Welcome to the Monkey House
The Dandy Warhols
On their fourth album, Welcome to the Monkey House, America's least likely career band, the Dandy Warhols, look back to that infamous decade when their namesake died. In addition to hijacking New Wave synths, drum machines, and voice boxes, they've even hired Simon Lebon to sing on "Plan A" and Nick Rhodes to help produce. But instead of Duran Duran, the Dandy Warhols wound up with something closer to Timbuk 3, which is surely a good thing.
For all the retro hubbub, however, these influences haven't changed the Warhols' sound so much as bolstered it a bit and expanded its possibilities. Songs like "Wonderful You," "I Am Over It," and "I Am the Scientist" retain sonic similarities to previous albums -- the same inviting hooks, the same blasÇ spirit, the same observant humor -- but with less guitar and more keyboard, programmed drums, and studio effects.
The approach works on just about every song, but it reaches a pinnacle in "You Were the Last High," co-written by Evan Dando. As the instruments click into a laidback strut, Courtney Taylor-Taylor sings "I have known love/Like a whore/From at least 10,000 more," before proclaiming the song's addressee as his last good time. What begins as sleazy ex-girlfriend baiting becomes a statement of hollowness and loss when he admits that all those thousands left him empty. It's romantic cold turkey, a far harsher comedown than detox.
If the Warhols have expanded their sound, they've narrowed their subject: on Monkey House, marijuana is the band's muse. Taylor-Taylor introduces "I Am Over It" with "Let's see if we can get this in one toke -- er, take," then proceeds to program a bong hit into the beats. Such weed worship sounds strange against the New Wave accoutrements; after all, it was cocaine that fueled the nation's mania for robotic beats and asymmetrical haircuts.
Still, as songs like the supremely catchy first single "We Used To Be Friends" and the sing-along "Plan A" attest, the Warhols are clearly more than a one-toke band.
-- Stephen Deusner
How the West Was Won
The most galvanizing and unexpected aspect of Led Zeppelin's live How the West Was Won is the way in which it reminds listeners that four real human beings were responsible for rolling up their sleeves and carving out the foundations of classic rock. Across 18 tracks on three CDs, drummer John Bonham's and especially bassist John Paul Jones' work are thrown into relief; in 1972, both musicians were leaning toward funk accents long before other white hard-rock bands recognized the power of slipperier, groove-based rhythm sections. Jimmy Page's acoustic/electric riffs and solos reaffirm his place in history as perhaps the greatest post-Hendrix electric guitarist (whatever that's worth). And Robert Plant's unholy wail effortlessly hovers over the dense, surprisingly detailed racket. As the much better double-DVD also shows, live Led Zeppelin on a good night was a tough, tireless, powerful band that succeeded marvelously in spite of the fact that no band of similar stature has had less to say. (Can anyone quote a Led Zeppelin lyric that doesn't sound like a sound bite from Gandalf the Grey?)
Though the first and third disc fuse Zep's power and tenderness beautifully on a gorgeous "Stairway to Heaven," a lively "Over the Hills and Far Away," a wild "Bring It on Home," and a mournful "Since I've Been Loving You," the second disc's meanderings are practically a plea for punk rock to come and clean house. Two of the four songs on disc two are Page's 25-minute guitar explorations on "Dazed and Confused" and Bonham's interminable 19-minute tom-tomfoolery on "Moby Dick," which continues to reinforce my belief that no rock drum solos are worth hearing more than once.
In the studio, Zeppelin was often bigger than its tight stadium-ready britches; however, the double-album sprawl of 1975's Physical Graffiti is inspired arena-rock excess. In spite of the sharp playing and comfort of familiar songs played to remain nearly the same, nearly half of this long-overdue, shabbily packaged triple-CD is tiresome bloat.
-- Addison Engelking
Cup of Sand
When I'm a medicated heap rotting the days away behind a TV tray, somewhere in the bowels of a depressing "retirement village," I picture my ungrateful children and grandkids simultaneously rummaging through boxes and boxes of my ill-kept belongings and documents, probably looking for neglected pain medication. One of these offspring, the token "precocious one," will find me in my final home and ask, "Granddad, what was 'indie rock?'" Ah, the chance to spin one last superfluous, adjective-heavy yarn, and Superchunk will be the band I grasp for when trying to explain indie rock -- the momentary great white hope of the closing millennium -- to the people of the future.
Superchunk may be the quintessential indie-rock band, but Cup of Sand, a two-disc compilation of b-sides and not-good-enough-for-primetime Superchunk (their third release of this type, mind you), serves more as a "mistakes we made in the '90s" scrapbook than the perfect example of indie rock for the ages. That's the purpose of these house-cleaners, and some of what's cleaned out this time around was clearly too weird for a Superchunk album. Bassist Laura Ballance's "The Mine Has Been Returned to Its Original Owner" is menacing and bites a metal feel from fellow North Carolinian onetime semilegends Breadwinner.
To deny that Cup of Sand is the sound of a past era would be lying, but to say that it's as unneeded as most compilations of this nature would be unfair. The Adam Ant and Government Issue covers are a nice touch, and if the whole package were consumed as new material, it would play as the band's fantasy departure from methodical album-making: an indulgent double-CD of varied material. Providing entertaining icing, the oral-history-style booklet offers an occasional hilarious one-liner (usually from drummer Jon Wurster) and more than a few "I don't remember recording this" or "I hated playing this live" statements. -- Andrew Earles