ALBUMS / The answer is a Lemonhead: Break out the pop candy - Andy Gill reviews the Lemonheads and Crowded House
Come On Feel the Lemonheads
PURSUING a parallel course to the grunge-pop that brought success with It's a Shame about Ray, the new Lemonheads album finds songwriter Evan Dando working to a clearer template than before. At times here, as on 'It's About Time', he's the closest America comes to a transatlantic Roddy Frame, spinning wry lines like 'Patience is like bread, I say/ I ran out of that yesterday' into bittersweet pop candy. But there are still echoes of the likes of Dinosaur Jr in songs like the agitated, punky 'Down about It', where Dando's vocal pursues its own more reflective, slightly bewildered course in direct contravention of the tempo, and the sprightly 'Rest Assured', which hides a cheekily Ramones- style 'one-two-three' countdown between its verse and chorus.
Dando is clearly more abundantly gifted than most of his grunge co-workers, able to skip nimbly between genres where they seem mired in riffs. 'The Great Big NO' is chiming guitar pop, one of several tracks on which former Lemonheads bassist, the newly solo Juliana Hatfield, offers breathy vocal counterpoint on the chorus; Belinda Carlisle fulfils a similar function on 'I'll Do It Anyway', which sounds like an exercise in writing specifically for her. 'Big Gay Heart', meanwhile, is the kind of country number for which you'll search in vain on some butch Hat Act's album: quite apart from that title, calculated to give good ol' boys apoplexy, the song's relaxed way with the vernacular renders it unplayable on the radio.
He's also sharper and more revealing about drugs than hardcore grungers, capturing the paradoxical spirit of addiction neatly and simply in the lines 'Don't wanna get stoned / But I don't wanna not get stoned'. The only worrying sign here is 'Paid to Smile', the closest Dando comes to a road song: comparing his job as pop celebrity with that of a hooker who also gets paid to smile, he offers a languid plea to continue opening his own car doors. Well, if you insist, Evan.
(Capitol CDESTU 2215)
TWO new players are on the team for Crowded House's fourth, and surely most successful, album: touring guitar / keyboardist Mark Hart is now a full-time member, and Youth, the remix specialist more noted for his club-scene work, replaces Mitchell Froom as producer.
Youth's influence is the more immediately apparent, in the sense of warmth and spooky depth he brings to a typical slice of Neil Finn's perfect acoustic-pop like 'Pineapple Head' - an enigmatic, REM-flavoured piece that could have wandered in off Automatic for the People - or the undulating percussive backdrop of 'Private Universe', where a troupe of Cook Island log drummers and the former Split Enz spoons-player Noel Crombie lay down a wooden carpet for the song. This is as close as they'll get to ambient house, though Youth's multi-cultural sampling style also brings its eclectic reward to the title- track, where the log drummers are joined in anthemic sway with the mournful dignity of a brass band and the spiritual uplift of a Maori choir.
More so than previous albums, Together Alone brims with Beatlesey textures and harmonies, from the wistful, Eleanor-Rigby's-Leaving-Home mood of 'Walking on the Spot' to the winning pop flow of 'Kare Kare' (the name of the New Zealand beach where they recorded the album) and 'In My Command'. But unlike the retro-rock of such artists as Lenny Kravitz, World Party or Tears for Fears, it never sounds like deliberate artifice: unlike them, Neil Finn just happens to work naturally in this musical language - for him, it's a medium rather than a homage. There's something in Finn's voice, too, that brings warm waves of Lennon-like nostalgia to their work: that haunted, yearning edge of nasality which slides in past the most stalwart defences to tug at the emotions.
It helps that Finn is a bona fide classic-pop songwriter, boldly going into new musical realms without abandoning the mainstream knack that gives the album's first single 'Distant Sun' its irresistible magnetism. Its chorus, 'When your seven worlds collide/ Whenever I am by your side/ Dust from a distant sun/ Will shower over everyone', is the kind of lyrical coup the rest of the week's 'quality- pop' songsmiths would give their fretting fingers for, and that's just one of many here.
THE WONDER STUFF
Construction for the Modern
AT THE side of two such sterling bouts of popcraft, the Wonder Stuff would be on a hiding to nothing even if Miles Hunt had come up with a song as jauntily memorable as 'Size of a Cow' this time round, which he hasn't. Construction for the Modern Idiot is less folky than its predecessor, with Martin Bell's fiddle, mandolin and accordion buried deeper in the mix, but there's been little added to give the music some compensatory character: it's generic smug Anglo-indie, the kind of music that's way too pleased with its own supposed cleverness, its show-off aspect shading into misguided arrogance. Admittedly, it's better than anything by Kingmaker, whose ersatz Wonder Stuff style is the kind of imitation which perhaps flatters the group overmuch, but that's hardly saying much.
Lyrically, Hunt's songs have also shifted away from the last album's irony towards an anger which struggles to find its focus when it's not hammering away at barn-door targets such as paedophiles on 'I Wish Them All Dead': typically, all that is transmitted is Hunt's dislike of the 'them' in question, as if that were the real challenge of the song, rather than just its spur. There are a few half-decent tracks - Hunt's 'tiny tribute' to Charles Bukowski, 'A Great Drinker', is a reasonable alcohol blues, and 'Hush' a decent spoof U2 out-take - though the most satisfying thing here is the anti-violence song 'Full of Life (Happy Now)', which pertinently asks, 'When you hate that much, do you get in touch with your feelings?' A case of physician heal thyself, perhaps.
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