New Adventures in Hi-Fi
By most standards, these albums have been as highly anticipated as any released this season, and why not? After all, they come from two of the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful acts operating under the rock-and-roll umbrella. But they're hardly worthy of much excitement. Rather, they're indicative of a creative lethargy that's afflicting rock music in general right now. R.E.M., for its part, has earned plaudits over the past few years for triumphs that are more conceptual than actual. Last year's Monster was effectively marketed as the band's hardest, toughest recording, but only the fuzzier guitars distinguished it from the lion's share of long-players that preceded it. Now, on Hi-Fi, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry have issued over an hour's worth of new material written and recorded during last year's world tour--a gambit that's been ballyhooed as a breakthrough by those folks who have apparently forgotten that Jackson Browne (not exactly your most on-the-edge performer) did pretty much the same thing with Running on Empty back in 1978. In general, the tunes themselves are no fresher. "E-Bow the Letter" has a slightly different feel than previous R.E.M. drones, thanks to the incantatory presence of guest Patti Smith, but the lyrics are definitely a mixed blessing: Stipe can deliver lines like "aluminum tastes like fear" until he's blue in the face, and they still won't mean anything. What one is left with on Hi-Fi, then, are numerous Monster soundalikes (such as "The Wake Up Bomb" and "Departure") shuffled together with post-Byrds balladry and opaque imagery of the sort that everyone who buys this platter owns in quadruplicate already. The story's much the same throughout No Code, on which Pearl Jam's idea of branching out seems to entail "borrowing" from other bands--like, for instance, R.E.M., whose trademark sound is stamped all over the opening track, "Sometimes." Also honored via imitation are Neil Young ("Smile"), Bruce Springsteen ("Off He Goes"), Cream ("Red Mosquito"), the Foo Fighters ("Mankind") and, well, Pearl Jam ("Hail, Hail"). Most of these ditties (including "Who You Are," a loping rewrite of the spiritual "Kumbaya") are at least listenable, and rockers such as "Habit" and "Lukin" actually rock--a good thing. But "I'm Open," introduced by a pretentious spoken-word passage, and "Present Tense," a didactic wankfest in which Eddie Vedder intones helpful advice like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, piss away a lot of goodwill. Moreover, the familiarity of the sound on No Code prevents the CD from making much of an impact. Neither it nor Hi-Fi are catastrophes, and shortsighted fans of these groups may view their redundancies as a bonus. But if you're looking for the sheer thrill that's produced by artists boldly forging into unexplored territory, look elsewhere. Because you've been here many times before.
The Way to Mt. Zion
Brown's latest collection will leave you wondering why he's often been lost in the shadows of Jamaica's top roots-reggae acts. Using his unparalleled ability on the melodica, he gives the fourteen tracks on Mt. Zion a haunting, ethereal feel--and since these descriptors also apply to his soulful vocals, the result is positively hypnotic. Songs like the title track, with its punchy horns and slackened bass, the laid-back, harmony-laden "Youths of Tomorrow," and Brown's adaption of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" are standouts, but the album as a whole is utterly lacking in weaknesses. The biggest treats here, though, are instrumental remixes of Brown's tunes as overseen by dub guru King Tubby. Brown's spooky melodica solos become downright psychedelic under the influence of Tubby's echoey reverb effects and video-game-like studio engineering. The results are out of this world: If the producers of The X-Files decide that their program needs a new soundtrack, Mr. Brown is certainly up to the task.
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While Sebadoh was helping to define the lo-fi movement with its homespun four-track experiments, the band was evolving into a tight noise-pop outfit. On its earliest outings, tracks often meandered. But Harmacy--like its predecessor, Bakesale--finds Lou Barlow and friends boiling down their indulgences into compact, deftly constructed rock songs. On the opening gem, "On Fire," Barlow burns right to the core of dishonest relationships ("Someone has got to be burned, and it feels like I'm on fire/These words are not the truth/But don't hold it against me/I know you're lying, too") amid a sparse arrangement built on nothing more than guitar, bass and drums. Elsewhere, Barlow articulates feelings most people long to express without glossing over the difficulty of voicing them in the first place--and, even more remarkably, he does so without sounding maudlin. A perfect example is "Too Pure," which encapsulates thematically what Barlow implies with every release ("You can never be too pure or too connected"). By contrast, Jason Loewenstein offers tracks that are both bibulous and explosive. On the Cobain-flavored "Nothing Like You" and the pleading "Can't Give Up," he equals the efforts of his songwriting partner-in-grime even as he adds punk-rock crunch and volume to the mix. The sense of democracy that pervades Harmacy is further enhanced by the presence of an instrumental penned by drummer Bob Fay and credits that detail the bandmembers' fondness for switching instruments. (Obviously, Sebadoh deflates any suggestion of ego dominance--a fact not lost on listeners who've followed Barlow since his days in the J Mascis-helmed Dinosaur Jr.) Rising above the hipster ennui that often afflicts their peers, these players simultaneously display a sensitivity and an ability to rock out that's unmatched in the alterna-arena.