Recordings

Neil Young with Crazy Horse
Broken Arrow
(Reprise)

A Pink Pages writer recently extolled the latest release by Neil Young and Crazy Horse as "playing with the boundaries of noise and music," and mused over the need for warning labels. This sort of perky alarmism provides a welcome jolt -- especially on a Sunday morning when reading the Datebook -- but it would have more lasting effects had not previous Young-with-Horse albums been introduced with similar breathless claims. "Fuck," said my friend, of Ragged Glory, "you can hear the amplifiers shaking apart!" Both records reveal the same prime ingredient: sloppy hard rock, mellow when compared to Swans, EinstYrzende Neubauten, White Light/White Heat, or any other rock deemed racy in its day. Domestic renditions of "Happy Birthday" lay equally ferocious siege to the boundaries of noise and music.

People who celebrate such stuff are confusing guitar distortion (a timbre) with dissonance (a harmonic principle), and perhaps distortion with volume. Broken Arrow offers distortion aplenty, recorded loud, but it's laid atop the same corny old major and minor chords that have always been the staple of pop music. Granted, as timbres go, distorted guitar is relatively new, and probably still unsettling to some yokels' ears -- but if using unusual, consonant sounds amounted to breathtaking musical experimentation, then Spike Jones would have been the Schoenberg of his generation.

Broken Arrow offers a return to the folky-mucky feel of Ragged Glory, ditching the somber restraint of Young and Crazy Horse's intermediate offering, Sleeps With Angels. The appeal of these collaborations comes from their ingenuous approach to "big sound": the same sort of singer/songwriter tunes that Young would hash out solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica, dressed up in paunchy overdrive. To its credit, Crazy Horse hasn't progressed one whit technically in the past 27 years: It's the familiar open chords and effortless licks. And as Young's recent, dubious "Godfather of" title might suggest, even jaded youngsters need to turn down the Knitting Factory now and then and listen to chords. Or maybe this would bore them to tears. It is, after all, the same old shit.

-- Michael Batty

Various Artists
The Roots of Rap
(Yazoo)

The Roots of Rap, tinged with novelty, happy-go-lucky humor, and the blithe staccato of vaudeville piano or guitar accompaniment, is so rambling and unintimidating that it should probably be retitled The Roots of Arlo Guthrie. The album's less than imaginative premise is to collect arbitrary examples from the past of rhythmic speech set to music. Which is not to say that the collection of jug-band tunes, joke ballads, and ragtime numbers is unpleasant; pleasant might be just the word to describe such nicety. The looseness of Leroy Carr's "Papa's on the House Top" is reassuring, Memphis Minnie's tough voice asking how to catch a hog has an easy-does-it charm, and Speckled Red's "The Dirty Dozen No. 2" rattles off a virtuosic list of put-downs like "You got bad hair." The double dose of Blind Willies (gruff Blind Willie Johnson's proto-Public Enemy title, "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down," and the freewheeling talking blues of Blind Willie McTell) almost cures the ills of goofy stories about "hum dum dingers" and the "Bow Wow Blues." The problem here is that even though these songs utilize the structure of the blues, none of them has the blues -- the kind of feel of pain and lust for wrath that comes out in call-and-response spirituals, say, or wrenching chain-gang chanting. Maybe the The Roots of Rap gets the rhythm right, but at the expense of rage.

-- Sarah Vowell

Electronic
Raise the Pressure
(Warner Bros.)

Noel Gallagher of Oasis recently announced that the world might one day need its first post-1970s supergroup (Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, and himself, apparently), thus overlooking Electronic, who have already been there and done that. Electronic's eponymous debut album was deceptively bland on the first several listenings: The Manchester dance groove and Johnny Marr's guitar rock seemed to be broadcast from entirely separate time zones, and Bernard Sumner's lyrics, as pointless as ever they were in New Order, were more exposed outside of NO's art-rock context. Only the presence of Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant (co-composing and singing) seemed initially to elevate the project above the Failed Supergroup category. But that first disc was a grower, and so, I suspect, is this belated follow-up.

Nonetheless, Tennant's songwriting is sadly missed here. Raise the Pressure does not seem to contain a "Getting Away With It," although "For You" and "Second Nature" come close. And the music does move, pushed along in part by a couple of Black Grapes, and the help of Karl Bartos.

The MOR b(l)ackup voices whose presence on the last New Order album offended alterna-purists are splattered all over these cuts, giving the entire collection a feel that reminds you of another Manchester pop group ... yes, there are moments here when Electronic sounds like Simply Red. Fuelled by Marr's chord progressions, Sumner reverses Morrissey's strategy of undermining them with glumness, opting instead for a post-miserablist saccharine-flavored electro-fix. Despite the presence of agitprop sleeve notes, this is an awfully long way from "Girlfriend in a Coma" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart." And that, love it or leave it, is clearly the whole point of Electronic.

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