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November 2, 1998
by Shan Fowler and Lissa Townsend Rodgers
  ooh honey...The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

"Acme" is the Jon Spencer Blues Explosionís most ambitious album to date, in which they quit hinting at blues, R&B, hip-hop, and funk styles and attempt to fully incorporate them. Their famed "two guitars, drums, no bass" stripped-down attack has been greatly expanded with the help of a battery of producers, a legion of recording studios, an army of collaborators, and every instrument they could lay their hands on. And overseeing it all as executive producer, legendary dirty old soul man Andre Williams.

A lot of the songs on "Acme" come off like the gentlemen of Blues Explosion played Frankensteinís monster with their record collections—an idea planted here, a sample grafted there, a hook dropped in between. Like all scientific experiments, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnít. Their tribute to K-Records overlord Calvin Johnson, "Calvin," is a blaxploitation collage laid over repetitive guitar riffs and breakbeats. The vocal track, a string of sampled "uh"s and "baby"s and "astrological soul train getting doooowwn," is sure to further irk those critics who disdain the Blues Explosion as a trust-fund minstrel show. "Do You Wanna Get Heavy?" opens with an acoustic guitar and Spencerís spoken-word intro over the subtle backing of a doo-wop group, then crashes into grinding guitar and distorted vocals, which suddenly drop away as the chorus reappears and begins gospel-izing. Spencer responds to their escalating outbursts with silence, then mushmouthed rambling, then a few strangled screams: he sounds intimidated.

Still, when "Acme" works, it goddam works. "Loviní Machine" is one of the yearís most irresistible songs, taking a ringing guitar riff as foundation, and gradually layering a barrelhouse piano, moogs, and maracas on top—then breaking the whole mess down and building it up again. It makes you want to dance, it makes you want to drink, it makes you want to drive fast and laugh hysterically. All the bits also help swell "Torture," another killer number, to epic proportions. A three-note piano riff and scrap of falsetto crooning provide the hooks for Spencerís moaning and shrieking, then a string section sweeps in at the end and escalates it all to agonized soul-ballad level.

Not that all of "Acme" is riffs and bits; a good half/third of it is typical Blues Explosion tunes, but they donít seem to generate the maelstrom of energy they used to. "Acme" is an interesting album, one that makes you look forward to the next effort—if this one sometimes falls short, itís because the aim was higher.
—Lissa Townsend Rodgers


The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

"Celebrity Skin"

PJ Harvey
"Is This Desire?"

October 19
Black Star, Lewis Parker, A Tribe Called Quest

September 14
Hepcat, Gomez, Bob Mould

August 31
Liz Phair, DJ Vadim, UNKLE

August 15
Deftones, Mary J. Blige, Neotropic

August 3
Chocolate Genius, The Fieldstones, Dimtri from Paris

July 20
MC Lyte, Fastball, Marc Ribot

July 6
Amon Tobin, Pullman, Jesus and Mary Chain

"Celebrity Skin"

Few musicians have undergone the intense cosmetic makeover Courtney Love has put herself through since releasing Hole's second LP, "Live Through This," four years ago. Everybody knows the story, so the only recap needed here is that Love went from being an outsider raging against the machine to being a shiny, well-oiled part of said machine. If she attempted the same raging bitch (and I mean that as a compliment) opus she made four years ago, it would have been as plastic as its jewel case. "Celebrity Skin" is not a repeat, yet it's not what we've come to expect from the woman who must have "front page news" written into her contract.

"Celebrity Skin" is rife with cliches, though that's not a change, either. Love has always fallen back on lazy lyrics. The difference is that even her delivery is lazy. Her exaggerated enunciation ("cold as ice"="caw-old as I-eece") makes "Northern Star" an even worse power ballad than the acoustic guitar and string flourishes suggest. When Love does her best to sneer through the closing stanza of the title track—"You want a part of me/Well, I'm not selling cheap/No, I'm not selling cheap"—she barely smears her lipstick. Of course, lipstick smears are gauche for the new Courtney. Apparently she's neither ready to say goodbye to the teenage outcasts who made her a rock star nor give a resounding hello to the Hollywood elite who have accepted her as a glamour queen.

That's the real problem. Love's attempt to please everyone is pandering of the first degree. She tries to keep one foot placed in her past and the other pointed toward her future, and the result is a CD full of forgettable moments. For such an enigmatic character, known for doing exactly what she wants, the death knell isn't bad reactions, it's no reaction at all, which is exactly what "Celebrity Skin" deserves.
—Shan Fowler

PJ Harvey
"Is This Desire?"

PJPolly Jean Harveyís newest album is further evidence of her uniqueness as a musician. It's not only her seamless mingling of everything from techno to country to rock to trip-hop to gospel that sets her apart, but also her subject matter and attitude toward it. Harvey is a master of exploring and conveying obsession, whether through the eyes of the object or the one fixated. "Is This Desire?" presents a cast of enigmatic women—Leah, Joy, Catherine, Elise, Dawn—whose stories unfold over constantly shifting, alternately subtle and overpowering backgrounds. "Anglene" opens with a spare country guitar, joined by a marching beat that rolls like storm clouds on the horizon as the lady of the title lists her charms, sins, and virtues. Then the tension breaks abruptly into rapture, organs sinking in, pianos pounding, as she calls on God or the Devil— doesnít matter who, as long as itís a man "who will collect my soul and come to me."

Not that itís all orchestration and effects and whisperings. In "My Beautiful Leah" the weight of the narratorís infatuation is reflected in the heaviness of the music-the sort of beats you hear echoing through deserted city streets at night, sepulchral synths oozing, horror-movie strings flashing like lightning. "No Girl So Sweet," which sounds like a techno remix of a "Four-Track Demos" outtake, is one of the few songs that actually have prominent, recognizable guitars. "Joy" is late-80ís neo-industrial death-grind, the vocals an agonized yelp.

"The Wind" is about Catherine who "liked high places," who abandoned her life to brood alone in "a chapel with her image on the wall. Her tale is related in a deadpan whisper, joined by another voice—still Harvey, but now a high, light croon—which shifts constantly between echoing and predicting the whispered words. The musical backdrop is as intriguing as the story: an initial guitar figure and brushed drums are overtaken by beats, synths, wooshings, and a host of distant-sounding effects that respond to the story being spun. Later on the album comes "Catherine," in which a simple drumbeat and trickle of keyboards drift behind the narrator weakly cursing "Catherine DeBara, youíve murdered my thinking/I gave you my heart, you left the thing stinking." Is it the same woman? Is this what she left behind? Maybe, but the most enigmatic heroine on "Is This Desire?" is Harvey, who leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
—Lissa Townsend Rodgers

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