The Pawn Shop Years
The best way to distinguish the solo work of Austin singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo from his side-band excursions with Buick MacKane is to cue up the first cut on The Pawn Shop Years, the MacKane unit's debut album. Anyone who's been swimming through Escovedo's excellent output in the Nineties probably knows "The End," which provided the climax of his 1993 set Thirteen Years. There, this song of fatalism, futility, and fading optimism was one long sigh from an exasperated Escovedo, underpinned with a tugging violin melody and vigorously strummed acoustic guitars. On The Pawn Shops Years, however, it becomes a throttling manifesto of roaring electric guitars and raging bitterness, with that violin figure steamrolled by what is described in the next track, "Falling Down Again," as a thousand guitars loud enough to crumble walls.
Throughout The Pawn Shop Years Escovedo and the Buicks (bassist David Fairchild, drummer Glenn Benavides, and guitarist Joe Eddy Hines) play skull-crushing rock and roll with the amps cranked so high you can actually feel them rumbling in the studio. The format is molten blues fused with heavy-metal dynamics and punk-rock ferocity, defined on the hellacious stomp "Black Shiny Beast," where guest harp-blower Walter Daniels wages bloody war with Escovedo's and Hines's guitars. On "Wandering Eye" the Buicks rewrite the Velvet Underground's old groove thing "Foggy Notion" to astonishing effect, and the version here of "Falling Down Again" demolishes the one on Escovedo's '92 disc Gravity. By the time the Buicks dive into the set-closing cover of the Stooges' "Loose," they've not just earned the right to rip this classic to ragged shreds, they've demanded it.
-- John Floyd
Rage Against the Machine
People of the Sun
California's Rage Against the Machine, the red-hot politico rockers with the white-hot music, are often attacked as hypocrites -- even by fellow major label musicians such as Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies -- for criticizing corporate America while they work for one of the world's largest corporations. But according to guitarist Tom Morello, it's simply part of a plan to use Sony's global marketing reach to spread the band's agitation planetwide.
So it comes as no surprise that the centerpiece on the People of the Sun EP is Rage's version of "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox," a poem by the late, great Allen Ginsberg, who also found his way to the mainstream spotlight. The main theme of "Jukebox" is CIA/Mafia collusion in pushing drugs, but its subtext is the very Ragelike concept that information that doesn't reach the masses, that remains the exclusive property of left-wing cults, has no impact. Rage frontman Zach de la Rocha spits out Ginsberg's words over Tim Bob's seductive five-note bass line: "Hadda be flashin' like a daily double/Hadda be said in old ladies' language/ Hadda be moaned over factory foghorns/ Hadda be yelled in a basement where uncles are fighting/Hadda be bells ringin'." Then, as de la Rocha shouts the particulars of Ginsberg's indictment, Morello uses his guitar as a sonic flashlight, shining it in corners with delicious little chords and rubbed-raw feedback until all the facts are in view. "Hadda Be Playin' on the Jukebox" takes poetry and rock and roll where they've never been before.
There's also Public Enemy's Chuck D at the mike for his own "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and live versions of "Without a Face" from their platinum-plus 1996 album Evil Empire and the obscure "Zapata's Blood." Throw in a couple of as-is album tracks and you have your typical thrown-together, about-to-go-on tour (with Wu-Tang Clan!) EP to satiate the fans' hunger. But don't let that keep you from hunting down this hard-to-find gem, because its 25 minutes are plenty of time to show a great band becoming even greater.
-- Lee Ballinger
Devotion & Doubt
As on his indie debut Bloomed, Richard Buckner's Devotion & Doubt is filled with songs that can convey deep sorrow, confusion, and regret. At his best Buckner captures such emotions masterfully in tightly packed language and well-chosen details: the vow we didn't keep, the look that says it's over, the old photo that brings it all back. Just as often, though, his songs seem to hide these painful moments; we have to dig for meaning. I don't mean his songs are complex enough to reward repeat listenings; I mean they often require repeat listenings even to make sense. Buckner's newest compositions are fleshed out with words that are regularly more poetry than lyric, and with subtle melodies that begin to reveal themselves only after several listens. On "Roll," "Song of 27," and others, complete thoughts leak out to us over several slowly delivered lines, if at all, and the result is that even as the words -- usually more adjective than action -- drip down, it's tough to wrestle them into either sense or sensibility. Heck, I've listened to the line "Won't you slump on over and stir my shuffle down" more than twenty times and I still don't know how it's supposed to make me feel, let alone what it might actually mean.
So it's up to Buckner's voice and to the spare arrangements of producer J.D. Foster to ensure that we stick around long enough for him to explicate the poetry. To Buckner's credit, his intense, wrenched vocals (he sounds like an unpolished Dwight Yoakam) are up to the task, sometimes. On the a cappella "Fater," for example, he wishes a departing lover the best, and the sheer sincerity of his aching cries ("I hope your heart will travel well"), not to mention the song's familiar folk melody, pulls us in. As the album progresses, though, the arrangements become more atmosphere than music: just solitary piano chords and barely audible brushes support "Roll"; only long, thin accordion lines and a noodling e-bow flesh out "On Traveling." While admittedly moody and often intriguing, these soundscapes serve mainly to further obscure the songs.
Devotion & Doubt's finest moments, then, are the ones that sound the most traditional: the tempting, dread-filled shuffle of the opening "Pull," the bleary-eyed "4AM," the full-band romp of the sorrow-charged "A Goodbye Rye." These cuts and a few others -- where voice, lyric and arrangement join to convey a mood of devotion and doubt -- are simply devastating. The rest, however, seem designed to frustrate the best efforts of most listeners, and as good as I know Buckner can be, that's a damn shame. -- David Cantwell
Come In and Burn
Just about every Henry Rollins fan can recite the story: Back in the late Seventies and very early Eighties the young Henry spent his high school days dishing ice cream to pay for new microphones to replace ones battered from his nighttime shows fronting influential punkers Black Flag. So what a shame it is to meet today's incarnation of Henry Rollins, multimedia mogul, as featured on the new Rollins Band effort; music seems to be far down on his priority list, after lifting weights, publishing mediocre books, and acting in ill-conceived films.
Rollins works hard to occupy the minuscule niches between metal, punk, and arena rock. His punk roots are self-evident in the lyrics -- overblown, simplistic metaphors of the type best left written in the margins of a high schooler's spiral notebook. Exhortations like "Touch your fear" from "The End of Something," or "Starve" from "Come In and Starve" invoke the simple, honest sentimentality of punk; from a 36-year-old they seem like prima facie evidence of arrested adolescence.
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Singles such as "Liar," from his last album, successfully melded the wit of his spoken-word performances with the compact energy of his live band, but Come In and Burn is built on the worst cliches from a broad sampling of rock and roll genres. Like the broad-necked muscle freak he has become, this is a bloated album, weighed down by guitar overdubs, overprocessed riffing, and guitarist Sim Cain's strange and irritating reliance on the wah-wah pedal. Music comes last -- the liner notes feature a plug for Rollins's vanity press and even a special thanks to the makers of a questionable nutritional supplement that has replaced Haagen-Dazs in Henry's heart.
About two-thirds through the record Rollins offers his own inadvertent indictment of Come In and Burn. I can't help but wonder if Henry, in a rare moment of clarity, recognized this record as hack work. When he grunts, "I can't believe what I've become," in "Spilling Over the Side," it's not self-knowledge, just the weariness of an artist stretching himself too thin.
-- Steve Kistulentz