(Go! Beat/London Records)
Portishead's 1994 single "Sour Times" was one of those rare tracks so arresting and so original that it makes other musicians slam on the brakes and rethink what they're doing. While nothing else on Portishead's debut album Dummy scaled those steep heights, the album sustained a mood that captured the mid-'90s musical aesthetic as few others have. Melding a cinematic sense of drama with hip-hop beats and scratches, ambient soundscapes and the smoky cocktail melancholy of vocalist Beth Gibbons, Dummy was the very definition of "postmodern": music as collage, songwriting as sound sculpture.
In America, Dummy was seen as an intriguing cult favorite, but in England it was a massive commercial success that shook the very foundations of the music industry. For this reason, Portishead sonic mastermind Geoff Barrow fretted, deliberated and obsessed endlessly over a follow-up, determined not to repeat himself.
If he fails to meet such rigorous standards on Portishead, it's not necessarily a bad thing. The haunting likes of "Elysium" (with Gibbons' taunting line "You can't deny how I feel") and the desperately majestic "Humming" prove that this group has not yet plumbed the depths of its trip-hop hybrid.
On Dummy, Gibbons often sounded like Sade on too much cough syrup, but on the new album she sadistically vamps with a new level of wigged-out affectation, like a Norma Desmond--as played by PJ Harvey--vainly waiting for her close-up. If on Dummy she was merely sad, on Portishead she's graduated to near dementia.
Barrow exploits the songs' implied sense of dislocation with convoluted, cut-and-paste studio techniques, recording new music tracks on tape, cutting them to vinyl and using the vinyl for scratching and sampling purposes. The resulting scratchy rhythm tracks lend the songs the vintage feeling of newly unearthed jazz oldies from some parallel universe.
The languid tracks on Portishead flow into each other, creating an unbroken spell, a soundtrack to the cinematic epic it conjures in your own head. Dummy had the lovelorn sadness of Splendor in the Grass. The new album feels more like Fatal Attraction.
We Will Fall: The Iggy Pop Tribute
When Iggy said he killed off the '60s single-handedly, who could argue? Fact is, friends (in the words of liner-noting MTV hack-for-dollars Kurt Loder): "He didn't kill 'em dead enough!"
The Igster was (is) the archetypal antisocial, anti-Christ superstar upon which the rock 'n' roll Zeitgeist was built, long before its relevance was lost in the netherworld of mall-fly McRock and simulated angst of suburban white kids aping ghetto-raised children of the revolution. At times, the Igster was as close to God as one could get, teaching us the positive of a hearty fuck-you when directed at the cycle of tired societal endings and the dull thud of routine. But where lust-for-life celebration parading around in sexual, musical and physical debauchery is concerned, life span is short-lived, and Iggy has lived and died a million times.
Tribute recordings do little to capture the essence of the deified one in question and, for the most part, do little else as well, but this at least features those who ain't fakin' their gratitude--ones who actually grew up with the Igster. Those with the spirit.
Highlights here, though not strictly Iggy solo-smack 'cause the Stooges are included and that ain't a bad thing: a rip-roaring "I Got Nothing" courtesy of D Generation; Lunachicks pillage "The Passenger"; NY Loose (RIP) pays predictable but stellar trib in "Lust for Life"; and "1969" and "Real Wild Child" are lovingly gone over by Joey Ramone and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, respectively. But it's Jayne County's sassified version of "Down on the Street/Little Doll" which is the best cover here. Certainly, she understood.
Letters to Cleo
Letters to Cleo stands as a useful lesson on the risks of trying to make pure pop for the '90s. In a bid to draw attention to its enjoyable but not-particularly-distinctive brand of songcraft, this Boston quintet donated a song to the Melrose Place soundtrack album three years ago. The band stumbled into a hit when that auctioneering novelty ditty, "Here and Now," tickled the fickle programming gods at MTV. Unfortunately, when a follow-up album, Wholesale Meats and Fish, met with the sound of one hand clapping, Letters to Cleo was stuck with the worst of both worlds: scant commercial viability and even less credibility.
All of which is rather sad, because Go! is a really fine pop album. Kay Hanley's babyish vocals still render her nearly indistinguishable from fellow Beantowner Juliana Hatfield, but the band's songwriting touch continues to ripen.
The CD kicks into pop overdrive with the fourth track, "Find You Dead," and hardly lets up after that. The lyrics are fairly rote love grievances, but the melodic twists find all the right pleasure centers. The musical surprises deepen the album's emotional content, making a chorus shift on "Find You Dead" feel like a change of heart. "Veda Very Shining" is pure pop magic, a fast, acoustic-guitar-driven rocker, with just enough electric mayhem to offset Hanley's sticky-sweet vocals. Elsewhere, the band deftly uses a roller-rink Farfisa organ to great effect on the appropriately hyper title track, and for a moment it feels like This Year's Model all over again.
While LTC plays in a crowded field, overrun with bands like the Muffs, and that dog, Go! makes the case that it at least merits a spot on the roster.