Down On the Upside
For headbanger careerists like Metallica and Soundgarden, heavy-metal angst can present some real artistic problems when all those bad vibes and bad-ass guitar riffs start sounding like the same old bitch-and-boogie. But as their latest albums indicate, Metallica knows this and has done something about it, while Soundgarden seems oblivious to their creative dry rot. Metallica figured it all out after close to ten years of writing and rewriting the speed-metal songbook with mid-Eighties landmarks such as Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. After hitting the self-parody peak in 1988 with the monstrously indulgent ...And Justice for All, Metallica re-emerged three years later with an eponymous album that offered a streamlined and more accessible, but no less assaulting, version of the San Francisco band's vigorous sound. A critical and commercial success, Metallica managed to piss off legions of the band's hair-slinging fans, but it rocked with a vibrant and new kind of bone-breaking intensity.
Zeppelin/Sabbath acolytes and Seattle-grunge superkings Soundgarden found their big-hit groove two years back with the breakthrough release Superunknown, a damn fine album and a fine-tuned version of '91's Badmotorfinger, which was a tighter version of '89's Louder Than Love, which improved slightly on their first recordings for Sub Pop and SST. While every Soundgarden album has bettered its predecessor, Down On the Upside is a plodding and tiresome reiteration of the sonic and psychic themes of Superunknown that talks loud but says nothing you haven't heard 'em say before.
Clocking in at nearly seventy minutes, the thing seems to go on forever. Even on its best cuts -- "Tighter & Tighter," "Blow Up the Outside World" -- Upside never offers any new variation on their ferocious if tedious attack. Chris Cornell's garden-variety grumblings of alienation, anger, and disillusionment are delivered in his usual piercing wail; Kim Thayil's guitar riffs tool along a path scorched out many years earlier by Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi; and the bass-drums combo of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron follows in pile-driving unison. Down On the Upside is a big, mean rocker, sure, but also a superfluous one.
Meanwhile, Metallica continues to experiment. Load, their sixth studio longplayer, moves the band ever further from the dense, mathematical arrangements of yore. Throughout the disc's 78 minutes, Metallica explores pseudo-country ("Mama Said"), minimalist punk ("Ain't My Bitch"), and the old-school swagger of primo B.O.C. ("Cure"). Granted, the themes on Load remain mostly the same, from the don't-fuck-with-me admonishment of "2 X 4" to the pair of anti-drug rants ("Bleeding Me," "The House That Jack Built") to "Wasting My Hate," a prototypical blast of brooding melancholy from vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield. Despite these reiterations, Load broadens Metallica's -- and metal's -- sonic vocabulary while Soundgarden merely repeats the unnecessary.
-- John Floyd
The Road to Ensenada
I lived in Texas for three years, during which time I attended country music concerts galore, purchased a gen-yu-wine leather pair of Tony Lamas, and judged a chili-cookin' contest. Thus, I feel qualified to offer the following two observations:
(1) Texans are assholes
(2) But they make great songwriters
Robert Earl Keen. Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Joe Ely. Willie Nelson. Butch Hancock. And, now that you mention it, Lyle Lovett. See, Lyle was raised up in Klein, outside Houston, a fact you might not know if you only listened to his last couple of records. He's been a little out of his element these last few years, Lyle has. Starring in movies. Sporting Armani suits. Marrying what's-her-name.
On The Road to Ensenada, his sixth album, Lyle wears his state loyalties like a shiny marshal's badge. From the jaunty opening strains of "Don't Touch My Hat" ("Well, you can have my girl/But don't touch my hat") to the closing croon of "The Girl in the Corner," this is an album as big, brash, and full of good-natured shit as any other Lone Star Lothario has ever cut. "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" a sumptuous slice of Texas swing with flourishes of horn and squalling fiddle, pretty much says it all. Even more enjoyable is the boogie-woogie braggadocio of "Long Tall Texan," with scratchy harmony vocals by Randy Newman, of all people. Lyle's knack for melding genres remains keen, "Her First Mistake" standing as Exhibit A: This is a country lament set to a bossa nova beat, a long, loose piece of real estate that gets to where it's going with syncopated grace.
Sure, there's a few losers here: "Promises" is a bleak little number that packs all the emotional wallop of a missing-child milk carton, while "I Can't Love You Anymore" slips by like a stifled burp. But the overall quality can hardly be disputed. Gone are the ostentatious gospel arrangements of 1992's Joshua Judges Ruth and the cutesy filler that stocked so much of 1994's I Love Everybody. In their place, Lyle has returned to the country roots that dignified his first three records, and speaking for all us Texans, honorary and otherwise, I'd like to welcome Lyle home. Stick around for a while, boy. The place suits you.
-- Steven Almond
Lost & Found
If Beethoven had an electric guitar, wouldn't he have jammed on it? Unfortunately, modern classical composers have left the special sound of the ax to rockers, with a few exceptions. One of these is Glenn Branca, who has written symphonies for groups of electric guitars. Another is Steve Mackey, whose past work includes stints playing electric guitar in rock bands and the lute in an early-music ensemble. Today, he teaches composition at Princeton University and writes concert music for ensembles of all sizes, with or without electric guitar.
He still plays a pretty mean ax, and Lost & Found presents Mackey performing six of his compositions, each of which features one or more parts for electric guitar. The title track is a brief, exuberant prelude for four multi-tracked guitars. "Cairn" and "Grungy" are solos, the former meditative, the latter extroverted -- a rock and roll catalogue of everything the instrument has to offer, from Jimi Hendrix to today's stadium metal, with Mackey taking the guitar's stereotypical sounds and putting them together in new ways. "Dancetracks" is a collaboration with composer Paul Lansky, who created the computer-generated tape of rhythm and drones that sparks the solo part. "Myrtle and Mint," a collage of excerpts from Hans Christian Andersen's stories (read by Mackey), shows the composer's ability to connect non sequiturs into a logical whole with music. "Wish It Were" begins as a dark and atmospheric piece for classical guitar, but it ends with an invasion by three electric guitars, screaming like banshees. Unsettling.
Are rock and classical music about style or about a type of sound? Lost & Found raises that question without answering it, but it makes me wonder whether Bach might become acceptable to a brand new audience if his music were played on a Stratocaster.
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-- Raymond Tuttle
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282
I Hope It Lands
True to its name, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 makes high concept music with a blue-collar attitude. The Bay Area five are the post-punk heirs to Captain Beefheart's rootsy surrealism -- a sort of jug-band version of Sonic Youth that bangs, jangles, and noodles its way through dense sound collages made of just about any ingredient, from free-jazz banjo to clanging metallic objects, from operatic exhortations to straight rock roar. Like their San Francisco brethren the Residents, Thinking Fellers twist, turn, and stomp all over musical convention until what's left sometimes hardly resembles music but nevertheless remains rooted in the verities of pure pop. With their sixth album, I Hope It Lands, Thinking Fellers take a confident -- though noncommittal -- further step toward cohesion. Dispersed among typically discordant and angular instrumentals "Inspector Fat Ass" and "Jagged Ambush Bug" are some of the band's most melodic and accessible moments: "Empty Cup," "Lizard's Dream," and "Elgin Miller" among them. Granted, Thinking Fellers' previous shifts toward accessibility (1993's Admonishing the Bishops, for example) haven't endured, but this time out the band's maturity and self-discipline indicate a willingness to develop songs fully where once they were content to let fragments jut out from the cacophony. Like Sonic Youth's own recent coming of age, Thinking Fellers' half-step toward center is not a grim concession to the mainstream; rather, it's a happy reconciling of their own conflicting impulses.
-- Roni Sarig