Tried and true favorites

August 5, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Amid the flood of much-hyped summer releases by major names, it can be all too easy to overlook some of the smaller and often more rewarding discs, especially when they come from long-running artists who may now be taken for granted by hipsters always foraging for the Next Big Thing.

Several new releases from old favorites have been in heavy rotation in my CD player for the last few weeks, and chief among them is "Back Numbers," the second disc by Dean (Wareham) & Britta (Phillips), formerly the driving forces of the spacey guitar-pop band Luna. Wareham hasn't really altered his basic formula since his earliest days as the leader of '80s indie rockers Galaxie 500, but there's no reason for him to mess with it: The tempos are lulling but never somnambulant, thanks to the gorgeous, lazily unfolding melodies, and the feedback- and echo-drenched guitar work is as always just gorgeous.

Working here with his romantic partner in a stripped-down duo -- much as Damon and Naomi, Galaxie 500's former rhythm section now do -- and collaborating with legendary glam-rock producer Tony Visconti, Dean & Britta deliver an entrancing set of tunes heavily inspired by the '60s duets of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg or Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, whose "You Turned My Head Around" is covered here, along with the Troggs' "Our Love Will Still Be There." It all makes for the perfect soundtrack for a steamy summer evening.

  Speaking of Hazlewood, the wonderfully weird psychedelic cowboy who gave us "Some Velvet Morning," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" and other classic orchestral pop oddities lately rediscovered by musicians as diverse as Beck and Jessica Simpson, the man himself, now 78, has released what he calls his farewell/retirement album. "Cake or Death" has some missteps, including a saccharine reworking of "Some Velvet Morning" with Hazlewood's young granddaughter Phaedra in the Nancy role.

Overall, though, Hazelwood's deep baritone grumble is as effective as ever, and his gonzo worldview hasn't mellowed a bit. Witness the unapologetically old-fashioned, horn-driven anti-war anthem "Baghdad Knights" ("Sometimes we fight, sometimes we run/It's just like playing football with a gun"), the opening duet with Lula on "Nothing" or the delightfully non-P.C. "White People Thing" ( "It's so nice to live in the suburbs/Where white is the absence of color").

It's an absolute inspiration to hear a musician who's remained so supremely strange for four and a half decades.

  It was a sad day -- the third, in fact -- when the third incarnation of '70s English art-punk greats Wire came to an end after the release of one of their best reunion albums, "Send" (2003). But the good news is that Wire's latest hiatus has freed vocalist Colin Newman to resume a solo career that has included several discs as good as anything Wire released, including "A-Z" (1980), "Not To" (1982), "Commercial Suicide" (1986) and "It Seems (1988).

Technically credited to Githead, an avant-rock supergroup that also features electronic musician Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), Newman's wife Malka Spigel and her former Minimal Compact bandmate Max Franken, the dominant voice on "Art Pop" is nonetheless Newman's, and the hypnotic grooves and skewed but memorable melodies of songs such as "On Your Own," "Drop" and "Live in Your Head" seem like the logical and long-awaited extension of the ideas he's explored throughout his solo career. Art pop, indeed: This disc couldn't be better named.

  Another supergroup/solo album comes to us courtesy of the famously irascible but hugely influential Chicago pop-punk hero Ben Weasel, formerly of Screeching Weasel, the Riverdales and other bands too numerous to mention. Despite his prolific output (which has slowed considerably of late -- this is his first recording in five years), he's only given us one solo album before, the spotty affair called "Fidatevi" (2002). Thankfully, "These Ones Are Bitter," a digital-only release from Weasel's new online label (www.mendotarecording.com), is as strong as his very best albums.

Always capable of shocking fans who think they've got him pegged, Weasel avoids the notoriously raw and ragged sound that characterizes much of his work, recording in a very new-millennium, radio-friendly pop-punk fashion with a crack band comprised of Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano and All-American Rejects' Chris Gaylor and Mike Kennerty (who produced). The difference between Weasel's take on this slick sound and the legions of chart-topping shopping-mall punk wannabes is the substance behind the style: He has an unerring ear for giving us half a dozen killer hooks per each three-minute eruption of pogo-prompting punk frenzy, and his snotty growl can always be counted on to deliver eye-opening nuggets of working-man's poetry about the joys and hardships of everyday life.

Simply put, Weasel is still the Charles Bukowski of pop-punk, and long may he grouse, especially if he can continue giving us songs as fine as "Let Freedom Ring," "The First Day of Spring" and "Only in November."

  Finally, we have "Jarvis," the first solo album from the veddy, veddy British Jarvis Cocker, erstwhile leader of cult-hero pop sociologists Pulp, first issued in the U.K. late last year, but only recently getting a proper domestic release.

There are no surprises here: Musically, most of the cues still come from '70s glam rock, with Cocker doing his hammiest Bowie/Ferry/Bolan over the top, and that will never sound as fresh again as it did on Pulp's "Different Class" (1995). But lots of aspiring New Wave of New Wave bands seem to want to be Jarvis these days, and Jarvis still does Jarvis better than anybody else on standout tracks such as the delightfully rude "Fat Children," the beyond over-the-top Wall of Sound tribute "Black Magic" and the snide but indelible "Don't Let Him Waster Your Time."

After building him up as one of the major talents of his generation, the British press has been dumping on Cocker for the last few years for getting married, having babies and turning fat, lazy and self-satisfied. (It seems they'd rather have him in self-destructive bad-boy mode a la Pete Doherty.) But "Jarvis" shows that the man has still got plenty of venom and vigor, and it's still great fun to listen to him fling them around.

MUSIC

POP
Dean & Britta, "Back Numbers" (Rounder) 4 stars

POP
Lee Hazlewood, "Cake or Death" (Ever Records) 3 stars

ALT-ROCK
Githead, "Art Pop" (Swim) 3 and a half stars

PUNK
Ben Weasel and His Iron String Quartet, "These Ones Are Bitter" (Mendota Recording Co.) 3 and a half stars

POP
Jarvis Cocker, "Jarvis" (Rough Trade) 3 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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