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Finding Rock in a Hard Place

Jesse Malin
The Fine Art of Self-Destruction • (Artemis)

Nashville, 1989: My unit, the 101st Airborne, was on alert an hour up the road at Fort Campbell and I had risked a court marshal to see the Replacements. But when you’re 19 it’s a calculated risk. Bassist Tommy Stinson, on close inspection, wore more foundation than my girlfriend. Chris Mars looked like he’d rather be in front of an easel, and Slim’s mouth was a graveyard. My hero Paul Westerberg was an impudent little runt with a bulbous nose; pale, nearly translucent skin; and arms like pipe cleaners. Before the show, I ripped a crude flyer off the club wall (“The last important rock band of the ’80s!” it declared) and presented it to an inebriated Paul for a signature. Reeking like a fuel pump, he laid aside his tumbler and unsteadily followed my instructions to sign “God rest his guts,” a line from his own song “Here Comes a Regular.” The Replacements were in legendary form that night, despite Westerberg spending a portion of the show facedown on the stage atop his Gibson. The next morning, safe in garrison with a stiff neck and a bastard behind the eyes, I peeled open the sweaty flyer, which read, “God Luv Yer Guts, Paul.”

Jesse Malin’s The Fine Art of Self- Destruction sent me digging in a chest for my old scrapbook to confirm the document’s existence, and not just because the busy blare of Malin’s “High Lonesome” and “Wendy” reminds me of my beloved Replacements (it does). And not just because Ryan Adams, who produced and played on the album, said in a press quote that Jesse’s a genius (probably the result of some maudlin, midday drinking session on Avenue A: “Jesse, you’re a genius,” “No Ryan, you’re a genius,” “No, Jesse . . .” etc.), an opinion I once held of Westerberg. It’s because there’s something about the all-too-rare discovery of an excellent new rock record that brings you back to when you were an unabashed fan-boy—the hair springing up on the back of your neck with every sloppy hook.

Malin, a frontman for NYC’s Johnny Thunders-aping D-Generation in the early ’90s, sings in a tortured whine somewhere between Neil Young and the guy from the Counting Crows (whose name shall not be spoken here) and pens heart-trodden, melodic nuggets couched in acoustic guitars, faint piano twinklings and, most prominently, the kind of ragged, electric fuzz that calls to mind the ’Mats in ’89 (or the live version of R.E.M. back when Michael Stipe was a eunuch). “Downline” spills out of the speakers on a descending echoey guitar figure and goose-fleshy melody, while the soulful, palm-muted chugs of “Queen of the Underworld” eventually unfurl into ringing, expansive guitars and swooning backup vocals. This is urban roots music with its spirit deep in downtown New York, even as the protagonist tries to shake off the city, and another rejection. And when Malin sings, “I don’t need any, I don’t need any, I don’t need anyOOOOONE,” he howls it with such wounded conviction that you know he doesn’t really mean it. And neither did you, back then.

—Erik Hage

Matt Munisteri & Brockmumford
Love Story (Old Cow Music)

Guitarist, singer and song- writer Matt Munisteri’s debut straddles several genres with honesty and conviction. Jazz, swing and cabaret are found embedded in the songs themselves, as well as in the playing and arrangements. With his warm and flexible voice, combined with considerable six-string chops, Munisteri leads his curiously monickered combo (accordion/piano/organ, bass, drums, and trumpet) through 14 songs, mostly originals. Some clearly were written with this instrumentation in mind (“Sign Me Up,” “Picciaridu”), while others could easily switch gears and please a pubgoer wanting a bit more kick. A few numbers feel as though they’re included because they showcase Munisteri’s post-Django guitar prowess and make their impact primarily in that regard, with the songs being too genre-specific to resonate very long after the fact.

The set ends with a pair of covers. First is Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which pays homage to Bob Dorough’s jazz reading of the song three decades ago. Closing the disc is the gorgeously evocative and subtly complex Van Dyke Parks jewel “Orange Crate Art.” Munisteri’s guitar adaptation of this originally piano-based piece is perfectly rendered, with Will Holshouser’s accordion stepping in for orchestral color and expanse.

—David Greenberger

The Wildhearts
Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff • (Universal)

Hailing from Newcastle, England, the Wildhearts have enjoyed a filthy, drunken, violent career, replete with personal tragedy, various addictions and record-label malfeasance, causing some to dub them the last of the great British rock bands. All of it, finally, has failed to defeat what is arguably one of the most underrated acts in rock & roll history. Soon after the 1993 release of what would be their only American effort on Warner’s EastWest label (the inimitable Earth Vs. the Wildhearts), the lads enjoyed a groundswell of critical acclaim and fame in Europe and Japan, also seeing some rotation on syndicated U.S. metal radio until the medium fell to the heartbreak of grunge, and later the Mad magazine sound effect that was nü metal. Having sat out such cavalcades of commercial whimsy at the local pub, the inglorious Geordies gallop victoriously back with the quite literal Riff After Riff After Motherfucking Riff.

From the first stupendous chords of opener “Stormy in the North, Karma in the South,” to the striking U.K. single “Vanilla Radio,” to the absolutely debilitating “O.C.D.,” it’s clear that this one is for keeps. Back are the no-filler-killers, the powder-keg riffs that morph into extended, syncopated mosh-pit tirades (a crucial WH trademark), the promises kept, the diffidence that faltered. Singer-songwriter Ginger possesses an innate, almost paranormal ear for melody, a gift for impeccably timed dynamics driven like a railroad tie through glass. There is no pretense behind his deliberate swagger and flair for irony—instead just simply awe-inspired acts of decadence and low-brow fist-banging anthems to purge the awful demons of daily drudgery.

Where’s my Elvis? Right here, baby.

—Bill Ketzer

Lyle Lovett
Smile • (MCA)

Could arch Texas singer- songwriter Lyle Lovett’s latest album be meant as a tonic for the troops, a way to stay upbeat during perilous times? Or is it meant ironically, a collection of show tunes designed to affirm Lovett’s eerie ability to amuse with an unusually cutting edge? The expertly crafted, not-quite-easy-listening Smile is a little bit of both. It’s also a holding action: All of the songs are cover versions, there are several duets with other artists of sympathetically off-stream sensibility, and Lovett is said to be working on a disc of new, original material for release this fall. In the meantime, Smile will bring some sophisticated, tuneful sunshine to these long winter days. Bracketed by Irving Berlin’s breezy “Blue Skies” and a relentless, almost punitive “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” this Hollywood-inspired, 12-tune recording is an erratic, ultimately endearing affair. The high points include a “Mack the Knife” imaginatively arranged by noir trumpeter Mark Isham, an emotionally complicated reading of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” and a throaty, sexy update of “What’d I Say” that sounds natural even though Lovett probably never worked juke joints like the ones that inspired the classic Ray Charles composition.

—Carlo Wolff

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