2002 / Music

Review: Summer’s Heavy Hitters Step Up To The Plate

Sonic Youth, DJ Shadow Score, Peppers Strike Out

Read The Reviews: Sonic Youth | DJ Shadow | Red Hot Chili Peppers

When artists with any kind of a legacy release a new album, it’s only natural that music listeners approach it with certain expectations.

If the album tanks or doesn’t satisfy fans or critics, the artists’ “failure” is written down in history like they were Casey at bat — that their achievements got the better of them. Even one misstep can call into question that legacy. Maybe a dud will cost them their spot in one of Rolling Stone’s precious top 100 lists.

Two of the heaviest hitters from the genre formerly known as alternative rock, Sonic Youth and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, released new records this summer. But while one band is showing its natural evolution (and ensuring its rep), another is sliding from its original goals.

For DJ Shadow, who’s something of a new kid on the block, the stakes are presumably a little less. His new album is the follow up to his much-praised record from 1996, “Endtroducing.” Can he repeat the magic?

Read on:

Sonic Youth “Murray Street”

Sonic Youth must be used to getting passed over. It’s their lot.

Photo: DGC Records

Photo: DGC Records

Earlier in the summer, Sonic Youth’s new album, “Murray Street” got some media attention for its connections to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (What those connections were musically is vague at best. More explicitly, the album was named after the Manhattan locale where an airplane engine fell from the sky — coincidentally where the band was recording — and then, in the linear notes, there’s a photo of a gutted building.)

And then came Bruce Springsteen’s “Rising,” and the media lost interest in alternative rock’s elder statesmen (and woman).

Ten years ago and barely a decade into their own career, Sonic Youth was being asked about their role in influencing Seattle. Now, the New York combo is fending off the same queries about the Strokes. MTV, Lollapalooza appearances and magazine covers come and go, but Sonic Youth has kept making music — sometimes leaning more toward the avant-garde, other times more commercial.

“Murray Street” is a swing back closer toward familiar ground from the wide swerve into the avant-garde the band took with 2000’s “NYC Ghosts & Flowers.” The album has several extended jam sequences, that showcase the breadth of musical empathy that exists between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon.

The opening cut, “The Empty Page,” is probably the band’s most tuneful song since 1995’s “The Diamond Sea.” Ranaldo and Moore play circles around each other, off and on, for most of the track before revealing a surprisingly sing-able hook near the end.

Another unexpected highlight comes when Ranaldo takes the front position for his ode to an old flame, “Karen Revisited.” The song starts as the most traditional pop tune on “Murray Street” before it swells into eight minutes of dissonance. Ranaldo sings the best line on the record with “she’s not in your history books/ Lost her mind, kept her looks.”

When it becomes Gordon’s turn to step up, the slinky, hazy “Sympathy For The Strawberry” perfectly encompasses her low, sex kitten vocals. The guitars sound like distorted, electrified mandolins, building tension and energy before pulling back to make space for Gordon to do her best Nico.

The new boy Jim O’Rourke, who’s credited with mixing and essentially redirecting Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” supplies similar a touch here. The instruments sound warm and distinct, but they don’t leap out of the stereo speakers. Although he’s playing keyboards with the band on the road, any of his own contributions are tough to pick out.

“Murray Street” might look and sound less digestible than anything Bruce Springsteen’s ever done, but that shouldn’t sway any curious minds. Sonic Youth has remained one of underground rock’s best kept secret for a reason.

For More Info:

DJ Shadow “The Private Press”

If I were a pessimist, I’d say the quest of every hip-hop artist — to come up with a new beat — is as daunting a challenge as say, B.B. King finding something new to say with his guitar.

If I were a realist, I’d say all that’s really needed to get our collective heads bobbing is for hip-hop artists to shuffle the deck a bit — we probably wouldn’t notice that we’ve heard it all before.

If I were a record reviewer (and I am), I’d say DJ Shadow is the David Blaine of beat makers. Even though he wheels out all those tired, old beats on his new album, “The Private Press,” Shadow works his magic, recycling them in such a way that this listener is amazed into a child-like suspension of disbelief. I know I’ve heard something like it before, but this sounds really good. Instead of turning it off, I turn it up. I nod my head, wondering, “How’d he do that?”

As “The Private Press” demonstrates, Shadow has an entire bag of tricks at his command. “Walkie Talkie” is the record’s funkiest track, but has no bass. The song’s main melodic device is a sample that sounds like the gargled blast from an elephant’s trunk. On “Fixed Income,” Shadow slowly pulls listeners along as he constructs the song before your ears — adding a creepy harpsichord, then a guitar playing a ragga — before dismantling it piece by piece.

“Six Days” is a prime example of Shadow’s gift for synergy. The shimmering song is a combination of European keyboard aesthetic, Caribbean and Indian drum patterns, and vocals from a sleepy English folk song.

Equally dizzying in its web of sounds is “Blood On The Motorway.” The track, part of a mini-suite that seems to be about driving in a car, mixes a basic piano melody, bells, strings and a New Wave keyboard rhythm. But just when you’d start to suspect that Shadow has lost his mind and created a musical track for Yanni, he rouses you with a peppy drum sample.

My lone gripe with this record is that vocalization plays such a small role in most of Shadow’s compositions. A few songs on “The Private Press” have a singer or rapper and they benefit from the easy accessibility that the human voice provides, but they are in the minority. Adding a couple more, depending on the lyrical content, could also boost the album’s cohesion.

But then again, maybe having a vocalist would make it too easy. Without it, you can concentrate completely on the music — dissecting the samples or letting yourself get swept away by it all — wondering, “How’d he do that?”

For More Info:

Red Hot Chili Peppers “By The Way”

“I miss the funk,” Red Hot Chili Peppers vocalist Anthony Kiedis seemingly confided to MTV’s cameras in summation of 1995’s “One Hot Minute,” the L.A. band’s ill-fated pairing with Jane’s Addiction gloomy guitarist Dave Navarro.

“One Hot Minute” was ultimately demonized by fans and classified as an aberration, but Kiedis and company haven’t revisited their funk roots on record since their pre-Navarro, commercial breakthrough “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” — even when they ditched Navarro in 1998 and reunited with AWOL guitar player John Frusciante for 1999’s “Californication.” In fact, Frusciante’s return seems to have pushed the group toward mainstream pop.

The Peppers’ latest album, “By The Way,” goes even further than “Californication.” Much of the group’s erstwhile driving force, their explosive instrumentalists, is penned in by the confines of these sweet, little pop songs. What we get instead is a mix of guitar textures, big, cheerful choruses and lots of backup vocal harmonies from Frusciante and bassist Flea.

What hasn’t changed is that Kiedis is still the group’s weakest member, and his skills as a vocalist put him just ahead of David Lee Roth in rock’s all-star chorus. As a lyricist, his seventh-grader rhymes are full of clichés (Anthony, please leave those aquatic images alone) and they rarely fit comfortably in the song. His presence in the band is a testament to either co-founder Flea’s loyalty or the strength of copyright law.

On “By The Way,” Kiedis’ voice is pushed way out front (which is probably why the vocal harmonies are an ever constant presence). Presumably, producer Rick Rubin did this to really sell the radio-friendly choruses of songs like “Midnight,” “I Could Die For You” or “The Zephyr Song,” but this only makes it plain that this band is moving dangerously close to Aerosmith’s pop-rock territory.

To be fair, this record does have its moments. The title track is the record’s best union of the old Peppers’ busy musical interplay and the new Peppers’ pop chart smarts. “This Is The Place” shows glimpses of their love of Joy Division/New Order that Frusciante and Flea have talked up in interviews. Hell, even Kiedis occasionally sounds good, his voice bouncing perfectly off Fruciante’s choppy guitar licks on “Can’t Stop.”

“By The Way” also has the band exploring new musical genres wholesale that were only suggested on previous albums. “Cabron” is a bastardized version of Mexican music, but Frusciante’s brilliant guitar playing deftly imitates two guitars simultaneously, and then a mandolin for occasional accents. “On Mercury” comes across as a ska tune that the Peppers borrowed from their old compatriots in Fishbone, circa 1988.

In the end, however, what the band has achieved with “By The Way” is something more than an album that will probably sell a couple million copies and give all radio listeners a few songs that they can definitely sing along to. They’ve succeeded in making a Glenn Ballard album but without having to enlist the songwriter-for-the-stars.

But sadly, when the band members look back at their career, wondering how and why they got so preoccupied with selling product and getting their songs on the radio, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

For More Info:

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 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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