Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Spring Heel Jack

  • There Are Strings [Rough Trade, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • 68 Million Shades . . . [Island, 1997] A
  • Busy Curious Thirsty [Island, 1997] A
  • Treader [Tugboat, 1999] A-
  • Disappeared [Thirsty Ear, 2000] **
  • Oddities [Thirsty Ear, 2000] Neither

Consumer Guide Reviews:

There Are Strings [Rough Trade, 1995]
"Lee Perry Part One"; "Day of the Dead" Choice Cuts

68 Million Shades . . . [Island, 1997]
Betty Boo producer cum Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon joins contemporary-classical buff cum hardcore raver Ashley Wales to recontextualize drum 'n' bass's redolent lingo--its triple-time superdrum pitta-pat, its impossible deep tremblors that modulate whole power plants in repose--by subsuming densely frenetic techno cum dancehall in a witting synthesis of electronic composition and another of Wales's passions, On the Corner-era Miles Davis. Where most jungle grooves roll on into a theoretical African eternity, Spring Heel Jack's begin and end even when they stutter or fade. The keyb scale that IDs "Take 1," the sax riff that leads into the brief keyb-and-sax tune of "60 Seconds," the sidelong three-note guitar hook that stops you every time the 75-minute CD reaches "Bar" halfway through--all recur thematically enough to lend a sense of cohesion, closure, even content. Just what the world needed--prog jungle. A

Busy Curious Thirsty [Island, 1997]
What direct connection John Coxon and Ashley Wales retain to dance music is as obscure to me as their precise relationship to contemporary composition. But they mine both modes productively enough to cover over the pitfalls that are always tripping up nonbelievers. I love the way "Galapagos 3"'s slowly accreted minimalist detail is blown away by a brief blast of ersatz symphony, the way "The Wrong Guide" opens up a piece of small-group jazz for simulated drums and simulated . . . bassoon (?) to (simulated) pizzicato percussion, soundtrack orchestra, and anti-aircraft artillery--all of which continue the improvisation for a while. They're visceral where composition is cerebral and ambient is unmoored. They never fall for rock-techno's arena-scale gestures or art-techno's fatal conflation of thinking and mooning about. If any competitors out there can make such claims, their identities are obscure indeed. A

Treader [Tugboat, 1999]
Its U.S. release a casualty of the UniMoth merger, this colors in the techno-classical duo's sonic territory without putting any bells on it--except for the chimes and carillons that alternate with drunken brass sections, expensive faucets, and plain old synthesizers on the eight-minute "Winter," which breaks into tradder drum 'n' bass, which gives way to a scary soundtrack explosion. Et cetera. Tops is "More Stuff No One Saw," a rocky one. Its marchlike drum looping under a few phrases of noir saxophone, it crescendoes in grand faux brass-organ-triangle swells before scattering into the tail end of a gun battle. If you like these guys, you'll love it all. If you've never heard (of) them, there's no special reason to start here. A-

Disappeared [Thirsty Ear, 2000]
Trying their hand at lounge jazz, chamber oboe, soundtrack bombast, any sound that'll stick ("Trouble and Luck," "I Undid Myself"). **

Oddities [Thirsty Ear, 2000] Neither

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