Toad the Wet Sprocket
The title of Toad the Wet Sprocket's latest album hints at its expressive-bordering-on-mushy pop sweetness, even as the calla lilies on the cover announce it as the make-out album of 1994. If this was a beverage, it would be Libby's fruit nectar spiked with Midori. It took only three listens to drive me hyperglycemic. I heard five, count 'em five, college-radio singles, all full of powerfuzz bass, resonant vocal harmonies, loose guitar lines, hooky choruses, and the studied slouchiness that makes MTV's Buzz Bin go 'round.
Of course most of these power-pop tarts are indistinguishable from Toad's last album, Fruit. In one case, "Woodburning," the Santa Monica foursome just combines their last two hits -- the warm fuzzy waltz-time "Walk on the Ocean" and the descending melodic hook in "Hold Her Down." Voila, a new unit-mover. Like Fruit, most of Dulcinea is shiny, happy fare, with the notable exception of "Begin," a morbid all-out dirge of the "Jesus, turn it off, this is fucking depressing" variety -- a real party-killer (call me perverse, but this is my favorite track). "Windmills" is also a highly successful pop tune, mostly because it borrows all the chord changes from Peter Gabriel's "Secret World."
This album is ear candy. You'll enjoy it. And then you'll feel guilty.
-- By J.C. Herz
Comparisons between Gainesville's For Squirrels (local mogul Rich Ulloa's latest discovery) and R.E.M. during its pre-Grand Poobahs of Rock days are inevitable. Travis Tooke plunks and strums his Rickenbacker through Peter Buck-ish progressions and vocalist Jack Vigliatura manages a decent facsimile of Michael Stipe from the Reckoning era (except Vigliatura sounds angrier and is far more comprehensible than Stipe was back then).
But that's only part of the band's appeal. For Squirrels's wildly successful show -- it brought a standing ovation -- at Stephen Talkhouse recently revealed a range and passion far beyond the murmur of R.E.M. wanna-be's, confirming that this is a band to be reckoned with. All ten selections on Baypath Rd have merit, but the best cuts are "Kaberet," "Unicycle," "3," and "Flagboy," the opening track that sets the tone with a slightly off-key harmonica giving way to a burst of controlled energy.
--By Jim Murphy
Modern Jazz Quartet
MJQ and Friends: A 40th Anniversary Celebration
The Prophet Speaks
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The MJQ has been making sublime, sophisticated jazz for five decades now, a feat feted by the recently released 40th Anniversary Celebration. Vibist Milt Jackson's crisp, cold notes, which seem to freeze and sustain in mid-air, and John Lewis's stately (some would say polite) piano have always been the group's hallmark. Connie Kay's feathery touch on drums and Percy Heath's understated bass lines fit like spoons with the subtle mastery of the frontmen. Lewis's interest in classical composition likewise seemed to jigsaw easily with Jackson's entrenchment in the blues, virtually creating what's now known as Third Stream jazz. Whether listeners thought them pretentious and arty or brilliant and innovative, one thing's for sure: The MJQ continually challenged themselves and their audience.
Which is why the new disc is such a disappointment. The band -- with the exception of Jackson -- sounds uninspired, dully flipping the yellowed pages of the standards songbook. Only three originals appear -- "Bag's Groove," "Django," and "Blues for Juanita" -- despite the wealth of material penned by Jackson and Lewis over the years. But perhaps the greatest disappointment is that guests appear on every track -- some faring better than others (Phil Woods's relaxed alto and Nino Tempo's lush tenor are almost worth the price of the disc alone) -- ultimately taking the spotlight away from the MJQ, which really started out as a rhythm section but went on to far surpass that assignment. Overall, the tracks sound routine, lacking the cool creativity and invention that marked their best work, with and without guest stars.
Much better is Jackson's new solo effort, The Prophet Speaks. Maybe it's the presence of young tenorman Joshua Redman or the propelling drive of drummer Billy Higgins or the sprightly and playful touch of pianist Cedar Walton that fuel the fire. Add the still-awesome chops of Joe Williams (the greatest male vocalist ever, so sit down Francis Albert) on a few tunes, and you've got one swinging, bluesy little number that's got fire in the belly and a tickle in the toe. An ensemble reading of Thelonious's "Blue Monk" is one of the finest versions I've heard, with Williams scatting, mumbling, rumbling, and generally making noise. I just hope the vibesman can carry this excitement back to his old bandmates next time they hit the studio.
-- By Bob Weinberg