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In the Groove

This week:
Alt-country smartass,
U.K. electro-Zen,
and Viking dance music


on this story

Robbie Fulks
The Very Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot)

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Three tracks into his new odds-and-sods collection on indie label Bloodshot, country-flavored singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks clamps down on one of the bar-stamped mitts that helped give him a leg up to the majors. "Roots Rock Weirdoes" is even meaner than it sounds, as Fulks uses a rocking acoustic groove to skewer the current vogue for vintage amps, unchanging musical ideals, and "[dressing] up like it's 1951."

Unkind, perhaps, but justified. After all, the '90s roots-revival boom has always flirted with the kind of reactionary orthodoxy that strangled the life out of the original stuff to begin with. But while many see Fulks as one of those destined to save country music from itself, "Roots Rock Weirdoes" and a handful of others amid the throwaways and instrumentals here prove he has his own issues—genre and otherwise.

Fulks did time in Nashville trying to write a hit and can't resist bitter potshots at the efficient soullessness of the Music City machine—most famously on an old song called "F—- This Town," though he snipes away on The Very Best's "Love Ain't Nothin'" as well. But as his ambitious-but-unfocused major-label debut illustrated, those three-verses-and-a-punchline-chorus conventions tend to sharpen his writing. Though the gag of "Parallel Bars"—a contentious couple who drown their sorrows in separate watering holes—is a long way to go for a chorus hook, the near-perfect lyric and Fulks' zesty old-school-country duet with Kelly Willis make it a highlight.

But The Very Best often finds Fulks using the corny old forms to make mean jokes—"Sleepin' on the Job of Love" and "I Just Want to Meet the Man" clothe frat-house misogyny in perfect white-Stetson style. Still, there's "Jean Arthur," a chiming, thoroughly charming proof of the existence of God via the existence of the title actress; even the slight Susanna Hoffs ode "That Bangle Girl" provokes a smile. Whatever his feelings about the roots boom or Nashville, Fulks is a lot more fun when he likes girls.

—Lee Gardner


2 Lone Swordsmen
Stay Down (Warp/Matador)

A recent union of top-shelf indie label Matador with Sheffield, England's Warp Records has resulted in the easy availability of some of the most exciting European techno sounds at a fraction of the usual inflated import prices. The newest Warp/Matador release, Stay Down, by 2 Lone Swordsmen follows in the high-quality Warp tradition.

Instead of following the late '90s "drill 'n' bass" style popularized by Warp figureheads Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, 2 Lone Swordsmen's Weatherall and Tenniswood use electronic means to produce a surprisingly organic sound. The album is a collection of quiet, contemplative tracks that are childishly simplistic, with a sinister subtext.

A visual clue to the sonic world contained in Stay Down is the cover art, depicting two aquanauts in pressure-resistant diving gear. Like the cover, much of the album features bubbling, echoed sounds similar to what one might hear while diving or breathing nitrous oxide. Despite the dreamlike quality of the music, there is also a claustrophobic tension throughout.

For the less adventurous, the album could be used as auditory wallpaper. Sure, the music is quiet and relaxing, but close inspection reveals the songs to be much more than merely droning lullabies.

For best results, listeners should approach 2 Lone Swordsmen as one would approach meditation. If you'll make like a good Zen master, stay totally alert and focus on the repetitive mantra of the music, Stay Down will take you to another metaphysical realm.

—John Sewell


Various Artists
Nordic Roots 2 (Northside)

Americans mostly know Scandinavian music via its recastings of American forms: bubblegum (Abba, Ace of Base), metal (Yngwie Malmsteen, assorted death-rock outfits), synth-rock (Europe). So this compilation of neo-traditional stuff from the Northside label is something new.

Northside—based, naturally, in Minneapolis—is the U.S. importer for a wide range of music from Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. With 22 songs representing 22 artists, Nordic Roots 2 gives a fascinating overview of a roots scene that has exploded up around the Arctic Circle in the past 20 years. Relying heavily on fiddles and pipes, Scandinavian folk music has obvious Celtic ties, but the tunings and melodies are considerably darker. The differences are most evident in the contribution from Swap, a half-British, half-Swedish group, which saws back and forth between a bright Irish reel and a foreboding Norse dance tune. Like most of the tracks here, it has a fiery sadness evocative of long, long drunken nights.

The disc has extensive liner notes detailing the history and cross-germination of many of the bands. It begins with fairly traditional performers like Hedningarna (a Finnish-Swedish outfit with enchanting female vocals) and Finn fiddle collective JPP, then progresses through techno-folk to the jazz-trad grooves of Groupa and the waltz-metal of Hoven Droven.

I prefer the folkier stuff myself, particularly Hedningarna and Vasen, but I also fell for Garmarna's haunting dub and Wimme's Lapland trip-hop. Northside is selling the CD for $3 as a loss leader ("Cheaper than food," the sticker says), which makes it the most economical exploration your ears are likely to do this year.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark