Reviews

Smile
Girl Crushes Boy
(Headhunter/Cargo)

Like the Beach Boys before them, Smile sings of the prosaic and the traumatic with the same glazed, melancholic pleasantness that characterizes the feel-good attitude of the band's Southern California home. Every song is wrapped in perky pop, no matter how pensive and frustrated the lyrics might seem. While the group's second album, 1995's Maquee, echoed the guitar lashings of Seattle's finest, for Girl Crushes Boy it revisits the early-'80s prophylactic pop explosion that splattered Blondie, the Cars, and the Knack across the airwaves.

Scraping away the grunge reveals a penchant for somber minor chords, chirpy synthesizer lines, and new wave rhythms, all pressed up against Beach Boys-like harmonies and melodic guitar work reminiscent of Foo Fighters. And like the lilting, chorused vocal effects used by Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, the vocals are stretched and smoothed with delay and harmonizer effects. (Uncoincidentally, Girl Crushes Boy was mixed by Adam Kasper, the knob-fondler responsible for select Foo Fighters and Weezer recordings.)

On the opening "The Best Years," the slight, seemingly adolescent vocalist/guitarist Mike Rosas whispers a confession: "I've spent the best years of my life/ Trying to wiggle out of sight/ When someone made me nervous." Hushed tremolo guitars shimmer beneath the vocals, until drummer Scott Reeder's pummeling frenzy erupts along with a barrage of barre chords. The bridge slips into a staccato minor-chord chop lifted from the dramatic guitar/cello chorus of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," while multiple layers of vocal harmonies weave a bittersweet melody.

"This Freaky Slow Dance" serves up squealing, bent guitar notes harmonizing with Rosas' gymnastic vocal swoon: "One more clumsy move/ And I'll have nothing left to prove/ All I want from this/ Is one more empty kiss." On "Instant Brain Damage," Rosas robotically repeats "Your love is like brain damage" atop his guitar's two-note alarm chime, until the chorus ruptures and chunky, entwined six-strings lunge and grope for the Knack's sprightly stop-and-go lurch.

The title track shifts gears for a spoken rant led by Bob Thompson's mechanical fuzz-bass and Reeder's stammering drums. A choppy, screeching guitar solo collides with the rhythm section to sever the song. It's a brief respite from the album's balanced stream of grit and melodicism. Although Girl Crushes Boy is laden with catchy hooks and harmonies, Smile isn't exactly happy.

-- Dave Clifford

Booker T. & the MG's
Time Is Tight
(Stax)

There's never been another band quite like Booker T. & the MG's: The Southern quartet not only had instrumental hits at a time when only vocals were supposed to sell, but those hits became the very definition of Southern soul. Of course, it helped that the band's stomping ground was the studios of Stax Records, where the group formed in 1962 to record its biggest hit, "Green Onions," and then continued to play behind most of Stax's stars, including Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, and Otis Redding.

Booker T. Jones and his band -- after November 1964, consisting of guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Duck Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson -- were studio musicians who rose from session man anonymity to thrill dozens of idiosyncratic lead singers. And like most session men, they were professionals without pretensions to speak of: They blithely admitted they covered other bands' hits because they wanted to sell records. But the group's members harbored creative ambitions as well, spending time producing, arranging, and writing: Cropper wrote or co-wrote many of Stax's most famous songs, including Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."

The band's instantly recognizable sound -- smart, forthright, modern, and soulful -- was based on its own unique rhythm. Like a soul band marching to Pretoria, "Green Onions" had its own unique insistence, built on heavily accented drum patterns and clipped bass lines. The heart of the band was the contrast between Cropper's relaxed guitar and Booker T.'s wailing organ, with its tight vibrato and intense emotional flavor.

By 1968, the outfit was making nods to the Caribbean on "Soul Limbo," while the sweetly evocative opening of 1969's "Time Is Tight" made headway on both the easy listening and R&B charts. Taking its title from that song, the album Time Is Tight collects those moments along with many of the band's lesser-known numbers: the bluesy "Home Grown," the eerie "Summertime," and jazzier ballads. There's plenty of Booker's tense organ sound, and the occasional piano solo like "Willow Weep for Me." The last disc collects four numbers recorded live during the band's peak in 1968 and Booker T. performances with various stars including Anton Fig and Boz Scaggs. Two remakes of "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" appear as well. In the first, Booker plays the melody as simply as possible in an upper register, creating a delicate sound that makes one yearn for Otis Redding, as does the brasher Neil Diamond version that begins with Diamond's harmonica. Booker's organ seems to cozy up to him in accompaniment, but Diamond's bland delivery lacks both Redding's amusing insouciance and intensity.

There were occasional new MG's recording after 1972 through 1994, but by then the core members were gone. Soon after the band recorded "Time Is Tight," the group broke up so Cropper could write, Jones could make movie scores, and the others could develop new careers. "We'd like to go out cool instead of dying slowly," Jackson remarked. They hung on for several more years and then separated amicably -- going out cool.

-- Michael Ullman

 
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