disclaimer is not a toy


Half-Handed Cloud

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Willie's comments: John Ringhofer- the guy who is Half-Handed Cloud- doesn't really write songs as such. He writes Christian jingles, and then puts them to tape using an acoustic guitar, various cheapo instruments (ranging from Casio drums to squeaky toys, with friends contributing string or brass flourishes when necessary), and several tracks' worth of awe-inspiring backing vocals that are usually mixed as high as the main vocal part. In a voice reminiscent of Paul Simon, Ringhofer will introduce an incredibly catchy melodic theme, run through it a couple times so you get the point, and then skedaddle off to another song before you have a chance to even think about singing along, but half these tunes will be running through your head- and into each other- all day. At first, I found it a wee bit annoying that he's so antsy about his tunes, since 13 of these 25 tracks don't even reach the one-minute mark, and a few of them ("Rewire My Desire," "Holy Pouch Shoe Guidance") start striking the set and loading up the van just when it seems like they're ready to hit a climax. However, once it settles in that Ringhofer has more modest aspirations than writing the Great American Three-Minute Pop Song, it's easy to groove on his sincere, sweet tunelets in a Marshmallow Coast-y kind of way. I've mentioned that the songs are written mostly from a Christian perspective, and I know that's probably a turn-off to those of you who are now imagining a preachy, shiny man singing songs about the eternal torment that waits for women who have abortions or wear slacks instead of shapeless dresses that are feminine without arousing impure desires in the men-folk. But really, it's not that big a deal. Even in songs like "Secret Christ Costume" or "Those People We Made? We Love 'Em!" (a suite of four songs based on the book of Genesis), the lyrics are personal, funny, and heartfelt enough that they should be palatable to everyone except those who are so stubborn that they can't hear of anyone else having a spiritual life without flying into a Yngwie Malmsteen-esque, "You've unleashed the fuckin' fury" rage. Kind of like the Danielson Familie (on whose Soundsfamilyre label this was released), but in a way that isn't intolerably fey. Half-Handed Cloud isn't for everyone, but if like me, you're into the inimitable thrill of peering into someone else's heart through home recordings, this makes a great snack. Something about that last sentence sounds vaguely vampire-like, doesn't it? Weird. Grade: B+

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: SUFJAN STEVENS

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Neil Halstead

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Sleeping on Roads

Willie's comments: While Neil Halstead's first solo album isn't a huge departure from the comforting-yet-lyrically-bleak folk-rock that he performs in Mojave 3, Sleeping on Roads subtly coats his intimate, beautiful melodies in arrangements that are less instantaneously moving than those we're used to, but that are no less effective once they hit you. Though the acoustic guitar is still Halstead's weapon of choice and his vocal lines still recall Roger Waters as much as they do early Leonard Cohen, many of these songs take on a minimal quiet-rock quality influenced by the most mellow moments of Luna and Yo La Tengo. (The blissful "Two Stones in My Pocket" would fit in nicely on the latter's hushed Summer Sun.) Apart from the straightforward, spare, and regretful folk of "Martha's Mantra (For the Pain)" and "High Hopes," the songs are beefed up with horns, subtly chiming guitars, barely perceptible drums, and keyboards, but in a style that's so heavy on long, held notes and homogenously pretty collections of sound that it takes a few listens before the songs make much of an impression. "See You on the Rooftops," for instance, maintains such a droney atmosphere that it grazes dullness during its lengthy outro, but there's still no denying the impact of Halstead's bittersweet whisper-singing melodies. Oddly, the album highlight, "Dreamed I Saw Soldiers," is set to music borrowed from the song "Ohio" by fellow acoustic rocker Damien Jurado, but the sorrowful melody is so piercing that you'd never know it wasn't a Halstead composition if not for the liner notes. (And you'd never in a million years guess that the ordinarily unremarkable Jurado could pen something so captivating.) It's not nearly as heartbreakingly beautiful as Mojave 3's Excuses for Travellers, but this effort basks and shimmers in a way that's ultimately just as rewarding. Sure beats the Kings of Convenience! Grade: A-

SEE ALSO: MOJAVE 3

SEE ALSO: SLOWDIVE

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Neil Hamburger

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America's Funnyman

Willie's comments: I don't usually review stand-up comedy records on this site, for a few reasons: I don't generally buy stand-up comedy records, the few I own don't really have much re-listening value (no matter how good someone's delivery might be, once you know the joke, you know the joke), and humor is pretty subjective to begin with. However, Neil Hamburger has sidestepped all three of those pitfalls: I do buy his records, his humor is so subtle that several listens are often rewarded if not required to fully get the jokes, and he is objectively the funniest stand-up comedian in the world. Problem solved! What you need to know about Neil Hamburger is that he's not your average stand-up comedian. It's what The Onion refers to as "anti-humor." Like other artists who hide behind a guise of incompetence or stupidity to make really smart jokes and satire (think Ween, Andy Kaufman, Beavis and Butt-Head, or Howard Stern), Neil's zipper shtick is that he is the most pathetically awful comedian ever born. On America's Funnyman, he brilliantly mocks every stand-up cliche you can think of, and many that you may not have ever noticed exist until Neil gets them totally, transcendentally wrong. For instance, he wrecks the very first joke on the album- a painfully unfunny truism about credit card bills ("Factory Outlet Malls")- by stumbling over the punchline. He plows ahead with a joke that depends upon a certain level of audience participation ("The Audience") even after he doesn't receive any- and then becomes defensively flustered by the audience's somewhat hostile reaction! He tells jokes that are wince-inducingly bad to begin with, but in such a way that they don't even make sense! (After speaking indignantly about celebrities who get bumped to the front of the line for organ transplants, the payoff is, "The way my career is going, if I needed a transplant, they'd move me to the back of the line!") This isn't like that bad stand-up comedian character Molly Shannon played on SNL (the one who kept going, "Don't get me started") that was funny for about three seconds and then became as annoyingly repetitive as most actual bad stand-ups. For the entire record, Neil keeps finding new non-sequiturs to spout and embarrassing professional predicaments to become embroiled in. I highly encourage you to go to CDNow and listen to a few sound clips of Mr. Hamburger at work, because he is an absurd mastermind. If you've ever wondered why stand-up died a horrific, horrific death in the early '90s, this album will illustrate it for you in a way that will have your face red with laughter. Grade: A

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Raw Hamburger

Willie's comments: After America's Funnyman was released to somewhat disappointing sales, Neil's stalwart manager, Art Huckman, thought that the ingredient that was missing from the comedian's recipe for superstardom might be "blue" humor. Thus, Raw Hamburger captures Neil's awkward attempts to shoehorn "dangerous" material into his routine, with results even more disastrously hilarious than his last album. (Basically, it's a send-up of hack comedians who think that gratuitous profanity makes their dull humor more powerful and edgy, and then Neil takes that caricature one step further, turning phrases like "motherfucking cocksucking whore" into the ostensible punchline itself... Trust me, it's laugh-till-you-cry funny. You see, this is why it doesn't pay to analyze humor.) Despite moments like the audience-baiting "Cursing" or the pseudo-social commentary of "Living Life on the Edge" (a much-needed jab at Bill Hicks that is admirable in its subtle nastiness), poor ol' Neil just doesn't have the aggressive persona to pull off this sort of thing, even resorting to a few self-loathing apologies throughout the record. The end product just sounds like a doddering weirdo with Tourette's who somehow managed to get ahold of a microphone, and again, it's such smart humor that it almost defies description. Just to give one example of the multilayered genius you'll hear on Raw Hamburger, there's a track which is provocatively entitled "Beaver." Well, it's actually a joke about Leave It to Beaver. And it's not really a joke per se... it's just a bizarre rant about anachronisms on Leave It to Beaver, in which he inexplicably claims that he noticed that the Beav had a CD player in one episode. Only instead of correctly defining these mistakes as "anachronisms," he misidentifies them as "spoonerisms." And throughout this entire piece, you can hear the angrily confused mutterings of a disaffected audience member who happened to be sitting right next to the mobile recording unit ("What is he talking about? This is just stupid!"). There are a million deadpan gems like that strewn throughout. Again, the more you watched Comedy Central in the early '90s, the funnier this will be to you, but this is quite honestly the greatest comedy album I've ever heard. HINT: For added fun, play this CD for your friends with no prior explanation. If they're hip enough, they'll catch on quickly and walk around saying, "Thaaaaaaat's my life!" for weeks on end. If not, it's hugely entertaining to watch people who don't get it, because they will get actively angry at this album, thus providing you with even more laughs. I cannot tell you how wonderful this CD is. Grade: A+

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Left for Dead in Malaysia

Willie's comments: As the title suggests, Neil is in Malaysia for this album. And his questionably ethical manager, Art Huckman, has ditched him after Neil made an on-stage reference to Art's ex-lover. And no one in the audience understands a word Neil is saying. And Neil's ex-wife is marrying a dentist back in the States, after being divorced for only two years! ("Do we have any Malaysian dentists here tonight? Well, stay away from my wife! Tell your brethren in America to do the same!") And, at one point, the audience gets impatient waiting for the karaoke session to start after Neil's set, and just turns on the jukebox. And Neil is drunk on the free tropical drinks that the venue has provided him. And he's still telling wince-inducing non-jokes like, "How many Spice Girls does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Well, it was five, and now it's four, and I'm sure any day now, it'll be down to three!" And oh, crimony, those are the highlights of this album. But don't let this description of the sadness of Neil's situation dissuade you from checking this out! I purchased this record at one of Neil's shows in Detroit this summer, and my brother and I were laughing so hard as we listened to this while I drove him (my brother) back to his apartment that I practically spun off the road. Neil's really just trying to fill up his alotted time so he can get paid for it, so it's little more than a stream-of-consciousness ramble by America's $1 Funnyman as he somehow finds another way to become more miserable than he already was. And with Neil's inimitable strength of phrasing and delivery, it's another gem. Grade: A-

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Laugh Out Lord

Willie's comments: For years, the honorable comedian would allude to an album of religious jokes on the horizon whenever he was interviewed, but that project never seemed to materialize for one reason or another. Well, thanks to Drag City Records and Glory Home Records (the most illustrious Christian record label in Oklahoma), Mr. Hamburger finally scraped together enough support for his Laugh Out Lord project to finally bring his message of laughter to the masses. And, as one might expect from the fact that his stand-up career has been one lengthy illustration of Murphy's Law ever since its inception, Laugh Out Lord is less an album of soul-encouraging funny business than it is a hilarious document of a hack comedian hitting bottom in his life. His once-infallible catchphrases fall upon deaf/hostile ears ("Condoms 2002"), he is so thoroughly sapped of his enthusiasm for performing that his jokes are frequently diverted into bitter, nonsensical rants (about AOL, most humorously), and he starts using his miniscule moments in the limelight as a means of airing any sort of stream-of-consciousness opinions that enter his mind. A joke about his daughter, for instance, goes careening off the tracks when, apropos of nothing, Hamburger begins a lengthy tirade about the substandard quality of a mattress he slept on at a Best Western years ago ("It was like sleeping on a sack of dirt!")... before ultimately concluding, "I'd stay there again." Religious-themed humor really doesn't enter the picture until the record's fortieth and final track, where poor ol' Neil attempts a few utterly random holy gut-busters ("Why did God invent Alan Alda? He needed some way of transporting all those Golden Globe awards to hell!") before experiencing a fully-blown crisis of faith onstage.

As satire, Laugh Out Lord doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of brilliance that Raw Hamburger did. Though you'll still laugh harder at Hamburger's Willy Loman-as-stand-up-comedian routine than anyone on Comedy Central Presents (Paul F. Tompkins excepted), he occasionally skewers a few comedic cliches that he's skewered before ("Our President," "Tribute to the Greats"), and those segments simply aren't as funny in their unfunniness as they could be. That's nitpicking, I know, especially when you've got an album that delivers priceless moments of silliness that shift abruptly from hoary puns to character assassinations of celebrities that are dazzling in their unmotivated inappropriateness. (The album is worth picking up just to answer the ages-old question, "Why does ET, the Extra-Terrestrial, like Reese's Pieces so much?") And plus, you get two infectious, lo-fi synth-pop numbers performed by Neil and Today's Sounds (AKA ex-Meat Puppet Derrick Bostrom)! Actually, I don't know what I was talking about before- most of this album is unfocused, random, bad humor at its best. Which is to say, exactly the way Neil Hamburger does it, God love 'im. Grade: A-

Great Moments at Di Presa's Pizza House

Willie's comments: The subtitle of this album stipulates, "with TV comic Neil Hamburger," which is important, for although it's an essential listen for Neil's many fans, it's not a Neil Hamburger comedy album in the sense we're used to. You see, the time was, Neil had a perennial home in which to showcase his comedy stylings, in much the same way that the aforementioned Paul F. Tompkins is the house comic at Hollywood hotspot Largo, or that Pauly Shore could often be found at The Comedy Store because his mom founded the place. Neil's comedy headquarters for over a decade? Di Presa's Pizza. After serving its tiny California community for over forty years, Di Presa's has now sadly closed its doors, but the Italian food historian in you can now relive the rise and fall of this influential pizzeria on this CD, which sounds less like a comedy record than an informational audio exhibit you'd listen to at a particularly sad town's chamber of commerce. Neil is the narrator, and apart from a few brief- but priceless- comedy snippets (including a rare routine about the unsanitary conditions of the Di Presa's toilet- "Who would want to eat a piece of pizza sitting on that?!"- which owner Rono Laird felt hit too close to home), Neil's contributions to this album pretty much consist of narrating and providing the occasional autobiographical anecdote about the way his career intertwined with the restaurant's existence. Fear not, though: Neil's narration skills are every bit as sharp as his stand-up skills, as evidenced by his claim that Di Presa's was "the oldest pizza parlor in the United States! Well, not literally..." In his inimitable way, he grumbles and stumbles his way through the history of the local landmark (which was founded in 1962, at which time "popular young president John F. Kennedy [was counting] down the months until his tragic assassination"), assisted by testimonials from Laird, several longtime customers, a food critic, and other fringe characters in the Di Presa's story, as well as by a tremendously funny and liberally employed selection of public domain incidental music. Though Neil gives it his all (or however much of his all remains), the real star of the album is Laird, who looks back on the enterprise with a uniquely bristly nostalgia, whether he's recalling his original innovation of presenting the customers with "the combination of pizza and a pipe organ," lambasting the local health department for not looking at the big picture during their inspections, or, at one point, inexplicably adopting a falsetto voice and posing as a great-grandmother who enjoyed Di Presa's "cheap food" more than she does her own ever-growing brood. As with all Neil Hamburger albums, every deadpan detail is thought-out to emphasize the folly of man, and the portrait that ultimately emerges on Great Moments isn't just one of a single restaurant that nobly soldiered on after its original owner committed suicide to escape his gambling debts, or even of the strife-laden comedian with whom the restaurant developed a symbiotic relationship, but of an entire struggling community that truly deserved the service Di Presa's provided. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Norville Barnes writes: I just read your Neil Hamburger reviews, and I gotta ask: what's wrong with Bill Hicks?

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MARK PRINDLE; MEAT PUPPETS

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The Handsome Family

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Odessa

Willie's comments: The Handsome Family is a terrific duo (wife-and-husband team Rennie and Brett Sparks) who, more often than not, are lumped under the “alt-country” label for making indie rock that’s twangy and drawly. While they certainly owe a creative debt to the straightforward misery and whiskey-soaked, fatalistic humor of country musicians like Hank Williams, their musical influences reach back even farther into American folk music—while still drawing on contemporary figures like Nick Cave and Tom Waits to give their haunting, haunted music a truly disturbing soul. Their debut, 1995’s Odessa, mostly predates the formula for which they’re best known- Rennie writing sharply-observed, literary character sketches which Brett attaches to slow backwoods arrangements- but it’s mostly a charming document of a band in search of its voice. The best songs could seamlessly fit in with their later work (the stalker/murder ballad "Arline," the common man's hymn "Water Into Wine"), but it's hard to see most of the record as being of a piece with their popular oeuvre. The Handsome Family most people know and love would never record stinkers like the tedious "Gorilla" or "She Awoke With a Jerk" (on which Brett is so off-key he may as well be a Linda McCartney bootleg), but they also wouldn't record anything like the nifty "Moving Furniture Around," which is a hilarious country parody that would make the Butthole Surfers proud ("No place to park in my neighborhood, so there's $100 tickets all over the ground/All the cops keep writing us up and we keep throwin' 'em down") or the invigorating PJ Harvey tribute "Big Bad Wolf," which is one of several tracks that feature uncharacteristically loud post-Pixies guitars to good effect. Odessa remains the Family’s most eclectic album, and it’s one that’s generally worth your time even if it’s by no means their finest. Grade: B+

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Milk and Scissors

Willie's comments: Milk and Scissors marks the point in their musical career where the Handsome Family starts to really figure out where they’re going. It’s not so much a catch-all of styles the way Odessa was, instead focusing almost exclusively on articulate, semi-genuine country-based indie-rock. Now that Rennie’s writing almost all the lyrics, you wind up with a lot of distinctive, three-minute stories so detailed it’s hard to tell where the black humor ends and gothic emotion begins. “The King Who Wouldn’t Smile” tells of a cartoonishly dour regent who “cried so much that herds of deer gathered to lick his salty tears,” and “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” lovingly describes the aviatrix’s life flashing before her eyes, but Rennie fills her songs with so much keen, bleak minutiae that even the most high-concept songs are relatable. “Lake Geneva,” for instance, is about going camping with a lightning strike victim—a situation with which fewer than 20% of listeners have experience, I’d imagine—but she paints such vivid moments in which “raccoons in the darkness drag off your hotdog buns” and “truckers chain-smoke Camels over plastic cups of juice” that it’s difficult not to let it get to you.

The music Brett provides for these tales is generally far cleverer than that on Odessa, too; rather than being content to satisfice and churn out a too-easy country backing for his wife’s lyrics, his melodies (like those of Stephin Merritt and Joe Pernice in their most countrified moments) take enough gently unexpected turns to earn their individuality. Influences are transcended here, I guess is what I’m saying. For example, both “The Dutch Boy” and “Emily Shore 1819-1839” seem directly derived from the Pixies’ freak-rock dirge “Silver,” but they’re also both great songs (particularly the former, which closes with some ghostly steel drum work), and “Drunk By Noon” is even jauntier than Merle Haggard’s most upbeat celebrations of hardscrabble ennui. Granted, “#1 Country Song” is the sort of predictable genre exercise Brett usually studiously avoids, and the vibe is further broken when the Family opens the album up to nonentity songs by Brett’s brother Darrell (“3-Legged Dog,” a so-so bit of Lou Reed adulation) and guitarist Mike Werner (the annoyingly sloppy instrumental “Puddin’ Fingers”). But even if the Sparkses aren’t yet fully comfortable in their niche, Milk and Scissors contains too many winsomely downbeat treasures for its flaws to matter much. Grade: B+

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Through the Trees

Willie's comments: You know how it feels when you encounter a piece of art so amazing and perfect that you want to tell everyone you know, but you almost don’t dare because you fear they won’t appreciate it properly? Through the Trees is like that. The Sparkses still write songs that deserve disclaimers for those faint of heart or who oppose imagination, but the philistines who’d heed the warnings don’t deserve this album anyway. It’s “alt-country,” I suppose, but it still wouldn’t be rejected by most people who write MySpace profiles that describe their musical taste as “anything but country.” Brett’s downbeat melodies are no longer predictable, but instead have attained a pedal-steel sheen that earns them a space in the indie-rock royal tree next to Yo La Tengo, Lambchop, Barbara Manning, and the Magnetic Fields. There’s a certain below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line twang to the songwriting, but it boasts the open-road freedom of, say, Johnny Cash rather than the “my country right or wrong” sloganeering of a douchebag like Toby Keith. Rennie’s lyrics can go toe-to-toe with those of Tom Waits, in the sense that they can drop lines of utter silliness into the mix without sacrificing the ability to pierce your heart with observational arrows (“The woman downstairs lost all her hair and wore a beret in the laundry room/I borrowed her soap and bought her a Coke but she left it on a dryer”). There’s plenty of Appalachian weirdness here, but Through the Trees isn’t for those whose lives are so mainstream they can’t relate to the piercingly sad, Roald Dahl-inspired melody of “The Giant of Illinois” or the autoharp-based vengefulness of “My Sister’s Tiny Hands.” The more I listen to Through the Trees, the closer it creeps to my top 20 albums of all time, and even though I’m a petty, tiny man, I hope that’s enough to encourage you to check it out. There are no words for how smart and melodic it is. Grade: A+

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Down in the Valley

Willie's comments: This is a refreshingly redundant compilation that doesn't try to tempt existing fans into purchasing a wad of material they already possess. No non-album cuts, no remastering, no trickery: just two songs from Odessa, seven from Milk & Scissors, five from Through the Trees, and one ("Don't Be Scared") that would soon appear on In the Air. I wish they'd simply reissued the first two albums on one CD, because although neither is a masterpiece, paring either album down to compilation selections seems as needlessly heartless as adopting only one of a set of orphaned triplets. (Through the Trees, again, is a masterpiece.) Still, every song here except the uninteresting "#1 Country Song" really belongs in your collection regardless of the form it's packaged in, so if you still need an introduction to the Handsomes and see Down in the Valley cheap, pounce on it! Then buy it. Grade: A-

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In the Air

Willie's comments: You know, regardless of the Handsome Family's musicianship, their records will always justify your attention as long as Rennie's lyrics continue to be worth a gander. Or at least a gosling. (That joke courtesy my father-in-law.) Luckily, she's in fine form here: In the Air focuses almost exclusively on the workings of unsettled minds, from the merely phobic ("Don't Be Scared," "In the Air") to the criminally destructive and violent (lots of other songs). As always, she tells her stories through precise, barely significant details ("Tuesday at dawn, Michael's glasses washed ashore with a Styrofoam box and two broken oars") which Brett mutters with detachment both mournful and wry. I wish that sort of subtly nimble imagination were more present in the music, frankly, because that's where In the Air becomes rather thin and samey. Not that the traditional country from which they take their inspiration is exactly the most eclectic of genres, but this album could use more gentle diversity of the type Brett injects on "When That Helicopter Comes" (holy-roller bluegrass informed by David Icke-style paranoia) and "Poor, Poor Lenore" (a faux-Gypsy dirge). If nothing else, it could use less redneck-bar karaoke like "The Sad Milkman" and "Up Falling Rock Hill." There is nothing out-and-out painful on In the Air, of course, but as opposed to the homespun madness of Through the Trees, the duo doesn't seem quite so willing to follow their instincts across treacherous fault lines here as their subjects are. Grade: B-

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Live at Schuba's Tavern

Willie's comments: Though they've toured with a full band, this live album captures Brett and Rennie in D.I.Y. mode on the In the Air tour, goofing around but kicking ass at a Chicago bar, backed by an electronic rhythm section and enough self-deprecation to have been carted in by a legion of roadies during soundcheck. Though the Sparkses throw themselves admirably into songs like "My Sister's Tiny Hands" and "Arlene," there's so much human fallibility built into their compositions that it's only right that the most interesting moments on Schuba's should be the most imperfect. The melodica and guitar on "Weightless Again" are piercingly out of tune with one another, Brett blows the programming on "Winnebago Skeletons" and the lyrics on "Cathedrals," and it's all still comfortably compelling. Furthermore, as with Robyn Hitchcock's Storefront Hitchcock album or, to a certain extent, Mike Doughty's masterful Smofe + Smang, it's the hilarious between-song dialogue that's the real draw here. Between Rennie's motormouth TMI confessions and Brett's drawling, deadpan wit, it's enough to make you yearn for a Robert Pollard-style all-banter spoken-word disc. (Rennie: "I should check my credit card statement, make sure he's taking his pills. If we're over $5,000 in debt, that means you're off your medication, right?" Brett: "I am in the fuckin' room here, you know?") Endearingly flawed as everything is, it's this album that has launched the Handsome Family to the top of my list of bands to see live. Take that, The Cure! Grade: A-

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Twilight

Willie's comments: For the first ten seconds, Twilight sounds upbeat. In fact, it sounds a lot like Vangelis's "Chariots of Fire." Then "The Snow White Diner" capsizes into a minor key as Brett describes eating breakfast while watching the aftermath of a Susan Smith-style suicide/infanticide through the window. And you're uncomfortably, delightfully back in HandsomeLand, where the image of a car plunging into a frozen lake perfectly sets up the man-versus-nature collisions of the 12 songs that follow. On Twilight, humanity has knocked the natural world out of balance to a degree that we're utterly screwed. Birds have vanished, red ants launch vigilante attacks, and, on "A Dark Eye," Gaia herself disapproves of the ubiquitous buildings and concrete. Lest you worry that it's a preachy "eco-freako" protest album, though, resource-gobbling Republicans reading this, Twilight's concept-album aspirations are barely detectable beneath Rennie's typically biting anthropological observations. In her world, people sense that something is drastically wrong, but they can't put their finger on what. Thus, "Gravity" follows a modern-day Johnny Appleseed who's thwarted by sidewalks and "So Long" is a blackly hilarious litany of deaths due to inconsiderate or inattentive human actions ("So long to the rosebush I never watered, and to whatever was inside that hole that I bricked over"), but the animals have the last laugh on "Peace in the Valley Once Again," which can sit alongside XTC's "River of Orchids" and Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers" in the pantheon of beautiful songs about nature overtaking all mankind's creations. Musically, only the Barry Manilow lounginess of "There is a Sound" finds Brett venturing beyond the borders of his familiar indie-country compound, but he's back on his game after In the Air ("The Snow White Diner" and "The White Dog" are memorable standouts) and continues to admirably avoid repeating melodies he's written before. I still find it difficult to be charmed by his moribund minimalist ballads like "Birds You Cannot See," but I gather other people really like them, and more importantly, minor missteps hardly matter on a record of such gently subversive power. Grade: A-

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Singing Bones

Willie's comments: Since I graduated college, there haven't been a lot of albums I've memorized and routinely sing verbatim to myself on long drives, but Singing Bones is one such record. It's by far the duo's most eclectic disc since Odessa, touching on Calexico-style border-straddling ("Far From Any Road," "Gail with the Golden Hair"), slide-guitar bluegrass folk ("The Song of a Hundred Toads"), and, oddest and best of all, uncommonly gorgeous Baroque chamber music ("Whitehaven"), all memorable in the Handsome Family's stylized fashion. "If the World Should End in Fire" and "If the World Should End in Ice" are musically identical a capella pulpit-pounders that find nine Bretts harmonizing with each other, projecting the authoritative baritone gravity of Burl Ives, while substantially fewer Bretts evoke the sympathetic geekiness of John Flansburgh on the alien-abduction recollection "Sleepy." All throughout Singing Bones, Rennie's characters are forced to confront phenomena that go beyond our temporal world, and their open-mindedness seems to determine whether they find that experience comforting or a slippery slope to madness. To name but one example, in the enormously clever "The Bottomless Hole," the nameless narrator becomes so consumed by the mysteries of the titular abyss that he's no longer content to dump junk into it, but has to explore the whole of its depths for himself. Through the Trees probably remains the best place to start with the Sparks' catalog, but I think Singing Bones may win by a hair, if only because that hair is standing on end due to high electromagnetic fields. Grade: A+

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Last Days of Wonder

Willie's comments: This, on the other hand, is the first Handsome Family disc since Odessa that doesn't feel like a single organism that's wheezing and mumbling its discursive tale to express a single eccentric truth. Last Days of Wonder veers from the silly, infatuated nostalgia of "Flapping Your Broken Wings" to the cannibalistic ballad "After We Shot the Grizzly" to the mundane regret of "Somewhere Else to Be." The thematic sprawl isn't necessarily bad, mind you: it just means that the songs either stand on their own or simply don't. That lack of connection to something larger--always one of the Sparkses' strongest attributes when they go for it--harms redundant material like "Hunter Green" (which sounds like a demo for the previous album's "Whitehaven") and "Beautiful William" (which simply plods to no real end). But no context is needed to adore the disarmingly genuine "Our Blue Sky," Rennie's wounded rebuke to shortsighted fundamentalists who think our planet is disposable and its beauty worthless for being lesser than what they believe eternity to be ("Could you love God if He didn't love you more than rivers, snakes, or wind? Could you share Heaven with black buzzing flies?") or, better still, the French horn-stippled "Tesla's Hotel Room," an ode to the reclusive, ornithologically inclined inventor that manages both to poke gentle fun and to break the sensitive listener's heart ("He couldn't stand the touch of hair or of skin, but stroked feathers gently on trembling wings/And drew plans for a camera to photograph thoughts"). There's still nothing objectionable to pick at in the soothingly moving compositions, clever instrumentation, or Brett's ever-dry delivery. It's just a minor shame when the duo's unique spell gets broken. Grade: B

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: WILCO, SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS

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Happy Flowers

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Flowers on 45: The Homestead Singles

Willie's comments: I'm a little surprised that the Happy Flowers don't get more credit. As far as I'm able to tell, this precocious, obnoxious '80s noise duo is the missing link between the unpracticed punk attack of bands like the Urinals and the snarky ersatz hardcore of early Ween. (Well, alright, the Butthole Surfers fit that description too, but the Flowers had Ween's snotty attitude. And moppy haircuts, too.) Luckily, on this compilation, the uninitiated can delight in 23 of the noisiest, funniest little oddities ever committed to tape. The overriding gimmick here is that the songs are sung- or, more often, shrieked- from the perspective of immature and rage-filled children, who respond to moments of minor inconvenience ("I Dropped My Ice Cream Cone") and actual, horrific trauma ("I Ate Something Out of the Medicine Cabinet") with the same measure of uncorked fury. These throat-shredding monologues are hilariously authentic, and partners Mr. Horribly Charred Infant and Mr. Anus (not their real names) back them with layers of irritating noise that sounds completely improvised and random most of the time. Not exactly an easy listen, but if you're in the mood for intelligent stupidity, the Flowers should fit the bill nicely.

Plus, you also get a few "real" songs that range from tolerable ("The Big Picture") to quite interesting (the dance project "The Butcher"), as well as live "covers" of songs by Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Echo & the Bunnymen, Nazareth, and the Beatles, all of which are amusingly presented in the same aimless manner as their other songs. And, somewhat less engagingly, you also get 12 tracks of "extra shit" that the guys recorded- mostly separately- with other bands before the Flowers came into being. Some of it's semi-inspired (especially the reverb game "Fish [I Like...]"), most of it less so, but let's be honest here: are you really going to make it to track 24 on an album that's basically nothing but squealing guitars competing with squealing would-be infants, to hear these rarities? It's fun, but not for that long. Grade: B

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: DUMP

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George Harrison

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All Things Must Pass

Willie's comments: Following Yoko's successful attempt to smash the Beatles into four bitter pieces, George came out with this triple LP, which is the best post-Beatles solo album ever made (Paul and Ringo are out of the running, of course, and a certain Ono woman ensured that John's albums were never quite cohesive, though they yielded plenty of classic songs). All Things Must Pass allowed George to finally get down to the business of serious songwriting without being constrained by John and Paul's insistent silliness, and the best songs on this album are the thoughtful ones in which he takes an introspective approach to his religious beliefs. "My Sweet Lord" is probably one of the ten best singles of all time, with its ingratiating slide guitar work and infectious background chanting (never mind that George nicked the whole thing from "He So Fine" by the Chiffons), while the powerful "Hear Me Lord" would have made Elton John a millionaire. Upon first listen, what's most remarkable about the songs on this collection is their sheer length- rather than reigning his compositions into the Guided by Voices-esque pop nuggets he was limited to on the Fab Four's albums, George isn't afraid to sit back and let simple repetition of a musical phrase carry an entire song until you find yourself hypnotized by it. In fact, I would like to suggest here and now that Stereolab cover this entire album; they could do amazing things with George's simple, bluesy songs. Even the lengthy blues-rock jams that make up much of the second disc don't seem inconsequential because they value joyous improvisation over the sort of numbing focus on technical skill that Eric Clapton (who performs here) ordinarily trafficks in. All Things Must Pass is, simply put, a treasure trove of masterful, low-key rock 'n' roll. (By the way, this album was just re-released with a bunch of bonus tracks, which I haven't heard, but I hear they're pretty much inessential.) Grade: A

READER COMMENTS:

Didier Dumonteil writes: All things must pass is a very good ,among the very best of Beatles 'solo album,but it pales next to Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album which sets the tone for the Confessional Genre .A lot of artists aped it to death but no one came close to Lennon's heartfelt and brutal statement.

Regards . Didier

PS:as for "all things must pass",the most mesmerising track remains "the ballad of sir Frankie Crisp" for me.

tnahpellee@yahoo.com.au writes: I don't own the full version of this, I just have sides one and three [ARGH!]. I love the sogns What is life and My sweet Lord.

My favourite solo-Beatles album, however, is Bad Boy from Ringo Starr.

SEE ALSO: THE BEATLES

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: ERIC CLAPTON

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT GEORGE HARRISON


PJ Harvey

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Rid of Me

Willie's comments: As far as melody goes, there's really not much to grab onto on Rid of Me (PJ Harvey's second album; I'll cover her debut, Dry, in awhile). She yawns, coos, shrieks, yodels, and sneers her way through 14 songs, but as much as her bilious lyrics and whirligig vocal stylings demand attention, the songs are really grounded by her band. With Harvey's exquisitely dirty guitar work leading the way, bandmates Robert Ellis (drums) and Steve Vaughan (bass) basically just add to the crude racket that drives songs like "Rub 'Til It Bleeds" and "Me-Jane" (a darkly funny monologue from the perspective of Tarzan's wife). Most songs- especially "50 ft. Queenie," a joyously obnoxious rocker that's apparently about pegging some guy- play like a gynocentric version of the Fall or a more straightforward Sonic Youth, and those tracks are infectious in their unapologetically sleazy punk anger. Harvey doesn't always know where to stop her fascination with ugliness before it becomes self-indulgent, though, which results in an unnecessarily gruesome cover of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and a ridiculously screechy string arrangement on "Man-Sized Sextet," among a couple more misfires. Rid of Me was recorded and produced by Steve Albini, and most people's opinion of the album seems to be predicated on whether they respond favorably to the spartan, Surfer Rosa-style bareness of the album or find it annoying. Personally, I get a kick out of it (except on the title track, which goes overboard with the quiet/loud dynamics that were so fashionable back in 1993). I do wish more of the songs were as memorable as "50 ft. Queenie" or the spooky guitar freak-out "Ecstasy," but Rid of Me is still plenty cathartic. Grade: B

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4-Track Demos

Willie's comments: Ummmm... nah. I hardly think Island Records needed to spend the money to release this. It's a bunch of demo recordings Miss Polly Jean did by herself before Rid of Me: eight of these songs wound up on that album, and the other six are otherwise unreleased. These stripped-down tracks mostly just consist of PJ and her ugly guitar, with overdubbed bonus vocals, and not a one of them is a vital listen. Of the unreleased tracks, only the trippy blues of "Goodnight" comes close to being listenable, though "Driving" hints at having potential beyond the demo format. The Rid of Me tracks are uniformly inferior to their final versions, whether they're just redundant ("Hook") or they sound all shrively and puny without a rhythm section ("50 ft. Queenie," "Yuri-G"). Actually, without the band's cascading grotesqueness surrounding her voice, the primal screams she indulges in on "Legs" just make her sound nutty. (I've read that those are supposed to be "orgasmic" screams, but I sure hope that's not the case, because if I was having sex with a woman who started making those noises, I'd freak out and worry that a bedspring had just popped and punctured her brain, or that she was turning into a werewolf.) By and large, Rid of Me already sounds unfinished, and that's part of the thrill in listening to it; listening to an even cruder version of the album is therefore pretty pointless. In much the same way that you probably wouldn't gain anything from watching the cast of your favorite sitcom go through their table-reads before each show is filmed, 4-Track Demos really doesn't have a lot to offer except confirmation that, yup, these songs have demos. Grade: D

To Bring You My Love

Willie's comments: To quote my armchair jock brother, O-ver-RA-ted! *Clap! Clap! Clap-clap-clap!* This album was championed by just about every critic in the nation, but Ms. Harvey's music is alternately ugly and boring; hardly revolutionary in any respect. On this album, harsh industrial sounds (gnashing synth-bass, metal-on-metal drums) pulsate around Harvey's agressively unpretty voice as she sings about religion or sex or both. Trouble is, except for the hypnotic "Down by the Water" and the semi-catchy "C'mon Billy," the music is entirely without hooks to keep you listening, instead relying on the malevolent atmosphere to carry the album. On tuneless tracks like "Meet Ze Monsta," this simply doesn't work. Imagine if Radiohead's "Climbing Up the Walls" didn't have a great melody or great lyrics, but just that horrific aura with nothing supporting it. That's what To Bring You My Love is. Blah. Grade: C-

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Is This Desire?

Willie's comments: Harvey's follow-up to the musical landfill To Bring You My Love shows that Polly Jean has made vast strides in the songwriting arena. Her songs are now focused, memorable, and hypnotic, without losing her razor-sharp love of ugly sounds. Is This Desire? seems to be a sort-of narrative album about the inability of sex to bridge the indefinable gap between two people (much like the Golden Palominos' terrific album This is How It Feels). Harvey makes her point by creating wisps of characters to narrate her songs, and allowing just enough of each individual's personality to seep through her cryptic lyrics, while overlapping thematic threads from character to character. Musically, the album is eclectic and fulfilling. Not only do the songs range from the Fiona Apple-esque chamber pop of "Angeline" to the mesmerizing, slow funk of "Catherine," but Harvey's voice undergoes amazing transformations throughout. On "The Wind," she whispers like Lori Carson, but on another song, she might end up sounding like a zombified Cher, or slip into an unexpectedly beautiful falsetto. The pounding bass running throughout Is This Desire? keeps things from getting too far-flung (there's enough bass on this album to dissolve your kidney stones), and keeps you absorbed even as each song repeats its respective melodic line hundreds of times. Forget To Bring You My Love; Is This Desire? is an ideal entryway into Harvey's world of dangerous puzzles. Grade: A

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Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

Willie's comments: Harvey has undergone yet another transformation between Is This Desire? and this album: she's calmed down. That's not to say she has gone soft by any means, but Stories from the City is devoid of the harshness that marked her previous work; it's her first album that doesn't challenge you to a bare-knuckled boxing match and then coldcock you while you're mulling it over. Most of the songs here mark a return to the guitar-based ethos of her early work, but with a more mature tempo and a hypnotic (as opposed to bone-crunchingly aggressive) tone- not to mention great melodies on songs like "Big Exit" and "Kamikaze." The soothing closer "We Float" actually wouldn't sound out of place on top 40 radio- apart from the fact that it's a good song, of course. Midway through the album, Radiohead's Thom Yorke appears to sing lead on "This Mess We're In," a triumphantly absorbing song that's nearly as good as Radiohead's own "Street Spirit," and it's no criticism to say that this number attains heights that the rest of the album could have no hope of sustaining. Like never before, whether she's being her old, provoking self on ravers like "This is Love" or gently serenading the "Horses in My Dreams," Harvey gives you the sense that she is in control of everything she touches on this album. Just as a side note, I, for one, would love for her to punch out Tori Amos, and she seems like she'd be willing to do it. Grade: B+

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Uh Huh Her

Willie's comments: The liner notes of Uh Huh Her feature a fascinating collection of what are apparently Polly Jean's notes to herself during the composition and recording of this album; for a woman as cocksure as she generally seems, comments like "English accent goddamn it!" and "Too normal? Too PJH?" are so personal and illuminating it's hard not to want to love this album, torn seams and all. And for awhile, it works. If you picture a Venn diagram that illustrates the intersection of the White Stripes and Cat Power's respective styles of minimal rock, that middle area is the bit in which PJ is operating here: her voice is rarely backed by anything more than a tiny drumline and a skronky guitar. Uh Huh Her starts strong, with "The Life & Death of Mr. Bad Mouth" (a sustained, swampy growl), "Shame" (melodic brilliance) and "Who the Fuck?" (stop-and-start squalling), but it loses itself thereafter. PJ's moans and bluesy riffs aren't enough to carry "Pocket Knife" and "The Letter" on their own- they're 4-Track Demos territory, and we know how well that turned out- while "No Child of Mine," the plunky keyboard exercise "The Slow Drug," and "The End" sound like they still have a Post-It note festooned with the command "ELABORATE!" attached to them. Two hypnotic winners are nestled in the middle: the xylophone-driven "You Come Through" and the slithery "It's You" (which features the fullest production Uh Huh Her has to offer, with a snake-charming bassline and a bridge that blossoms into an autoharp-and-piano utopia), but the majority of the disc is so underbaked that it's hard to even summon the energy to be indifferent to it. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

An anonymous reader who refers to him/herself as "Love Addiction" writes: i'm going to have to fully agree with mike (below [in the Hindu Love Gods review]) ... but unfortunately i was offended enough by  your inability to appreciate anything that doesn't follow the accepted pop formula that i will  defend her and this album, even if you are a worthless fuck...

#1. pj harvey is Not pretty, Nor is her music... probably you were expecting some  brittany-spears-esque love songs, sorry to have disappointed you...

#2. pj harvey is gorgeous, her music is passionate beyond reckoning... she vents pure emotion  with every word that she sings... emotions, if you're familiar with the concept, are not pretty  either... lyrically, pj harvey is one of the deepest female artists alive...

#3. you probably don't have 1/2 the i.q. it would require to understand the complexity of the  musical techniques she uses in this album, or Why they are revolutionary, so i won't bother trying  to explain that to you, but please understand that "harsh industrial sounds" can, and in this case,  are appealing methods of bringing through the melody in a subtle, pensive, manner... i don't expect you to comprehend that, however, for anyone else who may be reading this i give  to bring you my love an A, and pj harvey as an artist and A+... don't let this bastard get you  down, this album was rated by both rolling stone and spin to be one of the top 50 albums of  the century, and deservingly so...

Steve Knowlton writes: To weigh in on "Love Addiction"'s comments about PJ Harvey:

1. I'm sure anyone who followed the press knew that PJ Harvey was not even in the same category as Britney Spears... however, the high praise given her records would lead a listener to expect well-written and sensibly performed music. It's certainly within a critic's purview to debate the quality of this music.

2. Whether PJ Harvey is or is not pretty/gorgeous (Love Addiction seems to be contradicting himself in his points 1 & 2) was not brought up by Willie, so let's leave it out of this, shall we? On the point of emotions, some emotions aren't pretty, but others are. The most emotional song I know is "Hey Jude", which is plenty pretty.

3. Music is not a test. You shouldn't need a high IQ to enjoy it.

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: 120 MINUTES LIVE

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: RADIOHEAD, NICK CAVE, SPARKLEHORSE

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT PJ HARVEY


The Hector Collectors

Straight Outta Comprehensive

Willie's comments: With home recording equipment as affordable and ubiquitous as it is nowadays, there's really no excuse anymore for not coming up with a reasonably decent sound if you're going to put your own music to tape. (I should point out that these thoughts were prompted by the Hector Collectors, but I'm speaking in general terms right now.) I mean, a little tape hiss never killed anyone important, and there have been innumerable indie-rock masterpieces that were audibly recorded on a four-track in some guy's basement, but if you frequently find yourself choosing between making the guitar or the drums audible on a given song, you might want to think about investing a little time in learning some production basics. I know I'm being preachy, and it's not like I'm Nigel Godrich myself or anything, but I think both musician and listener would come away more satisfied if you picked up a copy of Ray Baragary's excellent book The Billboard Guide to Home Recording or something similar, and employed some of the techniques you'd learn from there. Yes, you! Because it's really quite frustrating to listen to an album that is full of great melodies, clever lyrics, and well-constructed songs, and yet know that you'll probably never listen to it again after you review it because the lack of production makes the whole deal an exercise in straining to extract the songs' essence.

That's the unfortunate case with this release by the Hector Collectors- two Scottish brothers named Adam and Iain Smith (Adam's generally the singer and bassist, Iain plays guitar and sometimes sings) who write deceptively simple little indie-pop songs that are built on a foundation of rock-fan enthusiasm and pub-crawler cheek. Adam has an impressive ear for catchy, sing-songy melodies, and his unstudied burr should bring a smile to even the sort of sound-quality snobs that work at Guitar Center, especially on "It's Raining, It's Pouring" (a tale of a disappointing night at the clubs) and "Talkin' to Another Psychopath" (a funny admonishment of people who give out their personal information on the Internet). It's not a difficult album to like by any means, since the songs are so strong throughout, but it is rather more difficult to listen to than it should be, particularly on the tunes that attempt to make room for guest drummer Paul Martin. I wish the bass was played up a little more, too, but then, I'm a big whiner. Ugly, too! Grade: B

Tantric New Romantic EP

Willie's comments: Upping both the sound quality and the amount of casually hilarious pop-culture jabs strewn throughout these eight brief songs, Tantric New Romantic achieves a state of catchy, overeducated kiddie-pop bliss that we haven't seen since the Dead Milkmen's heydey. Production-wise, the Hectors still aren't going to cause Sly & Robbie to lose any sleep, but their tunes have been shorn of the hiss that crippled their previous record, letting Adam's smart wordplay and the band's superbly simple hooks to shine through. Recent joke-rockers like the Moldy Peaches can only dream of the laugh-out-loud brilliance that the Hectors nail on at least three songs: the title track (which randomly appends a jokey singalong of Ultravox's "Vienna"), "Gary Numan Needs Another Hit" (which blatantly swipes a lick from Ash), and "Deepend," a Krautrock parody that delivers at least four good laughs before culminating in a pun about Neu! that practically made me drive off the road in a fit of laughter. Okay, so even if indie-pop inside jokes aren't your thing, I dare you to deny the easygoing melodic charms of "I Don't Know" or "Billy Sloan" (written by new drummer D. Robertson). Considering that these guys can toss off potentially classic novelty songs as effortlessly as other bands plug in their amps, I can't say the Beastie Boys parody "When's the Tea Ready?" is quite up to their standards (funny, but just once), but it's the only number on here that won't elicit at least a few smiles or supportive "rock on!" nods of enjoyment every time you hear it. I'm going to go ahead and proclaim this EP an unheralded classic. Grade: A

WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT THE HECTOR COLLECTORS


Hello CD Club releases

In the mid-'90s, They Might Be Giants guitarist John Flansburgh came up with the idea of starting his own CD-of-the-month club called the Hello Club. It ran for three or so years, and every month, subscribers would receive EPs in the mail from various bands that TMBG was friends with. Some of the participating artists were fairly well-known (Frank Black, Soul Coughing), some substantially less so (Philco Bendyx), but unfortunately, the club was inconsistent and produced only a handful of truly great releases before it folded. When I first started writing the reviews for this site, I was somewhat anal in my completism and reviewed all the Hello CDs that I'd collected- even if I didn't own anything else by a particular artist. While some of those reviews were deleted in Willie's Great Stupidity Explosion of 2000, most of them have just been randomly clogging up the site for four years. Since I doubt the H page is going to become exceedingly long and cumbersome anytime soon, I've decided to clean up the site a bit by depositing all the orphan Hello reviews here, in alphabetical order by artist. Hello CDs by artists whose other work I've reviewed will stay where they are, though. And feel free to comment on any or all of them, still, if you'd like- I'll just stick the comments underneath the appropriate band. This still looks rather sloppy, but at least it's localized. So here goes:

Alaska

Willie's comments: Alaska frontman Chris Stamey rocks harder on this 1995 EP than he had in his entire career (including all his solo albums and all the dB's albums), and it's nice to hear him finally hunkering down with a distortion pedal on the scruffy power-pop of "Stupid Pop Rock Song," "Rock Manager," and the catchy "My Advice to You." "Yeahyeahyeah" and "14 Shades of Green" let up a bit more than they should, though, letting elements of Stamey's more familiar Sensitive White Guy Music peek through the cracks. On the whole, it's a successful experiment, but Stamey evidently abandoned Alaska after this one and only recording. Oh well. Grade: B

Amy Allison and the Maudlins

Willie's comments: Amy Allison has quite possibly the strangest singing voice I've ever heard. She sings with an adenoidal, extra nasal delivery that resembles Victoria Williams doing an impression of Eric Cartman (Allison sang the "Something grabbed ahold of my hand" bit on They Might Be Giants' "Fingertips," if you'd like to hear what she sounds like). As such, it might seem an odd choice for her to sing country-blues music, but that she does, and her voice at least makes her creations more interesting than they'd be in the hands of, say, Faith Hill. On this 4-song EP (a 1995 selection of John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club), "Hate at First Sight" and "This Misery" are reasonably catchy, and Allison's multitracked vocals add a layer of strange, Chipmunks-esque curiosity. "Put It in a Box," however, is as boring as most country music, and "The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter" is the sort of dull, slow balladry that the aforementioned Victoria Williams trafficks in, and that never fails to irritate me. Grade: C+

READER COMMENTS:

Hugues writes: Man, why do you review country music since you don't get it? Your assertion of most of country music being boring is if like I was saying "most of pop stuff is shallow", no less. I love a lot of country stuff, and Amy Allison is really great, not boring at all! Now I let you to your Abba top ratings...(LOL)

Laura Cantrell

Willie's comments: As I understand it, Ms. Cantrell is a DJ on some radio station in or around New York City, and in her spare time, she plays mandolin-based country bluegrass music. That's never my favorite genre, but to Cantrell's credit, she does it much better than, say, Paul Kelly. This EP probably wasn't a tremendous hit among They Might Be Giants fans (whose guitarist, John Flansburgh, produced most of it), but "Roll Truck Roll" is memorable, and a back-porch cover of "Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine" is nice and woodsy. If you're ever in the mood for this sort of thing, try to seek this EP out. The question is: Will you ever be in the mood for this sort of thing? Grade: B-

READER COMMENTS:

Adrian Denning writes: nobody else is going to post any, so i will. she is wonderful, stunning, talented and the best thing since sliced bread. everybody just go out and buy her album 'not the tremblin kind' and you'll hear just why she is so good. i haven't the heard this EP the review is based upon. all i know is the songs on the 'not the tremblin kind' album are amongst my favourite songs ever. and, i don't even like country music! but, i love laura cantrell. and, that's all i've got to say.

Chaz and the Motorbikes

Willie's comments: Little more than a reasonably good alt-country outfit, Chaz and the Motorbikes have little to distinguish them from the Jayhawks or Tonic's more twangy side. Frontman Charlie Chesterman has an affable, generic voice, and the band's two-guitar interplay is likewise affable and generic. "The Missing Person's Waltz" is a nice diversion (particularly the whistling) from the rest of this EP's stultifying blandness, but it's not nearly enough to redeem it. Grade: C-

The Coctails

Willie's comments: Ambient jazz might sound like a thoroughly unpleasant idea, but the Coctails make it seem not only a logical musical creation, but an enjoyable one on this 1995 entry in John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club. The four band members are credited with playing anywhere between five and nine instruments each over the course of six songs, and each song is utterly gorgeous. "Grassland" is a marimba-based soundscape that wouldn't sound out of place on Brian Eno's Another Green World, while "Fins, Limbs, and Wings" is a horn-and-theremin extraveganza that evokes Mercury Rev. Even as instruments are weaving in odd patterns around each other, the songs are never without identifiable melodies to pull you through. This is a completely strange joy to behold. Grade: A

Brian Dewan

Willie's comments: This 5-song EP is amusingly futuristic and lo-fi in the same sort of way that Man... Or Astro-Man? is, only on a much less ostentatious level. Dewan, accompanied only by a cheapo synthesizer, runs through robotic, DEVO-esque rock ("The Latest Theory"), clattering calypso music ("Happy-Go-Dumpy Summer"), and flat-out absurdity ("Unidentified Flying Objects"). The songs tend to repeat one simple riff over and over and over, but the effect is never irritating so much as it is catchy, particularly on "Any Other Way" and "The Latest Theory." "Decoy in the Rough" is a dark musical experiment that sounds like it belongs on Dump's Superpowerless, but it's still fun. Dewan's lyrics are witty and often sci-fi based, but in a genial way that never succumbs to Frank Black cynicism ("Have a happy-go-dumpy summer/ Get yourself a T-shirt tan"). This EP is just a lot of fun. And if I dock it a few points, it's only because Lektrogirl's I Love My Computer album proved that Dewan's repetitive, video game-esque soundscapes have yet to be perfected. Grade: B+

The Jickets

Willie's comments: To the best of my knowledge, the Jickets have never released any musical material other than this EP which was sprung upon unsuspecting subscribers to John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club in April of 1994. You will know why this stands as their only recorded output if you ever hear it. The music is clattering, tinny new wave that sounds vaguely like it was performed by XTC's less talented kid brothers, but that's not the worst of it. Lead singer Chett Grant has a completely atonal voice, but not in a charming, Pastels-esque way. Listening to him is like listening to an off-key cross between Barney and the guy from Dexy's Midnight Runners, and he is intolerably annoying from the start of "Jicket Island," and it only gets worse through "The William Smith Story" and "Tell the Seeker." By the time he gets to the final track, "Good Day for Ya," he's saying things like, "You people have got to get up and get off that high horse and get out there and tell everybody what a great day it is," and it's unclear whether he means this ironically or whether he actually has resorted to Richard Simmons-like cheerleading. Only the instrumental "Manhattan Bridge" is listenable, but that doesn't mean "good." Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

David Kachelmeyer writes (and not-so-subtly hints): I think you are crazy. The Jickets' music is awesome. I wish I could obtain a copy of their Hello album some how.

Kristine Mobley, President of the Jickets Fan Club writes: You miss the point. The point of The Jickets is the aura of the experience of the creation of the concept of the band.

Chett Grant himself writes: True, you miss the whole point. But then again you probably never saw The Jickets live. By the sound of your review, you're best suited for Linda Ronstadt's "Songs for My Father" You probably wouldn't enjoy the films either.

Sharon Hake (shake8623@aldelphia.net) writes: Hi if you could help me please locate the band members of the jickets, especially Larry or Peabo. Thank You. A Fan

Peabo writes: Peabo here. The Jickets were an impassioned plea for understanding in a mechanized ethos. The musical embodiment of the Neitchzean super being.

Freedy Johnston

SEE FREEDY JOHNSTON'S SECTION

John Linnell

SEE JOHN LINNELL'S SECTION

The Minus Five

Willie's comments: Despite the presence of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and NRBQ's Terry Adams, this EP from the new musical project of the Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey is unbearably dull. "Loser So Supreme," "Only One Thing," and "Drunkards Lullaby" are generic alt-folk that will give you a headache with their uninventiveness. "Brotherhood of Pain" at least adds a grinding guitar to the mix, but, ultimately, it's just as uninteresting as the rest of the EP. McCaughey's smug lyrics don't help things ("I got drunk as a skunk 'cause that rhymes"), either. Ugh. Grade: D+

Mono Puff

SEE MONO PUFF'S SECTION

My Dad is Dead

Willie's comments: My Dad is Dead is the one-man project of Mark Edwards, and, if this EP is any indication of his larger body of work (which I definitely intend to explore after hearing this EP), he's a brilliant, tuneful indie rocker whose songs fall somewhere between Sebadoh and M.O.T.O., complete with raw guitars and stirring, thumping basslines. All the songs here are unconventionally catchy, from the keyboard-dotted "Shades of Blue" to the blazing, bracing "Taxi Driver," and Edwards's lyrics are plainspoken and memorable, particularly on the sweet "Always and Forever." Indie rock like this makes up for a thousand Plutos. Grade: A

Andy Partridge

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Philco Bendyx

Willie's comments: You know, if I ever start feeling bad about my own musical creations- feeling that they're no good, not catchy enough, not as polished as they should be- I'm just going to pop this appalling little EP in my stereo and rest assured that I am definitely not the least talented indie rocker on the planet. Philco Bendyx, like the similarly, justly obscure Protein and Grasshopper (the band, not the Mercury Rev guy), is a band that seems to think that randomly scraping their guitars and singing a vague, undefined "melody" over and over will give them both street credibility and a large fan base who can find the hidden beauty in their noisy, tuneless creations. Anyone who attempts to find said beauty will be going on a wild goose chase, however. Grade: F

Portastatic

Willie's comments: I don't understand why indie-rock heroes who already write virtually all of the songs for their "day job" bands feel the need to release "solo" albums or have side project bands. Apart from Stephin Merritt, who produces dramatically different releases for each of his bands, most artists' such releases are largely inferior to their more familiar work. Robert Pollard is a perfect example of this. Lou Barlow is a decent example of this, because, though the Folk Implosion doesn't sound at all like Sebadoh, his albums as Lou Barlow and Sentridoh are basically crappy Sebadoh. Portastatic is another good example. It's the side project of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, and it amounts to little more than lazy, lo-fi pop that's nowhere near as tight as Superchunk's. "Slant Roof" is a particularly irritating instrumental, while "A Bear That Chokes" and "Why Pinch Yourself" find McCaughan at his most whiny and tuneless. I find Superchunk pretty grating to begin with, but even if you're a fan, stay away from Portastatic. Grade: C-

READER COMMENTS:

An Anonymous Reader writes: Disagree. I think it's brilliant that Mac can experiment with his own musical demons while keeping Superchunk rocking along. Case in point: Portastatic's score music for some film called Looking For Leonard. Obviously, Superchunk could never do an instrumental score, but Portastatic can, and does it really well. The sounds are so sweet on this recent release.

Will Rigby

Willie's comments: I don't know why it's so exhausting when alt-bluegrass artists restrict themselves to songs about cheating lovers, sex, and drinking, but it drains my patience very quickly. As such, this EP by former dB Will Rigby is horribly tiring. "Dave," "Get Away Get Away," and "Red Bra & Panties" are irritating in a generic sort of way, but "Paper Hat" sounds like Rigby backed himself with a Casio set on "country demo." "From Beyond the Grave," mixed by John Flansburgh, is halfway listenable, but it's too little, too late. Grade: D

Dave Schramm

Willie's comments: There's nothing about Dave Schramm's music that would indicate that he used to be a member of Yo La Tengo except for his propensity to pepper his songs with cultural references (two songs on this 4-song EP borrow Emily Dickenson poems for their lyrics) and his ear for gorgeous melodies. Where Yo La bury their songs' pretty centers beneath strata of harsh noise, Schramm puts the prettiness right up front; he's a mighty fine acoustic guitar player, and his songs benefit from the odd, tasteful keyboard or pedal steel. The warm, folksy tunes of "A Woman's Name" and "I Saw Him Fall" are as comforting as Manheim Steamroller, and Schramm's plain voice evokes everyone from Peter Holsapple to Townes Van Zandt. The aural equivalent of cuddling before a fire. Grade: A

Soul Coughing

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Spanish Fly

Insert Tongue Here EP

Willie's comments: "Wanking," as a purely musical term, is generally applied to artists to have an extreme fondness for playing solos on their guitar, wandering about with little regard for the song's general melody, dragging songs out for days. After listening to this interminable entry in the Hello CD of the Month Club, I'd like to extend this definition to include trumpet players as well. Spanish Fly frontman Steven Bernstein is content to noodle about with his jazzy trumpet for upwards of seven minutes without ever locating a decent theme, while his bandmates plod along in the background, seemingly unsure of their parts. It's not really jazz, mind you, if you like jazz- it's more like a four-year-old with a trumpet. Grade: C-

Spondee

Willie's comments: This nepotistic recording, released through John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club, features Robin Goldwasser (AKA Mrs. John Flansburgh) and a guy named Mark Donato playing the same sort of lo-fi folk music that has long been an unwelcome staple of the Hello Club. If you like the song "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" or the ukelele music from those ancient Warner Bros. cartoons, you'll be right at home here. If not, you'll be bored stiff. Grade: C

Peter Stampfel

Willie's comments: Listening to the folksy bluegrass of Peter Stampfel is a lot like listening to the ramblings of a reclusive loon who lives out in the boonies, sitting on his front porch with an acoustic guitar and free associating with no regard for rhythm or melody. It's unclear, however, how much of this effect is intentional on Stampfel's part. Surely he's going for laughs (or something...) on "Our Lady of Oklahoma," when he rants about "Our Lady of Crack Babies" and "Our Lady of HIV," and on "Bad Karma," on which he reverbs everything to an impossibly weird level. But Stampfel's voice is quivery, atonal, and always seems to be just on the verge of flying off the handle into complete gibberish (like Heywood Banks, only creepier), which is disconcerting and distracting from the melodies of the songs. As such, this is a pretty unpleasant listen, comparable with Daniel Johnston's more unhealthy moments. Grade: C

You Were Spiraling

The Hello CD

Willie's comments: If you've been underwhelmed by Ben Folds Five's recent output (the abysmal Naked Baby Photos and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) as much as I have, it would be very worth your while to investigate the piano-based music of You Were Spiraling, which is stylistically similar to Ben Folds's music, only more adventurous and consistent. This album, released through John Flansburgh's Hello CD of the Month Club, has eight great pop songs performed with punky, snarky energy by frontman Tom Brislin and his bandmates. "Your New Boy" is a  "Song for the Dumped"-esque, bitter kiss-off to an old flame, while "Crisis @ 92 Credits" and "Is That the Last Glass of Water?" are peerlessly catchy. "No Transformation Here" and "If You Were a Word," on the other hand, are gorgeous and affecting ("If you were a word, you'd be orange... You'd laugh as I tried to find a rhyme"). If you close your eyes and pretend, you can imagine that The Hello CD is the follow-up to Whatever and Ever Amen that we were all hoping for. Grade: A+

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Hem

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Rabbit Songs

Willie's comments: It's hard to describe the pure, perfect beauty of Hem's music. It's not the sort of Sigur Ros-style beauty that swoops and plummets and explodes in a gigantic tidal wave of emotion; quite the opposite. Hem makes soothing, cinematic folk music that's prettier than anything else I've ever heard, with acoustic instruments, strings, oboes, pianos, and other assorted pleasant accoutrements weaving uncommonly affecting tapestries of sound. Most notable of all is Sally Ellyson's hushed, unpretentious but velvety singing. (Imagine Sarah McLachlan not full of herself; that's close to how Ellyson sounds.) Though most of the songs were written by pianist Dan Messe, Ellyson really is the star of Rabbit Songs, their debut album, amending her delivery in a barely perceptible manner between, say, the self-effacing "Stupid Mouth Shut" and the sentimental "Horsey," and finding new crevices of feeling to explore everywhere she turns. But even apart from the singing, there's not a note out of place here, and with the exception of a stomping, mandolin-driven version of the traditional song "The Cuckoo" (which is one of the best things ever), the Rabbit Songs all achieve a peaceful, lulling bliss whether they're fragile piano ballads like "Sailor," freely coasting pop like "Betting on Trains," or lush, bluegrass-derived beauts like "All That I'm Good For." It would take a more talented writer than me to put the gentle power of this record into words, but please believe me when I say that it's something you need to hear. Grade: A+

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Eveningland

Willie's comments: Hem opens their sound up substantially on their sophomore album. None of the beauty of Messe's songwriting and Ellyson's voice is compromised, but the arrangements have sacrificed some of their communal intimacy to include big-ass string sections that are jarring upon first listen, particularly to those of us who keep Rabbit Songs protectively hidden in our hearts. Once you get over yourself and give Eveningland an open-minded chance, you'll find that the fuller production really does work in the service of more of the pretty folk lullabyes that enchanted you the first time around. That is, distracting though the orchestra on, say, "Redwing" may initially be, once you realize that its crescendoes and hums are perfectly tied to Sally's emotion as she sings, "We are standing on the rooftops/We are circling like sparrows/We are tiny, we are trembling/Scared of everything," it's every bit as transcendent as you'd hope. Nothing unique anymore, but gorgeous nonetheless; it would take a crotchety person indeed to resist the enveloping coziness of "Strays," "Hollow," or "Carry Me Home," to name only a few. It's the sort of album that illustrates the difference between the creatively empty mainstream pap of all that Lilith Fair stuff and the truly special, intelligently accessible folk that someone like Joni Mitchell is capable of. The sort of album that feels like a friend who never wants to argue or challenge you on anything; just to hang out and have some mellow fun. (And you know, if you're a purist who can't let go of your notion that Hem should always sound like Rabbit Songs, well, you have an excuse to see Hem live, where the Eveningland songs are transformed into campfire beauts that sound like entirely different entities.) Grade: A-

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No Word From Tom

Willie's comments: I like to think this collection of outtakes, alternate versions, covers, and live performances captures the sound of a Hem practice session. There's no logical sequencing or running theme here, but just a group of friends plucking and strumming out shared favorite songs for the sheer joy of playing, and when they're feeling particularly inspired, learning and tweaking some original compositions that one of them brought along. (I have no idea whether that's an accurate picture of the recordings' surrounding circumstances. For all I know, Hem practice sessions could actually be painfully regimented and tense affairs with Dan Messe throwing Phil Spector-style fits, making Gary Maurer do eighty takes of his mandolin part at gunpoint, etc.) Though they have only two studio albums under their belt, none of this feels like barrel-scrapings. I can't, for the life of me, figure out why the unusually tart "Oh No" was left off the last album: its intentionally imprecise slide guitar and woozy strings would've been welcome on a disc that was sometimes too polished. No matter, though, because it's a highlight here. The covers, as well, are particularly well chosen, each sounding plausibly as though they could have been composed for Ellyson- even a misty reading of R.E.M.'s untouchable "So. Central Rain"- and arranged by a collective of musicians sufficiently comfortable with one another to let their performing talents shine without giving short shrift to the songwriters behind, say, "Rainy Night in Georgia" or Fountains of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe." On the whole, it's a presentation casual enough to include both a vocal version of Eveningland's "The Cincinatti Traveler" and an equally pretty corruption of it based entirely around mondegreens ("The City and the Traveler"), but rich enough not to seem like a throwaway release. In short, though it maybe leans too heavily on live Rabbit Songs retoolings, No Word From Tom is a fine document of the organic, no-expectations serendipity that makes Hem so special. Grade: A-

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: THE AUTUMN DEFENSE

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The Herbaliser

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Very Mercenary

Willie's comments: Alright, here's the deal: though my appreciation for the genre grows the more I open myself up to it, I'm not a huge rap fan. I like the more aggressive old-school rappers and flow-conscious acts like The Coup and Del tha Funkee Homosapien, but when you've got people who are just sort of mumbling their way through the tracks, barely staying on the beat (like a lot of more recent hip-hop artistic masterminds like Puff Daddy do), it literally gives me a headache because it's just so lazy. I don't know who started this style, because I don't know enough about the genre; all I know is that it's annoyingly prevalent in the rap world now, and I hate it, so I'd like them to please stop. Anyway, the Herbaliser is a trip-hop duo whose record I picked up because it was cheap and contained "The Sensual Woman," an awesome, flute-powered song that's based around funny dialogue borrowed from a '70s sex-instruction record. I got it home to find out that most of the album is taken up with the type of rhythm-ignoring, joy-killing, pain-bringing slovenly rapping that I've decried above, only in a trip-hop context (moody, seedy backing tracks that aren't nearly as interesting as Massive Attack or DJ Shadow, frankly). I can't very well downgrade this record just because I'm disappointed that it's mostly rap. That would be stupid. (Not that stupidity has stopped me before...) But the rap is also mostly the reason that I don't like it very much. A couple of the rap numbers aren't too bad- What What's "Mission Improbable" is sexy enough, for instance- and Herbaliser is immensely amusing when they stick to instrumental turntablism ("The Missing Suitcase," "Goldrush"), but there's plenty of crap like the Dream Warriors' contribution to "Road of Many Signs," which sounds like one of those irritating rap parodies from Grand Theft Auto 3. So if you can see the value in mushmouthed talking over a rhythm track, be my guest. I'll admit that I don't really understand it, but it must hold some appeal to someone if everyone and his brotha is convinced that's the way to go. As for me, Very Mercenary is just making me all the angrier that I've misplaced my copy of Massive Attack's Mezzanine, because this is a pretty shabby substitute. Grade: C+

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: SNATCH SOUNDTRACK

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Hidden Cameras

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The Smell of Our Own

Willie's comments: Joel Gibb, vibrato-addicted frontman of the Hidden Cameras, doesn't have much use for subtlety. On the ol' Subtlety-Meter, in fact, he ranks just inbetween Anne Geddes's Jamboroo of Babies photo collection and Steve Oedekerk's short film Thumbs are Funny IX. But then, who needs subtlety when you're plaintively singing an ode to "the smell of old cum on the rug men walk their dirty feet on"? Much of the charm of the Hidden Cameras, in fact, is in the ballsy, cheeky way Gibb slides his explicit celebrations of gay lifestyles and sex into pretty, mom-pleasing pop tunes. Honestly, it'd be easy to hear his blunt lyrics as a clever satirical inversion of the way heterosexual sentiments pass most people by without a second thought in pop music, because Gibb's delivery doesn't draw attention to the words so much as the inherent comfiness of his voice. However, I've read interviews where Gibb has said that he just thinks it's funny to drop lyrics like, "Crooked teeth, crooked feet, crooked teeth- how about the cock?" into his music, so I guess he's not aiming for any big social commentary. Musically, comparisons to Belle & Sebastian are inevitable, and that's where The Smell of Our Own suffers a bit. Though Gibb masterfully captures the lush, deceptively pretty mood of B&S's best songs (particularly on "Golden Streams"- a fun love letter to water sports- and "Boys of Melody"), integrating all manner of horns, strings, and other acoustic instruments, the tunes generally feel underdeveloped and Gibb's kind of stingy with the hooks. They just sort of toddle around in the wading pool, repeating the same parts for four or five minutes and... that's that. They're pleasant, but not nearly as mind-blowing as one might hope. If you can't get enough of Belle & Sebastian, or Rufus Wainwright's first album, for that matter, you'll probably dig this, but don't go looking for revelations. Grade: B

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High Fidelity soundtrack

Willie's comments: The fun thing about the film High Fidelity was that, in addition to being very funny, the scenes in John Cusack's record store were designed with such attention to detail as to make indie-rock trainspotters reflexively shout, "He's holding a Brian Eno album!" "Look- an Of Montreal poster!" "Hey! Radiohead!" and so on. That same audiophilia spills over onto the soundtrack (executive produced by Cusack and his writing partners for the film, along with Kathy Nelson); it's packed with a bunch of artists whose popularity doesn't extend very far out from underneath the "critical darling" parasol, like Smog, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, and John Wesley Harding. Similar to the scene in the movie in which Cusack proclaims that he will sell five copies of The Three E.P.'s by the Beta Band if he plays "Dry the Rain" in the store, it's hard not to see the High Fidelity soundtrack as an attempt on the producers' part to expose their favorite bands to new people. It's a wholly successful exercise, too: anyone who can listen to the Kinks' "Everybody's Gonna be Happy" or Love's "Always See Your Face" and not get the urge to run out and buy those bands' albums is probably either a baby or a dog, and they probably aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate those bands anyway. The album is mostly divided into classic rock songs in its first half and more recent bands in the second half (except for The Velvet Underground's effervescent "Who Loves the Sun," which is the penultimate track and seems to be placed there as a reward for sitting through Royal Trux's punishing "Inside Game"), but anyone who's as passionate about rock as the album's progenitors should have a ball with both. Grade: A-

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High Water Marks

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Songs About the Ocean

Willie's comments:When the Apples in Stereo took a hiatus following the divorce of frontman Robert Schneider and drummer/sometimes singer Hilarie Sidney, Schneider took out some frustration on his listeners in the form of the awful garage-rock abortion Ulysses, while Sidney teamed up with Per Ole Bratset from a Norwegian band called Palermo to form the much better High Water Marks. Their debut album, Songs About the Ocean, was recorded internationally, with Hilary and Per mailing tracks back and forth. (Mike Snowden and Jim Lindsay are also listed as band members in the liner notes, but they don't seem to have had anything to do with this album.) Sidney's upbeat, hook-filled songs and spectacular-in-its-very-unspectacularness voice have always been highlights of the Apples' records- e.g., showstoppers like "20 Cases Suggestive Of..." and "Rainfall"- so putting a bunch of them in one place is an idea that's long overdue. Here, she tosses off a bunch of lo-fi garage-pop tunes that churn along merrily, her (poorly recorded but loud) drumming and some friendly-distorted, barre-chord intensive guitars wrapping her voice in a comforter of indie fuzz. Bratset pretty much does the same thing on his songs, only he has a goofier and heavily-accented voice that has a tendency to lapse into Pastels-style moments of forgivable off-keyness. They're obviously having fun, the both of them, and it's hard not to smile along.

The downside comes when you realize that "pretty much does the same thing" is a phrase that could be applied to relate any one song on the album to any other song on the album. Just as the lyrics have an unfortunate tendency to rely on overly simplistic rhymes like "All the time passes by as I stare up at the sky... And the sky will start to change and the stars will rearrange/While we stare up into space to give belonging to this place," the music takes the easy way out most of the time, marrying lovably happy melodies to a basic four-track arrangement and calling it a day, which gets a little enervating. Sure, little details differ, like the Strokes-style guitar on "Sixth of July" or the welcome addition of boy/girl harmonies on the splendid "National Time," but it's still not enough to really differentiate one three-minute snippet of sunny power pop from the next. Maybe we've all just been spoiled by the superhuman inventiveness of the New Pornographers, but it's enough to make the Ramones sound as adventurous as Ween, frankly. Fans of lo-fi indie-rock like mid-period Guided by Voices could certainly do a lot worse, though, and at no point are the Marks disagreeable in the least; just not as memorable as one might hope. At its best, the album feels like a pleasant breeze blowing in your window on the first day of spring: nothing special, but plenty enjoyable regardless. Grade: B

SEE ALSO: APPLES IN STEREO

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: MARBLES

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Joe Hinchcliffe

Doesn't Mean Me

Willie's comments: Joe Hinchcliffe is an indie singer/songwriter with a breathy voice that most sensitive white guy singers would kill for, and a proclivity for understated, reverb-and-phaser-soaked jangle rock that sounds like a lovable cross between Toad the Wet Sprocket and Dump (which is to say, a lo-fi cross between R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo, I suppose...). Mostly eschewing percussion, except for a tambourine or programmed beat here and there, these nine excellent songs build moods out of what sound like stacks of guitars. Acoustic strumming, gentle mud baths of atmosphere, crackly warm solos (particularly on "Evergreen," which rivals Yo La Tengo's "Pablo and Andrea" for most gorgeous indie-rock song ever penned), and a supporting cast of other guitar sounds form a surprisingly lonely bed for songs like "Midnight Sunrise," "Ridden," and the glorious "Mercury's Star." If pressed, I'd say that the best song on here is "Wait for Me," an aching, darkly hypnotic stutter-step of a song that makes great use of a skittery drum machine and some ominous harmonics. There's also a cover of the Beach Boys' "Farmer's Daughter" that's serviceable enough, considering the source... Frankly, I wish I could understand the lyrics, because I bet they're interesting but they're buried in the mix. I wish most of these songs were longer, too; none of them makes it to the four-minute mark, and 2/3 of them cut out before three, which is kind of a bummer because I would like to bask in the glory of "Wait for Me" or "Mercury's Star" for a little longer, but I don't think that even counts as a complaint, does it? That the songs are so good I want more of them? Come on, that's like complaining that Butterfinger bars are too delicious. Or that my Saturn gets gas mileage that's too economical. Or that heroin is too addictive. Grade: A-

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Hindu Love Gods

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Hindu Love Gods

Willie's comments: I am not a blues rock fan by any stretch of the imagination. I find the blues a repulsively uncreative musical genre (Three chords per song- the tonic chord is repeated four times, then the subdominant chord is played twice, the tonic chord is played twice more, and then the dominant chord is played twice and the tonic chord is played again twice. Every single blues song works this way!), and had I known this was an album of generic blues covers, I would not have spent the dollar to purchase it from the Best Buy cutout bin. The reason I bought it is that the Hindu Love Gods are Bill Berry, Pete Buck, and Mike Mills from R.E.M., with Warren Zevon as the lead singer and second guitarist. That doesn't make this better. Grade: F

READER COMMENTS:

Mike Smith writes: You "Sir", are a worthless fuck. I had thought out a rather eloquent piece in defense of the Hindu Love Gods' recording, but after careful consideration, I don't really feel any need to waste my time or energy on you. So, once again, I sum up my feelings... You are a worthless fuck.

Steve Knowlton writes: It's not all blues.. there's that "Raspberry Beret" cover. Anyway, just wanted to say that a lot of us appreciate your efforts.

SEE ALSO: R.E.M.

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Robyn Hitchcock

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I Often Dream of Trains

Willie's comments: Following the breakup of the Soft Boys and a couple solo records, Robyn's definitive rebirth as a unique musical talent in his own right came with I Often Dream of Trains. Eerier and more personal than anything he'd attempted before- or has since- Trains finds Hitchcock seemingly at the end of his tether, generally backing his slight-yet-pessimistic lyrics with only a minimal piano or an acoustic guitar, and drenching everything in so much reverb it sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned mansion by candlelight. The fact that some of these songs don't sound fully-formed or fully-focused fits perfectly with the mood of private, introspective searching here; the album lurches from one melodic idea to the next, but they're all tied together by an obsession with the transitory nature of life. Though there are still moments of levity (the a capella "Uncorrected Personality Traits" features some carefully-arranged harmonies in the service of hilarious paraphrasings from a psychology textbook) and winks at the popular music of the past ("My Favourite Buildings" borrows its melody from the Velvet Underground, "Mellow Together" is Dylan-via-Monty Python, Robyn goes all Cab Calloway on "Furry Green Atom Bowl," etc.), the overall mood of this record is inescapably sad and lonely. Even within the spare arrangements, Hitchcock does quite a bit of exploring, lunging from weird blues freakouts to silly country-rock, but it doesn't feel like he's pursuing twee eclecticism so much as plundering a dozen different genres for that one great idea that might help him exorcise his demons. He finds the most inspiration in wintry chamber-pop, constructing piano figures of pure, crystalline misery on "Cathedral," "Flavour of Night," and others, but taken as a whole, Trains is a deeply beautiful and strange snapshot of isolation. Or maybe I'm projecting. Grade: A+

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Fegmania!

Willie's comments: At this point, Hitchcock decided to start recording his solo albums with a full band, so he took most of his backup band in the Soft Boys, rechristened them The Egyptians, and started recording unusual pop songs that drop most of the bluesy influences of the Soft Boys and the mournfulness of his previous record in favor of pure, catchy whimsy. As such, Fegmania! sounds like a precursor to They Might Be Giants; Hitchcock’s famous non-sequitur lyrics gel with the skittish paranoia of "The Fly" as easily as with the brisk pop of "Strawberry Mind." "My Wife and My Dead Wife" is a cheerfully macabre standout, but every song on here is wonderful. Grade: A+

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Element of Light

Willie's comments: Another stellar outing. Hitchcock's lyrics aren't as hilariously nonsensical as they normally are, but they instead proceed in a rather straightforward manner, telling bizarre tales: "Lady Waters & the Hooded One," for example, is a second cousin to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," while "Airscape" is a beautiful ghost story. Musically, it's mostly jangling guitar repetition a la Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," but much more upbeat. However, the best songs are the ones that stray from the formula: "Somewhere Apart" merrily chugs along like Elton John's "I'm Still Standing," "Tell Me About Your Drugs" is an infectious rave-up, and "The Can Opener" isn't really a song at all, but a giddy dada poem recited by Hitchcock and his bandmates in pirate voices. Good psychedelic fun. Grade: A

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Globe of Frogs

Willie's comments: Globe of Frogs works in a more jangly, R.E.M.-esque vein than Hitchcock’s previous work (this atmosphere is aided by R.E.M.’s Pete Buck playing guitar on two songs), but there are still plenty of eccentric song arrangements to keep things from getting drab. Check out the organ drone-and-bass drum construction of "Luminous Rose," for example. "Balloon Man" ranks with Hitchcock’s catchiest (and funniest: "And it rained like a slow divorce/ And I wish I could ride a horse"), while "Sleeping With Your Devil Mask" is appropriately sinister. Grade: A-

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Perspex Island

Willie's comments: On this used-CD store mainstay, it’s as though Hitchcock has entirely forgotten how to write a catchy song. Even after several listens, there is no one song that stands out from the others- it’s all just too subdued; there are moments where you’ll actually be rewriting the songs as they play, adding hooks and odd noises that would make this exercise interesting. Worst of all, Michael Stipe’s distinctive vocal presence is wasted, as the R.E.M. frontman is relegated to background mumbling on one song. A big misstep in Hitchcock’s body of work, but a forgivable one. If you made 15 years of great albums, eventually, you’d have to make a crappy one. Grade: C-

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Respect

Willie's comments: This album is a bit of a diversion even by Hitchcock's weird standards. "The Yip Song" opens the album with a feverish, infectious cacophony of beats and Psycho strings, while "Wafflehead" closes the whole deal with a silly, whispered, mostly a capella series of sexual metaphors based on desserts. What falls between those two milestones is similarly sprawling: "Arms of Love" is droney and boring (particularly when compared against R.E.M.'s cover of it), "The Wreck of the Arthur Lee" is a gorgeous piano ballad, and "Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)" is an agreeably off-kilter stomper. Parts of Respect smack of filler, and Hitchcock's lyrics are frequently uninspired, but this out-of-print curiosity contains more than enough fine moments to be worth searching out. Grade: B+

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Moss Elixir

Willie's comments: Having discarded most of the Egyptians by this point, Moss Elixir is a personal-sounding album, which is always surprising no matter how often Robyn returns to that emotional well- the songs are more dependent upon Hitchcock’s acoustic guitar than anything else, and that makes tunes like the gorgeous, Beatlesy "Heliotrope" resonate with intimate feeling. Hitchcock’s talent for hilariously surreal lyrics is still intact ("She was sinister but she was happy/ Like a chandelier festooned with leeches"), but he continues to mature in the area of songwriting, which makes the busy arrangements of "Devil’s Radio" and "Beautiful Queen" as interesting as they are singable. Grade: A-

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Storefront Hitchcock (CD version)

Willie's comments: No one is more deserving of a concert film than Hitchcock, but it’s a shame that the Jonathan Demme picture from which this album’s tracks were culled was shown only on one screen in New York and then canned. So this album of mostly acoustic live songs will have to do, and it fares fairly well, I suppose. Surely the film contained performances less limp than the achingly repetitive “I’m Only You” and “Glass Hotel”- not to mention the thuddingly obvious “Where Do You Go When You Die?”- so their inclusion is irksome. However, the album is partially redeemed by Hitchcock’s stream-of-consciousness song intros and songs like the intensely personal “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford” and the disturbing “The Yip! Song” (originally from Respect), which is a song about an ailing parent billions of times more intelligent than Kenny Loggins’s “This is It.” Grade: B-

Storefront Hitchcock (DVD)

Willie's comments: The belated DVD release of this concert film confirms the theory I espoused in my review of the soundtrack CD: There are plenty of songs featured in this movie that explode in the way the songs on the album don't. There's a powerful version of "I Am Not Me" that blows the Moss Elixir version out of the water; there's a great rendition of "Devil's Radio"; and "Airscape" is an even more affecting tale than it was back on Element of Light. Even the songs that are on the soundtrack benefit immensely from Johnathan Demme's visuals. "I'm Only You," for instance, is no longer boring but made hypnotic by the unflinching close-up on Hitchcock's hands slithering around the fretboard. The gimmick of the film is that Hitchcock is playing a concert in an abandoned New York City storefront, and occasionally, bystanders come to gawk at the proceedings through the window (or, in one strange case, hold a gigantic photo of a man and a cat up to the glass). But Demme spruces the proceedings up- as he did in Stop Making Sense and failed to do in Beloved- with such simple visual accouterments as candles, a lightbulb, or a translucent, multicolored backdrop. The video quality and sound are impeccable on the DVD, and though Hitchcock does leave out some of his best numbers (the anemic "Freeze" could easily have been replaced by a poppier number from A Globe of Frogs), it's still a charming, intimate keeper. Grade: A-

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Jewels for Sophia

Willie's comments: On this studio album, Hitchcock's lyrics are at their most bizarrely hilarious. "Viva! Sea-Tac" is an ode to Seattle culture that compliments the Northwestern city on its wonderful coffee and smack, while "The Cheese Alarm" is a Pythonesque joy to behold. However, the songwriting is noteworthy only for an utter lack of hooks that hasn't been seen from Hitchcock since the Soft Boys' A Can of Bees. Save for "Mexican God" and a beautiful reprise of Storefront Hitchcock's "No, I Don't Remember Guildford," the songs bounce around in an entirely uncatchy fashion, and Hitchcock doesn't even try to sing a lot of the time. It's unfortunate, because the lyrics really do deserve better. Grade: B-

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Luxor

Willie's comments: I read somewhere that Luxor was initially recorded to be handed out as a party favor to attendees at Hitchcock's fiftieth-birthday concert, and I hope that's true. Recorded after the reunion and second dissolution of the Soft Boys, it's an intimate, recuperative acoustic collection that does, romantically enough, sound like it was never meant to be heard by more than a couple hundred people. Unlike the reclusive madness that hid in I Often Dream of Trains' copious shadows, Luxor's solo contemplation- while still too skewed to be described as upbeat or placid- at least has a benevolent spirit at its core. Though a few songs teeter on the edge of being throwaways, due either to uninspired "moon/June/spoon" lyrics or to overly simple construction, Luxor overall showcases Hitchcock's songwriting deftness even when working with just a couple elements. Both "Keep Finding Me" and "Penelope's Angles" take risky, slightly uncomfortable musical turns without ever quite forfeiting their enthralling prettiness, and "The Idea of You" doesn't need to step out of the disc's pared-down boundaries to be as successfully trippy as anything by Hitchcock's psychedelic rock idols. Perhaps the best summation of Luxor's subtly dextrous beauty is "The Wolf House," a frosty arpeggio instrumental during which the simple addition of a chorus effect to Hitchcock's pensive plucking manages to be completely breathtaking. As a whole, the album is exactly as simultaneously satisfying and inescapably emotionally draining as a birthday gift you give yourself. Grade: B+

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Spooked

Willie's comments: Robyn teamed up with bluegrass/folk icon Gillian Welch and her behind-the-scenes partner David Rawlings for this album of quiet, spacious, more-folksy-than-usual tunes. Though Welch and Rawlings are pretty much relegated to being Hitchcock's backing band, their subtle influence is all over Spooked, and it brings a welcome new dimension of cozy hominess to Robyn's muted psych-folk compositions that the lonesome Luxor pointedly didn't possess. For instance, their humming harmonies and minimal slide guitar turn "Demons and Fiends" from what might've been an unremarkable acoustic blues number into an impressive and affecting bluegrass ballad, while "Full Moon in My Soul" brings that same charm to a more typical Hitchcock tune, complete with backwards guitar. By now, somebody must surely have referred to Spooked as O Robyn, Where Art Thou? har har har, but don't go in expecting a backward-looking bluegrass revival album like Welch's superb Time (the Revelator): this is still very much a Robyn Hitchcock record, from the easygoing stomper "We're Gonna Live in the Trees" to the wound-down closer "Flanagan's Song," which rivals Storefront Hitchcock's version of "No, I Don't Remember Guildford" for his most emotionally mature and piercing recording. (There's also a funny spoken interlude called "Welcome to Earth" that instantly became my outgoing voicemail message.) The days of his high-energy pop surrealism may be behind him, but if Hitchcock can keep up this level of flint-voiced folk-rock quality, Spooked may mark a beautiful turning point in the man's career. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

John Schlegel writes: Kudos for including Mr. Hitchcock in your music review page. Great songwriter and genuinely eccentric lyricist, and not enough music review pages feature any of his work. I myself am not too familiar with much of his "solo" catalogue, but I am a big fan of all the Egyptians stuff. Like you, I generally agree that Hitchcock's best albums with the Egyptians were his earlier ones, Fegmania! and Element of Light; considerably more consistent work than his late '80's/early '90's, more radio-friendly A&M Records output. Of the latter period, Globe of Frogs is undisputably the strongest record, featuring only perhaps two weak tracks. The follow-up to that album, Queen Elvis (not reviewed here), is decent, but unfortunately served as a glimpse into Robyn's near future with the Egyptians, which was bogged down by a lot of filler material. Still, a good album with supoib songs like "Madonna of the Wasps," "Veins of the Queen," and "Freeze"; definitely worth checking out if you don't have it already (it is out of print). As for the later A&M releases, I don't know if I find Respect to be superior to Perplex Island; the latter has some grade-A material like "So You Think You're in Love" and "She Doesn't Exist." I love Respect's frenetic opener too, though. You do know that Perplex Island came before Respect, don't you? (You have them listed backwards, but no biggie.) [WILLIE'S NOTE: I know now. It's been fixed.] Anyhoo, Hitchcock is an undeniably interesting artist if you can take your pop fairly eclectic, and one of those obscure jewels from the vast '80's college radio era.

Jeff Hayes writes: Just read the new Robyn Hitchcock review and thought I'd warn you not to pass on "Black Snake Diamond Role." Despite some reports to the contrary, it's a really good album. Can't say the same for Groovy Decay / Groovy Decoy / Gravy Deco, but that first album is a keeper. You'd like it!

SEE ALSO: THE SOFT BOYS

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES, VOL. 1

THIS ARTIST HAS TENUOUS CONNECTIONS TO: R.E.M.; GRANT LEE BUFFALO

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Hooverphonic

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Blue Wonder Power Milk

Willie's comments: Belgium's Hooverphonic makes trippy technopop that is buoyed by lush string arrangements, tastefully weird sound effects and samples, skittery programmed drums, and the sweet, breathy vocals of Geike Arnaert. In a way, they're spiritually akin to other electronica-popsmiths like Bjork and Snowpony, but Hooverphonic's tunes eschew any abrasiveness, and Blue Wonder Power Milk is as gorgeous and soothing as the ice-blue cover photo. "Renaissance Affair" is the most immediately gripping of the lot (as you may have noticed from its placement in VW's recent Vapor ad), with a heavenly melody and an infectious, blipping keyboard line. But songs like "Eden," "One Way Ride," and the vaguely ominous "Magenta" are all note-perfect ambient pop. The lyrics are mostly negligible throughout (the band does share a homeland with Technotronic, remember), but Hooverphonic is a truly exciting electronica act: One that has made good on every promise that the Orb ever made, but failed to live up to. This album is beyond wonderful. Grade: A+

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The Magnificent Tree

Willie's comments: It makes me kind of sad that "Renaissance Affair" was tacked onto the end of this album (in the same version that appears on Blue Wonder Power Milk) in the hopes of boosting sales following the popularity of that Volkswagen spot. In a way, the song's inclusion is a sickeningly commercial ploy by record company slugs, sure, but it disappoints me that the band doesn't get the recognition they deserve on their own. The Magnificent Tree isn't quite up to the glossy standards of brilliance set by the previous album, but it's still a great listen. If you can get through the cheesy "Mad About You," which resembles no one so much as Jewel, you'll be rewarded by the weird catchiness of songs like "Waves," "Frosted Flake Wood," and "Autoharp." Arnaert has become a much stronger singer since Blue Wonder Power Milk, and while part of me misses her plaintive whisper-sing, her newfound confidence gives the songs an aggressive push that is matched by Alex Collier's more muscular songwriting skills. The album's arrangements have become more playfully weird as well, featuring twisted strings, pitch-manipulated vocals, and twitchy 808 drum machines. Sure, "Renaissance Affair" is still the best song on the whole dang deal, but with The Magnificent Tree, Hooverphonic proves that they deserve to be at least as recognizable a name in electronica as, say, Portishead. Grade: A-

READER COMMENTS:

Univac, Hooverphonic's web manager writes: As per your review of Hooverphonic's latest album 'The Magnificent Tree', please let it be clearified that the band had nothing to do with including 'Renaissance Affair' on the American version of 'TMT'. In fact they did not even know that it was on the American version until they toured the States recently. This was a decision made by Epic Records in America related to the popularity of the VW ad. Interesting review, will send copies to the band members. Thank you for your time. [EDITOR'S NOTE: In the original version of this review, I accidentally implied- through poor phrasing- that it was Hooverphonic's decision to include "Renaissance Affair" on that album. I regret the error, which has been corrected. -Willie]

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Husker Du

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Flip Your Wig

Willie's comments: Husker Du guitarist/singer/bossman Bob Mould had neither the production experience nor the resources to make the songs on this charming little punk album sound as aggressive and powerful as they should (i.e., like his songs would sound with his later band, Sugar). The vocals are thin and the guitars are often pushed way to the back of the mix, which is a bit distracting, no matter how loud you listen to Flip Your Wig. The good news, however, is that no matter how shoddily it's produced, this is the catchiest album Husker Du ever made- at points, it sounds like the Ramones' first album. "Divide and Conquer" sounds like the blueprints for Bad Religion, while "Hate Paper Doll" is positively bouncy. Drummer Grant Hart turns in some great numbers too, with the infectious "Flexible Flyer" and "Every Everything," but his bellowing on "Keep Hanging On" makes him sound like a belligerent drunk. This song and with the two instrumentals that close the album (whose idea was that?), make Flip Your Wig a bit anticlimactic, but it's still a great document of turbo-powered punk. Grade: A-

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Warehouse: Songs and Stories

Willie's comments: After a multitude of albums that ranged from dense and harsh (the vastly overrated Zen Arcade) to almost stupidly poppy (Flip Your Wig), Husker Du managed to strike a balance between the two extremes on their final studio album. While Hart’s compositions are unfailingly catchy and occasionally poignant- particularly the gorgeously dour "She Floated Away"- Mould turns in the classics here. "Could You Be the One?" and "It’s Not Peculiar" are more of those perfect little fractured-love gems he crafts so well, while "These Important Years" is a razor-sharp tale of ennui with our society ("We’re all exchanging pleasantries no matter how we feel/ And no one knows the difference ‘cause it all seems so unreal"). Warehouse is a bit overlong, but with tunes this strong, it seems churlish to hold that against the Huskers. Grade: B+

SEE ALSO: BOB MOULD

SEE ALSO: SUGAR

THIS ARTIST ALSO APPEARS ON: NEVER MIND THE MAINSTREAM... THE BEST OF MTV'S 120 MINUTES, VOL. 2; GIMME INDIE ROCK, VOL. 1

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