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Wendy & Lisa
Girl Bros.
(Girl Bros. Inc.)

Seekers of a poignant, modern-day music saga need look no further than Wendy & Lisa. As members of Prince's Purple Rain-era band, multi-instrumentalists Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman broke from their Napoleonic mentor in the mid-Eighties and recorded three auspicious albums, including their 1990 magnum opus Eroica. With its bone-dry production and folk-rock sensibilities, Eroica predated the lo-fi, neo-folk, and femme-rock movements. Although Virgin Records dropped the promotional ball, the album became a cult favorite.

Hoping to build on this momentum, Wendy & Lisa decided their next album would be an independent production. But when Wendy's brother, keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, died of a drug overdose in 1996 while touring with Smashing Pumpkins, the duo was thrust into the deep depression that permeates their gem of a new album, Girl Bros.

Equal parts Led Zeppelin, Beatles, and Sly Stone, with some Middle Eastern psychedelia tossed in for good measure, Girl Bros. is a dreamy and elegiac record. Mired in introspection, the album is strongest when Wendy & Lisa's weepy sentiments are set to grunge-funk rhythms ("Uh-Uh, Don't Look Down," "All Nite") or ingratiating pop-soul beats ("Reaching One," "If I Were Brave"). The duo's woozy techno-funk interpretation of the Disney classic, "I've Got No Strings," is a masterstroke, its carefree attitudes all the more ironic in the wake of Jonathan Melvoin's death. One of the album's strongest numbers is a curiously buried hidden track. Combining delta blues guitar and philosophical lyrics, "Worth Your Weight in Coal" is a triumphant existential statement. It's the sound of two survivors trying in vain to find a silver lining in a heap of shit. (Distributed by World Domination, 3575 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Ste. 415, Los Angeles, CA 90068)

-- Bruce Britt

Various Artists
Music From the Original Motion Picture Velvet Goldmine
(London/Inner-State)

A movie about the flashy, omnisexual world of Seventies glam rock could have easily been botched and turned into a shallow parody -- a sort of Spin¬al Tap for queens. But with Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes treats the glitter scene with the affection and respect it demands. The meticulously constructed story is highlighted by an ambitious soundtrack that looks beyond compiling the hit singles of the time. Velvet Goldmine features original recordings from the era as well as covers and new songs by modern altrock artists.

The album opens daringly with an obscure selection by Brian Eno, "Needle in the Camel's Eye." Its dense layers of guitars and drums challenge you to find a true melody or hook, and Eno's lyrics are virtually unintelligible. Yet the song carries a raw ecstasy that embodies the verve of the period, and helps the casual listener understand the ways in which glam's moody flamboyance prefigured much of today's altrock scene.

As testament to this old-meets-new concept, two Nineties altrock super-groups (The Venus in Furs and Wylde Ratttz) convened to record cover versions from the glam era. (Band members include bigwigs such as Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jon Greenwood, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, original Roxy Music reed player Andy MacKay, and original Stooges bassist/guitarist Ron Asheton.)

The new songs complement the tracks from the Seventies with a genuine style that doesn't try to modernize glam rock with blatant, gimmicky sounds (jungle beats or Marilyn Manson are nowhere to be found). Pulp offers the raucous "We Are the Boys," which squonks along with blaring synthesized saxophones and crunching, unrelenting guitars. Grant Lee Buffalo camps it up on "The Whole Shebang" with cabaretlike zeal. Shudder to Think pays homage to Bowie; "Hot One" and "Ballad of Maxwell Demon" feature cooing and sighing background vocals and a brash, fuzzy Mick Ronson-esque guitar sound -- both defining characteristics of Bowie's 1973 Aladdin Sane album.

Despite its tawdry image of tough boys tarting it up as glitter-dusted rockers who shagged their lead guitarists as nonchalantly as their female groupies, glam was ultimately just another form of rock and roll. Velvet Goldmine's soundtrack rocks because the producers and musicians don't lose sight of the music behind the flash and showmanship.

-- Hans Morgenstern

eels
electro-shock blues
(DreamWorks)

eels' lead singer, E, has had a rough couple of years. He is now the last living member of his family and several of his friends have died recently as well. But rather than run from the topic, electro-shock, the followup to 1996's Beautiful Freak, jumps headlong into the theme of death. How headlong? Consider "Cancer for the Cure," in which E details the diagnosis of his mother's incurable cancer. Or the title track, which focuses on the suicide of his sister (and includes lyrics based on her writings).

What's odd, is that for all its morbid material, electro-shock is a hell of a catchy record. E makes singer/songwriter rock, but with an intimate production that includes plenty of electronic instrumentation. His deadpan recitations are surrounded by eerie samples, keyboards, and string arrangements. Contributions from Lisa Germano, Grant Lee Phillips (of Grant Lee Buffalo), and Dust Brother Mike Simpson blend seamlessly.

Of course, with E's voice set out front, it's impossible to ignore the subject matter. But rather than wallowing in misery, E and his drummer Butch (bassist Adam joined the band after the recording) strive for a light touch. "Hospital Food," with its mordant refrain about "delicious hospital food," hints at the randomness of life and death while electric piano, baritone saxophone, and subterranean drums weave and curl around E's musings.

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