PLAYLIST

Ken Nordine
Colors
(Asphodel)

Of all the discs released during the high-water-mark year of 1967, this is among the most obscure--and the most wonderful. Nordine, a longtime favorite of performers such as Tom Waits, is now in his mid-seventies, but during his prime he was probably America's most in-demand voiceover artist; his commercials for products like Levi's are familiar to several generations of pop-culture mavens. But he also hosted a popular show on National Public Radio (Now Nordine) and released several albums in the Word Jazz series. The latter established the Nordine style: hipster tales recited in a sly, resonant voice over swinging beatnik grooves. The Fuller Paint Company wanted Nordine to utilize this formula for a string of advertisements, but the offerings he handed them--brief, stream-of-consciousness rambles inspired by nine different hues--were far weirder than execs imagined they'd be. Unperturbed, Nordine bought back his basic tracks from the firm and expanded the concept to album length. Today the disc may strike some as a curio, but spend a little time with it and you'll discover that there's more going on here than disembodied tracks called "Green" and "Blue" and "Puce." That's because, for all his mainstream credentials, Nordine was (and is) a subtle revolutionary, capable of infusing seemingly insubstantial passages with wit, humor and mystery. When it comes to psychedelia from the summer of love, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has nothing on Colors.--Michael Roberts

Various Artists
Means to an End
(Virgin)

Joy Division
Permanent
(Qwest/Warner Bros.)

Joy Division's music evokes an austerity and desolation unmatched by any other act: A flickering bass line, a few haunting synthesizer notes and singer Ian Curtis's robot-like baritone were often all that these performers needed to express a feeling of unimaginable emptiness. The band itself came to a sudden halt in May 1980, when Curtis hanged himself on the eve of what was to be Joy Division's first American tour, but its influence can be felt in everything from the paranoid self-loathing of Trent Reznor (whose first-rate version of Division's "Dead Souls" appears on the soundtrack to The Crow) to the pulsing beats of techno. Most of the artists on Means to an End capture at least part of this quintessence; in particular, Moby's "New Dawn Fades" and Low's "Transmission" underscore the bleakness and fear that Curtis so powerfully conveyed. Participants such as Starchild ("Isolation") and Further ("Insight") achieve similar success by mirroring Joy Division's less-is-more style, but others take different approaches, with often disappointing results. Worst is Stanton-Miranda's cover of the classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which features a cute vocal delivery (even a few blasphemous "la-la-la"s are tossed in) that violates the original's bleak mood. Not nearly as transgressive in spirit, though equally bad, is Codeine's take on "Atmosphere," in which the lead singer's inability to sing is exposed in embarrassing fashion. Because of weaknesses like these, Means comes across as a nice gesture, but one that's not nearly as interesting as the 1990 Italian import Something About Joy Division, a disc filled with tributes by various goth groups. For its part, Permanent returns to the territory explored on Substance, a 1988 greatest-hits album, but it offers remixes with noticeably fuller sound. Better, the album supplements obvious selections (e.g., both the remix and the original versions of "Love Will Tear Us Apart") with tracks such as "Isolation," "Novelty" and the rarely heard "Something Must Break." This last song alone makes Permanent a must-have for die-hard fans and a fine argument for Joy Division's continuing importance.--Joshua Green

Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories
Tails
(Geffen)

Talk about convenient: Tails pulls together almost everything that's bad about today's popular music on a single, easily destroyed platter. It's not that Loeb is a dunce; her faux-folk narratives are ably constructed, and a few even manage a decent image or two (try "My friend's got a bruise on his leg, where I press my knee/Everytime you speak," from "Taffy"). But her voice has about as much substance as the Contract With America, her melodies are to musical innovation as Hulk Hogan is to nuclear physics, and her band couldn't out-rock the DeFranco Family. All in all, Loeb seems less like a budding singing star than an actress playing one on an episode of Caroline in the City. Tails, you lose.--Roberts

 
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