Last week I talked about the Lilith effect: the
onslaught of women singer-songwriters over the past few years seems to have
virtually stomped out the male singer-songwriter.
Until recently. In my last column I reviewed good new discs from Eagle Eye Cherry and Shawn Mullins, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Critically acclaimed Chicagoan Robbie Fulks has his first major label disc out now and acclaimed guitarist-singer Martin Sexton will release a debut next week. Lyle Lovett has a doulble album out celebrating and covering the work of Texas singer-songwriters. And this week in Pop Stops, two more upcoming soloists are reviewed: Elliott Smith and Dan Bern.
Bern unveiled his bizarre mix of offhanded humor and a Dylanesque nasal drawl (with occasional harmonica interlude) last year with his self-titled Work debut. Fifty Eggs, produced by critical fave folkie Ani DeFranco, picks up where that first album left off, coupling Bern’s sharply insightful lyrics (“if certain girls don’t look at you/it means that they like you a lot/if other girls don’t look at you/it just means they’re ignoring you/how can you know, how can you know which is which?”) with goofball alien conspiracy theories (“we do not belong here, this planet was a terrarium/intergalactic broken home, have to go to outerspace and one day find our daddy.”)
Bern really has to be heard to be appreciated. On a glancing listen, that Dylan delivery can seem distracting, derivative and downright annoying. But given a few minutes, Bern’s irrepressible sense of humor and quirky way of spinning a story come to the fore and you’ll find yourself wondering where his strange stream-of-consciousness stories are going to crashland next.
In “Tiger Woods” he moves from bragging about his big cajones to a friend whose life was shattered for achieviing his dearest dream (having relations with Madonna) to musing about Muhammad Ali and the dating habits of girls. In “One Thing Real” his usually straight vocal and acoustic guitar act goes electric (with an accordion) and ends up sounding like The BoDeans as he spins a tale of being visited by Jesus and Van Gogh before telling his listener “let’s turn off the commercials/let’s turn off the TV/how well can we get to know each other in an hour.”
Bern pays homage to the Lilith wave in “Chick Singers,” a litany of girl rock icons. He sings: “Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Sinead O’Connor, Suzanne Vega, Jill Sobule, Melissa Etheridge, Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked/every one of them has something kind of special that I like....these days it seems like there’s alot of girls who sing and some of them are good and some of them are not, but it’s always kind of cool that moment when they first step to the mike.” Bern shows a tender side with a hymn to his sibling in “Oh Sister,” and strums a cautionary ‘50s sounding ballad “Everybody’s Baby.”
Bern is one of the most original songwriters today. Listen for long and you won’t be able to stifle a smile.
I can’t help but think of Paul McCartney’s brilliantly spare first solo album when I listen to the first few tracks of XO, Smith’s fourth solo disc overall, but his first on a major label. One of the best tracks, “Waltz #2 (XO)” has an intro that melds the jaunty laziness of McCartney’s “Junk” with vibes right out of The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” (thanks to keyboardist Jon Brion, who’s also brought a Beatlesque sentiment to Aimee Mann’s solo work).
Smith’s simple but warm vocal layering, lightly strummed guitar and eventual light piano in “Sweet Adeline” has a Beatlesque/Simon & Garfunkel flavor as well. In fact, this whole album listens like a lost coffehouse rock treasure from the early ‘70s. Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish and Illinois’ own Adam Schmitt have all worked in this delicious pop vein, and Smith offers a fine entry himself. His songs have the kind of spacious melancholy that the best Carpenters songs achieved, without sounding like majorly orchestrated overblown productions. These are little pieces of sweet airy pop. The occasional introduction of a cello is subdued but essential, the George Harrison-esque guitar solo in “Oh Well, Okay” weaves perfectly into the thought of the song.
Smith got his first break with an Oscar nomination for his song from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. He went on to play that song, “Miss Misery” at the Oscars in front of millions of people before most had ever heard the name Elliott Smith outside of his native Oregon. In that sense, despite a history of independent albums, Smith is an “overnight sensation” who started at the top. Regardless of the truthfulness of the tag “overnight,” from the perfectly crafted, whisperingly quiet but shoutingly effective pieces on his major label debut, he’s going to stay at the top. This is a quietly powerful debut, and should bring in plenty of accolades — without the help of a hit movie.
Concerts & Soundtracks
They Might Be Giants will play two nights at The Vic Theatre this weekend (Friday and Saturday) in support of their latest disc, Severe Tire Damage, an oddball collection of live hits, a couple new studio tracks (including the lame single “Doctor Worm”) and some (deservedly) unlisted poor quality live impromptu jams. The disc is 24 tracks in all, and serves to prove that while the Giants do occasionally have a perfect mix of offbeat humor and pop in songs like “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” more often than not, their lyrics are insipid and their music unmemorable (unless you count cheesy organ and scrapingly nasal vocals as memorable qualities.)
The soundtrack to Permanent Midnight, the latest in a string of Ben Stiller movies this year, is now out on DGC records. The disc is an ambient techno lover’s dream collection, featuring beats from The Crystal Method, Black Lab, Spring Heel Jack, Prodigy and more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t display the best work of any of its artists. This quickly blurs into background music — a plodding mix of electronic burps and squeals glued together in an omelette of drum machines.
Luther Vandross fans can now get a collection of the crooner’s love songs. on Epic. Always & Forever The Classics includes the title track as well as hits like “Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me” and “Going In Circles.”
The hard rock/metal scene has been all but dead since the early ‘90s, but Geffen wants to make its money back on Jackyl, one of the label’s last “metal” signings in 1991. Consequently we get the unnecessary Choice Cuts, culling 15 songs from three studio LPs and a live record. It includes their remakes of “We’re An American Band” and “I Am The Walrus” and fan fave originals “Locked and Loaded” and “Push Comes To Shove.”