July 26, 1999
CitySearch Music  
Sean Elder, Kat Kinsman & Concetta "Princess" Kirschner

nice threads! Various Artists
"Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons"
(Almo Sounds)

"There's nothing new that can be said about dirt/And there's nothing left inside your heart but the same old hurt." So wrote Gram Parsons in the 1970 song "High Fashion Queen," defining the dilemma of the modern country-and-western songwriter in one line while hot-wiring his heart to the Hank Williams wayback machine with the next. Truth to tell, Parsons' songs (by turns plangent and playful) would be just as out of place in today's low-cal, Olestra-filled country music scene as they were in the relatively hardcore '60s: The man simply did not fit. Partly truth and partly fiction (as Kris Kristofferson wrote of Johnny Cash), he was a walking contradiction. Like his custom-made Nudie suit, decorated with marijuana leaves and opium poppies, Parsons' legacy is a patchwork of rock and country myths, complete with a beautiful siren (collaborator and keeper-of-the-flame Emmylou Harris, executive producer on this project) and a drug overdose (at age 26). After he died, some of his drug buddies stole his body (which his parents were shipping back to Dixie) and tried to burn it in the desert around Joshua Tree, in keeping with Parsons' purported final, stoned request.

The body of Parsons' work gets a far better treatment on this tribute, even for those of you who think the world needs another tribute album like George Bush Jr. needs more money. It's actually strange that it took this long for such a concept to come into being: Parsons' influence on the rock scene began with his hijacking of the Byrds on the 1968 "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and can be found in groups as disparate as Wilco and the Cowboy Junkies (both represented here), but it took a while for country music to acknowledge its debt. On "Return of the Grievous Angel," former partners, imitators and true heirs (most notably, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams) take a whack at Parsons' piņata, though only occasionally does candy fall from the sky.

On the aforementioned "High Fashion Queen," former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman trades vocals with Earle, and though Hillman has the creds, it is Earle—with his marbles-in-the-mouth post-recovery delivery—who captures Parsons' air of decadence and deliverance. "The Gilded Palace of Sin" was the name of the Burritos' first album, and title-wise, they don't come much crispier. "Hot Burrito #1 (I'm Your Toy)," once covered by Elvis Costello on his odd country one-off, "Almost Blue," is disinterred here by the Mavericks, served up cold with a kicking drum machine and the aggressive, Chris Isaak-on-steroids vocals of Raul Malo. And Elvis himself weighs in with a simple and heartfelt reading of "Sleepless Nights." (It was actually written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and only covered by Parsons, but who's counting?)

Less successful are Beck's jive-ass duet with Emmylou on "Sin City," Wilco's off-key throwaway of "One Hundred Years from Now" (which sounds more like Golden Smog, and not in a good way), and the Cowboy Junkies' laughably trip-hoppy version of "Ooh Las Vegas," which sounds like bad Liz Phair. Most of the readings here are sincere and rather unimaginative (though Chrissie Hynde all but muscles old Emmylou off the road on the opener, "She"). Parsons was no great shakes as a singer and found his voice (and perhaps his muse) in Emmylou Harris, who sings only harmony here. But if someone needed to pick up that fallen torch, leave it to the redoubtable Lucinda Williams, whose own "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" could have been a Parsons album. Accompanied on the title track by, of all people, David Crosby (who reminds us that before he became a bloated hippie walrus he was a harmonist of chameleon-like abilities), Williams takes one of Parsons' best songs and makes it her own. Parsons believed in a kind of country karma, and nowhere is it better captured than in the lines "Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down/And they all led me straight back home to you." His mourning was the sort that fellow junkie travelers like Keith Richards could only stand in awe of, trying to warm their hands on the man's burning corpse.—Sean Elder


Various Artists
"Return of the Grievous Angel:
A Tribute to Gram Parsons"

Marine Research/The Frank and Walters
"Sounds from the Gulf Stream"
"Beauty Becomes More Than Life"

Ruff Ryders
"Ruff Ryders"

past reviews

Marine Research
"Sounds From the Gulf Stream"

The Frank and Walters
"Beauty Becomes More Than Life"

cute as the dickens Just as it seems as if the entire genre of indiepop music is poised and ready to drown a sickly death in a cloying sea of twee, along come scene veterans Marine Research and the Frank and Walters to toss out a life preserver. Now, for those of you who: a) don't spend at least 1/3 of your disposable income and an even greater percentage of your free time on your knees pawing through dusty bins in search of that elusive Boy Hairdressers 12", or b) have gotten laid at some point in recent memory, indiepop as defined by the indiepop Mailing List FAQ is, "independently produced pop music, the kind that tends to come out on small-run, seven-inch singles with handmade sleeves. They call it 'wimpy' and 'twee', but Pop Kids everywhere know that the true spirit of punk rock lives on...in the simple and pure efforts of kids banging out sweet delicious songs on cheap guitars." At its worst, it's pasty, stripey-shirted boys in their 30s mooing gluey, off-key ditties about being too shy to ask the cute red-headed girl with the Hello Kitty barrettes to share a milkshake at the soda shop. At its best, there have long been the charming, plaintive and luminous offerings of the Franks and the members of Marine Research.

While, technically, this is their first outing as Marine Research, the band ranks high in indiepop hagiology, with three out of the five members boasting membership in late '80s girly-pop-punk group Tallulah Gosh, and four as former members of Sarah Records' flagship band Heavenly. On "Sounds from the Gulf Stream," the group's first recorded effort since the 1996 suicide of Heavenly drummer Matthew Fletcher, there is a mostly effective recreation of the Heavenly formula for infectious, deceptively sweet, and slyly brilliant pop songs, tempered this time around with notes of loss and hard-won optimism. The most fully realized evidence of this is in "Hopefulness to Hopelessness," Amelia Fletcher's elegiac pop song for her lost brother. Atop a muted candy-cloud of background ba-ba-ba's and doo-doo-doo's, Fletcher's strong soprano soars over the top, spinning out a litany of desires left unfulfilled in the wake of her brother's death: "I still want to hear you end your half-finished pop songs/I still want to be who I am, but be it with you." The effect is at once chilling, gorgeous and incredibly bittersweet. While the rest of the 10 tracks have varying degrees of success (though the only two really lackluster songs are the appropriately clumsy, but heavy-handed "Glamour Gap" and the sonically flat "Queen B"), the album contains enough surprises and smart charms to have fans curiously awaiting Marine Research's next move.

dem franks For the Frank and Walter's 1997 release "Grand Parade," the band had to face a particularly tough obstacle—their earlier incarnation. With their loopy, psychedelic lyrics, goofy Cork-accented stage banter, and predilection for lurid orange and purple get-ups, the lads scored a few U.K. chart hits in the early '90s, but also gained a nearly fatal reputation as a joke band. A five-year hiatus between records helped fade that impression, but it was really their shockingly confident, tight live performances during a six-month, Brooklyn-based U.S. tenure in 1997 that opened the ears of old fans to the Franks' new sound and garnered the band a legion of new listeners. "Grand Parade" was an astonishing combination of powerful guitar hooks, some of the strongest male pop vocals in recent memory and straightforward, deeply human lyrics. While their latest release, "Beauty Becomes More Than Life" doesn't make an equally impressive leap forward, it can certainly stand proudly beside its predecessor. "Time We Said Goodnight" is the inexorable, devastating end of a relationship: "It's time we said goodnight to all the love in sight...I'd hoped that I would always be in love with you." Stark bass dissolves in a building storm of guitar fuzz with singer Paul Linehan's driving, usually strongly controlled voice rasping into a near-howl, and then tightening back over the well-defined bass again. The effect is simply stunning. Several other tracks, including "Today" and "Until the End," make steps toward matching the impact of this song, but it remains the clear winner. There are also a few ill-advised steps toward a more electronic aesthetic on the album, but the Franks are clearly at their peak when they're playing good, old-fashioned power pop. Still, you can't blame a band for trying.

It's really reassuring to know that there are some bands you can always count on. And sure, there are always going to be some pale, angsty kids mooing and mooning. You can always just put on your Walkman and block them out with something better.—Kat Kinsman


Ruff Ryders
"Ruff Ryders"

ruff ruff!Turn on Hot 97. Insert tape. After 20 minutes you have a copy of this CD. There—I saved you 14 bucks!

Or, go ride the subway, and listen to the "doo doo" tones that happen just before the doors close—that's the hook in J.Z.'s "Jigga My Nigga." Here's a sample lyric from "Ryde or Die": "Show me the money, I'll show you the gun, motherfucker! Show msd;lkfjaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa"—oh whoops, excuse me, I fell asleep at the keyboard.

I am really hard-pressed to come up with something to say about this CD except that it is irritating, irritating like when you are deep in concentration and a little fly keeps buzzing around: You can't be bothered to even swat it, but you can't entirely ignore it either. Repeated cries of "What What!" "Grrrr!" and "Mad Cheddar!" could drive anyone insane, but it's worse when even the backing beats repeat over and over and never change. Even Big Punisher, who is a great MC, falls short on "Pina Colada," which starts out with a promising cheerleader cry of "Where my niggas with the big dicks?" and then declines into the usual boring drivel, running into the song before and the song after it. The best thing on "Ruff Ryders" is newcomer Eve's "What Ya Want," whose flow is a mixture of Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and Big Pun, and who excitingly describes herself as a "pitbull in a skirt." Unfortunately, it has a vaguely cheesy beat, courtesy of Swizz Beats, who produce most of the really tedious music on the record, and thus wears thin after more than a few spins. If you want to listen to a collective of people doing interesting hip hop, forget this: Do yourself a favor and buy "Soundbombing II" on Rawkus.—Concetta "Princess" Kirschner


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