Under the Bushes Under the Stars
Three albums after the rock press discovered them in 1993 (and nine since the band formed about ten years ago), Guided by Voices remains the rarest of indie-rock rarities -- a critically hoohahed outfit that actually deserves the hosannas. Robert Pollard, the defiantly low-fi Dayton group's vocalist and prolific wordslinger, has a deep and extraordinary gift for unshakably catchy melodies and screwball lyrics that seldom if ever make any sense. Not since Michael Stipe mumbled his way through the first few R.E.M. albums has a songwriter made nonsense and gibberish so infectious and appealing. An example: The opening verse to the new album's majestic "Don't Stop Now" goes "Woke up one morning/Saw a rooster strutting by my house/Six-pack rings 'round his neck/Cock of the block," before reaching a fuzz-guitar-and-strings climax worthy of Pete Townshend's most grandiose and anthemic moments.
Pollard and the rest of GBV pull that kind of trick throughout Under the Bushes; he wraps his gibberish in perfect-pop hooks, adds layers of power-chord guitar, and keeps each song well under the three-minute mark. Pollard has mastered the trick to the point that it's easy to forget -- or ignore -- just how truly whacked his world perspective really is. Songs such as "Underwater Explosions," "Rhine Jive Click," "Big Boring Wedding," and "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" may not mean a damn thing, but hear them once or twice and soon you'll find yourself humming their melodies and walking back from lunch singing lines like "Knock out punches for the freaks/Happy little babies with red cheeks" (from "Ironmen"), not really caring that some of his couplets recall the worst indulgences of prog-rockers from Amon Dl II to old Genesis. When the songs are this infectious, it really doesn't matter.
By John Floyd
(ECM New Series)
Antonin Dvorak, Leos Janacek, Petr Eben
(ECM New Series)
The German-based ECM label is recognized as a low-key purveyor of fusion and progressive jazz music by artists such as Keith Jarrett and Carla Bley. However, ECM New Series, now distributed by BMG Classics, also has made a significant impact on the classical scene, and has done so with relatively few titles. The label was responsible for introducing Estonian composer Arvo Prt's music to the West in 1984 with the highly influential Tabula Rasa album, and lately has been doing similar service for Soviet Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. All periods of classical music are represented on New Series; elegant simplicity, both in music and in packaging, are what the label's releases have in common. Anyone tired of the Three Bs or the Three Tenors will find relief here.
If Mosolov's name rings a bell, it's for his orchestral Iron Foundry, a noisy bit of machine music that was used in the soundtrack to last year's Die Hard With a Vengeance. His progressive musical tendencies made him a Soviet cultural hero in the Twenties, but he was a has-been by the Thirties. This ECM disc shows a brooding and dark side of Mosolov, one part Prokofiev and one part Hamlet. The pair of sonatas and two brief nocturnes are played sensitively by modern music specialist Herbert Henck.
The CD of Czech and Moravian choral music is unexpectedly sensuous. The three works span just over a century; Dvorak's Mass in D major was completed in 1887, Janacek's Our Father in 1906, and Eben's exciting Prague Te Deum in 1989. You don't have to be religious to appreciate this radiant music, just open to the idea of feeling spiritually good. The performances by the Prague Chamber Choir are almost indecently appealing.
By Raymond Tuttle
Will Oldham is not a rocker by any stretch of the imagination, nor is he a particularly good musician. Despite these limitations, or maybe because of them, the guitarist, singer, and songwriter behind Palace Music and its various spinoffs (Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs) makes disarmingly unique and effective music. Over four albums, three EPs, and a half-dozen singles, Oldham and an ever-changing cast of cohorts have captured perfectly the essence of emotional and musical instability. Whether buffeted by slide guitar and banjo (as on the Palace Brothers' debut long-player There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You) or framed by the tinkling piano and low-tech drum machines of Arise Therefore, Oldham sounds as if he's one whimper away from breaking down and one creaky note from crumbling completely.
Oldham's old-style country and blues leanings have led some scribes to brand his work as being "Appalachian" in sound and feel. Truth is, the Louisville-based former actor probably doesn't know enough about folk song structures to imitate them. However, his strained, whiny voice and his group's rustic style help to create the impression of hearing an indie rocker fronting a backwoods jug band. The Steve Albini-recorded Arise Therefore follows last year's atypically loud and aggressive Viva Last Blues (also cut with Albini), and returns Oldham to the lethargic dirges and desolate regality of his first releases. The paired-down sound offers a better showcase for the lyrical sophistication and delicacy of the best work here, including "A Group of Women" and "A Sucker's Evening."
By Roni Sarig
Jars of Clay
Jars of Clay
It's tough not to issue a little agnostic shiver when you see that "Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" is first on this Nashville quartet's list of CD-sleeve thank you's. Yes, heathens, this is God rock. But, God, do these guys rock. Not in some cheesy pop-metal way (see Stryper). The sound here is richly textured pop, with shimmering melodies, soaring harmonies, lilting rhythms, and lyrics that manage to wax poetic rather than didactic.
"Liquid" combines a flourish of strings (arranged by King Crimson, Zappa, and Bowie expatriate Adrian Belew) with rave-worthy beats and the slashing fretwork of Matt Odmark. Dan Haseltine's agile tenor swoops in, accented by the harmonizing of bassist Steve Mason and keyboardist Charlie Lowell. A somber Gregorian-style chant rings out behind all this, lending the entire affair a certain gratifying Gothicism. "Flood," the band's crossover smash (which has infiltrated even the Sodom and Gomorrah of MTV), is a similar alchemy: Odmark's minor-key strumming gives way to a jangle of carefully crafted alt-rock noise, as squalling violins saw above splashing cymbals and a brisk bass line thickens the song's thumping lower end. "But if I can't swim after 40 days," Haseltine cries, "and my mind is crushed by the thrashing waves/Lift me up so high that I cannot fall."
The band's softer, acoustic offerings are equally affecting. With its ethereal backing vocals and lush melody, "Worlds Apart" sounds uncannily like a lost track from Toad the Wet Sprocket. And the instantly soothing "He" is a Beatlesesque lullaby that sticks to the cochlea like epoxy.
To be sure, there's no shortage of religious imagery on the disc A nailed hands, rising spirits, and the like. But this is self-expression, not proselytizing. Indeed, the reason this debut has found a place in both the Christian and secular rock worlds is the undisputed quality of its makers, not their unfashionable belief in the ultimate Maker.
By Steven Almond
On Lovelife, their fourth full-length album, Lush singers/songwriters/guitarists Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi check their trademark effects boxes at the studio door and, for the most part, opt for a less stylized sound, rocking out straightforwardly on "Ladykillers," "Heavenly Nobodies," "Runaway," and "Single Girl." (Only an unregenerate cynic would suspect that Elastica's success in the U.S. has any bearing in this matter.)
And yet, as has been the case in the past, Anderson and Berenyi devote their lyric-writing energies to the conundrums of relationships, often ones gone south (or heading in that direction), their words and sentiments cutting with a preternatural acuity: "Some people grow up and some only pretend/They're all over the place, these children dressed up as men/They can't imagine how a woman can be only a friend/And they deal in lies" (from Anderson's pop-and-fresh "I've Been Here Before"). Elsewhere Berenyi's strummy, saucy "Ciao!" finds her trading she-says/he-says takes on the aftermath of a breakup with Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker. Him: "Is it any wonder that I felt so blue/When I was always havin' to put up with you." Her: "Oh here we go again, just lay the blame on me/Don't say another word, 'cause, sweetheart, you're history." Long-time fans of Lush's breathy, gossamer work can seek solace in Anderson's slow, beatless "Tra La La" and her trip-hoppy "Last Night," both of which shimmer like the best stuff on the band's 1992 Spooky and 1994 Split. Likable throughout.
By Michael Yockel