John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey
Dance Hall at Louse Point
This disc has garnered the worst reviews of Ms. Harvey's brief career, and that's understandable. Compared with 1995's remarkable To Bring You My Love, it's resolutely minor. Moreover, the work contains several of our gal's weakest moments on wax: her ridiculously sing-songy spin through the chorus of "Rope Bridge Crossing," the overwrought (in a bad way) shrieking that shatters "City of No Sun" and her unoriginal approach to "Civil War Correspondent." (She imitates Patti Smith so blatantly that the Godmother of Punk should sue for copyright infringement.) In addition, one gets the sense that Harvey sees the album (a collaboration with Parish, a cohort who wrote all the music here) less as an important project than as a means by which to lower the expectations of those critics and fans drooling in anticipation of another masterpiece. But aficionados shouldn't simply toss this offering on the trash pile, for it serves as a reminder that even second-rate Harvey beats the hell out of most everything else out there right now. "That Was My Veil," despite its acoustic trappings, is mysterious and moving; "Urn With Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool" juxtaposes disturbing imagery with a dippy but memorable glam hook; and "Taut" finds the singer switching voices and moods like a raven-haired Sybil. Unlike Harvey's melodies, which seem to flow straight from the id, Parish's numbers are structurally self-conscious, and that's not always a good thing: Many of the tracks take a bookish tack that tends to undermine the raw, gutbucket sound scheme. But Harvey's too singular a presence to go quietly into the night. Dance Hall is a holding action, but it's worth holding on to.
Goodness's Carrie Akre hasn't earned nearly as many women-in-rock headlines as Alanis Morissette or Jewel this year, and that's a shame, since she's arguably modern music's best-kept secret. A veteran of the defunct Seattle band Hammerbox, Akre can sing like Barry Sanders runs: Her powerful vocal range allows her to stop on a dime, shake and bake, then accelerate back to full speed in the blink of an eye. During parts of songs such as "Wicked Eye" and "Smoking," her voice operates at hurricane force, but she's far more than a simple belter; the Supremes-influenced "Labor Day" and the haunting "Between You and I" find her crooning with understated elegance. Such vocal transformations require a lot of a band, but fortunately, the other members of Goodness are tight enough to keep up with her. Guitarists Garth Reeves and Danny Newcomb combine country-Western twang with rapid-fire rock riffs, while drummer Chris Friel and bassist Fiia McGann provide the tracks with a solid anchor. McGann also offers back-up vocals that accentuate rather than challenge Akre's show-stealing pipes. Throughout the album, she remains in the spotlight--which is right where she belongs.
Freedom Sounds in Dub
(Blood & Fire)
While the death of a great recording artist is always regrettable, at least it frequently results in the release of previously unavailable material that helps keep his memory alive. That's certainly the case with the late King Tubby, whose collaboration with Kingston's Soul Syndicate has just been revived by England's Blood & Fire imprint. The members of Soul Syndicate, a mainstay on the Freedom Sounds label throughout the Seventies, did most of the voicing and mixing at Tubby's studio, so it's only natural that the maestro himself would transform this material into some of his most potent dub offerings. The inclusion of singers' voices on these fifteen tracks will strike those familiar with Tubby's mainly instrumental work as particularly unusual, but in this case it's also appropriate: The performances by featured artists Philip Frazier and Prince Alla (cited in liner notes that are more thorough than those on most dub releases) definitely stand the test of time. In fact, Alla's "Stone" (here called "Great Stone") is the finest of these consistently excellent tracks, which date back to Tubby's 1976-79 peak; it features a double-speed beat, achieved by the use of a delay, that clearly prefigures the Nineties-vintage jungle genre. The album as a whole demonstrates why performers like King Tubby remain vitally important long after they're in the grave.
The Hoodoo Gurus
The Hoodoo Gurus are the college-rock equivalent of Bob Dole: They've had a respectable career, but mass popularity has eluded them--and they're a trifle too long in the tooth to make a bona fide run for the roses in 1996. Cave is unlikely to reverse this situation, although the disc has some high points. "Big Deal" and "All I Know" take eminently listenable stabs at the grunge-pop and folk-rock genres, respectively, while the ultra-melodic "Waking Up Tired" proves as addictive as crystal meth even though the nine-to-five persona adopted for it by head Guru Dave Faulkner rings a little hollow (the Gurus probably haven't held day jobs in over a decade). Elsewhere, "Mind the Spider" reworks the Who's "Boris the Spider" in a fashion that's more transparent than a certain former senator's tax-cut rhetoric, and the anti-violence ode "Son of a Gun" bears all the street credibility of a public-service announcement by Jennifer Aniston. All in all, it's a shame that the Gurus feel the need to tailor their message for such an incongruous variety of constituencies. They'll never get elected that way.
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I didn't mean to laugh at this record. After all, Mr. Leitch cut quite a few memorable, if exceedingly fey, hits in his day: Think about "Mellow Yellow" or "Sunshine Superman" for a couple of seconds and they'll start zipping from one side of your cranium to the other, whether you want them to or not. Director Gus Van Sant's use of our boy's dorky "Season of the Witch" over the credits of the enjoyable Nicole Kidman vehicle To Die For raised my hopes, too. But even the assistance of Rick Rubin, the American Records honcho who successfully resurrected Johnny Cash's career a couple of years back, can't save these wispy patience-testers. While listening to Donovan gently whimper "I love you like the sea" at the beginning of the impossibly effete, utterly typical "Everlasting Sea," I flashed back to the scene in Animal House where John Belushi smashes a sensitive folkie's guitar to bits against a staircase, then shrugs and says, "Sorry." So am I.