After a few dozen albums, EPs, singles, and lineup changes, this much has become clear about Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand, the band's breakthrough 1994 album, was a fluke, a brave and guileless collision of rock melody and beat-poet passion that frontman Robert Pollard seems destined never to repeat. Not because it was the only time that Pollard had written great rock songs, because it wasn't; his knack for a good hook was obvious both before and after that record, and it'll probably be obvious in the future. (And knowing his work pace, "the future" should be sometime next week.) But Bee Thousand was a unique moment. It was the only time that Pollard struck a perfect balance between pop craftsmanship and a willingness to take risks, to make a mess with sound; the lesser songs were weird enough (and short enough) to make strokes of genius like "I Am a Scientist" and "Gold Star for Robot Boy" that much more powerful. And that was it for genius. Elsewhere in his deep discography, Pollard seems happier making a mess than crafting a song, so it's a good thing that for his second solo album, Waved Out, his musical goals are somewhat more deliberate and ambitious. Focusing on his Wire and Beatles obsessions with more care than usual, he proudly unleashes his eighth finest record. Or his eleventh worst. Or sixth most consistently mediocre. That's how deeply Pollard has single-handedly undermined his worth.
When he's playing most of the instruments himself, Pollard comes off as lazy, distant, and imprecise: "Steeple of Knives," "Showbiz Opera Walrus," and about 10 other half-finished sketches. With a band behind him, particularly when Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson kicks in, he gains some focus, not to mention melody. The opening "Make Use" welcomes the new breed of indie rockers with a swelling mass of raving guitar, and Pollard pulls off the same level of energy on "Subspace Biographies" with an echo chamber full of synthesizers. "People Are Leaving" offers a lovely, haunting waltz with Pollard's multitracked vocals weaving around each other, and that's it for ambition. Everything else is just more messy experimentation and inscrutable tangles of lyrics ("The vines and the fiery baboons/ Are they not free from the trees?" Well golly, Mr. Pollard, who knows?). If one cared to, such tangles could be read as the latest meditations of a pop genius, and many Guided by Voices fans have done exactly that. But pop geniuses leave a legacy. All Robert Pollard has now is a discography.
-- Mark Athitakis
Leon Parker -- a New York drummer with a minimalist sensibility -- makes music that embodies tradition and innovation in equal parts. For years, he arrived at gigs with pianist Jacky Terrasson with only a bass drum, a snare, and a cymbal. Although it looked like a gimmick, the smaller kit highlighted Parker's ability. In contrast to the impressionistic cascades of sound that most current jazz drummers favor, Parker made every beat count.
Beginning in the early '90s Parker's sideman work -- for bassist Harvie Swartz, vocalist Sheila Jordan, and pianist Kenny Barron -- hinted at his originality, but his own recordings, 1994's Above and Below and '96's Belief, were loud announcements of a new style. Parker's frugal drumming added touches of African and Latin percussion traditions to jazz antecedents. Both bebop giant Max Roach and Count Basie skinsman Papa Jo Jones favored single notes to percussion deluges; Ornette Coleman collaborator Ed Blackwell and Brazilian Nana Vasconcelos experimented with world music. Parker fused the two, huffing and puffing to show how different the jazz standard could sound. His "Caravan" evoked the Sahara; "Close Your Eyes" became insinuating and sensual.
Now, Parker's drumming possesses a rare clarity that makes the spaces between the beats resonate as much as the percussion itself. Listening to him is like sitting in on an after-hours session following Coltrane's furious, intense later works; as if someone put on the spare poetry of Joe Henderson's Blue Note trios. On his latest, Awakenings, Parker does nine originals; and except for the title track, in which he plays a snare drum, he abandons traditional jazz percussion. What results is a softer, periodically mesmerizing recording. Parker plays congas, piano, marimba, and a variety of small percussion instruments. He's joined variously by percussionists Natalie Cushman and Adam Cruz, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Sam Newsome, and several others. The percussionists add color to Parker's drums; the reedmen play tart, terse lines that are almost percussive.
On "All My Life," one of the best tracks on the album, Wilson, Cushman, and Parker are joined by poet Tracie Morris; her dry reading uses space to deepen the impact of her words. "It Is What It Is" is the closest Parker comes to straight-ahead jazz, with Newsome on soprano, longtime Parker associate Ugonna Okwegwo on bass, and Parker, Cushman, Cruz, and Rita Silva comprising a percussion section of congas, shekere, steel pan, and wood blocks. On "Cruz," an Afro-Cuban number, Parker plays piano as if it were a finely tuned drum.
Awakenings is a fine next step for Parker. He's asserted his place within the jazz continuum on his previous recordings; now he's establishing his own idiosyncratic voice. It's highly accessible but unprepossessing music. At a time when jazz musicians routinely fall in with Lincoln Center traditionalists or Knitting Factory rebels (as if anyone west of Manhattan gives a shit), this kind of diverse, easygoing musical sensibility is Parker's most powerful minimal statement yet.
-- Martin Johnson
Can't Cure the Nailbiters
Seattle's Bare Minimum could turn water into Jogermeister. Can't Cure the Nailbiters, the follow-up to the band's 1995 self-titled debut, is another intoxicating slur of sound. Unlike typical Seattle salt-of-the-earth grunge, which demands leaden guitar riffs, screeching vocals, or hooky choruses, Bare Minimum gulps for air beneath the weight of double twining guitars, pliant vocals, and taut Drive Like Jehu drumming. On Nailbiters, Bare Minimum pours sweeter melody into their sound, smoothing out the entire concoction.
Bare Minimum crafts songs that owe more to Baroque classical inventions than grunge. Song structures use dual levels of rhythmic texture: Guitar passages overlap and drum patterns shift, extend, and then fold in upon themselves. These rhythms are layered atop yet another melodic structure, which loops back and connects to its original point. These curves and textures in a singular body, like the art of the Baroque era, reveal detail rather than obscure the whole.
Drawing on concepts that made indie murmurcore heroes Slint and Codeine hauntingly captivating, Bare Minimum also uses interconnected webs of sound that constantly build upon one another. Chord progressions wind up, then twist suddenly into another level; a constant stacking without linear progression. Vocalist/guitarist Brian Speckman's deep, haggard voice carefully steps from insistent whispers to an occasional note-perfect chordal growl on "Obviously Distracted My Love." His droning guitar lines intensify and shift within guitarist Mark Pinkos' icy melodics until they plateau. One instrument mutates into another pattern. Drummer Joe Plummer's rhythmic changes expertly set each song in a basic meter, maintained by bassist Anthony Champa. Plummer then loops and extends that meter with subtle tweaks of the time signature to accentuate growing tension.
"Your Bravo" balances these features expertly. Twin guitars vibrate at the edge of distortion while Speckman's vocals flip from stoic whispers to dramatic enunciation. The biting snare and cymbal hiss weave surreptitiously in and out of their anticipated placement, while the guitars ring, drone, and slide, leaving the listener with churning pulses of scattered rhythm instead of straight bars of heavy riffing.
The result is like a drunken stumble. While each part of the whole staggers in its own gait, Nailbiters compounds into a steady cycle of melodies with urgent, rasping vocals straining to harness the slithering of subharmonics, meticulous chord changes, and ever-shifting beats.
-- Dave Clifford