At first glance, the title of the debut album by Propellerheads seems like a self-conscious attempt to coin an unwieldy phrase. Upon repeated listenings, however, this album actually starts to sound like what its name suggests: a multihued, state-of-the-art crash course on every imaginable flavor of dance music. It's little wonder that this big-beat British duo, which consists of sonic mastermind Alex Gifford and drum savant Will White, is being pegged by many as this year's model.
What sets Gifford and White apart from many dim bulbs clutching to the coattails of electronica is their native eclecticism. Whereas some acts get labeled as bold for approaching each album differently, Propellerheads literally redefine their sound with each track they record. One minute they're plunging headlong into hip-hop, with the aid of De La Soul or the Jungle Brothers; the next minute they're bathing in glorious kitsch with the James Bond theme "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." They even rehabilitate pseudo-operatic Bond diva Shirley Bassey for a brassy, over-the-top vocal on "History Repeating," a genuine pop song, with a real live hook and a faintly Latin groove. From that campy extreme, they veer into a streetwise hip-hop history lesson with the brief human-beatbox exercise "A Number of Microphones."
Throughout this supersonic tour, their capacity for phat, fresh beats never wavers. This owes quite a bit to the flexibility of their approach. They are equally at home with computerized rhythm tracks or with White jumping behind his drum kit, accompanied by a live bass player. So, after you've absorbed the digital breakbeat marathon "Take California," you're immediately thrust into the raw, live funk of "Velvet Pants." In a way, this ultramodern collection is reminiscent of the old rock concept albums, where the whole frequently exceeds the sum of its parts, and the glory is in the unexpected juxtapositions between songs. Unlike with Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers, you can't really appreciate Propellerheads by dipping your toes in the water. You have to get good and wet.
In Mass Mind
Gospel music has never had much of a grasp on the young white punk demographic, but the enrapturing power of the music, with congregations stomping, clapping and making a joyful noise, is difficult to deny. Washington, D.C.'s The Make-Up knows this, and, by stripping away the dogma associated with it, is bringing punk kids to their knees, hands flailing in the air and voices echoing the shrieks of front man Ian Svenonius (who, along with Make-Up members James Canty and Steve Gamboa, was a member of the seminal Nation of Ulysses).
The Make-Up is the forerunner and only known purveyor of Gospel Yeh-Yeh (yeh-yeh was a style of '60s French pop music). The theory as presented by The Make-Up is that, in a perpetuating atmosphere of corporate downsizing, the music industry has distanced the producer/worker from the product/consumer. The Make-Up seeks to cure this by utilizing its "congregation" as a fifth voice, an inextricable component of the band.
Of course, this is difficult when that fifth member of the band has only a CD to clap and stomp to. This explains why half of The Make-Up's recorded output thus far has been live. In Mass Mind wasn't recorded live, but loses none of the energy that was present on last year's Destination Love: Live at Cold Rice and After Dark LPs. From the opening MC5-inspired "Black Wire Pt. 1," The Make-Up whips up a frenzy of soul-churning and arm-flailing that would have the most stoic of asses shaking.
The music is part Motown, part garage rock, dipped in a vat of heart-wringing soul that would make a Southern Baptist proud. The majority of In Mass Mind is of the foot-stomping, laying-on-of-hands, seizure variety, but toward the end of the recording, a sensitivity shines through that illustrates the depth The Make-Up is capable of. While many songs are ad-libbed, "are you live with me baby?" freestyles, "Time Machine" and "Caught Up in the Rapture" pull emotional triggers that are heart-touching and sincere.
The Make-Up isn't for music aficionados looking to rock. This is pure soul-purging groove. If you aren't prepared to scream along, don't bother putting on this disc. But if you like gospel music, as Svenonius asks midway through In Mass Mind, you're in luck. That's why he brought his microphone.
Head Trip in Every Key
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Superdrag's debut 1996 release, Regretfully Yours, made an excellent argument for the abolition of music videos. Divorced from any visual information, the Knoxville, Tennessee, band's hook-laden pop-rockers sounded smart, cynical and highly energetic. In front of the cameras for the song "Sucked Out," however, diminutive lead singer John Davis came off as a snotty little creep, a guy too enamored with his own attitude. No matter how infectious the song's Elvis Costelloish tune, Davis' sneer spoiled the effect. It was a bit like watching your little brother stand in front of the mirror and imitate his favorite rock stars.
This is particularly unfortunate, because Superdrag's sophomore release, Head Trip in Every Key, offers further indications that this band is the real deal. "Hellbent" is this album's "Sucked Out," a winning mix of guitar jangle and jaded world-weariness. Davis' penchant for driving pop-rock consistently redeems the half-baked whininess of his lyrics, such as the "dead on the inside" chorus of "Do the Vampire," and the anti-radio bitchfest "Bankrupt Vibration," wherein he sings: "I couldn't help turning on/But I never tuned in/Now I want to drop out."
Davis' dulcet tenor often recalls Matthew Sweet, with whom he shares much. You could say that he's Sweet with a big chip on his shoulder and, fortunately, an even bigger flair for melody. His psyche is not a particularly pretty place to visit, but, warts and all, Davis has delivered one of the best pop albums so far this year.