It became impossible to not refer to Wilco's second record, Being There, as "sprawling." Quilting together rock, pop, and country, the ambitious double album didn't get bogged down by the lachrymose posture and faux Merle Haggardisms that defined so many other alt-country records. Singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy kicked any doubts he was the lesser of Jay Farrar, who formed Son Volt after their Uncle Tupelo divorce.
On Summer Teeth, Tweedy and Co. again don't feel homebound by Americana's conventions. This record is more the child of Brian Wilson and John Lennon than it is of Gram Parsons. It's a moving, often rapturous collection that shuffles to your door with a smile and flowers, but once inside the house, its motives start to look highly sinister.
One of the reasons Wilco is such a superior alt-country band is that it loves being in the studio. Unlike a lot of rootsy singer-songwriters who equate a lack of accompaniment with emotional power, Tweedy seems to enjoy watching fellow musicians tack on little chirps, warbles, bells--hell, even strings--to his songs. Summer Teeth has much more bounce than Being There; there are streaks of British and California pop throughout, with piano and keyboards where guitars would have been on Being There and Wilco's first record, A.M. The album feels old-fashioned, but not in a Carter Family kind of way. On tracks like "When You Wake Up Feeling Old" and "Summer Teeth," Tweedy is like a ruffle-shirted dreamer from the '60s.
Does that mean he's gone soft? Hardly. Summer Teeth's recurring theme is the breakup of a relationship, not the beginning of one. "A Shot in the Arm" begins with the great line "The ashtray says/You were up all night." Where was he? Sleeping in someone else's bed or just oblivious to her pain? On "Via Chicago," Tweedy sings, "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt all right to me." He doesn't sound bloodthirsty, just eager to get the girl out of his hair.
Like Being There, Summer Teeth goes on for too long. Tweedy doesn't push his voice, and there isn't that one rocker that shakes your hips. The band's insistence on not languishing in the country-rock sticks might have led it down too many well-worn pop paths. It's definitely a success, but probably not a triumph.
The Living End
The Living End
The classic punk aesthetic (kids bitching about anything and everything, just because they can) combined with a solid rockabilly sensibility (way fast songs, slapped into shape by an upright bass player) isn't a novel concept. The Clash did this twenty years ago; even the Stray Cats, to some extent, bridged the youth movements with a little help from post-Zeppelin guitars and retro perception. Australia's the Living End, a trio of twentysomethings, plugs the formula into a social conscience and Green Day-style pop melodies and comes up with a heaping platter of neo-rockabilly for the '90s.
But because rockabilly, in its original form, was a logical meeting point for the still-infant rock and roll to shake hands with its country relative (and because no one was really sure what they were doing and creating at the time, giving the best of it a timeless and passionate energy), there was something significant about the knitting of the music.
Since then, new rockabilly bands have had about as much appeal as any of those Cherry Poppin' Voodoo Daddies out there. It's out of time, man, and if you ain't gonna bring anything new to the table, pack up your gear and get outta here. We don't need another fashion show. The Living End realizes this. Somewhat, at least. So the songs on its self-titled debut album are more punk than rockabilly, more spunk than retro gazing. Still, it's tough to look past the guitar acrobatics that leader Chris Cheney brings to nearly every cut here. His surf-punk tones collide with the walking bass and the basic beatdown of the drums provided by his bandmates.
The Living End isn't sure who its idols are and often comes out better for it. The Living End is lyrically simple, idealist to a fault, and obvious in its rhythmic choices (the anthemic "Prisoner of Society" marches along to an almost military beat). Still, there's a youthful fervor surrounding the band that drives it more forcefully than if it were filled with, say, forty-year-old industry hangers-on. The utopian paradise that these kids would like to discover isn't around, and they know it (check out "Second Solution," a letter from Death Row that's bitingly fatalistic). Ultimately taking its cue from past punks, the Living End has seen what's in store and can proudly claim that there's still no future.
Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton
Well, really, how can you go wrong? Emmylou Harris, the sweetest soprano on the planet. Linda Ronstadt, probably the most versatile voice in popular music. Dolly Parton, the most country-sounding of all country singers.
Maybe next time these girls can recruit Patty Loveless and Alison Krauss and make it a country music Dream Team. This triumvirate could sing AC/DC's greatest hits and still sound good.
Fortunately, the songs they do tackle are better than that. In fact, with any vocal heavyweights, let alone three together, all that can be criticized is the choice of material. In comparison to Trio I, the 1987 album from the Harris/Ronstadt/Parton amalgamation, it's a close call. Songs on the reprise range from "yeah, that one's OK" to "inspired" to "why did Linda do the same songs she included on that other album?"
True, Ronstadt sings three songs that she put on her Feels Like Home record in '95. Press information explains that all the songs here were selected for Trio II back in 1993. When the project fell through, Linda decided it would never happen, and so put "High Sierra," "Blue Train," and the title song on one of her own efforts.
Of the three, Harris fares best. Despite her recent forays into genre-hopping and her tendency on recent albums to slur lyrics, she delivers all the country purity of her youth on Parton's composition "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" and gives us the beautiful Irish ballad "You'll Never Be the Sun" as gorgeously as originator Mary Black. Her rendition of the O'Kanes' "When We're Gone, Long Gone" closes things on a high note both literally and figuratively.
Parton tears it up on Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Movin' In," but adds little to Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and John Starling's "He Rode All the Way to Texas." Parton always fares better with her own stuff, particularly those mountain love songs.
If nothing else, Harris, Ronstadt, and Parton prove that the whole can be as good as the sum of its parts. The three frequently contribute to each others' albums anyway, so it's not like they've pulled a Sinatra and done something as detached as the Chairman's Duets. Maybe it's just country's answer to the Three Tenors you see all the time when PBS holds those fund-raisers, but this is high quality. How could it be anything other than that?
You've gotta hand it to Sugar Ray. Very well knowing that its summer slam from a couple years ago, "Fly," was a totally unexpected hit and, quite possibly in this time of fickle pop fans, its only chance of shining in the MTV spotlight and rubbing chart shoulders with Celine and Hanson--in other words, the allotted fifteen minutes--the band goes and names its third album 14:59.
And wouldn't ya know it, they go and drive the album's first single, "Every Morning," onto the charts, stopping that clock, at least for the time being. It's another infectious pop ditty, breezing through its verse-and-chorus structure with a light touch and tone. It's a SoCal stoner's version of "Another Saturday Night" to "Fly"'s take on a gum commercial as whipped up by Sublime; it's also the best thing on 14:59.
The rest of the album is an odd mix of rapid punk (these guys started as just another West Coast fad band), more pop variations on the "Fly" theme, a couple of perplexing Devo-esque tunes, a few more "Fly"-like songs, and a busy cover of Steve Miller's "Abracadabra" (which is at least better than the original; it's enveloped in a playful mix, complete with turntable scratches). It's also much better than it has any right to be.
Playing hard with the reality facing them, the members of Sugar Ray aren't fooling anybody here, let alone themselves. They know "Fly" was a huge chunk of luck; heavily padding 14:59 with similar-sounding pop tunes--the best of them are winsome flights that would make fine radio fare--is a smart move. And Sugar Ray is smart for making things last while it can. Who would've thought (after spinning its unlistenable debut) that these trendy fashion plates would become one of the late '90s' best singles bands?
Sugar Ray loads each of 14:59's songs with a concoction of scratchy beats, dub toasting, acoustic strumming, and hip-hop rhythms that come off like a sample platter of the best of pre-millennium radio. "Someday" and "Ode to the Lonely Hearted" even get all nostalgic for retro-Cal sounds, frothing up catchy Beach Boys-type harmonies, and "Aim for Me" cops a Green Day 'tude, working its punk roller-coaster ride into a tight little pop package. Sugar Ray's fifteenth minute may be right around the corner, but clock-watching has never been so tuneful.
On the cover and inside the booklet of his new CD, Dennis Kamakahi poses rather stoically in sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and a biker jacket. Don't let the image fool you. Ohana is a languid, bucolic album of minor-key, lamentful Hawaiian slack guitar.
With easy strumming, simple melodies, and plenty of finger picking, the music sounds remarkably familiar to American folk and country. It's Kamakahi's voice, deep and easy like George Jones's, that cinches the impression. What differentiates slack guitar is an indigenous tradition of alternate tunings. Strings are tuned down; thumbs pick out the bass notes. Though the difference is subtle, the open tunings give Kamakahi's guitar an especially resonant, dense sound. When the string vibrations overlap, as they nearly always do, Kamakahi sounds like several players at once.
Slack tuning allows Kamakahi to repeatedly pluck the same few higher notes over and over, using them almost like pedal tones. On "Moanalua" he lets them ring over his lower register melody and harmony like bells. Open strings clash slightly with the melody on "No Ke Aha," giving the tune an appealingly raw edge.
Nevertheless, there is a certain monotony here. Taken in small doses, the music has a quiet beauty to it. But because it lopes at approximately the same easy pace, with little variation in style, and because Kamakahi's voice is as comfortable as James Taylor's, the innocuous, sometimes soporific music fades into the background after a few songs.