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
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
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
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.
Dean & Britta, "Back Numbers" (Rounder)
Lee Hazlewood, "Cake or Death" (Ever Records)
Githead, "Art Pop" (Swim)
Ben Weasel and His Iron String Quartet, "These Ones Are Bitter" (Mendota
Jarvis Cocker, "Jarvis" (Rough Trade)