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A Fine Whine
By Carlo Wolff

Nine Inch Nails

With Teeth (Interscope/Nothing)

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 hard-rock auteur.

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, yes.)

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.

“Only” 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.

The 5 Browns

The 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 talented performers.

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.

—B.A.Nilsson

Spirit

Model Shop (Sundazed)

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.

—David Greenberger


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