(Past Their) Prime Cuts
Meat Beat Manifesto
In 1987, Jack Dangers and Meat Beat Manifesto unleashed the single "I Got the Fear" on the dance world. The result of Dangers' attempt to "make the noisiest single of all time" was an intense, cluttered conglomeration of driving drum machine and bizarre samples-cum-beats carefully arranged to frame Dangers' subdued, early '80s-styled, New Wave crooning. It was rich, it was sharp, and it was unique for 1987.
It's nine years later, and Meat Beat Manifesto has just released the ambitious, reasonably priced double CD Subliminal Sandwich, its first full-length original album since 1992's pop-tinged Satyricon. This time, we get more than 200 minutes of bedrock-deep dub and hip-hop bass, the odd 140-plus BPM (beats per minute) techno number, and plenty of whispered/wailed lyrics from Dangers (think Human League meets midperiod Ministry). The whole package is tied together with cascading sheets of sometimes sweet and ethereal, sometimes jagged and fierce ambient noise, and the familiar, pop-cultural stew of TV, movie and obscure recording samples.
There's just one problem: It's 1996 now, and very little of this is particularly new or cutting edge.
Disc No. 1, the more pop-oriented of the two CDs, weighs in with the fast, spacious dub/rap of "Nuclear Bomb" and "Assassinator." The lush, sweeping synths, industrial clanging and menacing vocals of "1979"; the trippy, deceptively erotic "She's Unreal"; and the sinister dub of "Mass Producing Hate" (the latter featuring some tasty theremin wails) are about as dark as Dangers gets on this album, and it's a twist that definitely works.
Not quite as successful, but nevertheless interesting, are the jazzier, ethereal pieces like "Future Worlds" (including Dangers playing bass clarinet) and "Lucid Dream." As in most of Meat Beat's work, the social commentary is always present but never fully in your face, and it's left up to the listener to decode. But in both "Worlds" and "Dream," the wryly optimistic, pseudofuturism of the samples, which are repeated like mantras ("We can design future worlds . . ."), come across as trite and overused: We've heard it before, done more effectively, too.
On the second, more techno-oriented disc, several pieces start out promisingly enough as acidic, analogue trance stompers, but never quite deliver the goods. Songs like "Mad Bomber/The Woods," "The Utterer" and "Plexus" all start out with some interesting analogue effects, but never really go anywhere and eventually peter out like hard trance on Quaaludes. "Electric People," a 14-minute, fast, spacy, ambient workout (which Dangers noted in a recent interview was originally six hours long!), is merely competent. The gem here is "Tweekland," which features dark, dissonant synth washes.
In the modern dance-music environment, experiments in Goa Trance, dub, jungle and gabber (whose breakneck BPMs make Meat Beat's 144 romps seem like crawls) are constantly redefining terms like "heavy" and "complex" when it comes to beats. Remix collage artists like the Chemical Brothers (and Dangers himself in years past), not to mention a host of skilled wall-of-sound sample manipulators from Public Enemy to Aphex Twin to Front Line Assembly, have set a standard in sound collage that simply makes a lot of Dangers' recent efforts come off as pedestrian.
So if Sandwich isn't revolutionary as dance music, what about as pop? Unfortunately, here the album falls short as well; taken as pure pop music, it's just too repetitive and short on hooks, falling readily into the category of "difficult listening."
There's a lot to digest in Subliminal Sandwich. The album is well-produced, never thin, and extremely well put-together. But for those of us looking for the truly new and original from a proven creative mind like Dangers, Subliminal Sandwich is just too much, giving too little, too late.
Somewhere on the way to courting a mass audience, Robyn Hitchcock alienated the loyal fans that kept his idiosyncratic career afloat since he fronted the Soft Boys. Big deal, you say. That rap's doled out to every artist who bolts the indies for a major label. But if Hitchcock didn't start making more overtly commercial music overnight--you could hardly call songs about fish scales and flesh commercial--lackluster releases like Queen Elvis and Respect led one to suspect that he was only trotting out eccentricities because he was expected to.
In the past, Hitchcock's effrontery would lead him to rhyme "Brenda's Iron Sledge" with a ridiculous non sequitur like "Please don't call me Reg," then follow that with a cryptic tag like "It's not my name--at least not yet." There was a brilliant madness in Robyn's throwaway lines, worthy of his idol Syd Barrett.
Hitchcock, along with his band the Egyp-tians, signed to A&M in 1987. And while his biggest near-hit, "Balloon Man," still had flashes of great imagery, he'd follow "It rained like a slow divorce" with time-wasters like "And I wish I could ride a horse," which suggested nothing beyond writer's block. But sending the Egyptians walking seems to have galvanized Hitchcock's muse. Considering the nonband, pro-violinist approach Hitchcock favors on most of the cuts, Moss Elixir sounds like the most complete album he's made yet. Observe "I Am Not Me." Even without a bassist and drummer, it's easily the hardest-hitting track Robyn's done since "I Wanna Destroy You." This album also carries a balance between Hitchcock's poppy, Dr. Seussish tendencies and the somber majesty he usually reserves for acoustic albums like I Often Dream of Trains. In particular, the stark and beautiful "Filthy Bird" and "Heliotrope" suggest what Nick Drake might've sounded like on hallucinogens instead of depressants. Hitchcock lets humor and mystery co-exist in the same way he once did on the shadowy sing-along "Man With a Woman's Shadow."
While commercial FM may not take to a radio-friendly alternahit like "Alright Yeah," every song on this album will remind deserters what made them rally 'round Robyn in the first place. Moss Elixir is a fast and effective career cure-all--just what the spin doctor ordered.
Yo La Tengo
Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo
Odds-and-ends compilations rarely feature a band's best work, but that's part of their kick. There's a certain voyeuristic thrill in hearing all those weird B-sides, dusty outtakes, alternate versions and obscure covers the band never thought to put on an album. But wait: Yo La Tengo is already weird, thoroughly alternative (and was so way before alternative was big business), and has long made a practice of reworking other people's music (whether on its many EPs or its 1990 all-cover Fakebook album). What, then, could be new about Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, the group's recent double-CD rarities collection? Well, the great thing about Yo La Tengo is that it sounds new even when it's doing the same old thing.
In an indie-rock genre that demands originality, Yo La Tengo has defiantly flirted with disaster as the coolest cover band in the world. Out of the attics and onto Genius + Love come renditions of songs by Wire, John Cale, Beat Happening, the Urinals, Velvet Underground (which played in the film I Shot Andy Warhol), Daniel Johnston (with Johnston providing lead vocals over the phone) and the Ramones (with an easy-listening version of "Blitzkrieg Bop"). In addition, the album features cuts from the band in all its moods and periods between 1988 and '95: the early dream-pop ("Fog Over Frisco"), the Velvety dark minimalism ("Walking Away From You"), the disciplined Sonic Youth guitar noise ("Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop"), plus an entire Disc Two of instrumentals.
Thirty tracks, Genius + Love may be the first rarities collection to satisfy the needs of obsessive completists and beginners looking for an accurate introduction to the group.
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