Sunday, July 27

If a band wants to have an audience in the years ABB (After Buzz Bin), it is important for them to remember upon whose paycheck they dance. And that includes Radiohead.

Let's not even talk about the first hour and a quarter of Radiohead's July 27 show. For our purposes, the last few songs stand as an accurate representation of the whole. The regular set ended with a rousing and adroit invocation of "Fake Plastic Trees," one of the finest cuts from Radiohead's The Bends. When the five-piece rock outfit set their collective mind to it, they can create quite a beautiful racket. Seeing three guitars with distinctive tones play contrapuntal lines in the service of a well-crafted pop song is a wonder to behold. The singer, Thom Yorke, has a falsetto that might make Morrissey weep -- a nimble, sweeping singing style and a poetic lyrical sensibility. Unfortunately, he slurs his words like a barfly, and if you weren't familiar with the lyrics beforehand, you had little hope of picking them up "live" at the Warfield -- a challenge compounded by a bass-heavy mix. Plus, Yorke's range is limited; after just a few songs he had nearly exhausted his melodic repertoire.

The band left the stage to fevered applause, shouting, and whistling. They had yet to play their first big U.S. hit, "Creep," and a sprinkling of audience members began screaming for it. The band returned and proceeded into "Black Star," another excellent song from The Bends. Something was clearly building here, but when the next number turned out to be "The Tourist," a new, plodding tune, all momentum and hope for a graceful and uplifting coda was lost.

Now, using a slow song in an encore isn't a fumble in itself. But considering the consistent disregard Radiohead seemed to have developed for their audience, not playing "Creep" became a major tactical error. "Purple Rain," "Heroin," "Free Bird" -- hell, even "High and Dry" (their only other hit, also unplayed) would have worked here; "The Tourist" did not.

While the latest Radiohead offering, OK Computer, is somewhat monochromatic, it's not a bad album by any means. Good bands should challenge their audiences from time to time, but knowing how much to bring to the stage and how much to leave in the studio is a form of wisdom that Radiohead have not yet acquired. And the importance of giving people what they want is directly proportional to the physical proximity of said people. (They gave you what you wanted by buying your navel-gazing Art, remember?) Not that bands should just trot out any and all of their hits on demand, but a little pandering goes a long way toward fostering audience goodwill.

The next encore came after an absence from the stage so protracted that audience applause shifted from appreciative to almost patient. An acoustic number with just the singer and his trusty old flat-top box, "Thinking About You" (from the first Radiohead album) was a well-needed save. Yorke even conjured up some emotional subtext, an important feature missing from too much of the set. Another opportunity for a performance peak presented itself.

Alas, Radiohead's narcissism got the best of them again, and they ended the evening (after another wait so excruciatingly long that the house lights had begun to come on) with another slow, anticlimactic song from the new album. Their final words to an obviously devoted fan base? A dismissive, "That's all. Go home." Perhaps indifference is a badge of creative purity, but it sounds pretty lame echoing off the walls of a sold-out Warfield.

-- Paul Kimball

En Vogue

After their debut in 1990, En Vogue established themselves to be more than a black female vocal group -- they were a franchise. Their stock soared like the foursome's powerful voices in the early '90s as they staked out rather barren turf. There had been girl groups in the late '80s, but none of them combined the vocal prowess of Dawn Robinson, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, and Maxine Jones. No one could rival En Vogue's over-the-top, opaque tastes in fashion, much less those voices. Never mind that all of their independent postures were really a male version of female autonomy (belonging to their Svengalis, Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster). En Vogue's glorious singing and brilliant vehemence made the script their own, and by the middle of the decade they were a jet-set version of riot grrrls.

Then it all stopped. After two multiplatinum recordings, Born to Sing and Funky Divas -- plus Runaway Love, an excellent EP -- the foursome stalled. During the hiatus, some of the members had babies, Ellis tried a solo effort (Southern Woman, which flopped), and a horde of competitors and imitators from Allure to Xscape subleased En Vogue's acreage. After recording a strong return salvo, "Don't Let Go (Love)" (featured on the soundtrack to Set It Off), Robinson -- arguably the most talented of the four -- left to pursue a solo career.

The group reduced to a trio and finished their first full-length disc in five years. Robinson's departure seemed like trouble, but the music on EV3 is a fine progression from the EP. It's varied, but not hodgepodge. Foster and McElroy produce about half of the CD's tracks; the rest are given over to Organized Noize, Babyface, and others. While they still unleash a ferocious vocal power, the trio are as likely to sing or even croon a song, letting the melody impress you rather than their melismas. Instead of huffing and puffing and trying to regain their throne, the ladies have released an assured, self-satisfied collection of songs.

Unfortunately, En Vogue is about more than music. Lots of girls were born to sing; En Vogue was born to work it. Their style used to skitter along the edge of garish, and now they've fallen into that swamp. The cover of the CD portrays the trio smeared with tons of makeup; they look as if they are trying to lighten their skin shades. The Michael Jackson homage is accessorized with glitter in their hair and faux bad taste dresses (Prada imitating Kmart?).

They look like too-old club kids waiting for the Ecstasy to wear off -- a look that is entirely at odds with the confidence on the recording. Except for Toni Braxton, very few R&B or hip-hop stars have successfully styled themselves (Biggie looked so stupid in Versace), and Braxton's daring clothing choices are her own. Perhaps having conquered their musical challenges, En Vogue's next task will be to assert their prerogatives, rather than just their voices, in their presentation.

-- Martin Johnson

The Dandy Warhols
...The Dandy Warhols Come Down

As it turns out, and quite possibly despite themselves, the Dandy Warhols (of Portland, Ore.) make a pretty airtight case for artistic and cultural retardation -- more specifically, for obsessive nostalgia, trite rock star excess, calculated psychedelia, corny effects, and foremost, for reeeeeeally dumb lyrics. And there's nothing backhanded about any of that. From its fold-out cover art (depicting the four Dandys in what I suppose we're meant to believe is their quirky, decadent rock 'n' roll palace) to its song structures (which make frequent use of big, open, major-key chords in minor-key sequences), ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down is one of those rare albums that, despite being stuck in unremitting retrograde, actually ends up seeming forward, simply by virtue of sounding good. (Other groups who have managed to pull this off include the Apples in Stereo, Monster Magnet, and Flat Duo Jets, for various Beatles-, stoner metal-, and '50s greaser-related reasons.) Open Come Down for a visual demonstration of the Dandys' retardo credo in a long photographic collage: the band in their element -- onstage with guitars, offstage pissing in the bushes, backstage around a coffee table heaped with cigarette butts and cocktails, between stages reading paperbacks in a U-Haul, held hostage by their silly facial hair, pasties, mascara, and sharkskin suits. Yep, it's the whole rock-life gesture -- at this point more a gesture than a life, with all the granny-knot tie-ins to drug culture and sartorial gloss. (Its nod to "on the nod" is obviously more Warhol than Haight, despite the title of the opening track, "Be-In.")

None of which would rate a second whiff if not for the album's aural qualities. The Dandys have learned how to place their beats (or is it beat?) a little better since Dandys Rule OK. The chord progressions we've all heard before (in songs favored by mods, by Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett), and likewise the timbres -- but the group also uses what should be obvious to all musical retrofitters by now, but isn't: backbeat, backbeat, backbeat. If folks are going to insist on rifling through rock's moldy old bones, they should at least remember to retrieve its spinal column. Almost every track on Come Down has a simple and competent drum part. Really, that's all we need, chordal rehash notwithstanding. But listen close for those little touches that make Come Down a handy novelty -- the jew's-harp audible on "Minnesoter" only during the break, the Spacemen 3-style line of single-note feedback pervading "Hard On for Jesus," and even the sequencer sound on "Every Day Should Be a Holiday," which, intentionally or not, brings on a shuddering reminiscence of Reagan-era ZZ Top, or even Billy Idol. (I've noticed lately that it's not Sonic Youth's Confusion Is Sex that gets me all misty for my adolescence, it's "White Wedding.") Every track is festooned with swooping, monotonous keyboard frills, cavernous reverb, and various hesher cues -- and every track works. Plenty to be content with.

But then there's the lyrical end -- that's where we can really cash our bowls. Take the first words from that most overplayed of current singles: "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth." (Its mention in reviews seems de rigueur -- probably because heroin abuse is so very serious an issue, and because, uh, drugs have never been mentioned in pop music before.) "I never thought you'd be a junkie because heroin is so passe/ And today/ If you think I don't know about depression and emotional pain/ You're insane." And so on. You'd almost think the Cat in the Hat or Sam-I-Am was about to show up with a spoon and a Zippo. As for "Minnesoter," just imagine what might rhyme with the title -- it's probably used. Though it's hard to discern through the wall of sound, I believe that on "Be-In," someone sings, "All the drugs that you bring/ If they're antiquated beyond belief/ Just be good enough to get me high," at which point the riff finally turns around on a big, majestic bVI-IV. (Pardon my Roman numerals.) Good to know that the Dandys can make do with tawdry old hallucinogens. And where the message isn't silly, it's muddled by the lush production. "Boys Better" is like a sonic Mad Lib: "Boys had better beware/ You can [seem, sing] to [color, cut all, cover] your hair/ But on the [way, wig] you already spent/ All the dough to cover your rent." A song just as meaningful with any arrangement of variables -- which is to say, not very. I strained to make sense of the words on "Cool as Kim Deal," but I could only determine that someone in the band wants to be that way. The lyrics aren't just dumb, or even primitive -- they're downright Devonian. They might have been sung by the first glistening tadpole that writhed out of the soup and sucked the air. But that sounds so damning. Because dumb or not, the lyrics are fun, just like rock could be before people (i.e., writers) started squinting at it, looking for meaning. Since rock lyrics are all terrible anyway, at least they can be terrible in the right way. Like this.

-- Michael Batty

Jungle Brothers
Raw Deluxe
(Gee Street)

Few groups have been as important to hip-hop music and culture as the New York-based trio the Jungle Brothers. And it's not just because the term "jimmy hats" (condoms) derives from their pet name for the penis, Jimbrowski. It all started with their groundbreaking debut, Straight Out the Jungle (1988). Rappers Afrika and Mike G and DJ Sammy B sketched the blueprints for a polyrhythmic bohemia where sexuality, self-esteem, and social, historical, and cultural awareness could be openly explored and celebrated by the residents of America's inner-city jungles.

Their eagerly anticipated follow-up, Done by the Forces of Nature (1989), promised more of the same, and delivered it. Laced with an intoxicating flamboyance, the hooks, beats, and rhymes on Nature positioned the group squarely at the forefront of a progressive rap movement struggling to define itself in bold, new, complicated strokes.

But the third album, J. Beez Wit the Remedy (1993), was the most ambitious of any of the Jungle Brothers' work. A stark mixture of rough beats, indescribable sounds, and eerie loops, Remedy anticipated the experimental aesthetics of Tricky and DJ Shadow. In fact, it wouldn't be wrongheaded to think of the trio's effort as a kind of accidental prelude to trip hop. Confounded by its own vision, Remedy was a restless album in a hurry to get somewhere -- anywhere -- too soon.

Ironically, if the J. Beez had released Remedy last Tuesday, the album just might have found a dedicated following that didn't exist four years ago. But four years is an eternity in hip hop, and most young fans have a short memory span. So, if today's young audiences -- raised on Dr. Dre, Bones, Thugs & Harmony, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Snoop, and the Wu-Tang Clan -- haven't heard of you, that next album isn't an album. Call it a "comeback."

And what's the primary objective of a comeback? To resynchronize a has-been with the present. Although the Jungle Brothers are hardly has-beens, their fourth album, Raw Deluxe, suffers from the usual symptoms. Musically and lyrically, it sounds too similar to everything else in the marketplace. It shares none of the complexity of their earlier work. It invokes the J. Beez's longtime affiliation with De La Soul and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on the catchy anthem "How Ya Want It We Got It." And it exploits the production talents of the recently popular (almost) live hip-hop band the Roots.

But worst of all, Raw Deluxe is panicky. Concerned that young hip-hop heads who've never heard of them won't care, the J. Beez have chosen beats, rhymes, and skewed personas to inspire fans of all facets. There are the untainted traces of the group the way we knew them on "Jungle Brother (True Blue)," "Changes," and "Toe to Toe." But then there are the cash-crazed Brothers of "Gettin Money," the mack-daddy Brothers of "Where You Wanna Go," the no-bullshit Brothers of "Handle My Business," and the cool-jazz Brothers of "Brain." For all the fuss, Raw Deluxe will still be dubbed "average" by the few fans who do care (along with the rest who don't). Jungle Brothers records work because they are organic, heartfelt, direct, and two giant steps ahead of the music that typically surrounds them. Not because they are uncooked.

-- Victor Haseman

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