-- Steve Almond

A Series of Sneaks

Here's a wake-up call to anyone who thinks major labels manufacture bland, sound-alike rock acts. Spoon has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that rock bands can manufacture their own blandness without any help from international entertainment conglomerates. After squandering a Matador Records deal on an album (1996's Telephono) that sounded a little like the Pixies and an EP (1997's Soft Effects) that sounded a lot like the Pixies, Spoon's self-titled Elektra debut shows that no amount of unnecessary studio gloss can outperform, in terms of flavorlessness, good ol' dull musicianship.

Spoon opens with "Utilitarian," featuring a driving guitar riff copped from Bowie's "The Jean Genie" and vocals phrased in an accent that sounds vaguely like the singer from Radiohead. (Spoon is from Austin, Texas; its two remaining original members boast the ready-for-rock-stardom names Britt Daniel and Jim Eno.) They're still interested in the sort of loud/soft dynamics that recalled the Pixies back when Spoon recorded on the cheap. Now that Spoon is overproduced, even a Pixies fan would be unlikely to look kindly upon their apparent reverence toward Boston's masters of postpunk power-pop. "The Minor Tough," "Reservations," the stuttering "Car Radio" (so much driving, yet no motion), and "Metal School" feature fine riffs but no appreciation of texture or subtlety. They're not so much minimalist as minimal.

"No You're Not" is a cute little post-ironic break-up song, complete with handclaps and a well-executed jumping-to-falsetto vocal hook ("I never thought a kiss could be/So cold"). For some reason, though, what would have been Spoon's best shot at a modern rock radio hit is only a minute and 40 seconds long. Perhaps they're planning to sell it for a beer commercial instead.

On the last track, "Advance Cassette," Spoon busts out the minor chords and the vintage Revolver backward guitar effects. The song offers the album's only sustained attempt at full-blown melodic structure, and succeeds. But at the same time, it's almost astonishingly cynical, coming across like Spoon imagined their audience too crass to appreciate their taste for the Pixies and so tacked on a bit of Beatles at the end.

-- Adam Heimlich

The Box Tops
Tear Off!
(Last Call)

Five years after he made peace with his power-pop past and revived his Seventies cult group Big Star, alt-rock icon Alex Chilton has gone even further back -- to the Box Tops, the mid-Sixties group with whom a teenage Chilton cut the blue-eyed Memphis soul standards "The Letter," "Cry Like a Baby," and "Soul Deep." Tear Off!, issued on the French Last Call label, reunites Chilton and original Box Tops Bill Cunningham, John Evans, Danny Smythe, and Gary Talley for a set of blues, rockabilly, and rock covers, along with a few originals from bassist Cunningham and the inevitable skimming of "The Letter." The results? Not as bad as you'd think, especially if you've been keeping up with Chilton's listless, lazy solo work over the last fifteen or so years.

True, he still can't be bothered with actually writing songs (no loss, really, considering the wretched quality of his recent attempts -- e.g., "Lost My Job," "Don't Be a Drag"), and his voice is a long way from being what it once was, but throughout Tear Off! Chilton sings with enough passion to suggest he's either having a ball or at least interested in turning in a decent performance. And he does.

Egged on by the percolating rhythm section of Cunningham and drummer Smythe, and bolstered by the organ and guitar work of Evans and Talley, Chilton tears voraciously into "Wang Dang Doodle," "Treat Her Right," and "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," while "Soothe Me," "I'm in Love," and "It Tears Me Up" feature his best pure-soul vocals since he made his gravel-gargling mark with these guys 30 years ago. It ain't like the old days, sure, but as reunions go, it's more fun than anything the Who or the Eagles ever conjured up. As for that new reading of "The Letter," however, it should've never left the mailbox. (223 av. P. Brossolette, 92120, Montrouge, France)

-- John Floyd

Patty Griffin
Flaming Red

Patty Griffin's quietly sublime 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, drew comparisons to Ricki Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, and Lucinda Williams. Those comparisons should be laid to rest with the release of Flaming Red. Where Ghosts relied solely on acoustic guitar and bluesy vocal phrasing, Griffin's new collection places her at the helm of her own band. And damn, do they rock.

The title track is a two-minute scorcher that combines a wall of swirling guitars, a squalling harp, and Kenny Aronoff's thumping backbeat, daring the diminutive Griffin to outshout the din (which she does). The funky thump of "One Big Love" gives way to the wailing pop shimmer of "Carry Me," with lush organ fills courtesy of Jay Joyce.

Griffin's new, noisier approach suits her most common thematic concern -- the jagged underside of romance -- and songs such as "Wiggley Fingers" and "Big Daddy" give her room to roam vocally, from piercing declamations to vengeful snarling. On "Tommy," her dark ode to a young gay man who commits suicide, Griffin sounds positively morose. "Raised his hand in homeroom," she sings. "For the morning attendance/And to pledge allegiance to the gloom."

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