|May 17, 1999
| by Andrew Clevenger and Lissa Townsend Rodgers
"Golden Time" is a rarity: music that sounds like it's still
turning into something. Unlike most bands these days that seem
to choose their slot in the record store before they even pick
up their guitars, the Rock*A*Teens don't fit into the usual
indie designations: Not quite the perky jingle or southern gothic
of their fellow Chapel Hill bands, they draw on both sounds.
And somewhere in here is the emo-core's love for emotional howling,
the twee pop contingent's fondness for childhood stories, and
the roots rockers' barrelhouse pianos and tambourines. I suppose
what characterizes the Rock*A*Teens most is reverb, which veils
their music like fog, making everything seem cinematic and enigmatic,
lo-fi and lush all at once. The instrumental haze suits frontman
Scott Lopez's lyrics: Like many other songwriters who hail from
below the Mason-Dixon Line, he tells a story, but does it in
details rather than narrative.
The Rock*A*Teens have been called "bummer rock," and a lot of the tunes will have you thinking about being 17 and depressed again. "Freedom Puff (Good Enough Apparently)" is incredibly ominous, guitars waving and crashing like water in the ears of a drowning man as Lopez's vocals build up and burst through the blanket of sound, shrieking "I can't take it/I can't take you" until the cymbals beat him back down. "All That Deth Jazz" is slow-moving and eerily like Portishead, although there's not a synth or sample to be found (although I think that's a ukulele in the solo).
it's the more lighthearted numbers of "Golden Time" that will
have you coming back for more. "Misty Took a Holiday" is a
rambunctious rocker that hints at a matriarch's flight from
the retirement home: She's thrown away her bathrobe, her pills,
her past. Drums run as fast as they can, one guitar jingles
and giggles, the other ends every riff on a high note like
it's just stopped short of falling off a cliff. "Clarissa
Just Do It Anyway" grows on one like some brightly-colored
fungus, rockabilly inflections and a messy stomp all over
the drum kits underlining the exhortation to "Just do it anyway/Just
do it anyway/Isn't it great!" Sure is.Lissa Townsend
"What I Deserve"
Six years ago, it looked like Kelly Willis had it all: the voice of an angel, Hollywood looks, and a recording contract with a powerful Nashville label. Lesser talents like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill have parlayed the same formula into massive record sales, crossover hits, and appearances on VH1's "Divas Live." Kelly Willis, however, didn't quite get a ticket on the gravy train, was dropped by her label, and moved down to Austin, where she immersed herself in the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene. The result of this musical odyssey is the wonderful "What I Deserve," a charming collection of top-rate songs given a no-frills, straight-from-the-heart delivery by Willis.
Built around the basic unit of drums, bass, and acoustic and electric guitars, with an occasional fiddle, mandolin, Hammond B-3 organ, or lap steel throw inafter all, this is country music"What I Deserve" doesn't try to overwhelm with slick production or Nashville commercialism. Instead, the songwriting stands on its own merit, and romantic reflections by Bruce Robison ("Not Forgotten You," "Wrapped") and Damon Bramblett ("Heaven Bound") tug gently at your heartstrings without becoming weepy or maudlin. Willis contributes a song or two herself, and her collaborations with Gary Louris ("Take Me Down," "What I Deserve," "Happy with That") and John Leventhal ("Fading Fast," "Not Long for This World") are particularly strong. But some of the best moments come from unlikely sources: England's Nick Drake contributes the meditative "Time Has Told Me," Australia's Paul Kelly gives the gorgeous "Cradle of Love," and alt-rock poster boy Paul Westerberg surprises with the stirring "They're Blind," a sumptuous ballad that's more k.d. lang than Replacements.
What makes "What I Deserve" such a triumph is Willis' remarkable self-assurance. Confident in her choice of material, she just lets the songs flow, and she never hits a wrong note. (Which is a skill more performers should try to emulate: Sheryl Crow, are you paying attention?) Eminently listenable, utterly enjoyable, and more rewarding with each spin, "What I Deserve" satisfies like the response to a long-unanswered questionin this case, "Whatever happened to Kelly Willis?" This much is clear: What Kelly Willis deserves is continued success and widespread recognition for recording one of the best records of 1999.Andrew Clevenger
For years we've been hearing that virtual reality is just
around the corner. Well, the wait is overit's here.
No, I don't mean putting on an electronic helmet and pretending
to snowboard down the Rockies. I mean Fountains of Wayne's
new disc, "Utopia Parkway," which could just as easily have
been called "Virtual High School." It's all there: cruising
to the mall, unrequited love, the prom, saving up for your
first car, ill-advised tattoos, and field trips to the planetariumeverything
short of making you put on a black robe and handing you a
diploma when the album ends.
Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, the brain trust behind
Fountains of Wayne, were probably voted most likely to become
East Coast versions of the Beach Boys in their yearbook. Utopia
is laced with references to the tri-state areaConey
Island, Queens, Westport, Darien, the L.I.E., and the Jersey
Shoreand homages to summer. But like Brian Wilson's
earlier paeans to girls, cars, sand, and girls, FOW's deliberate,
cheerful brand of pop somehow glorifies and transcends the
banality of the subject matter. Their chief weapons are hooks
and a sense of humor, which produces some wonderfully contrived
rhymes. My two favorites: "She works at Liberty Travel/She
has a heart made of gravel" from "Denise," and "Hockey teams
have playoff dreams/Teenage girls read magazines" from "The
Senator's Daughter." My one complaint about "Utopia Parkway"
is that it is a little too similar to FOW's self-titled debut.
There's a riff-heavy, pseudo love-song that passes for a single
("Utopia"'s "Denise" vs. "FOW"'s "Sink to the Bottom"), a
self-deprecating, unrequited love song ("Red Dragon Tattoo"
vs. "Leave the Biker"), and a dreamy, depressing ballad ("A
Fine Day for a Parade" vs. "She's Got a Problem"). Then again,
if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Plus, it's hard to stay mad
at anyone who can pull off a song about suburban consumerism
called (naturally) "The Valley of Malls." Here's hoping that
these Peter Pans from New Jersey never grow up and have to
leave their Utopia behind.Andrew Clevenger
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