Ixnay on the Hombre
Despite the presence of Jello Biafra on "Disclaimer," a bit o' hucksterism plopped at the top of this disc in an effort to rent a little credibility, Ixnay is punk rock only in the broadest sense. The comfort lead shouter Dexter Holland displays while visiting the upper registers suggests a youth spent secretly listening to REO Speedwagon, and while the Offspring never descend to that level of shlockiness, the band displays more than a little familiarity with other forms of commercial rock and roll. "Me & My Old Lady" sounds more like Jane's Addiction than anything Perry Farrell has managed in the past few years; "Gone Away" is built on mid-tempo riffing and an anthemic chorus that are pure Deep Purple; "I Choose" features a hook that's positively bubblegum; and "Way Down the Line" sports a central melody that borrows from the Beach Boys by way of the Ramones. But these displays of heresy are not necessarily bad things. In fact, the pure punk tunes, like "Cool to Hate" and "All I Want," have a been-there-done-that feel that suggests they're around mainly to placate those listeners still pissed at these guys for exchanging life at a cool indie (Epitaph) for a truckload of boodle. There's nothing new going on here; the biggest experiment is "Don't Pick It Up," a minute and fifty seconds' worth of generic skacore that isn't going to inspire much skateboarding, and the biggest surprise is a hidden-track guest appearance by (yawn) Larry "Bud" Melman. But the album moves along at a nice clip, and it avoids pretentiousness until the very last song (the finger-wagging "Change the World"). These guys remain dolts, but they're inoffensive ones. The status quo doesn't get much more tolerable than this.
Choying Drolma and Steve Tibbetts
Although Minnesota-based guitarist Tibbetts is best known for the recordings he's made for the ECM imprint over the past twenty years, he's familiar in this area for teaching seminars at Boulder's Naropa Institute. While visiting Pharping, Nepal, in 1993 as part of a Naropa study-abroad program, he first heard Drolma, a Buddhist nun, singing in a monastery shrine room. The sound inspired two more trips to the region, in 1994 and 1996, during which Tibbetts recorded the young woman and her fellow nuns. But rather than simply document their voices, Tibbetts opted for a more ambitious approach: Chs includes hundreds of samples (including gongs, horns, cello, viol da gamba and various basses, violins and violas), as well as Tibbetts's contributions on twelve-string acoustic guitar and eight-string bouzouki. It's an eclectic mix, but Tibbetts holds it together by keeping the focus on Drolma's inspirational singing. The songs on display are regarded by Tibetan Buddhists as deeply spiritual, and this quality comes through with each note; the music is both airy and dark, seemingly simple but undeniably complex. The proceeds from the album are earmarked for a good cause--they'll go toward installing a heating system for the nuns' water supply--and while there's no sequel to it on the drawing board, the prospect of one is intriguing. After all, the nuns initially wanted Tibbetts to produce a rap tune for them.
You Win the Bride
Can a female pop duo make it big in 1997 without bashing men or revealing more about their sex lives than anyone other than Larry Flynt would care to know? Unfortunately, the answer is "Probably not." But what the astroPuppees, led by songwriter Kelley Ryan, lack in media-friendly bark they more than make up for in creative bite. During "Underdog," by far the strongest cut on Bride, Ryan repeats the electronically altered tag line "Save me" in a manner that sounds less like a plea than a challenge. Likewise, the narrative she establishes on "She Can't Say No" spreads the blame for a romantic failure equally between both parties, which makes the tune something of a rarity in a culture that's smitten with victimization. Granted, the dark title cut and "Love Is All That Matters" might sound more appropriate at a twelve-step meeting than on a CD. But the only real dog here is a cover of the Stealers Wheel chestnut "Stuck in the Middle With You," which sounds like it was included solely to satisfy some balding white guy in a suit at the band's record label. And only one dud in a litter is way above average.
The Richard D. James Album
Although the British press has hailed Richard James as the Mozart of dance music, many of the ambient and techno tracks he's released under a dizzying array of monikers have been as disposable as old socks. His more-than-two-and-a-half-hour-long American debut, Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, poured out of the stereo like molasses in low gravity; its atmospheric numbers merely tracked the course that Brian Eno laid out in the Seventies, while its throwaways did little more than fill up space. His follow-up CD, I Care Because You Do..., was, if anything, even more annoying. The material, which sizzled like a herd of pointlessly dissonant electro-rats scampering about on the floor, suggested that James had lost his lithium supply and the world was paying for it. Fortunately, The Richard D. James Album is a vast improvement; for the first time, James proves willing to drop the coy affectations that have so delighted the London scene-makers in order to make some decent music. The fifteen cuts here represent his most fully realized productions to date, seamlessly melding ambient, techno, musique concrete and the sound of the moment, drum-and-bass, into a thoroughly humane whole. "Girl/Boy Song," "Milkman" and "To Cure a Weakling Child" give the obnoxious avant-garde noodlings of the past a solid grounding; whereas James's experiments with altered rhythm beds, cellos, distorted vocals and shimmering slides once collided, they now play together like kids in a schoolyard. Best of all, the disc reverberates with a refreshing sense of humor that is impossible to pin down but tangible nonetheless. And such wit may be the only thing that saves Aphex Twin from the fate that awaits those acts that stray too far from their optimum paths without the intelligence to find their way back.
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