3 A.M. MAGAZINE @ www.3ampublishing.com
ARE & BE
by Guillaume Destot
Fishbone: Psychotic Friends Nuttwerk
Papas Fritas: Buildings and grounds
Elliott Smith: Figure 8
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Three very different albums have brightened my days these past few weeks.
Let us start with Fishbone , a band still strangely enough to be found in the "Heavy Metal" shelves of most records shops, though their links with this family have stretched themselves very thin over the years. Fishbone's style, in case you've never heard them, is best described as an improbable blend of music genres, organised into a coherent whole, though of a rather chaotic coherence. Imagine a creature with Frank Zappa's brain, the looks of the P-Funk gang, the epileptic gait of Madness and the energy of a young James Brown and you'll have a roughly accurate portrait of this Los Angeles-based combo. Perhaps partly because of this disconcerting volubility, and partly because of an obvious inability to take themselves seriously, Fishbone have never enjoyed the same kind of success as Living Colour or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet the band have been playing their own brand of ska-punk-funky-metal since 1979, and have long been renowned for their outrageous, stunts-rich, shambolic live antics.
This album manages to convey their frenzy, and though the lyrics will neither teach you the meaning of life nor leave you crying for pure poetic emotion, they afford reasonably catchy, absurd choruses that you may soon find yourself humming in the shower. Thus, the coda to "It All Kept Startin' Over Again" goes : "we be cyclin' in a cyclic waymaze like this amaze like this we recycle in a cyclic way lost in a daze like this we recycle in a cyclic way." Don't look for some deep-buried meaning, but make my day, and try to take it off your head once you've heard it. There's an infectious dancing feeling on the entire record, especially with such tracks as "Where'd You Get Those Pants?", or "Shaky Ground", featuring the whole Red Hot band, bar their singer. There are scores of guests here, and well-chosen ones too, like George Clinton and No Doubt's singer Gwen Stefani on the Sly and the Family Stone cover "Everybody is a Star"; the Neville Brothers or Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell also come to support our psycho crew. The only darker touch comes with the song "Aids and Armageddon", which doesn't sound as apocalyptic as its title suggests, but reminds you that L.A. is not just about cruising palm-trees lined boulevards in expensive convertibles and frolicking in the sun. But two extra features come here to Fishbone's credit: the reasonable length of the album (10 songs is far enough)and the hilarious pictures on the sleeve the jacket, which will give you a good laugh especially if you were once a classroom prankster yourself.
Papas Fritas are obviously from a different school, and though, stylewise, Building and Grounds departs from their excellent 1995 debut, it's a little gem. One man's easy-listening high-school pop is another's refreshing, ground-breaking sound. Part of the Papas Fritas' appeal comes from this endearing mixture of spontaneous immaturity and accomplished songwriting. Nothing is too perfect, too well-polished, and yet it's not apparently out of a snobbish lo-fi rejection of 'technique'. Vocals are alternatively by guitarist Tony Goddess and drummer Shivika Asthana, whose beautiful sweet voice has something in it of Astrud Gilberto's unsophisticatd grace. Track 6, "Far From an Answer" will also evoke the mighty Cardigans, a band signed on the same label as Papas Fritas, Minty Fresh Records. However, if the band mention Fleetwood Mac or Sly and the Family Stone as major influences, 'Britpop' is the word that springs to mind on several numbers, like "Vertical Lines", on which the singing almost sounds more English than American. The majority of the arrangements are along the classical bass/guitar/drums lines, but keyboards are more conspicuous than on their previous releases, with for instance a retro organ sound on the Beach Boys-like "Questions". It is rather a varied record, with a marked 'happy' twist, a good musical equivalent to a careless student's life in an '80s American movie.
It is with a stronger emphasis that I should like to recommend this month's third album, Elliott Smith's Figure 8 . This may well be considered as a classic in a few years' time. Smith came under the spotlight in 1997 with his single "Miss Misery", featured on the soundtrack to the movie "Good Will Hunting". After a span with the band Heatmiser, Smith launched on a solo in 1993. Last year brought Smith another association with motion pictures, since he performed a cover of the Beatles' 'Because' on the soundtrack of 'American Beauty', a movie with a 'philosophy' not far from Smith's preoccupations.
Though our man must be sick and tired of hearing it, Figure 8 has a distinct White Album dimension. The simple voice + accoustic guitar songs especially are unmistakably in the Lennon/MacCartney mould, and it is undoubtedly for the best. You will find that some tracks stand out more than others, though everything is more or less first-rate stuff. Track 2, "Somebody that I used to know," is a mature approach to the theme of painful estrangement, and the excellent folky guitar part is a great Doc Watson-style job. For once, commonplace issues like the remembrance of a lost lover do not sound too threadbare, and track 4, "Everything Reminds Me of Her," with its vibrato atmosphere, suggests both a deep-felt experience, and pictures of an open road on a warm summer evening (if you see what I mean). Smith's voice is not powerful, not self-assured, and needs a weird stereo treatment to give it presence, but this frailty is more than welcome on tracks like 'Easy Way Out,' with a cello bringing in a gloomy touch, or on track 14, "I better Be Quiet Now," another one of my favourites.
The piano parts deserve a special mention, with the honky-tonk flavour, or phantom-like, broken music box mood they add to some numbers ("Everything Means Nothing to Me," In the Lost and Found"). Perhaps a rock song like "L.A." would have been more convincing with a more aggressive style of singing, but this harldy comes into consideration on such a brilliant piece of work. Though it may also be reminiscent of Neil Young or Elvis Costello at times, it is on the whole a very personal effort, with bucket loads of soul and moving melodies. The strange piano coda, drowned in reverb, leaves you with the sensation of having ended a journey in some deserted gigantic railway station. And soon you'll probably want another trip on Mr. Smith's ghost train.
All three albums are available from http://www.amazon.com
You can sample some of Guillaume Destot's fiction in this issue's Byte-Sized section.
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