Americana Sampler Vol. 1
FRONTED BY FORMER Chuck Wagon and the Wheels singer Chuck Maultsby, Combo Chameleon (a name that puts one in mind of that damnable Boy George tune) assembles a number of solid local players who dish up-- to borrow the diner-menu metaphor from the liner notes--countryish rock tunes that range from meaty to sweet. We've heard a bunch of them before: the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider," Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," even Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek." Some are new, penned by Chameleon guitarist Tim O'Connor, and they're nicely melodic. To extend the metaphor, the fare is competently cooked and reasonably nutritious. It's a little bland, though, as if the chef had forgotten the spices--and some of the cuts are just a touch too chewy.
Middle Of Nowhere
WATCHING THE VIDEO for Hanson's number one single "MMMBop"--where the three cute Hanson boys (ages 16, 13 and 11) cavort wildly à la the Monkees, dancing and skateboarding and surfing through teenland--you can almost hear all the greasy haired alterna-kids across the country groaning in front of their MTV, disgusted by all the silly prefabricated pop nonsense that's replaced the sexy angst of a few years back. And don't you just love it? After buying into Bush and Alanis Morissette, it's just what we deserve: Hanson is Silverchair by way of the Partridge Family, the first pretty-boy fake alt-rock group that doesn't pretend to be anything but. And so, if only for their truth in advertising, Hanson deserves our admiration. But as it happens, Middle Of Nowhere is worthy of our attention for other reasons as well. At their best, such as on "MMMBop" or "Thinking of You," Hanson makes perfect '90s bubblegum: Jackson Five voices offset by slick power-pop guitars and sharp, hip-hop production care of the Dust Brothers. Even the more questionable material is, at worst, music for, about, and made by kids sixteen and under. Granted, these lads had help with both the songwriting (including veterans Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on the weakest track) and instrumentation (a full cast of session men) on Middle of Nowhere. Still, as young writers and musicians with an indisputably authentic three-part harmony, Hanson is as real a band as it needs to be. Real enough, at least, to be a perfect antidote to MTV's other poster boys, the decidedly less-fun Marilyn Manson.
The Legend Of Blind Joe Death
City Of Refuge
THIS "AMERICAN primitive guitarist" who applies non-traditional methodology (including classical, Middle Eastern and Indian structures) to American country, folk and blues gets a '59-'97 career bookend on two new releases. Joe Death is a convoluted classic, compiling tracks from several albums (all titled similarly; read the liner notes). It's as focused, yet outrageous, and as hauntingly seductive, yet emotionally diverse, as you'll encounter on a collection of acoustic instrumentals. The label even came up with an unreleased track, "West Coast Blues," as an additional treat. Refuge is a terrifying journey into avant-garde, subtly thematic territory. The first two cuts have an unsettling whir/hum throughout, as if an ancient air conditioner was picked up by the mic; and Fahey's abrupt bursts of fuzzed/distorted bottleneck ("Fanfare") and tuned/detuned wanderings ("The Mill Pond") add to the sensation of weightless claustrophobia. The 15-minute "On The Death and Disembowelment of the New Age" is an ambient electronic collage featuring machine noises, a Stereolab sample, and not much that sounds like a fretboard. Several songs do spotlight Fahey's undiminished finger-picking talents, but even his breathtaking melodies and thinking-out-loud rhythmic twists bear a measure of sorrow and loss that suggest this admittedly compelling record is best cherished in private.
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