Seven More Minutes
That whole Seattle rush seven years ago, the one that had every record exec in America scrambling to the rainy city in hope of finding the next Nirvana (and instead resulted in giving us such crap as Creed from the other side of the country), spawned a meek little offspring that didn't collect nearly as much attention. While alt-rock was whining about, oh, I don't know, everything, its nerdy younger brother--in the form of such bands as Better Than Ezra, the Presidents of the United States of America, and Weezer--was looking at things from a slightly sunnier perspective.
It's the last of those bands that produced the Rentals, Weezer bassist Matt Sharp's even geekier side project. Grooving to a new-wave beat--cheesy organs and robotic voices bounce off the wall with more force than a flock of seagulls--the ready-made group's second album, Seven More Minutes, is nerd-filled fun that acts like grunge never happened. It's filled with songs about Barcelona, Y2K, sleep disorders, guys with more than one brain, and someone called "Big Daddy C."
With eyes twinkling back toward the '80s (a time of Human League, Gary Numan, and Soft Cell, all of whom are quoted, at least indirectly, here), Sharp guides the Rentals to a blissful era of new-wave pop. Nothing means anything here; its message is its music. Pals like That Dog's Petra Haden, Elastica's Donna Matthews, Lush's Miki Berenyi, and Blur's Damon Albarn fill in Sharp's retro vision. And it bounces casually along, acknowledging its '90s manufactured date only occasionally.
Sharp doesn't have quite the skill with a pop song that his Weezer bandmate Rivers Cuomo (who co-wrote one of Seven More Minutes's best, and most modern, songs, "My Head Is in the Sun") does. Half the time he strikes pop gold here, half the time he sinks in his precious contemporary tinkering of '80s new wave. Which makes Seven More Minutes quite a haul at nearly an hour. Still, tunes like the opening "Getting By" (a jaunty sing-along that's so overstuffed with whistling organ fills and peppy vocals that its three minutes can barely contain all the erupting pop) make it worth the trek. A fleeting revelry for new-wave refugees and nerds everywhere.
Greens From the Garden
The late 1990s has produced two monster talents who have taken it upon themselves to keep alive the tradition of acoustic blues: Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. In many ways they've followed a trail blazed by John Hammond thirty years earlier, although Harris and Hart are as likely to record one of their own compositions as revive a Rev. Gary Davis song.
So far, Hart has gotten the fat share of the press clippings. One must wonder why, as Harris is a slick guitarist with an earthy, gut-bucket vocal style so long associated with the Delta blues singers to whom he has been compared. If Hart can be given the edge, it's only because he has tackled more blues styles on his two albums than Harris tried on his first two releases.
No one can say Harris is stuck in the Delta now. His new disc, Greens From the Garden, is a virtual travelogue through Africa, New Orleans, and Jamaica, as well as Mississippi. Harris takes some hefty risks on Greens, but with such crackling guitar work, the risks are greatly minimized. Perhaps Harris's personal travels--he studied pidgin English in Cameroon in 1991 and was a French teacher in rural Louisiana prior to taking up music full-time--have found a musical expression. The juju of West Africa and Louisiana Creole are the spice for this album.
This is an engaging musical jambalaya. The Delta is not far away, as evidenced by the brutally personal "Lynch Blues," which ought to rank as one of Harris's greatest works, no matter how long his career lasts. "Teabag Blues," a song he composed to words written by Woody Guthrie (Harris was part of the Billy Bragg/Wilco project to record music to lyrics Guthrie had left behind), is similarly memorable. But like greens from the garden themselves, this disc is a tossed salad, albeit with blues dressing.
Delta blues purists who fell hard for Fish Ain't Bitin' and Between Midnight and Day might be disappointed here. Hey, only little kids balk at eating greens. Adults are open-minded enough to try new things, either musically or culinary.
The Shaniazation of country music (built atop the house of commerce that Garth constructed before her) has taken the pure form of the American music so far into the pop mainstream, for better or worse, that it may never find its way back to its roots. Of course, Shania Twain can't be completely blamed for this move. Kenny Rogers and the entire Urban Cowboy boom of the '80s first jumped the boundary, but Twain so cunningly, and so effortlessly, blurs the line between country and pop that we may never again see the likes of a Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, or even Dwight Yoakam reaching the top of the country charts.
Out of the Garth Brooks era has come, predictably, plenty of big hats, tall egos, and small talent. Sincerity is no longer a priority; appealing to the kids is (all the better if you cite such lame-ass '70s rock bands as Kansas, Journey, and Kiss as influences). But Twain did something different, bigger, and admittedly, better. "You're Still the One" is country pop's best example of where the music can go: straight to the top of the charts and wedding receptions everywhere. There's no novelty "Achy Breaky Heart" appeal to this song; its allure is fundamentally its own. It merely matters that the rest of her gazillion-selling album is overproduced and coyly pandering; it has a tough pop sound, she looks good, and the entire package has given country music a facelift.
Claudia Church aims to repeat Twain's success on her self-titled debut, tastefully produced by her husband (and Nashville vet) Rodney Crowell. She doesn't load her songs with cranked-to-eleven rock guitars the way Twain does, but I also can't picture a traditionalist sporting the sexy mini-dress and cheesecake look, the way Church does on her disc's photos. The playful "What's the Matter With You Baby" joyfully rides the Twain train--it's only missing the overuse of exclamation points to fasten the comparison. Church occasionally finds her own voice here--particularly on the reflective and autobiographical "Home in My Heart (North Carolina)"--but ultimately, this disc is conventional Nashville filtered through Twainisms.