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Creative Differences

The Apex Theory
Topsy-Turvy (Dreamworks)

As a Southern California-bred band featuring three members of Armenian ancestry, the Apex Theory won’t be able to avoid instant spot comparisons to System of a Down, the band who first put Armenia into the collective musical consciousness of today’s modern metalheads, even if many of them still think it’s a really cool neighborhood somewhere near Hollywood. And, to be fair, such comparisons are certainly understandable, since the Apex Theory mine some of the same Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Central Asian melodic motifs that make System of a Down’s music so stunningly original—and they produce music of consistently high quality and creativity, just like their better-known brethren.

But there are important differences between the two bands, too. Singer Andy Khachaturian’s voice, for starters, which is closer in tone and timbre to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis at his least cock-rocking than it is to the hair-raisingly operatic stylings of System’s Serj Tankian. The Apex Theory’s sound also features a far more experimental bent when it comes to guitar and keyboard figures, while their tempos and rhythms tend to be a bit less tortured than System’s favored start-stop, fast-slow, up-down assault style.

And a final difference: The Apex Theory’s new album doesn’t quite capture the fascinating intensity of the band’s live performances, while System of a Down have only built upon their live reputation by releasing records of equal brilliance and power. But if you can force yourself to stop making those comparisons (which I can’t do), then Topsy-Turvy stands a good chance of sneaking up and surprising you with its fresh, original take on modern rock music. Even if others have done it all before them.

—J. Eric Smith

Trey Anastasio
Trey Anastasio (Elektra)

Good-time grooves with a pinch of soul characterize a decent solo debut by Phish front man Trey Anastasio. Whether the material lends itself to live performances is hard to gauge, however; like many Phish songs, these go on too long, particularly “Push on ’Til the Day,” “Ray Dawn Balloon” and the quasi-funky, granola-retro “Night Speaks to a Woman.” Anastasio’s defiantly rhythmic band are the kicker more than the tunes. Sparked by Burlington, Vt., bass legend Tony Markellis (he cofounded Kilimanjaro, the state’s ’80s answer to Weather Report) and drummer Russ Lawton, they’re capable of textural variety and surprising sophistication. The good tunes span “Alive Again,” the bucolic “At the Gazebo,” the windswept “A Flock of Words” and “Cayman Review”; the last is a likely candidate for a set closer. The lyrics are less memorable than the music, but that may not matter. Music like this aims for good times, and on Anastasio’s first official step away from Phish, it hits the mark most of the time. It would have been more accurate to call this an album by the Trey Anastasio Band, because the collective spirit shines through more than any particular individual. At worst, this is Parrothead funk. At best, it evokes the dynamism of the group who backed Janis Joplin on Pearl, her last, and best, album.

—Carlo Wolff

Warren Zevon
My Ride’s Here (Artemis)

Warren Zevon’s first disc for Artemis Records, 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya, was a brilliant, career reinvigorating and redefining record, filled with strong, personal songs and lovely, lean arrangements. A tough act to follow, you bet, but My Ride’s Here’s opening track, “Sacrificial Lambs,” is such an ass-kicker that it seems, for four minutes or so, that Zevon is up to the challenge.

But then there’s the little problem of My Ride’s Here’s other 35 minutes, which disappoint in most of the ways that Zevon’s usually capable of disappointing. Gone are the raw, self-reflective ruminations of Life’ll Kill Ya, replaced by all sorts of smarmy yuck-yuck-yuck material, often co-penned by such smarmy, yuck-yuck-yuck lyricists as (among others) Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and Paul Muldoon. Or Mitch Albom, who collaborates on the album track most likely to replace “Werewolves of London” as Zevon’s most famous novelty tune, “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song).”

It’s a bad, stupid song, made badder and stupider by a lowest-common-denominator play-through by The David Letterman Show’s house band, whose slick, middle-of-the-road sheen colors most of this album’s performances. Just plain forgettable blah, for the most part. As, alas, are many of Zevon’s compositions here, not to mention the fact that they are uncomfortably self-derivative, with “Basket Case” evoking Life’ll Kill Ya’s “Porcelain Monkey” and “Lord Byron’s Luggage” marred by a pennywhistle melody lifted from “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

And that ain’t the only pennywhistle on the album either, since that lazy (or poor) man’s token nod to Irish music appears, annoyingly, pointlessly, on several other My Ride’s Here songs. I keep waiting for Celine Dion to pop up and warble every time one of them starts playing, and that sure ain’t the mental image that I want when I listen to Warren Zevon. So, yep, I’m disappointed as hell by this album, since Life’ll Kill Ya was my record of the year in 2000, and this one’s easily a contender for 2002’s worst. Pity that “Sacrificial Lambs” wasn’t just released as a single.

—J.E.S.

John Vanderslice
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker (Barsuk)

As with last year’s Time Travel Is Lonely, the new album by John Vanderslice offers up its dozen songs under one conceptual umbrella. The tunes relate to one another as a song cycle, rather than carrying the narrative thread of a musical or an opera. There are glimpses of loss and death, as in “Nikki Oh Nikki,” in which the narrator sings to a friend who lost a girlfriend to someone else in the mid-’90s, assuring him first that “he’s going to die,” then “she’s going to die,” and finally that everyone will die.

Throughout the work, there’s a stately classicism that sounds like what Procol Harum might’ve been had they been born 30 years later, without any R&B leanings, in America during the era of portable home-studio setups. Only time will tell if Vanderslice’s penchant for poetic obfuscation ultimately will blur his equally resilient gift for songsmithing and inventive pop musical arrangements.

—David Greenberger


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