By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Chocolate and Cheese, Ween (Elektra Records) and Made in USA, Pizzicato Five (Matador Records): Somewhere in between smug post-modern appropriation and sincerity lie these two bands--one of which consists of two wise-ass Yankees, the other of which is a Japanese export that succeeds where Deee-Lite failed miserably. Aside from The Black Album, Ween's fourth is the best Prince record of the year--a melange of Philly soul and P-Funk and Middle Eastern rhythms and lounge-rock and lo-fi Latin revenge songs, a creation born of studio craftsmanship and a childhood spent in the suburbs during the '70s. The P5 go more for '60s pop-culture points of reference--John Barry's James Bond theme, Twiggy, Lalo Schiffrin, Sly Stone--but, like Ween, never reduce the sum of the parts to a joke. In fact, it's all done with a rather straight face, which is what finally makes it so much fun.
The Decline and Fall of Heavenly, Heavenly (K Records): Amelia Fletcher's a little tougher than Claire Grogan, but only a little; otherwise, Heavenly is the '90s reincarnation of Altered Images--the frothy, perky, endearing band of a decade ago that recast the classic pop sound of the '60s for a thoroughly modern new-wave age. From the opening "Me and My Madness" (on which Fletcher sings, "I hear strings in songs when they're not there," and is then accompanied by a brief swell of violins) to the closers "Sperm Meets Egg, So What?" and "She and Me," Heavenly is just that--bubblegum-pop born again, sweet songs created by people unashamed to be so wonderfully white.
Pirate Prude, Helium (Matador Records): The middle two songs on this six-song EP (perhaps the longest EP in history) are the Whore Songs: on "XXX," Mary Timony sings that she's not for free, but "I'll take your love if your love will pay me"; on "OOO," she offers herself as candy, droning in a flat and pretty voice that "you can suck me or leave me in the wrapper sticky." The rest of the songs equate love with death, Timony's creepy come-ons doubling as violent threats ("You got a skull, baby, you got a spine, after I'm done with you I'll spit them out like rinds"), and all six songs are set to the most dissonant, harrowing pop songs of the year--like, if Bedhead was fronted by Thalia Zedek and Polly Jean Harvey.
Superunknown, Soundgarden (A&M Records): Twenty years from now, for better or worse, kids will call their classic-rock station and request "Black Hole Sun" the way they tie up phone lines begging to hear "Stairway to Heaven" just one more time; it's as beautiful as it is brutal, as soft as it is loud, classic-(arena-)rock redone brand-new--not the best song on Superunknown ("Let Me Drown" or "Kickstand" possess better riffs, "Like Suicide" is creepier), but a great Rock Single. After regurgitating Blue Cheer-Zep-Sabbath rip-riffs for a handful of records, Soundgarden finally struck upon the right mixture of hard-rock and punk, standing tall upon the same middle ground into which Pearl Jam quickly sinks.
Martinis and Bikinis, Sam Phillips (Virgin Records): As Leslie Phillips, she sang disco for Jesus, extolling His praises over a cheesy technobeat that garnered her a rep as the Madonna of the born-again crowd. As Sam Phillips, she speaks ill of the church, referring to herself and husband-producer T Bone Burnett as "Christian atheists," meaning they believe in not believing. And so here's a record filled with faintly veiled anti-church songs ("Baby I Can't Please You," "Circle of Fire" with its references to "magic ladders in the sky") layered underneath lush, Beatley production--so Beatley, in fact, the record closes with a fiery, threatening version of Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth.