Before the Dawn Heals Us
Rock bands working within traditional pop structures have it easy: They can get away with making the same good album over and over. That strategy won't produce the sort of oeuvre that makes a 20-year career, but new hooks and a fresh batch of choruses can guarantee an audience's loyalty across a handful of albums if a band maintains consistent quality. Atmospheric music makes that tougher. Much as you might like a certain pretty, airy album, how badly do you need to purchase its follow-up when you're likely only to play it while falling asleep or as background din at a dinner party? M83's Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts was a 2003 sleeper hit in the U.S., so 2005 should find no shortage of fans awaiting a sequel to the somnambulant, effects-heavy opus. Next to its synth-processed guitars, Before the Dawn Heals Us is almost redundant but, on its own, it's a fine album, perhaps even better than its predecessor. The new album's dreamy bits ("Don't Save Us From the Flames," "Farewell/Goodbye") are even dreamier, and the album is more diverse sonically and emotionally. The cinematic horror of "Car Chase Terror!" is a low point, but "*," with its superb take on the ever popular loud/quiet/loud gimmick, more than makes up for it, just as the fireworks at the beginning of "Let Men Burn Stars" justify the overwrought piano playing that follows. The comparative rave-up of "Fields, Shorelines and Hunters" and the prog tendencies apparent in "Can't Stop" and "Save" reveal potentially interesting new directions, but whether you'll be desperate for another, different dose of M83 in 2006 will be the real measure of this album's powers of attraction. KRISTAL HAWKINS
M83 play Chop Suey with Ulrich Schnauss and Hypatia Lake at 9 p.m. Tues., April 26. $12 adv.
Squat romance ain't all it's cracked up to be. My pal Tom once described the evolution of Scritti Politti from rangy, spluttering punk to avert-your-eyes glossy pop as the sound of singer Green Gartside getting better in bed. It's an assessment Green himself would probably agree with; in the terse, dismissive sleeve note to Early, a collection of Scritti's first recordings, he describes the music as "cringeworthy." It's certainly raw, poorly recorded, and sometimes obliquely played. But Early also crackles with Green's astounding guitar mangling, a puppy-dog-eager rhythm section, and the energy of a late-night speed session debating both Derrida and dub. Debut single "Skank Block Bologna" follows a doleful five-note bass line around town, as Green's rusty rhythm playing imitates drizzle. Later songs like "Opec-Imac" are barely there at all, bass pulses and scattered drums hardly anchoring Green's high, plaintive, haunting voice against the depthless murk of the nothing production. By the time of the 4 A-Sides EP, elements of pop were smoothing out the disintegrating skank. "Confidence" is grainy hand claps and gray-eyed soul, with Green hinting at his later marzipan sweetness. Then it was, depending on how you looked at it, either all over or just beginning. The group underwent an ideological revamp following an on-tour breakdown: Question-the-answers post-punk was out, and hide-the-medicine new pop was in. The first fruit was the gorgeous, lapidary "The 'Sweetest Girl'" single, inverted commas hiding not just another lover's discourse but also honeyed keyboards and a pop-reggae backbeat, while the B-side, "Lions After Slumber," pushes us ever closer to Culture Club (nice leg warmers, guys) with the faintly sour aftertaste of the old Ladbroke Grove rigor. JESS HARVELL
Long before Blue Note, powered by Norah Jones cash flow, started making "eclectic" signings such as Al Green and Van Morrison, the label was noted for left-of-center jazz artists. Pianist Jason Moran hardly challenges Thelonious Monk for inventiveness, but his playful vision has made for entertaining records that recall another previous Noter: Javon Jackson, a saxophonist whose 1996 masterwork A Look Within ranged from Muddy Waters to Serge Gainsbourg. Moran has similarly interpolated everything from hard-bop classics (2000's New Directions summit with Greg Osby and Stefon Harris) to hip-hop while steadily building his profile, which even Playboy has recognized, giving him its newly minted Jazz Artist of the Year award. Same Mother opens with "Gangsterism on the Rise," a New Orleans second-line rhythm kept surprising by a continual rumble from drummer Nasheet Waits, who along with guitarist Marvin Sewell takes the similar traditionalisms of "Jump Up" out back and roughs them up. Even Mal Waldron's sweet "Fire Waltz" is given a threatening twirl via a nonstop series of tempo changes. From there, Moran reaches into Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky for a roiling "Field of the Dead" that makes way for the album's pensive triumphs—his own "Restin'" and wife Alicia's "The Field." The only time all this recontextualization doesn't work, interestingly, is on a listless read of the Albert King touchstone "I'll Play the Blues for You." The drowsy "Gangsterism" reprise at CD's end is more artfully draggy—a perfect soundtrack for Starbucks' Media Bar, anyone? RICKEY WRIGHT
PETRA HADEN AND BILL FRISELL
Petra Haden and Bill Frisell
Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out
When the culture cops finally get around to rehabilitating the awesome miasma of mid-'90s alt-pop, my guess is they'll start with Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray, two acts whose tech-bubble nonchalance seemed smug at the time but whose sunny vibes will likely be fondly remembered as a vestige of carefree prewar spirit. I hope their next stop is That Dog., a quirky Los Angeles quartet with a ridiculous period at the end of their name who made three great albums that actualized Kathleen Hanna's latent desire to rock the shopping malls; they were three young women and one older guy who wrote songs about desire and frustration and pizza filled equally with post-grunge guitar fuzz and sugary three-part harmonies. Only they didn't actually rock the shopping malls, since as a commercial entity That Dog. couldn't muster the market share of Letters to Cleo, much less Veruca Salt. So their triumph remained an artistic one: industry-insider kids making music for clued-in trainspotters on David Geffen's dime. How Sept. 10.
Petra Haden, who sang and played violin in That Dog., hasn't exactly pursued the carrot of mainstream appeal any more assiduously on her own. Imaginaryland, a solo disc she released in 1996 on L.A. indie Win Records, mostly consists of multitracked a cappella songlets with instructive titles like "Cuckoo Clock" and "Song for the Whales"; there's also a dizzying version of Bach's "Prelude No. 2 in C Minor" that includes a Ramones-style out-loud count-off. Haden's worked with Miss Murgatroid, too, an artist best described as an experimental accordionist, and appeared on records by Beck, Green Day, Everclear, and other acts who've successfully rocked shopping malls in a more than figurative sense.
At a performance with Murgatroid at Seattle's OK Hotel a few years ago, Haden met renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; their chemistry spurred by the fact that Frisell had played with Haden's dad, the jazz bassist Charlie Haden, the two decided to collaborate. The result, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, is an uncommonly lovely example of boutique art-folk indulgence—the methodological opposite of That Dog.'s self-consciously aspirant major-label indie rock. As produced and engineered by Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, each tune floats in a transparent broth of delicate reverb and close-miked vocals; since the album mostly comprises covers—Elliott Smith's "Satellite," Coldplay's "Yellow," Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"—you focus on the sound of Frisell's and Haden's instruments, the sympathetic way they intertwine. I can't remember hearing a "Moon River" that better captures Holly Golightly's rumpled innocence at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Of course, after Norah Jones, cutesy acoustic renditions of well-known songs still guarantee a niche audience of attentive NPR subscribers. To truly recognize how little Haden learned about making it from That Dog., check out her new Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, an even more instructively titled a cappella re-creation of the classic Who album that Mike Watt convinced Haden to make. Like Gus Van Sant's bonkers (not bonkers) Psycho remake, it's artistic license run amok, cultural rehabilitation of a text that hardly needs the help. In other words: music. How utterly right now. MIKAEL WOOD
Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996–2003
From 1996 to 2003, the span of these BBC recordings, Mogwai's musical persona moved from brazen almost-metal dude to bliss-rock namby-pamby type. Though their collected lyrics could fit on one crumpled college rule, those, too, have been split between New Age nonsense and campfire terror. Mogwai are a band of bad wizards, their hucksterisms hidden in distorted mystery, words whispered and suggestions made to play on the dark imagination. Government Commissions, a handful of live sessions with BBC radio DJs Steve Lamacq and the dearly departed John Peel, pulls back the curtain of late-'90s studio magic to reveal sad little men making epics out of thick smoke and thin guitar chords. The album collects work from each of their four albums and several EPs, working the rocker/drifter personality split throughout. "Like Herod," from 1997's Young Team, stirs plaintive, clean-channel guitars until the mixture bubbles and swirls. It seems Mogwai are hesitant to utter the words that will unleash their distortion wrath. That shift from dream to nightmare became their signature sound; the expectation anxiety is palpable on "Like Herod" and the equally dramatic "New Paths to Helicon Part 1," a 1997 single. "Kappa," "Cody," and "R U Still in 2 It" map how the band went from Louisville post-rock's drunk distant cousin to the genre's most delicate balladeers. "Hunted by a Freak," deserves its place at the top of the disc, not only for recording angel Peel's haunted introduction, but because this late track (from 2003's Happy Songs for Happy People) conjures all of Mogwai's best assets: brooding electronics, swirling delays, immense but unobtrusive kit fills, and a truly majestic vocal layered so lushly inside the vocoder it's sung through that its after-echoes become the main melody, turning the band's weakness into its greatest strength. Maybe they aren't such bad wizards after all. DAPHNE CARR
For a woman with such a fierce rep, Jennifer Lopez has a voice that completely lacks bite; Britney Spears' processed burbling sounds fanged by comparison. J.Lo's unimposing la-la-la is more of a setback than ever on her latest set, where she's trying out her pipes on more ballads (still can't deliver on those, unfortunately) and cuts that strive to strike a balance between sultry softness and ass-kicking attitude. The only time the album comes close to working is on obviously single-bound tracks produced slickly enough to convince you that girlfriend's million-dollar booty is shaking somewhere in the electronics. "Whatever You Wanna Do" sounds like pure summertime fun, and so does the bouncy, sexy, silly "Cherry Pie," which finds the ever-married diva wondering, "Damn, why do the wild ones turn me on?" It's not clear, however, why La Lopez sees any of this as "rebirth," unless she's acknowledging that a lot of it sounds like recycled, late-period Sheena Easton hip-hop humping Janet Jackson's leg. "Get Right," the lead single, is the best thing here, featuring a dirty beat and the funkiest horn hook intro since Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" (which everyone involved has evidently studied several times)— Jennifer's croon is still too weak to really carry it off, but the song gives you a solid 3:45 of bump and grind anyway. STEVE WIECKING
VARIOUS ARTISTS/MIXED BY STEVE BUG
Steve Bug Presents Bugnology
A certain tension always exists between a DJ and his or her records: Will the mixer dominate the mix, or the mixed? At one extreme are DJs who just want to showcase the tracks that make them love music; at the other end are turntablists who employ records as tools in building their own compositions. To map the well-trod middle, picture Jeff Mills frenetically playing the best minute or half-minute of record after record, tossing them in a pile as he goes, and try to decide whether he's honoring those records or pillaging them. Bugnology gives similar grounds for pause. For his third mix CD, Poker Flat boss Stefan Bruegesch brought 20 tip-top recent minimal house and techno tracks to his studio and used his software to bend them to his will. The result is an unusually unified mix, consistent without being monotonous. Tracks are edited, layered, rearranged, but never lose their character. The chunky percussion and melody of Justin Martin's "The Sad Piano" remain intact. If I:Cube's "Oblivion" bass line is slowed down to jungle depths and added to the track that precedes it, so much the better. And whether that staticky mess that transforms into a beat in Kango's Stein Massiv's "Saltvan" is on the record or all Bug's doing, it sounds great. Is it egotistical to name a mix after yourself, or to spend nearly eight minutes of it showing that you can give its most recognizable track (Justus Koehncke's "Timecode") a little more disco-house kick in the beginning and a mix-fitting bubbling near the end? Maybe, but here it's justified. KRISTAL HAWKINS
Alternate title: Negro/Black, to denote the split in terminology between the 1966–68 first disc and the 1971–74 second. Not that the differences are always clear-cut: There's some uncharacteristic diffidence in '66, and his '60s delivery as a whole is laid back compared with the later work. But even then, Pryor's working out ideas and bits that would appear as late as 1975's Is It Something I Said?—his preacher character is already boasting of having "met God in 1929" while eating a sandwich on the street. (A conversation between "Heart & Brain" somewhat eerily evokes the true heart-attack story a decade later in his first concert film.) The mask of friendly professionalism slips on "Jail," an arrest story whose embittered passion is all over his voice; he also presages N.W.A's complaints about black authority figures a little too eager to please their white colleagues. By '71, the long pieces with multiple voices have been tightened and sped up, and by the end of disc two he's no longer shy about acknowledging his whorehouse childhood. There's even a little music, with Pryor's mouth doing a good Tony Williams impression to set a scene. Most of this will be familiar to owners of the myriad releases Laff and other labels hawked into the '80s, and from the Wattstax soundtrack. This authorized set with corrected edits, however, is a valuable improvement, and even more so in light of the multiple sclerosis that has rendered Pryor mute. RICKEY WRIGHT