Sunday, August 15, 2004

Tom' Reviews from November 1989 Rock & Roll Disc

The Sugarcubes
Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!

from Rock & Roll Disc magazine November, 1989

Elektra 960 860-2
Producers: The Sugarcubes and
Derek Birkett
Engineers: Various
Total disc time: 51:46
(no SPARS code listed)

Merit: *1/2
Sound: ***

It is the job of the P.R. people at record companies to shove this week's newest big thing down the throats of a hungry music-buying public. Like seasoned carnival barkers, the pros are expert at tapping into youthful fads and exploiting them to the last dime. The British and European rock press is never sated with these Johnny-come-latelys; they grind out rock idols like smokers grind out cigarettes.

As a critic I've become nearly immune to the wheedling and siren calls visited upon me by the mountains of promotional material I receive each week. But as callous as I've become, I still keep my ear to the ground for something truly new and original. I heard about the Sugarcubes long before their domestic debut on Elektra, when their singles were available only on import. The grapevine was overflowing with praise for this innovative collective from, of all places, Iceland.

Life's Too Good, their first disc, very nearly lived up to its reputation with the most stunningly feral and imaginative singing in recent rock history from lead singer Bjork. The first song on the disc, "Traitor," opens with an avalanche of chords and drums over Bjork's eerie, ethereal chanting. The very next track, "Motorcrash," boasts the most impassioned, foreboding vocals I have heard in ages, and Bjork's emotional range throughout the disc is not to be believed.

But even on this most auspicious of debuts, there were signs of trouble. Einar Orn, billed as the other lead singer, is really more a provocateur and thorn in the band's side than a contributor; truth is he couldn't carry a tune in a U-Haul and his aggressive and senseless interruptions on-stage turned off so many concert-goers in New York last year that the art crowd that was so eager to embrace the Sugarcubes dropped them like a hot spud. Now the Sugarcubes couldn't get arrested if they went "wilding" in Saks Fifth Avenue.

With Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! one finds only the faintest traces of their early promise. There is not one distinguishable melody on the disc and Bjork's seductive and enthralling singing has now become excessively melismatic and overbearing. She swoops down on every syllable as if it were her last utterance, and puts lyrics through a bootcamp's worth of vocal calisthenics. Einar Orn's indefensible rantings simply have got to go. Mark my words; if he stays this band will perish. Even the most ardent Europhile can only take so much of a steady irritant, and the Sugarcubes have fallen prey to their own art-rock conceits (they performed at several concerts in the U.S. using only their native tongue, even when they all speak and sing in fluent English!). Like so many others before them, they need to learn you have to make good music before aspiring to make great art.

Can the Sugarcubes survive this anchorless dreck? I doubt it. We may see a few more albums, but since inertia is an irresistible force of nature, I wouldn't be surprised if Bjork (who remains one of the most sexually alluring creatures in the universe despite her altogether ordinary looks) eventually goes it alone. Out of the frozen desolation of her homeland, she is that rarest of orchids, flowering against a backdrop of icy nothingness. She, like a bloom in the tundra, is too precious a thing not to cherish.

--Tom Graves

The Essentials
The Essentials

from Rock & Roll Disc magazine November, 1989

Refrigerator TE2300
Total disc time: 44:34 (no SPARS code listed)

Merit: *
Sound: **


-Tom Graves

Chet Baker
Sings and Plays From the Film
"Let's Get Lost"

From Rock & Roll Disc magazine November, 1989

Novus 3054-2-N
Total disc time: 63:14
(no SPARS code listed)
Merit: ****
Sound: ****

I am no jazz critic, and there are several Rock & Roll Disc writers far more qualified to write about Chet Baker than I. But after reading the accompanying press kit, I could not resist exploring this disc. Baker, one of the most atmospheric and haunting of jazz trumpet players, lived life in the fastest jet-set lane during his heyday in the 50's. He was handsome and roguish, and bore more than a little resemblance to James Dean. He died only a few years ago from drug-related causes -- he had been a heroin addict for nearly three decades and it had left him dissipated and old beyond his years. This disc is from Bruce Weber's documentary film on Baker's final days, when he was still active on the jazz scene. Baker's sorrowful, disquieting vocals are the real substance of the disc, and more melancholy music I have never heard.

This is a disc I will save for private moments of introspection and despair. Because after hearing this, nothing else could ever quite fit those moods.

--Tom Graves

Various Artists
Toga Rock II
from Rock & Roll Disc magazine November, 1989

DCC Compact Classics DZS-043
Total disc time: 38:20 (no SPARS code listed)

Merit: ***
Sound: ***

If you have read this magazine[Rock & Roll Disc] for any length of time, you should know the work of Steve Hoffman, the remastering wunderkind who now works for DCC Compact Classics. His remastering expertise is unimpeachable, and the first installment of Toga Rock (DCC DZS029) was one of the few compilation CDs that made it to our 100 Best Of issue. But with Toga Rock II I can only surmise that Hoffman was in the mood to experiment. His versions of "Shout" by the Isley Brothers and "Gloria" by Them have a grating high end that had me checking my stereo for a problem. I compared these versions to the Isley's Bear Family release (which was warmer and truer to the original) and Them's Polygram release (which was far truer to the original single) and was left wondering what got into Hoffman. He has never mixed drums this hot before or tried to "update" his sound to be more contemporary (a charge that has recently been leveled at Rhino's Bill Inglot). His uncompromising standards are what have made him a household name among CD addicts.

Stranger still is a version of the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy" that was taken off a record (the liner notes tell us the master tapes no longer exist) that sounds like it was rubbed on a sidewalk. I mean, like, why? Rare Earth's"'Get Ready" was remixed without the silly audience noises, but without them the song drags without relief.

Even with these complaints, which are a rarity with Hoffman, there are still rubies and emeralds scattered throughout. Sly Stone's "Dance To the Music" is simply stunning, with a huge stereo separation and pinpoint imaging. The Rivingtons' "Papa-Omm-Mow-Mow" likewise makes you want to salute. A high point for me is the obscure Gary Glitter song, "Rock & Roll," which I have been trying to find for nearly two decades. A sinister heavy metal riff reverberates over tribal drumming as big as all outdoors. It's one of those songs you can't shake once you've heard it.

Although I'm still puzzled by the erratic nature of this disc it remains a must for those into collecting the choicest remasterings.
--Tom Graves

Geffen 9 24254-2
from Rock & Roll Disc magazine November 1989

If any critic ever cut Aerosmith slack during their halcyon days in the 70's, I never saw evidence of it. Steven Tyler seemed no more than an artificially induced Mick Jagger, a distorted mirror's image with poutier, gravity-deflected lips and an even more cartoonish stage appearance. The whole group was deemed low-brow and sleazy and they went unnoticed and unloved by all except the millions of fans who knew a good riff when they heard one.

I met up with Robert Palmer, the esteemed New York Times music critic, recently and one of the many things we talked about was Aerosmith. "I thought their stuff was absolute junk at the time," he admitted, "but they were a major influence on practically everything decent that's coming out today." We agreed that Aerosmith was a band in clear need of re-evaluation, especially after their benchmark collaboration with Run-D.M.C. on "Walk This Way," which was not only the most successful melding of disparate idioms we have seen in recent times, it was one of the best (maybe even the best) rock videos ever made.

Aerosmith has had some severe ups and downs over the two decades it has been in business, but Pump, their newest disc, sounds like a band fresh out of the starting gate. Pump rolls in like a thunderhead with a viciousness that hasn't been matched by other veteran rockers as far back as I care to remember. Every song on the disc is cut from the same hard rock cloth; don't expect slow-building ballads like "Dream On" here. "F.I.N.E.," "Love In An Elevator," and "Janie's Got A Gun," (the lyrics of which I could not penetrate even if I had a decoder ring) are played for maximum body contact; to hear them is to feel them. Listening to Joe Perry's hypersonic finger slashings on "Janie's Got A Gun" I got that rarest of rock critic afflictions -- the itch to strap on that Les Paul Air Model Deluxe and take the motherfucker over.

I'm too old to have grown up drooling over Aerosmith -- but hell, I can always learn.

--Tom Graves

The J. Geils Band
The J. Geils Band

From Rock & Roll Disc magazine November, 1989

Edsel EDCD 300 (British import)

While I don't think there is a single instance of great, enduring songwriting on this disc -- don't look for any Hall of Fame nominations here -- The J. Geils Band is still a fine example of aggregate groovemaking.

Put in the context of 1971, when the album debuted, it's easy to understand how it was overlooked. The early 70's was the tail end of the great blues revival that had begun in the mid-60's with such groundbreaking bands as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (not to mention the revived careers of blues stalwarts such as B.B. King, Albert King, and John Lee Hooker) and ended with the lasting contributions of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the early Z.Z. Top. Blues, great blues was everywhere, and if it didn't knock your feet out from under you, then it seldom got noticed.

The J. Geils Band, with its understated guitar work and frequently slow, percolating rhythms was a far cry from the fried and frenzied wallop of AC/DC's early boogie outings. But this disc has a way of throwing a little dancing fever on you with fetching covers such as Albert Collins' "Sno-Cone"
and the smoldering "Serves You Right To Suffer."

The soul music side of the band shines here as well with fine soul-strutting by Peter Wolf on "First I Look At the Purse" and "On Borrowed Time."

Harp player Magic Dick was a rare commodity for a white blues band, and Muddy Waters himself paid the youngster the highest tribute by saying if he could perform oral sex like he played harp, well, he would be one son of a gun (I'm paraphrasing).

The songwriting talent soon enough emerged and blossomed in the J. Geils Band and they later directed their energies to more pop-flavored material. While someone looking for the pyrotechnics of Cream or Ten Years After will surely be disappointed by the more modest approach taken here, those who can appreciate hard-hitting straight doses of blues without frills and some excellent ensemble playing to boot will undoubtedly be pleased by this early effort.

It's too bad that potentially great blues artists such as Albert Collins and the Kinsey Report can't put aside their string squeezing long enough to take a cue from the J. Geils Band: the groove is the most important thing. Too much flash can become a flash in the pan.

--Tom Graves


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