Music News

Critical Mass 2000

Page 5 of 12

Even on songs where the lyrics veer toward the overly stylized (the surreal Dylanesque "Damn, Sam [I Love a Woman That Rains]"), Adams delivers his stories with such an earnest, drawled-out sense of hurt it's hard not to be affected by the depth of his pain.

In all, a brilliant album of sad, fucked-up folk music for sad, fucked-up folks.

2. Chuck Prophet, The Hurting Business (Hightone) Taking an aural shift away from the innately folkish charm and Stones aphorisms that had marked his previous work, former Green on Red guitar slinger Chuck Prophet delivered his opus this year, coloring his literate, hard-edged romanticism with wry touches of electronica and hip-hop. Kicking off with the funky Ennio Morricone-influenced opener, "Rise," Prophet fashions a sometimes dark, often funny narrative of modern life, seething with urban tension and sprinkled with caustic insights and pop-culture references.

The title track, an insistent farfisa-maraca number (whose lyric was inspired by a Mike Tyson quote), hints at Beck, were Mr. Hansen in the midst of a serious Sir Douglas Quintet jag. Elsewhere, Hammond organ colors the deathly revenge anthem "Lucky," while Prophet stumbles upon some of Tom Waits' patented gruff 'n' clang, with the jagged blues and vocoder/megaphone intonations of "La Paloma" and the off-kilter "Shore Patrol." Meanwhile, the album's highlight, "Apology" -- a languid mesh of warm bass, Mellotron and Prophet's somber baritone -- takes the universal human need for forgiveness and turns the concept on its ear with a litany of comical examples, proving his knack for spinning highly literate tales about the vagaries of contemporary times.

3. Tsar, Tsar (Hollywood) An unabashedly big, bombastic platter of power pop delivered with the irony-free conviction of true believers who still have faith in the almighty power chord. The L.A. quartet shines brightest on its most anthemic numbers ("Calling All Destroyers," "I Don't Wanna Break-Up"), offering a tip of the amp to the sounds of both Brit-pop and Brit-punk, while remaining thoroughly fixated on the timeless adolescent themes of American exponents like Cheap Trick and the Ramones. Producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Muffs) ensures every song glistens and glimmers with gargantuan hooks and stadium-size riffs -- courtesy of guitarist Daniel Kern, who also checks in with vocals on the stirring "MONoSTEReo." Cut from the same cloth as other pretty-faced pop screamers (Robin Zander, Eric Carmen) is front man Jeff Whalen, whose croon is equally effective on fist-pumpers like "Teen Wizards" and acoustic ballads like "The Girl That Wouldn't Die." With this irresistibly catchy debut -- and an onstage presence to match -- Tsar is my nominee as the band best equipped to save rock 'n' roll from its postmillennial doldrums.

4. Jayhawks, Smile (Columbia) If the Jayhawks' 1997 disc Sound of Lies -- its first without founding member Mark Olson -- was a hesitant step away from the band's well-defined harmony-filled twang into more ornate pop territory, then Smile is a quantum leap in that direction. Produced by noted '70s knob turner Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper), Smile is a grand and gorgeous testament of both style and substance. With the sole exception of the tepid candyfloss single "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" (a piece so lyrically trite that the rumor was that songwriter/antichrist Diane Warren had doctored it!), Smile is a thoroughly transcendent experience from start to finish. Much of that is because of Ezrin's pomp-and-circumstance-filled production: clipped drum loops exploding into ethereal choruses; strings that arc skyward; cascading washes of choir vocals; and lava-spewing feedback. Notable, too, is that Smile is unburdened by the bleak outlook that ran through much of Sound of Lies. A far more optimistic worldview takes the place of the beleaguered and road-weary sentiments of the last album on "A Break in the Clouds," "Baby, Baby, Baby" and the title track. The record is a more fully realized and mature balance than anything in the band's catalogue, and one that looks out at the world through an impressive sonic kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.

5. Marah, Kids in Philly (Artemis/E-Squared) Led by brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, Marah works a rare milieu in this day and age -- unironic, big tableau rock 'n' roll (most reminiscent thematically to a pre-Hollywood Bruce Springsteen). However, the band infuses its sound with a scruffy postpunk sensibility (Replacements, Soul Asylum) that makes it a perfect stylistic two-fer in an era wallowing in its own sense of postmodern hipness. Coming on the heels of a brilliant (and brilliantly titled) independent debut Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight (Black Dog), Kids in Philly is one of those detail-rich productions that finds comfort and inspiration in the romance of big cities and small bars. You'd never guess the album was recorded above a South Philly garage on a mere seven tracks given the dense sonic attack of "Faraway You" or the multilayered Spectorian rush of "Round Eye Blues" -- the hands-down single of the year and the best song ever written about the post-Vietnam experience of American soldiers. (Marah also earns honors for best B-side of 2000 with "Why Independent Record Stores Fail" -- from the group's "Point Breeze" maxi-single -- a two-and-a-half-minute ballad to romance and vinyl that's the ultimate distillation of Nick Hornby's lovelorn music-geek masterwork High Fidelity.)

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