The opening of the Downer Trio's new disc may surprise anyone who has heard Joel R.L. Phelps refer to his years with Silkworm as "when (he) used to play rock." It's rock. The tempo slows a few songs in for the bombast-and-angst Phelps is known for. But as soon as you've had time to pop a couple of Percodans, light a candle, and lie down on the living room floor, things speed up again. Phelps is one of the most honest and dedicated artists in this town, consistently burrowing down to a personal, emotional vision so intimate and dark that his records travel faster from friend to friend than they do through commercial distribution. The artful, minimalist packaging of the new record, on Seattle microlabel Pacifico, is something of a takeover move. The cover is an overcast, gray swath of a painting with a few stray lines of crayon across it; the jewel box spine shows the band name and title in unbroken, barely legible cursive. Joel R.L. Phelps towers over that more famous Northwest icon Elliott Smith like the Space Needle looms over Paul Allen's shiny new toy, and Phelps is willing to let the world come to him. -- Grant Cogswell
Music for the Music Nerd
Homespun: The Apple Venus Volume I Home Demos
XTC is one of about five bands on the planet for whom it makes perfect sense to issue two records of the same 11 songs in the same year. In fact, this micro-anthology, comprised of mainly acoustic demo recordings of songs on Apple Venus Volume I, is actually better than the record whose process it documents, because there's more of the band's humanity peeking through the cracks.
Apple Venus was XTC's first album in six years (they were on strike against their label), full of the pastoral pop songs they've been laying down since they stopped playing live in 1982. But given six years to tinker with this record, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (auxiliary member Dave Gregory quit during the strike) managed to smooth out every last rough edge, resulting in a pretty -- as opposed to beautiful -- collection of fine songs rendered anemic by sterile production. (As opposed to over production.)
Apple Venus is too clean, too perfect. And as my friend Jason likes to say, perfect is the enemy of good. Fortunately, with Homespun, we now have the opportunity to hear the Apple Venus songs as nature intended (which is hardly to say lo-fi; XTC demos sound superior to a lot of bands' albums). Mini-epics like "River of Orchids" and "Harvest Festival" seem better served by synth mock-ups than by the London Session Orchestra -- the demos skirt such grandiosity. The best part of Homespun's come-on-over aesthetic, however, is that with its needlepoint cover and generous liner notes, it whets one's appetite for Apple Venus Volume II. -- Sean Nelson
Music for Juvenile Delinquents
Growing up in New York City, I was never exposed to the kind of suburban teenage frustration and posturing that comes from having nothing to do, nowhere to hang out. I've always been fascinated by tales of sub-urbanity: Friday night beer blasts in the parking lot of Taco Bell, or losing it in the backseat of a car. And now the Catheters have recorded the experience in one messy, slurpy, frustrated package. I put The Catheters on one Sunday morning and couldn't even make it through three songs before I had to turn it off. But on Friday night, getting ready to go out to a show, it was mood-perfect. The Catheters are so ecstatic on CD (and live) because it gives them something to do to alleviate the boredom of a 21+ city, and their enthusiasm should be a lesson to all the jaded hipsters who are "so over rock." -- Erin Franzman
Music for Someone Who Wears a Beret, Unironically
Goodbye 20th Century
Sonic Youth's new independent release will probably be received in two ways: Their avant-garde fans will love it, and everyone else will find it pretentious. Though it's hard to avoid sensations of the latter, Goodbye 20th Century is yet another great step forward for the band, and builds on the strengths of the series. The Sonics' SYR releases have contained some of the more intriguing sounds of the decade, and it seems fitting that they've ended up performing the works of past and present inspirations. In fact, it's tempting to call this a cover album because it has the feel of a band going back to their roots. It just so happens that their roots were a little more out there than most major-label acts. Containing pieces from composers including John Cage, Steve Reich, Christian Wolff, and Takehisa Kosugi among others, the band is backed up by several of the composers and pal Jim O'Rourke. Fluxus composer George Maciunas' humorous "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)" is also presented in video form on the first CD, showing the group nailing down the keys of a piano. Is it art or is it vandalism? The inclusion of Yoko Ono's screamer "Voice Piece For Soprano" is the biggest misstep on the record. It's the only point where you can't tell if they're winking at us or taking themselves too seriously. -- Adam Wisniewski
Music for Juvenile Delinquents
EP + 2
If for some reason you've put off Mogwai, suck it up. They're Glasgow's Death Cab for Cutie; they're harder than the Murder City Devils; my 14-year-old Welsh cousin likes them BETTER than Nirvana. And yet they sound like nothing else. There's a whole litany of praise being heaped on them. And they deserve it all. The CD even features a "seasonal" track called "Christmas Song," which will ice your blood, break your heart while it's still beating, sew it back together again, and make you want to run out and buy EP + 2 for everyone you know. -- Erin Franzman
Music for Your Burgeoning Riot Grrrl Cousin
Don't Hate Us Because We're Beautiful
Seattle's Megababe's biggest strength is that they make no promises. They won't charge you much for their CD, and they don't promise to be subtle, hip, in tune, or in good taste. From the garish, slutty cover art to the liner notes, which simply ask, "What the fuck are you looking at?" Megababe doesn't agree to anything more than throwing a few power chords and some funny, angry lyrics your way.
That's an important understanding, because the recording quality has a "basement" feeling, to put it mildly, and the instrumentals sometime fall short. A few of the crisp changes get lost in the distortion soup, and Lola Rock 'n' Rolla's vocals and Adrienne Shredder's guitar don't always come with the support they need. But a group like this can at least enjoy being the underdog, and Megababe does. -- Nathan Thornburgh
Music for Gangstas
The Chronic 2001
Dre is like the universal solvent: His collaborations always bring out the best in rappers -- Snoop Dogg, Eminem -- and now that he's at the helm with something to prove (he still gets shit for producing 1997's The Firm, a supergroup with Foxy Brown, Nas, and AZ, which flopped), he's at the mad-blunted pinnacle of his brilliance.
Dre's got one of the classic rap voices and he's been a key figure in the establishment of the gangsta rap paradigm, so it's all the more to his credit that he could hear the potential in Eminem, the only white rapper who's not trying to be black. The Beastie Boys affect deep Brooklyn accents, even though they've been fucking wan Cali indie-actresses for almost 10 years. They're fakers. And don't let's even get started on Fred Durst. But Eminem has a unique style that's based on short, hard consonants. He handles phrases like "Nowadays/Everybody wanna talk/like they got something to say/but nothing comes out/when they move their lips/just a bunch of gibberish/the motherfuckers act/like they forgot about Dre," without biting the (black) hiphop style of rounding and softening the words. If Dre and Snoop epitomize the laid-back, Compton, slow rap delivery, Eminem is the fly buzzing around the sweaty head of the fat, chronic-smoking G sitting in a lawn chair on the front porch.
And Eminem is used so effectively as comic relief: the color-inverted Sammy Davis Jr. to Dre's Rat Pack. On the standout track, "Forgot About Dre," Eminem delivers the best boast of the CD: "I'm still loco enough to choke you to death with a Charleston Chew."
Dre is at his best on the defensive. The first single, "Still D.R.E.," proclaims "Still representin' for the gangstas all across the world," and "Still not lovin' police." It's posturing, and it's also why Dre is a better populist than Puffy. Dr. Dre is basically a studio geek with an ear for hit songs. He's interested in innovation, but only within the confines of refracted reality. He says, "No more livin' hard/Barbecues every day." It's a far cry from Puffy's Cristal and Gucci, more provincial and more endearing. And Chronic 2001 is laced with looped sounds of familiar modern technology: On the opening track, an incessant beeper holds the place of the 1992 Chronic's signature high-pitched rhythm line. With Chronic 2001, Dre has once again given us what we want before we even know it. -- Erin Franzman
Music for Your Dirty Uncle
"I will look after you/I understand you/I already know you." With a breathy, implicitly "fuck-me-hard" spoken introduction to get your attention, Lust's fractured self-delusion sets out to pleasantly gorge the rancid gullet of the most well-nourished of the seven deadly sins. Themes of desire, misery, and violence emerge in seamless segues of sound bites scraped from the dialogue of horrible foreign B-movies and long, beat-enriched instrumental passages ripe for dangerous strip joints, stinking like sex, cigarettes, and semen. Entirely instrumental except for a hot and sweaty, booty-banging cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Harley Davidson" and a guest appearance by Blowfly on the salacious "Sex Sluts in Heaven," Lust smears a nice, thick, musky aroma for you to roll around in your own filthy thoughts. (Import only from Dutch East India Trading, P.O. Box 738 Syosset, NY 11791. dutch-east.com.) -- Ernie Reidel
Music for those Shy, Eurotrash Types
THE LILAC TIME
Looking for a Day in the Night
None of Stephen Duffy's work as the Lilac Time can be considered brutal, but on Looking for a Day in the Night, he takes a further tiny, delicate step toward "soft and downtrodden." The arrangements here incorporate acoustic and pedal steel guitars, a variety of strings, light percussion, and female backing vocals, and they combine with Duffy's innate skill to let an inventive tune don the mask of a tossed-off ballad. Within the atmospheric ease, every measure carries his thick Brit vocals and instrumental flourishes, where tones drift free in the density of sound. Don't start imagining, however, a fru-fru land where frowning bunny rabbits dance Bergman-like around Marc Almond at his over-anguished worst. These tracks are essentially pop songs, and the self-contemplation never overtakes the need for melody. It's this conflict between florid drama and rigid structure that allows for smooth execution. -- Ben Goldberg
Music for Squealers
98 Degrees has put together -- I swear to God -- a surprisingly great Christmas album. To actually enjoy it, just separate the audio from the visual. Forget the matching outfits and the synchronized pelvises. Do not picture them in any scene from their oh-give-me-a-fucking-break videos. Sure, in the middle of "Silent Night," the boys suddenly burst into Hallmark-esque spoken word (?!), rhapsodizing about the "true meaning" of Christmas. But this doesn't cancel out their flawless, unbeatable harmonizing and silky choruses, accompanied by tinkly pianos, pillow-soft percussion, and other trademark sounds of holiday pop. A mix of traditional carols and original singles, This Christmas sounds warm and refreshingly low-key, with potent vocals, slight shades of doo-wop (no screechy falsettos, just a general shoop-shoop vibe), and Motown sincerity blended with their trademark wholesome sound. Their a cappella version of "Ave Maria" alone is proof that 98 Degrees isn't just coasting on charming smirks and hair gel. With quiet confidence and an "aw, shucks" sensibility -- you can practically see them singing with downcast eyes and sheepish grins -- the group manages to somehow turn hot-cocoa-by-the-fireside cheese into an impressively dreamy December soundtrack. -- Min Liao
Music for Poets
Hour of the Trace
You want adjectives? I'll give you adjectives: Jessica Bailiff's second album, Hour of the Trace, is moody, hypnotic, lavish, ghostly, sweet, dark, feminine, crushing, associative, and addictive. It's November and one more day of gray sky. Repeat after me: El lago es como un plato. "The lake is like a plate": a silvery, high-altitude lake that ripples with the breeze one way, then another. This is high concept. This is depression on a tiny, meticulous scale. This is music you can listen to through a wool cap. Its melodies affect like the weather.
Bailiff was the photographer for the band Low, which is apparently where she picked up her style of soft vocals under heavy sound. Alan Sparhawk of Low, in fact, engineered and produced Hour of the Trace, and some drumming and vocals are also provided by members of that band. But Bailiff's very individual song composition leans toward more synthesized stuff, and the entire movement of this album is more artfully dramatic than Low's mellow, monotone melancholy.
The first songs on Hour of the Trace are made of heavy guitar plaints coupled with blurry babygirl vocals. In the middle of this thick thrush of sound, the delicate string-picking on the fifth track, "Warren," comes as a pleasant surprise. Strange crickets appear on "Perception," which turns hints of ambient mixing into a downpour of guitar chords that last 20 whole minutes. Finally, the last song, "Across the Night," falls all the way into wet romance, with lyrics like, "Find your way in the dark/Find your way across the night/Across the night you smile for me," set to repetitive guitar strumming and a charming, shaky piano refrain.
Jessica Bailiff, way over in Minnesota, may just have created the perfect Northwest winter album: weepy, clouded, a little chilly. I just hope we get snowed in so I can listen to it over and over again. -- Traci Vogel
Music to Educate Your Neo-Goth Little Brother
Preston 28 February 1980
After the third cut on the live CD Preston, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis mutters apologetically, "Some slight problems...." A few tracks later the vocals succumb to a ghostly accidental distortion, amps short out, and all sound is sucked up into echoes and feedback. "I think everything's falling apart," Curtis manages. Once perfection becomes a simply unavailable commodity, the band gives up and rages through the crippled PA.
No matter how many versions of these songs you own, Preston ("worst fucking gig we ever played," the liner notes tell us) is completely necessary. This, after all, is a band that has released two albums and five posthumous compilations drawn from the same 30 songs. I was 13 in 1980 when Ian Curtis died, and never heard Joy Division until 10 years later. But when I moved into my new apartment this fall and started paranoiacally testing my noise boundaries, I didn't hesitate to blast Joy Division with the windows open. This disc has the same hoary, relic-like feel as an old LP. Is it the shitty sound quality? I just wonder how a band, once upon a bleak time, had such authority, such certainty. How was a band so great? -- Grant Cogswell
Music for Marxists
Sub Rosa vs. Kompact
(Sub Rosa CD)
Artists on Koln-based German label Kompact get the remix treatment from the likes of Autechre, Scanner, and Freeform, in between unadulterated cuts of meditative electronica. This is pure blacktop: expedient, linear, beat-driven dance music meant to move you forward. It could also be an effective socialist tool to promote efficient work habits. Sub Rosa vs. Kompact is particularly suited for mindless, soul-killing hours at computer workstations, for those individuals grafted to senseless assembly lines, and for operators of large freight cranes. Put on your black turtleneck sweater: The new republic is here.
(Import only from Dutch East India Trading, P.O. Box 738 Syosset, NY 11791. dutch-east.com.) -- Ernie Reidel
Music for Your Favorite Trekkie
STYLES OF BEYOND
Hailing from Los Angeles' fertile underground hiphop scene, Styles of Beyond are in the great tradition of hiphop futurism, which began in the early '80s with groups like Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Newcleus, Man Parrish, and Mantronix. This was hiphop's response to a world that had become truly science fictional, and the songs vacillated between Matrix-like fear of artificially intelligent computers taking over the world and celebrating the seemingly infinite possibilities these new technologies offered black artistic expression.
What Styles of Beyond brings to this distinguished history is the aesthetic of the big-budget techno-thriller, the sort of film that costs between 50 and 70 million dollars to make and is filled with computers that access the Internet at the speed of light, stylish cell phones, and secret satellites that can blow up unsuspecting trash cans.
Though their lyrics and production are outstanding, what is most impressive about Styles of Beyond is that they are not into this retro-futurism which seems to be the trend these days. (Retro-futurism being that brand of late-'90s hiphop which tends to look back at early hiphop futurists for inspiration and strategies; examples of this are Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon and the Beastie Boy's Hello Nasty.) Instead of retro-futurism, or "nostalgia for the future," as the French philosopher Baudrillard once put it, Styles of Beyond are inspired by what is ahead, by technologies that are emerging or are soon to emerge. -- Charles Mudede
Music for Toddlers and/or Art School Students
For Beginner Piano
Like the stranger proffering candy, the Warpsters have caught us off guard again, sans sinister motives. Although a "full-length" album, For Beginner Piano clocks in at a mere 30 minutes. But the 10 tracks here are all pithy little gems. Melodies are catchy, arrangements straightforward, and it all sounds, well, quite French (the result of our collective overexposure to Air). It's reassuring that being electronic doesn't have to mean being overwrought. Kraftwerk, God rest them, would be proud of For Beginner Piano.
All is not always sweetness and light with Plone: edgy moments lurk. But like the best cartoons, evil is ultimately banished and good triumphs. It's all pure escapism of the most charming kind. -- Declan Gilmurray
Music for Deprogramming Ricky Martin Fans
LOS FABULOSOS CADILLACS
La Marcha del Golazo Solitario
For over 40 years now, mainstream America has been a musical fortress, repelling all invaders and their silly foreign songs, with few exceptions. Take the unintelligible babble from "Macarena," add occasional English-language reindeer rockers like Abba, and you've got the sum total of foreign musical products to reach the American heartland.
That's all changing, though. Soon the Americans, who really have too much money to make good music anymore, will be in the position we put the rest of the world in for so many years: Tapping our feet to songs we really like but can't understand a word of.
If that's the coming degradation, then at least Los Fabulosos Cadillacs make it fun. They won't sing a lick of English for you, but you'll like it, because every kind of music Fabulosos Cadillacs touches turns to gold. They started as straight ska with some Latin elements, but since then have moved through danceable seas of hardcore, tango, straight rock, and even country without a misstep. Their new album, La Marcha del Golazo Solitario, is a fuller, more melancholy exploration of the horn-filled jazz, lounge, and bossa nova that only inflected earlier albums. Fabulosos Cadillacs aren't just more Latin than a lot of U.S. pop artists; they're better. -- Nathan Thornburgh
Music for a Lay-Deez Man
The often-praised, much-adored Barry White does not have the monopoly on sip-champagne-and-lose-your-panties seduction. Although his deep, reverberating voice and dignified yet buttery style can, indeed, inspire the knocking of many boots, there are other R&B Casanovas -- Marvin Gaye, Keith Sweat, and Johnny Gill, just to name a few -- who can also make the ladies purr with their moans, groans, and scandalous thoughts. Marc Nelson boldly joins this group as he bumps and grinds his way through his collection of cleanly produced, rhythmic, late-night lusty R&B. In the tradition of his silver-tongued forefathers, Nelson can also be amusingly blunt about his intentions: He wants to do the nasty. There are the few moments that border on camp: Baby lick my navel/Here let me put you on my pool table/Shoot the black ball in the pocket/Baby, hold on to me ("Chocolate Mood"); or ...I'm feelin' kind of hot/I see you downstairs pouring juice/Flippin' my eggs/But I want to flip you ("15 Minutes" -- Nelson's earnest homage to the quickie). But ignore the lyrics that make you blush and chuckle. Just give in to how Nelson's soulful, manly croon makes you feel, baby.