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David Lynchian Music (Almost)

The Chinese Album confounds categories of good and bad.

I'm quite

sure it's a bad album, for instance, but, like John Lydon's

Psycho's

Path, it's laughably bad; i.e., a bad album that gives me

pleasure. You

just can't help but guffaw at every dorky misplaced element that

sucks out

the sophisticated air of mystery/genius often associated with great

albums.

(Hey, it's better than falling asleep.)

Now if you're someone who found Spacehog all sophisticated and

mysterious

in the first place just because they looped Penguin Cafe

Orchestra's

"Telephone and Rubber Band," then you probably should be told

that The

Chinese Album is a "rock opera," stuffed to the rafters with

those

proper nouns that are a silly trademark of the genre, and which

TV's

Simpsons make fun of every time they do one of their sardonic

musical

theater parodies. Dramatis personae are as follows: Violet Race,

old tramp

John, Lucy, Mr. Big, Captain Freeman and a guy made

"Anonymous" by modern

living who has a "one-inch cock" in the libretto even though singer

Royston

Langdon chickens out and sings "one-inch thought" instead.

Locales include

Mungo City, the Isle of Capri and 2nd Avenue. And you can take a

ride on

the Skylark, which I think is an airplane. Each song is a cliched

point on the dramatic curve, my favorite being the "Step right up!"

song,

which in this opus is the song about the Skylark (you can't have a

rock

opera without a "Step right up!" song).

In the great tradition of rock operas, the story makes about as

much sense

as David Lynch's "Lost Highway," which is tragic indeed because,

unlike

Lynch, Spacehog are trying to make sense out of all this mess.

Here's my

attempt, in case you care: I think it's about a girl who gets raped by

her

father and runs away to the big city. Then already I get confused,

but I

believe she manages to become enamored with the protagonist

(?), despite how

existentially evil those city dwellers can be. Soon, though, the girl

falls

in with a nouveau riche

crowd and opts for a superficial life of glitz and glamour. The

protagonist

is left, smug and alone, at the end. So it's an anti-

modernist/anti-technology/big-city parable that, for my buck, is

much more

fun than OK Computer. And no, I have absolutely no idea

what's so

Chinese about the album.

Because miracles do happen, Spacehog could have parlayed this

claptrap into

something that would top critics' polls in '98 -- if only these hogs

weren't

so plum spaced out of it, pigging out on a sound that places them

hopelessly behind the times. Supposedly this was to be the album

on which

the band eased up a bit on the '70s nostalgia. Despite some

electro sound

effects and moody ambient strings, it's clear that these guys are

stuck in

an eight-track flashback. Langdon's voice fuses Donald Fagen,

devoid of the

irony (oh, definitely devoid of the irony) with David Bowie gravitas.

Indeed, glam is the most consistent reference point ("Captain

Freeman" is

very "Suffragette City," yet it's also the Queen-iest moment),

and

"Goodbye Violet Race" recalls the pomp of my beloved Sweet (it's

no shock

to be told that Langdon has a role in Todd Haynes' forthcoming

glam epic,

"The Velvet Goldmine").

But the boys aren't just sittin' pretty on their glam laurels. On

"Skylark"

they trade in the feather foppery for some newsie knickers and do

the

Gilbert O'Sullivan shuffle. Then, back to Fagen for a moment, they

imagine

Steely Dan attempting one of Paul McCartney's precious post-

Beatles

playlets in "Lucy's Shoe." I'd trace the vocoder in "Mungo City"

back to

Afrika Bambaataa if I had never heard of ELO. And, geez, even

Seals & Croft

get fair spin on "Almond Kisses."