2001 / Music

Review: Ben Folds, Mazzy Star Singer Make Solo Debuts

Mercury Rev, Hank Williams Tribute Top New Releases

Read The Reviews: Hope Sandoval | Ben Folds | Mercury Rev | Hank Williams Tribute

While the music industry is keenly focused on combating music piracy, another more persistent problem has gone undiagnosed and untreated for years: the solo project.

All it would take is for the industry to put together a list of names — Lionel Richie, Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach or Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell — to know that something has to be done to stop artists from leaving their bands.

That’s why I believe that the industry should have a licensing system for artists to go solo. Maybe band members should be forced into counseling or they could arrange to discuss their problems with a court-appointed mediator. If someone is truly serious about leaving a group, maybe an informational interview with David Lee Roth should be mandatory.

Regardless of the these warnings, piano man Ben Folds and Mazzy Star singer Mazzy Star have recently embarked on solo careers after meeting with mild success in bands during the ’90s.

Although musically divergent, both artists’ albums find them seeking a new musical identity separate from their previous bands, but both end up resting on those laurels from time to time.

Other new releases we’ll take a look at include the latest from Mercury Rev and Lost Highway’s tribute album to Hank Williams Sr., “Timeless.”

Hope Sandoval And The Warm Inventions “Bavarian Fruit Bread”

Forget the lyrics, it’s the sound of Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval’s voice that continually elicits the same question from the listener: Does she love or does she love me not? Her melancholic singing — eerie, hypnotic, aloof and sexy — is ripe with meaning that’s not explicit. Put simply, she could sing a grocery list and still captivate dozens of young men.

Photo: Nettwerk

Photo: Nettwerk

Her vocal charms have worked their magic on boys and girls alike once before. In the mid-90s, Sandoval and company created an ethereal masterwork, “Tonight That I Might See,” and had a Top 40 hit with the drearily romantic, “Fade Into You,” that had Courtney Love envious.

Almost five years after Mazzy Star’s last release, Sandoval has completed her first solo full-length, “Bavarian Fruit Bread.” Although it’s her name on the record and she’s now backed by ex-My Bloody Valentine’s Colm O’Ciosoig, “Bavarian Fruit Bread” sticks with Mazzy Star’s penchant for crafting spooky, folk songs, only absent the distorted, groaning guitarwork of Sandoval’s Mazzy Star partner, David Roback.

Without Robak’s guitar, Sandoval and O’Ciosoig use a mix of instruments to tow the melody along. Each moody track is enveloped in a lethargic haze that stymies the brighter sound of a harmonica or organ, leaving it to reverberate. The sustain-heavy songs are filled with echoes that trick the ears into thinking they’re acutely sensitive.

Piercing the dense textures, Sandoval’s voice is the centerpiece of each song. Although the treatment of her voice is consistent throughout, she accentuates different moods. Her singing is slightly timid beside the twinkling xylophone in “Around My Smile.” On “Suzanne,” she’s downright playful when singing about switching gender roles. For the song’s chorus, she harmonizes with an unidentified man who sounds like Leonard Cohen, who himself penned a paen to another Suzanne years before.

Unfortunately, this album’s main drawback is its repetitiveness: it’s a litany of sluggish, somber songs. This also was a chronic problem on Mazzy Star’s records.

“Bavarian Fruit Bread” answers any doubters who wondered who was the linchpin of Mazzy Star’s sound. But it also points a finger at who in the band has been unwilling to change things up. If Sandoval is adament on repeating herself, she could just as well sing a grocery list.

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Ben Folds “Rockin’ The Suburbs”

Ben Folds Five was the black sheep of the ’90s “120 Minutes” crowd. One could argue that what made them stand out was the group’s brazen attempts to create the perfect piano-pop song. Or maybe it was the fact that they looked likes dorks. But for me, what made really made Ben Folds Five unique, and made them a terrific band, was their fearlessness.

Photo: Epic Records

Photo: Epic Records

While many alternative music songwriters were preoccupied with being perceived as sell outs, Ben Folds embraced his pop influences. His loose, piano-based ditties were unashamedly catchy, and filled with quirky characters and acerbic lyrics.

“Rockin’ The Suburbs” is Folds’ first solo foray since disbanding the Five (which was actually a trio that included bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee) in 1999. The songs on “Rockin’ The Suburbs” bare out that Folds’ gift for storytelling remains, although his skills at piecing together melodies is becoming inconsistent.

Now without the Five’s fuzzy basslines and aggressive drumming, the music on “Rockin’ The Suburbs” continues to dabble in some of the Bacharachian string flourishes that appeared on the Five’s final album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.”

The strongest tracks, like “Annie Waits” and “Not The Same,” carry this broader appreciation of pop’s musical landscape and combine it with Folds’ keyboard grooves, but without sacrificing any tunefulness.

The record’s title track is a switch from the Folds’ usual piano-driven approach. The cut is filled with raunchy guitar and includes a guest appearance by Beck’s former turntablist D.J. Swamp. The song is a swipe at MTV’s new crop of pop-punk bands, Folds taking a poke at how some groups probably get help in the studio from a “producer with computers.” Later in the song, he seems to shift the song’s meaning to talk about racial issues and he sarcastically sings about the difficulties of growing up “male, middle class and white.” The best line is when sings about being “all alone in my white boy pain.”

But by proudly displaying his love of pop, Folds occasionally shows too much. He sometimes goes a little overboard with the string arrangements. Worst of all. he even ends up crooning quite a few piano ballads (“The Ascent Of Stan” or “Fred Jones Part 2”) that would make Barry Manilow proud.

Although the album’s more charming numbers redeem most of the ’70s pop excesses, it’s disappointing that Folds has moved from being consistently fearless to being able to inspire fear.

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Mercury Rev “All Is Dream”

When rock musicians decided en masse that it was a good idea to “get back to the garden” of Woodstock, N.Y., in the late ’60s, the music that emerged was typically Dylan-ized folk-rock or jam-oriented white blues.

For New York band Mercury Rev, their Catskill retreat a few years back inspired the quartet to think big. The group has tried to top 1999’s “Deserter’s Song” by composing mini-epics of varied instrumentation and grand sweep for their latest, “All Is Dream.”

Putting Metallica to shame, “All Is Dream” is proof that a rock outfit can play with an orchestra — fully harnessing it — without just using it to double the established melody.

The record’s broad sonic palette could be credited to the band’s initial choice for producer, Jack Nitzsche. A one-time sidekick of Phil Spector, Nitzsche made a career of combining rock’n’roll with the wide spectrum of sounds available from an orchestra for movie soundtracks and Neil Young before passing away in 1999.

One of the best examples of this union between rock and orchestral sensibilities is “Chains.” The band masterfully utilizes a stirring piano figure and then a string section to conclude key sections. Between the classical music elements, frontman Jonathan Donahue’s tender singing is answered at each chorus by bits of ear-piercing guitar and Jeff Mercel’s lively drumming.

“The Day Is Rising” has a bombastic snippet of strings and French horns that sounds like it could be the next theme to a James Bond film. But “The Day Is Rising” is actually love song. Donahue’s voice is so slight that it could have been sung from a castle dungeon.

On paper, the group’s close affiliation with the Flaming Lips (Donahue played with the Lips for awhile and Rev bassist/co-producer David Fridman produced several of the Lips’ recent projects) and both bands’ preference for the avant-garde, would suggest that they might share too much musical territory.

But despite a few familiar drum fills, the tracks on “All Is Dream” are more accessible and more emotional than anything the Lips have created.

On the album’s last song, “Hercules,” the emotions build slowly from the low hum of an organ and guitar. The track finally culminates with a distorted, pinched guitar solo that harkens back to the musical squiggles on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“All Is Dream” marks the coronation of Mercury Rev as the newest prog-rock kings.

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Various Artists “Timeless ?- A Hank Williams Tribute”

Only a few years ago — before “O Brother Where Art Thou” or PBS’ “American Roots Music” documentary — if you asked most country aficionados about the music’s history, they’d spend a lot of time talking about Hank Williams.

Although Hank died at the age of 29 in 1953, his legacy as country music’s greatest songwriter and crossover artist is the cornerstone of modern country music (He was the first performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame). It’s a legacy of quick, weepy songs so powerful that they cast a shadow over his predecessors as well as his contemporaries.

But since the renewed interest in roots music because of the Coen Brothers movie and its soundtrack of “old-timey music,” perceptions of country music’s history has moved away from a Hank-centric universe.

Perhaps to shed some light back on Williams, Lost Highway Records, a new alt-country imprint owned by major label Island Def Jam that has received a high profile because of “O Brother” phenomenon, has drafted list of sympathetic rock’n’rollers (including a pair from the label’s own roster, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams) to perform versions of Williams’ songs. Those recruited include Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Beck, Sheryl Crow and others.

Although “Timeless” is very reverential to Williams’s music overall, the artists on the record did attempt to build new arrangements for the songs, some more traditional than others.

With this kind of a task before them, the strongest songwriters seem to have faired best. Dylan’s accordion-laced take on “I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind” is carefree and danceable. From the opposite direction, Lucinda Williams sings “Cold, Cold Heart” with minimal backing and stresses the yearning in her quivering, Southern voice.

Keith Richards’ rendition of “You Win Again” is original, albeit one that lives up to his boozy reputation. The song is performed as if it were the last song of the last encore of a drunken set. The music crawls — a guitar and drums trail Richards’ dejected vocals. His mouth can hardly form the words of the verses, and yet he captures the song’s sense of weariness.

In the course of creating new arrangements for the songs, some artists just seem to get lost. Beck’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” sounds like they’re playing at the bottom of a well, but the music that escapes is mashed with dreary echoes. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by bluesman Keb’ Mo’ is slow -? too slow for delivering so little melodically. Not even his rich baritone voice or an accompanying fiddle can keep the interest.

Maybe it’s the fact that most of the covers deal with heartache in one form or another, but Tom Petty’s countrified vocals is far too peppy on “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave).” His twang is maybe two steps overboard.

More even keel, Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris do double duty on two elegant cuts — “Lost On The River” and “Alone and Forsaken” ? both taking turns singing lead (A rumored duet between Adams and Lucinda Williams failed to materialized). “Lost On The River” features some harmony singing from pair, while Knopfler’s sparse fretwork supports Harris’s vocals on the gospel-tinged “Alone and Forsaken.”

Only Hank Williams III remains loyal to his grandfather’s sound. His voice on “I’m A Long Gone Daddy” is uncannily similar — full of the brazenness and devilish confidence that’s rife in some of Hank Sr.’s more spiteful songs.

“Timeless” sets out to prove the versatility of Williams’ song and his profound influence on today’s artists. If anything, it’s nice to know that yodeling has not completely disappeared from the America’s musical vernacular.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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