In 2001 these British women released the almost all-instrumental Rock It to the Moon, and you couldn’t begin to say what it was. This time, working with professional reprobate Steve Albini, the result is almost a narrative: a series of embarrassing misfires and experiments (a poem by Siegfried Sassoon done with a choir) followed by a long, long chase. With “Take the Bit Between Your Teeth,” the band does: It’s an all-stops-out grunge jam, about nothing but getting through the forest to the clearing—or the feeling of not caring if you ever get anywhere else. “This Deed” is very European film music, very sexy, very where’s-the-gun; “Love Builds Up” is syncopated in a way that’s all suspense. Cheap organ and drifting voices have made their own place, as unlikely as the Pre-Raphaelite party of Donovan’s “Bert’s Blues” or the locked room of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and no less irresistible. This is as rich a record as you’ll hear this year, and almost certainly the least obvious.
2. Butchies, Make Yr Life (Yep Rock)
These three punk musicians will probably call their next album The L Word, which will be to the TV show as the homemade PRADA T-shirt one of them is wearing here is to the trademarked version. For the moment what they’re after is pop craft—from echoes of Elizabeth Elmore’s Reputation to a doo-wop guitar figure running through a love song.
3. David Denby, “Living in America,” New Yorker (Jan. 12)
Last fall, Denby, a film critic for the New Yorker, published “My Life As a Paulette,” as in an acolyte of the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael. It was his exorcism of the spell the witch cast on him even in death: an account of how Kael befriended him, encouraged him, praised him, and one day called to tell him he wasn’t really a writer and that he ought to do something else with his life. Well, he showed her—he got her job!—but as a critic Denby remains dead weight. His style is the equivalent of someone clearing his throat. On those rare occasions when he assays an argument, it’s indisputable that nothing will ever rescue him from mediocrity.
In “Living in America,” pumped by his liberation from Kael and at the same time helplessly but perversely imitating Kael’s sense of herself as an American writer, Denby takes on Vadim Perelman, the Russian/Canadian director of House of Sand and Fog, Jane Campion, the New Zealander director of In the Cut, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of 21 Grams. These people should not be making movies for American audiences, Denby says: “They don’t really get America right… they miss the colloquial ease and humor, the ruffled surfaces of American life.” They insist on the ugliness, horror, obsessiveness, and vengeance in American life (like Denby’s hero, the Clint Eastwood of Mystic River, which apparently also pulses with the ruffled potato chips of American life, though I must have slept through those parts), but they “may be complacent in their own ways. Perhaps they accept tragedy too easily… Dolorousness”—yes, Denby is free; that’s not a word Kael would have used at gunpoint—“is becoming a curse in the more ambitious movies made in America by foreign-born directors.” “We don’t need other people’s despair,” Denby concludes; plainly, foreigners can get down with it like John Woo or they can shut up. Kael didn’t know the half of it.4. Townes van Zandt, “Coo Coo,” on Acoustic Blue (Tomato)
A 1994 concert version from the late country songwriter: Never has “Coo Coo”—or “The Cuckoo,” or “The Coo Coo Bird,” or “Jack o’ Diamonds”—taken on such detail, such melodrama. Two minutes in and it’s not a song at all, it’s a western.
5. Barry Gifford, Brando Rides Alone (North Atlantic Books)
A very short account of the 1961 One-Eyed Jacks, the only movie Marlon Brando ever directed. You can squint trying to find more than attitude in Gifford’s critical method and confuse yourself trying to figure out why that’s all he needs.
6. Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, “Hillbillies,” from Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (Verse Press)
“Hillbillies” is only the most notable of the 19 often improvised poems included here, all of them recorded on the spot in clubs, on roadsides, in front of signs, etc. It instantly elevates Beckman and Rohrer—a Huey-Dewey-and-Louie duo of New York tourists—to the top of whatever chart it is that ranks artists who should be shot.7. Henry Flynt and the Insurrections, I Don’t Wanna (Locust Music)
1966 Fluxus protest music from Flynt, an experimental troublemaker (he subbed with the Velvet Underground and denounced Karlheinz Stockhausen as a racist who didn’t understand the Everly Brothers) with a reedy, old-timey voice and a hot, hard-to-follow guitar style. On the cover, he looks like he’s submitting a high school science project; song by song he chants cut-up denunciations of the Vietnam War and Wall Street and hits atonal Carl Perkins notes while drummer Walter de Maria, who would go on to erect the celebrated land-art work Lightning Field in New Mexico in 1977, runs around the room hitting things at random, and in time.
8. Tarbox Ramblers, “Country Blues,” on A Fix Back East (Rounder)
Producer Jim Dickinson gets a big, echoey Time Out of Mind sound, which makes it feel as if everything here is taking place inside the not altogether sane head of the singer. But Michael Tarbox is so growly he might as well be a bear, and when he applies himself to Dock Boggs’s 1927 testament to a wasted life, the startling boogie arrangement makes his voice feel like a put-up job. But his slide guitar makes another voice—and when Tarbox comes back singing in an almost delirious mode, he takes the song out of his head and into some ugly bar, where new people keep turning up even if no one’s left for years.
9. Carole King for John Kerry (caroleking.com, Feb. 2)
King was all over New Hampshire before the primary, singing “I Feel the Earth Move” at house parties and “You’ve Got a Friend” at benefit concerts—but has she played “The Locomotion”? “One Fine Day”? Or redone Bobby Vee’s “It Might as Well Rain Until September” as “It Might as Well Rain Until November”—whatever that would mean?
10. Steve Weinstein passes on news of the “Hell Freezes Over Tour” (New England Ticketmaster Ticket Alert posting, Jan. 29)
Events included Rufus Wainwright at Toad’s Place in New Haven, Carrot Top at the State Theater in Portland, Maine, Lynard Skynard (or imposters who can’t spell) and 38 Special (wonder if they can still pull off their great “If I’d Been the One”), Barenaked Ladies, and “An Evening with Christ…”—which a click on the link revealed to be cheap at the price, $25, even if “Christ” turned out to be Christine Lavin.
City Pages, February 11, 2004