Ask most American listeners what they think of music from Sweden and you're apt to receive a diatribe about Abba for your trouble. But this pair of discs from Swedish combos shows that there's more of interest going on in Scandinavia than previously suspected. Take Ray Wonder, a quartet from the town of UmeE whose album Good Music is a modest charmer that's campy without being condescending. The opening track, "The Cad," is a saucy instrumental built on a riff that wouldn't sound out of place at a roller rink, but these guys aren't simply neo-lounge classicists on a lark. "What I'll Do," complete with a jaunty trumpet riff and music-hall vocals from Henrik Andersson, suggests a variation on swinging London circa the Sixties, while "Souvenir" mates a melody reminiscent of early-period XTC with cheeky lyrics that say very little in a thoroughly charming way; the tune concludes with the lines "Oh, I'm tired, darling, let's stop this pretending/Our house is just around the corner/ It's been a nice holiday in our own town/La, la, la." The airiness of these pop confections is relentless, and the surplus of hooks will make some listeners feel like a fishing hat. But by the time the last ditty, "Hold Me Tight," rocks to a conclusion, most of you will agree that Good Music complies in full with the concept of truth in advertising. As for Daybehavior, it initially seems to conform to the usual stereotypes: After all, it's fronted by Paulinda Crescentini, who in spite of having brunette hair looks properly Nordic. But just as Crescentini is only half-Swedish (the rest of her is Italian), so Daybehavior is a blend of catchy melodies associated with its homeland and arrangements that draw inspiration from other locales. To wit: Bandmates Carl Hammar and Tommy Arell contribute synthesizer washes and electronic beats to "Cinematic," "Shortness of Breath" and the other numbers on hand, and they do so with notable subtlety; their icy atmospherics support, rather than overwhelm, Crescentini's wispy vocals. The result are mildly retro ("Hello!" kicks off with a melody of the kind favored by those Eighties synth bands), but pleasurable in a guilty sort of way. Which, come to think of it, isn't that far removed from Abba after all.
(Cross Currents Music)
Although the producers of Camel Road have flatly described the CD as "contemporary Middle Eastern music in an acoustic setting" (probably in an attempt to encourage more people to buy it), they undercut the group's exquisite talent with such a prosaic label. The hour's worth of instrumentals on this Egyptian sextet's record recall some of the more far-out excursions of Sun Ra, such as 1965's The Magic City, by virtue of the way they combine African and Arabic harmonics with experimental improvisation. Using instruments with names like kanun, dof and ep, Fathy Salama and his collaborators prove that true musicianship is a key to bringing on a trancelike state of mind in listeners; the repetitive sampling from the trip-hop or jungle genres pales in comparison. Yet "Rast," "A Night in Cairo" and "Ilaria," a ten-minute soundscape featuring piano, bass and tinny-sounding strings, are tracks of which even the most respected jazz label would be proud, and the title track, a shimmering mirage of a song built atop a groveling bass line, stays in one's mind long after it's over. This is a Road well worth taking.
Alex Chilton: Live in London
This album was recorded in the spring of 1980, when the Big Star legend was between punk and post-punk, when the band was between collapse and revival, and when bandleader Chilton was probably between pots to piss in. Moreover, it displays many of Chilton's less laudable Eighties trademarks, including fine singing that's frequently shunted aside by yowling and sneering and a contemptuous version of the Box Tops' hit "The Letter." So why is Live in London such a dynamite package? In part because of the songs, which include Big Star crowd-pleasers, tunes from Like Flies on Sherbert, Chilton's then-current long-player, and selected obscurities that imply that Chilton has forgotten more about rock and R&B than most of his audience ever knew. Better yet, the under-rehearsed pick-up band that supports him is one of the finest he's ever worked with; players include members of the Vibrators and the Soft Boys, whose blunt force rides herd over Chilton's stage demeanor. The contained power of the band during "Tramp" and "Train Kept a-Rollin'" that blows away versions by both Aerosmith and the Rock 'n' Roll Trio makes you wonder how imposing this eccentric would have sounded had he gotten these guys into a studio with him. By contrast, the "September Girls" here sounds more wistful than the one on Big Star Live; it recalls Jerry Lee Lewis's version of "Over the Rainbow" because of the way its sweetness is distilled from a vinegary personality. There are flaws, of course: "Nighttime" and "Kanga Roo" were gutsy concert choices, but Chilton is unable to imbue them with the majestic unhappiness he gave them on Third. After listening to this album, though, you'll understand why he inspired Paul Westerberg and Game Theory's Scott Miller: He's able to voice his own desolation blues without either giving offense or looking desperate.
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Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
In an effort to circumvent any possible complaints from numskulls who think irony is a new miracle ingredient invented to stop clothing from wrinkling, let me state at the outset that I am a fan of Rumours; the platter is jammed with excellent songs, wonderful playing, tremendous production values and a sense of dynamics that's unduplicatable. But despite the participation of Mick Fleetwood, who is listed as the producer here, Legacy is one of the more annoying and unnecessary discs of this or any other year for at least three reasons: (1) Most of the artists enlisted for the project, including Tonic, matchbox 20, the Cranberries, Duncan Sheik and--eeesh--Jewel, are as lame as Ralph Fiennes in the post-plane crash scenes from The English Patient; (2) Those artists who don't chomp (Elton John, Shawn Colvin, Goo Goo Dolls) also fail to enliven their selections; and (3) The average cut is so lacking in energy that it leaves you with the unquenchable desire to hear the original recording, which in all likelihood you already own. Don't you?