Recordings

Skeleton Key
Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon
(Capitol)

Back in my college days of yore (the late '80s, at New York University), it seemed Berlin-based industrial-strength noise-makers EinstYrzende Neubauten had influenced every dark corner of the Lower East Side music scene. (Or was it the Survival Research Laboratory smeltdown in the Shea Stadium parking lot?) Every time I went to see a show ballyhooed by "critics," or by friends a few years older -- and therefore, ahem, wiser -- one of the bands on the bill would inevitably spend their 45-minute time slot banging on a car door with a sledgehammer, or shearing through a girder with a buzz saw, or -- sitting in a circle, all wearing nerdy glasses -- tinkling away on "xylophones" rigged from wire, rusted bedsprings, headlights, gears, and live blasting caps. (OK, no blasting caps.) Unlike Fat Albert's band (hey, hey, hey), these acts were tres serious in their attempts to sculpt noise and evoke their vision of the bleak urban junkyard; they were anti-form, Weimar-induced, and usually self-indulgent to a fault. Still, since then, I've always had a soft spot for a blowtorch onstage and an audience that shows up wearing safety goggles.

Time has passed, and now we have Skeleton Key. While not nearly as "experimental" as many of these earlier industrial art projects, Skeleton Key have that same fondness for making music out of found objects. But there's more here than hammering upon the rusted scraps left over from the industrial revolution. These guys, like their East Village contemporaries Railroad Jerk and Jon Spencer, also employ outdated musical equipment (oversize air-streamed microphones; guitars and amps that have wicker and foil on them and crackle like AM radios). Taken together, these elements indicate a fondness for anachronism; a nostalgia for pre-plastic industry, when coal smoke blotted out the sun and assembly lines built consumables to last. This is not to say that Skeleton Key sound "vintage"; in fact, they are highly produced (Dave Sardy -- Chili Peppers, Helmet -- and Eli Janney from Girls Against Boys share the knobs) and unmistakably "alternative." Indeed, much of Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon mixes slick, intelligent, aggressive guy-rock (Tool, Helmet) with a smattering of antiquated clatters, hisses, jerks, crackles, and clanks. The standout tracks: "All the Things I've Lost," a Sly and the Family Stone funk falsetto in full collapse; "The Only Useful Word," a teetering Berlin minor-key oompah waltz played entirely over the scratchy needle of a gramophone; "Nod Off," a Muddy Waters swamp-blues meeting with the Birthday Party; and the opener, "Watch the Rat Man Swing," a driving scrap-metal bangathon with a big, string-bending guitar solo. Of course, the best way to appreciate a band known for its industrial pyrotechnics is to see them up on the stage, and Skeleton Key definitely merit a peak (through safety goggles, if you like) before any final judgment is rendered.

-- Curtis Bonney

Aaron Tippin
Greatest Hits ... and Then Some
(RCA)

Until recently, Aaron Tippin had portrayed himself as the No. 1 Surly Blue-Collar Avenger, determined to instill dismay in every daisy-picking, lily-livered liberal who ever skipped his way. Then, it seems, came wedded bliss, and his musings took a different direction. Would he, like some other Top 40 country artists, be running round dressed as Kevin Costner, singing all those smarmy, pink, frilly songs that Boyz II Men rejected? And if you've heard him sing, you'll know that this is a man who wears a considerable mustache. It's an audible and vital part of Tippin. Would he exchange it for one of those clean, shiny muzzles that fashionable Nashville seems to prefer these days?

Well, hush up. Aaron is still himself, and his new songs are exceptional -- the romance and the anguish being all the more touching thanks to the brusque delivery and otherwise stony stare of the artist. This collection from his first hit to the present day reminds us how much we need this outdoor enthusiast to stand tough and carry on turkey hunting. Tippin's lower register is craggy and unadorned, his voice rising to a distinctive hillbilly honk when he has to make a point.

The songs from 1990 to '95 mostly pay tribute to self-discipline, his refusal -- and that of his daddy before him -- to trade principles for bourgeois baubles. In another songwriter's hands, toolbelt rattlers like "I Got It Honest" and "You've Got to Stand for Something" might sound like caricatures rather than honest, unflinching portraits. Tippin benefits from an unappealing seriousness when he states his case behind those rallying twin fiddles.

Not that fun is beneath him. He boasts of correctly aligned priorities in "There Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Radio," a defiant celebration of a dilapidated automobile's one good feature. It has an exhilarating chorus: "Got 16 speakers crossin' my back dash/ A little noddin' dog watchin' everybody pass/ Dual antennas whippin' in the wind/ Lord, there ain't a country station that I can't tune in!" The saucy punch line in the last verse suggests his ladylove also has her priorities sorted: "Honey, tell me what it is that makes you love me so?/ She said, 'There ain't nothing wrong with your radio.' "

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