In the U.S., the problem isn't the system, it's how well you fit into the system. Such troubled individuality is fostered by American alternative rock, a genre characterized as encouraging listeners to look inward -- not outward -- for the sources of their discomfort. England's Pulp, however, targets the status quo, sometimes even physically: Angular frontman Jarvis Cocker was recently arrested for crashing Michael Jackson's stomach-turning performance of his "Earth Song" at the Brits, the U.K. equivalent of the Grammy Awards; he was expressing his disgust with a society that permits an alleged pedophile to perform with children on international TV.
Expressing disgust is Pulp's forte. One of the biggest hits in England last summer was Pulp's epic single "Common People," in which Cocker snidely dresses down a rich gal who's into slumming. What starts as nasty sarcasm ("She came from Greece/ She had a thirst for knowledge") builds into a vicious attack, not only railing upon her heinous attitude but against the entire British upper class ("You will never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control/ And with nowhere left to go"). All the while synthesizers, guitars, and drum machines churn in the background, ebbing and flowing in exhilarating crescendos that viscerally communicate Cocker's angst. It's amusing to imagine thousands of British teen-agers dancing to this song at discos; a close American equivalent would be cheerleaders in Ohio lip-syncing N.W.A's "Fuck Tha Police" at their prom.
Like "Common People," nearly every other song on Different Class takes on the soul-numbing banality of typical English life. A bitter, disillusioned nobody who feels entitled to greatness goes after his neighbors in "I Spy." "Disco 2000" steals a riff from Laura Branigan's psychodrama "Gloria" ("Your name is Deborah, Deborah") to back up a perverse sexualization of supposedly innocent playground romance, "Sorted For E's & Wizz" disses rave culture, and "Underwear" hilariously captures the ludicrous aspects of sexual attraction. Throughout all of these mini soap operas, Cocker gasps and groans, snarls and seethes, making him one of the most clever and entertaining British singers since Morrissey warbled for the Smiths.
Blur's Damon Albarn once said that pop is better than rock music because only pop transcends race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. And because it transcends, it can tap into the collective consciousness and express and encourage real subversion. Like Blur, Pulp turns pop into a mouthpiece for the British underclass by smartly and powerfully expressing their dissatisfaction. Americans -- who tend to think there's nothing wrong with the way things are, only with themselves -- can't relate. Unsurprisingly, then, Oasis -- a rock group that has absolutely nothing to say -- is winning the media-hyped battle of the British bands.
-- Jeffery Kennedy
Mark's Keyboard Repair
Like Basehead, like Beck, like Ween, Money Mark makes home-grown, lo-fi excursions for the thrift-shop state of mind. Born Mark Ramos Nishita, and a former carpenter, he's better known as the "fourth Beastie Boy" -- as in, "Keyboard Money Mark/ You know he ain't havin' it/ Just give him some wood and he'll build you a cabinet," from "Finger Lickin' Good." Mark's Keyboard Repair, his first solo joint, is a 30-song volume of short, mostly instrumental grooves abstracted through the rich sounds of Money's vintage Fender Rhodes keyboard, plus bass, drums, and the occasional guitar he plays himself.
The effect is a stripped-down hodgepodge of cheesy porn soundtracks, '70s detective-film scores, old-school hip-hop stylings, and outer-space soul jazz, recorded on a four-track in his bedroom. True, it smells like kitsch, but these jams are actually quite good, varying in tempo from animated ("The Grade") to slow and sentimental ("Have Clav Will Travel"). The overall feel is laid-back and hazy, and when Money does muster up the energy for vocals, he leans so close to the mike that the sound is comically distorted. On "Don't Miss the Boat," he slowly repeats the true basement composer's philosophy -- "You may not like this type of shit/ But don't dis/ Because somebody else may like this."
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"One can no more look steadily at Death than at the sun," La Rouchefoucauld wrote in the Elizabethan era, a statement just as trenchant in the age of ironic contempt. Death rears its ugly head throughout Harm's Way, a collection of turn-of-the-century photographs of murdered men and women, of people maimed by disease or felled by war, the images explained by deadpan captions like "Syphilitic woman missing nose." Like the art of the book's editor, Joel-Peter Witkin, celebrated in hipster circles for its integration of deformed or deceased human props and unrelenting mortification of the flesh, Harm's Way offers little more than a morbid vacation in other people's misery, and the "insight" that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Or, as seminal death-rocker Nick Cave warns on Murder Ballads, "all things move to their end/ of that you can be sure."
Murder Ballads is Harm's Way set to music, a concept album centering around the fact that "we all gotta die," but before the worms get ya, the bogyman will. Alternating original narratives like "Song of Joy" with traditional folk songs like "Henry Lee," Cave and the Bad Seeds paint an old-timey landscape of strutting gunmen with dicks "long and hard," penknife-wielding harpies and bludgeoned maidens lying in beds of pungent flowers, the over-the-top decadence magnified by lush arrangements of keyboards and strings and Cave's Dionysius-in-Vegas baritone.
The album features many nice touches -- Cave's duet with Kylie Minogue on the Poe-like "Where the Wild Roses Grow," the gallows humor of the "Curse of Millhaven" ("I've got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming," boasts she-devil Loretta) -- but Gothic thrills are old territory for Cave, whose long artistic road has been paved with beautiful corpses. When he does try to dig below the flesh, the results are laughable -- clunky lines like, "If I have no free will then how can I be morally culpable?" on the 14-minute shoot-em-up "O'Malley's Bar."
Cave is ever the epicure who would rather drink blood than draw it. Unlike O.G.s like Ice Cube and Johnny Cash, Cave can't feign the necessary telegram of intent, and unlike P J Harvey (who makes a surprisingly tepid appearance as a scorned lover on "Henry Lee"), he can never convince us of a twisted, violent pathology. Consider "Stagger Lee": Unable to approximate the priapic swagger of the legendary black muthafucka, Cave lays the expletives on thick instead, symbolically "emasculating" the character with homosexual imagery about passing over 50 pussies for "one fat boy's asshole."
Like Witkin, who's essentially taken the same photo for 10 years, Cave is stymied by a simplistic aesthetic strategy. "I just hide in my music and watch the world go down the toilet," Cave recently told Request, and no matter how long he sits in the belly of the beast, he never gets any closer to the black heart of evil.
-- Sia Michel
Joel R.L. Phelps
Warm Springs Night
As one of Silkworm's three singer/songwriters, Joel Phelps wrote songs that stuck out like sore thumbs. His heartfelt oddities would often take their time leading you down a meandering path, and once you figured out that the destination was the edge of a cliff, it was too late -- you, the band, and the song were all hurtling toward a certain fate. Laced with grace and humor, these joy rides provided an inexplicable thrill, and on a standout like "Dremate," a peerless experience. They also stood in metaphorically for Silkworm's seemingly quixotic attempt to formulate breakdown as a solid aesthetic strategy rather than a coy ruse against a new rock tradition that could care less.
It's no accident that after Phelps' departure, Silkworm has pursued a more linear route, a move that will probably -- no small irony here -- finally get it noticed. With the help of a few Seattle pals, Phelps has returned with Warm Springs Night, a record whose low-key and unassuming veneer disguises the fact that it's anything but. Though the arrangements tend toward the spare and skeletal, they're buffeted by Phelps' searing and instinctive singing voice; like Iris DeMent, his mannered style seems less a choice than a necessity, an implacable yet distinctly American sound that cuts to the bone. As a guitarist, Phelps will often imply more than he actually plays, leaving gaps that go unresolved, giving the most wobbly patterns an unexpected emotional weight.
From the shimmering guitar that opens "Counsel" to the tin whistle -- you heard me -- that closes "OK Reno" (with the bracing "God Bless the Little Pigs" thrown in as the only overt reminder of Silkworm), Phelps rarely lets these potentially maudlin songs collapse under their own weight. "All We Want," with its "Oh, Delilah" refrain, should by all logic come off as dull reverence, but Phelps makes it sound shadowy and elusive, a story played out on an alien landscape. The unlikely beauty of "The Graze and the Graves" stems from the most tenuous elements -- fingers sliding along a fretboard, a soprano sax repeating a riff you barely noticed the first time -- somehow cohering into a quiet storm. With its images of asphalt bumping up against the winter wheat, the roadside melancholia of "Lady Lucero" details an unnamed search. Its restless drive informs all of Warm Springs Night, an unlikely roots rock album in search of its roots.
-- Greg Milner