Up Up Up Up Up Up
There's good reason why the Anthology of American Folk Music is such a treasured piece of work. The individual voices in this splendid box don't matter as much as the songs they're singing. In the big picture, "Stackalee" the song means more than Frank Hutchison the artist. Folk music is universal music, composed of tales passed down from one generation to the next; it's an oral history of an era, with subjective views appended by each subsequent narrator.
Somewhere along the way to her new album, erstwhile neo-folkie Ani DiFranco forgot these basics. An improvisational jam album as disorganized as the Dead at their most lumbering, Up Up Up Up Up Up is not quite the airy listen its title implies.
Sort of picking up where last year's Little Plastic Castle left off, DiFranco's tenth album combines her previous work's instrumental experimentation (accordion, banjo, and Wurlitzer go on their own little flights of fancy) with a newfound (and almost stage-bound) sense of playing with those sounds. The disjointed "Angel Food" and the almost-thirteen-minute closer "Hat Shaped Hat" (which was edited down from a three-hour jam session!) may have been stimulating moments in the studio, but they're taxing to listen to.
When DiFranco settles in and does what she does best (playing the '90s version of a singer/songwriter with both refinement and style), Up Up Up Up Up Up is a pleasant extension of the solid musical canon that began in earnest on 1996's Dilate. "Angry Anymore"--a song about acceptance and reconciliation, not a renunciation of her raging post-fem ways--may be DiFranco's most tuneful composition, a radio-made pop tune that's carried by its buoyant acoustic picking. And "'Tis of Thee" is in the fermented folk tradition of social commentary through contemporary eyes ("My country 'tis of thee/To take swings at each other on the talk-show TV," she sings).
But too often Up Up Up Up Up Up trades in DiFranco's once-canny live setting for a more wildly erratic band version of it. There's little personal touch to the songs here, and therefore not much personality either (one listen to "Hat Shaped Hat" will convince you of this). And for a folk artist (and whether or not she likes the tag, DiFranco is a folk artist), there's no greater crime than composing aimless pieces that are unable to be passed along and enjoyed by everyone.
Extinction Level Event (The Final World Front)
Talk about pre-millennium tension. On his third album, Busta Rhymes is so damn worried about the Y2K crash that he doesn't have time to get jiggy with it. Or do much of anything else but to prepare for the end of the world that he sees coming a year from now. Which makes for one antsy Busta on this overstuffed, overanxious, and somewhat undernourished album.
Still, with all the fretting Busta's been doing, he's been quite a busy guy lately. Extinction Level Event comes only a little more than a year after his last album, When Disaster Strikes . . ., and mere months after The Imperial, the debut disc from his hip-hop crew the Flipmode Squad. All that fussing at least has made Busta prolific, if not exactly stress-free.
It's also made him more sonically decorative. Dropping video-game beeps and aural bombs that are as nostalgic as they are futuristic, ELE is Busta's most colorful musical palette, a hip-hop exploration of his end-of-the-century blues. In the past, he's always played like an old-schooler. His previous two albums are exhausting and redundant; it's his monumental singles that have catapulted Busta to rap royalty. "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" are '90s hip-hop classics, and rightfully so. ELE doesn't quite boast that kind of power. "Tear Da Roof Off" and the Miami bass bounce of "Gimme Some More" are as close as it comes. There are also flimsy collaborations with Mystikal, Janet Jackson, and (hold on) Ozzy Osbourne (on an "Iron Man" rewrite that's even clunkier than the original). What ELE does achieve is a consistent listen throughout, something Busta couldn't sustain in the past. Here--except for the clumsy skits placed between certain tracks--one song flows into another with smooth grace. To Busta's credit, by the end of the album you're more than convinced that he is totally freaked out about the year 2000. And, more frightening, that he just might be on to something.
The locale may have changed, but the sentiment of the author remains the same. Bill Callahan (Smog) continues a melancholy trek to a higher plane of self-satisfaction on Knock Knock, his seventh record in nearly as many years. Offstage, Callahan has the vigor and conversational skills of your average tree stump, and it comes across in Smog, where he prefers to lull the audience into a peaceful coma rather than pummel it to death. Yet like anyone who truly understands the power of subtlety, he knows that his words can (and do) take on an added importance when he does finally decide to speak up.
And when he does enunciate on Knock Knock, you get the feeling he's had his fill of human interaction to last a few lifetimes. Let's forget about life for a while. Just you and me, baby. Somehow the years have made him dislike what he's become--he wants to be a little less Smog, a little more just Bill. It doesn't get much more direct than "Let's Move to the Country," or "For the first time in my life/I am moving away/From within reach of me" in "Held." Now all the reverse-Boomers flocking away from the cities to the small towns have Smog anthems to call their own.
Musically, gone are the efficiency-apartment, no-fi recordings that constitute the majority of Smog's back catalog. Callahan and his Chicago-centric cast move the proceedings of Knock Knock into the studio, and the results are occasionally indulgent and sporadically witless (children's choir?), but the cumulative effect is irrefutable. Smog's arrangements here, while more fleshed out than before, are still relatively rudimentary, sparse, and soporific--Callahan would have it no other way. Nutshell: His quiet turn of a phrase is where the floodlight should hit, not the children's choir, or the guitar amplifier set on "Scorpions" in "No Dancing." His ability to condense a situation, an event (with Callahan, it usually revolves around a misguided upbringing or relationship), to where anyone can picture themselves inside the story, is no small feat.
Knock Knock is Bill Callahan's Blood on the Tracks, a work of clarity through separation, both geographic and emotional. Couple that with a rich, expressive voice (and when did this happen?), and the result is a work of simmering, sober brilliance.
The Jimmy Rogers All-Stars
Blues Blues Blues
A lot of people will argue that Muddy Waters was the greatest blues artist to ever grace our planet. Even those who disagree might concede that the original Muddy Waters band was the finest group in blues history.
That outfit included not just Waters on guitar, but harmonica wizard Little Walter Jacobs, producer/songwriter Willie Dixon on bass, Elgin Evans on drums, plus the incomparable Jimmy Rogers on second guitar. It's too bad Rogers, who enjoyed a strong, if not well-known, solo career in the 1950s, is primarily known as Waters's sideman, or gets confused with Jimmy Reed, his contemporary, or country-blues singer Jimmie Rodgers, a quarter-century his junior.
The Jimmy Rogers All-Stars was the last effort of this seminal electric guitarist, one of the founding fathers of the heavy Chicago blues that so influenced rock and roll in the late 1960s. Blues Blues Blues brings together many Baby Boomer rock artists who name Rogers as an influence. Rogers himself didn't live to see the completion of this record. He died in December 1997 at the age of 73.
It's also kind of ironic that Rogers would cozy up to these people. His career went into remission because he couldn't adapt to fit in with the R&B and Chuck Berry-Bo Diddley-style rock younger black musicians were embracing. But his influence on the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, et al is obvious.
As albums that marry old blues legends with middle-aged white rock stars go, this one's a fine one on its own merit. It's also good to see it made, as it's a daunting task to find original Rogers material. The stuff just isn't to be found at your average Camelot. If you can afford to buy a lot of blues anthologies, you might accumulate a nice array of Rogers songs. Better you should just purchase this. It isn't only the special guests that make Blues Blues Blues a keeper. The regular band of Rogers and his son Jimmy D. Lane on guitars, Freddie Crawford on bass, Johnnie Johnson on piano, Ted Harvey on drums, and Kim Wilson and Carey Bell on harmonica play like a storm on every track.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never sounded better than when they're lending their hands to "Don't Start Me Talkin'" and "Trouble No More." Eric Clapton's guitar shines on "Blues All Day Long" and "That's All Right," while Jeff Healey does the same for "Blow Wind Blow." Taj Mahal ("Bright Lights, Big City," "Ludella") and Stephen Stills ("Sweet Home Chicago," "Worried Life Blues") are less effective, but one of Rogers's contemporaries, Lowell Fulson, takes care of business on "Ev'ry Day I Have the Blues," and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are surprisingly strong for "Boom Boom."
Rogers was one of the underrated lights in the golden age of Chicago Blues. If your collection of Rogers's recordings is lean, Blues Blues Blues is a good start toward fixing that problem.
Live--Omaha to Osaka
Considering L7 outlived grunge and out-grrred riot grrrl, perhaps it's time to consider L7 on its own terms, rather than as part of those movements. Mixed up in the early-'90s grunge whirlwind, L7's sheer rock monstrosity seemed too heavy, too metal, and too plodding. Sure, its 1992 debut Bricks Are Heavy scored alternative hits with "Pretend We're Dead" and "Shitlist," but unlike some former SubPop labelmates, they couldn't quite break into the pop mainstream.
Instead, they were lumped into the then-burgeoning neo-feminist riot-grrrl garage-punk movement, and the L.A. foursome were expected to share the artistic minimalism and politically charged gestures of groups like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. But L7 was too polished, too individualistic, too much fun. They didn't write manifestos--they made shitlists.
L7's focus has always been the riff. Like Motsrhead, AC/DC, and the Runaways, Suzi Gardner and Donita Sparks's guitars chug while the behemoth rhythm section of Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas formed a punk rock juggernaut. With Gail Greenwood replacing Finch in 1996, this live album captures performances from Omaha, Nebraska, and Osaka, Japan. The disc's sixteen tracks rely on the newer--and heavier--side of L7's oeuvre, sounding as murky and powerful as Nirvana's ode to the detuned guitar, Bleach.
The John Marshall High School Marching Band opens the Omaha set by blurting out a perky medley of L7 favorites before the ladies storm the stage, growling about their urge for trouble with the driving anthem, "Bad Things." "Must Have More" drops the pace to a silken slur; the verse subsists on Gardner's guitar girth, while Sparks's repetitive, zombie-vocal hook breaks the mudfest. "Drama" continues the slothful ruction, featuring a wildly squealing hair-metal guitar solo played on an electronic toy guitar with button-preset string bends, scale climbs, and arpeggio freakouts.
The five songs from the Osaka show are even wilder, with enthusiastic crowd scream- and sing-alongs. Gardner and Sparks's guitars are heavier, and Plakas continues to stomp out her mechanical 4/4 beat throughout. The crowd microphones are cranked up to capture the group's pugilistic thud reverberating from the stage, so heavier songs like "Fast and Frightening" sound massive and distant.
"How many of you here in Omaha like to party?" mocks Sparks between guitar lashings. She obliterates the macho rock posturing and seemingly obligatory audience-pandering chatter of most hard rock live albums without a hint of indie-rock's sociopolitical diatribe. Tough and revolutionary, sure, but not riot grrrls.
Lords of the Highway
Dangerous Curves Ahead
(Burning River Records)
Where modern swing and big band groups have managed to break the stranglehold of grunge on the alternative market, a similar resurgence of old-fashioned music has broken the single-chord garage sound of the real punk underground. What started as a novelty with bands like Man or Astro Man? has become a full-blown reinvention of surf and rockabilly, without the mainstream sensibilities of the Stray Cats.
Two area bands have found such a sound. Not coincidentally, Ben Edwards is a member of both. He plays drums for the Balboas and sings and plays bass for Lords of the Highway.
The sound of Lords of the Highway is fueled mostly by simplicity, flavoring the album with a late-'50s vibe, when wah-wah pedals and fuzz machines, in lieu of talent, were unheard of. The effortless mixture of surf, punk, and rockabilly doesn't depend on distortion to cover bad craftsmanship, and while the songs may not be complex, they are full of infectious guitar plucks and rhythms that beg one to--as the band's name would suggest--get in a car and simply ride.
Dangerous Curves Ahead contains a half-hour's worth of interesting covers and originals. From "Old Big Mack" to the best version of "King of the Road" since Roger Miller recorded it in 1965, Lords of the Highway prove that punk music doesn't have to be loud or a rip-off of Black Flag. Such sentiments have been brewing for a while, with the Reverend Horton Heat and others paving the way, but it does seem ironic that a band with the old sound of Lords of the Highway is breathing fresh air into a stagnated genre.
550 Homeworth Ave.
Painesville OH 44077
Singer/songwriter Zach Freidhof may close his debut CD with a cover of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," but his spirit is closer to John Lennon's. Not the primal scream John Lennon, but Lennon in love. Zach's ghosty tenor recalls the tender moments Lennon wanted to forget about Paul and politics and write poems for Yoko on his guitar.
Whether it's laziness, ego, or an unwillingness to split the gate with anyone, too many singer/songwriters refuse accompaniment. While Delusions is primarily Zach and his acoustic guitar, he uses side musicians to great effect. His Band of Gypsies, featuring guitarist Frank Romano, flush out the handsomely crafted songs without getting in the way.
Zach is not simply a freak for Lennon. The opener "Let Me Be the One" ticks along like a soft Band number, while "Chase Me Away" borrows the pep of Springsteen's "Better Days." I would guess there are a few Tom Petty records in his collection as well.
Caveat emptor: Delusions is really a glorified EP. Included are "live" versions (Zach playing solo) of five of the seven originals. Coffeehouse versions of the studio material, they serve little purpose.
To mention that Zach is seventeen years old at the outset of this review would have been unfair to his talents. He's not just good for his age; he's just good.
Run Devil Run
The Killing Civilization
(Eye Scream Records)
Run Devil Run's debut release is not for the weak of heart. This unfettered, unstructured side project--members hail from the Spudmonsters, In Cold Blood, and Brother's Keeper--is a skilled album for diehard metal fans.
Baptized with an early metal sound and bound to underground protocol--antagonistic yelling with charred guitar chords--the disc should appeal to those who gave up on the MTV-generation of Metallica. Clocking in at just under 25 minutes, what it lacks in length it makes up for in fervor. Even though The Killing Civilization is fairly formulaic, all is forgiven by its sheer force. Running rampant through the thirteen-song disc are high-flying guitar sounds and snarling mood swings that vary from arrogant to pissed off. While other releases have similarly dark undertones, Run Devil Run's ire doesn't appear false. The moments of distinction include "Steadfast," "Breaking Free," and "Around the Bend." The intricate tune "Life on My Own" is built on swollen grooves and unanticipated time changes.
The Killing Civilization won't appeal to the casual metal fan. But if you're into the full-blown dark scene, this honest, convicted disc needs to be a part of your arsenal.
Eye Scream Records
P.O. Box 28698