HOT HOT HEAT
Let's put it this way: better new wave revivalists than a rap-metal band these days. Hot Hot Heat's second album, Elevator, arrives as part of the latest flood of NME-anointed, spiky post-punkers pushing across these shores. Influenced by Gang of Four, XTC and the Jam, the Canadian quartet delivers a satisfying follow-up to its 2002 breakthrough, Make Up the Breakdown. The band's nervy, dance-punk rhythms give way to a slightly poppier aesthetic, but the new album largely works similar territory: slinky, off-kilter grooves under perky, keyboard-driven pop.
While satisfying, Elevator isn't always memorable. Many songs skate by without making any impression, but with 15 tracks packed into 40 minutes, it's perhaps unavoidable. When they nail it - as on the irrepressible "You Owe Me an IOU" - they expertly meld the power-pop buzz of Possum Dixon with the skittering post-punk of Franz Ferdinand.
Singer/keyboardist Steve Bays' wounded croon sounds suspiciously like Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners), especially on the bustling, jangly "Middle of Nowhere." There's at least a half-dozen catchy tracks, but the album's a tad nondescript as a whole. It could be the growing prevalence of the sound, or it could be Elevator's failure to markedly expand the band's parameters.
The Art of Rolling
THE BLUE VAN
It's official - the garage rock revival has reached its apotheosis. When it's no longer possible to tell the difference between a CD recorded last year and an LP recorded in the late '60s, it's time to throw up your arms and go looking for something else. Danish buzz-band The Blue Van isn't interested in updating its retro, organ-heavy soul-stomp with hip indie- or punk-rock references a la The Strokes and half of the bands to emerge from Sweden over the last decade; what the group is interested in, it seems, is acting like an aural time machine that only goes to 1968. Granted, The Art of Rolling isn't exactly as proto-metal as Steppenwolf, or exactly as acid-fried as Iron Butterfly, or exactly as pop-informed as Vanilla Fudge. (The Blue Van's one concession to pop music, old-school and contemporary, is in its short song lengths.) But it does a convincing job of sponging up all of those influences and more to recreate what any music fan will recognize as the sound of that era. The overall effect is a lot of fun for a while, but eventually the lack of identity beyond "wow, they sound just like the gritty end of the '60s" becomes fairly tiresome.
The Best of Stevie Wonder: The Millennium Collection
It wasn't until 1972's Talking Book, after he emancipated himself creatively from Berrry Gordy's Motown hit factory, that Stevie Wonder started turning the Grammy podium into his own personal Toastmasters. But make no mistake about it, his work beforehand established the teenage phenom as a bona fide genius. The 12-song, 35-minute Best of Stevie Wonder documents his biggest singles from this period, starting with the 1963 harmonica blues workout "Fingertips" and ending with 1971's "If You Really Love Me." Even as essentially a hired hand - he has only two writing and producing credits on this set - Stevie's imprint on the music is indelible. The gospel-infused voice, its texture thickening with the years, the sizzling harmonica work, especially the solo on "For Once in My Life" - these and other qualities gave the music a sense of celebration and possibility, even a wide-eyed naiveté. Alongside these lively workouts existed a budding social consciousness, as evidenced by his 1966 cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" and 1970's "Heaven Help Us All." Still and all, it's a bit puzzling that the collection stops at a dozen tracks. Would it have hurt to include "Nothing's Too Good For My Baby" ('66) or "I'm Wondering" ('67) or "We Can Work It Out ('71) or any of the other songs that charted for Stevie during this period? Last time I checked, a CD held up to 80 minutes. I'm not greedy; I'll take 60. Note: This is straight five-planet music, but I'm deducting one because of the disc's brevity.
Hip-Hop Tribute to Metallica: The Ultimate "Mash-Up"
Tribute Music/Navarre Corporation
I don't know how this obscure little gem of a turd found me, but I'm certainly glad it did, because it's been a long time since I've been treated to something so can't-look-away car-wreck bad. It's so bad, in fact, that even though these 10 Metallica tunes were all given a rap-metal makeover by the same crew, none of them are credited anywhere on the outside of the disc, even in the form of a band name - four of them settle for being listed in tiny type on the inside cover, and the smart ones didn't get listed at all. Basically, what you've got here is an unworthy Metallica tribute band, augmented by a few canned beats and fronted by two equally untalented MCs. The guitars are thin and often sloppy ("Master of Puppets" features some particularly odious six-string butchery); the drums only rise above anonymity for fills jarringly unlike the original versions' grooves; and there's nothing worse than rappers performing in the sort of slow, straightforward cadence that's meant to be sung - they might as well just be talking. This is obviously an attempt by a group of unknown musicians to cop some notoriety through the magic of gimmickry, but it's just as obvious that these guys are unknown for a reason. The half of a planet below is awarded solely on the basis of unintentional hilarity. 1/2 planet