Exchanging pith for pizzazz, three former members of the clever hardcore-renaissance quintet Nation of Ulysses joined with ex-Frumpies bassist Michelle Mae in 1995 to create the soul of the Make-Up. The group seemed like a novelty act at first -- early singles were rudimentary R&B, which got the Make-Up, um, smeared for its sloppy articulation and gospel gimmickry. But eventually the band developed solid soul chops; across four albums (three released by Dischord Records) and several national tours, it's honed its skills while remaining faithful to its DIY aesthetic. Although not entirely capable of capturing the rapt jab of soul, the Washington, D.C. foursome's intentions are similar to Gang of Four's "funk" -- the band transforms the icon it mocks into a whole musical form.
I Want Some exhibits the group's musical growth, compiling 23 tracks from a scattered discography riddled with out-of-print singles. Vocalist -- and former Sassy magazine pin-up -- Ian Svenonius delivers frantic James Brown-esque hollers and Prince-ly falsetto squeals. The rigid Memphis soul-style rhythms of Mae and drummer Steve Gamboa grow increasingly fluid up through recent recordings like "Born On the Floor," while guitarist/organist James Canty provides funk-laced melodies. The post-punk proto-funk of "Pow! to the People" features electric piano syncopations craftily borrowed from Funkadelic's "Free Your Mind, and Your Ass Will Follow."
Svenonius' communist rantifesto liner notes -- "We shall invert the traditional relationship between producer and consumer, and inject spirituality and communism into the depressed pantomime" -- along with the band's primitive R&B, abandons the reactionary gestures of hardcore. So in the end, the Make-Up expresses the implicit meaning and truth of gospel music: escape. In doing so, the band presents the indie underground as a religion unto itself. When Svenonius coos, "R U A Believer?," he's beckoning initiates to a congregation and looking for a witness.
-- Dave Clifford
The British trio Underworld caught global attention with their 1996 hit-turned-anthem "Born Slippy." Included on the soundtrack of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, the track's lyrics -- "Lager, lager, lager, lager" -- became a mantra on the lips of clubsters and hipsters alike. If only for a moment, club culture and pop culture were linked. But as far as pop culture's concerned, Underworld's a one-off, a one-hit wonder. So it would be wrong to expect a similar mass response to Beaucoup Fish, the group's third album.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing; the band has strong roots in the dance-pop world anyway. Its history stretches back to the early '80s, when guitarist/singer Karl Hyde and programmer Rick Smith were part of the British synth-pop band Freur, which scored a hit in 1983 with "Doot Doot." A version of Underworld formed in 1988, broke up, then re-formed in 1993 with the addition of DJ Darren Emerson, who added the dance element that the group had been lacking.
Three albums on, Beaucoup Fish demonstrates Underworld's knack for creating electronic music with a distinct pop sensibility. Airy trance and ambient music fuses with melodies exposed and bolstered by their beats. Intermittent sounds trade places with catch phrases, while backbeats flow like steady scenery. Hyde's monotone vocals and stream-of-consciousness lyrics lace themselves around the music like whispers on mellower tracks like "Winjer." They become more insistent, yet no less breathy, on the single "Push Upstairs."
Like any pop record, Beaucoup Fish explores a diverse range of sounds, between makeshift ballads like "Skym" and get-up-and-go club tracks like "Shudder/King of Snake" and "Kittens." Throughout, the mood is one of expansiveness, driven by intense determination: Underworld spent the better part of 1998 recording, then took the music on the road for a two-month trial run in Europe. What didn't work got omitted. What did became enhanced. The result is an organic, emotive record.
-- Katie Zarling
New Dawning Time
With Gardener, a somewhat unlikely pairing of Seattle-area indie-rock luminaries results in a mixed harvest of drone-drenched psych-folk. Aaron Stauffer (vocalist for melodic punks Seaweed) and Van Conner (bassist for psychedelic grunge casualties Screaming Trees) have been friends for years, even though the former's teeny-bopping pop-punk would seem at odds with the latter's laconic fuzz. But their bands toured Europe together in 1996, resulting in their writing two of New Dawning Time's standout tracks together: the sitar-based hazy hum of "Quay" and the title track, a lush ballad.
Soon after, upon Seaweed's unceremonious exit from Hollywood Records and the major-label promotion machine, Stauffer packed up his things and moved into a wooden shack on the Northern California coast. There, he wrote the album's nine remaining songs before reconvening with Conner, and enlisted 10 pals to boot (including other Seaweed members; Conner's brother, Pat; and backing vocalist Iana Porter) to comprise their "shack rock orchestra."
New Dawning Time is filled with exotic sonic textures: sitar, flute, tabla drums, bongos, trumpet, and trombone. Most of Gardener's 11-song introductory outing provides an excellent blend of Stauffer's subdued vocals and acoustic guitar strums, paired with Conner's Middle Eastern-scale guitar flair and droning textures. The opening "Tamed" perfectly synthesizes the talents of both songwriters, with Conner's droning fuzz guitars enveloping Stauffer's vocals in a sizzling warmth. Elsewhere, Stauffer sings with the smirking elocution of Pavement's Steve Malkmus on the twanging sitar and gritty bass stomp of "Outside Looking In," while the soaring "Canyon" sounds like an acoustic version of standard Seaweed fare, replete with stop-and-go guitars and Stauffer's trademark lilting croon. It's a striking balance: Stauffer's vocals are confident and versatile without needing to compete with a bastion of distorted guitars.
Occasionally, however, barren soundscapes like "Shakedown Cruise" lack a fully defined melodic focus, and often, extemporaneous instruments pointlessly jut from the tunes like weeds among the trees -- an apt metaphor for the fertile ground upon which both Stauffer and Conner are plotting their growth.
-- Dave Clifford