Rees, in bits and pieces

Wiring Prank at Rubber Gloves, July 19

Absolutely worth the wait. The half-irritating low-profile mystique perpetuated by a drummer who left the band earlier this year has fallen away and finally given the others a chance to breathe. Denton's longtime best-kept secret took the stage at Rubber Gloves last summer and played four songs that made up an unpretentious 35-minute set, every one of the tunes unfolding with relaxed yet complex grace. Instrumentals are always a tricky proposition in the rock sphere, yet Wiring Prank's canon comes off like a soundtrack for the evening, approachable yet intrinsic; the bright riffs spill over into darker atmosphere, the dense rhythms cut with sunny guilelessness. Centro-matic's Will Johnson fills in on drums now, but young Brian Vandivier and company are the inspired songwriters here, and when they play, the room belongs to them.

Summer Teeth
Wilco
Reprise Records

Macy Gray On How Life Is
Macy Gray On How Life Is
Summer singles, but none were hits: Wilco's Summer Teeth was the best album no one heard. Except for critics, that is.
Jay Blakesberg
Summer singles, but none were hits: Wilco's Summer Teeth was the best album no one heard. Except for critics, that is.

"Via Chicago" may be Jeff Tweedy's finest moment. Which is saying a hell of a lot.

On How Life Is
Macy Gray
Sony/Epic Records

This Los Angeles chanteuse burst on the scene with scant pre-hype and an album that could blow holes in the Hoover Dam. Soulful, playful, deep, and sexy, On How Life Is careens along its own thumping path with nary an apology for not sounding like anything else. (Until Beck came along with Midnight Vultures, that is.) Gray can crow like a diva on a speedball bender, can whisper like little girl lost, can croon like a grizzled nite bitch, and while she tosses out lyrics with the casual abandon of a spoiled kid, most every chorus seethes with the wisdom of the ages. In an era of rotten, clichéd paint-by-numbers music, this is one of the most heartening debuts of not just 1999, but perhaps the decade.

Navigational
Centro-matic
Idol Records

The Prolific One at his most wrenching and epic. The perfect album for late-night drives from Denton to Dallas, it's overripe and decadent and languid by songwriter Will Johnson's standards, which means it's pretty much a perfect foil to both the band's scrappy debut Redo the Stacks and this album's follow-up, the equally scrappy The Static vs. The Strings Vol. 1. Most of Navigational's 16 cuts were recorded during the band's Illinois residency last year, and these are the sad, trenchant tunes that together form an album of startling cohesion. The opening "Nevermind the Sounds" gets the voodoo rolling, and the mood just escalates. Through the world-weary "Ruin This With Style" to the ironic tale of "This Vicious Crime" to the accusations of "Numbers One and Three," it's crowned by the majestic outro "The Beautiful Ones." But not before you find yourself swimming in some of the best lyrics of any release anytime; like a young Faulkner, Johnson circumvents cliché with stream-of-consciousness wordplay that ends up targeting the big-picture point far more directly than you might expect. "The king will shine and the trumpets sound today / The promises and the godlike things he says / But he'll kick you when you're down, and he'll burn this fucked-up town / With the matches that were stolen from your nightstand yesterday," he sings (in his distinctively raspy, plaintive tones) on the buzzing and buried "Lasted til Today," and despite yourself, you wince. Somehow you know exactly what he means.

13
Blur
Virgin Records

This is an album that could come only from the minds of veterans with nothing to lose. It single-handedly dragged my attention back across the Atlantic; I had forsaken British pop music for some time. Sure, it echoes the techno-looping-meets-raw-guitar zeitgeist of the day, but Blur never directly cops anything from anyone, putting their own spin on sonic trends and making it all distinctively and inarguably their own. If anything, this is the Blur album that let the band fully realize its love for experimentation, spontaneity, and moodiness. While some might accuse them of style-hopping too often, this is actually the result of both high success and a fading spotlight: freedom to make the record it has always wanted to but didn't have the balls or personal space to do earlier. The band evolved in a decade that continually smashes yesterday's rock templates, and they've rolled with every punch. So what do you do now, in an age where every kid with a Telecaster and a sampler puts out a record, where every rock fan has the attention span of a ferret? Do what you want and fuck it all. And what a fascinating and utterly listenable result. Plus, 13 epitomizes the kind of album that grows on you like a clinging moss -- you can't really shake an album this insidious, you can't tire of an album this loose and vast. So, the ball is back in the Limeys' court. Which, in effect, led me to...

Us and Us Only
Charlatans U.K.
MCA Records

Not to be profane, but this release, in the wake of the death of the Charlatans' excellent keysman Rob Collins, is the best thing the band has ever done. The songs are fuller, rounder, and instinctively on-target, the arrangements complex but never overwrought. Frontman Tim Burgess' previous affair with whining is gone too, his voice and lyrics sounding mature, weary, and infinitely more insightful. It's simple, really. The band grew up. It's tragic that it happened through the death of their bandmate, but the boys are now men, and Us and Us Only is their debut.

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