The CMJ New Music Report's Top 150 album chart is the master scoreboard in the world of alternative rock, and the latest list of records making the rounds on college radio and in underground circles offers the usual diversity.
Familiar names like John Hiatt and the Pretenders mingle with Cavedogs and Strawberry Zots. The music? Punk, folk, progressive, ethnic, art-metal, rap, electro-doom-rock and reggae are all represented. Even under this open-door policy, it's possible to be surprised. Consider Dead Can Dance, whose artfully designed album of ancient folk and church music is one of the hottest items on the chart. This edition of Pop Beat focuses on alternative releases from independent labels, rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).
*** Andy Prieboy, "... Upon My Wicked Son." Dr. Dream. The Los Angeles singer gets caught up in arty-smarty cleverness as he jumps from progressive blues to Weill-like theater tune to French cabaret, but at least he's out on the front lines grappling with fundamental human matters. He turns Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" into a Wagnerian blues with a "Gimme Shelter" edge (Beth Hooker as Merry Clayton), and the mock-gospel "Montezuma" portrays the grim consequences of faith. But one song dwarfs everything else on the album: "Tomorrow Wendy," a cynic's hymn from a doomed soul (a suicidal woman with AIDS). Prieboy pumps the emotions of bitterness and lost innocence to operatic proportions, the repeated gathering and release of tension creates a compelling dynamic, and guest star Johnette Nopalitano (whose band Concrete Blonde does the song on its current album) wails her defiance to the heavens. A great piece of record-making.
*** Dead Can Dance, "Aion." 4AD. While progressive pop artists are globe-hopping in search of new sounds, the Ireland-based duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard travels through time for their fifth Dead Can Dance album, which offers an assortment of dance, worship and narrative music from the Middle Ages. No tricks, no irony, just a touch of personalizing and modernizing. While it's rigorous and formal, the tapestry of pipes and booming hand drums, tambourines and bells, rich-voiced chorales and Gerrard's warm lead vocals draw you into a world of mystery and beauty. Its success is an encouraging sign of independence and openness in a market that sometimes seems as predictable and orthodox as the music business it's an alternative to.
** 1/2 Jello Biafra with D.O.A., "Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors." Alternative Tentacles. Prime-time punk's best on-stage wild man and pioneering anti-censorship force teams with the Vancouver punk vets for a crash course in current events at thrash tempo. The sound and the themes may be familiar (shopping malls, "progress," El Salvador, the CIA, the corporate game, the rock game), but Biafra's quavery warble expresses the glee of subversion, and D.O.A.'s tough attack gives it freshness.
** 1/2 Teenage Fanclub, "A Catholic Education." Matador. The group is from Glasgow, but it sounds like one of the Seattle Sub Pop bands: a thickness of churning, chopping guitars conveying adolescent longing and alienation. The raw sound is invigorating, and it's a good enough ride for guitar-band fans, but the vocals are buried, the songwriting is undeveloped and there aren't enough transcendent instrumental performances to compensate.