Anything But Mainstream (8/14/98)
Graham Parker, Live Alone! Discovering Japan (Gadfly 1998) - Give Graham Parker credit. Though his recording career has had ups and downs, he keeps bouncing back with new releases. This year's serving is Discovering Japan, which was recorded in the early 90's during a tour of (surprise!) Japan.
Think of Discovering Japan as the companion piece to the previously-released, Live! Alone in America (with no duplicate cuts). The 14-song set includes solo versions of such songs as "Mercury Poisoning," "Don't Ask Me Questions," and a cover of Billy Idol's, "Sweet 16."
Discovering Japan almost never made it to disk. As Parker recounts, "At sound check, a chap with zero command of the English language turned up with a vintage 8-track reel-to-reel. Two nights were recorded. All seemed well.
Back home, Parker's engineer discovered that all was not well. "It seems our 8-track enthusiast back in Tokyo had recorded my vocals on track one, known in studio parlance as an 'edge track.' This is where you put the bongos, the nose flute, the triangle, the sleigh bells, etc.
"Our Japanese recording engineer's little mistake had left me with a vocal track that displayed a dangerous wobble on many of the songs. My mix engineer was doubtful and suggested prudence: Perhaps I should re-record the songs in the studio and add an audience track; maybe I should scrap the whole thing and wait until the next tour. 'Fuck it,' I said. 'Mix it and they'll never know the difference.'"
All told, Discovering Japan is a subdued slice from Parker. Capable of wicked guitar pop, Parker is not his usual incendiary self on Discovering Japan. This is an album that will appeal to completists.
Pere Ubu, Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr Records 1998) - Now 20 years into their recording career, rockers, Pere Ubu continue to explore their minimalistic and mid-West surrealism. Pennsylvania succeeds, because the band's commitment to challenging sounds remains undaunted.
Formed in Cleveland in 1975, Pere Ubu now consists of David Thomas on vocals, Tom Herman and Jim Jones on guitar, Steve Mehlman on drums, Michelle Temple on bass, and Robert Wheeler on synthesizer and theremin. Thomas' lyrics explore the oddities of life, from the viewpoint of someone who is older and wiser.
With the twin guitar sound of Herman and Jones, Pere Ubu has a sound that leans toward punk, or better stated, the exploratory rock sound that came out of New York City in the late 1970's with such bands as the Talking Heads and Television.
Which is to say, Pere Ubu makes a strange and compelling aural landscape. From spoken word tracks like "Mr. Wheeler" into the glorious guitar noise of "Highwaterville," Pennsylvania delivers the signature Pere Ubu sound. Fans of avant-garde rock will dig this recording.
Mitchell Froom, Dopamine (Atlantic 1998) - During the past 15 years, Mitchell Froom and his recording partner, Tchad Blake, have made themselves known as two of the most innovative producers in the business. With his first full-blown "solo" release, Froom gives free reign to his skills as a musician and arranger.
Dopamine is a challenging release, as Froom welcomes experimentation and strange noises. Froom describes Dopamine as simply, "A very weird pop album."
Froom worked on Dopamine during his down time. Recalls Froom, "Because I had such a small budget, I would grab a few days here and there on the ends of other projects, like, if the studio was booked and we were done early and had to pay for the time anyway. The musicians were there, and I'd say 'Hey, you want to try something?'"
Dopamine clocks in at just over 30 minutes, with 12 songs. Each track features a different collaborator, from "The Bunny," with M. Doughty of Soul Coughing, to songwriter/violinist Lisa Germano on "Kitsum," and "Monkey Mine," featuring Sheryl Crow.
One of the strongest tracks is the title cut, with vocals from Froom's wife, Suzanne Vega (the track is from the sessions that produced Vega's 1996 release, Nine Objects of Desire).
Froom also has amassed a collection of rare instruments to help pepper his sonic landscape. For example, Froom acknowledges, "The problem with the way keyboards are made nowadays is they have almost no personality in their sound. There's no character. They sound as if they were all made with the same lousy computer chips. So I'm always looking around for things to make a different noise."
Dopamine is not always an easy listen. But Froom has helped shape the future of rock (including 1992's Kiko from Los Lobos, a strong contender for album of the decade), and cannot be overlooked.
- Randy Krbechek © 1998
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