Mint Royale - On The Ropes Mint Royale
On The Ropes

There aren't many bands that can get away with putting out an album of instrumental tracks. Outside of a few fluke hits like "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis and "Popcorn" by Hot Butter, there have been very few instances over the years of non-vocal tracks cracking the pop charts. But Mint Royale should be doing more than cracking the charts with On the Ropes. They ought to break them.

While not a completely instrumental disc, this techno stew of beats and basslines and samples delivers track after track of unbelievably catchy, danceable pop, more of it sans vocals than spotlighting them.

The disc opens with "From Rush-olme with Love," which also makes an appearance in John Cusack's "Serendipity" movie. It's a quirky, catchy mix track featuring a sitar tinkling out the lead melody. Neil Claxton and Chris Baker, the two DJ/remixer/producers that make up Mint Royale, follow up the exuberant, exotic instrumental "Rusholme" with a couple of tracks that do feature vocalists up front; "Don't Falter" is a smooth ambient bit of techno pop with a female vocalist, and "Show Me," includes background African singers rounding on an infectious hook, as in the foreground, De La Soul's Pos drops a typically smooth rap on top.

But after these two songs, any vocals that appear are simply repeated samples, not typical verse-chorus "singer" structures. And these are the best tracks on the disc.

Not surprisingly, bits of their songs have been used for sports highlights in their native UK, and they've also worked on music for an Intel computer ad. Another highlight of On the Ropes comes in the organ-percolated "Rock and Roll Bar," which boasts a disco guitar groove, bongo percussion and UFO sound effects, in addition to a mid-song vocal break that implores "let's dance, c'mon, get down."

You can hear the duo's formative experience with remixing major dance acts like Fatboy Slim, Boyzone, and Kenickie in the non-stop grooves of On the Ropes. There are no throwaway samples or rhythms anywhere on this disc. This is a celebration of rhythm and fun, that switches tempos and moods from ambient techno to weird bounce ("Space Farm") to Prince-like beat-guitar funk ("Deadbeat"). Mint Royale's Ropes is a freeing summer treat. Get tangled in them!


Over The Rhine - Films For Radio Over The Rhine
Films For Radio
(Back Porch/Virgin)

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed a band called Over The Rhine, featuring the unusually evocative vocals of Karin Bergquist. At the time its label, I.R.S. Records, was still a going concern it was the label that spawned The Go-Go's, The Police, Concrete Blonde and more in the '80s. But Over The Rhine didn't hit it big, and I.R.S. was soon itself on the downslide. Both the label and the band disappeared in the '90s as the wave of Seattle sound painted over everything delicate. When in the mood for intricate, ethereal rhythms, I still pull 1994's Eve, my first introduction to Over The Rhine off my shelf from amid thousands of other choices. But I lost track of the subsequent output of the band when it left I.R.S. Thankfully, their fans did not.

Over The Rhine survived its brush with major label disaster and resurfaced in 1996 with an independently released album, Good Dog, Bad Dog, and has continued to tour, led by the core songwriting team of Bergquist and husband-keyboardist Linford Detweiler. Now the band has been signed by the "Americana" boutique label Back Porch, which has released Films for Radio through the major distribution arm of Virgin Records (home of Janet Jackson, among others). It looks like OTR is flirting with the big time again and again, with good reason. Films for Radio finds the band a decade older, but still putting out beautiful, risk-taking, evocative music. If Lilith Fair was still a commodity, this would be a band to headline Bergquist imbues every song with a mix of strength and vulnerability, whether she's preaching insularity ("The World Can Wait") or begging for the ability to get through a tough time ("Give Me Strength").

In the past, the band has been compared to Cowboy Junkies, and it's not an unfair comparison, though OTR tries more left-field melodies and uses more techno tricks than Canada's earthier Junkies. The two groups are apparently mutual fans, as Over The Rhine has toured with Cowboy Junkies, and Junkies' guitarist Michael Timmins guests on a track on Films for Radio. If you loved the mystery and experimentation of Wild Strawberries, the evocative mood of Sarah McLachlan and the melodic and lyrical depth of Cowboy Junkies, find a copy of Films For Radio.

This is an album of thoughtful beauty that finds Bergquist's vocals running the gamut from little-girl-lost pining, to sensual extravagance. Close your eyes and watch the imaginary film reels as they spin stories from amber classicism to violet night moods, and then flirt with pastoral technicolor. This is Oscar material.


New on the Shelves

The soundtrack to the new Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie, is out from Elektra and features a soundtrack of mostly new material from modern techno artists.

Included are Nine Inch Nails' "Deep," The Chemical Brothers' "Galaxy Bounce," Moby's "Ain't Never Learned," Groove Armada's cooly ambient "Edge Hill" and Fatboy Slim and funk pioneer Bootsy Collins teaming up for "Illuminati." It all kicks off with a remix of U2's "Elevation." Also included are tracks from Missy Elliott, OutKast, BT, Basement Jaxx, Fluke, Oxide & Neutrino and more.

The latest reissue batch from the Rhino group finds the label pairing up with Warner Bros. to polish up and respin the first four Ramones albums. From the first chords of "Blitzkrieg Bop" on its self titled 1976 debut album, 'til the band's final work in recent years, cut forever short by singer Joey Ramone's death of lymphatic cancer in April, The Ramones were the undisputed kings of poppy three-chord punk rock. Rhino's reissue of their early catalogue offers a plethora of bonus tracks from the band's formative period. The Ramones includes seven demo tracks of songs that appeared on this albums and future discs, as well as the single version of "Blitzkreig Bop."

The new version of 1977's Leave Home offers more bonus tracks than the number of songs on the original LP included are 16 frantic-paced live songs taken from a 1976 show at Hollywood's Roxy. Rocket to Russia and 1978's Road to Ruin included some of the band's signature hits ("I Wanna Be Sedated," "Needles & Pins," "Rockaway Beach," "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," and "Do You Wanna Dance?") and each one includes a handful of demo versions, live tracks and remixes of the band's songs from the period.