Music » Record Reviews

Short Cuts

Brit band plays Dr. Ruth.

As its title might indicate, The Facts of Life is a concept album about sex. But unlike Let's Get It On or, well, pretty much any Prince record, celebrating carnal pleasure isn't its primary point. Instead, this British band has crafted a complicated, caring song cycle that addresses sex among the young and inexperienced (and demystifies sex for the young and inexperienced) from several angles, including the physical difficulty of the act itself.

In terms of music and attitude, Black Box Recorder splits the difference between archetypal, femme-fronted, trip-hop bands such as Everything But the Girl and Portishead and the more lyrically pointed Brit- rock of Pulp. The musical masterminds behind the group are Luke Haines of the Auteurs and John Moore of the Jesus and Mary Chain, who craft minimalist keyboard-based pop with subtle dub undercurrents -- it's sturdy, catchy stuff that sounds as good on listen one as it does on listen 15, but it never draws attention to itself. Instead singer Sarah Nixey's voice is left up top, putting across one whip-smart song after another. Nixey's vocals are formal, elegant, and considered but also convey compassion. She turns The Facts of Life from an ethnography on the travails of teen sex to a compendium of sisterly (or even motherly) advice.

This second Black Box Recorder album has the audacity to begin with three straight driving/sex metaphors -- each at least in the same aesthetic ballpark as "Little Red Corvette" and a whole lot more honest and responsible. These songs are sweet, sly, and vivid. On "The Art of Driving," Nixey plays a sexual beginner cooly counseling an overeager lover: "I wish you'd learn to slow down/You might get there in the end/Don't think the accelerator pedal is a man's best friend/You don't have to break the speed limit/You don't have to break your neck/Another speed- boy racer/cut out from the wreck." "Weekend" uses a weekend road trip as a metaphor for sexual uncertainty, Nixey swooning to her driving companion, "Maybe this weekend [pregnant pause] maybe never." And "The English Motorway System" contemplates the patience and attention that go into the journey itself.

The lovely, hushed "May Queen" dramatically yet lightly presents the first fumbling steps of school-age romance as private pact -- its first-kiss hesitancy rhyming with the carnal finale "Goodnight Kiss" ("Use your imagination/We can go anywhere Tonight we'll draw blood"). But the centerpiece is the title track, an actual hit in England. Most of the songs, understandably, are pitched from a female perspective, but here Nixey turns a kind eye to the plight of an adolescent boy phoning a girl for a date: "Now's the time to deal with the fear of being rejected/No one gets through life without being hurt/At this point the boy who's listening to this song is probably saying/that it's easier said than done/and it's true."

Not every song on The Facts of Life tackles Topic A. "Straight Life" is a sardonic take on class and domesticity ("home improvements/in our dream home," Nixey croons) that recalls Roxy Music and latter-day Gang of Four. But Black Box Recorder's measured look at the messy reality of physical intimacy among adolescents is what makes the album special. With kids today subjected to a constant bombardment of teen- diva sexpots and booty videos, it's almost a public service announcement. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Catch-all, SWAG (Yep Roc Records)

SWAG is a Nashville "supergroup" composed of Robert Reynolds and Jerry Dale McFadden, both of the now-defunct Mavericks, as well as former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, Cheap Trick bass player Tom Petersson, and solo artist Doug Powell. As its title suggests, their debut album is a catch- all of such pop influences as the Beach Boys, Big Star, and the Kinks -- to name just a few -- and the band relies on them very heavily for direction and inspiration.

Songs like "I'll Get By" and "Ride" sound like vintage Cheap Trick, and "When She Awoke" contains some very Beach Boyish ba-ba-bas and lush orchestration. Both Reynolds and guest singer Scotty Huff sound eerily like White Album-era Paul McCartney on "Near Perfect Smile" and "Different Girl," respectively.

But the band plays with such energy and obvious affection for these self-penned tunes that Catch-all becomes more than just the sum of its influences. There's a playful inventiveness here, evident in the harpsichord groove on "Please Don't Tell," the smooth harmonica that graces "Near Perfect Smile," and the call-and-response solo between baritone guitar and piano on "Eight." Such unexpected flourishes add life to the album. This project could easily have been derivative and stiff, but Catch-all sounds spontaneous, endearing, and heartfelt. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B

Do What You Want, Garageland (Foodchain Records)

On Garageland's second album, Do What You Want, singer Jeremy Eades sounds like a forlorn, lovesick teen, inflating everyday romantic confusion to dramatic life-or-death proportions. In the process, he and his three fellow New Zealanders create catchy indie pop with occasional flashes of eloquence and wit.

Eades is a master of portraying pain through small gestures. For example, on the deceptively laid-back "Good Morning" he invests the simple question "How are you?" with bittersweet yearning, concluding, "It's a small town/I'll probably see you around."

But Eades isn't the only star on Do What You Want. Andrew Claridge's surprisingly versatile guitar scorches and burns through songs like "Burning Bridges" and "Love Song" and shimmers reassuringly on quieter numbers like "Good Luck" and "Good Morning." His playfully funky groove gives "Kiss It All Goodbye" its sunny mood, while "Middle of the Evening" hinges on his aching, echoing solo. There are a few moments, as on "What You Gonna Do?," when Claridge overpowers Eades' vocals, upsetting the otherwise appealing balance.

On the whole, the peaks on Do What You Want are higher than the lows are low. It's a fine album, uneven and a little misguided at times, but it succeeds with frequent bursts of charm and insight. -- SD

Grade: B

Taj Mahal, Taj Mahal (Columbia/Legacy)

The second half of the 20th century saw numerous blues revivals. The one that happened in the late '60s is particularly memorable for much of the execrable music made live and on record. White middle-class American and English musicians who quickly made the transition from garage bands to yowling hippie bluesmen should probably never be forgiven for the sheer tonnage of crap they made from 1967 to 1972. Anyone who ever suffered through a boogie- band night at the Overton Park Shell during that period will be quite familiar with this phenomenon.

But there were exceptions, like the Massachusetts guitarist, singer, blues historian and popularizer Taj Mahal, who was one of the first out of the blues-revival chute with this recently re-released 1967 debut for Columbia. What the screechy hippies strained for he simply delivered with only a minimum of patchouli reek. The songs recorded here were all blues clichés even by 1967 -- three by Brownsville's Sleepy John Estes, Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," Sonny Boy Williamson's "Checkin' Up On My Baby," and even the inevitable cover of Robert Johnson's cover of "Dust My Broom." But what's interesting is the alternating playfulness and reverence Mahal brings to the performance of these predictable old chestnuts. No, the record is not a classic by any means, but it sure beats the hell out of Keb Mo and the entire Alligator Records catalog. -- Ross Johnson

Grade: B+

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at

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