One of the perennial puzzles of pop music is the commercial difficulty encountered by generations of songwriters and bands inspired by the melodic devotion and stylistic breadth of the Beatles. Over the years, a handful of groups like the Raspberries, Cheap Trick, Oasis and (to a degree) Crowded House have bucked the long odds that foiled such critical favorites as Big Star, XTC, the Shoes, Marshall Crenshaw, the Dwight Twilley Band, the Posies, Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene, among many others -- including Crowded House leader Neil Finn, whose recent solo debut, "Try Whistling This," sank like a stone.
Del Amitri have fared better than many in this pop-rock genre, as the Scottish band has managed to produce and tour behind four albums since 1989. Still, the new best-of collection dubbed "Hatful of Rain" can't help but prompt the question "What hits?" (In fact, Del Amitri had one bona fide top 10 hit with the brisk pop-rock of 1995's "Roll to Me.") Perhaps Del Amitri's biggest problem was timing -- a decade dominated by rap and grunge was not made for a band that specializes in melodic songs sung in a personable style by Justin Currie and featuring a folk-rock mix of electric and acoustic instruments.
The 17 tracks of "Hatful of Rain" reflect both the band's soft and harder-rocking styles, while also managing to hang together as a tuneful meditation on troubled romance. Del Amitri commits the occasional gaffe, such as the over-ripe string arrangement on "Don't Come Home Too Soon," and the ill-conceived imagery captured in the title "Spit in the Rain." But the flaws are few, and there's fun to be found in the soulful swagger of "Kiss This Thing Goodbye" and the blissful Mersey beat of "Not Where It's At." And when acoustic strings swaddle Currie on the bittersweet ballad "Be My Downfall," it's easy to conclude that the singer's heart is more apt to be broken by a woman than the ever fickle state of rock 'n' roll.
STEP INSIDE THIS HOUSE | MCA RECORDS
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-->BY SAM HURWITT | Lyle Lovett, as has been noted, is a long, tall Texan, and the two-CD album "Step Inside This House" constitutes a sort of musical homecoming, paying tribute to the great songwriters of the Lone Star State whom Lovett cites as influences. The influence isn't hard to hear in songs like Steven Fromholz's delightful "Bears," which opens the album. There's that same wistful quirkiness, the same tender chiding, that makes Lovett such a compelling lyricist.
On the surface it might seem a surprise that an all-covers album would be one of Lovett's best, but these 21 songs play to his strengths, and he approaches them with a songsmith's loving care, from the Guy Clark title track to Michael Martin Murphey and Boomer Castleman's sweet hitchhiking yarn "West Texas Highway." "I've had enough lonesome/In my education," Lyle sings in Walter Hyatt's playful gem "Teach Me About Love," punctuated by Matt Rolling's jaunty ragtime piano and Paul Franklin's pedal steel.
The arrangements throughout the album use steel, fiddle, cello, mandolin and electric guitar sparingly, relying on the lyrics and Lyle's soothing voice for atmosphere rather than oppressive layers of instrumentation. Viktor Krauss' stand-up bass twangs through Willis Alan Ramsey's smoky, jazzy "Sleepwalking," and Alison Krauss joins in with some Carter Family-style harmony vocals on the traditional number "More Pretty Girls Than One" and Fromholz's "Texas Trilogy: Bosque County Romance" as well as murmuring along with Townes Van Zandt's heart-rending "If I Needed You" (answered immediately by Hyatt's lovely, redemptive "I'll Come Knockin'").
As he sings in the traditional "Texas River Song," which caps off the album, "There's many a river/That waters the land," and Lovett bathes us in each one.
Q-Burns Abstract Message
FENG SHUI | ASTRALWERKS
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | Since Orlando's Michael Donaldson -- aka Q-Burns Abstract Message -- works far away from dance and trip-hop centers like Bristol and Detroit, he's free to open up the genre's rules, structuring his peculiar dance pop in ways that his blockheaded contemporaries in the Chemical Brothers wouldn't dare to think of. What he winds up with instead is a unique form of armchair hip-hop; melodies too lovely to compare to the gritty skulk of Tricky, with beats so relaxed and ethereal they approach Brian Eno's '70s ambience. Vocals, when they exist, are often whispered, as on the title track, or crooned lightly on "Kinda Picky," the album's piano-laced centerpiece.
Part of the difference between Donaldson and his peers is that his musical starting point isn't so much hip-hop as Krautrock -- there's a gorgeous, rippling cover of Faust's "Jennifer" -- and he has a taste for Euro-pop at its most reserved, soliciting members of Iceland's Gus Gus to lend a hand in the studio. It's cold stuff indeed, especially when some tracks push the 10-minute point. But never static, and like the album title suggests, it's organized and functional; its chill-room ambience works just as well in cars and living rooms as it does in those trip-hop power centers Donaldson so happily ignores.
IN THE DOGHOUSE | RYKODISC
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BY JOE GROSS | Legions of Throwing Muses fans were absolutely sure that 17(!)-year-old Kristen Hersh, like many an object of obscure desire before and after her, was not only expelling her own personal demons, but theirs as well. Others just wanted her to stop screeching already. Such is the stuff from which rock legends are made. Few debuts -- heck, few records, period -- have ever drawn a line in the sand quite like the self-titled 1986 debut from the Throwing Muses. Just try to put the thing on the stereo at some hipster party and watch the sparks fly. Whether you thought "Throwing Muses" was home to the worst large sweater and black eyeliner-chick lyrics ever written, or you were one of thousands, male and female, who thought Hersh and Tanya Donnelly were speaking directly to you, it's tough to deny that this was one of the most jarring records of the 1980s. With "In the Doghouse," the defunct Throwing Muses finally fulfill an old promise to reissue their extraordinary debut -- the first record by an American act released on the until-then Anglophilic 4AD label in the United Kingdom -- in the United States.
"In the Doghouse" takes its name from the Muses' legendary 1985 "Doghouse" demo tape, issued in its entirety on Disc 2. With their martial drumming, abrupt rhythm changes and ornate dual guitars, the songs on "Throwing Muses" could have been recorded yesterday, especially the still startling "Call Me" and "Vicky's Box." Only Gil Norton's "Joy Division lite" production has aged poorly. The immediate follow-up EP, "Chains Chained," is also here; its slightly more linear songs are a welcome penumbra around the molten core of "Throwing Muses." The demos will probably be of interest only to fanatics and collectors -- but hey, fanatics and collectors were what "Throwing Muses" was all about.
BY JOSH KUN | No matter how deeply you understand that Colombia is a country of crossings -- coasts (Caribbean and Pacific), cultures (African, Indian, European), musical traditions (cumbia, salsa, vallenato) -- these new albums by Bogota's Aterciopelados (their fourth) and Bloque (their first) still make you check your ears. Because instead of simply reflecting on that legacy, they treat it as a mandate for further outness: Aterciopelados sprinkling mutant cumbias, batucada attacks and big band porro stomps with looped breakbeats and trip-hopped moodiness; Bloque throwing recycled Afro-pop into feedback-thick tropical storms of acid rock descargas.
Led by reigning Latina alterna-girl Andrea Echeverri, Aterciopelados have long been Colombia's most reliable and stylish ambassadors of post-New World hipness. So it was only a matter of minutes before they added their voice to the growing electrsnica scene with "Caribe Atomico," where their patented neo-folkloric takes on pop, punk and alt-rock mingle with flickering ambient soundfields, back-stepping beats and mumbling vocal samples. Nothing too dramatic, though, just piped in old-school choruses and acoustic son nods over "El Estuche's" down-tempo strut and the techno-dancehall punctuation of "Humo y Alquitran's" urban eco-apocalypse.
Bloque's take on culture-clashing may need fewer wires, but the sound they come up with is as aesthetically ferocious and stylistically dizzying as anything that's trickled stateside out of the South American pipeline in years. Made up of former members of ex-telenovela darling Carlos Vives' band, Bloque strip off the polish and smiling shine of Vives' pop vallenato updates and dive headfirst into an edgy polyrhythmic bliss that's equal parts salsa and Zappa, Fela and Zeppelin, angry funk and dissonant cumbia. Ivan Benavides is plenty powerful as a melodic growler and manic word-sprayer, but Bloque's secret weapon is stuffed-up singer Mayte Montero, who, besides blowing skyward on her gaita flute, leads the band in two of its most gripping Afro-Colombian performances on "La Pluma" and "Majana." On both, Bloque show tradition enough respect to explode it, build it anew and, from straight outta Bogota, help the future decide what it will sound like.
Archers of Loaf
WHITE TRASH HEROES | ALIAS RECORDS
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BY GAVIN McNETT | When indie-rock acts fall into decay, it's seldom through the canonical process of selling out, watering down and pandering that brought rock bands to ruin in previous times. Diminishing indie bands just get more precocious.
That might be because the indie-rock underground has been, for quite a while now, a difficult, contrarian sort of place where saying little, obliquely, can be a better policy than saying anything complex and specific. Ellipticism in itself can be a sort of pandering -- and a sort of formalism.
For now, it's a bit painful to find that "White Trash Heroes" is about 20 percent strummy Fender guitar blear of the common sort; about 40 percent eclecticist prog-rock jumble with odd noises ladled over the top (also pretty much in the "easy-call" category); and 30 percent bad '70s rock with "Oh, YAY-uh!" vocals. "Slick Tricks and Bright Lights" manages to be all three at once -- which is, it's undeniable, a certain fiendish achievement. And there's nothing wrong, really, with any of it, except there's little here that justifies the Archers' status as the preeminent band of their type.
The remaining 10 percent of the album is "Fashion Bleeds," a scorcher that suggests the band could damn well have made a great album if it had wanted to -- or at least another "All the Nation's Airports," which was great in a spotty, almost-there sort of way. It's disheartening how so many of these collegiate-slacker-type bands will get right up to the edge of brilliance -- and then back off, chuckling nervously.