Various Artists
How to describe this record?

Well, let's begin with the basics. This is a compilation of songs by the Eighties New Zealand pop band Split Enz, original home to Crowded Houseniks Neil and Tim Finn. The songs, however, have been translated into orchestral arrangements by keyboardist Eddie Raynor, and are performed by a variety of Kiwi rockers, with the backing of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and National Youth Choir.

Those of you who remember the radio-ready original versions of hits such as "I Hope I Never" and "Stranger Than Fiction" (as I do) will likely find this record perplexing (as I do), a mix of genius and disaster that intersperses sublime moments with nauseating ones. The whole thing is a perilous proposition: puffing pop ditties into mini-operas.

Surprisingly, there are a few songs that succeed, and do so on the strength of the melodies penned by the brothers Finn. "Strait Old Line" is unspooled with delightful, bluesy swagger. The youth choir sounds almost Motownish in support of Neil Finn's soulful lead vocal, and Noel Crombie offers a playful spoon solo for the outro. "Poor Boy" is an innovative pleasure, with Dave Dobbyn's throaty vocal rising above the lush song line, a trilling piccolo adding contrapuntal flourish to the proceedings.

Sadly, a number of other selections simply collapse under the weight of the pretentious arrangements. Listening to a full orchestra and choir blather through the mindless guff of a song like "Stuff and Nonsense" is positively painful, invoking, as it does, the bombast that is the calling card of failed art rock. Indeed, it's hard to listen to Tim Finn warble through the orchestral remix of "I See Red" ("Squeeze me out of your life/Down the drain like molten toothpaste/I feel used and spat out/Poor old me") without a bit of chortling. Reworked to include swirling xylophones and reverberating kettle drums, the song sounds like nothing so much as a Sondheim reject.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment here is that the compilation does not include my personal Enz fave, "Shark Attack." More's the pity. I would have loved to hear conductor Peter Scholes attempt to maneuver his baton through such bubblegum.

-- Steven Almond


"All music has a beat," Danny Alexander of Rock & Rap Confidential wrote recently, "but what differentiates rock is the intensity and meaning of the rhythm, the conviction that the visceral reaction to the sound is as important as anything else being said, that the sound itself unlocks doors of understanding, that those doors of understanding may in some way be something as physical as trace motor memory, as spiritual as a shot of the Holy Spirit."

That's Tool's AEnima in a nutshell. It's processed vocals, industrial side trips, carousel organ solos, pure noise -- all dominated by guitar trio riffs so massive, so catchy, that resistance is futile. Your mind may object to Tool's frustrated assertion that an earthquake would actually be good for a corrupt and bloated California; you may be put off by their pro-drug stance, but that's all beside the point. Tool's music provokes a "visceral reaction" that pushes you past your own self-imposed limits. (From the liner notes: "Every time a scientist, philosopher, artist, or athlete pushes our thresholds to new ground, the entire race evolves.") The grand sweep of Tool's "Pushit" makes you feel capable of anything, greatly increasing the chances that you'll actually do something.

Maybe the guys in Tool will lead the revolution. Maybe they'll become Scientologists. Maybe they'll break up next month. But one thing's for sure -- they've made an album that takes the imploding genre of heavy metal and sets it back on course toward the future.

-- Lee Ballinger

Peggy Scott-Adams
Help Yourself
(Miss Butch)

Throughout the majority of Help Yourself, Peggy Scott-Adams walks the same overworked and sagging floorboards as other modern blues divas, from Betty Wright to Denise LaSalle, with unspectacular songs about cheating husbands, a woman's needs, and how sometimes a woman needs somebody else's cheating husband. Add to this Jimmy Lewis's budget-line production (read: synthesized horns) and the musician credits, which list only keyboard player Rich Cason, and you might be ready to dismiss this set as yet another misguided attempt to resurrect the career of a legendary soul singer. (Scott-Adams was one half of the Sixties soul duo Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson, revered for hits such as "Lover's Holiday" and "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries.")

You wouldn't be totally wrong, but one listen -- make that one careful listen -- to the startling opening track "Bill" redeems the otherwise disappointing set. Over a backing track of smoldering keyboards and minimal percussion, Scott-Adams relates what at first appears to be another version of the same tired story -- her man leaves her for another. About a third of the way into the song, however, you are hit by the realization that the person Scott-Adams's husband has left her for is actually another man. Not only that, he's her husband's best friend, a guy who has been to their house countless times and is also god-uncle to their son. Now "Uncle Billy is trying to be his stepmom," Scott-Adams sings ruefully.

In less sensitive and talented hands, "Bill" would be a forgettable novelty, worth one (and only one) laugh. Scott-Adams, however, takes this song about repressed homosexuality at a slow, mournful tempo and wrings out every ounce of pain, hurt, and betrayal from the somewhat jokey lyric (written by producer Lewis).

A hit on blues stations across the South, "Bill," like Hank Ballard's Fifties classic "Work with Me Annie," has already prompted a sequel: "Bill Goes Both Ways," by bluesman Thomas Richardson, which will most likely go the way of most sequel records. (Anyone remember the El Dorados' "Annie's Answer"? Didn't think so.) With "Bill," Peggy Scott-Adams returns to the spotlight in fine form, with an astounding and thoroughly modern blues song that demonstrates that even in the jaded Nineties, blues music still has relevance and the ability to touch the heart.

-- Eddie Hankins

Oranj Symphonette
Oranj Symphonette Plays Mancini

The packaging may indicate otherwise, but the Oranj Symphonette's tribute to Henry Mancini is no cocktail-nation manifesto. The Symphonette -- whose four members include veteran oddball horn man Ralph Carney, PJ Harvey guitarist Joe Gore, and players associated with Tom Waits and Charlie Hunter -- are in it for the slightly uneasy listening they can pull out of the Grammy king's long list of film and TV credits. "The Inspector Clouseau Theme" thus gets a Spike Jones-esque treatment that breaks down into Zornish noise. Another Sellers-related piece, "A Shot in the Dark," is approached as Johnny and the Hurricanes material, while the over-venerated "Peter Gunn" meets "Baby Elephant Walk" in a hopped-up medley that's one of the record's most happily loosey-goosey cuts.

"Moon River," the shiniest pearl in the Mancini catalogue, gets deconstructed in a manner befitting Lester Bowie, receiving an almost straight read-through before ending in a series of exuberantly percussive blurts. A lark more than anything else, Mancini should appeal to aficionados of avant-garde jazz, Audrey Hepburn fans who have ferreted out the Breakfast at Tiffany's soundtrack at the nearest thrift store, or anyone who knows there's more than one way to lounge. As the group's fellow avant-eclectic Vernon Reid once said, "A good song can take a lot of abuse." These do, and they come out smelling like wine and roses.

-- Rickey Wright