Athenaeum
[Radiance]
(Atlantic)


This is the best album that Toad The Wet Sprocket hasn't recorded. Even if Toad producer Gavin Mackillop hadn't handled production chores on this disc, singer Mark Kano wouldn't have been able to escape the comparisons to that other middle-of-the-road, easy listening rock act.

While his lyrics may not always trod the same deep-thought philosophical territory that Toad does, Kano's arresting voice and the band's soaring, intoxicatingly rich harmony style both ache of Toadisms.

And that's OK.

Because this is a sharp, exciting rock record with tight riffs, warm buzzing guitar leads and a big, arena-ready sound. There are head-nodding lighter anthems and fist-shaking stomp rockers, a la the current single "What I Didn't Know." And the band does even go beyond the usual love lyrics with the occasional deep thought — in "Lifeline" Kano sings of a lover on the razor's edge of life and death:

"And I hate to be the one
telling you that everything's ok
cause what kind of god would give you life
and take it all away?
oh but I don't want to be in your life if you don't
and I don't wanna wake in your arms if you won't
be alive when I need you the most."

Mainly, though, Athenaeum deals with themes of love, and in "Unnoticed," cover a "high school" affair with a perfect lyric encapsulation:

"too young to have a boyfriend
too old to be alone
you'll sneak him in your bedroom
when no one else is home/he'll make you feel rewarded
so blessed and self assured
you never had a prom date
now you know it's secure."

[Radiance] is the kind of record that doesn't break any boundaries — Toad The Wet Sprocket, the Gin Blossoms and a host of others have been here before — but this foursome writes and plays mid-tempo rock as catchy and crunchy as anyone. Athenaeum will perform tonight in Chicago at the Metro.

 

Superdrag
Head Trip in Every Key
(Elektra)


Head Trip in Every Key is the kind of album that grows on you. Maybe you won't hear the magic on the first listen, or even the second. But then, song by song, listen by listen, the album unveils itself like a blooming rose. There are layers of guitars and atmosphere and musical asides here that can't be consumed and appreciated in a single listen.

On the surface, Head Trip is a bit of a throwback. Modern alternative buzzsaw guitars quite often give way to an early '70s twang that's as nostalgic as it is emotive. And while on one hand, the band keeps effects to a minimum for a "classic" clean, minimalistic garage rock sound, on the other, it sneaks in lots of background vocals and instrumentation ranging from strings to mellotron to a vintage Hammond organ sound.

"I'm Expanding My Mind," and "Do The Vampire" are no-tricks riff rockers that share Matthew Sweet's '90s via the '60s guitar sound. "Bankrupt Vibration" piles guitar on top of guitar to create a heavy grinding stomp that allows singer John Davis to lyrically poke holes in the current "alternative nation" hipper-than-thou attitude in rock. This is Superdrag's declaration of solidarity and their album supports them - Head Trip refuses to let its songs get pruned into the narrowly focused soundalike crop of many current modern rock bands.

Instead, the band branches out in all sorts of directions on Head Trip. There are strings in the wry, rock star skewering of "Amphetamine," horn punches, dueling right-left guitars and carousel references in "Mr. Underground," and a bizarrely effective merging of a Who "Pinball Wizard"-esque riff with a Beach Boys-style harmony break in "Shuck & Jive." And in "She is a Holy Grail," the band toys with a twining croon and elevator music slow backbeat that opens into a lounge piano solo. It all sounds stolen from a 1968 adult contemporary album. Maybe with Perry Como smiling over it all. But rather than coming across as schmaltzy, the song provides a smiling, lazy breather in the midst of the disc.

This is a smart, deeply thought-out modern rock album with plenty of musical nods at the past as all the while, the band forges a strong independent path forward.

 

 

Miscellaneous


Ever wonder what the kids from Hanson sounded like before they got a big record company deal? Well, Mercury Records has just released the recordings that got the three young brothers their contract. You might call it Hanson, the Early Years (could they get much earlier?) but the real title is 3 Car Garage: The Indie Recordings '95-'96. The CD includes a slower, early version of "Mmmbop," some not-quite-ripe material, and features the older Hanson brother on vocals more than the younger prepubescent Hanson. But the poppy, happy Jackson 5 for the '90s sound is already solidly intact on these recordings, which are a must-have for any Hanson fan...

Soundtrack Row: They want it to be the biggest movie of the summer, and hope for "biggest soundtrack" while their at it. There are a couple good reasons to buy the Godzilla soundtrack, but it's not a blockbuster collection. The Wallflowers offer a faithful update of one of David Bowie's best songs in "Heroes" and Puff Daddy does an uninspiring rap rant over a classic Led Zeppelin riff courtesy of guest guitarist Jimmy Page. Jamiroquai appear with another Stevie Wonder soundalike song and Ben Folds Five turn up with a quiet piano ballad that is as sweet and light as its title, "Air." Michael Penn and Foo Fighters both offer uncharacteristically slow ballads in "Macy Day Parade," and "A320" respectively and Green Day's "Brain Stew" is remixed with a scattering of shrieking Godzilla sound effects. Walk, don't run for this one...

The soundtrack to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas on Geffen sticks to the roots of the book and features classic songs by Brewer and Shipley, Tom Jones, Debbie Reynolds, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Booker T and the MGs and The Yardbirds, along with a closing monologue and cover of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" by the Dead Kennedys.