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Wednesday, Apr 30 1997
Skeleton Key
Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon

Back in my college days of yore (the late '80s, at New York University), it seemed Berlin-based industrial-strength noise-makers EinstYrzende Neubauten had influenced every dark corner of the Lower East Side music scene. (Or was it the Survival Research Laboratory smeltdown in the Shea Stadium parking lot?) Every time I went to see a show ballyhooed by "critics," or by friends a few years older -- and therefore, ahem, wiser -- one of the bands on the bill would inevitably spend their 45-minute time slot banging on a car door with a sledgehammer, or shearing through a girder with a buzz saw, or -- sitting in a circle, all wearing nerdy glasses -- tinkling away on "xylophones" rigged from wire, rusted bedsprings, headlights, gears, and live blasting caps. (OK, no blasting caps.) Unlike Fat Albert's band (hey, hey, hey), these acts were tres serious in their attempts to sculpt noise and evoke their vision of the bleak urban junkyard; they were anti-form, Weimar-induced, and usually self-indulgent to a fault. Still, since then, I've always had a soft spot for a blowtorch onstage and an audience that shows up wearing safety goggles.

Time has passed, and now we have Skeleton Key. While not nearly as "experimental" as many of these earlier industrial art projects, Skeleton Key have that same fondness for making music out of found objects. But there's more here than hammering upon the rusted scraps left over from the industrial revolution. These guys, like their East Village contemporaries Railroad Jerk and Jon Spencer, also employ outdated musical equipment (oversize air-streamed microphones; guitars and amps that have wicker and foil on them and crackle like AM radios). Taken together, these elements indicate a fondness for anachronism; a nostalgia for pre-plastic industry, when coal smoke blotted out the sun and assembly lines built consumables to last. This is not to say that Skeleton Key sound "vintage"; in fact, they are highly produced (Dave Sardy -- Chili Peppers, Helmet -- and Eli Janney from Girls Against Boys share the knobs) and unmistakably "alternative." Indeed, much of Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon mixes slick, intelligent, aggressive guy-rock (Tool, Helmet) with a smattering of antiquated clatters, hisses, jerks, crackles, and clanks. The standout tracks: "All the Things I've Lost," a Sly and the Family Stone funk falsetto in full collapse; "The Only Useful Word," a teetering Berlin minor-key oompah waltz played entirely over the scratchy needle of a gramophone; "Nod Off," a Muddy Waters swamp-blues meeting with the Birthday Party; and the opener, "Watch the Rat Man Swing," a driving scrap-metal bangathon with a big, string-bending guitar solo. Of course, the best way to appreciate a band known for its industrial pyrotechnics is to see them up on the stage, and Skeleton Key definitely merit a peak (through safety goggles, if you like) before any final judgment is rendered.

-- Curtis Bonney

Aaron Tippin
Greatest Hits ... and Then Some

Until recently, Aaron Tippin had portrayed himself as the No. 1 Surly Blue-Collar Avenger, determined to instill dismay in every daisy-picking, lily-livered liberal who ever skipped his way. Then, it seems, came wedded bliss, and his musings took a different direction. Would he, like some other Top 40 country artists, be running round dressed as Kevin Costner, singing all those smarmy, pink, frilly songs that Boyz II Men rejected? And if you've heard him sing, you'll know that this is a man who wears a considerable mustache. It's an audible and vital part of Tippin. Would he exchange it for one of those clean, shiny muzzles that fashionable Nashville seems to prefer these days?

Well, hush up. Aaron is still himself, and his new songs are exceptional -- the romance and the anguish being all the more touching thanks to the brusque delivery and otherwise stony stare of the artist. This collection from his first hit to the present day reminds us how much we need this outdoor enthusiast to stand tough and carry on turkey hunting. Tippin's lower register is craggy and unadorned, his voice rising to a distinctive hillbilly honk when he has to make a point.

The songs from 1990 to '95 mostly pay tribute to self-discipline, his refusal -- and that of his daddy before him -- to trade principles for bourgeois baubles. In another songwriter's hands, toolbelt rattlers like "I Got It Honest" and "You've Got to Stand for Something" might sound like caricatures rather than honest, unflinching portraits. Tippin benefits from an unappealing seriousness when he states his case behind those rallying twin fiddles.

Not that fun is beneath him. He boasts of correctly aligned priorities in "There Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Radio," a defiant celebration of a dilapidated automobile's one good feature. It has an exhilarating chorus: "Got 16 speakers crossin' my back dash/ A little noddin' dog watchin' everybody pass/ Dual antennas whippin' in the wind/ Lord, there ain't a country station that I can't tune in!" The saucy punch line in the last verse suggests his ladylove also has her priorities sorted: "Honey, tell me what it is that makes you love me so?/ She said, 'There ain't nothing wrong with your radio.' "

As for that new stuff, anyone with a soft spot for late-period Conway Twitty (without the Branson, Mo., synthesizer plinking, that is) should check out last year's outstanding hit "That's as Close as I'll Get to Loving You" from the Tool Box album. Next, consider the agonizingly resigned "If Only Your Eyes Could Lie." Anyone believing Travis Tritt holds the monopoly on rough, manly heartbreak must now think again.

-- Cath Carroll

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced?
Axis: Bold as Love
Electric Ladyland
First Rays of the New Rising Sun

Go to any thorough music resource Website, like, say, the Miller Freeman All-Music Guide at (If you can't be bothered with the Infobahn, more power to you, and crack open the book version.) Look up Jimi Hendrix: solo, Experience, Band of Gypsies, Plays w/ Little Richard, Coughs in the Background at Leeds, whatever. Now scroll down through the list of originals, posthumous recordings, compilations, outtakes, concerts, rarities, obscurities, conjecture, ephemera, eructations, dry heaves. And keep scrolling. Feel your eyeballs sweat. Continue scrolling. The simple downward velocity through the list will reduce your visual cortex to vertigo and applesauce. Jimi Hendrix -- was there ever an artist so thoroughly over-, ever-, Yber-, omnidocumented?

Yes, reissuemania -- spurred on by the bucks wide-eyed consumers eject at anyone who rereleases anything -- is everywhere these days, but nowhere has this scavenging upon a massive corpse become more ridiculous than with Hendrix. (Thus far, anyway -- we're only beginning to count Jerry Garcia's various necrophagia. Taste the Cherry, anybody?) Why more Hendrix now? Seems Hendrix's relatives, in the form of the Experience Hendrix company, have finally secured the rights to the catalog, meaning they've finally got a chance to earn a little money off of their flesh-and-blood. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Hendrix monies might as well go to people who share some of his genetic structure, and not just a record company, Alan Douglas (hard-working excavator of the Hendrix archives up till now), or everyone else who'd had legal claims to Hendrix, the Property. Not really knowing, or caring, what Hendrix would have thought of his family managing his interests, I guess I'm glad they finally got the rights.

We're supposed to think these reissues have their place. Their promoters claim that they're the first ones remastered off the original tapes. Says reissue co-producer John McDermott, "We wanted to bring the music back as close as possible to the way Jimi intended it." Hear this during a seance, John? And I suppose that recompiling various tunes from scattered postmortem releases like War Heroes, The Cry of Love, and Rainbow Bridge into their (allegedly) originally intended package, First Rays of the New Rising Sun, might have some merit.

But, folks, it's all been done. Only four years ago there was a "digitally remastered" compilation, Ultimate Experience, reissuing the first three (and only good) Hendrix albums. Partisans of the new reissues say these older ones came from inferior sources. Do these sound markedly different from those? Only the publicists, or an audiophile with bionic hearing, could tell you. The carrion birds have long since landed and stuffed full their gizzards. If it's time for the family to come in and lap up the marrow, fine. What can I tell you? The Experience albums are great, suffused with excellent riffs, songs, and special effects; the Rising Sun material cools toward luke. But unless you're under the age of 15 or a microcephalite, you knew that, and already own the albums. To the rest, I guess, buy these versions, and give the Hendrix family the crumbs left from the posthumous pie.

-- Michael Batty

The Notorious B.I.G.
Life After Death ... Till Death
Do Us Part
(Bad Boy/Arista)

Although no one was stupid enough to say it in so many words, many members of the music press were happy to see the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls) assassinated. Not that they were cheering the senseless killing of a talented young man, but his death -- especially coming so soon after the equally mindless murder of Tupac Shakur -- changed the focus of discussion about hip hop. Rather than an analysis of contemporary urban realities, it became a referendum on appropriate conduct for young black men. Ten years after Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show made hip hop into a forum for discourse on class conflict within the black community and on opposition to governmental policy, a few gunshots reduced rappers from insightful commentators to ghetto caricatures. Anyone who seriously thinks that a rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rappers caused Biggie's death should run for cover at the mention of Blur and Oasis.

The renewed blasts of distortion in the press are especially distressing as they apply to the life and work of a complex man. Smalls was the archetypal rapper, smart enough to survive on the streets and to recognize and escape its narrow prerogatives. In that manner, he was an update on the kind of aesthete-punk that '70s rock crit Ellen Willis used to characterize Lou Reed's work with the Velvets. On his two albums, he tells many crude stories of life on the street without romanticizing them, but he also tells stories of aspiration. He is one of the few rappers who "blew up" (platinum sales figures) without losing any street credibility among denizens of the thriving hip-hop underground.

Life After Death ... Till Death Do Us Part, Biggie's second recording, is a well-thought-out and -performed holding pattern. Smalls wanted to avoid the sophomore jinx that is especially prevalent in hip hop, without repeating his debut, Ready to Die. But the first album functions as a template. Over the sprawl of two discs and almost two hours of music, Smalls concocts pop confections like "Mo Money Mo Problems" and "Another," clever funk such as "Hypnotize" and "Going Back to Cali," as well as numerous ballads and hardcore raps. In its variety and consistency, it well deserved to sell the million-plus units that it moved in the first two weeks of its release. Sadly, however, Smalls seemed to have a larger agenda; as demonstrated by his range of topics, he wanted to change the way we looked at hip hop. He did -- but it's doubtful this is what he had in mind.

-- Martin Johnson


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