Version 2.0
(Almo Sounds)

Given how many copies of Garbage's first disc flew off the shelves, you know that critics are sharpening their skewers over this one. But Version 2.0 is so steely that such jabs will likely bounce right off it. Producer/drummer/mastermind Butch Vig may have worked his magic for Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan and other folks determined to wrench art from their scrawny frames, but for his own project, he's interested only in creating shimmering corporate pop--sort of like mid-period Cars made with higher-tech equipment. Much of the album sounds like a throwback to the golden age of new wave: Singer Shirley Manson offers a full-scale Pretenders tribute on "Special" (grok the repetitions of the phrase "talk of the town") and turns "Hammering in My Head" into a Romeo Void flashback. She also contributes an array of I'm-a-troubled-gal lyrics (like "I fall down just to give you a thrill/So prop me up with another pill," from "I Think I'm Paranoid") that recall the days when America liked to think that its goddesses knew their way around a pharmacy. Still, the CD exists mainly as a showcase for brainy production that's so clinical and precise that Vig probably wore rubber gloves digitizing it. "Temptation Waits" comes from the place that rock and disco used to meet clandestinely; "When I Grow Up" contains a la-la-la hook that's robotic and friendly at the same time; and "Push It" puts a dollop of Brian Wilson's "Don't Worry Baby" at the service of thickly layered post-glam that's dizzyingly complex and as simple as Forrest Gump at exactly the same time. It's soulless, yes, but so supremely well-crafted and damnably catchy that resistance is futile. The result put me in mind of a Robert Christgau review of an old Elton John album in which he wrote, "Of course he's a machine, but haven't you ever loved a machine so much it took on its own personality?" The answer to that question is yes.

--Michael Roberts

Soul Asylum
Candy From a Stranger

Starting out as a sort of watered-down Replacements, Minneapolis-based Soul Asylum was once capable of injecting fresh energy into its folk-punk hybrid. But on its latest the group sounds staid, tired and content to keep pace with the Third Eye Blinds and matchbox 20s of the world. Listening to it may make VH1 fans feel alternative, but they'll be the only ones. The opener, "Creatures of Habit," teases you with echoes of the players' better work, but its title unintentionally foreshadows the direction they take on the rest of the album. On the rare occasions that the band ventures away from country-tinged rock of the Faces/Stones variety, it offers up bland ballads that sound virtually indistinguishable from one another. (Expect scribes to interpret most of them to be about vocalist Dave Pirner's past relationship with actress Winona Ryder.) These guys are still capable of hitting upon a crafty pop hook, but the best one here--on "No Time for Waiting"--seems to have been lifted from the Matthew Sweet songbook. Not that modern-rock program directors will mind; in fact, the album's lack of originality may convince them to foist this noise pollution on gullible listeners all summer long. But even their best efforts won't prevent Candy from becoming the 1998 disc most likely to be sold back to used-record stores.

--James Mayo

Various Artists
Spesh Spins Trip 'N Spin
(Trip 'N Spin/Silent)

The numerous twelve-inch vinyl releases by Trip 'N Spin, a San Francisco indie, are rightly credited with helping to introduce the booming trance grooves that characterize the City by the Bay's underground scene to discerning DJs the world over. The firm's first CD, seamlessly mixed by label co-founder Spesh, continues this tradition with a collection of tracks from several of the electronica standouts who operate in the district south of Market, including Island Universe, Satellite Odyssey Network and Spesh's own duo, Jondi & Spesh. This last act contributes several strong offerings, including "Kali's Dream (Nova Bass Vibe Chugger Mix)," which moves along on quick-tempo artificial beats that tread the line between deep house and European disco; "50 Foot Jack-O-Muffin," a tune whose eastern Mediterranean horn blasts eventually give way to a heavy drum solo; and two versions of "Psychedelic Bellydancer," whose electro-bongo programming sends out an irresistible invitation to dance. Island Universe's "Euphoric Paradise," an acid fantasia that features unstoppable club rhythms and a vocal treatment that recalls the exotic noodling of the Hardkiss collective, is also first-rate. But the best number here is Halcyon 3's "Dat Drum (Robert Shea's Sweetest Mix)," a Spesh-spun opus that delivers a three-tiered electronic-music history with its sample of UK crooner Billy MacKenzie's rendition of Diana Ross's "Love Hangover." The song is hardly stuck in the past, and neither is the compilation as a whole. Rather, it represents Spesh's take on the sound of the future. And the future looks bright indeed.

--Kelly Lemieux

Porter Wagoner
In Person

To most modern country fans, Porter Wagoner is just another Nudie-suited old-timer living out his golden years obliging Grand Ole Opry tourists. But long before sincerity was a costume donned by Nashville's platinum-selling pretenders, Wagoner was making genuine killer country. This disc, a live recording of a 1964 gig in his hometown of West Plains, Missouri, shows just how deadly he was. From the platter's bluegrassy first track, "Howdy Neighbor," to its final notes, he serves up heaps of the staunchly rural music Nashville now despises. Along the way, he pours on the rustic charm with seminal honky-tonk ("My Baby's Not Here"), giddy hillbilly raveups ("Foggy Mountain Top," "Sally Goodin'") and even a dose of down-home gospel. Best of all, he offers a broken heart full of exquisite rainmakers, some of which feature the gutsy clutch of RCA labelmate Norma Jean. To help ease the pain of these beautiful weepers, Wagoner turns his bandmates loose for a few stomping instrumentals and even includes cornpone comedy by his faithful sidekick, Speck Rhodes. Thanks to these contributions, In Person is both an exceptional snapshot from the past and stark proof of just how far country music has fallen from grace. "Break out the bottle, turn the jukebox up loud," Wagoner sings on "Misery Loves Company," and that's good advice.

--Marty Jones


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