We Love Life, Pulp (Island)
Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker knows how to do one thing really, really well: be Jarvis Cocker. This is the public agitator who made world news (and secured a hell of a lot of press for his band) by attempting to physically attack Michael Jackson during a British awards ceremony and then made some of us jealous by courting actress Chloe Sevigny. But for all the tabloid fodder he provides, Cocker is no less a singular figure when tending to his day job as the glue that holds the good ship Pulp together, something he's shown a fair amount of dedication to over the past 23 years. Absurdly young, in 1978, when he launched Pulp into the years of obscurity that preceded their gradual late-'80s ascent up the Brit-pop ladder, by the early '90s, Cocker and his ever-changing lineup of bandmates were superstars in the U.K., though they never really matched the popularity of Oasis or Blur in the U.S. The 1991 single "Babies" was the first in a string of mild-to-massive hits Pulp had on the other side of the Atlantic throughout the decade, and Jarvis' status as a sex symbol and television staple rubbed conversely against the darker material the band began to explore. Pulp's last album, 1999's This Is Hardcore, was a culmination of several years of negativity and working-class satire communicated through just about every pop genre this side of well, hardcore.
We Love Life was three years in the making and actually lives up to its title. Its celebratory airiness and orchestration mix well with such stalwart Pulp qualities as unapologetic Bryan Ferry worship and too-clever-for-its-own-good art pop. Much of it will be juicy fodder for those hungry for a smart-ass take on the Tindersticks or Nick Cave, as the words "grand" and "epic" apply, but Cocker's take on this grandeur is more tongue-in-cheek. And the music's hero-pandering transcends mere sonic influences once you take a gander at who produced We Love Life: recently unearthed cult figure Scott Walker. The '60s luminary does a surprisingly fine job not making this Pulp record sound like a Scott Walker record but more like an attractively sophisticated Berlin-era Bowie/Eno collaboration (see the album's centerpiece, "Trees"). There's also a song titled "Bob Lind" after a forgotten L.A. folkie of the '60s. After a quarter century on the pop margins, Cocker shows that he just might carry on his agenda for another decade without looking silly or contrived. Kudos to that. -- Andrew Earles
Daybreaker, Beth Orton (Heavenly/Astralwerks)
Beth Orton's third album, Daybreaker, is neither as trippy as her debut, Trailer Park, nor as straightforwardly folky as her follow-up, Central Reservation. Instead, with its bizarre Barry Manilow-ish title (are the Brits even aware of Manilow's existence?), Daybreaker is a hybrid of her two previous records, its acoustic guitars nicely balanced against synthetic beats and sound effects.
While she may not be the best songwriter to emerge from the post-Lilith landscape, Orton does have the good sense to emphasize lyrics and melody over sound. The music on Daybreaker is arranged to complement the songs -- not just the lyrics but also her interpretation of them -- rather than have the songs act as vehicles for the electro-folky sonics.
Fortunately, the songs on Daybreaker are among the most confessional and accomplished of Orton's career. Most fit well into the framework she has already established but are unbound by any obligation to a verse-chorus-verse formula. Tracks like "Paris Train" and the gloomy "Mount Washington" seem to float more freely and spontaneously, which seems appropriate to her ethereal voice.
Some of the album's more structured tracks, however, are also its most experimental -- at least for Orton. The first single, "Concrete Sky," marries a rainy-day chorus to a jangly guitar-piano sound. It's one of the most memorable moments of her career. And "God Song," with backup vocals by Emmylou Harris, has the simplicity and emotional force of classic country music, ending with a sha-la-la coda that could close a Down From the Mountain Tour concert.
The upside to this song-over-sound approach is that Orton always seems sincere. The downside is that the production is so precisely premeditated that it squeezes the life out of everything but Orton's voice. As a result, Daybreaker is simultaneously idiosyncratic and anonymous, a highly personal record that occasionally sounds highly impersonal. -- Stephen Deusner
Humpty Dumpty LSD, Butthole Surfers (Latino Buggerveil/Revolver)
Michael Azerrad's chapter on the Butthole Surfers in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life is one of the saddest, scariest, funniest, and best pieces of nonfiction writing I've ever read. Composed largely of interviews with band members Paul Leary and King Coffey, this anecdotal history of the Band That Dare Not Speak Its Name charts their rise from staggering, dumpster-diving poverty to relatively uncompromised major-label success. The level and extent of antisocial behavior, sonic terrorism, and truly perverse onstage antics Azerrad records for posterity inspires fear and awe.
But does the music measure up? Not this time. Humpty Dumpty LSD, a massive 17-song, 70-minute smorgasbord of alternate takes and outtakes from the band's 20-year career, only hints at the Surfers' commitment to hypnotic tribal guitarmageddon. Maybe a third of the tracks have vocals, and half of those have lyrics, so the emphasis is on the type of distorted drone that might begin to play over and over in the heads of disgruntled industrial workers everywhere. But aside from the semitraditional kicks of "All Day" and the Roky Erickson cover "Earthquake," Humpty Dumpty LSD sounds like a fans-only deal. And if you ever meet a genuine hardcore Butthole Surfers fan, run for it. -- Addison Engelking
Charango, Morcheeba (London/Sire)
Morcheeba releases a new album and the world stifles a yawn.
After their 2000 flop, the gaudy, disco-lite Fragments Of Freedom, the English trip-hop trio returns with Charango, named after a style of Brazilian music the band discovered during a South American tour. The album doesn't sound much like Fragments, but it doesn't exactly sound Brazilian either. Instead, it picks up where Big Calm left off, indulging in the same mid-tempo grooves and singer Skye Edwards' liquid coo.
There are some bright spots on Charango, though. In perhaps the year's most unexpected collaboration, Kurt Wagner, frontman for Nashville indie orchestra Lambchop, appears on "What New York Couples Fight About," which he co-wrote with Edwards. That song is the album's highlight and a must-have for diehard Lambchop fans (all two of you), but Wagner's other contribution, "Undress Me Now," doesn't quite achieve the '70s seductiveness he intended.
The album's other two collaborators don't fare nearly as well: Pace Won of Tha Outsidaz lends his unimaginative skills to the title track and "Get Along," and Slick Rick's "Women Lose Weight," which tries to be over-the-top ironic, is so insulting, the rapper should be deported.
And yet the band does have its own collaboration-free moments: "Way Beyond" has an effortlessly breezy hook that'll blow through your mind all afternoon, and "The Great London Traffic Warden Massacre," an experimental instrumental that closes the album, sounds like a long-lost blaxploitation theme.
Next time around, Morcheeba should indulge this experimental jones and choose their collaborators more carefully. That'll wipe those yawns off our faces. -- SD