Music marketing is a funny thing. The spin on this collaborative effort between Del, the Automator and Kid Koala has primarily been one of futuristic fun, more tripped-out wackiness from those West Coast kids. Isn't that Del and Automator discussing their favorite video games on Spin.com? The "Paybill" (think Playbill) 75 Ark put out lists 25 characters with names like "Astacio the Nudist" and "Lorenzo van Peebles," played by Prince Paul, Anti-Pop's Beans and Peanut Butter Wolf among others. Most of these folks show up on the album for something under 30 seconds or are buried deep in the mix. You'd think by now those in charge would have realized that pain and paranoia sell like gangbusters, no need for sugarcoating.
Deltron 3030 takes the listener deep into Space Is the Place and Ornette's Made in America territory, a black-culture realm so full of anguish and pessimism that space is the only possible escape. The lyrics, all by Del, tell the story: infatuation with imaginary technology, fear and distrust of everyday gadgets. "Never let a computer tell me shit," from the wonderfully catchy "Things You Can Do," its chirping chipmunk voice informing us that "some can't be done." Or from "Virus": "I want to devise a virus/to bring dire straits to your environment/crushing corporations with a mild touch/trash your whole computer system and revert it to papyrus." It's the year 3030, you see, and reality means giant corporations, isolated individuals, war, riots, surly receptionists... That it's all already happened is the point. This may not be the most sophisticated political and cultural critique, it may be protesting the inevitable, but it still means the kind of record you'll pull out years from now to make the point that everyone wasn't with the program back then, and rightfully so.
Of the best tracks here, "Madness" and "Memory Loss," the first is a view of the inside of Del's head ("No I can't slap you no five/when you and your cutty is talking shit about me outside"), the other a communal exhortation ("You try to get over/you're gonna go under/literally"). Both feature superb, propulsive scratching from Kid Koala and spot-on production by Automator. Fueled by terrific samples, one of a Marianne Faithfull-type chanteuse, the other of a Malcolm X-like speaker, these tracks are keepers. Not to mention others, like "Mastermind," where everything gels and the three cocaptains of this spaceship all get it together.
The disc could have benefited from fewer throwaway skits and more real humor: some of the biggest laughs come, surprisingly, from a brief turn by Paul Barman as the hysterically faggy patriarch Cleofis Randolph (he's into "earth tones... and erogenous zones"). Other than that, life in the year 3030 doesn't seem to include much sex, which makes sense if you're this paranoid: "Everybody's suspect/I must check your ID/cause you looking sheisty/you might be intelligence/someone that Del's against." But overall, the album works: Automator's expansive, somewhat bombastic choices in samples serve as a counterpoint to Del's weed-inspired claustrophobia. Between bragging about Oakland as the home of the Panthers and getting Sean Lennon to sing a few (good) lines, the crew has time to remind their listeners to "get open/like the ocean." That's the real wisdom from the West.
Terminal E Buttercup (Spirit of Orr)
Judging by the name, one might think the Boston band Buttercup is some kind of ethereal wimp-pop outfit, but nothing could be further from the truth. For several years now, Buttercup has been among the greatest American rock bands in every regard. I say "rock bands" because I refuse to adhere to the "indie" distinction. Lets face it, since who knows when (1977?) virtually any rock that wasn't "indie" wasn't actually rock, and the "indie" distinction is a ghetto designed to keep talented bands like Buttercup away from the limelight.
It's partially Buttercup's fault that they don't fight more for their right to be heard. Like a lot of indie-geeks they seem content to be mere hobbyists. Then again, what are bands like this gonna do? Through no real fault of their own, they can't get arrested on main street. Rock 'n' roll, as an art form anyway, is a private conceit now, and Buttercup is definitely among the archivists.
Buttercup's last album was a self-titled affair that actually saw them in a more subdued mode, kinda like the eponymous third album of the Velvet Underground (although it sounded nothing like it). Terminal E is a rollicking affair that returns them to the kind of dense twang of their magnum opus, Love ('97). Jim Buni's a great lyricist, but seems to have no grand illusions that his words are actually "saying" anything. The wonderful thing about Buni is that his words are so off-the-cuff and genuine that you know they're personal, and it's exciting to get such a totally exposed glimpse of someone's soul via music. But Buni ain't all that dramatic?most of his little slices-of-life are just personal dramas being played out, not groundbreaking life-or-death struggles. Most of them involve relationships with friends, lovers, even fellow scene geeks.
With Buttercup one gets the feeling of an idyllic life going on and on somehow NOT impinged by the sour notes that are ringing in the air almost everywhere else. It's quite fitting that the band's album covers always portray fields of posies or clouds floating above telephone wires: as a state of mind, this band exists in that idyllic realm where pain and joy are the only realities ("rock 'n' roll," in other words). As Buni sings on "Big Flood": "Nothing's easy/Where's the fun?/There's a lot of thankless jobs that must get done."
What drives these songs is a churning Stones/Crazy Horse/Rumour quality. There are variables, like the Talking Heads song-that-never-was "Make Some Room" (which also features some nice high-flying Television/Only Ones-style guitar), but the stock in trade seems to be stampeding riffs with intricate harmonic twists that literally lay dust down in your windpipe. On this album bassist Colleen MacDonald has increased her vocal presence; she adds some very winsome harmonies to songs like "Walk over Mountains," "Head in the Sand" (which riff-wise could've come off Exile on Main Street) and the great "Take Me Over." The latter is poignant enough to stand next to anything on the Saint Low album. If albums could get married, that album and this one would be a perfect pair: both of them are excellent stabs at "maturity" in rock during an era dominated by infantile sensibilities. No matter how subtle they pretend to be about their "public" image, Buttercup knows, and that knowledge is evident in every moment of Terminal E.
Joe S. Harrington
For Him and the Girls Hawksley Workman (Loose)
Loose Recordings in the UK has just reissued this debut album from Toronto's manic song and dance man. It's worth hearing. Rarely has pop music been performed with such panache, and so many yodels. I know little about the excitable fellow?just that he claims to be a 24-year-old professional tap dancer and has a love for vaudeville timing that exceeds even that of Fred Astaire. Oh, and he's Canadian. But you really shouldn't worry about that.
"Tarantulove" swings with a sexual swagger and almost insane lust. "Sweet Hallelujah" has a ponderous, religious, church-like fervor that sounds like Bono if he ever took that long pointy stick out of his ass. The almost insurrectionist "All of Us Kids" has a trombone part and mock-reggae rhythm that could beat even 10CC's "Dreadlock Holiday" for sheer bad taste.
That's what's great about Hawksley?his total lack of restraint. He is just so happy to be creating music that he can't hold himself back. He has no notion of cool, no idea of what may or may not be commercial?all that matters for him is the tune, the emotion, life. In this, For Him and the Girls is sometimes reminiscent of Bowie circa Pin Ups or a particularly atrocious Lloyd-Webber musical, except Hawksley's music is so bubbly and naive it's damn near irresistible.
Workman has a way round a vivid image, too. "You ain't been sexin' kitten," he sings on "Tarantulove," "But now you're screaming/Your bare feet dancing crazy/In shards of wine glasses." The opening track "Maniacs," he explains, "Started as a frantic drum beat, that turned into frantic singing. The April weather was frantic with thunder and lightning and hail." Indeed. The result is some outrageously camp Steve Malkmus-style singing over a Burundi beat. And if Hawksley does have a tendency to become a little maudlin and acoustic on some of the songs?"Bullets (Bouncing)," written about his grandparents right before the war, "Safe and Sound," written for his automobile?he always rectifies matters with another upbeat, crazed cabaret number. "Paper Shoes," for example, where his voice hangs scarily in mid-air before descending to Earth with a resounding crash. "I should have been a girl," he carols. "My moves are amazing."
If you're looking to rekindle your faith in pop music, then you could do far, far worse than to listen to this. Hawskley Workman's enthusiasm is infectious. Available domestically on Ba Da Bing records.
Mission Accomplished Tricky (Anti)
It's hard to lose a following as dedicated as the one that Tricky attracted with his 1995 debut, Maxinquaye. To my mind, Maxinquaye is still the best album released in the 90s?dark, brooding, perverse and utterly unforgettable. It was the Nevermind of triphop and lounge, and its long, languorous spaces sprinkled with delightful idiosyncrasies and oddities virtually defined the genre.
That's tough shit to live down, but instead of blowing his brains out, Tricky has preferred to attempt a more commercial suicide by eschewing the sound that he perfected at first crack and pumping out even darker and more aggro records. Yes, Nearly God, Pre-Millennium Tension, Angels with Dirty Faces and Juxtapose were innovative in their own way, but the lounge lifers were never gonna go there. Oddly enough, all of these records had one or two teasers back to the Maxinquaye sound, just enough to tantalize the addicts, but the majority of the tracks were jittery yet utterly compelling blends of garage, house, hiphop and rock. (Now that Tricky's left Island Records behind, can a Tricksploitation Greatest Hits with pop-flavored stuff like "For Real," "Makes Me Wanna Die" and "Broken Homes" be far off?)
A track like "Divine Comedy"?the last selection on this new four-song Tricky EP?is just the sort of thing that wouldn't make it into any soft sell of Tricky's particular genius. Often bootlegged under various titles, the machine-gun tempo of "Divine Comedy" ricochets under a throbbing bass to create an utterly cramped and paranoid feel. Then throw in a chorus in which a voice screams, "Polygram!" to Tricky's mumbled response, "Fucking niggers." You haven't exactly got a chart-topper on your hands, but you do have something that's a lot more interesting than your average mindless house track. (In various interviews, Tricky has claimed that the song was occasioned by comments made by Polygram executive Eric Kronfeld, who told a jury in a trial involving Dru Hill that if the music industry didn't hire blacks with criminal records, it wouldn't hire any blacks at all.)
The rest of Mission Accomplished is a hit-or-miss proposition. The title track is a cluttered mess that rests entirely on a deadpan sample of Peter Gabriel's "Big Time," and "Tricky Versus Lynx" sounds like an outtake from Juxtapose, employing that album's snappy but occasionally contrived hiphop banter. "Crazy Claws," on the other hand, is vintage Tricky, with its sneering sensuality oozing through dense beats in breathy bursts. It's nasty, brutal and much too short, like the EP as a whole.