Spins

Liars
TODD RUNDGREN
Sanctuary
Let's see — how to sum up Todd Rundgren's new album in one word?

Arrogant. Yeah, that'll do.

In the brief liner notes for Liars, Rundgren explains that "all these songs are about the paucity of truth," and then proceeds to deliver 14 selections that hold him aloft as the vessel of that truth. There's a fine line here. Artists are free to make strong statements, but they risk being perceived as blowhards. Except for a few perceptive moments, Liars makes Rundgren come off like a first-class blowhard. He rails against religious hypocrisy, twisted gender roles, lying institutions and lying people — as if from on high.

Here's another reason Liars is arrogant: Rundgren made it a computer/synthesizer album, playing and singing all the parts himself. The rhythm tracks are laden with turgid techno beats or swelling layers of ethereal synths. His singing is more strident than usual, especially in the upper register, because he has to cut through the sheer sonic density of the tracks. He swaths his voice in echo as well, effectively stripping away nuance and subtlety, reducing its humanity. Where does that rank on the truthfulness scale?

Why is making another ill-advised techno album arrogant? Because it's Rundgren thumbing his nose at his core Boomer audience — folks (like me) who desperately want him to return to form. Instead, he's in effect saying: "Hey, I'm a restless, experimental artist who is on the cutting edge of technology. This is the way music is heading. Follow me or fuck off."

This is dicey territory as well. Certainly, artists have the right to be as "progressive" as they choose, but in turn they risk alienating their audience, a few of whom are free to vent in print.

What prevents Liars from being a total disaster is that there are actually a few good songs buried under the mechanized muck. "Past" displays some of the vulnerability that characterized Rundgren's '70s work; it's a simple soul ballad about lost love, a guy living in the past. The floaty "God Said" intelligently ruminates on the vanity of people who claim to have a personal pipeline to the Almighty. "Flaw" has a fetching pop/R&B bounce and a funny punch line: A guy casually discusses his perfect mate who happens to have a fatal flaw: "So why you gotta be such a lyinass motherfucker?"

This handful of relative highlights is ultimately bittersweet because each of the songs would be drastically improved with more organic production.

And sometimes that production can cause outbreaks of cringing. The intro to "Mammon" sounds like Spinal Tap decided to go futuristic and make a synth album. "Liar" employs faux Middle Eastern touches as Rundgren trashes terrorists who talk impressionable youth into becoming suicide bombers. Worst of all is "Soul Brother," where Rundgren gripes about contemporary music's lack of soul. "It's just a murky, jerky groove/ It motivates but it don't move." This is the one song on which Rundgren built a percussion track that sounds like real drums. It's a disingenuous gesture, a fake-out. A lie. And what does it say about the rest of Liars? 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

Panic Movement
THE HISS
Sanctuary
Already something of a sensation in retro-rock-happy Britain, Atlanta's The Hiss set their sights on the tail end of their fickle homeland's garage-groove love affair. Listening to Panic Movement, it's easy to hear why the U.K. took to the band so readily; despite overly familiar opener (and first single) "Clever Kicks," the album is about Britpop melody as often as it is hip-shaking pose. Rather than simply re-hashing the syncopated rhythms of Motown under a wash of vintage guitar tones and vocal attitude (Jet, anyone?), the band often showcases a knack for strong, hooky songwriting. The disc's better moments ("Not for Hire," "Triumph," "Listen to Me") come off more like Oasis covering Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's lazily muscular catalog than anything you've heard recently on modern-rock radio. Its best moments, however, come when the catchy tunes mix with the charged garage-dance swagger: "Brass Tacks" and "Riverbed" are far and away the album's brightest lights.

The aforementioned five tunes, perhaps augmented by the above-average "Back on the Radio," would've made an unassailable EP. But they're only half of Panic Movement. Most of the other half is much less impressive, if still listenable, and the interminable six-and-a-half-minute Doors cop "Ghosts Gold" is just plain bad. Having said that, a record with six great tunes and only one irredeemable one is something of a rarity these days, and Panic Movement is recommendable on that score. Just don't expect an evenly superlative experience. 1/2—Scott Harrell

Experience
WORLD SAXOPHONE QUARTET
Justin Time
Well, this works. One of the great avant-gutbucket horn ensembles plays the music of Jimi Hendrix. David Murray, Oliver Lake, Bluiett and Bruce Williams augment their onslaught of reeds with bass guitar, drums and guest appearances by trombonist Craig Harris and violinist Billy Bang in this high-energy homage. Rough-and-tumble ensemble work gives way to boisterous solos, which generally congeal into rambunctious group improvisation. Some of the songs are recast to the point of being virtually unrecognizable ("Hey Joe," "Machine Gun") but still maintain the Hendrix spirit. Others are more faithfully rendered, especially "Little Wing" and "If 6 was 9," setting you up with familiarity then slapping you around with saxophonic mayhem. As with all WSQ projects, Experience seethes with the blues. Jimi would've approved. (www.justin-time.com) —ERIC SNIDER

Where's Henning?
DAVID BECKER TRIBUNE
Paras
This is a sleeper album. I say so because for a few weeks it's been my disc of choice to put on when it's 'round midnight and I'm a little restless and need music to help me drop off to sleep. It wasn't until just the other day that I actually heard the end of Where's Henning?. This is not a backhand compliment. David Becker Tribune music is soothing in a very stimulating way. He's a jazz guitarist, and jazz guitar can frankly be dull. But Becker mixes it up by changing tones and tempos, bending notes and serving up a delectable blend of standards ("On Green Dolphin Street," "Footprints," "All Blues," "Well, You Needn't") and originals. His own tunes range from the droning psychedelia of "Kurds and Waves" to the slippery acoustic workout "As We Speak" to the Jaco-esque bass feature "Here and There." Becker also exhibits great chemistry with (I presume) his brother Bruce Becker, who is a marvelously facile drummer with just the right blend of chops and musicality, and fluid electric bassist Tom Lilly. (www.davidbeckertribune.com) 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

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