- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

SAM PHILLIPS
Fan Dance
(Nonesuch)
Sam Phillips attracts the kind of attention reserved for artists who distance themselves far outside the mainstream. In other words, not enough.
Miss Phillips seems to deliberately avoid the commercial zeitgeist by making music that is attractive but too difficult for casual listeners or radio. Estrangement and isolation are certainly evoked on "Fan Dance." The second track, "Edge of the World," seems indicative of the singer's point of view with its chorus, "at the edge of the world looking up."
The arrangements are stripped down to bare essentials — vocals accompanied by spare instrumentation. On "Wasting My Time," three cellos arranged by Van Dyke Parks add a sweeping resonance to Miss Phillips' alto. Guitarist Marc Ribot gives odd depth to "Incinerator" with the kind of twangy plucking that brings to mind a blind man with a broken banjo.
Miss Phillips' distinctive nasal timbre floats flawlessly from wispy sighs to edgy vibrato. Although her husband-collaborator T Bone Burnett's production creates a very intimate sound, some of the tracks are mired in depressive chiaroscuro. "Below Surface," for example, is so laden with reverberation the vocals founder inside their own echoes.
The album's overall cast is as sultry and bittersweet as a rainy August Sunday, interrupted by cheery numbers like "How to Dream." Miss Phillips' lyrics are at times provocative, such as "you think I'm interesting, like the apocalypse," in "Soul Eclipse." Most of the album's lines, however, are dull, like the cliched refrain in "Taking Pictures": "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."
Lyrically, Miss Phillips' latest is a lightweight compared with thoughtful and challenging albums such as 1994's "Martinis and Bikinis," which was nominated for a Grammy. But hers is still a voice worth hearing. — Bruce Hamilton

CAKE
Comfort Eagle
(Columbia Records)
Cake is back with another fine collection of sharp, clever pop songs after a much-too-long wait of three years. "Comfort Eagle," though immediately recognizable as the kind of music only this Sacramento, Calif.-based troupe can conspire, has a more bouncy feel than past offerings, perhaps accounting for its eminently proper summer release date. It is the group's fourth full-length album.
The disc's first single, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" has joined other Cake singles from previous albums in gaining a strong amount of radio play, but the Lou Reed, "Sweet Jane" guitar stylings on the tune hint at songwriter-lead singer John McCrea's apparent desire to simplify the musical stew and increase the catchiness. While previous offerings have mixed country, funk, mariachi and pop styles into a delicious swirl, "Comfort Eagle" is at its best when the melody and the groove are front and center. This is true on the witty, irresistible "Pretty Pink Ribbon," which brings to mind a classic Cars radio hit without exactly sounding like it.
Mr. McCrea also continues to show his ability for more meaty songwriting on the deliberate, smooth opening track "Opera Singer" and the more gently flowing "Commissioning a Symphony in C," while the title track manages to be brutally scathing and matter-of-fact at the same time in slamming the music industry. Pulling no punches, the tune will remind longtime fans of Mr. McCrea's classic biting, stinging slamfest "How Do You Afford Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle?" on the group's 1994 debut album, "Motorcade of Generosity."
While Vince de Fiore's trumpet is once again a perfect accompaniment to most of the songs, "Comfort Eagle" shows once again that it's the groove that is the heart of Cake's sound. — Joe Schaeffer
VARNALINE
Songs in a Northern Key
(Artemis Records)
Neil Young and Hank Williams Jr. introduced a disco-crazed 1970s audience to what is now known as "alternate country."
The mix of melancholy lyrics and electric and acoustic guitars amped with a bunch of fuzz and some slide guitars, dobros and other nonsynthesized instruments has become a staple genre.
But few bands or artists get it right and can make their songs stand out as more than mere novelty pieces played in saloons or covered by bar bands such as Drivin n Cryin and Whiskeytown.
The latest incarnation of Varnaline, aka as Anders Parker, is that exception. "Songs in a Northern Key" is a model for what good stick-to-your-ribs alt country-rock should sound like.
Cuts on this album range from the sublime ("Down the Street," "Blackbird Fields") with dreamy and mellow music to more rugged tunes such as "Song" that bring back thoughts of R.E.M.'s early days, when the grittiness of reverb and distortion on an electric guitar sounded spiritual.
It is not much of a stretch to say that Varnaline could even have a hit with "Song" and take Mr. Parker and his rotating band of merry musicians out of obscurity. They deserve attention for their ability to craft thoughtful songs that aren't too esoteric or syrupy.
"Indian Summer Takedown" is another keeper if one wants to make a personal compilation CD. The gothic song sounds as if it was recorded and sung in a church, and listeners should enjoy its smooth melody and looping drum rhythms.
Instruments such as mandolins and banjos are featured prominently on "Northern," and the warmth and earthy tones these musical tools emit weave in nicely with the electric buzz of most of the songs, creating a complex musical quilt.
For all its glory, "Northern" does have some down points, such as Mr. Parker not using his fine voice to carry the songs and letting the instruments rule the roost, so to speak. The Michael Stipe mumble doesn't work well for Mr. Parker. When the words aren't clear, a song has lost something. — Daniel Drummond

CARMINE COPPOLA
"Apocalypse Now Redux" soundtrack
(Atlantic Records)
Newspapers, magazines and TV shows have spent a lot of time dissecting Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic in light of its re-release with additional footage. But few commentators have noted the haunting soundtrack by Mr. Coppola's father, Carmine (who also did the music for "The Godfather").
Most people hear the music for the first time during the film, in which the soundtrack is a sort of musical wallpaper to the breathtaking visual displays Mr. Coppola directs. But on closer listen, the soundtrack adds yet another layer of symbolism to the story in the guise of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" (composed between 1914 and 1916).
At first, Carmine Coppola seems to be borrowing only small pieces of Holst's seven-part tribute to astrology and astronomy. But as the film score progresses, it becomes apparent that most of Holst's compositions have been integrated into the movie.
The early strains of "The Delta," when the patrol boat starts up river, mirror "Mercury, the Bringer of Peace," an odd juxtaposition that is enhanced by Carmine Coppola's addition of electric guitar and haunting synthesizers. This paranoid version of "The Planets" uses Vietnam as the final frontier, and as the boat crew seems to go back in time as it travels farther up the river, so too does the music leap from one era to another.
The Doors' "The End" opens and closes the film, as the movie score moves effortlessly among a haunting synthesizer sound, an elegant flute melody and even a frantic jazz burst of trumpet. The album's transition from Richard Wagner's "Ride Of the Valkyries" into Creedence Clearwater Revival's rendition of "Suzie Q" is not even jarring. Rock 'n' roll and dramatic opera go hand in hand with the film's surrealism.
The only downside is that the "Redux" score isn't as complete as the two-CD soundtrack released with the original film. But several new compositions (including a funeral scene for Laurence Fishburne's character, Mr. Clean) still make it a worthy listen. Any serious fan of the film needs to hear this soundtrack outside the movie to fully comprehend Mr. Coppola's strange vision.
— Derek Simmonsen
DANNY ELFMAN

"Planet of the Apes" soundtrack
(Sony Classical)
Audiences can be certain to expect a few things from a Tim Burton movie: a quirky film that's dark in spots and comic in others and a Danny Elfman score.
So like nearly every Burton film since "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" — Pee-wee himself introduced the former Oingo Boingo lead singer to the director — the dark, comic "Planet of the Apes" features Mr. Elfman's music in a supporting role. In Mr. Burton's movies, Mr. Elfman's scores play almost as important a role as the actors, adding life to the background. (Who can forget the way Mr. Burton begins "Batman," with the somber score haunting the hero's symbol?)
For "Planet of the Apes," Mr. Elfman sets the scene with an unsettling progression of tribal drums and bass horns, lending an atmosphere of impending doom. The brute force of the music enforces the idea of the apes as the dominant species on the planet, chasing down the humans who oppose them.
As a nice touch, Mr. Elfman apes John Williams a bit during the third track, "Deep Space Launch." The music sounds almost right out of "Star Wars" during a scene in which a ship floats nearly dead in space. A not-so-nice touch is the "Rule the Planet Remix" by Paul Oakenfold, which transforms Mr. Elfman's strong score into dance music muck. — Scott Silverstein

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