Reviews

Red hot and boo hoo
Red Hot + Bothered, Vols. 1-2
Various artists
Red Hot/Kinetic/Reprise

The latest installment in the "Red Hot + ..." series stops off in the indie-rock world, with the big names (Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, Breeders, Lois, Spinanes, Lisa Germano, Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar, Grifters) joining with the small ones (Dug Martsch, East River Pipe, sudden cult idol Ben Lee) for AIDS relief and awareness. Of course, that's the implicit motivating force; otherwise, it's a low-fi showdown-showcase on a major label masquerading as an indie, the music first available only on 10-inch vinyl until it comes out on CD later in the year.

As indie rock goes, this is all fairly "primitive" and "low-fi" and "simple"--meaning it's deceptively murky and sluggishly catchy, always sounding like it's coming from the apartment next door; it's pop music filtered through riffs you know and words you only think you know. On Volume One, Freedom Cruise (that is, GBV's Bob Pollard and Breeders Kim and Kelley Deal) plods and harmonizes through "Sensational Gravity Boy"; Noise Addict (that is, teen wunderkind Ben Lee) rips through "Mouthwash"; Folk Implosion (that is, Sebadoh's Lou Barlow) shuffles through the between-the-quotation-marks "Indie-rockinstrumental"; and it is all delightful.

But if the songs preceding it are cheerful fodder, then the Grifters' spooky "Empty Yard," which closes out the first record, is the must-have masterpiece--guitars sampled backwards, half-heard piano filling in the chillingly empty spaces, words mumbled and slurred, the sound not too unlike an old man's death-rattle cough. Fact is, both records end on the highest of low points: Volume Two closes out with Farrar and Kelly Willis dragging each other down to hell in Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues," their worn-out and beautiful voices intertwining like strands of smoke in this ancient-sounding gospel tale. Accompanied by fiddle and acoustic guitar, Farrar and Willis sing so soft you could hear a tear hit the floor.

Only East River Pipe's "Miracleland" comes close to matching that despair, with the singer happily proclaiming himself "the life of the party" even as he hangs his head in loneliness and goes home all by himself. Red Hot + Bothered is a sad affair--more acoustic than electric, more whispered than sung, more haunting than uplifting. If the previous "Red Hot" records were celebrations of defiance, then this incarnation is a mourning-- voices joined together to tell of people who wind up by themselves.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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