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Pretty Political

By David King

Nine Inch Nails

Year Zero (interscope)

Trent Reznor is bullshitting you. If you’ve read any of Reznor’s recent interviews about his latest album, Year Zero, you probably have read the story about how he usually has to fight his record label on how to market his latest album, and how with Year Zero he expected “an epic battle.” The truth is, almost every track on Year Zero could easily be a single. There are two that couldn’t, and that’s because they don’t have vocals.

Yes, the album is full of scary politics. On “Capital G,” Reznor takes up the voice of a politician one can only assume is George Bush, and declares, “Don’t try to tell me that some power can corrupt a person/You haven’t had enough to know what it’s like/You’re only angry cause you wish you were in my position/Now nod your head cause you know that I’m right, alright!” But really, how edgy is Bush-bashing nowadays?

P.S.: Reznor barely ever even drops the F-bomb on this album.

So Year Zero is not the raging death machine you’ve been lead to believe it is. Instead, it is the shiniest piece of ear candy Reznor has ever produced. The beats per minute on Year Zero barely ever rev past a steady plod. The guitar riffs are fleeting but effective, sneaking into the steady war march of the electronic drums, like some fuzzed-out insurgency, caught up in the machine-gun fire of Reznor’s stuttering electronics. Tracks like the “The Great Destroyer” come to epic conclusions, not thanks to the traditional NIN guitar fit but instead with drum loops percolating, exploding, tripping each other as if Reznor somehow has given his drum machines a conscience and forced them to fight each other to the death.

There aren’t many songs on Year Zero that make it past the four-minute mark. The self-indulgence found on albums like The Fragile has been replaced by tight pop songcraft. “The Good Solider,” “The Beginning of the End” and “Vessel” deliver some of the catchiest hooks Reznor has ever served up. Like a fleeting lover in a wet dream, the songs on Year Zero tease and tantalize, providing moments of pop ecstasy before devolving back into simple digital beats. The plain truth about Year Zero is that Reznor no longer needs shock and awe. He just writes interesting songs.

David Bromberg

Try Me One More Time (Appleseed)

Back in the days before selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, depression was known as the blues, and a popular course of treatment was to write and perform a song about it, preferably opening with a plangent picture of the singer waking up one morning in an empty bed.

Robert Johnson’s “Kind-Hearted Woman” is just such a plaint, but it’s distinguished by a more sophisticated ambiguity than many such songs: “I got a kindhearted woman, do anything in the world for me/But these evilhearted women, boy, they will not let me be.” As played and sung by David Bromberg on his new CD, it features the same deft melding of voice and guitar as in the best of the many other versions (Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, among others).

Bromberg’s playing—he accompanies himself throughout on a Martin M-42 made especially for him—isn’t flashy, but it’s thorough. His virtuosity lies in crafting a line that sounds right, deftly supporting his voice and creating an infectious groove.

“Kind-Hearted Woman” has the additional enhancement of Bromberg’s own verse: “I was out in California, there was a great big rumbling on the ground/I was out in California, people, whoa, the earth was tremblin’ all around/Those people thought it was a big earthquake comin’ to get ’em: Lord, wasn’t nothing but those evil-hearted women trying to run me down.”

It’s a great image, one that Bromberg has spun throughout his long and unique career. In many of his original songs he’s alternately pursuing the uncatchable (as in “Sharon” and “Testify”), or fighting them off (“I’ll Take You Back,” “Try Me One More Time”), although this persona relaxes into the background on this CD, his first studio recording in 17 years.

Two songs salute a Bromberg mentor, Rev. Gary Davis: “I Belong to the Band” and “Trying to Get Home,” and in both it’s easy to forget that the band consists of but one guitar. Bob Dylan played harmonica on Bromberg’s eponymous debut album in 1971 (the cover art of the new release harkens back to that); Dylan is saluted here with Bromberg’s performance of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

Two instrumentals—“Buck Dancer’s Choice” and “Hey Bub” (a Big Bill Broonzy number) display Bromberg’s picking talent, and two a cappella numbers make the most of his voice. “Moonshiner” has an Irish lilt, while “Lonesome Roving Wolves,” a Mormon song of travel travail, is a nod to Rosalie Sorrels and finished this brief (48-minute) dense album on a charmingly wistful note.

Though I always enjoy hearing the horns and drums of the Bromberg Band, this is a wonderfully intimate look at one of our most talented, uncategorizable musicians.

—B.A. Nilsson

The Microscopic Septet

History of the Micros Volume 1, History of the Micros Volume 2 (Cuneiform)

Spread across four discs, this volume is not only a history of the Microscopic Septet, but also of various strains of American jazz and popular music that chugged across the 20th century. The septet were active from 1980 to 1992 in the then-emerging downtown scene. They were key players in the nascent community (including John Zorn, Curlew, Fred Frith and Bill Frisell among many others). While the Lounge Lizards worked the public-relation and hip-quotient terrain perhaps more effectively, the Micros pursued what is, in hindsight, a more circuitous road, full of surprises. They plumbed the depths of the music they loved, fearlessly ignoring boundaries like a crazed pack of free-range chickens.

Founded by Phillip Johnston, the band embraced Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, and Monk, on up through Captain Beefheart. The latter’s non-jazz credentials not withstanding, what they drew from him was the urge to take a form, disassemble it and see what the parts looked like all laid out on the table (or the dance floor). What’s contained on this pair of two-disc sets is all four of their original albums, along with nearly a dozen additional tracks. It should also be noted that millions of people listen to the Microscopic Septet every day: Pianist Joel Forrester’s composition is the theme song to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. You’ll find it impossible to hear this one-minute tune without saying at its conclusion, “First, the news.”

—David Greenberger

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