Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mystery men

Score: 5

When Ade Blackburn chants, "Keep yourself hidden," there are at least three other guys who know exactly what he's talking about. See, on stage and in their publicity photos, the four Brits who comprise Clinic wear surgical masks and dress alike, whether that means scrubs or suits or monastic robes. Their songs add to the mystique, with abstruse lyrics and a penchant for rhythm.

Visitations, their fourth album, testifies of an uneasy compromise between methodical studio tweaking and raw instrument bashing. Those contradictory impulses have arisen before, and Clinic have dealt with them on a case-by-case basis.

For 2002's Walking With Thee, the studio took precendence. Two years later, with Winchester Cathedral, Clinic distanced themselves from it, embracing the primal immediacy of laying down tracks live. 2000's Internal Wrangler fed off the friction, bounding from beachside repose to tangles of discord and back. The rub is that Visitations follows the same path as Internal Wrangler, only with less energy.

Oh, the bag of tricks has expanded, to be sure. "Gideon" splices up a cymbal's crash so that it whiffles, similar to the sound Saturday morning cartoons employ when someone stops time. "Children of Kellogg" opens with battle-charge MIDI trumpeting. "The Cape" aims to evoke a market in India or China with its rickshaw shk-shk-shk and snake charmer flute.

Ultimately, however, the album comes across as a less-inspired sequel. "Paradise" follows the chillout blueprint of "Earth Angel." The angular "Tusk," which bears more than a passing resemblance to "C.Q.," gives way to "Internal Wrangler" sound-alike "If You Could Read Your Mind." Clinic even returned to Gareth Jones, who mixed Internal Wrangler but none of their other albums, for Visitations. Yet there's no nocturnal lesson in haunting beauty like "Goodnight Georgie," and instead of sounding wound up amid his whines and trills, Blackburn sounds halfway reserved.

And while that makes Visitations a disappointment, it isn't a drag.

As an organ thrums in "Animal/Human," someone runs a hand over an autoharp like he's sharpening a knife. Just when your skin starts to crawl, guitarist Hartley throws in some wah-wicky-wah strumming a la U2's "Mysterious Ways."

Clinic like these ways.

Near the three-minute mark of "Children of Kellogg," drummer Carl Turney hits a triangle and the song jerks out of its buzz-and-thump furrowing and into a lounge tempo and a field recording of someone sawing wood by hand.

Darned if I know what it means. But I have four guys in mind who might know.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's a big country

Lucinda Williams
Score: 7

Jesse Sykes
& the Sweet Hereafter

Like, Love, Lust
& the Open Halls of the Soul

Score: 6

Lucinda Williams grew up in the South. Jesse Sykes grew up in the Northeast. Williams lives in Los Angeles. Sykes lives in Seattle. But it's the inner landscapes that really matter, and both artists have tromped through plenty of inhospitable regions.

Those journeys shaped West and Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul: the struggles, the heartaches, the regrets, the anger, the will to keep on going.

West, for the most part, is a quiet affair. The band exercises restraint, putting the focus on Williams' penetrating lyrics.

"What If," a meditation on how the world would change if everything were rearranged, begs to join John Lennon's "Imagine" and Joan Osborne's "One of Us" on the philosopher's playlist. It mixes the absurd ("If cats walked on water") with the bleak ("And flowers turned to stone") and ends up poignant ("If children grew up happier / And they could run with the wolves / And they never felt trapped / Or hungry or unloved.")

The hushed, haggard "Fancy Funeral" advises against splurging on last goodbyes because "No amount of riches / Can bring back what you've lost." Apply the money where it will make a difference, Williams says, like groceries and covering the bills.

On the one song Williams cuts her band loose, "Come On," she sounds empowered, hollering over the din. Although her voice tightens with contempt, it's apparent that she takes immense satisfaction in slagging off a self-absorbed suitor, wielding broken-bottle verses like "You think you're in hot demand / But you don't know where to put your hand."

If West is a diary, Like, Love, Lust is a manifesto. Encompassing at least four weighty and intangible subjects in the title alone, it aims to be grandiose and universal, and to do it without abandoning the Sweet Hereafter's dark country rock.

Appropriately, the most affecting moments on Like, Love, Lust often don't come from Sykes' lyrics, but from the larger presence of the guitars, or when a harmonica or horn section dominates a relative silence. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Wandscher unleashes not one but two searing guitar solos on "LLL," and "The Air Is Thin" piles up band members' vocals into a towering chorus.

It's too bad Like, Love, Lust has a drier sound than 2002's Reckless Burning and 2004's Oh, My Girl: It overemphasizes the wheeze of Sykes' voice. And that quality is more noticeable here because on several occasions Sykes sings with minimal or no accompaniment.

More important, however, is the fact she weaves a thread through the songs (that would be dysfunction), unifying the album with a love-is-a-battlefield theme. On the viola-caressed "Morning, It Comes," she says, "Baby i know / that this love is a feature / that's lost on us creatures so small."

Happy endings don't happen 'round here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hail to the Busdriver

(but only if you dig his crazy route)

Score: 5

Busdriver must love 7-Eleven's Fusion Energy coffee. You know: the kind with enough stimulants to make drug-sniffing dogs start foaming at the mouth.

His frenzied delivery forces reams of eccentric lyrics into nearly every song on RoadkillOvercoat, and his head-scratching style-morphing takes him all over the map. He goes from Hawkman ragga ribbit to Weird Al falsetto to the falling-all-over-himself flow of Del tha Funkee Homosapien --- sometimes switching it up in the middle of a verse ("Secret Skin"). On the streamlined hook of "Less Yes's, More No's," he even manages to evoke Trent Reznor.

'Course, if you don't have the liner notes handy, good luck deciphering half of what he's saying. He probably could blow by OutKast in a 50-rhyme dash. He cribs from the Atlanta duo's "B.O.B." on "Ethereal Driftwood," but he's no OutKast.

And let's be real: He could use some slow-and-steady on this album. The lines the average listener can pick up are the ones that stick. Those tend to be the choruses.

For the verses, Busdriver carps his way through injustices political and social, from reps who "want someone lowbrow, a philistine with iron-on irony" ("Casting Agents and Cowgirls") to everybody who "voted in a defrosted Cro-Magnon man" ("The Troglodyte Wins").

Though he declares himself to be left-wing, Busdriver's an equal-opportunity hater. Hippies are the target in "Kill Your Employer (Recreational Paranoia Is the Sport of Now)." Part grime and part primal, the track lambastes veggie-dog-eating peace marchers: "Let me guess, you're a macrobiotic cuisine prep-cook / With a textbook liberal outlook in an oppressed nook / Couch surfing, but your dad's got employment history at Halliburton / While you dress like wild mermen."

When Busdriver settles down, as on "Go Slow" (how apropos), the ride's considerably smoother. Contributing some much-needed balance in the vocal department, Bianca Casady of CocoRosie waves her freak folk wand and chants an incantation --- probably to control time, judging from the sedated beats per minute.

While it's at times puerile and overindulgent, RoadkillOvercoat refuses to be pinned down stylistically, much like its creator refuses to be put down by the Man. Just don't blast "Kill Your Employer" from your corporate cube, because your boss isn't likely to catch that it's about smelly peaceniks. But he'll understand the chorus.

So much for "Take this job and shove it."

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Downcast days

The Good, the Bad
& the Queen

The Good, the Bad
& the Queen

Score: 4

Oh, 2-D, what did they do to drive you away? Did you get tired of Murdoc flashing pentagrams? Was Russel throwing his weight around? Please don't let this foreshadow the "creative differences" announcement.

Because you and your animated pals have made better records than the markedly less animated musicians in The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

Damon Albarn, perhaps best known these days as 2-D, the main vocalist for Gorillaz, leads a supergroup comprised of bassist Paul Simonon (The Clash), guitarist Simon Tong (The Verve) and drummer Tony Allen (Fela Kuti) on a surprisingly underwhelming journey on The Good, the Bad & the Queen.

That queen part gives you an idea the album's about Britain, but good times are few and far between. Albarn mopes through song after song of the flat, the bland and the shiftless. Maybe it's because of Iraq. "Drink all day / coz the country is at war" he laments on "Kingdom of Doom," as though all life has offer is cold porridge and a front-row seat at the nation's public shaming.

Though Albarn's pace and stance recall some of his soggier work with Blur, the music easily could be mistaken for scrapped Gorillaz compositions. Plenty of the quirks are there: the impish keyboard trundle ("Northern Whale"), the outer space vibe ("Herculean"), the prominent bass ("The Bunting Song"), a choir ("Herculean"). The sonic resemblance is apparent on other songs, too, probably in no small part because Danger Mouse, who handled Demon Days, reprised his role as producer.

And all of these things work to the album's disadvantage, since the similarities underscore its shortcomings. The Good, the Bad & the Queen lacks the adventurousness of Gorillaz, and it lacks the shrewdness and wit of Blur.

Nevertheless, a few cuts are worth hearing. "80's Life" has a Beach Boys nod and a nice piano chord progression. "Three Changes" bustles with agitated clatter. By the time the other band members really assert themselves --- three minutes into the final track --- it's a welcome, rocking contrast to the pervading wet-blanket monotony.

You wonder what Albarn had them doing the rest of the time. Eating porridge?