Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Among the phrases you least want to hear from a musician, "Hey, let's jam" ranks down there with "So, she's your sister, huh?" and "Don't worry, it's not loaded." But at least ol' Neil isn't shooting blanks in the gee-tar department for Crazy Horse Grunge Jamfest '96.
You may recall the somnambulist splendor of Crazy Horse and Dinosaur Sr.'s last joint effort Sleeps With Angels, where every extended solo went nowhere backward and every vocal sounded like it was coming through an air-conditioning duct. The songs are just as long on Broken Arrow--four tracks break the seven-minute barrier--but this time around, Young's commitment to the material ensures that you won't be glancing at your sundial two minutes into any of 'em.
Young's best fretwork usually approximates the sound of a frightened sea gull dodging bullets, a trait best demonstrated here by the hypnotic "Loose Change" and the murky but mighty "Big Time." Although this album's title may have you thinking Young is revisiting old Buffalo Springfield glories, he's really just having fun stomping around the happy buffalo hunting grounds. Three tunes on his latest make liberal use of Indian tribal rhythms and melodies, but the tone never gets preachy or starts clutching for crystals. And Young has enough cheek to end the album on an irreverent note: a too-wasted-to-give-a-shit barroom assault on Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do," complete with catcalls, beer-bottle caps being flipped open and phone numbers being scribbled on cocktail napkins. All in all, not a bad gig for Mr. Soul.
Squirrel Nut Zippers
When last we saw our retroheroes, their 1995 debut, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, had been handed a tepid reception by the rigidly formatted-radio bad guys, despite its soulful, unschooled charms. Unflustered, the Chapel Hill sextet (since bolstered to a seven-piece) reconvened in New Orleans, the hot-jazz holy land. To coax the ghosts of Crescent-ville out of the moldy woodwork, the band held a seance at the studio of famed producer Daniel Lanois, where, over ten days--with few microphones and fewer retakes--it recorded Hot, its second stab at capturing the nostalgia of a generation.
Meanwhile . . . the alternative nation is growing cynical of the cocktail revival. It's seen Tony Bennett open for Pearl Jam and can smell a cheap gimmick when it hears it. But will little Jimmy Silverchair understand that our favorite band named after a chewy peanut candy has something to teach both the jazz world it aspires to and the indie-rock world it's a refugee from?
Sure, the Zips' midtempo trad-jazz moments ("Blue Angel," "It Ain't You") drag a bit, but vocalist Katharine Whalen's imitation of Billie Holiday after drinking a glass of milk (not entirely an insult) is only a small kink in untying Hot's bag of tricks. There, we find the old-time calypso "Hell," a swing instrumental titled "Memphis Exorcism," a Charleston, lots of party-down Dixieland and a dose of that old Cab Calloway strut. Hidey, hidey, hidey, hey.
Primitive Radio Gods
A lot of pieces generated by the "art of sampling" sound like a bunch of stereos blaring haphazardly in an appliance store, but every once in a while, a startling new sound collage arises that's more than the sum of its parts.
Such is the case with the Primitive Radio Gods single that people with attention deficit disorder are having trouble asking for by name--"Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand." You can probably catch this track on the radio right this minute, but Rocket's worth owning just so you can hit the repeat button over and over. "Standing" nails how we as listeners can become obsessed with a piece of music and ultimately find our own voices within it.
Chris O'Connor is the guy behind the curtain of this one-man show, and the isolated musical phrase he lifts and turns into a martyr's mantra--"I've been downhearted, baby, ever since the day we met"--is actually a refrain from B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get." King's performed that song everywhere from prisons to Sanford and Son, and in the context of a blues number, his downtrodden assertion follows a litany of comical observations about his no-good, moneygrubbing missis, all of which he can laugh about now. But O' Connor hears a world of misery in King's line, and builds a throbbing landscape of dread around it, from phones that don't work to trains and storms that rush by without acknowledging him to church bells that echo his loneliness and that broken B.B. King record he carries around in his head.
It's largely the production of "Standing" that achieves such a high level of evocation. Musically, the verses are little more than a hip-hop "Walk on the Wild Side" with (if you can believe it) even fewer notes than the Lou Reed model (O'Connor even slides out a few "doo doo doo"s in the right places). And lyrically, there are smoke screens like references to Mother Teresa, Sunday papers and zebra flesh to contend with. But that's almost to be expected in a song about impaired expression. The only data you need to process is the sound of this guy's heart breaking around the clock, and his inability to do much of anything about it.
"If I die before I learn to speak/Can money pay for all the days I lived awake but half asleep?" O'Connor mumbles to himself before finally working up the guts to sing, "I've been downhearted, baby, ever since the day we met," in his own voice for once, to overtly claim B.B.'s despair as his own. It's a courageous, riveting moment that anyone with a heart or what's left of one will want to wallow in again and again.
P.S. The rest of Rocket is a pleasure if nowhere near the inspiration that recommends its hit single. Myself, I can't linger past track three long enough to make the final call. But so what? Millions of people bought In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for one song, and if they're sorry now, they're not talking.
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