Built to Spill
Perfect From Now On
Just when you thought the alterna-sound was completely played out, along comes Perfect From Now On to remind you that good music transcends trends--even ones it might be considered a part of. Idaho's Doug Martsch, whose vision this band follows, has a fondness for pop sentiments and sweet hooks, but his allergy to slickness ensures that his songs bubble with sincerity; witness "Made-Up Dreams," whose George Harrison-circa-the-late-Sixties guitar patterns and omnipresent Mellotron are rescued from preciousness by Martsch's wonderfully quavery and evocative warbling and a stop-and-start structure that suggests a first rehearsal. It's not that the vocalist can't hit notes. On the first section of "Velvet Waltz," for example, he does so with regularity. But like Neil Young, whose inspiration is felt throughout, he's more interested in capturing an emotional moment in all its acuity than in impressing listeners with his flawless pitch and rounded tones. There's a certain ingenuousness at play here that may bug the hard-boiled crowd: Even when Martsch gets tough on "Untrustable/ Part 2" ("You can't trust anyone/'Cause you're untrustable/How can you trust someone you know can't trust you?"), he seems so darned engaging that it's hard to imagine even the subject of his critique taking offense. But what Martsch lacks in anger (a commodity in abundant supply this decade), he more than makes up for in spontaneity. Tunes such as "I Would Hurt a Fly" evolve into seemingly impromptu jams that never feel indulgent thanks to the gifted rhythm section of bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf (who also pounds for the Spinanes) and Martsch's unpredictability. His antenna is not set to just one frequency; rather, it's open to whatever input it receives. As a result, Built to Spill's work feels real in a way that much of the modern rock currently being manufactured for the marketplace does not. The album's title is something of a joke: Unquestionably, Perfect isn't. But its rough edges are part of its charm.
Spring Heel Jack
68 Million Shades...
If you listen to music-industry pundits (and no one other than child molesters should be made to do so for more than a minute at a time), the drum-and-bass movement is supposed to be the Next Big Thing--the subgenre that will rescue America from another ration of Pearl Jam. Five will get you ten they're wrong: U.S. listeners tend to like personalities with their music, and drum-and-bass is nothing if not faceless. But right now, at least, the best of this stuff sounds pretty damn fresh--and Spring Heel Jack (which appears Tuesday, March 11, at the Ogden Theatre) makes some of the best of this stuff. Consisting of onetime Spiritualized member John Coxon and partner Ashley Wales, the duo uses dub-influenced bass lines and jungle drum patterns in a rhythmic goulash whose melodic elements (like the ones that decorate "60 Seconds") are subtly effective and pleasantly insinuating. The result is dance music of a particularly druggy sort--and as such, it will probably evade mass popularity. Which is probably why I like it.
Austin's Loose Diamonds released two albums prior to Fresco Fiasco!, and both of them were filled with the sort of middling roots rock that sounds for all the world like the soundtrack to an uninspired beer commercial. You couldn't fault the craftsmanship of either record, and the band's core songwriters, Troy Campbell and Jud Newcomb, obviously had some chemistry. But to my ear, all that chemistry and craftsmanship was put to the service of the most unmemorable, edgeless mediocrity in the already personality-challenged roots-rock pantheon. The songs on these discs weren't measurably bad; they were just a bore. And now this--seven acoustic tunes slapped together at the tail end of a tour to feed a mostly European appetite for product (two-thirds of Loose Diamond's sales are rung up in the Old Country). So why is this not only the group's best outing, but one good enough to turn a doubter into a believer? For one thing, the acoustic turn-down soaks more character out of the guitars and voices than the act ever mustered with its amplifiers cranked up to eleven. Campbell's vocals are sweeter, and Newcomb's Cohen-esque musings are gruffer. For another, the players have framed the CD with two surefire cover tunes. "I Know You," penned by Al Strehli and previously covered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore during his Flatlanders days, is a honeyed opener, while the finale, the Stanley Brothers' "Stonewalls & Steelbars," is a fine choice that these guys romp through like true convicts. Moreover, the two additional covers and three originals are given an extra shine by their proximity to these cuts--especially Newcomb's "One Kiss Won't Hurt" and "You Keep Me (Hangin' On)," with Newcomb dueting with Toni Price. Fresco Fiasco! was conceived as a one-shot, an unplugged anomaly in a catalogue of electrified sound. I just hope the Diamonds keep making exceptions like this.
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When reviewers outside the techno press take to an electronic dance record, it's usually because the disc is warmer than the average machine-driven platter--a long-player whose simulated humanity gives it a life both on and off the dance floor. But Joey Beltram, a longtime New York scenester who made his reputation with the 1991 club hits "Energy Flash" and "Mentasm," achieves something different with Close Grind. To wit: The CD makes intriguing listening even though it seems every bit as mechanical as the Ford assembly line. The reason has everything to do with Beltram's skill as an arranger. On the opening track, "Time," and most of the numbers that follow, he starts off spare, with a dominant beat and perhaps a single semi-melodic element; then, with a patience that's rare in virtually any sonic style this side of throat music, he subtly interweaves and intertwines additional slabs of noise. This sounds complicated, and at times it can be; after all, such layering is primarily associated with Philip Glass and Germanic art freaks like the members of Can, not turntable jockeys. But even when Beltram is working at the furthest edges of his genre (as on the perversely robotic "Loose Kick" and the gloriously repetitive "The View"), he never neglects the four-four beats that have motivated dancers since the beginning of time--or at least since Donna Summer met Giorgio Moroder. The nine offerings on Close Grind may not always stand on their own from a compositional standpoint, but when taken as a whole, they form a tightly knit web of rhythms that give your head something to think about while your feet are slapping themselves silly.