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HANDCREAM FOR A GENERATION
Cornershop

[Wiiija Records WIJCD1115]
Loping funk, rap and reggae, toasting, knowing city-slicker wide-boy lyrics, acute observation and more – the new Cornershop offering is a tiptop mix of music and song artfully blended into a glorious, witty CD. Tjinder Singh manages to make everything he touches sound his own, even when being wilfully perverse (Asian reggae?!) or taking the piss out of racism and hatred (‘Wogs Will Walk’) from both sides. Gone is the need for Fatboy Slim remixes, this is now a band in charge of their own sound and destiny. Five years away has done them a power of good and allowed them to make their work unify and cohere. They’ve avoided overproduction, but no longer sound like a youth club band trying everything out in turn. This is true cross-cultural, genre-defying music. Probably record of the year.



LAND (1975-2002)
Patti Smith
[Arista/BMG 07822 14708 2]
The self-styled priestess of punk makes a greatest hits album, thoughtfully provided with a rarities and outtakes disc to lure people like me into buying it. But who’s complaining when the music’s as good as this? Not me. Apparently the greatest hits part was the result of some kind of fan club poll, which is surprising as you’d have expected this to have yielded a selection from the first few albums when she was at her overdrive best. As it is the 16 tracks are pretty much equally taken from all her output.
     ‘Dancing Barefoot’ opens the proceedings, a mystical hypnotic swirl of a song, that gives way to the amphetamine-rant-cum-poem ‘Babelogue’, itself only a prelude to ‘Rock N Roll Nigger’ which is a scorcher. Then it’s a mundane version of ‘Gloria’ and on into a rollercoaster ride of hi-energy rock alternated with ballads and lesser known songs from recent albums, until the CD expires with an awful version of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ – a song simply not needed here [or anywhere else in my humble opinion]. Highlights remain ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Ghost Dance’ for me.
     The new stuff is a strange mixture of powerful live songs and outtakes and low-key acoustic poems and accompaniment. Apart from ‘Piss Factory’, which I confess I hadn’t heard before and is surprisingly jazzy and not the rant I was expecting, there’s a stonking version of ‘25th Floor’ and an intriguing track from 1996 with Tom Verlaine and Jeff Buckley playing guitars, but little else to really enthuse about. Even the booklet is only a set of scrawled notes, reproduced posters and pretty ordinary photos.
     If you haven’t got Patti on CD this is an OK selection, tho I’d probably suggest you bought Easter and Horses instead; if you’re considering buying it for the rarities then I’d go on a bootleg hunt.



DUST SUCKER
Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band

[Milksafe BF6003]
Hard to believe this really is an entirely legitimate release or that the music from this legendary unreleased Beefheart album has been remastered: the music is murky and raw, the songs don’t match the bootleg versions of the album that have been around for years and the whole thing is padded out with some live stuff that may be nice to own but doesn’t make much sense here.
     Anyway, the Captain is on fine form, yodelling and hollering his swamp and desert blues over the clattering freeform Magic Band, in a weird a way as ever. Most of the songs have surfaced in one legitimate version or another, often in a totally different musical package, so it’s good to hear them in their raw state. I can’t help wondering if these are pre-mix, pre-production versions that would have been changed and polished up a little anyway.
     Beefheart remains a genius of outsider art and rock, and this is interesting as an aside to his output, but the album’s release is in no way the major event this is being hyped up to be. Trout Mask Replica remains, and I suspect always will remain, the man’s masterpiece.



MUTUAL BENEFIT
John Stevens’ Away
[Konnex KCD 5061]
I’m always amused when people want to scare their parents away with rock or punk music. Mine never blinked. But a bit of freeform improvisation or jazz wigout always did the trick! Untethered by 4/4 constriction and the conventions of song John Stevens was able, in the late 80s, to explore the outer limits of sonic disarray whether in the freeform and free-for-all explorations of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, or here with Away, a band who made many albums for Phonogram and then four more for obscure indie jazz labels. This compilation selects from the four, and finds Stevens, the drummer, leading various incarnations of the band – usually with twin guitars, sax and trumpets and keyboards – thru a wigout noisefest that played loud will bring your house down. If I say jazz-rock you’ll get the wrong idea, as this is no noodling affair, this is a steam train tearing through your stereo at top speed, boiler on fire, giving smoke damage to your ears and brain. You want something loud and energetic? This is for you.



BARE YOU PASSIONATE?
Neil Young
[Reprise 9362-48111-2]
Master of the three note guitar solo, this finds Young putting a blues twist on his music, with one Booker T Jones and his organ well to the fore as foil to the laid back soloing Young indulges in throughout this warm and laid back album. Young’s too far down the rock star line to expect any surprises, so I didn’t. If you like mainstream rock songs that wear their simplistic heart on their sleeve and resists hi-gloss production in favour of warm primary colours and go-for-it solos, then you’ll like this. Passionate? Well, heartfelt.



BELLY OF THE SUN
Cassandra Wilson
[Blue Note 7243 5 35072 2 0]
Cassandra Wilson has a voice like virgin olive oil: you just want to wallow in the soft golden tones. On this new release, recorded ad hoc in a New Orleans train station and train wagon, she revisits and reinterprets a number of old blues songs, as well as giving the smoky treatment to songs like The Band’s ‘The Weight’ and Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’. Managing to never become one of those arty farty screechers that the jazz world seems to love, she keeps songs recognisable as rock or blues, but slows them down and a bit and reinvigorates and reinvents them with careful percussion and guitar/bass arrangements that surround and accompany her dulcet tones. Sexy, smoky late night music.



ROUGH TRADE SHOPS: ELECTRONIC 01
Various Artists

[Mute cdstumm203]
What do you say? There’s no argument or thesis behind this double CD compilation, just 41 tracks that the staff of the Rough Trade record shops have enjoyed over the years. There’s lots here I’ve heard before, and a fair few I haven’t. I don’t understand many of their choices – a dreadful late Can piece, a slight ephemeral Eno composition, an tinny early Depeche Mode song, a Faust outtake from Faust IV – but the contrasts and juxtapositions intrigue and keep one guessing, as the music moves from the swirls of the original Dr Who theme [track I’m glad to finally own] through of the Human League’s synth pop, to the laptop sampling of the likes of Fennesz. Not forgetting art terrorists Throbbing Gristle, synth-DIY-punks Thomas Leer & Robert Rental, or the classical contingent of John Cage and Pierre Henry. New Order, possibly the worst band in the world ever, get a look in – as opposed to Joy Division?!!, and so do synthmeisters Kraftwerk and nouveau-pop purveyors Stereolab. There’s plenty of glitch and collage minimalism, along with sub- and post- krautrock too. Nothing very experimental or shockingly new, you’ll probably already either like this stuff or not, so it’s slightly difficult to see who the release is aimed at. Anyway, I’m off to practice my dalek impersonations. EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE…



AXIS AND ALIGNMENT
Chicago Underground Duo
[Thrill Jockey THRILL106]
AMORPHIC WINGED
Rob Mazurek
[Walking Road WR1]
More post-rock jazz from the slimline version of Mazurek’s band. Vibes and cornet to the fore Axis and Alignment chimes and drifts, rocks and skips through ten tracks of mutant instrumentals. It’s all a bit chirpy and happy if you’re in the wrong mood, all slightly innocent, naive and well-intentioned, but when I’m in the mood I like it anyway. I’m starting to wonder where all this appropriation of jazz will lead us though; when they’re actually going to take on the challenge of late ‘out’ jazz. This stuff all too often sounds like uptight combo the Modern Jazz Quartet, or restaurant jazz. It’s only weird if you ain’t heard the stuff for real. And I have.
     Mazurek’s solo outing is far more intriguing, as electronics and rock as much as jazz are in the mix of these extended workouts. There’s simply more to listen too hear, more that intrigues and makes you question what you’re hearing. Chicago seems to be taking on board minimalist classical music at the moment, too – Town and Country, for instance – and that’s in here too, specifically in ‘Steel Cut Oak’, where drones and electronic tones are offset by careful piano intrusions and explorations. Amorphic Winged is a bit all-over the place, and certainly doesn’t truly take off, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities for the future, possibilities I hope Mazurek will seize upon and explore.



WHEN I WAS SO CRUEL
Elvis Costello
[Mercury 586-829-2]
Whilst this in no way matches the heights of the recently released masterpieces Blood and Chocolate, This Year’s Model or King of America, this new collection of songs does see Costello in finer form than he’s been for a long time. There’s no string quartets or cod-operatics here, just great rock songs, complete with all the wit, venom and poetry Costello is renowned for. From the quirky, lustful ‘Spooky Girlfriend’ to the angry ‘Tear Off Your Own Head’, via the self- despising and questioning ‘Soul For Hire’ and the surrealist ‘…Dust’, Costello really is back on top. Intelligent, corrosive and abrasive [can you be both? I think so], these songs will stick in the mind, and remind me why Costello is so revered. One of punk/new-wave’s finest offspring.



MUSIC FOR COURAGE & CONFIDENCE
Mark Eitzel

[New West Recordings NW6038]
Oh how the mighty are fallen. Since the glorious American Music Club albums such as California and United Kingdom, it’s been a downhill trajectory for Mark Eizel. Post-AMC, each solo album he releases seems more miserable and less convincing than the one before, each one tries a new approach: jazz trio, stripped-back singer-songwriter, rock band and now mutant loungecore on this set of covers.
     And what bizarre covers they are. ‘Snowbird’ sets the tone from the word go: slightly out-of-tune, half-mumbled lyrics at snail-speed, accompanied by the worst bar pick-up band you can imagine. And it goes on like this, demolishing songs by Culture Club [‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’], Kris Kristofferson [‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, Bill Withers [‘Ain’t No Sunshine’] and others – most of which you’ll recognise if not admit to knowing. I don’t even think it’s a postmodern joke, there’s little irony to be heard on these elongated croons. Only the final three tracks offer any glimmer of hope: ‘Move On Up’ is at least sprightly, if still irritatingly deconstructed; Phil Ochs’ ‘Reahearsals For Retirement’ resists reinterpretations and is still a great song; ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ is just OK – but better than most of the other tracks –  and it’s a relief when the music ends.
     Last time I saw Eitzel was with about 50 others in Other Music at New York. He was sprightly, cynical and surprisingly happy. He and his band, which included Peter Buck from REM, did a superb short set of witty, uplifting songs. But something has gone seriously wrong. Mark Eitzel isn’t just miserable, he has become the new Val Doonican of indie rock.



YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT
Wilco
[Nonesuch 7559-79669-2]
What with all the newspaper and music magazine intrigue about why one record label within the Warner group dropped Wilco and allowed them to take the tapes of the new album away and sell them to another Warner label, the new album seems to have been overlooked. So what exactly does Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sound like?
     There’s been much talk of the effect producer Jim O’Rourke has had on this album, how strange and peculiar the mix is, but I have to say anyone used to listening to anything slightly outside the mainstream of rock, indie or alt-country, isn’t going to find this music very different or intriguing. Yes, there seems to be a degree of separation between instruments and, yes, occasionally something clatters down the middle of the mix, a highlighted marimba or piano perhaps, and there are odd sound effect type interludes or interruptions. But although they may be taking the scenic route, Wilco are still on the alt.country route to hoedown and ramshackle city. Which is great. This album is about songs, you can imagine them sung by a singer-guitarist just as much as the band assembled here.
     Still strange to these ears are the ‘big narratives’ that we tend to call Americana, the shared past that American country bands can choose to draw on: a sense of place, community, landscape and patriotism… And the strange synchronicity that allows a band to write a song like ‘Ashes of American Flags’ or ‘War On War’ before September 11th. But anyone who can write an opening line like ‘I am an American aquarium drinker’ and sing it like Wilco do, is OK by me. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a good place to be.

          ©
Rupert Loydell 2002