Sharps & Flats

Published March 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| crazy in the confines of stardom, they reconfigured their music to reflect the absurdity of their situation. Creating a nostalgic world peopled with silver-hammered Maxwells and Lovely Ritas entitled them to live amid Strawberry Fields forever.

Britain's Blur has done the exact opposite. Thrashed by the tabloids and tax-bracketed out of the indie cred they so desire, they have abandoned the clever and distinctive cast of snobs, blokes, madmen and rakes that starred in their five previous albums and turned the spotlight inward to cast light on their own woes. The result is a mundane work that not only fails to live up to the band's spirited canon, but never manages to give its subjects (heartbreak, fatigue, etc.) fresh consideration.

Blur has never had problems re-adapting. From the blithe posh boys of their first two LPs, they ascended to the high-concept reaches of "Park Life," with its punters and small-timers, and the suburban archness of "The Great Escape." By 1997's "Blur," the group had opted away from their mock-xenophobia and turned to American indie rock to inspire the fuzz-pedal rush. The changes that arrive with "13," however, are fitted around the well-worn theme of loss. A longtime lover departs and the band's privacy is shredded. But is celebrity ennui a fitting topic for a concept album?

The British have a great word -- "whinging" -- to characterize the subject of Blur's current fixation. A cross between whining and complaining, whinging aptly describes the endless cant of "13." The album's opener, "Tender," is the grandiose signal of the band's transition to downbeat. Tender is one thing that Blur is not and never has been. Sarcastic, glib, witty, mordant, eccentric? Yes! Tender? No. And not even the song's gospel choir can convince us otherwise. As the album continues, breaking down every synthetic pop structure in its path, Graham Coxon's staticky, grease-splattering guitars rush far beyond the morose mutterings of singer Damon Albarn. Lovely interludes of warped ice-skating music pop up from time to time, but as the band veers from dub to prog rock to Casio-core, the album takes on a psych-ward dementia, finding anchor only in the echoes of their older, more confident songs.

That said, a shitty Blur album is still better than a lot of bands' best efforts. Coxon's talent for composing bizarre melodies is uncanny, and when he isn't too busy spazzing out here, he comes up with some great guitar lines, especially on his own song, "Coffee & TV." And Albarn's despair at losing his girl makes for some interesting cracks in the accented vowels of his British drawl -- the screaming, unstable laugh he lets loose on "Swamp Song" is the record's vivid high point.

I truly hope that whatever solace there is for Blur to find in their cold and uninviting situation is swift in its arrival. I also hope that maybe someday they'll follow a bread-crumb trail back home.

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Ladybug Transistor

BY DOUGLAS WOLK | Sometimes it takes a while for bands to find a voice. Ladybug Transistor's first album, 1995's "Marlborough Farms," was a competent Pavement rip-off with some curious touches in its arrangements, like singer Gary Olson's trumpet parts. In the intervening years and two subsequent albums, Olson has replaced the rest of the band, expanded it to a sextet and discovered the delights of Donovan and Zombies records. On "The Albemarle Sound," he's modulated his voice to a carefully enunciated purr and surrounded it with snatches of strings, horns and penny whistles, for an exquisite psychedelic-pastoral effect. The production pulls off tricks that nobody's used much for 30 years (arranger Joe McGinty, who puts together the "Loser's Lounge" series of '60s/'70s pop tributes in New York, helped out) -- most notably, almost every sound is doubled, from Olson's baritone to the clean, jazzy guitar and bass tones to the stoner's lope of the saxophones and snare. The piano is just old and tacky-sounding enough; the apple-eating sound effects in the middle of "The Swimmer" recall the Beach Boys' "Vegetables." There's a new and marvelous detail every few seconds, and they're all balanced to feng shui perfection.

In the middle of the album, though, there's a luscious, concise song called "Like A Summer Rain" that outshines its surroundings -- and it's a cover (of a Jan & Dean obscurity). It points to the biggest weakness of "The Albemarle Sound," which is that the band's songs simply aren't up to the level of its arrangements. They're non-obvious and inoffensive, and the calm stateliness of the instrumentation makes them sound like vintage AM-radio singles, but they're also not that memorable on their own. Still, a few tracks here come close to the ideal Ladybug Transistor are aiming for, notably the acid fantasy "Meadowport Arch" and the instrumental mariachi-western theme "Cienfuegos." The band's got its style down fine; it's just still working on what to apply it to.

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Nixon's Head

BY DAEN EDEN | When a band kicks off its album with the intro of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and keeps pumping that riff throughout the number, the listener may make one of three assumptions. Either A) the band is too lame to come up with an original idea, B) they are record snobs, proud to wear their influences on their sleeves or C) they are record snobs, proud to wear their influences on their sleeves -- and yet, amazingly, truly have something original to offer.

In the case of Nixon's Head, the answer is C. Their use of the Beatles riff in "Saturate," the leadoff cut on "Gourmet," is a statement of purpose. It heralds a 14-course ear candy pig-out courtesy of some exceedingly choosy epicures of pure pop.

"Gourmet," the first full-length release from Nixon's Head, marks the return of the Philadelphia-based group after an eight-year hiatus. In their original incarnation, they made the world safe for alternative rock with such releases as the lighthearted EP "The Doug Factor." Since then, they have lightened their punk edge, moving on to songs that have greater melodic and musical depth. (A good comparison would be "English Settlement"-era XTC, though that is due more to shared influences than actual homage.)

There is a refreshing lack of irony on "Gourmet." Admittedly, the more humorous tracks, particularly "The Loving Finger" (sung by guest vocalist Dorothy Haug), would in lesser hands be downright embarrassing. Somehow, in Nixon's Head's care, such songs seem positively wistful. (It helps that Haug has the clear, unaffected voice of a Pennsylvanian Emmylou Harris.) Although "Gourmet" may not be, as its cover boasts, "five minutes ahead of its time," it can take its place among the sharpest and freshest pop albums since Stiff Records ruled the earth.

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Friends of Dean Martinez

BY DOUGLAS WOLK | The thing about secret weapons is that they're only useful if they're a secret. The first two Friends of Dean Martinez albums were mostly driven by Joey Burns and John Convertino, who were moonlighting from their main band Giant Sand. Steel guitarist Bill Elm brought elegance and spookiness to their instrumental drift -- essentially a homage to the '50s easy-listening guitarists Santo & Johnny, with elegant touches of modernity and pre-modernity. With "Atardecer," though, Burns and Convertino are gone (they've started their own band, Calexico), and Elm is running the show -- the only other musician to appear on more than four tracks is keyboardist/percussionist Dave Lachance. (Lachance gets a pretty inconsequential solo piece of his own, "Coppertone.") Elm has also given up the band's sweet simplicity in favor of turbulent sound textures and spacey effects, turning the tints he used on the band's black-and-white-photo sound into the entire picture.

There's a certain kinship between the suspended, drifting tones a steel guitar can generate and the idea of electromagnetic impulses from interstellar space, and it's been reinforced in the popular imagination by the note-bending whines of sci-fi TV show themes. Elm's playing on that association here, augmenting most of the album with spacy Moog doodles, giving his guitar the crinkling distortion of old Pink Floyd records, and drenching it in oh-wow-man reverb. But there's very little on "Atardecer" that approaches the melodic savvy of the sun-baked retro-instrumentals that used to inspire the Friends. "Spoonie (Dark Side of the Spoon)" is a particular offender -- over five minutes of portentous tom-tom and chirruping noises run through a delay pedal, with no particular tune. Even when they try to play something that might have fit on the first album, like the organ simmer and samba beat of "Otra Vez," Elm's tone calls too much attention to itself, like a loud, tipsy guest at a party.

By Lois Maffeo

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