Feb. 7, 2000
1) Mekons "Journey to the End of the Night" (Quarterstick)
An end-of-the -- or anyway their -- world album, maybe the best the intransigent Leeds-to-Chicago punk combo has made, with Morris dancing hiding inside reggae rhythms and inside of that "Neglect," which could be the Crests, climbing "Step by Step" in 1960, Rod Stewart in 1972 telling a woman he hasn't seen in years, "You Wear it Well," but has a twist nice songs like those were made to deny.
2) The Need "The Need Is Dead" (Chainsaw)
Olympians (as in Washington) Rachel Carns and Radio Sloan on a thrilling ride, down switchbacks in reverse. Freedom of speech is fine, but this is something else -- in moments, as when they recapture the long-gone late-'70s London warble of Lora Logic's "Wake Up," freedom of throat.
3) Christina Aguilera (Jan 30., ABC/MTV)
The blonde sensation's lip-sync job for the Super Bowl halftime show was creepy in a conventional, who-says-they-aren't-real? manner. It was no preparation at all for the low point of the two-hour biopic "Christina Aguilera: What a Girl Wants," which followed: In grainy footage of a little girl on a public stage, mike in her hand, singing an adult love song and making adult tease gestures, the 6- or 7-year-old Aguilera was the image of JonBenit Ramsey; and her mother, popping in to say, Oh, it wasn't ME, it was what SHE wanted, was the image of Patsy Ramsey. Running simultaneously on the USA network was "The Mary Kay Letourneau Story: All-American Girl," but in this night's depravity sweepstakes it didn't have a chance.
4) Vue "Vue" (Sub Pop)
This young San Francisco band has rather bizarrely rediscovered the unrepentantly cheesy sound of the post-Beatles, pre-psychedelic San Francisco Bay Area -- a sound perhaps summed up better by the name of one of its exemplars, Peter Wheat and the Breadmen, than any actual records, though "Little Girl," by San Jose's Syndicate of Sound, is close. Thanks to Jessica Graves' implacably poker-faced, two-fingered organ riff, Vue's "Girl" (principal lyric, ecstatically groaned by Rex Shelverton: "Oh, girl") is closer.
5) Robert Mugge, director "Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson" (Winstar video)
Talkers and players gathered at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a celebration of the '30s Mississippi bluesman, and this documentary includes too many fat white guys with nothing to say. But there are lucid, stirring passages from keynote speaker Peter Guralnick; there is Johnson's childhood friend Willie Coffee, crying over his memory of "Sweet Home Chicago" ("I don't like to talk about him too much"). Alongside any number of sclerotic or florid readings of hallowed Johnson tunes by singers black and white, there's skinny white guy Chris Whitley's queer, atonal revision of the previously uncoverable "Hellhound on My Trail," ludicrous in its first notes and a dead man walking, a thing in itself, by its end. And in the power trio Gov't Mule there are fat white guys slamming their way through a don't-let-it-end-yet assault on "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" -- with the Rolling Stones' "Stop Breaking Down" and Cream's "Crossroads" the most exciting claim on a Johnson song I've ever heard. Don't go looking to Gov't Mule's own records, or Chris Whitley's, for anything similar; their performances here take place outside their careers.
6) Chumbawamba "Tony Blair" (ActiVator)
The chest-thumpingly anarchist English amalgamation recently put out "The Passenger List for Doomed Flight #1721," in which it gleefully fantasizes the deaths of, among others, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder -- apparently not considering Joerg Haider sufficiently evil to be worth mentioning. Infinitely more interesting is Chumbawamba's fan-club single "Tony Blair," which the band should make generally available before it chokes on its own righteousness. Following the Clash's 1979 "London Calling," the sleeve mimics the left-to-bottom pink and green lettering on Elvis' first album, the l956 "Elvis Presley": In place of the delirious Presley of the original jacket, though still placed right next to Elvis' bassist Bill Black, is Blair. His face split by a smile, he's lightly picking on an acoustic guitar -- as if backing up the sweet-voiced young thing on the record, who steps lightly over sock-hop piano triplets while pining away for the dreamboat who promised her "something new" but dumped her as soon as he got what he wanted. "Now you date/All the girls you used to hate," she sighs; "oo-wah-oo-wah-oo," says the chorus. Even though she says, "I'm not that kind of girl," you just know she'd fall for him all over again. That's not the message Chumbawamba means to send, but it's what happens with good records: They say what they say, not what they're told.
7) "Clambake" revisited in "Sensing His Moment" (People magazine, Jan. 31)
In a recent column, Molly Ivins argued that no one can be elected president without an Elvis component, and confessed she could find no such thing in Bill Bradley, whom she nevertheless spent the rest of her space adoring. Bradley apparently got there ahead of her: "A notoriously dozy speaker," William Plummer reported, "he once studied Elvis movies at the Library of Congress to get a clue to the King's charisma." And still couldn't win New Hampshire: I admit I haven't tried it, but watching Elvis movies at the Library of Congress sounds like eating ribs with a fork.
8) Eternal return on "The Sopranos" (HBO, Jan. 30)
The episode kicked off with a jumping piece of old, East Coast, for all I know New Jersey-specific doo-wop pulsing through a pizza joint run by a man in his 50s; it ended with teenage Meadow Soprano and her friend Hunter cooking at home and singing along to New Jerseyan Lauryn Hill. As events, the songs were more than 40 years apart; in the way the words of both were more interested in themselves than in addressing any listener, in the way they slid off of each other's sounds, the songs were almost the same.
9) Bob Dylan "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys -- Music from the Motion Picture" (Columbia)
Taking phrases out of the air (from the Carter Family's "Worried Man Blues," Duane Eddy's "Forty Miles of Bad Road") to completely inhabit "I been all around the world, boys," a line from scores of old mountain songs and white blues, the person Bob Dylan thus begs leave to inhabit a fictional construct in which he imagines what it would mean to outlive oneself: to retain all of one's faculties and decline to use them. Melville created his clerk Bartleby to define rebellion as withdrawal, his manifesto "I would prefer not to"; using all of his faculties, Dylan guides the receding narrator from the 1997 "Time Out of Mind" into a long step back, letting him look over the whole landscape of that work with an expression composed of a querulous grin.
10) Bill Clinton "State of the Union Address" (Jan. 27)
"We remain a new nation," Clinton said. "As long as our dreams outweigh our memories, America will remain forever young." "Could Reagan have said it better?" asked a friend, and the answer is, No, he couldn't have said it better, or half as well. Reagan couldn't have brought off the Dylan reference as if it were his own. And I doubt if Reagan would have done what Clinton did just a paragraph earlier -- when, caught in the coded metaphors of American speech, he had a Founding Father ("When the framers finished crafting our Constitution, Benjamin Franklin stood in Independence Hall and reflected on a painting of the sun, low on the horizon. He said, 'I have often wondered whether that sun was rising or setting. Today,' Franklin said, 'I have the happiness to know it is a rising sun'") naming a brothel in New Orleans.