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September 28, 2001

Strange little reviews

The celluloid undercurrents of modernist America surface yet again on It's a Wonderful Life, leading one to wonder if Sparklehorse, as their album title suggests, have finally watched one too many Frank Capra films. But it's all good. Sparklehorse, in their third proper album, once again spread the legacy of Americana thick and smooth over an impeccable pop sensibility and what will prove to be a strong and under-appreciated set of songs. The latest in a string of part astral, part American-gothic flavored pop albums, rarely is an album of this kind so immediately accessible and just plain likeable.

Cutting through the histrionics of Mercury Rev, the tin-shed-metal-shop musings of recent Tom Waits, and the hillbilly overtones of Will Oldham, Sparklehorse's use of the American is rarefied and subtle. It's a Wonderful Life is not a textural immersion, nor an idolization of scary '30s barn recordings, it is, rather, a sincere and stylish pop album that chooses the timeless over the current. The music is simple and elegant; melodies are lilting, intriguing, mostly slow, yet a sharp production places them in the foreground, purposefully avoiding the tired, bedtime feel that bands such as Spain or Ida thrive on.

As usual, Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer David Fridmann shares production credits, adding It's a Wonderful Life to his already impressive portfolio of quality albums from bands such as Mogwai, the Delgados, and Flaming Lips. Fridmann's influence is evident: “Babies on the Sun" warbles and grinds like an old 78, deep strings saw below Strawberry Fields-esque keyboards on “Gold Day," and what sound like old Casio synth beats keep gentle time to “Apple Bed," bringing to mind Nick Cave's “Brompton Oratory" of a few years back. “Dog Door," co-written by Tom Waits, is demented, reminiscent of his songs like “Big in Japan," with Waits chuckling out some sinister and no doubt hilarious lines while apparently also playing the “train whistle" and “big seed pod." Worth it just for that.

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Meanwhile, first class kook Tori Amos takes a hiatus from the progression of her career in music for the recording of this covers album. Conceptually, Strange Little Girls is ambitious to say the least — the taking of twelve songs written by men — about women — and delivering them from the viewpoint of the woman in each song. Celebrated chauvinist Eminem's “Bonnie & Clyde," for example, a typically abusive song from the rapper to his daughter about killing her mom, is delivered, according to Amos, from the viewpoint of the narrator's wife. Fucked up and chilling to begin with, you should hear it now. Ambitious? Yes it is. Amos has often talked in the past about her songs being “her girls," having lives and voices of their own; teasing out these voices from twelve songs by men, separating out the individual expressions and narratives… it works, and it doesn't work.

Not, as Amos has stated, to be confused with a tribute album, Strange Little Girls is instead an irreverent collection of totally reworked covers, sometimes maimed and mangled, sometimes delivered with chilling poise, but all rethought with originality and painstaking premeditation. Indeed, the lack of spontaneity on this album, the calculation needed in each to achieve the delivery, causes immediate problems. It's a hard test for Amos, whose work has centered around an unconfined style and unpredictability in each album release. While this new album is conceptually sharp, it takes a dive musically.

Amos's last two releases, From the Choirgirl Hotel and To Venus and Back, were both deftly delivered. The progression of her style with each album can be charted as unfaltering and even remarkable, what with so many artists often getting stuck in a rut after their second. Strangle Little Girls, though, treads water, and is often strained and unremarkable in delivery. Amos's expression is there, but songs such as “I'm Not in Love," “Raining Blood" (yes, Slayer's “Raining Blood"), and even the ten-minute rendition of Lennon's “Happiness is a Warm Gun," are bland, murky, and arduous.

The album is not without its moments, though. Tom Waits' “Time" stands out by far. It's a gentle song, and a stylistic return to accompaniment only from Amos's piano playing. It will no doubt be a welcome relief to those initially drawn to Amos's expression through melody and voice alone. Geldof's “I Don't Like Mondays" is similarly stripped-down, subdued, and drenched in blue light. It recalls songs such as “Putting the Damage On" from 1996, reaching new heights in everyday sadness. Neil Young's “Heart of Gold" has been garbed beyond recognition into some sort-of psychedelic, sort-of industrial number, with Amos wailing the well-known lyrics over grinding noise and squealing guitars. Strangely enough, it works, and, as far as covers go, is much more imaginative than straight-up mimicry. As musically uninspired as Strange Little Girls is, credit has to be given for its vision. Musically, Amos can probably be given the benefit of the doubt and, this one album aside, will no doubt go on to more successful ventures.

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Beulah's grandiose dream of a larger than life sound hit a wall with the obvious fact that an indie band from Berkeley simply couldn't afford a three-hundred piece choir. “Thank god for the mellotron," is Beulah's credo. Making do with a four-track, early Beulah recordings were “low-fi out of necessity," as member Miles Kurosky puts it, alluding to the fact that, contrary to popular indie belief, low-fi doesn't necessarily mean pared down, sad-bastard music. In fact, you couldn't pack more sunshine and daisies into a Beulah album if you tired.

1999's When Your Heartstrings Break was a much loved album in many circles. Compared in every review gleaned to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and other such reverentially whispered-about pop gems, the album really was happy as hell and won over many an angsty, denim-clad scenester. Enjoying high profile tour dates with the likes of Wilco and Guided by Voices, Beulah reached a comfortable level of respect over the past two albums, ultimately being invited to join bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo in the oozing-with-cred Elephant 6 collective.

This year's The Coast in Never Clear was an album completed in its entirety, but stuck in some kind of label limbo for the past few months. Released finally on Velocette (formerly Capricorn), the album is predictably bursting with positivity and happy major chords; it's indie pop with a new set of batteries and a big fruit cocktail. Kissing goodbye to the 18-piece dragged in for the recording of the last album, this time the members themselves experiment with the many jangly instruments used, and keep the production at a comfortable “mid-fi," as Kurosky puts it. Indeed, “comfortable" is the word for Beulah. There's nothing challenging about this album, and that seems to be its biggest appeal. It's like every pop album you think you've heard — pealing trumped solos, catchy choruses, true-to-life lyrics — and it seems to rely on the ingrained '60s pop sensibility that you just know is buried in the bowels of even the most hardened speed-metal kid.