Teletubbies: The Album
Although I'd heard that Teletubbies, a British children's series that's been exported to the colonies, was the closest thing to an acid trip currently available on the tube, I disregarded such talk as postmodern exaggeration. But one day while I was home sick, I surfed to a channel on which the program was airing and found myself entranced by the damn thing. During that episode, one of the Teletubbies, which look like cheerfully generic aliens in custom-made Dr. Denton's, was romping across a primary-color landscape when the environment began to fill up with water. Seconds later, three computer-generated passenger liners appeared and began to move across the impromptu ocean's placid surface in gracefully hypnotic patterns. Then, after the ships disappeared and the water receded as a result of powerful rays emitted by a sun filled with--gasp!--a laughing baby's head, all four Teletubbies (Po, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky and Laa-Laa) reappeared, jabbering and giggling like toddlers at a daycare center built directly over a nitrous-oxide factory. A benevolent, all-knowing narrator subsequently told the foursome it was time to leave, prompting two separate but identical goodbye rituals that ended only when the bizarre creatures gleefully jumped into a hole and disappeared. After watching the baby-head sun set for another day, I smiled with satisfaction before lumbering back to the kitchen and taking another dose of medication. I'd hoped that the prescription would help me get a similar charge out of The Price Is Right, but no such luck.
Listening to Teletubbies: The Album isn't nearly as mind-altering as the program itself, which is, after all, primarily a visual experience (the word count in most of the shows is lucky to reach double digits). But there are still some pleasantly hallucinatory moments on hand thanks to bouncy, synthesized music by Andrew McCrorie-Shand that perfectly suits these jovially asexual beings. I was particularly taken by "Dirty Knees," a gripping saga that revolves around Laa-Laa ("Look at Laa-Laa's knees/Laa-Laa's knees are all dirty"), the almost-funky "Follow My Leader" and, of course, "Teletubbies Say 'Eh-oh!'," which would brighten any rave. Also here is "Ships," the nautical theme that played in the background of the scene described above. When I closed my eyes and listened to it, I was immediately filled with the bliss I'd felt throughout my first Teletubbies trip--and all without the bother of having to track down a drug dealer. How convenient.
Cher does techno! And she's coming to a bankruptcy-bound dance club near you! Just one problem, though. Instead of calling the disc Believe, she should have titled it Look, Madonna: I Have a Synthesizer, Too!
Memo to the artist: Techno was the next big thing four years ago, and just because Ms. Ciccone can handle this musical genre doesn't mean you should chance it. Alas, your commanding diva days are behind you. Better stick to that catalogue full of goth furniture you've been hyping of late. Not that you don't deserve credit for certain things--like launching a singing career while shackled to Sonny Bono's dubious musical "talent" and winning an Oscar for Moonstruck. But none of that gives you the right to do this to us.
Oh, yeah--the album. On the title track, an electronic waver disturbingly alters Cher's voice, and it's hardly the only scary moment here: If she didn't give children nightmares before, the creepy spoken declarations in "All or Nothing" ("Sometimes when you touch me/I just can't help myself/Desire makes me weak") should do the trick. Other tunes constitute a tangled web of confused lyrics and mismatched musical styles; for instance, a gospel choir forced to sing embarrassing nonsense like "Love is the groove in which we move" drops in and out of several songs, seemingly at random. Just as odd are "Dove L'Amore," which includes Italian words, Latin rhythms and random bursts of clapping; a weak jazz/funk groove dubbed "Takin' Back My Heart"; and "Taxi, Taxi," the sort of dance music that might be played by an organist at a baseball park. During this last song, Cher inexplicably demands, "Sing to me like Pavarotti/Sing to me of Spain/Take me to your operetta/And make it rain"--and then, to confound the confusion, adds, "You're as cool as Colorado" in a manner that didn't exactly fill me with home-state pride.
By disc's end, this musical smorgasbord has gone horribly foul. Cher dedicates it "in memory of Son," but actually remembering it is the last thing anyone would want to do.
More often than not, the music of supergroups tends to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The flaw is in the concept: Vanity projects are intended to please the act's members, which doesn't automatically translate into a satisfying listening experience. Exhibit A: the Traveling Wilburys.
On Golden Smog's third album, Weird Tales, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, the Jayhawks' Marc Perlman and Gary Louris, Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson, and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy (the No Depression all-stars who dominate the band) deftly sidestep this pitfall by sticking to what its members do so well within their own combos--making tuneful, uncomplicated rock that nods to country forebears. With the assistance of a secret weapon, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, the collective sounds cleaner, crisper and more professional than ever before.
If the album has a theme, it's experience: The players exude a measured, thirty-something wistfulness throughout songs that deal with growing up ("If I Only Had a Car"), romantic regret ("Lost Love"), old friends ("Looking Forward to Seeing You") and old times ("Reflections on Me," "Making Waves"). Toss in "Please Tell My Brother" and "Jennifer Save Me," a couple of delicate standouts, and you wind up with an alt-country Big Chill, albeit one that's not nearly as sullen or self-absorbed as that reference might suggest. It's a surprisingly consistent and compelling album that stands comfortably alongside the work of its members' main groups. And that's a weird tale indeed.