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Wednesday, Feb 26 1997
Various Artists
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Suburbia

First Romeo & Juliet, then Beavis and Butt-head, and now Bogosian and Linklater. The whole idea of the soundtrack album has become that of a compilation for the alienated teen. (Not that this is a new concept, or even a bad thing. It's just that the corporate lube has reached extreme penetration.) Hear the young execs hashing out racehorse strategy in the Geffen boardroom: "We're building a soundtrack with integrity, damn it. Four hits deep, minimum. Catchy, angry stuff. Decent airplay. The real alternative. These kids aren't stupid. Johnson, get Sonic Youth on the horn. Pass them the reins. Use the recorded Linklater confession if you have to." Meanwhile, the doors swing open at the Geffen paddock, and Boss Hog, Elastica, and Beck are trotted out. Calls are made to other stables: Warner, Mo' Wax, American, Touch and Go. And the Alterna Stakes are on: the gritty leg in the Saggy Crown.

As a "modern rock" sampler, the Suburbia soundtrack isn't all bad (for 13 throwaways and a Gene Pitney oldie). It may, in fact, be better than the movie it's supposed to aurally extend. Three tracks by Sonic Youth and one solo number by Thurston Moore form the alternative backbone. "Bee-Bee's Song," a pretty/creepy Kim Gordon special (melodic, heavy bass, airy vocals) is by far the best of their cuts, and Thurston's four-track, off-key teen lamentation "Psychic Hearts," from an earlier release by the selfsame name, may be the worst song I've heard in a very long time (and I'm pretty sure it's not a joke). If Sonic Youth's noodling doesn't carry enough "cred" for you, then there's Elastica with Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) doing an inoffensive cover of X's "Unheard Music"; jangle wimps Superchunk doing a catchy "Does Your Hometown Care?"; the Butthole Surfers re-releasing "Human Cannonball," a pounding one-chord ditty from 1987; and Skinny Puppy (still) crackling and bleeping on a forgettable "Cult."

Points of interest (or, the odds-on faves): Girls Against Boys' decidedly rocking Stooges-style drone-a-thon "Bullet Proof Cupid"; the Flaming Lips' happy crumble "Hot Day," which unfortunately is a minute too short to amount to a mouthful of caterpillar fuzz; U.N.K.L.E.'s silly, sci-fi dancetronic butt-shaker "Berry Meditation," a must for your next body-paint Tupperware party; and Beck's melancholic Gordon Lightfoot "homage," "Feather in Your Cap." In fact, because "Feather in Your Cap" achieves an emotional complication that quietly slips past all the alternapretense (while remaining stylish), it may be the only element of this whole project, including the movie, that won't seem a bit worn a year (or week) from now. Big surprise, Beck wins the Saggy Crown, going away. (If he couldn't make music, you know he could have been a jockey.)

-- Curtis Bonney

Royal Trux
Sweet Sixteen

Let me ask what should be the obvious question: What exactly are the merits of Royal Trux, other than providing slop for intellectually starved pop critics? The recurrent and graceless position taken in most Royal Trux reviews is not so much missionary as a pink ass wiggling from an empty trough. Nowhere else in rock journalism will you find so much furtive and fruitless rooting about for nuggets of meaning. It doesn't matter whether Sweet Sixteen is the latest or oldest release in the career of Trux partners Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema: No matter how many new, swoopy studio gimmicks they use to frost their gleet, they're nothing more (or less) than an incompetent Rolling Stones cover band. No need to dust off the signifiers from a semiotics term paper (or from a press release), no need to apply so great an analytical distance that we're above saying the music ain't so hot. It ain't.

Why have Trux become critical and hipster darlings? It's probably the clothes -- the junkie furs, the belt buckles, the star-spangled polyester. Either that, or it's their "habits": heartwarming reminders of a time when rock stars were ugly, dirty, drug-addicted, impulsive, and childish. Lots of face-down floaters, lots of TVs boosted over hotel balconies, lots of giggles, lots of statutory rape. And though Hagerty and Herrema have apparently cleaned up, they still dress the same. Shop like a rock star, get arrested like a shoplifter. Careful accessorizing of both the wardrobe and one's public behavior is obviously nothing spared from the Hagerty/Herrema repertoire: rock-star affectation upon white-trash posture by a pair of amiable Beltway brats. And while this is certainly amusing in a globs-in-a-petri-dish fashion, the music still leaves much to be desired. Is it catchy? Does it rock? Should it remain anything other than an underground spectacle? No, no, and no. Stumbled onto at some remote Ramada Inn, Royal Trux's act would gain a sense of bumpkin proportion, and would lack the crowd of sophisticates stroking chins.

-- Michael Batty

Townes Van Zandt
Rear View Mirror
(Sugar Hill)

"Goodbye to all my friends/ It's time to leave again." Townes Van Zandt, who passed away last New Year's Day at the age of 52, often addressed the subject of his departure -- from friends, places, and life itself. Judging from his songs, death and goodbyes did not unduly alarm him. Leaving seemed to be a bittersweet inevitability, life's only certainty. His engaging legacy constitutes a rather black-humored Chicken Soup for the Soul, the wise troubadour dispensing countless edifying observations, many along the lines of "Where you've been is good and gone/ All you keep is the getting there" ("To Live Is to Fly").

Rear View Mirror, re-released from 1993, is a collection of live performances of songs written over three decades. You can hear the echoes of several centuries of folk music as his dolorous, brackish voice notes the cycle of life. The droll, depressive voice of "Flying Shoes," "Tecumseh Valley," and "Waitin' Round to Die" is always saved from misery by the writer's wry wit and easy acceptance. He doesn't sound like a man who would fight fate: "Ain't much of a lover, it's true/ I'm here and I'm gone and I'm forever blue" ("No Place to Fall").

His songs are enlivened by a dueling of earnestness and playfulness. He unleashes indignant conversational speculations that rise in flailing crescendos -- "I don't intend to stand here/ And be the friend from whom she must hide" -- crammed into rather formal and dignified Mexi-folk melodic frames. Just before the narrator's exasperation peaks, the song will resolve itself in a kindly, though resigned, couplet: "Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song" ("For the Sake of the Song"). Townes Van Zandt wasn't hailed as a songwriting genius for nothing, gentle reader.

Van Zandt's other great talent is gothic folk. Track 4, "My Mother the Mountain," teems with a melodramatic whirling and whipping of metaphorical cloaks and skirts. The devilish sawing and plucking of strings comes from accompanying musicians Owen Cody (fiddle) and Danny Rowland (guitar), who appear throughout this collection.

Although Van Zandt never had any giant hits in his own right, country stars Merle Haggard, Don Gibson, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson all took his songs into wider arenas. Featured here are the darkly hilarious "Whitefreight Liner Blues" ("Well, it's bad news from Houston/ Half my friends are dyin' "), the persuasive "If I Needed You," and the fitful campfire ballad "Pancho and Lefty," with its gently sardonic refrain that lodges so stubbornly in the brain.

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness, I suppose.
-- Cath Carroll

Eugene Chadbourne
Boogie With the Hook

Eugene Chadbourne and Paul Lovens

It's the improviser's prerogative to be whimsical. But what seems fun or appropriate for the musician reveling in the moment does not always translate as such for the listener -- even a sympathetic one. This problem is glaringly evident on CD. Half the thrill in checking out improv shows, after all, is getting a firsthand glimpse of how players pull off their fanciful sonic contortions. Yet when improvisers get caught up in the perplexities churning from their instruments -- at the expense of developing an actual song -- and nothing visual can enhance the experience, then the recordings fall flat. Case in point: Eugene Chadbourne's live discs Boogie With the Hook and Patrizio.

An unabashed anti-folk hero for misfits of all persuasions (from jazz to bluegrass), the North Carolina-bred Chadbourne is backwoods cuz of arena-rock technicians Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Like his guitar-wanking brethren, Chadbourne's technical dexterity is flawless; but unlike the Guitar Player wonders of the world, his uniquely quirky vision on National dobro, Communist five-string banjo, or electric rake (yes, a souped-up leaf-gathering tool) is far more inventive. He's got style in spades, and that's what fans love about "Eu-gene," especially in concert. But on Patrizio, a record of live dates from last spring with German percussionist Paul Lovens, Chadbourne's capricious improvisations amount to little more than imaginative noodling.

There are moments (deconstructed Appalachian finger-picking, beautiful broken solos, uncanny midflight detunings, flashes of controlled feedback), but you have to patiently weather almost an hour of rambling -- slovenly chords pointlessly slapped up against disconnected rhythms, and bluesy folk strums set to out-of-context percussion. Is it worth the wait? That's debatable. If you delight in Chadbourne's zany vocal asides (his Tom Waits impersonation works for a minute), then you might enjoy many parts of this album. However, if you wish he'd can the foolishness and focus on instrumental prowess, you'll find Patrizio wanting.

Boogie With the Hook, a bootleg-quality tribute of sorts to blues legend John Lee Hooker, documents two decades of on-the-road duets with mighty improvisers John Zorn, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, Charles Tyler, and Volcmar Verkerk. Dutch drummer Bennink puts in an extraordinary performance (as usual) on pizza box and giant bass autoharp, while Chadbourne wails a convincing rendition of Hooker's "Whiskey and Women." "In Between Comme C and Come Saw," the skewed Chadbourne composition deftly negotiated by Tyler on baritone sax and B-flat clarinet, makes a strong case for improv on a written theme over totally "free" jamming. Despite world-class company like Zorn and Bailey, the so-called freer tracks often devolve into experimental fuzziness with too much meandering and seemingly random choices that rarely jell. It was probably fun for clubgoers to watch the various twosomes try to find their way into the music, but that thrill of exploration is lost on disc, as if the boogie can't find the hook.

-- Sam Prestianni


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