Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine.


John Milward
May 6, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Clarksdale is the Mississippi Delta town where Robert Johnson is said to have made his deal with the devil. Led Zeppelin spawned its own satanic rumors during a career in which guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant essentially plundered the blues tradition to become rock gods; in the process, Zep influenced every heavy-metal band of the 1970s, not to mention such latter-day alternative groups as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Jane's Addiction. Celebrate the guitar distortion of Sonic Youth if you must, but Led Zeppelin did far more to define the sound of rock guitar.

"Walking into Clarksdale," the first entirely new album from the Page-Plant collaboration since 1979, hearkens back to Zeppelin's dense style of rock-folk. But it's not the songs as much as the sound (artfully rendered by hipster engineer Steve Albini) that catches the ear. For example, "When the World Was Young" is a fairly ordinary tune, but the way that Page's reverberating guitar builds to its climax is poetry in distortion. All told, the album doesn't rattle as much as hum -- for truly primal thunder, check out Led Zeppelin's recently released "BBC Sessions" -- and neither Page nor Plant has the same talent for arrangement as their old Zeppelin mate, John Paul Jones. Still, some drippy lyrics notwithstanding, the pair succeeds in demonstrating that grown-up guitar rock needn't be a contradiction in terms.

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The Grassy Knoll
III | ANTILLES
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BY EZRA GALE | If ever a movie intersperses images of a futuristic urban wasteland with blurry newsreel footage, the Grassy Knoll's latest and best album, "III," would be the perfect soundtrack. On the group's previous two albums, the self-titled 1995 debut and 1996's "Positive," producer/bassist/mastermind Bob Green employed shifting hip-hop and dub grooves underneath a variety of instrumental, dissonant textures to evoke a constantly changing landscape that echoed the song title's preoccupation with conspiracy theories and obscure psychedelia.

On "III," the group blasts this concept into the future. Using a formidable crew of collaborators, including Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, the album injects more variety into the formula than was heard on the group's previous outings. The added textures allow Green and drummer Dave Revelli more room to play with their hypnotic backbeats -- "Paul Has An Emotional Uncle" and "112 Greene Street" in particular gather an eerie momentum while saxophones, cellos and backwards tape loops chatter away.

It isn't without precedent: "III" strongly recalls the 1970s work of Miles Davis in its layering of dissonant melodies over dense funk rhythms. Like Davis' albums of that period, "III" may prove to be one of the most groundbreaking and futuristic albums of the year.

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Jason and the Scorchers
MIDNIGHT ROADS & STAGES SEEN | MAMMOTH
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BY GARY KAUFMAN | If their fans keep saying it enough, history just might remember Jason and the Scorchers as the band that first jammed punk and country together. It's not really true, but what the heck -- they did it as well as anybody ever did. They roared out of Nashville in the early '80s with a live show that was, well, scorching, and records that were, ah, not so.

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Oh, the songs were good, but that blazing energy that had people leaving their shows breathless, eyes wide and jaws dropped, was somehow always missing. Obviously, Jason Ringenberg and the boys should have recorded a live album, but they didn't, and they went their separate ways in the early '90s, cult favorites, but nothing more. And so ends our story.

But wait! They got back together a couple years ago and recorded a well-received album called "New Impetuous Morning," and now they've finally gone and done the obvious -- "Midnight Roads & Stages Seen" is a double CD that captures a pair of shows in their hometown in November 1997.

From the opening blast of "Self Sabotage" through the cover of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that first garnered them national attention and on through 23 songs spanning their 16-year career, Jason and the Scorchers simply tear it up, although the records' highlights include lovely mid-tempo numbers like "Harvest Moon" and "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait," which allow Jason to show off his slightly off-kilter tenor croon. You can't see him careening around the stage, fringe on his cowboy shirt flying, or Warner Hodges spinning manically and flipping his guitar around in a full circle around his neck, but you'll get a clear enough picture why fans consider Jason & Co. the Best Live Band in the World.

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Air
MOON SAFARI | ASTRALWERKS/CAROLINE
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BY D. STRAUSS | No musical genre seems to have taken a shorter stroll from the barricades to the shopping mall than the quieter variants of so-called electronica. But what fascinates most is that such aggregates as Stereolab and Mouse on Mars have been souped up into pushcarts before ever achieving anything approaching popular acceptance. This is often music that can be liked (and branded) without really being listened to.

Along those lines, the French electronic duo Air create easy-listening for the furrow-browed. It's soothing work music, certainly, and ingenuously nostalgic, with its Elton-John style bass lines, occasional chanteuse and melodic motifs evocative of the tinny ping of the unicorn that was '70s AM radio. But it's music filled with sentiment, not emotion -- a mirror of our age.

The French are, of course, masters of sentiment and inauthenticity -- but also of an analysis that, I'm afraid, is lacking in most of "Moon Safari's" listeners. One is left with a music of passive consumerist activity, where memory of one's childhood becomes transformed into mere sellable nostalgia, a "Charlie's Angels" trading card.

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This banality may be considered a sign of maturity. It happened to the '60s radicals, who gave up the MC5 for the Eagles and tossed aside "Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers" for "I Can't Tell You Why." Of course, we all want to believe we are more than shoppers. But perhaps John Cage was right in saying that if we're going to enjoy a transcendent avant-garde, we're going to have to value not just quiet, but silence.

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Solex
SOLEX VS. THE HITMEISTER | MATADOR RECORDS
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BY MICHAEL KRAMER | Solex is Elizabeth Esselink, a young woman who owns a used record shop in Amsterdam. On her debut album, "Solex Vs. the Hitmeister," she constructs funky, sampled soundscapes over which she sings in a voice that sounds surprised by the wry observations it communicates. It's a quality reminiscent of Liz Phair -- the last artist, before Solex, Matador signed based solely on an unsolicited demo tape -- only Solex articulates by tape loop instead of six-string.

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Solex also turns out to be the name of a vintage European moped scooter, the kind of puttering vehicle that gives a young person her first taste of mobility and freedom. Fittingly (like Phair), the lyrics of Solex's songs offer quirky insights into the life of a young woman coming into her own. In 12 songs, all of which contain her nom du rock, Esselink delivers puckish vignettes about topics such as crushes on gay boys ("When Solex Just Stood There"), getting a snag in her stockings ("Solex's Snag"), having her dress almost fall off ("Solex in a Slipshod Style"), taking a bath with a lover ("Waking Up With Solex") and hitchhiking ("Peppy Solex").

The highlight of the album is "Solex All Licketysplit," a song reminiscent of Jonathan Richman's ode to adolescent driving, "Roadrunner." Replete with a tremolo synthesizer riff, a frenetic funk drumbeat and a sampled horn section, "Licketysplit" transforms a mere conversation into a hilarious celebration of self-awareness ("as soon as I got my paycheck, you asked me to make it high-tech and to bleach my flecks! Tabloids will be all over it").

In "Solex Feels Lucky," Esselink sings, "Just put every story between brackets." By removing herself from herself, by putting Solex in between brackets, Esselink communicates stories of self-discovery with a boundless playfulness.

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Public Enemy
"HE GOT GAME" SOUNDTRACK | DEF JAM
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | "He Got Game" is the best Public Enemy album in years, and not just because of the return of the Bomb Squad as producers for a number of tracks -- although they do massage the ringing notes (both of them) of Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth" into a groove as smart and catchy as hip-hop gets. But what makes it a real improvement over recent efforts is that the source movie's basketball theme gives Chuck D something to sink his teeth into. He sees both NBA contracts and hip-hop record contracts as markings of a new black slave trade. His conviction shows throughout, be it on the Wu-Tang-style string loops ("Resurrection," "What You Need Is Jesus"), the trademark fury of "House of the Rising Son" and "Go Cat Go" or Flavor Flav's funk showcase, "Shake Your Booty," which sounds just like old times.

Perhaps that familiarity is Chuck D's way of reminding us that the times haven't changed much. Rap artists -- if they make it past 20 -- are still exploited. Pondering Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls on "Is Your God a Dog," he notes that "the winner be Interscope, UNI, Arista and BMG." That Public Enemy's aim is so righteously precise is no surprise. That it happens on a soundtrack -- usually a graveyard of throwaway tracks -- is a pleasant surprise indeed.


John Milward

John Milward is a New York freelance writer.

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