Reviews

The Murder City Devils
Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts
(Sub Pop)

Sunny Day Real Estate
How It Feels to Be Something On
(Sub Pop)

What is it with guys and their feelings these days? On one side there're navel-gazing emotional-flagellates who seem convinced that everybody needs to know exactly how miserable they are. And then there are those who grope for the drum-circle grunt and sloth of exaggerated machismo to avoid the contemplation of existential ambiguity. Case in point, the poignantly ironic and coincident release of Sub Pop's most popular new Seattle groups: the reunited melodic-catharsis of Sunny Day Real Estate, and the beer-chugging, guitar-slugging of the Murder City Devils. Each attempts to address manly existence from opposing ends of the post-Cobain musical universe, where dudes have both the social approval to express their emotions and the expectation to do so.

Thick-skinned and numskulled as the Murder City Devils may pretend to be, beneath their raucous rancor they're just five heavily tattooed, obviously well-read boys. Although posing as the type of dude who uses "fuckin' " as an adjective, vocalist Spencer Moody has been dubbed the Truman Capote of punk -- due to his pasty, bespectacled visage and journalistic-deviant lyrical bent.

On the opener "I Want a Lot Now (So Come On)," Moody leads a chorus of voices chanting, "Livin's no good across the lake from the city/ Don't wanna live there anymore/ We're takin' Dad's car and goin' to the city/ Just like last week and the week before." The song revamps the anthemic guitars and hoarse sing-along of the Kiss classic "Detroit Rock City" and splices it with the swinging bass and drums of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me." Perhaps it's not literature, but it's fuckin' clever.

As the album progresses, the Murder City Devils tip their drinks to a host of classic rock-party bands, including the Dead Boys, Slade, Scratch Acid, X, the Adolescents, the Modern Lovers, Johnny Thunders, Supersuckers, and Cheap Trick. Derek Fudesco's jittery Farfisa organ melody and drummer Coady Willis' clap-along beat leads the Blondie-influenced "18 Wheels," careening headlong into Dann Gallucci and Nate Manny's wall of guitars and Moody's repentant grunt, "I never wanted you to be a sailor's girl/ To be a drunk's wife." Moody's lyrics steadfastly avoid bringing in pithy details about his own life outside of rockin' and tourin'. While it's noncommittal feel-good rock 'n' roll in the finest sense, there's not much for listeners to latch onto aside from built-in nods to the oeuvre of rock.

Sunny Day Real Estate first called it quits back in '95 when vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk left in pursuit of religious enlightenment. Drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel joined the Foo Fighters. Sunny Day's 1994 debut album, Diary, and 1995's self-titled follow-up helped touch off a rash of emo-imitators; that is, guys who play emotionally charged rock that explores mushy stuff like feelings. Goldsmith left the Foo Fighters in 1997, while Mendel remained. After a spell of soul-searching, Sunny Day re-formed this year on a whim with new bassist Jeff Palmer to record what became How It Feels to Be Something On.

The new album is a vast improvement over their previous quiet-part/loud-part approach to songwriting dynamics. Instead, the group has honed its shimmering vocal harmonies, melodic layering of folk guitar stylings, and pugnacious drums. "Pillars" opens the album with Enigk and Dan Hoerner's chiming guitars weaving a web around the rhythm section's crawl. "I know that you can feel the pain," Enigk whispers, singing with a slight British inflection, "Don't tell me you've gone astray." Get that boy a tissue.

On many songs, such as "Every Shining Time You Arrive," Sunny Day's newfound penchant for piano accompaniment, delay pedal guitar effects, soaring vocals, and slightly distorted drum tones echoes early U2. A pliant Enigk sings, "We're nothing but a feather moving in the wind," his voice doubled with effects, "Want to change everything/ Want to blame everything." A calliope organ pops in atop the guitar layers, adding forlorn nostalgia.

No matter how attractive and intricate it all sounds, How It Feels to Be Something On seems ominous and piercing. The emotional introspection is so obstructive we feel nearly embarrassed for listening in as Enigk emotively addresses particular unknown and unexplained others. Conversely, the Murder City Devils' detached approach to the artistic process may spare our heartstrings unnecessary tugging. However, Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts dances around any personal expression so fervently, it's like listening to five guys in a bar rattling off rock trivia.

-- Dave Clifford

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
(Island)

Almost every male critic drools over Polly Jean Harvey. They applaud her gutsy songwriting, a bracing mix of attitude, artistry, rocker bombast, and blues simplicity. But what really hooks them seems to be a psychological fixation with Ms. Harvey's persona as a classic femme fatale. From the lead tune, "Oh My Lover," on her phenomenal 1992 debut Dry, to the closing title track on Is This Desire?, her fourth full-length (not counting her collaboration with John Parrish), the singer makes it clear that she -- or, more specifically, the countless female characters she embodies in her songs -- is a dangerous paradox, at once desperately needy, demanding, vulnerable, and imperious. A composite of wrongly spurned women the world over, her mad beauty and willful sexuality are threatening and scary, which precisely explains the irrepressible allure: That which repels equally attracts. And guys being guys, they each think that he personally has what it takes to be her savior. Of course, they're deluded: Is This Desire? affirms that only the music will save Harvey from the demons inside her.

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