Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Volume 2
Insurgent, indeed! How dare they, these young bands of scofflaws, going and recording songs that are actually representative of the heart and soul of authentic American country music. There's nary a ten-gallon hat, daintily trimmed mustache or skintight pair of jeans to be seen anywhere on this CD sleeve. Where are the pop/rock chord changes? Where's the 64-track, high-dollar Nashville production? Where are the achy-breaky, thank-God-I'm-a-USA-babe-boffin'-in-mah-pickup-country-boy lyrics? And they call this country?
It's almost as if they don't wanna make any money!
From the sound of it, the bands included on this CD are more hell-bent on creating country music from and for the heart than for and from the bank account. The 17 cuts performed by bands from Chicago to Detroit to Dallas to New York to Festus (as in Missouri) to Tempe don't stray from the guts and tears of the real thing, nor are they sad attempts to re-create Hank's Greatest Hits.
Tempe's own Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels start things off with an original, pumping little roadhouse ditty called "Get It While It's Hot," then reappear 15 tracks later as the Inbreds. "Don't Die While I'm Alive," by bassist Mickey Ferrell, is a warm, mandolin-driven slice of West Virginia bluegrass. Chicago's Robbie Fulks turns in a front-porch chooga loog (produced by legendary millionaire Steve Albini) with the best chorus of any song on the disc, "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)." Festus' favorite sons, the Bottle Rockets, crack out a swollen-river-takes-over-pathetic-small-town ballad as stark as any Johnny Cash horror trip.
The list goes on and on; Tarnation's Adam's-apple-wobblin' "Yellow Birds," and, straight from the heart of country music, NYC's own World Famous Blue Jays bounce through the album-closing "Mud Flap Boogie." Though the territory covered here is not exactly bare of musical footprints (folks from NRBQ to Jason and the Scorchers to John Doe have walked that line for years), the stuff on Hell-Bent is still a fresh kick in the head. And it has, thank God, nothing to do with Nashville.--Peter Gilstrap
The Inbreds are scheduled to perform on Friday, April 14, at Fiddler's Dream Coffee House. Showtime is 9 p.m. Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels are scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 15, at the Sail Inn in Tempe. Showtime is 11 p.m.
Anyone who fell in love with this group's sly hit single "Creep" last time around may have found the accompanying album Pablo Honey a little less than satisfactory. The Bends more than lives up to that single's promise. Gone is singer Thom York's dependency on four-letter words to convey disgust. His falsetto, which sounded like a fey Morrissey--if such a thing is possible--is thankfully effortless now. Witness "Black Star," where he sounds like Bread's David Gates backed up by Teenage Fanclub (a combination that's actually way better than what it probably sounds like on paper). Producer John Leckie, who cut his teeth producing XTC's first two albums, keeps things stylistically hopping, from the Zooropa-era U2 sounds of "High and Dry" to the Oasis crunch of the title track. Radiohead stakes out plenty of new territory here, as well. What a pleasure it is to hear an alternative recording with loud and soft parts that you can't predict 30 seconds into the first song. "(Nice Dream)" and "My Iron Lung" are particular standouts. Quite simply, you oughta get The Bends.--Serene Dominic
Live at Watkins Glen
By 1973, when this festival took place, The Band was already past its peak creatively. Privately, the group had stepped up the drinking and drugging that would soon tear it apart. On record, the group was treading water with a soon-to-be-released album of oldies, Moondog Matinee. Yet live the quintet's members were still consummate professionals. While the Watkins Glen show's historical significance may have more to do with the record 600,000 in attendance than any of the festival's performances, diehard fans of The Band will want to own this, anyway. It's the only official live recording of the group without any additional personnel (unless you want to count the CD's take of "Too Wet to Work," an organ solo by Garth Hudson with thunderstorm sound effects provided courtesy of the Almighty). Another song title that completists won't recognize is "Jam." Far from being a lost Robbie Robertson ode to homemade strawberry preserves, the tune is just three minutes of The Band noodling around while somebody boosts up the monitors. Best moment of this unassuming set is Levon Helm's fine, Levi Stubbsy vocals on the Four Tops' flop single "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever."--
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Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin
For those of you too lazy to look it up in the dictionary, encomium is a Greek word meaning "glowing and warmly enthusiastic praise." If there's a band that doesn't need any more glowing and enthusiastic praise than it's already received, it's Led Zeppelin. Couldn't somebody throw the Firm a bone? Actually, a Firm tribute album might've been just the thing we need to stop these vanity projects once and for all. Imagine all these tribute-album hacks like Cracker, Sheryl Crow and 4 Non Blondes arm-wrestling over who'd get to do "Radioactive"!
Wonder what the Greeks would've made about participating in one's own "glowing praise," as ol' Bobby Plant does here. His partner in crime is none other than torturous Tori Amos, who has already successfully drawn all the lifeblood out of Nirvana and R.E.M. songs. This prickly pair pick "Down by the Seaside," the worst song in Zeppelin's catalogue, to mangle. Somehow they manage to make it ten times worse than the original, stretching it out to a lugubrious, unbearably slow seven minutes and 49 seconds. Who do they think they are-ÄVanilla Fudge? Can't somebody convince Kate Bush to go to Tori's house and give her the "You are not me" speech once and for all and shame her back into being a heavy-metal singer?
With too few exceptions, Encomium is rote and unimaginative, simply note-for-note emulations of overly familiar material. And if hearing Zeppelin songs performed as if they were Sheryl Crow and Hootie and the Blowfish originals is your incentive for buying this, you probably never liked Zeppelin, anyway. And never will. Which means Atlantic's greedy little plan of exposing the next generation of record buyers to Led Zeppelin has backfired.--Serene Dominic