This has to be the apotheosis of sadcore: In the Tindersticks' "My Sister," a girl goes blind at 5, burns down the family home at 10 (killing Mum and the cat), is paralyzed by her gym teacher/lover at 15, and drops dead at 32, pleading with her last gasps that her coffin be cheap so that the worms can get to her quicker. Frontman Stuart Staples' soft-spoken narration is made all the more ominous by Drugstore's Isobel Monteiro, who whispers the words in tandem as if the dead woman's ghost were looming above him. For this London sextet, pathos clearly rules the day: 2nd Album is a haunting 70-minute soundtrack for the black comedy in which we have all been cast, as decadent and inspiringly gloomy as Nick Cave's The Good Son.
Though the 'sticks forge the kind of dense, cinematic soundscape that critics have identified with trip-hoppers Portishead, the band eludes genre classifications altogether. Staples and company are masters at drawing out the tension inherent in the marriage of opposites; these macabre tales are set to waltzing lifts of orchestration or lounge-worthy xylophone chimes. Violins bear the weight of Staples' warbling baritone, which sounds frighteningly close to that of Elvis in his overripe Las Vegas days.
Thankfully, the Tindersticks are never too bogged down to brandish that droll Brit-wit -- picture them snickering as they title a funereal instrumental track "Singing." In "No More Affairs," the band's love-in-the-time-of-AIDS song, Staples quips: "It was an impulsive thing/ What we called the other/ Climbed into bed with our previous lovers/ Gets crowded in there/ No more affairs." But then there is the spare, tapping rhythm of "A Night In," and the gorgeous "Tiny Tears," with slow, rearing crescendos that ride the fine line between genuine tragedy and over-the-top camp. Indeed, the Tindersticks live up to their name: dry, highly flammable, and sharp at the end.
-- Shoshana Berger
Crediting its members with highfalutin monikers like "maximum effective pulse generator" and "dry lung vocal martyr" -- that's "drummer" and "vocalist" to you and me, dude -- L.A.'s Fear Factory is pretty goddamned full of itself, delivering the 11 tracks of Demanufacture with all the humor of a Replicant, and defining its music as a "soundtrack to spearhead resistance and forge a new society." Yeah, yeah: "The answer my friends/ Is blowin' in the wind ..."
Trouble is, once you actually lend Fear Factory your ear, the quartet doesn't like to give it back. Combining Napalm Death's vocal aplomb with Metallica's machine-gun guitar belches and the digital hardcore favored by OLD, Demanufacture draws you in with a relentless hammering that eventually succeeds in penetrating your skull, if not your gray matter. It's interesting that a CD so titled should rely so much on computer technology: The sound FF favors is incredibly abrasive and brittle (and the band likes it that way), yet the result -- a 32nd-note bass drum beat sample on "Zero Signal," for example -- must be heard to be believed. Elsewhere, "Body Hammer" crawls like a Rampage Radio theme song, and "Dog Day Sunrise," a fine Head of David cover, suggests FF has listened to its roots. I'm no metalhead, but a track like "Self Bias Resistor," with its multiple layers, brutal rhythms, and anthemic chorus (which stands in 180-degree opposition to Burton Bell's growled verse), grinds, in the best possible way, at my core.
Advocating resistance and individuality in the face of "government's constant conspiracy," it's hard to say whether Fear Factory's social agenda can achieve the effectiveness of its music. Teetering between inspirational and self-righteous, Demanufacture could play just as comfortably at a left-wing conflagration as at a militia gathering. But hell, at least it's a voice for change. Call it the folk music of the '90s.
-- Colin Berry
Fear Factory opens for Megadeth Wed, Aug. 9, at the Warfield in S.F.; call 775-7722.
Swans Related Project: Jarboe
Swans Related Project: M. Gira
After nearly a decade and a half of turning inner turmoil into cathartic wastelands of tortured sound, Swans gurus Michael Gira and Jarboe have embarked on two new solo ventures: Sacrificial Cake marks Jarboe's third outing as a lone leader; Drainland is M. Gira's debut. Both discs fuse sex, violence, and considerable nihilism with the kind of disturbing intensity expected from a "Swans Related Project."
Amid trenchant layers of shimmering guitar and swampy synthetics, Gira explores the self-delusion of alcoholic detachment. Drainland kicks off with "You See Through Me," a verite-sounding taped encounter in which Jarboe confronts Gira with her anxiety about his "drinking too much." Gira argues that it's "your problem, not mine," and that she must now "support" his alcoholism: "Shut your mouth and get some money." The release closes with "Blind," Gira's acknowledgment of his "self-deception" and a plea for pity "Because when we're drinking/ We can never be filled." He intones, "When I look in the mirror/ I feel dead/ I feel cold/ I am blind." Bloody images of "pleasure-pain and fear and hatred" weave through these soundtracks to chilling effect.
Jarboe's Sacrificial offering is not as emotionally raw and tragic as Gira's opus, even if similarly nightmarish visions sweep the listener into a hypnotic haze of keyboards and synthetic beats. Too often, the vocals assume an affected vibe that renders the production sterile and sometimes silly. The strained sensuality and whispered didacticism of tunes like "Not Logical" ("Open your mind/ Sensational, metaphysical, insatiable ... Open your mind/ Heterosexual, astrological") come off as ambient rhymes for the black-light crowd. Jarboe's quasi-steamy lyrics on "Surgical Savior" may get a rise out of a suburban 13-year-old, but they leave me cold: "I will open you/ Make you feel/ Through me you know/ Desire is real." Yeah, right.
-- Sam Prestianni
M. Gira and Jarboe play Fri, Aug. 11, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.
The Ennio Morricone Anthology
A Fistful of Film Music
The masters of reissue at Rhino have taken on a daunting challenge in encapsulating the career of Ennio Morricone, il maestro of the film soundtrack. According to the liner notes, a "ballpark estimate" of his body of work would include some 400 wildly divergent scores written over the course of 35 years. Anthologizing such abundance runs the risk of sounding arbitrary and incomplete, which is exactly what happened to Virgin's rather uninspired mid-'80s "samplers" Ennio Morricone Film Music Vols. I and II.
A Fistful of Music is much more cohesive and comprehensive, closely tying the 45 tracks to the revealing interviews and analyses in the extensive accompanying booklet. We learn about Morricone's musical background, his shaky early days with spaghetti western director Sergio Leone, and, most notably, the enormous contribution made by childhood friend and untrained musician Alessandro Alessandroni, who provided the famous whistles, wails, surf guitar, and choral shouting (with his Cantori Moderni) on Morricone's archetypal themes like "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Main Title)."
While including all the western highlights and Oscar nominees from the Virgin collections, Fistful also captures Morricone's rocking kitsch lunacy with numerous horror, crime, and sex comedy backdrops. Notable are "Magic and Ecstasy" from The Exorcist II, a trashy guitar rampage complete with whip sound effects, and a funky track from Dedicated to the Aegean Sea featuring none other than porn star/parliamentarian La Cicciolina giggling à la Shonen Knife. Not only is this collection ideal for party or parlor listening, it makes a convincing argument for Morricone's recently rediscovered versatility as a modern composer. You can't ask for much more than that from an anthology.
-- C. Kenyon Silvey
Jagged Little Pill
Every so often, the record industry finds some introspective woman with a distinctive voice and a lot on her mind who can't play a lick. A label throws a ton of money at her, hooks her up with a studio geek, and releases an overproduced album of songs that were probably welling up inside her since she was a little girl. MTV overplays the single, critics scream about the remarkable and unique new discovery -- and the woman eventually fades into obscurity. Think Tracy Chapman, Jane Siberry, Lisa Germano ...
It's a damn shame, because they're usually talented, provocative artists with unique personae and promises of bright futures. Twenty-one-year-old Alanis Morissette (and why do women like her always have names like "Alanis Morissette"?) is no exception. So what goes wrong? I have an idea, but I'm already pushing 200 words.
Jagged Little Pill isn't the greatest album in the world, but the music is decent enough and even its slickness has an appeal (lo-fi, let's remember, is a reaction). The single you've heard 600 times ("You Oughta Know") features Flea and Dave Navarro of the Chili Peppers; the rest of the songs are mostly producer Glen Ballard (whom Morissette claims as her "spiritual brother") programming drums or directing session pros behind Morissette's heavily affected voice. The songs are tight and flow easily, only one of them sounds like Fleetwood Mac, and the lyrics take on cliched subjects with sophistication. "Forgiven" is about the confusion being raised Catholic engenders, while "You Oughta Know" is remarkable for its brutal confrontation of an ex-lover: "Is she perverted like me/ Would she go down on you in a theater?"; "It was a slap in the face/ How quickly I was replaced/ Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?"
The video may be annoying as hell, but let's not blame Morissette for seeing her chance and taking it, and let's hope she can shed the handlers at Madonna's record company to find her own way, because MCA bought the rights to all of her songs when she was 14.
-- Paul Tullis