Good Songs From Useless Albums


“Atomic Moog (Cornelius Mix)”

(Ninja Tune)

In October 2000, Ninja Tune issued Xen Cuts, a three–CD box set that summed up the label’s wares to date, sorta. In February 2004, Ninja Tune issued Zen: A Retrospective and Zen RMX: Remix Retrospective, a pair of double–CD compilations that . . . sum up the label’s wares to date, sorta. On one level, this looks more redundant than it is—there’s almost no repetition among the selections. On another, you might think that, out of 97 tracks total, there’d be more than two (DJ Vadim and Sarah Jones’ FCC–unapproved “Your Revolution” and Squarepusher’s remix of East Flatbush Project’s “Tried by 12”) worthy of defining the label more than once—which brings us to the nut of the problem, which is that Ninja Tune’s identity is so whimsical it’s almost impossible to care all that much about nailing it down. (Or maybe that identity isn’t really about the music: Ninja Tune: DVD Retrospective is pretty uneven, too, but at least you get snazzy visuals to make up for the tunes’ general lack of inspiration.) It’s telling, though, that of the new pair of comps, Remix Retrospective is slightly more fun, if you want to call a bunch of beat-happy potheads laughing at jokes nobody else cares about “fun.” This deep-space remix of one of Coldcut’s signature tunes by Japanese pop savant Cornelius, which explodes from a satellites-are-spinning opening into what sounds like a casino’s worth of whirs, pings, and bells to breakbeat-driven crunch that’d give the Chemical Brothers pause, is really all you need—from the comp it comes from, and maybe even more than that.


“Au Fond du Reve Dore”

(Hear Music)

Picking on Hear Music, the arm of Warner Bros. reissue subsidiary Rhino devoted to putting together collections that retail exclusively at Starbucks (at least until someone sells ’em back to Everyday or thereabouts), is not only cheap, it’s inaccurate. Sure Starbucks, like NPR or IKEA, has become synonymous with middlebrow good taste, and yes, middlebrow good taste is the enemy of innovation and/or energy a lot of the time. (Accusing the soundtrack for a coffeehouse chain of enervation: Spot the irony.) But Hear has put out a handful of gems—last year’s Mistletoes and Merriment went home to Minneapolis with me last Christmas, and I’ll road-trip with Willie Nelson’s recent edition of the Artists’ Choice series anytime. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Love Songs, the label’s initial foray into all-new content, in which a handful of alt-rockers cover their favorite love songs. Let’s just say that even die-hard Aimee Mann fans of my acquaintance think it’s a bad idea for her to do “What the World Needs Now,” and that you don’t have to distrust corporate synergy to find the entire disc a wash. The great exception is this French chanson, done by, as Jon Dolan put it, “That band who kinda sounded like Weezer in the late mid-’90s who now kinda sound like Coldplay in the early mid-’00s,” which is so straightforwardly gorgeous you might actually be tempted to try their real records.


“The Rat”

(Record Collection)

The Strokes? Puh-leeeze. If you want an overhyped, underachieving bunch of nouveau-riche N.Y.C. guitar bores, this band not only fits the bill, they’ve got a pedigree—eight years ago, keyboardist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist Paul Maroon were in Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the most notable marketing disasters of the alt-rock era’s twilight. Now that they have an Actual Scene to latch onto, their will to power has been unleashed, and anyone who outgrew emo before they hit puberty is advised to run for cover. On their second album, Bows and Arrows, awesomely self-pitying vocalist Hamilton Leithauser makes the dude from Interpol sound like Missy Elliott in comparison. (Interpol sound like Timbaland in relation to these guys, too.) So how do you explain this feral blast, in which Maroon riffs like he’s holding onto his guitar for dear life in the middle of a hurricane and Leithauser evokes (and induces) real terror? Maybe someone threatened to make ’em get real jobs.