Richard B. James
Moby--who just yesterday was the poster boy for the ensuing techno revolution--is going mortal while everyone else goes dancing. Turning his back on techno, Moby now embraces Mission of Burma and speed metal and Public Image Ltd. as though he knew them all along. He's moved away from the cold keyboards and toward the Kerrang! crowd, doing everything louder and faster than everyone this side of Corrosion of Conformity.
But Moby's too late, and way too little: MTV now does techno with Amp (it's about time, since the VJs have always been androids!), and when Bryant Gumbel starts talking about "electronica," it's time to get those damned guitars and pesky singers out of the way and make way for the rave new world. So who better to lead the devolution than Richard B. James, the mythic mad scientist known as Aphex Twin? The self-proclaimed "bedroom bore"--who also records under the noms de techno Polygon Window and the Dice Man--doesn't create "songs" so much as he runs amok with sound. Using self-crafted synths, he executes chaos, distorts melody into a series of casual beeps and squeaks, and turns drum machines into jackhammer drones. You don't listen to Aphex Twin; you get out of its way.
Richard B. James seems to exist for its creator alone; the audience is welcome to listen in as James interprets the sounds inside his head--"dream tracks," as he calls them in David Toop's book Oceans of Sound--but they're not really for you. They exist as personal soundtracks, techno reveries at a thousand beats per minute, and they keep you at a distance--the better to avoid the deep freeze, so much the worse because you can't quite touch the result. Compositions such as "4," "Carn Marth" and "Inkey$" blur past with rhythms like rivets and melodies like hurricanes. Blink and they're gone--forgotten, even.
But James likes beauty with his disorder, so he turns the synth into a stand-in string section, underpinning the dissonance with a little calming order; imagine Kraftwerk filtered through Eno, rigid Kraut rock tempered by an Englishman's soft hands. "To Cure a Weakling Child" is a rather disturbing piece that's lovely on one level and chilling on so many others: A child's sampled voice comes and goes, high and low, sing-speaking about his hands and head and other body parts. It's either a nursery rhyme or a plea for help. "Milkman" is similarly deceiving as James--in his first vocal "appearance" on record--sings that he "would like some milk from the milkman's wife's tits"; hell, it could be a Kinks song.
The real highlight, though, is "Goongumpas," a piece of classical-pop psychedelia that manages to assemble all of James' fetishes--childlike melodies, atonal structures, oddball rhythms, faux-pizzicato strings and luscious mood--into one brief piece that glues this recording together at its halfway point. Rarely does icy technology sound so gentle, and rarely does Aphex Twin sound so . . . human.
20th Century Blues
In the home video The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, filmed in December 1968 and released three decades later, Marianne Faithfull (then in her early 20s) is seen prettily seated within a circlet of purple velvet, singing a tinkly pop ballad. She was "an angel," as her then-manager enthusiastically put it, "with big tits." Thirty years later, Faithfull's persona has altered considerably: She's now a highbrow presenting the world with deadly serious interpretations of the songs of Kurt Weill.
Faithfull contributed to the 1985 Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars; played Pirate Jenny in a Dublin production of The Threepenny Opera; has performed The Seven Deadly Sins myriad times, as well as singing Weill with the Brooklyn Philharmonic; and she has reprised it all in cabaret tours and recordings ever since. But 20th Century Blues is her most complete rendering of Weill's work yet, recorded live in a Paris bistro and featuring eight Brecht/Weill songs along with several other compositions classed "in the spirit of the Weimar Republic." (These include Noel Coward's title cut, and "Don't Forget Me," a number by Harry Nilsson.)
Faithfull has obviously gotten herself into a rut. But in her defense, her interpretations of Weill's sinister but jaunty vision are flawless. Her voice, like his music, is true, yet somehow sour; and she imbues songs such as "Alabama Song" and, of course, "Mack the Knife" with her own elegant-but-eggheaded, sultry aura of danger and decay. Yet even though 20th Century Blues is a well-crafted, often enjoyable album, its ultimate artistic value is a bit questionable: Is it nostalgic? Historic? Romantic? Tragic? Or is it just a clever shoehorning of Faithfull's personal mythology--you know, "blond, beautiful, but damned"--into a remarkably good fit? One thing is for certain: Marianne Faithfull desperately needs to find a muse to write her some original material.
In nearly two decades as bandmates, Jeff and Steve McDonald have been loosely associated with a number of scenes in which they never really fit: They were too pop for late '70s L.A. punk, too kitsch for the '80s indie-rock underground, and too cheerful for the dark undertow of '90s alt.rock. Now it's 1997, and the buzz word is electronica, which means Redd Kross is out of synch as usual.
Listening to Show World, it's sometimes hard to tell if the McDonald brothers are dogged archivists or just pop-culture casualties who can't escape the past. If they played Chicago blues or bebop, it would be easy to mumble about how they're keeping an important tradition alive. But on the surface at least, the '70s still seem to crowd out the present, with KISS in fresh makeup, Built to Spill trying to revive prog-rock, and relative young'uns such as Billy Corgan and Dave Grohl worshiping at the glittery toenails of David Bowie, who graciously accepts their hosannas even as he tries to reinvent himself as a master of drum-and-bass.
But where U2 can dress up like Village People and somehow pass itself off as a hip dance band, Redd Kross has abandoned its ironic edge to barrel full-speed in reverse. No more Linda Blair or Debbie Gibson tributes, no more collaborations with former members of the Runaways or the Partridge Family. Show World is a relatively straight tribute to power-pop ("Vanity Mirror," "Pretty Please Me") and proto-metal ("You Lied Again"), with bubblegum harmonies that wouldn't sound out of place on a Rubinoos album. Most of the time it sounds surprisingly good, even if there isn't a note here that won't be familiar to anyone who lived through the '70s or heard a Yellow Pills compilation.
The only time the album is downright cloying, though, is "Secret Life," a piano ballad with strings and timpani that sounds like Eric Carmen long after his peak years with the Raspberries. Show World is as undemanding as rock gets these days, and that's part of its charm--it's a testament to the stubborn durability of disposable pop. It probably won't make a dent in this world, but in the alternate universe where Dwight Twilley is God and the Plimsouls his trusted disciples, it's an absolute smash.
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