Recordings

Steve Wynn
Melting in the Dark
(Zero Hour)

Low
The Curtain Hits the Cast
(Vernon Yard Recordings)

During bouts of abyss-gazing, many take suck from sad rock songs: four-minute weepies rack-cut for our alienation. The protagonist of a Smiths song tells us how criminally vulgar his shyness is, and then switches to the second person to describe the horrors -- our horrors, apparently -- of returning home from a club alone and unlaid. "At last," we might think, "someone understands." We may even weep from relief. Feel better? Ian Curtis of Joy Division probably felt much relieved once that block of ice he was allegedly standing on in his Alcatraz Ascot finally melted through.

Well, there're sad songs, and then there's the rarer, more artistic (if less pleasant) quarry: songs that make you sad. Boston's Come has shown much promise with their talent to produce the latter. They are not just a good band, but a rare band -- an outfit whose guitar pairing sounds like no other. Their 1992 gem Eleven: Eleven has ruined my day scores of times, and even if 1994's Don't Ask, Don't Tell suffers from a few too many jolting Bob Ezrin mood swings, it's still good for a mope. Given that, why does the entire Come lineup sound so lukewarm while backing up Steve Wynn on Melting in the Dark? Could it be that the former Dream Syndicate helmsman, who produced the album and wrote its songs, is a blase studio Bligh? Or did his lyrics just cheer Come up a bit too much? Rhymes from "Why" have me thinking that Santa's reindeer are bringing up the rear, soon to be named: "Kinda like a dancer / New romancer / Spreading like a cancer / There's no answer."

Far more successfully down in the dumps are Low. True, The Curtain Hits the Cast is reminiscent of the Cowboy Junkies' sleepy pout The Trinity Sessions; either album would sound a lot cheerier simply by increasing the rpm. But there's craft in Low's creep, not lassitude. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they know how to use silence and empty space in songwriting, not to mention beautiful, slow melodies and extended chords. I don't know whether a broad rock audience could endure listening to 65 minutes of quiet, bare-bones music played grave, but give it a shot -- it'll take at least that long for your footstool to thaw.

-- Michael Batty

Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel
Highball With the Devil
(Interscope)

Like the bastard son of Rush's Geddy Lee and King Crimson's Robert Fripp, bassist Les Claypool's full-time band, Primus, wouldn't exist without the tainted blood of prog rock. Just as the prog bands from the late '60s to the mid-'70s tapped classical song structures rather than riffing blues licks, Primus too goes for complex stop-start wizardry -- it'd be art rock full of pretension if Claypool's cartoon lyrics weren't so goofy.

But Primus drew legions of teen-age fans a few years ago, and name-tagging critics refused to herald a new era of prog -- that's the stuff that hallowed punk rock smashed way back in 1976. When critics gave another listen, some of Claypool's bass lines sounded funky, albeit a funk without a groove. Drawing their thesis further from prog, they also cited guitarist Larry LaLonde, who'd graduated from thrash outfit Possessed. Thus the trio ended up under the critical rubric of thrash-funk. But that was a lie, and Claypool's new solo record proves it.

Solo records have a way of ex post facto spotlighting the internal dynamics that make a band work. Post-Lou Barlow Dinosaur Jr. was immediately suspect. And Kim Deal's Breeders proved the Pixies were infinitely more than a Black Francis talent show. Primus, for all of the hype around the best technical bass man this side of jazz, owes a massive debt not only to founder Claypool, but drummer Tim Alexander.

That's immediately obvious on Highball, since Claypool himself sits behind the traps on 10 tracks. While he's an able drummer, Claypool's not Alexander, who can play loud but is also a technician with more polyrhythmic chops than a world-beat box set. With less distraction -- noise and otherwise -- from Alexander, Claypool's bass lines are exposed for what they really are: extremely good, incredibly fast wanks that loop around with melody but never really go anywhere.

To his credit, Claypool recruits Jay Lane, who plays with several bands on Claypool's Prawn Song imprint, to hammer a backbeat over a few of the more rhythmically challenging numbers ("Holy Mackerel" and "Cohibas Esplenditos"). And there's the presence of Bay Area guitar wizards (Mark "Mirv" Haggard, Charlie Hunter) to momentarily steal attention from Claypool on the surfy "Hendershot" and the fusion workout "Me and Chuck."

Actually, Claypool makes only one mistake when opening his door to strangers. On "Delicate Tendrils" guest yammerer Henry Rollins delivers yet another heavy-handed monologue, this time comparing the financial have-nots to a bunch of hyenas around a water hole. Even though the music in the background sorta grinds, the artistic pretension radiating from Rollins may just be the most prog five minutes on the record.

-- Jeff Stark

 
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