetitive guitar riffs melt into mind-expanding, pyrotechnic jams. The CD's title, Dose, is no enigma.
But this power trio, which includes two members of the Allman Brothers Band (Allen Woody on bass and Warren Haynes on guitar and vocals), has never been difficult to figure out. In concert they flaunt their influences proudly, covering Cream, Steppenwolf, and Grand Funk Railroad. On Dose they slow down and stretch out the Beatles' "She Said She Said" (2:37 on Revolver, 6:57 here) so it sounds more like a Black Crowes song. Then there's "Thelonious Beck" (don't think too hard -- it's Thelonious Monk meets Jeff Beck) and "Birth of the Mule," a nod to Miles Davis' first album, Birth of the Cool. Haynes and Woody (along with drummer Matt Abts) excel at jazz, blues, and classic rock. There is no other musical influence at work here; there is certainly nothing relevant to '90s rock.
Dose opens with the urgent "Blind Man in the Dark," which soars from in-your-face rock to jazz free-for-all, then back again. It's followed by "Thorazine Shuffle," a funky groove led by Allen's bass. The obvious reason to buy this disc is the virtuoso guitar work: Haynes, nearly twenty years younger than Eric Clapton, is the preeminent blues-rock guitarist of his generation and without a doubt the best with a slide. Eight years with the Allman Brothers will do that for you.
Lyrically, Dose doesn't push any boundary. Having already taken all the good drugs, Haynes is left to grouse about Thorazine and deliver cool, mature observations on mortality. On "Larger Than Life," he sings: "It won't take long/To get to the bottom/It won't take much/To be lookin' down at yourself." On "Game Face" he clearly separates himself from the rock casualties who came before him, singing: "Satisfy your angels/With your cocaine and your guns/ As for me/I don't need them." He then glides into a dreamy jam that evokes "Third Stone From the Sun" -- heading back, yet again, to the '60s.
-- Jonathan Lesser
Joe Lovano/Gonzalo Rubalcaba
The prospect of a collaboration between the Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the American tenor sax sensation Joe Lovano is a thrilling one. Rubalcaba was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie, who developed such respect for the pianist that Rubalcaba wound up serving as a pallbearer at that legendary trumpeter's funeral. Lovano, the former accompanist for the guitarist John Scofield, has become perhaps the tenor saxophonist of the '90s. His Rush Hour CD was widely regarded as the best jazz release of 1995. Its followup, Live at the Village Vanguard, showcased not only Lovano's technical proficiency but his passionate and vibrant playing.
The CD opens with the title track, a dueling melody number in which Lovano soars through a run of notes with his full, breathy tone while Rubalcaba dances the harmony on the keys. The pianist's droning bass notes provide syncopated accompaniment for his sizzling right-handed jogs. The airy "How Deep Is the Ocean" takes a softer, more lyrical approach, Lovano enchanting the saxophone with a subtler and breathier tone.
"Boss Town" starts with Rubalcaba's chords marching behind Lovano's circular melody. It takes the tempo down a peg while Lovano, proving himself a bit of a multi-instrumentalist, chimes in on tuned gongs. (The sax player's percussion, which appears in a few places on Flying Colors, is the only thing that weakens the CD. It's tolerable but seemingly arbitrary and adds little to the proceedings.) Nevertheless the moment is quickly forgotten as Rubalcaba comes back blazing, hammering out bass chords while his right hand cascades down the keys.
The CD is filled with such highlights. Rubalcaba burns through portions of "Mr. Hyde" as if he were running from Castro, and the musicians weave a solid tapestry on the Tadd Dameron standard "Hot House." Lovano and Rubalcaba prove with Flying Colors that they not only excel at their respective instruments but can potentially redefine the manner in which instruments interact.
-- Larry Getlen
Gastr del Sol
Throughout the '80s David Grubbs spent his time playing guitar and singing in gnarly little Midwestern punk bands with names like Squirrel Bait, Bitch Magnet, Slint, and Bastro. Those groups became college-rock favorites but eventually folded. In the early '90s, Grubbs -- who had always been a latent avant-gardist -- formed a loose "band" with the inscrutable name of Gastr del Sol. Grubbs probably lost most of his previous audience: His new compositions tend to be thoughtful piano studies and intricate tone poems for guitar. When Grubbs began collaborating in 1994 with Jim O'Rourke, a studio engineer and tape manipulator, Gastr del Sol's sound took on an added (and decidedly odd) dimension.
Camofleur, the band's third full-length album, walks a fine line between experimental noodling and clearly realized innovation, often within a single song. The opening track, "The Seasons Reverse," is a lightly galloping pop song with jazzy guitar, a nice horn solo, and a little steel drum thrown in for good measure. In his appealingly bland voice, Grubb sings a sort of poetic essay: "The seasons reshuffle/At a span of a year and a half/September reverses and the equinoxes flip." The last two minutes of the song, however, dwindle into a moody, unfinished guitar sketch accompanied by the faint sound of distant firecrackers. The track ends with several seconds' worth of a barely audible woman's voice.
"The Seasons Reverse" is not just a cerebral sound-experiment; it's a love song. Surprisingly, it works. There's joy in the music's rapid pace but regret in the lyrics: "They shuffle because it's been more than two years/ First seeing you in a snow bank/Then a sweater/Then a swelter." The song speeds by, slows down, then fades away, leaving nothing but a few sounds and words that are as fuzzy as old memories.
Not all of Gastr del Sol's songs require this much interpretive effort. "Each Dream Is an Example" is a lovely piano-and-horns piece à la Pet Sounds; "Mouth Canyon" recalls Neil Young's early, folky material; "Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder" is, despite its tricky title (and a few moments of intrusive tape noise), a very nice mood piece featuring Grubb's delicate piano accompanied by an organ and a cornet.
Grubbs has a better facility with sound than words: Lyrics such as "Summing up/Tenderness/Air mattress" are a little too abstract for their own good. The instrumental passages are what stand out here: tentative pianos, elaborate guitar lines, processed lengths of tape, or even all of the above. With punk rock behind him and the freedom to do what he pleases before him, Grubbs is leading Gastr del Sol towards his unique personal vision.
-- Rafer Guzman
Mary Lou Lord
Got No Shadow
During the chorus of "His Lamest Flame," this CD's bouncy opening track, Mary Lou Lord warbles a carefree "na na na na na" over a simple descending melody. It's a moment of light, sugary joy, a perfect ode to '60s-style pop. The flip side of that track is Lord's cover of Freedy Johnston's wistful ballad "The Lucky One." "Standing in the last night/Artificial daylight/I know I am the lucky one," Lord sighs. No "na na na" going on there.
Lord's brand of late '90s folk-rock draws from only the best influences, and they're clearly listed in her liner notes. Lord gives her gushiest thank-you to Shawn Colvin ("Your music inspired me to begin this journey..."), whose spirit seems to shine through these songs like sunlight through gauze. But it's Nick Saloman, of the British pop group the Bevis Frond, who contributes the most here: He wrote four songs, cowrote three, and plays guitar on every song except one. Then there's Lord's friend Elliott Smith, an indie folk favorite (and Oscar nominee for his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack) who takes over guitar duties on the breezy blues song "Shake Sugaree." Nels Cline, of the Geraldine Fibbers, offers his guitar services on a few songs; Roger McGuinn (yep, from the Byrds) strums a twelve-string on the catchy "Lights Are Changing." Colvin even sings background vocals on "Subway," an autobiographical song about Lord's years of busking for the commuter crowd.
The song reaches for poignancy ("The ride is the moment they're all waiting for/Can't afford to believe that there's more") but somehow falls short. In fact, despite Lord's appealingly feathery voice, the whole CD is merely good. The elements for a resounding success are all assembled here -- intriguing musicians, a range of moods, a sensible restraint -- and Lord obviously has it in her to do better.
-- Theresa Everline