When I Was Born for the 7th Time
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. Records)
During the latter stages of Michael Dukakis' disastrous 1988 run for the Oval Office, an old friend snidely remarked, "I knew him before he was Greek." The rude--if bull's-eye--implication was that for the Duke, ethnicity was an old coat he could put on for a few months to spice up his image with the electorate.
A cynic out there could make similar, if inaccurate, assumptions about Cornershop, a band featuring Brits of Indian descent. On previous releases--including the albums Hold On It Hurts and Woman's Gotta Have It--this band played up the Western-garage-rock and dance-pop sides of its nature. On the new When I Was Born for the 7th Time, traditional Indian instrumentation makes a more prominent show for itself. The timing couldn't be better.
More than three decades after virgin Western ears were turned on to the mind-bending timbre of the sitar, Indian music is almost the flavor of the month. Between the underground dance sounds compiled by DJ Talvin Singh and the recent Ravi Shankar-George Harrison collaboration album, the twain are meeting as never before.
What makes Cornershop particularly exciting is its schizoid sense of identity. Exotic and familiar at the same time, it sounds like a garage band that got sucked into the British club scene and then belatedly rediscovered its raga roots. Lead singer Tjinder Singh has a monotone built for indie rock, but his band is surprisingly nimble with any number of genres. It can go ambient tamboura-dub with "What Is Happening?" or hip-hop crazy with "State Troopers (Part 1)," or drop a Hindi hoe-down with the pseudo-countryish "Good to Be on the Road Back Home." The album's true gem, however, is the single "Brimful of Ashra," which takes a three-chord "Sweet Jane" approximation and lets it build into a swirling orchestration of rare beauty.
Having established his pop acumen, Singh wraps up the album with a cover of "Norwegian Wood," sung in his parents' native Punjabi. Either Singh's attempt to reclaim Indian culture from Brit-pop dilettantes or an admission that he learned his own tradition secondhand, the performance is gimmicky and kinda flat. It's also an unnecessary concession on an album brimming with daring and graceful moves.
The Geraldine Fibbers
The Geraldine Fibbers' steady use of violins, 12-strings, acoustic bass and violas suggests some kinda No Depression band. Aw, sure, this band can do country murder ballads like "Pet Angel" and hokey sing-alongs like "Folks Like Us" that would do both Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Nick Cave proud. It can also summon up the locomotive fury of Jane's Addiction and the abrasiveness of PJ Harvey in one fell swoop, blasting open Butch with a trio of brilliant cacophonies before quieting down for a lengthy but welcome spell.
Singer Carla Bozulich has crammed the Fibbers' second album with the rantings of many a psychotic femme fatale--there's even an instrumental tribute to everyone's favorite ski-instructor assassin, "Claudine" (surely you remember Ms. Longet, eh?). You never know what you're going to get from one minute to the next, either a moment of aching beauty (the title track and "Swim Back to Me") or one of crazed whimsy (the manic "Toybox" and the instrumental "Heliotrope"). Butch is one hell of an emotional roller coaster.
No album this year has even come close to approaching the breadth of vision so casually displayed on every track, and Bozulich is a bona fide star who makes last year's parade of angry chick singers seem like the unprepared substitute teachers you knew they were all along anyway.
Royal Crown Revue
Caught in the Act
All live recordings exist for the sole purpose of capturing the energy, improvisation and unique personality that are not a part of the studio process. This is merely an artistic definition because live albums can be made very quickly, and too often record companies use them to cash in on the artist's name and established fan base. Consequently, few live recordings offer that unique listening experience. Many of them contain little more than live and overdubbed reproductions of songs that the fans have already bought.
This is not the case, however, with Royal Crown Revue's new live CD. The aptly titled Caught in the Act presents a raw, energetic side of the band, and nine of the 13 tracks were not included on its two studio releases. But don't be misled by the independent label, Surfdog Records, stamped on the disc. This is not a collection of outdated, "previously unreleased" material. Warner Bros. simply allowed RCR to record the tunes live last June--the group wanted a contrast to its polished studio release, Mugzy's Move. The result is a well-balanced offering filled with new interpretations of classic standards and originals.
The real value in Caught lies in RCR's uninhibited instrumental and vocal improvisations; every member makes his presence known. James Achor's guitar tremolo pulsates throughout "Barflies at the Beach," an interpolation of Louis Prima's classic "Sing, Sing, Sing." Mando Dorame (tenor sax) and Bill Ungerman (baritone sax) add sparks to the supercharged swing of "Mousetrap" and "Hot Rod."
As always, "Hey Pachuco" is the featured track here. RCR's biggest "hit" clocks in at eight and a half minutes, but only after featuring amazing solos from trumpeter Scott Steen, bassist Veikko Lepisto and drummer Daniel Glass. Vocalist Eddie Nichols is the perennial persona--his personality reverberating as he sings, scats and snickers through all the songs. He serves as a true bandleader, paving the way with a sense of humor. The musicians follow suit as they incorporate licks from The Brady Bunch, The Flintstones and Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."
Not that the only songs worth hearing are improvisational. There's definitely room for a few of the more familiar arrangements. Three tracks from Mugzy's Move--"Datin' With No Dough," "Honey Child" and "Park's Place"--are equally impressive because they closely approximate studio perfection.
Still, RCR built its reputation through years of touring, not from studio albums. It's no surprise that such a history would provide for more memorable live performances. For its fans, Caught in the Act is just the ticket.
Get the Music Newsletter