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Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
The Murder City Devils
Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts
(Sub Pop)

Sunny Day Real Estate
How It Feels to Be Something On
(Sub Pop)

What is it with guys and their feelings these days? On one side there're navel-gazing emotional-flagellates who seem convinced that everybody needs to know exactly how miserable they are. And then there are those who grope for the drum-circle grunt and sloth of exaggerated machismo to avoid the contemplation of existential ambiguity. Case in point, the poignantly ironic and coincident release of Sub Pop's most popular new Seattle groups: the reunited melodic-catharsis of Sunny Day Real Estate, and the beer-chugging, guitar-slugging of the Murder City Devils. Each attempts to address manly existence from opposing ends of the post-Cobain musical universe, where dudes have both the social approval to express their emotions and the expectation to do so.

Thick-skinned and numskulled as the Murder City Devils may pretend to be, beneath their raucous rancor they're just five heavily tattooed, obviously well-read boys. Although posing as the type of dude who uses "fuckin' " as an adjective, vocalist Spencer Moody has been dubbed the Truman Capote of punk -- due to his pasty, bespectacled visage and journalistic-deviant lyrical bent.

On the opener "I Want a Lot Now (So Come On)," Moody leads a chorus of voices chanting, "Livin's no good across the lake from the city/ Don't wanna live there anymore/ We're takin' Dad's car and goin' to the city/ Just like last week and the week before." The song revamps the anthemic guitars and hoarse sing-along of the Kiss classic "Detroit Rock City" and splices it with the swinging bass and drums of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me." Perhaps it's not literature, but it's fuckin' clever.

As the album progresses, the Murder City Devils tip their drinks to a host of classic rock-party bands, including the Dead Boys, Slade, Scratch Acid, X, the Adolescents, the Modern Lovers, Johnny Thunders, Supersuckers, and Cheap Trick. Derek Fudesco's jittery Farfisa organ melody and drummer Coady Willis' clap-along beat leads the Blondie-influenced "18 Wheels," careening headlong into Dann Gallucci and Nate Manny's wall of guitars and Moody's repentant grunt, "I never wanted you to be a sailor's girl/ To be a drunk's wife." Moody's lyrics steadfastly avoid bringing in pithy details about his own life outside of rockin' and tourin'. While it's noncommittal feel-good rock 'n' roll in the finest sense, there's not much for listeners to latch onto aside from built-in nods to the oeuvre of rock.

Sunny Day Real Estate first called it quits back in '95 when vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk left in pursuit of religious enlightenment. Drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel joined the Foo Fighters. Sunny Day's 1994 debut album, Diary, and 1995's self-titled follow-up helped touch off a rash of emo-imitators; that is, guys who play emotionally charged rock that explores mushy stuff like feelings. Goldsmith left the Foo Fighters in 1997, while Mendel remained. After a spell of soul-searching, Sunny Day re-formed this year on a whim with new bassist Jeff Palmer to record what became How It Feels to Be Something On.

The new album is a vast improvement over their previous quiet-part/loud-part approach to songwriting dynamics. Instead, the group has honed its shimmering vocal harmonies, melodic layering of folk guitar stylings, and pugnacious drums. "Pillars" opens the album with Enigk and Dan Hoerner's chiming guitars weaving a web around the rhythm section's crawl. "I know that you can feel the pain," Enigk whispers, singing with a slight British inflection, "Don't tell me you've gone astray." Get that boy a tissue.

On many songs, such as "Every Shining Time You Arrive," Sunny Day's newfound penchant for piano accompaniment, delay pedal guitar effects, soaring vocals, and slightly distorted drum tones echoes early U2. A pliant Enigk sings, "We're nothing but a feather moving in the wind," his voice doubled with effects, "Want to change everything/ Want to blame everything." A calliope organ pops in atop the guitar layers, adding forlorn nostalgia.

No matter how attractive and intricate it all sounds, How It Feels to Be Something On seems ominous and piercing. The emotional introspection is so obstructive we feel nearly embarrassed for listening in as Enigk emotively addresses particular unknown and unexplained others. Conversely, the Murder City Devils' detached approach to the artistic process may spare our heartstrings unnecessary tugging. However, Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts dances around any personal expression so fervently, it's like listening to five guys in a bar rattling off rock trivia.

-- Dave Clifford

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?

Almost every male critic drools over Polly Jean Harvey. They applaud her gutsy songwriting, a bracing mix of attitude, artistry, rocker bombast, and blues simplicity. But what really hooks them seems to be a psychological fixation with Ms. Harvey's persona as a classic femme fatale. From the lead tune, "Oh My Lover," on her phenomenal 1992 debut Dry, to the closing title track on Is This Desire?, her fourth full-length (not counting her collaboration with John Parrish), the singer makes it clear that she -- or, more specifically, the countless female characters she embodies in her songs -- is a dangerous paradox, at once desperately needy, demanding, vulnerable, and imperious. A composite of wrongly spurned women the world over, her mad beauty and willful sexuality are threatening and scary, which precisely explains the irrepressible allure: That which repels equally attracts. And guys being guys, they each think that he personally has what it takes to be her savior. Of course, they're deluded: Is This Desire? affirms that only the music will save Harvey from the demons inside her.

The new album is a far better realization of Harvey's bent toward more polished production values, including her need to control the increasingly elaborate nuances of her music's overall presentation. The record builds on the sounds she introduced on 1995's almost unanimously acclaimed To Bring You My Love, when she axed the rambunctious trio lineup of her early days for an expanded group of studio perfectionists. Where she previously appeared to be experimenting with trippy effects, haunting minimalism, and ultrasuave beats, now on tunes like "Angelene" and "Catherine" she seems in masterful command of these concepts. In fact, on nearly half the latest songs she pawns the six-string wail of youth for sparse (mature) piano or bass lines and nearly transparent grooves.

What arguably makes this PJ Harvey's greatest effort to date is that the leader augments the more reserved pieces with tuneful loudness rivaling "Snake" or "Long Snake Moan," her prior monster rockers that surely compelled many a manly critic to lurid cowboy fantasies in between frenzied bouts at the word processor. Plus, the heaviest new tunes, "Joy" and "My Beautiful Leah," make big noise in a novel way: Both tracks come on with a devastating bottom-end, so mangled and ugly it gives grunge a clean shave. And that's without sacrificing melody or groove or dramatic arrangements that build with credible intensity.

Of course, Harvey was never impenetrably hard, which is one of her most endearing quirks. She acts the tough girl to shield her fragile side, which comes across in all its lovely dementia in the delicate falsetto on the title track and "The Garden," where she intones, "Trouble ... taking place." She always was the drama queen, but she means it. And that's another reason why we love her.

-- Sam Prestianni

Various Artists
Bustin' Loose
(Wall of Sound/Ultra)

With textures inspired by the structures of hip hop, house, rock, and jazz, the Bustin' Loose compilation captures 11 sonic collages at the foundation of Wall of Sound, one of the most respected independent dance labels. The mosaic forms of relatively unknown acts like Les Rythmes Digitales, the Wiseguys, and Mekon blend intellectual aural diversity and '80s pop-culture sensibility through retrospective, secondhand sound samples and style fusion, embodying the essence of '90s big beat.

Exemplifying the thin line between artistic genius and insanity, Parisian band Les Rythmes Digitales demonstrates how musical confusion can translate to body-poppin' bliss on "Jacques Your Body (Make Me Sweat)." The song is actually the result of sonic experiments conducted on residential patients at a psychiatric hospital. Mastermind Jacques Lu Cont spent three years tracking human response to sound while performing for music therapy classes. He uses morphemes as hooks and melodies, creating a nonsensical sing-along against synthesized house grooves, throbbing beats, and '80s electro pop. Here, the heady and the cerebral culminate in a delirious blend of disco and electronic.

With equal force, the Wiseguys show off with their turntable trickery on "Ooh La La," riffing on '80s vanity vis-à-vis the Vidal Sassoon ad campaign. "Ooh la la ... Sassoon" loops over densely layered samples, massive beats, and classic clubbing call-and-response hooks. The track -- already a club hit in the U.K. -- helps explain why member Touche is the only DJ the Propellerheads, who are also featured on this compilation, will take on tour.

"Skool's Out," the collaborative effort of Mekon (no relation to the Jon Langford band) and '80s MC Schooly D, also captures the fundamental style of '90s big beat. Self-conscious rhymes, hardcore beats, and rough grooves represent early hip hop's influence on the genre with an unmistakable East Coast model. The standout lyric: "Old Skool knows how to rock a microphone."

The whole equals the sum of its parts on Zoot Woman's "It's Automatic," which tediously joins Hall & Oates vocals with a simplified Chemical Brothers electronic vibe. The outcome marks the weakest track on the compilation, proving that the key to success in the big beat genre is the ability to choose wisely.

-- Melissa Piazza


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