Recordings

Bush
Razorblade Suitcase
(Trauma)

Instead of making the obvious invocation here -- namely, the indignant, sputtering apparition of Kurt Cobain -- let's find something else to chat about. Furthermore, let's not trouble ourselves with the presence of anti-producer Steve Albini (oops, there's Cobain, chains a-rattling, waving a copy of In Utero like someone trying to flag a taxi), or whether Albini's peculiar squeak-and-squeal, broken-signal style of recording grants Bush any tinny grace. While we're at it, let's shuck off any reservations about the obvious chord progressions that pass as riffs -- because that tired old i-VI that serves as the Bush repertoire's major infrastructure sure did lend many power balladeers of yore their cheap grandeur, even if they were only playing glam metal and nothing so arch as alternative rock. (Cobain's ectoplasmic figure seems to dim; in life he had the uncanny ability to make a simple riff or chord progression sound fresh.) Wait -- don't pace the halls sleepless over vocalist Gavin Rossdale's comp-book flirtations with vaguely "unsettling" blather on tracks like "Personal Holloway" ("Tune my weaker eye/ Spit white. ... And drinking kitchen paint to dye the winter"), "Insect Kin" ("Iron lung I know you well/ Deal with you like a bad spell"), or "Swallowed" ("Sick head/ Blackened lungs/ And I'm simple/ Selfish son. ... I'm with everyone and yet not"). (Cobain's back. He just chucked the lyric sheet from In Utero at us, with all its superior impressionistic nonsense about fame hatred, self-loathing, death, and fetuses.) Now that we've got an even playing surface -- no biases, no prejudice -- we can pass proper judgment on Razorblade Suitcase. Oh. Shit. There's nothing left. Like sands through the hourglass, motherfucker.

-- Michael Batty

Sweetback
(Epic)
It would have been difficult to predict at the time -- and perhaps even now difficult for some to accept -- but Sade's 1992 hit "No Ordinary Love" may prove to be the most influential song of the decade. As a template, the painstakingly slow ode to romantic bliss (which even at the time suggested pop jazz remixed by Massive Attack, then slowed down further by Eno) was completely overlooked in the wake of a much more appealing and upbeat trend, Dr. Dre's G-Funk creations, which made their debut in the same season. But while Dre's sound has become so hackneyed that even he is moving away from it, the wrenchingly slow, ratcheted-down approach of Love Deluxe continues its bizarre dual conquest of both the mainstream and the underground. Its sonic influence can be heard in the blunted beats of trip hop and all the Jobim fetishism among the major label releases.

It's no surprise that echoes of Sade are found on the self-titled Sweetback; it's a side project by keyboardist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, bassist Andrew Hale, and drummer Paul Denman, aka the Sade band (yeah, everyone but the girl, who is on maternity leave). Sweetback began when Matthewman built a studio in New York and began putting out 12-inch singles, and picked up speed when he contributed songs and production to Maxwell's fine Urban Hang Suite. Since each of the three was trading DATs of their own creations, and there seemed no shortage of potential frontpeople who worked in an understated style, Sweetback was born.

The album is meticulously subdued, but offers a trippier sound than the cool veneer of a Sade recording. Lush in bass feedback and samples, yet open enough to let you fill in the spaces, Sweetback's music is both ambient and evocative. About half of the tracks feature guests including Maxwell, low-key rapper Bahamadia, Groove Theory's Amel Larrieux, and sometime Sade backup singer Leroy Osbourne. It sounds like the product of wandering minds and allows a glimpse into what the band might sound like if they weren't expected to move 10 million units per shot in their day jobs, like they do with Sade.

-- Martin Johnson

Sukia
Contacto Espacial con el Tercer Sexo
(Nickel Bag)

Sukia's shtick is more interesting when you know their history: arty kids from Camarillo, Calif. (home of the state mental hospital) who spent their time gathering together a pile of prehistoric synthesizers from nearby thrift stores (combing that classy stretch of coast around Oxnard) with a plan to make music "of the future" with various odd, bleeping gizmos of the past. They, along with many of us retro-obsessed, irony-filled middle-class yutes, turned to the analog, the low-fi, the monophonic to create a hokey sci-fi landscape of tomorrow. (I heard all this on a radio interview while hovercrafting across the L.A. basin.) If the project had stopped there, I would stop reviewing here, and leave Sukia as a piece of a larger sociological puzzle for you to ponder, but it becomes more interesting. The leader of Sukia, Ross Harris, just happens to be an old FOB (Friend of Beck) and this put him in contacto with those mixmasters/samplers extraordinaire, the Dust Brothers (producers of Odelay and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique). The Brothers proceeded to overlay the antiquated futuristic low-tech musical landscape with high-tech digital finery -- samples bizarre and, frankly, fun. The outcome is a whole lot of schmaltzy space music with all the requisite pleasures of stereo surround sound. (There was never anything good about mono.)

But it gets even more interesting: According to Harris, Contacto Espacial is meant to be heard as a soundtrack to a theoretical porn movie of the future based on a Colombian comic book hero and transvestite vampire named Sukia. Harris discovered the comic book in a burrito shop in Somis, Calif., while waiting for, what must have been, a bean and cheese. The thin tome gave the band a thematic direction; they had garnered by this time, one must assume, quite a few gizmos. This influence is not only present conceptually (which you'd never deduce unless you were just plain told), but musically as well. Suffice it to say, if you like Getz and Gilberto with your martini, then you'll like Sukia. (If you like Yma Sumac, Exotica, the B-52's, or blaxploitation, etc.) Creativity is always found in the intersections (or appropriations) -- and Sukia's effort is a busy intersection. But all the roads lead to the future, and with Contacto Espacial on your stereo you can, in those moments when you're not nodding off (this, remember, is a "soundtrack"), glimpse a future that might even be interesting.

-- Curtis Bonney

Second Sight
(Shanachie)
Whether you adore or despise the Grateful Dead, you must respect the band's singular achievement: They amassed one of the biggest and most rabid, yet sheeplike, followings in the history of Western music. Sure, Jerry Garcia and his bleary-eyed pals happened to be in the right place (Haight-Ashbury) at the right time (the '60s) and on the right drugs (LSD), but did these factors alone account for their mass appeal over three decades? Doubtful.

It seems hippies from all over the world flocked to Dead shows for the "family feeling" they lacked at home. In a real family, when a chief relative passes on, the family dynamic shifts irrevocably. So too, in the wake of Garcia's death, the Dead phenomenon has weathered some significant transformations, and not a few of them are butt-ugly.

It's well known that the Dead and their disciples dallied in shameless capitalism from the outset. So I guess it makes sense that dozens of Jerry's so-called friends and admirers have jumped on the bandwagon, flooding the market with a glut of Dead-related products from the "archival" (Dave Grisman's 1970s collaborations with Garcia in the band Old & In the Way) to "special" projects (Fire on the Mountain ... Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead) to countless Dead spinoffs hopelessly attempting to fill the live-concert void at the Maritime Hall and at overblown extravaganzas like the Further Festival.

The most recent and perhaps most wretched quasi-Dead bauble to hit the stores comes courtesy of Deadhead sound-tech Bob Bralove. The eponymous debut by (and hopeful swan song of) his group Second Sight is a cheese-laden, ultralite, synth-based exercise in limp grooves and vacuous jamming that makes Garcia and Weir's most bloated meanderings sound positively focused. Even though, like many of the other Dead projects of the last year, this one was apparently in the works before Garcia's demise (Garcia and Weir even contribute insubstantial solos to a couple of tracks), the album reeks of opportunism -- as if these hokey, middle-aged, ersatz New Age bids for psychedelia will somehow placate the pathetic stoner's withdrawal from a former life as a Deadhead, and in so doing, fatten the pockets of an otherwise unemployed sound man. Dig the pretentious song titles: "Marble Moon Beams," "Blood and Mercury," "Red Hills of Rwanda." Second Sight is obviously in touch. And man, do they rock on "Dance to the Music." Let me hear you say, "Baaaaaaa."

-- Sam Prestianni

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