Both as a Sex Pistol and as a solo artist with PiL, John Lydon's never been very big in America because of that squeaky Cockney voice, which always sounded like a whine even at its most strident. But Psycho's Path reveals another reason he'll never be huge here: His music is just so damned European. It's difficult for American rock fans to take disco music--by which I mean music played in discos--seriously, but in other countries, discotheques are far less degraded things. I guarantee you Psycho's Path would sound different if you heard it in Germany--or if you were German . . . or French, or Dutch, or Italian. Psycho's Path is not a stupid recording; it's just so very foreign.
If you think about it, the Sex Pistols never explicitly said they were out to kill disco--hippies, rock stars and never-ending guitar/drum solos were more in their direct line of fire. Nevertheless, I think most of us old punks took it that the Pistols hated disco, synthesizers and all manner of electronic music as well. Perhaps that's what makes John Lydon's new Psycho's Path a little hard to swallow: It follows in the desperate-to-remain-hip footsteps of U2 and David Bowie, seeking inspiration in the new "electronica" movement--even going so far as to have songs remixed by the likes of Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield.
Those gestures reek of pretension, of desperation, yet Lydon's conversion is perhaps a tad more honest than those of Bono and Bowie; after all, PiL had tendencies toward experimental art-rock made for moving. Psycho's Path is just as much a recording made for the dance floor, but it can't quite decide whether the listener should get down or merely listen carefully. After all, Lydon's thing is, has, and always will be lyrics and delivery--he wants you to pay attention. On Psycho's Path, he uses a slightly less vicious enunciation here, but the wounding sarcasm still punctures: "Rules are rules and rules are for fools/This gravy train is led by mules," he sings on "Another Way." So it isn't "block-rockin' beats" repeated over and over again, and Lydon's the better for it.
Elsewhere, Lydon is reasonably trenchant: "Nothing is an answer, and that's a fact," he sings on "Dog," echoing PiL's "Seattle." In other places--"Open Up," for instance--Psycho's Path recalls Flowers of Romance, with its Middle Eastern rhythms and textures. "Take Me"--with its Beatlesy background and chorus of "That's just part of being wrong"--is a highlight. "A No and a Yes" is the ambient number, and "Psychopath" is almost a love song: Lydon practically sings on it.
A few songs, such as "Dis Ho" and "Stump," have irritatingly synthy-disco backgrounds, and thanks to all those remixes, Psycho's Path is 72 minutes long--72 minutes way too long. And it's just about as far from a punk album as an album can be--but you have to respect Lydon for constantly defying all expectations; just a year after the Pistols' reunion recalled too many yesterdays, here comes a recording decked out in tomorrow's latest fashions. There aren't many other artists of his peer group who have transcended their beginnings without inviting ridicule, but laughter is the last thing that the work of John Lydon--or Rotten--will ever elicit.
Like the first Brad album, 1993's Shame, Interiors is music as comfortably creased as your favorite jeans, snug and familiar. Shawn Smith has an uncommonly naked voice, his falsetto utterly lissome and unguarded. With a sound smooth, thick and sweet--with Brad as well as every album on which he's performed (he's also a member of the similar-sounding but rather meandering Satchel and the artsy-fartsy Pigeonhed)--it ennobles Interiors' proceedings to the very highest levels of rock. It can be the rescuing buoy in a sea of roiling guitars, played by Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard, on "Sweet Al George" or "Secret Girl"; the sweet scent of life on the mellower tracks (such as the jaw-droppingly beautiful "Some Never Come Home," a tear-jerker Simon and Garfunkel never imagined); or your insistent conscience on the bluesy cuts that resolutely seeps in despite your best efforts.
These performances are uniformly wonderful: Native Angeleno Jeremy Toback's bass (notably the nimble runs on "Circle & Line") pumps warm blood through the tissues of Gossard's determined strumming; it's as gentle and seductive a groove as anything L.A. folk-rock mulched in the '70s. Since there's a heavy dollop of Smith's piano in the mix, Interiors often recalls the frou-frou patterns of Carole King's Tapestry, but it's never as cloying or precious. Other influences run rampant, too, from the heavier Traffic-Gap Band collision of "Those Three Words" to the shuffle of "The Day Brings" (reminiscent of Paul McCartney's "For No One") that'd make Lowell George two-step if he was still around. There are the great yawning chasms of sound of the melodic and soothing "Lift"; the unholy rolling stomp you'd find in the Zeppelin house of "Sweet Al George"; the organ- and cello-drenched solemnity of "Upon My Shoulders." The whole album rises and falls with the inevitability of the human intake and outtake of breath. Magic music, all; it's the best thing Gossard's appeared on, well, since the last Brad album.
Counting Crows' baleful playing has given this breed of wood-grained music a truly awful rep; you'd sooner listen to your car's radiator overheat than be forced to endure Adam Duritz's whining ever again. And maybe bands like the Crows and the Crowes have taken fly-by dumps on this sweet, sweet music's form for too long, damaging its name irreparably. All Brad can attempt is to create these lovely sounds in the gray expanse up there in Seattle and rejoice in the fact that the spotlight has dimmed slightly. The rest of us may have to squint a bit harder to seek them out, but it only makes rewards like Interiors that much sweeter.
The Old 97s
Too Far to Care
Shortly after Wilco rocked out on Being There, the Old 97s embarked on the No Depression tour with three other bands proud to align themselves with a subculture Jeff Tweedy had officially abandoned. Unlike many of their alt-country peers, the Old 97s love almost any kind of attention; if you want to call them "insurgent country," fine. If you call them something else, that's okay, too. Just so long as you call.
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The same is true of the Dallas-based band's third album, Too Far to Care. The title would fit better if it had been used by the 97s' former labelmates, the Waco Brothers, suggesting as it does a kind of drunken nonchalance. In truth, the band's lead singer, Rhett Miller, cares a lot. He wants to please the women in his life, but they're always leaving him--and does it ever bum him out. Fortunately, he knows the best way to keep sad lyrics from turning pathetic is to pair them with frisky instrumental romps. Miller may not be able to satisfy the "stick-legged girl" he's obsessed with, but he's determined to show everyone else a good time.
For the most part, Too Far to Care delivers just that. If the Wacos sound like the Clash playing country music, an Old 97s song such as "Barrier Reef" sounds like Rancid doing the Wacos. That's not a bad thing, but Miller sounds more distinctive pining for a gal on the sweetly beautiful "Salome" and "Streets of Where I'm From," the latter a jazzy number about living in a place where love rots in the sun like road kill. The band--Miller, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, drummer Philip Peeples--sounds most like a rock outfit on the album-opening "Time Bomb" and most like a country crew on "West Texas Teardrops," featuring banjo and Hammond's nasal twang.
On at least half his songs, Miller comes off as a guy who falls in love easily but takes getting dumped hard. The subject matter might get old, but the 97s vary things just enough musically to steer clear of trouble. If the story of a guy scared to death of Manhattan on "Broadway" is too obvious, Miller easily redeems himself on the album's closer, "Four-Leaf Clover." Sung as a duet with Exene Cervenka, it sounds like X riding a Bo Diddley beat, but the bitter lyrics send it to the moon. "I got a four-leaf clover, but it ain't done me a single lick of good/I'm still a drunk and I'm still a loser/And I'm still living in a lousy neighborhood." After all the crying he's done, it's nice to hear Miller get good and pissed.