Such a whiner, that Trent Reznor. But so persuasive and so
exciting. The first studio album in five years from the Nine
Inch Nails mastermind might be his most cohesive ever. It
blends the pop punch of his trail-blazing 1989 debut, Pretty
Hate Machine, with the density of Downward Spiral,
the 1994 album that cemented Reznor’s reputation as a brilliant
Sparked on several tracks by Foo Fighters-Nirvana drummer
Dave Grohl, With Teeth furthers Reznor’s preoccupations
such as the fine line between seduction and servitude, the
pleasures of submission and how very hard it is to break free
of depression. For Reznor, depression is the hand that feeds—it’s
his muse. Perhaps that’s why “The Hand That Feeds,” four tracks
in and as driving as anything NIN have ever released, is the
first single. It’s infernal disco for sure, and while it doesn’t
build into anything, its mass and bile are thrilling.
What follows “Feeds” is the more ambivalent and revealing
title track. It’s not a stretch to see the title as Reznor’s
euphemism for vagina dentata, a psychological term that translates
to “vagina with teeth.” The song, one of the most attenuated
on this otherwise singularly efficient CD, is about ambivalence,
about being swallowed up by love—to the point of getting one’s
penis bitten off. Reznor has some issues about women, it seems.
It’s to his credit that several tunes here approach the love
song, a relatively new field for our man of itch and release,
of ambivalence and yearning, our specialist in self-hatred.
(“I want to fuck you like an animal,” the hook whose censorship
made “Closer” such a hit 11 years ago, isn’t about love; lust,
A gang of songs are radio-ready, like the Grohl-driven “You
Know What You Are” (evoking “You Know Who You Are” from Hate
Machine), the brutal “Every Day Is Exactly the Same,”
and “Only,” one of Reznor’s most daring tracks. In addition,
Reznor, who takes almost full credit for the songwriting,
production and performance (Jerome Dillon plays some drums
and is in the NIN touring band), is becoming more experimental.
He’s flirting with soul and rap, he’s humanizing some tunes
with choruses, and he’s applied some of the beautiful color
from his tortured double album, The Fragile,
to tunes like “Sunspots” and “Right Where It Belongs.” Who
knows? This guy might be a romantic; sure sounded like that
on parts of The Fragile, the overripe, provocative
but incohesive work NIN released in 1999.
is the keeper. Not only is it funky, it’s all over the categorical
map even as it’s sharply focused. Over a sharp, catchy drumbeat,
Reznor is telling us it’s hard to distinguish inside from
outside, himself from the object of his desire. It’s so much
easier to step outside himself and blame her/it/him/intoxication,
to objectify. He’s good at that. But on “Only,” he’s good
at much more. He’s stretching his referents, incorporating
more than Ministry and the Beatles, piledriving, as usual,
in order to dance, which is not NIN as usual. The message
may be bleak, but damn, the beat is up.
As is always the case, this NIN album bears repeated listening.
Beautifully sequenced—this will perform like a dream in concert;
all its dramatics need is staging—it’s packed with texture
even though it’s uniform, and beautifully designed, in attitude.
Listen to it all the way through; don’t even let “Beside You
in Time,” a passing weird track toward the end that pits two
melodies a woozy half-beat away from each other, stop you.
Then listen again; you won’t be able to help yourself.
5 Browns (RCA Red Seal)
It zoomed to the top of the classical charts, a phenomenon
often viewed with dismay by such music’s more conservative
constituents. The music is performed by a quintet of Juilliard-trained
pianists, all of them looking as if they’ve stepped off the
pages of a teen fan mag. They also happen to be tremendously
Music for five pianos brings to mind some grand Gottschalk
works, or Raymond Lewenthal’s monster concerts of decades
ago. Something freakish, in other words, that won’t be coming
to a town near you anytime soon. But I’m assured that’s not
the case: Those five Steinways are ready to travel, and the
Browns will be touring soon.
Based on their debut, they’ll be worth seeing. My hostility
toward the recording, based solely on the aforementioned success,
evaporated when my 8-year-old daughter stopped on her way
through the room to listen and ask who was playing. I switched
to the DVD side of the disc—it’s a new type of hybrid that
presents the audio in both standard and DVD surround, with
some video features—and we watched the meet-the-Browns documentary.
Where I saw a bunch of precocious kids, my daughter saw inspiration.
She has since been taking piano practice much more seriously.
So I’m all for this disc. Add the fact that it offers a charming
program, played with skill and excitement, and you’ve got
a winner. A furious “Flight of the Bumblebee” is revealed,
in the music video version, to be a crisp, cooperative venture
that allows each to contribute as the more fingerbusting passagework
is passed among the players.
But you don’t need to see them to appreciate what it is they
do. Ensemble efforts on a short suite of West Side Story
dances and Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” give the siblings
some meatier fare with which to show their prowess, and then
we meet them in solos and a duet.
Ryan’s the one I’m keeping an eye on: He solos in works by
Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff that call for levels of skill and
musicianship unusual in someone his age. Gregory and Melody
Brown chose pieces by 20th-century pianist-composers for their
solos: a Prokofiev-like Toccata by York Bowen for the former,
and an ultra- Romantic morceau by Ignaz Friedman for the latter.
To quote songwriter Michael Flanders, the program “is more
sherbet than Schubert,” but how much Brahms and Mahler can
you take it? Like all accomplished fledglings, the Browns
are relentlessly charming.
I used to think that the main connection between Spirit and
Soft Machine was their alphabetical proximity in my collection.
Fans of one of these ’60s-originated bands might not necessarily
be fans of the other, and their differences are more plentiful
than their similarities. However now, with the appearance
of this previously unissued Spirit soundtrack, and the additional
passing of three and a half decades creating a more weather-tested
vantage point, a certain a-ha! phenomenon is blinking
my eyes to a new pulsing current, like a monkey setting off
firecrackers in my brain.
More overtly and consistently jazz- influenced than the other
four albums made by this original lineup, Model Shop
was recorded as a soundtrack to the long-forgotten movie of
the same name. The riffing electric piano figure that John
Locke plays on “Mellow Fellow” is pushed along by drummer
Ed Cassidy while Randy California’s highly personalized guitar
tone flies through a compositional landscape that undulates
like a sheet drying on a clothesline, interspersed with a
couple short bits of dramatic contrast. But it’s not the writing
that creates a link to Soft Machine. It’s that both bands,
when fully invested in instrumental structures, are defined
by the unique character of several of their players. In the
case of the Softs it was Mike Ratledge’s keyboards and Hugh
Hopper’s bass, and with Spirit it was Locke and California.
When the film Model Shop failed and the soundtrack
album never materialized, portions of this material were rerecorded
for their third album, Clear, an album that was not
as clearly delineated as either the one that preceded (The
Family That Plays Together) or the one that followed (Twelve
Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus). The set is by
turns jazzy, spacey, and dreamy. While Jay Ferguson sings
the band into the sunset with an edgy early recording of “Aren’t
You Glad,” this album draws most fully on the jazz backgrounds
of Locke and Cassidy.