By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Upon its release in 1999, it was easy to think of the band's debut A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life as retrofitted new-wave--nostalgia-rock for the under-35 crowd that misses the glory days of drinking Blue Nun in the Video Bar parking lot. But listen after listen (it's the disc that keeps on giving) reveals a big, beating heart (among big, beating other things--like Halleck's "gun") beneath the sun-drenched surface; it's the Cars without the sneer, Devo without the sarcasm, XTC without the stage fright. But what I've heard of the new album (including the moody, mellow "Gravitate") suggests a band that's become its own best influence. Yeah, Chomsky's the best pop/rock band in this town. And that town. And that town over there. --R.W.
Winner for: Funk/R&B
On the back cover of her second album, Mama's Gun, which was released late last year, Erykah Badu asks "What's yo izm?" to anyone who'll listen (and probably anyone who won't, too). She's baiting us, of course: Badu received a mountain of flak for calling her 1997 debut Baduizm, as if the blatant name-branding was a self-aggrandizing stroke of calculated marketing zeal (which it was) and not a reflection of the artist's indefatigable sense of personal definition (which it really was). With Mama's Gun, the question is a double entendre: "Y'all believe me yet?"
We should. Over two studio albums and a smoldering live one, Badu's become Dallas' queen-bee soul sister, a woman as comfortable reeling off Billie Holiday vocal licks in a Top 40 hit about hippy-chick determination as she is singing her hazy, crazy breakup blues in the 10-minute suite called "Green Eyes" that closes Mama's Gun. And that, really, is the thing: For all its crackling Soulquarian sonic warmth, Mama's Gun was last year's R&B record because it unveiled a singer who in the space of two albums had done the kind of maturing most never even get around to considering. (Mad love to Ginuwine, but the dude's still riding the pony he came in on.) Much longer and earthier and more embarrassing ("With no bra my ninnies sag down low") than most anything released in our increasingly moment-driven "urban music" industry, it's the type of record artists either don't seem interested in making or aren't allowed to make anymore, subtle and organic and funny in ways that R. Kelly and Babyface and their ilk seem incapable of even understanding.
And then there's the matter of the live show, that ultimate R&B Red Sea: To DAT or not to DAT? That is, as always, the question. For Badu, like her co-visionary D'Angelo, the problem's as simple as the one she asks us: Would it be Badu-like to sing along to a tape? Would it be Badu-like to not give these people more than my CD played really loudly? Would it be Badu-like to play the same set every night? So she worked up a show with a live band and everything and wowed 'em from here to both shining seas, every night singing her heart out and, at the appropriate moment during "Cleva," taking off her signature headwrap and showing off her bald-ass head. Don't think Badu deserves this award? Fine. Come back next year when you're ready to believe. --Mikael Wood
Winner for: Avant-Garde/Experimental
If there's a recipe for earning the Avant-Garde/Experimental tag, Captain Audio penned it, and it probably looks something like this: Pair Regina Chellew (who's played guitar with Ruby, among others) with members from successful and respected, but defunct, local bands (Brandon Curtis of UFOFU and Josh Garza of Comet). Release an ambitious pop album (1999's My ears are ringing but my heart's ok on Last Beat Records) that's equal parts grand ideas and catchy hooks, infused with country rock and beautiful melodies and top-down drums. Play infrequently, but complement the trio with musicians from several other bands on slide guitar, cello and such during those rare appearances. Release an even more ambitious album (last spring's Last Beat-released LUXURY or whether it is better to be loved than feared), as idiosyncratic as it is brilliant, meaning both intelligent and radiant. Continue playing rarely.
Since 1998, when Chellew first talked Curtis and Garza into practicing some songs, Captain Audio has been based on the freedom to experiment and follow the musical impulse wherever it leads--from the Spanish lyrics and Vince Guaraldi-like piano opening on "Los Pedasos" to the variety-show theme song trombones on "Star," both of which show up on LUXURY. Not long after the band formed, Garza told the Observer, "What makes it fun for all of us is there are no rules. If we want to do a good, catchy pop song, we do it. If we want to do a Pet Sounds, Beach Boys song, we do it. If we want to do [Pink] Floyd, we do it. Whatever we feel like doing, whereas maybe our other bands were like, 'Oh, we're space-rock' or, 'We're punk-rock.' With this band, it's however we feel is how it's going to be. No one's gonna get uptight if it isn't pop or if it's too artsy. Who cares as long as we're having a good time? And I haven't had a good time in a band in a long while."