Blake's Back Shadow fleshes out Fresh new boundaries Homegrown singer-songwriter leads pack of new albums expected this year with a funky update of folk sounds. ~ Paul Zach, 22 Jan 99 WITH the annual post-holiday music drought behind us, a bumper crop of new releases is on it's way. No doubt the most anticipated is the third album from the politically-charged Los Angeles punk hip-hop quartet, Rage Against The Machine. Guitarist Tom Morello, a 34-year-old Harvard graduate, is promising one much different from 1997's live-sounding Evil Empire. He told A.P. magazine that the band experimented with a variety of studio techniques and overdubbing this time. Look for it by May. Also said to be imminent is the release of Trent Reznor's new double CD, under his Nine Inch Nails nom de plume, titled tentatively The Fragile. Then again, it's release was said to be imminent a year ago. He says the album takes up where his smash hit single Hurt, from his last album, 1994's The Downward Spiral, left off. California ska punk rockers No Doubt, who crossed over to the mainstream big time with Tragic Kingdom in 1996, are wrapping up work on the follow-up. Here is hoping the talented Gwen Stefani and company do not go the Hootie And The Blowfish route. Like Tragic, 1996's Bringing Down the Horse made superstars out of the Wallflowers. Fans should be able to sink their ears into it's successor by May. It seems like only yesterday that Jacksonville, Florida's Limp Bizkit released it's priceless Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$. But it has been almost three years. It's new one is expected by early April. The solo debut from Soundgarden alumnus Chris Cornell is due that same month. Red House Painters, Ben Folds Five, Blur, Deftones, Type O Negative, Sebadoh, Underworld, Bush, The Cure and Coal Chamber also plan to release albums this year. Perhaps the most-anticipated reunion album of 1999 is due from American new-wave band Blondie. Called No Exit, it is the first new material from Deborah Harry and her male bandmates in two decades and should be in stores here next month. Music-lovers will not have to wait even that long, though, for one of the best albums to come down the pike -- via San Francisco and Detroit -- in a while. Singaporean singer-songwriter Blake Chen, back in the Motor City after a year of playing clubs and making music on America's West Coast, returned home briefly recently and slipped copies of his new Shadow onto the shelves in some stores here. You had better hurry and buy it though. Once Singapore radio picks up the killer Flesh Mix reworking of Written in Blood, the album will disappear faster than sunshine in January. Like Rage Against The Machine, Chen, 27, chose to tinker with his sound in a studio this time. With him went young California electronics wiz Catherine Weathersby and other upcoming San Francisco Bay area musicians. There, they married the acoustic folk sound spun by Chen on his compelling guitar-and-voice debut album, The Immigrant Song, with a light manufactured ambience a la Beth Orton and Daniel Lanois. The result sounds contemporary yet rooted somewhere down Highway 61 circa the '60s. It also adds to his 'multi-media' approach -- the imposing man has a degree in visual arts from the University of Michigan. Indeed, for the new album, he fleshed out two skeletal sketches from The Immigrant Song -- Bad Karma and Written In Blood -- into full-blown sonic anthems for the next century. 'Now they howl and screech and dance like that,' he said. 'Adding vibrant colour to these sketches was necessary because of the theme of this album.' Blood is especially successful. It wraps Chen's remarkable voice in a stirring setting that evokes everything from Psychedelic Furs to Born To Run-era Springsteen and Joshua Tree guitars. Karma, on the other hand, buries his great voice needlessly in electronic dance sludge. Fortunately, it soon emerges to trade licks with Weathersby in a fabulous finale rich with echoes of India. The other eight tracks are originals Chen penned especially for the album. He has released it on his own label WHIMusic, following in the footsteps of righteous babe Ani Di Franco. And like her, he has decided to commit himself full-time to music. He plans to peddle Shadow to radio stations in the US and sell it at gigs there. 'The title pays homage to the dancing image evoked by French poet Blaise Cendrars,' he said. 'Everyone has his personal Shadow, a foreboding image formed not just from his own immediate past but from his ancestral memories as well. These images haunt us in the present and threaten our future.' Especially vivid is Fresh, which expands the boundaries he first explored in The Immigrant Song. I'm fresh off the boat baby but I'm learnin' quick/I'm learning to be slicker than your average sister, he sings above a mix that can best be described as techno-blues. It also boasts a massive keyboard riff straight out of an Al Kooper songbook. Some Singaporeans may read thinly-disguised meanings into the lyrics of the exceptional Uncle Robot. But Chen said it simply warns that technology is taking control of our lives and art. Another track, Waiting, strays into Dylan's Christian canon with it's funky gospel choir chorus. Other solid offerings include the lilting opener So Much More and melodic closer Happily Ever After. Chen's writing sags somewhat on Midnight and Heart Of Stone. But for an album that cost him only US$5,000 (S$8,350) to produce, Shadow rarely sounds like less than a million dollars.
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