Back when the grunge wave subsided and a slight lull set over the music scene, media prognosticators predicted that electronica, already a burgeoning subculture in Europe and a few major U.S. cities, would be responsible for the next great pop-culture revolution. And while such trends are never initiated by marketing directors or rock critics, for a while it seemed that they might be right: The Prodigy's Fat of the Land debuted at the top of the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in 1997, and their song, "Smack My Bitch Up" (which now sounds so quaint in this Eminem age), stirred up a lot of controversy. MTV took time out of its busy Road Rules/Real World schedule to create and market Amp, a show featuring videos by electronica acts such as the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, and Orbital, spawning two well-received compilations in the process.
Thanks to nü-metal and teen pop, however, electronica never became the Next Big Thing, but it has become a big thing. Instead of overtaking the music scene in a sudden, earth-shaking wave, electronica -- in its basic form as well as its many permutations -- has gradually and quietly insinuated itself into mainstream culture. Moby and Fatboy Slim have become celebrities, albeit dubious ones, and BT, who has worked with artists as disparate as M. Doughty and DJ Rap, recently produced 'NSync's would-be avant-garde single "Pop." Despite the fact that Amp has been relegated to MTV2, house turntablists are now a staple on MTV's beach parties and awards shows.
If electronica has seeped into mainstream consciousness, then other musical elements have filtered into its aesthetic, diluting and mutating the genre into a hydra of offshoots. Disco adds flair to the dance music of Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk, while '70s lite-rock mellowness informs Air's most recent albums and punk adds fury to Atari Teenage Riot's political rants.
With the Crystal Method, it's good ol' rock-and-roll. The duo -- Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland -- released their debut, Vegas, back in 1997, when electronica was still emerging from the underground. In July, the group released its long-awaited sophomore album, Tweekend, and launched its high-profile minifestival, dubbed the Seven Day Tweekend Tour, which features a rotating lineup including Überzone, Adam Freeland, and Beck collaborator DJ Swamp.
Perhaps as a result of a prominent slot on the hard-rock Family Values tour and the four-year interval between releases, Tweekend is a much more focused, hard-hitting album than Vegas, its sound streamlined to reach a wider audience. Jordan and Kirkland construct each song on a tight rhythmic base and then elaborate on that theme until they arrive at melodies and mood. There are few tempo changes from song to song and most feature a limited set of signature noises and sounds. If it's a little bland at times, Tweekend certainly has one thing going for it: From the silly heavy-metal album cover (depicting a bikini-clad babe sunning herself on the beach while nuclear reactors smolder off-shore) to the nifty Peter Frampton-style talk-box vocal on "Ph.D.," it is perhaps the most rock-and-roll electronica album in recent years.
Guitars punctuate almost every song on Tweekend, and the beats are heavier, more percussive and thudding, than those on the previous album -- closer to the pounding drums of Orgy or Korn than, say, Roni Size or Orbital. Approximating the get-in/get-out approach of the best pop music, Jordan and Kirkland have pared down the songs on Tweekend to clock in at three to five minutes, as opposed to the meandering nine-minute tracks on Vegas. The result is a highly accessible album full of shorter, more digestible chunks of music.
Tweekend also features a very impressive roster of collaborators, most of whom reinforce the rock sound. In addition to producing several tracks, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine contributes a supremely funky guitar to the first single, "Name of the Game," and Jon Brion, who has worked with Aimee Mann, Macy Gray, and Fiona Apple, produces and plays Wurlitzer on the atmospheric "Over the Line." Perhaps the most curious cameo is by Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland, who sings on the dark "Murder," the only song on Tweekend to emphasize vocals and to employ a more traditional song structure. "You know it's hard, you know it's murder," Weiland sings, his vocals almost unrecognizably new wave, before launching into a nü-metal scream. A should-be single, it's one of the album's highlights.
Of course, Tweekend is a dance album and incorporates other elements into the mix. Occasionally, the sound suggests sluggish disco, while a faux-soul chorus turns up on "Ten Miles Back." In addition to Morello, "Name of the Game" also features DJ Swamp on turntables and raps by Ryu of Styles of Beyond. Unfortunately, as the album progresses, the songs get longer, the guitars fall away, and Tweekend becomes just another run-of-the-mill dance exercise. In other words, the Crystal Method fare best when they rock out.
It's promising, then, that rocking out is Jordan and Kirkland's goal on the Seven Day Tweekend Tour. At a recent show in Philadelphia, the duo stood behind two keyboard stations like a techno Elton John and Billy Joel, re-creating the sound of both Vegas and Tweekend with surprising, almost dubious, clarity. But they varied the tempos and structures dramatically, building to intense, ear-piercing climaxes and making the songs more dynamic and aggressive.
While rock musicians can jump around with their guitars and twirl their mike stands, Jordan and Kirkland are pretty much tied to their cumbersome equipment. Perhaps realizing that this immobility makes for a fairly static concert, the duo have synchronized an intricate light show to create more of a spectacle. Rigged to an arch above the stage, multicolored, seizure-inducing lights and lasers pulse and flicker in time to the songs, alternately wowing and annoying the audience. More than re-creating a rave atmosphere in a concert space, the spectacle recalls the glory days of monumental light shows by groups like Pink Floyd.
If hard rock informs Crystal Method's electronica, then Überzone -- the opening act for this week's local show -- builds its songs on hip-hop beats and grooves. The brainchild of Southern Californian Q (who bears a striking resemblance to James van der Beek), Überzone combines old-school scratching and rhyme throwdowns with flurries of techno beats and ambient synths.
Überzone's catchy and surprisingly diverse debut album, Faith In the Future, twists and pops with hip-hop and dance rhythms. Like the overwhelming majority of recent rap releases, almost every song on Faith In the Future features a collaborator, forming a very eclectic roster. Over wicky-wicky beats, Beenie Man spouts his growling patois on "Science Fiction," while former Helmet frontman Page Hamilton sounds alarmingly like Seal on the smooth and soulful "Frequency." But the big guest-artist coup on Faith In the Future is an appearance by godfathers of rap Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force on "2Kool4Skool." As the crew trade back-and-forth rhymes, Q rises to the occasion, answering them with an increasingly hyperactive mix that threatens to short-circuit and explode.
But Überzone is never simply the backing band for a crew of guest musicians. On solo tracks like the rubbery "Bounce" and the ambient, synth-saturated title track, Q's beats are too strong and his grooves too hypnotic to be upstaged. Ultimately, he emerges as the star of Faith In the Future, rightly so.
Neither the Crystal Method nor Überzone will be that Next Big Thing that electronica once promised. But thanks to their signature blend of seismic beats and rock chops, Jordan and Kirkland have indeed become a big thing. And with a boundary-breaking sense of adventure and stellar grooves to match, Überzone is on its way as well.
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
"Brooklyn might suit me just fine" might be a line from the Lucero song "All Sewn Up," but it would make just as much sense coming from the mouth of Inside Sounds owner Eddie Dattel. Dattel, whose local record label produced Eternal Egypt, the companion CD to the current Wonders Series exhibit at The Pyramid, will see the album travel with the exhibit to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in November.
Eternal Egypt is the fifth Wonders Series disc that Inside Sounds has produced (the label also did the listening companion for The Dixon's currently touring Visualizing the Blues exhibit) and certainly isn't the first to travel with an exhibit. "I've been on Home Shopping Network talking about these CDs," Dattel says. "This isn't the first time, but to be at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is a big deal for us." Though most Wonders exhibits originate in Memphis before touring the country, it isn't a given that Inside Sounds' companion CDs will travel as well. As Dattel says, "For us it's more of an accomplishment because these other shows aren't contractually obligated to pick up our CDs. They just think that they are the best available."
An instrumental New Age collection, Eternal Egypt was produced and arranged by local composer Grayson Wells with assistance from world-music stalwart Richard Graham. "Grayson is one of these cutting-edge musicians and composers who uses a lot of sampling," Dattel says. "He's at the right age  where he has the classical background but also is tapped into the techno world. I thought he would be a good choice for this because he's somebody who can easily master musical genres that he may not be familiar with. So I knew he'd be able to do what I needed. I wanted the CD to have the [cinematic] feeling of being on a journey and also have some authentic, traditional Middle Eastern music."
Dattel says that the album, available in local record stores as well as at the exhibit, hasn't sold quite as well at The Pyramid as others, most notably the label's companion to the 1997 Titanic exhibit. But it has done well on the open market. "We've found this weird niche with belly dancers," Dattel says. "Belly-dance schools are starting to use it in their classes."
A couple of area music and cultural festivals of note this weekend: In Brownsville, Tennessee, located on the "Music Highway" between Memphis and Nashville, Blues Festival 2001 takes place at the West Tennessee Heritage Center and at the home of blues legend Sleepy John Estes. Music on Friday night will run from 5 p.m. to midnight and will feature artists from Brownsville and nearby Jackson. Saturday's lineup, from 1 p.m. to midnight, boasts a couple of notable Memphis performers. J. Blackfoot, the soul singer who got his start at Stax in the '70s as the lead singer for the Soul Children, will headline the festival with a 9 p.m. closing slot. Pulling double duty will be local one-man-blues-band Richard Johnston, who will perform at the Sleepy John Estes stage at 1 p.m. and again on the Main Stage at 4:30.
Of more local interest this weekend is the annual Cooper-Young Festival, set for Saturday. The musical lineup this year features local acts such as Charlie Wood, FreeWorld, Ed, Planet Swan, Dahrius, and Valhalla. The headliner will be Sun rockabilly performer Sonny Burgess, who will take the stage at 5:30.