David Byrne, Look Into The Eyeball (Virgin/Luaka Bop)

David Byrne - Look Into The Eyeball David Byrne
Look Into The Eyeball
Virgin/Luaka Bop
By: Eric Greenwood

Following the demise of the Talking Heads, David Byrne flew under the radar for a few albums, suffering from the same disease that has plagued so many lead singers of legendary bands. This disease often forces former lead singers to join forces with The United Colors of Benetton and record some multicultural mish mash of an album that is sure to alienate their established commercial audience. It’s up to you whether you think Sting or Paul Simon fared any better than David Byrne in their early solo years, but let’s agree that Byrne didn’t really get back on track until his self-titled album in 1994.

1997’s Feelings improved David Byrne’s solo standing even more, revealing hints of former greatness both visually and musically. He found a way to fuse his non-sequiturs with modern pop while also incorporating his love for non-Western music and deadpan irony. Look Into The Eyeball brings Byrne full circle. It’s easily on par with his former band (well"the latter years, anyway). Rife with strings and lush orchestration, Look Into The Eyeball is by far Byrne’s finest solo album. The production is compact and buoyant, allowing Byrne to walk through a sonic wonderland of sorts, where doo-wop and funk and Latin and soul all huddle together in a string of exquisite melodies.

The highly percussive “U.B. Jesus” exemplifies Byrne’s perfectly crafted pop sensibility and tricky tongue. Unexpected melodies fuse together in a gospel-tinged sing-along, which pecks at Christianity blithely. What other white man could get away with a chorus of “Shine on Sister?” Byrne"s loopy, cartoonish voice drives "The Revolution"- a lovely duet between a violin and an acoustic guitar. And on "The Great Intoxication" Byrne"s polyrhythmic tendencies syncopate with languid string arrangements, over which he references himself in odd little epithets: "who disco, who techno, who hip hop, who be bop, who"s been playing records in his bedroom?"

Brevity is the key to Look Into The Eyeball, as several songs clock in at less than three minutes. With his notoriously sporadic output (one album every four years or so), you"d think Byrne would have much more to say. Thirty-eight minutes barely qualifies as a full length these days. But Byrne"s always been a sharp observer, assimilating massive amounts of culture and art and piecing it all together in neatly packaged bits of quirky pop- like the jaunty acoustic funk of "Like Humans Do." On this track Byrne mines similar territory to that of his former band musically, while lyrically he stares wide-eyed at his fellow man like an alien walking in the shoes of a human for the first time: "I"m breathing in/I"m breathing out/so slip inside this funky house."

It"s hard not want to dance or at least wriggle around awkwardly to Byrne"s off-kilter sense of rhythm. "Broken Things" incorporates metallic percussion and a subdued horn section while a slow funk pushes the song forward led by a sneaky fretless bass line and Byrne"s lopsided vocal. The sparseness and semi-seriousness of "The Accident" showcases Byrne"s penchant for melodies that burn themselves into your frontal lobes. The string arrangement is gorgeously ominous too- an album highlight. However, the culturally friendly "Desconocido Soy" tries too hard. This Spanish duet with NRU is slightly off-putting largely because of NRU"s somewhat grating vocal. But at two minutes and thirty-nine seconds who can complain? David Byrne has earned a pass for such small indulgences.

The album sets itself straight very quickly, though, with the laid-back soul of "Neighborhood." It sounds like a genuine song off a 1970"s blaxploitation soundtrack until Byrne"s instantly recognizable lilt breezes in to spread a little mayonnaise on that piece of wheat bread. Lyrically, Byrne is still the same geeky academic with a childish curiosity that he"s always been, though, perhaps, less obvious in his cynicism. "Walk On Water" tries to contradict what I"ve just stated, fusing irony and common sense in a narrative about a clueless and indulgent rock star. Byrne is less judgmental than he would have been twenty years ago, but it"s not a case of mellowing out- he"s just wiser. He shows how far-removed he is from such a world of unabashed egotism with pithy, deadpan statements: "he can walk on the water but he can"t stop falling in/he"s living underwater but he don"t know how to swim."

"Everyone"s In Love With You" closes the album with what seems like a sentimental ode on the surface but reveals itself to be a puzzling amalgam of weirdness and melody: "I"m jealous and a little proud/I want to kill and kiss you too/you belong to everyone who meets you/everyone"s in love with you." The plonking percussion coupled with a straightforward guitar jangle shows a stripped down version of Byrne"s formula at its best. Look Into The Eyeball isn"t going to get Byrne"s mug back on the cover of Time, nor is it going to surpass any of his greatest achievements with the Talking Heads. It will, however, secure his status as a vital solo artist whose well is far from dry.

The Cure, Greatest Hits (Elektra/Fiction)

The Cure - Greatest Hits The Cure
Greatest Hits
Elektra/Fiction
By: Eric Greenwood

Arbitrary and somewhat unrepresentative, the new Greatest Hits package by The Cure is inessential for fans new or old, even if you buy the limited edition double disc that includes acoustic versions of all the songs. With two retrospective collections already on the shelves (Standing On A Beach- The Singles, and Galore, respectively), The Cure"s new Greatest Hits release screams "contractual obligation" without the slightest hint of irony or regret. Robert Smith has long since given up guarding the legend or mystique of his monolithic creation, so shameless over-saturation of the market is par for the course at this point.

No matter what questionable direction Robert Smith lured his bandmates in the 1990"s, The Cure always had a stellar string of hits to fall back on live. They are classic songs ranging in emotion and technique from na"ve pop angst ("Boys Don"t Cry") to dark pop angst ("A Forest"), to just pop ("In Between Days), and finally to abusurdist pop (Why Can"t I Be You?)- songs that can"t be marred by lightweight releases [like remix albums (Mixed Up) and boring live discs (Show, Paris)] that would likely call into question any other band"s previous brilliance. Robert Smith knows he"s bullet-proof as far as his repertoire of singles goes, so another greatest hits release is an excuse to keep some thin blood flowing through the old horse as well as an excuse to squash "break-up" rumors by adding two "new" songs.

Don"t you hate it when bands tack on new shit to their greatest hits albums? Kind of contradicts the title, doesn"t it? How can two new songs be considered greatest hits? They haven"t had time to stand the test of time or even become hits. Maybe it"s just wishful thinking. Can"t blame them for that, I guess. One of the new "greatest hits" featured, "Cut Here", is actually one of the better singles the band has released in a decade, as typically Cure-sounding as it is. Robert Smith has created his own brand of clich". It"s impossible to mistake this song as anything but The Cure with those retro-1980"s keyboards, those cadenced and effects-laden guitars, that gloomy yet melodic bass line, and, of course, that pouty voice- all ingredients of almost any Cure song you can name off the top of your head.

It"s a decent little pop song that unfurls in a dreamy minor key until it hits the quasi-chorus, where Smith employs some embarrassingly cutesy lyrical ticks: "so dizzy Mr. Busy – too much rush to talk to Billy/
all the silly frilly things have to first get done." I can"t fully endorse the song"s merit with such a blatant misstep (not to mention the split infinitive), but, man, the keyboards sound good. Oh, well. Maybe the next one. The other new one, "Just Say Yes", is a duet with Saffron from Republica (collaboration has never been Smith"s forte). Their voices blend well together, and the band actually takes a bona fide stab at a new musical direction- the likes of which we haven"t seen since the release of "Let"s Go To Bed" pissed off all the goths back in 1982. Daft lyrics ensure the failure of this song too, but it"s a respectable effort.

I"ll never complain about having to sit through anything by The Cure that was recorded before 1990. In other words, the first two-thirds of the disc are top notch, if you don"t already own all this stuff. It"s anything post-Disintegration where chinks in the band"s armor start to reveal themselves. Thankfully, only three songs represent the Wish to Wild Mood Swings era (1992-1996)- the lowest point in the band"s history without question. The band"s last album, 2000"s semi-rejuvenating Bloodflowers, is conspicuously unrepresented. I dare say the singles off Bloodflowers are easier to swallow than the likes of the rancid mush off Wish ("High", "Friday I"m In Love"), or the forced and boring retread off Wild Mood Swings ("Mint Car").

The most astonishing thing about this collection is the fact that so many songs are missing. Where"s "The Caterpillar", or "Fascination Street", or even "Killing An Arab?" You can"t say they only included songs that were technically "hits" by charting standards because "Boys Don"t Cry" was a flop when it was released. And, honestly, how high did "A Forest" chart back in 1980? Regardless, this collection is like the America Online of greatest hits albums; it"s for people who don"t know any better. The ploy of tacking on a bonus disc of horrid acoustic versions (if you saw the band"s Unplugged session for MTV in 1990 then you are fully aware how terrible The Cure can sound acoustically) of good songs should not entice long time fans to go against their better judgement and plonk down the cash for this utter waste of plastic.

Serotonin, Universal Time Constant (Bifocal Media)

Serotonin - Universal Time Constant Serotonin
Universal Time Constant
Bifocal Media
By: Eric Greenwood

Serotonin"s aggressive emo suffers from an overly complex musical base and a rushed sense of melody, among other things. The guitars surge, but they were recorded so poorly that the effect is limp. In terms of dynamics, the band whips through its changes flawlessly- it"s just that the changes themselves are ineffective for the most part. There"s no emotion or tension in the stop/start assault. The vocals when screamed (as on the title track) seem to have a positive impact on the music, but often times the singing parts drag the songs down into bland emo territory.

For some reason angry emo is much more tolerable than the sappy Saves The Day/Promise Ring/Get Up Kids kind. To Serotonin"s credit, I"m sure "emo" would not be a term it would pick to describe itself. But when your songs aren"t about squeezing Cleveland Steamers on Playboy Bunnies and you play aggressive and technical punk with any semblance of sincerity you tend to get lumped in the emo bin. I don"t want to drag this down into a discussion of what "emo" is because I think you follow me.

"Broken Canvas" starts off with a clean guitar jangle and a propulsive rhythm section. The vocals are whiny and fairly obnoxious. The verse is interrupted by a busy interlude with a lot of notes but not a lot of purpose other than to say, "this is neither the verse nor the chorus." Fear not- the blast of guitars is just another run through the verse away. You can tell because the whine gets a little louder the second time through. The crashing guitars come complete with pick slides. Rock on. The musicianship is impressive in a very cold, precise, and technical way, but the band could work on its songwriting skills.

The area that needs the most work, however, is the singing. The nasally whine is borderline unlistenable. And whining louder for an emotional impact is never an advisable technique, unless you"re trying to be funny. This flaw is most evident on "Eyes Reflecting Images"- a meandering stew of inexplicable changes and random bursts of explosive energy. Serotonin just forces way too many notes into each part. Why? To show off its musical prowess? And taking five minutes to express some vague notion of shyness and regret is wholly unnecessary.

The quartet of musicians that comprises Serotonin obviously knows how to play its instruments, but it sorely needs to simplify things in order to make its songs more memorable. As it is now, these intermittent rages and changes go in one ear and out the other without sticking.

M. Ward, End Of Amnesia (Future Farmer)

M. Ward - End Of Amnesia M. Ward
End Of Amnesia
Future Farmer
By: Eric Greenwood

Being compared to an anomaly like Tom Waits is more of a curse than a blessing. Simply put- there"s only one Tom Waits, and anything resembling him will invariably be viewed as a sad rip-off. So when I read that M. Ward sounded like a cross between Tom Waits and indie rock darlings Grandaddy, I feared for the worst. There are few things quite like having your fears about an album quelled to the point that you feel silly for having made any kind of pre-judgment in the first place. M. Ward"s End Of Amnesia did just that, though, and more, putting me at ease by the second song, "Color Of Water."

M. Ward"s stripped down, sometimes southern, sometimes country, but always bare bones and brutally honest music digs its claws deep into your skin and makes you see life through the eyes of a man who needs desperately to clear his throat. "Folk" has always been a bad word in my world because it"s almost always indicative of bad music, but every now and again someone will surface who gives "folk" a good name. M. Ward is one of those rare breeds. His music is quiet and authentic like Neil Young"s was in the early 1970"s (I"m thinking specifically of After The God Rush And Harvest).

His voice may cap his appeal somewhat, but the quality of his songwriting should overcome that obstacle. Not that his voice is bad- it just lacks range and versatility. He croons quietly over his acoustic guitar, but this isn"t frilly hippie music. There"s an edge to his music that"s hard to explain. Maybe it"s his gravelly voice that conveys such toughness. There"s also a level of sincerity inherent to the tunes that makes them even more believable. Like Tom Waits, M. Ward is able to portray emotion without being sappy about it. It"s a lot easier to digest emotion from someone who sounds like he"s seen the bottom of his share of liquor bottles.

Don"t let the rustic tone fool you- there"s actually quite a bit of technology at work on End Of Amnesia. Ward blends vintage found sounds with his acoustic guitar along with shuffling drums and ambient textures. "Half Moon" is a gorgeous example. His rough croon blends in with the sad tone of his guitar perfectly. The bass part kicks on and gives the percussion that extra push that almost makes you tap your feet against your better judgment. In the distant background harmonicas flail and organs hum. Ward experiments with multi-tracking his voice on "So Much Water" to eerie effect. There"s a ghostly feel throughout the album, which Ward seems to be well aware of.

The first few lines of "Bad Dreams" instantly recall Neil Young as Ward floats through his earnest falsetto. His reverb-heavy guitar is accompanied by a soft organ line while vintage radio samples squall in the background. "Archangel Tale" is even more subdued. His voice and guitar are pushed high in the mix but there"s always action in the background. Most of it is too quiet to identify. What sounds like a cat"s meow could easily be a saw. Bells and organs and harps"it"s like a mini honky tonk orchestra is always just out of range.

Half way through the album M. Ward reveals his aggressive side. "Silvertone" is a steel guitar led backwoods foot-stomping instrumental, and "Flaming Heart" incorporates fifties rock and roll flair. The strange radio frequencies still haunt beneath the surface, though. "From A Pirate Radio Sermon, 1989" is the only song that could disguise itself as indie rock and fit in- the retro-fuzz aligning it with the likes of Elf Power and that ilk. Despite a few detours, though, M. Ward"s strength is his dark acoustic folk, and End Of Amnesia impressively showcases his raw songcraft.

Isobella, A 24 Syllable Haiku (Claire)

Isobella - A 24 Syllable Haiku Isobella
A 24 Syllable Haiku
Claire
By: Eric Greenwood

With an impressive wall of guitars guiding its slow and shimmering songs, Isobella returns on its second album with another collection of dreamy albeit derivative pop. Let"s get the obligatory references out of the way. Yes, Isobella owns a copy of My Bloody Valentine"s Loveless and very probably everything Lush released before Split in 1994. Perhaps, some Pale Saints and Slowdive as well. "Shoegazer" is the common denominator, of course- the early 1990"s fad where bands filtered their guitars through countless effects and drowned in a pool of reverb and feedback all the while staring at the ground.

Isobella tries to distance itself from that term in its brief biography, but the fact that its mentioned at all reveals a marketing ploy that"s too clever by half. If you"ve never heard of "shoegazer" music then Isobella would gladly lump itself in that category, but if you"re a jaded music fan, then "shoegazer" is far too ambiguous of a term to describe this band. Ahh, but you can"t have it both ways. As unoriginal as Isobella is on the surface, the band does have a propensity for glacial melodies and otherworldly soundscapes. Every song plods along at the same pace, making it very difficult to distinguish one song from the next, but Laura Poinsette"s vocals careen beautifully amid the waves of textured guitars.

While bands like Low and Codeine play very, very slowly, they also employ a set of dynamics that climaxes as effectively as noisy rock and roll does. Isobella"s dynamic is one-dimensional, and so is its songwriting formula, both of which are devoid of anything resembling a climax. Wall of noise versus plaintive vocal line. Repeat ad nauseum. Sure, it"s dreamy and all, but the schtick gets old fast. There are plenty of people who will eat this up, and Isobella plays the retro-shoegazer purist part very well- just don"t expect it to have much of an impact on you either musically or emotionally.

This one trick pony will either lure you into its cloudy lair with sheets of affected distortion and floating vocals or cause you to eject the disc after three songs once you get the gist of it. Since Isobella has developed its sound from such a specific aspect of the whole "shoegazer" scene, there"s little room for people to be on the fence. Isobella doesn"t seek out any obvious hooks or even a danceable beat; the band seems too content to rely on the "prettiness" of its sound effects. Taken one song at a time A 24 Syllable Haiku has some remarkable moments both vocally and on guitar, but it"s somewhat of a boring chore to sit through in its entirety.

X-ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents (Caroline)

X-ray Spex - Germfree Adolescents X-ray Spex
Germfree Adolescents
Caroline
By: Eric Greenwood

X-Ray Spex were one of the few female-fronted punk bands to make an indelible mark on the burgeoning punk movement in England in the late 1970"s. The band"s early singles were raw and full of abrasive energy, particularly the rambunctious punk classic "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" which combined jarring guitars with over the top saxophone and Poly-Styrene"s obnoxious wail.

Styrene ranted and raged her way through her droll and oftentimes nonsensical lyrics that targeted the pretense of her generation. Being a teenager at the time you can hardly blame Styrene for lines like: "I-AM-A CLICH" you"ve seen before/I-AM-A-CLICH" that lives next door/I-AM-A-CLICH" know what I mean/I-AM-A-CLICH" pink is obscene."

Germ Free Adolescents compiled several of the band"s stunning singles as well as a few "ballads." X-Ray Spex were unique amongst the heap of post-Sex Pistols-shock-punk because of an inherent ear for melody that truly blossomed in tracks like "Genetic Engineering" and "Identity." The prominence of keyboards and saxophone in the mix also contributed to the band"s crazed appeal. The band flails through each song with a sense of desperation and immediacy.

"The Day The World Turned Dayglo" is unabashed punk genius: "I clambered over mounds and mounds/of polystyrene foam/then fell into a swimming pool/filled with fairy snow/and watched the world turn dayglo." All the noise is infectious. Every song is a classic example of the strange marriage of naivete and aggression connate to the early punk scene.

Sadly, X-Ray Spex only released one album in its heyday (a sad resurfacing of the band occurred in 1995 but it"s nothing to speak of), but it"s an archetypal tour-de-force. The band"s influence can be heard in everything from the riot grrl movement of the early 1990’s to more mainstream female-fronted acts like Elastica and the now-defunct Kenickie, but no female-fronted band has rivaled X-Ray Spex"s brand of primal energy and aggression.

Figurine, The Heartfelt (March)

Figurine - The Heartfelt Figurine
The Heartfelt
March
By: Eric Greenwood

Figurine"s The Heartfelt is the best argument for the synthesizer that I"ve heard in a long time. Living up to its name – or down rather – Figurine"s music sounds small and insular. The warm analogue tones conflict with the icy detachment of the monotone male and female vocal stylings and robotic rhythms, but the electro-pop melodies bridge such incongruities quite well. Surface influences range from Pet Shop Boys and Kraftwerk to the lo-fi electronic succinctness of everybody"s favorite trash-talking gay muse, Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.

Despite constantly recalling early 1980"s synth-pop luminaries like the Human League, Figurine stumbles upon its own unique brand of downbeat pop through songwriting that"s paradoxically both primitive and sophisticated. "International Space Station II" is eerily hypnotic with its layered synthetics and distant, mutated cries. The light syncopation underscores the deadpan spoken-word banter, creating an otherworldly introduction to this trio"s second album. "Impossible" expands on the dark theme of the opener but injects a bouncy programmed beat a la early Depeche Mode, and the vocal inflection recalls New Order"s Bernard Sumner at his most dejected. The melodies are just too good to ignore.

On "Rewind" Figurine incorporates its first organic instrument, the acoustic guitar. The effect is much like that of Madonna"s "Don"t Tell Me"- a cross-hybrid pop song that fuses squishy electronics with something as mundane as an acoustic guitar melody for a sound that is inexplicably modern. The metaphor of the rewind button on a tape machine to explore a failing relationship only enhances the band"s retro-futuristic-camp personality. "Way Too Good" is pure electro-pop heaven. Galloping drum machines hammer out simplistic beats while understated keyboard melodies sway underneath the predictably wooden vocal delivery.

The Heartfelt is more serious than anything Figurine has released thus far. There"s nothing really indie about it in terms of sound either, and that"s a refreshing change of pace for a band that could easily get lost in the sea of resurgent new wavers with high-end personal computers. The production is immaculate. Figurine really draws you into its robotic netherworld. From ethereal escapes like "Stranger" to the more obvious pop songs like "Time (His Mix)", Figurine swaddles you in velvety synthesizers and bubbling electronic percussion, but it"s the calculated detachment and boredom that really sets it apart. The band has truly captured the essence of early 1980"s ennui and romanticism.

Even obvious Depeche Mode derivations like "Our Game (Is Over)" with its somewhat cheesy video game lyrical analogy comes off endearing, partly because of its unexpected dark musical breakdown/detour through familiar video game sound effects and clever vocoder usage. The male/female vocal trade-offs on "So Futuristic" sound like a depressing re-enactment of the Human League"s "Don"t You Want Me?", but it works because the delivery is so convincing and the melody is so immediate. The same could be said of The Heartfelt as a whole. Figurine proves to be much deeper than just another batch of technophiles obsessed with the 1980"s.