Playlist

The Donnas
Get Skintight
(Lookout! Records)

Fresh out of Rock and Roll High School, these California girls unapologetically ooze piss and vinegar while chomping on their bubble gum. Blitzkrieging bopping to teen-queen ditties that mix hormone-charged rebellion with a fresh sense of humor à la Ramones, these four girls named Donna (scheduled to appear August 4 at the Bluebird Theater, with Crumb) will turf your lawn ("Doin' Donuts") while they cruise for boy toys ("Searching the Streets") and shout lines at you like "I got a dark side and I'm searching the streets looking for fresh meat." Once they get what they want, watch out; in "I Didn't Like You Anyway," they chew up a fashion-challenged ex with lyrics like "I knew you were lame from your wallet chain/You thought I would be broken-hearted/Maybe I would if you weren't so retarded." But what goes around comes around, as the Sixties-girl-group-sounding ballad "You Don't Wanna Call" suggests, where the girl gets the hottie ("I wanna take you up to my room, but you always have to leave too soon") but not on her terms ("You don't wanna call me your girl/so I guess I'll just go to the mall"). The no-frills production approach, handled by Jeff and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross fame, does not get in the way of the girls' ability to display their hair-metal guitar lusts in songs like the Runaways-sounding cover of Mstley CrYe's "Too Fast for Love." All of which makes this the perfect disc to blast in your muscle car while you're burning rubber all summer long.

--James Mayo

Randy Newman
Bad Love
(Dreamworks)

That Newman has achieved his greatest late-career fame for his contributions to kiddie movies such as Toy Story is an irony too rich to ignore. Sorry, boys and girls, but Uncle Randy can be a foul-tempered son of a bitch--bitter, cynical and downright nasty when the mood strikes him. And on Bad Love, fortunately, it does so frequently.

For his first full-fledged solo album since 1988's Land of Dreams, Newman has teamed up with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, two of the most creative producers on the current scene, and wisely steered clear of the soft-rock buddies (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley) who made the all-star CD version of his 1995 musical, Faust, such a chore. Newman may not have a great voice in a traditional sense--or a non-traditional sense, for that matter--but he's able to spin his words like no one else. When he warbles, "Thank you, Jesus" on "My Country," a sweeping, almost orchestral composition that views silently watching television with your family as quality time, he adds layers of smart-aleckiness far beyond the scope of the average crooner. Yet he's also capable of an aching sincerity that gains power from the awkwardness of his tone. A singer with perfect pitch could still make something out of "Every Time It Rains" ("I don't seem to care that/I'm just not making it on my own") and "I Miss You" ("I want to thank you for the good years/And apologize for the rough ones"), but these songs of loss are stronger for Newman's vocal homeliness.

At times, Newman settles for easy gags, and his visits to old territory on "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" (a faux-rocker in the Born Again mode) and "Big Hat, No Cattle" (country silliness à la 1977's "Rider in the Rain") don't hit any closer to home than did their original blueprints. But "The Great Nations of Europe," a nod to "Political Science," is a spritely tour through global exploitation, and "The World Isn't Fair" hilariously ascribes the failure of Marxism to the presence of too many beautiful women--"countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens"--eager to suffer the company of "froggish men" like him. That won't mean much to pre-teens, and those moms and dads who try not to overwork their brains won't care, either. But for the rest of us, these twisted insights make it all the more satisfying that Newman's the guy creating melodies so many of our progeny are humming. Now if only his bosses at Disney would let him explore the double meanings of the names Woody and Buzz.

--Michael Roberts

Cordelia's Dad
Spine
(Appleseed)

From the opening strains of "Granite Mills," in which an ancient-sounding fiddle plays its mournful tune against the deep, haunting beat of a single frame drum, Cordelia's Dad's Spine captures the pain and struggle of being an American--from way back in the West Virginia hollows a hundred years ago to right this goddamn minute. "Granite Mills" is about how 300 workers are killed in a factory fire; perishing with them is some mysterious truth about their unsafe working conditions. The song starts with the line "In this vain world of trouble, many accidents occur," and from there, singer Tim Eriksen proceeds to lay out an album full of death, deceit and destruction--in other words, everyday life--set against traditional folk instrumentation and sung with the intensity of the punk rocker he was in previous bands.

The result is that two-hundred-year-old songs sound unbearably urgent (and they're made even more so by producer Steve Albini). Even when Erikson's negotiating the archaic language of secular--nearly pagan--hymns such as "Three Babes" ("There was a lady, a lady gay/of children she had thraay/ she sent them a-waaay to the North Count-raay/For to learn their grammaree"), his vigorous tenor is as edgy as a newly stropped razor, and the story about a woman who loses her three children cuts as severely as any of today's headlines. When Erickson joins his three bandmates for old-time, a cappella shape-note singing such as that on "Return Again," a camp-meeting song originally published in 1804 by a rogue preacher, the fervor of their full-throated harmonies could inspire today's immoral majority to reclaim a God from the uptight evangelicals. And "Spencer Rifle," wherein the titular firearm is a synonym for Johnny's penis (since in the old days you couldn't talk about things like that in public), turns out to be thrillingly frank: "Katie was a fair and charming maid, she wasn't barely twenty/by the time he'd fired seven rounds, well he'd had more than plenty."

The members of Cordelia's Dad know it's a very short distance from folk to punk and back again. And people who are currently trying to rein in popular music in the hopes that it might settle a chaotic country ought to listen up. As Spine attests, life is corrupt and dangerous; to pretend otherwise misses the opportunity to make it beautiful.

--C.J. Janovy

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