Pop: This Week's Album Releases
Friday 21 May 1999
INSANE CLOWN POSSE The Amazing Jeckel Brothers Mercury
CALL ME irresponsible but, compared with the elegant tastefulness of this week's other releases, The Amazing Jeckel Brothers positively glows with rude rock'n'roll health, with the accent firmly on rude. In a hip-hop scene clogged up with overused cliches and tired grooves, the rumbustious, knockabout antics of the Insane Clown Posse recall something of the vitality and cartoon menace that Cypress Hill brought to the genre a few years back - not least through the similarity of their terse, bouncing beats to DJ Muggs' infectious productions.
Deliberately refusing to "keep it real" like most rappers, the ICP's Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope prefer to keep it entertaining, offering their "Dark Carnival" of violence, horror and comedy liberally spiked with expletives and a welcome dose of absurdity. They have even less redeeming social merit than Eminem, and could undoubtedly kick his ass with ease if the need arose. They're funnier too, especially on the omni-antagonistic "Fuck the World", a 93-expletive list enumerating their lack of respect for (among others) you, me, us, chickens, critics, the West Coast, the East Coast, Oprah, opera, your mama and your mama's mama, The Beastie Boys and the Dalai Lama, Ted Nugent ("you like to hunt a lot - so fuckin' what?"), all 52 states and, ultimately, both hemispheres. Don't expect to hear it on the radio.
The ICP's fifth album is that most ominous of prospects, a rap concept album, with the eponymous Jeckel siblings Jake and Jack characterised as moral jugglers, one accumulating sins and the other discarding them as the album progresses. No, I don't understand it either, but that doesn't detract from tracks like "Play With Me" - the protest of a toy abandoned for a newer, shinier plaything - and "The Shaggy Show", a chat-show spoof complete with sycophantic sidekick, fake commercials and a guest spot by Snoop Dogg. Other tracks feature Ice-T and incorrigible Wu Tang recidivist Ol' Dirty Bastard, and there are frequent interjections from phone pranksters The Jerky Boys, adding to the giddy, irreverent tone of proceedings.
As with Eminem, there's a blatant attempt to stir up outrage by treating sex and violence as fun and funky, but it'sjust a commercial wind-up: only the most humourless of pedants could take tracks as subtly titled as "Bitches", "I Stab People" and "Fuck the World" at face value. Instead, their brief association with the steroid panto of the WWF wrestling circus perhaps offers a better indication of their aims: the ICP deal in good unclean fun, unwholesome family entertainment that's more shrewdly aware than you imagine of its showbiz status.
RON SEXSMITH'S third album follows much the same route as its predecessors, its gentle sentiments couched in lingering, crepuscular melodies that settle imperceptibly in your consciousness like dust. Sensitivity and simplicity are the watchwords here, with a disarmingly ingenuous charm to songs like the wistful "Seem To Recall" and catchy "Feel For You", whose hook comes round like an old friend the very first time you hear it. Sexsmith seems incapable of spite or hurt and Whereabouts finds him, if anything, more melancholy than before, particularly when musing upon the fleeting nature of acquaintance in "In A Flash": "The end must come for some good reason/ I've heard it said before/ To everything a time and season/ What was this season for?". Producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake bring their usual armoury of analogue tints to Sexsmith's songs - banjo, pump organ, cor anglais and cello - with arrangements that recall the baroque flourishes of Van Dyke Parks on "Riverbed" and the vaudevillean "One Grey Morning". But despite their more elaborate efforts, Whereabouts remains a subtle, understated delight.
Real: The Tom T Hall Project
SEXSMITH ALSO turns up as one of the contributors on this tribute album to latterly neglected country songwriter Tom T Hall. Known to his peers as "The Storyteller", but characterised by others as a reactionary for his support for the Vietnam War, Hall drew on his own tough life (he was barely in his teens before his mother died and his father became disabled in a hunting accident) to empathise with the put-upon and passed-by, attacking small-mindedness with wit and a commendable lack of sanctimony in songs like "Harper Valley PTA", his most successful composition. Hall was a hugely-gifted composer, a great song sketchwriter whose stories were wrinkled with telling detail and odd conceits, viewed from unusual angles. These cover versions illustrate the versatility of his material, ranging from Johnny Cash's straightforward solo reading of "I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew" to Joe Henry's Beck-style breakbeat blues treatment of "Homecoming". Other highlights include Sexsmith's achingly delicate "Ships Go Out", Joel R L Phelps' shadowy "Spokane Motel Blues", and Calexico's Tex-Mex flavoured "Tulsa Telephone Book".
SALIF KEITA'S latest is something of a halfway house between the jazz stylings of 1991's Amen and its more traditionally African follow-up Folon, with Keita's co-producer Vernon Reid bringing a balanced international flavour through the judicious addition of rock and flamenco guitar, cello and various studio effects to the indigenous kora, balafon, ngoni and m'simby parts. The result is an eclectic whirl borne along on beautifully elastic funk bass and percussion grooves, the tracks growing subtly denser as they proceed, while Keita offers impassioned advice and admiration in his native Bambara language. Several tracks - "Sada", "Tomorrow", "Abede" and "Papa" - follow the traditional griot function of praise songs, the singer lauding departed patrons, friends and family members, while others involve nothing more testing than invitations to dance (though I'm not sure it was such a great idea to have Grace Jones muttering darkly to that effect on "Tolon Willie" - is that the best they could do for guests?). The best track is the reflective "Ananamin (It Took A Long Time)": written by the riverside, it effortlessly evokes the theme of waiting while the world slips by.
The Man Who
TRAVIS'S FOLLOW-UP to the engaging Good Feeling is titled after Oliver Sacks' study of schizophrenia The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which is entirely appropriate, since they appear to be The Band Who Mistook Themselves For Radiohead. Abandoning the chirpy Britpop melodies and positive vibe of their debut in favour of something closer to the Oxford band's euphoric dolour, they've made an album which, while impressively crafted, reveals them as overly prey to the breezes of musical fashion. Fran Healy gives the game away on the lovely opener "Writing To Reach You" when he sings, "The radio is playing all the usual/ And what's a wonderwall anyway?"; but though he affects a reasonable facsimile of Thom Yorke's weary soulfulness, the band lacks a Jonny Greenwood who might animate his glum songs beyond their present pallid state. Instead, half-hearted embellishments - an Anne Dudley string arrangement here, wisps of sitar there, even an in- car ambience on one track - are employed to effect a more interesting topography, without revealing any compelling sense of character beneath the chameleonic surface.
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