YOU AM I
Hourly, Daily (Warner Bros.)
Stars in their native Australia, having won that country's equivalent of a Grammy for this, their third release, You Am I elicit a big Who Are You? in this country. That said, it seems the Aussies have better taste than us Yanks, as this is an infectious collection of skiffly, hook-laden pop. Led by Rickenbacker-toting Tim Rogers, You Am I often outbeat the Brits at their own game, evoking all at once the Jam, the Kinks, XTC, the Who ("Flag Fall $1.80"), and especially the Beatles ("Tuesday" could be a Sgt. Pepper's outtake). Horns, strings, and xylophone color the tunes slightly psychedelic, but the power is in the crafty melodicism of Rogers' songs and the simplicity of the trio just bashing them out. Hourly, Daily is a welcome bit of Merseybeat from down under.
3.5 stars - Luann Williams
shleep (Hannibal/Thirsty Ear)
Genius is in the giving over, in cooperation, in the list of who's who with whom one chooses to collude. Associations alone earn Robert Wyatt his cum laude: John Cage, Syd Barrett, Mike Oldfield, Keith Ayers, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Paul Weller. While there is so much more to it than that, shleep reeks of collaboration and homage. "Heaps of Sheeps" churns with Diddley pop chimeyness, a clever plot to avert from the creepy lyrics about piles of dreamland sheep - it could office on Tiger Mountain nicely. For those who know and love the former Soft Machine skin beater, this is not news; twisted words suit him. Wyatt's vocals run from stumbly off-kilter nursery rhymage to majestic gasps of growly exhaustion. This time, the songs are less literal and more atmospheric than the previously politically driven Wyatt. "Blues in Bob minor" is a subterranean take on Dylan and about as political as shleep gets. "Maryan" on the other hand is a gorgeous amorphous number until you listen closely: "to the delta/with the rivulets tumbling down/glide over sand/around rocks/back through the wavering weeds/and the turds." Sweet dreams, Mr. Wyatt; you deserve a rest.
3.5 stars - Kate X Messer
Low Estate (A&M)
The wages of sin are death, says the Bible, a lesson grandson of Nazarene preacher man David Eugene Edwards espoused in fiery glory on Sixteen Horsepower's 1996 debut, Sackcloth and Ashes. Yet it's not death Edwards has found on the band's second album, but merely a tear in the shroud that veils this world from the next. Wielding his voice like a flaming sword of vengeance through that curtain, slaying the seven deadly sins with the unearthly cry of his gulpy voice, Edwards and his band of angels - Jean-Yves Tola, Jeffrey Paul Norlander, and Pascal Humbert - ride like the four Horsemen into Low Estate, so named for the biblical verse that reads, "...set not your mind on high things, but condescend to men of low estate, and be not wise in your own conceits." Bubbling like a cauldron, roiling damnation and redemption in equal measures with faith as a guiding force, the 13 songs on Low Estate - recorded by PJ Harvey's saviour John Parish - wend their way across the mountains and plains of temptation and salvation like the clumsy wooden wheels of covered wagons, grinding slowly to their end, sometimes without reaching the Promised Land. Nick Cave and Tom Waits as hitchhikers picked up by the Carter Family? Naw. Appalachian Goth, someone called this band, which is a damn sight better than alt-country. That's mere microwaved heart to 16hp's barbecued soul.
4 stars - Margaret Moser
Springtime (Thrill Jockey)
The opening moments of any good/great album are often the most important. On Springtime, Freakwater's fifth release, those first precious moments belong to a banjo, an acoustic guitar, and the line, "Whiskey is not evil when it's sitting on a shelf." When Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean let loose their harmonies moments later, a broad, steady Gillian Welch high-lonesome set against a more sweet/sour Lucinda Williams croon (the liner notes give no hints as to who sings what), the circle is complete; a mood has been set. Call it Appalachian gothic - unplugged. What follows, besides Springtime's centerpiece, "Louisville Lip," a southern novelette about Muhammed Ali's tossing his gold medal into the Ohio River, is a deceptively dark and stripped down chronicling of rustic weirdness. Locals might be reminded of the Damnations in places, others of the Indigo Girls, and either would be an apt comparison, because when Irwin and Bean hit those passages where their voices weave together like the braid of a ponytail, the magic of two people that were born to sing together hits home with the force of a Carter Family moment. Wish this Chicago/Louisville alt-country contingent toured more, mountain music sure feels good down here on the plains.
3 stars - Raoul Hernandez
KAMRAN HOOSHMAND & 1001 NIGHTS
Unfortunately, not everyone who values traveling has the time and/or lucre to do so. Thankfully, artists like Kamran Hooshmand & 1001 Nights give us glimpses into other places and realities; in the case of Salaam, the journey is taken via Iberian, Greek, Persian, and Armenian music. "Shirin Jun (Dear Shirin)," starts with percussionist Erin Foster beating out the ghost-like gait rhythm on the darabukkah frame drum accompanied in melody by Roberto Riggio on violin and Hooshmand on saz, a Middle Eastern lute with a long neck and tied on gut-string frets whose pulling atmospheric sound reinforces the Iranian love song's sense of longing. Riggio's sublime solo on "Del-e Divaaneh (Crazy Heart)" is a voyage in and of itself; and Hooshmand treks gracefully between the vocals, saz, oud (the Middle Eastern forerunner of the guitar), and gut-string guitar. The thing preventing Salaam (the term means "peace" in Arabic and is a typical greeting in the Middle East) from being a better voyage - and it's still a damn fine one on this local indie label - is the teasing, just under
30-minute length. Then again this release, recorded on the KUT LiveSet program during a full moon evening in the summer of '96, is only a self-described sampler of what the band can do. Let's hope there's more in the works, for while it's ideal to travel in the first person, praise The Maker for giving us aural ambassadors like Kamran Hooshmand and 1001 Nights.
3.5 stars - David Lynch
Second-hand Smoke (MCA)
It's always been rock & roll chic to die of a drug overdose. Often it's been a good career move, as well. Too bad Sublime's Brad Nowell couldn't wait until after the band scored a hit record or at least recorded some more material to do so. Now, Sublime fans are doomed to pilfering through outtakes, B-sides, lost recordings, and rejects to find something, anything worth having - the first result being Second-hand Smoke. Only a couple of the tracks on SHS come from the Paul Leary-produced sessions here in Austin that yielded the the multi-platinum Sublime, and nearly half of the material actually predates 40oz. to Freedom. That means it also predates the band's owning its first sampling device; so much of this material is barely passable straight reggae from California boys rather than something novel, inventive or even something with a consistent groove. There are a few keepers - "Slow Ride" and a decent cover of Bob Marley's "Trenchtown Rock" - and it's fun to play spot-the-sample on the newer tracks (I found the Minutemen), but if you can hold out, you're probably better off waiting for the inevitable posthumous live album. If you can't control your jones, then go ahead, but there ain't much of a contact high with this Second-hand Smoke.
2 stars - Michael Bertin
When the suits at PepsiCo are compelled to drop a few errant million on a Super Bowl commercial just to tell us about the exciting new color scheme of their cans, you really have to wonder how much more superfluous their brand of reality can get. Negativland's brand of media collage takes accepted commercial reality and exposes it for the synthetic ploy it really is. This deprives advertising of its role as a legitimate cultural barometer, strikes a prankish blow for the everyman underdog, and makes you laugh all at the same time. No wonder they're probably the only band that needs a team of pro bono legal advisors to scrutinize their work before release to make sure it conforms to the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act. Negativland's target on Dispepsi is a certain brown sugary liquid that's the choice of a new generation. Using ammunition provided by the cola concerns themselves, the band systematically deconstructs angst-driven marketing strategies and the cult of celebrity to create a provocative, hilarious album that is their most cohesive and listenable work since 1987's Escape From Noise. Both "Drink It Up" and "The Greatest Taste Around" are contagious sing-a-longs. The former is a sinister serenade to beverage products of all stripes, while the latter takes the twisted concept of product placement to a whole new level with lyrics like, "I got fired by my boss/Pepsi/I nailed Jesus to the cross/Pepsi." After being inundated with a myriad of disfigured ad messages, "Bite Back" issues a clarion call to take back town square from the ad wizards with the oft-repeated battle cry, "Don't fuck with me, fellas!" Once again, if only for a brief moment, Negativland deftly exposes the manipulative ruse beneath all that solid entertainment value for all who care to take a gander.
4 stars - Greg Beets
The latest offering from Brooklyn's Rex is a lot like that dream we've all had: You're floating through the bluest sky with effortless control and not a care in the world when suddenly you realize that you're not flying - you're underwater. And you can breathe. The realization is frightening, exhilarating, and ultimately turns to a state of excited calm. The sublime and transportive music produced by Rex likewise assumes control of all faculties and takes you on a journey to where peace and sound reign through slim lyrical phrasings, heavily pounded and syncopated drums that are subdued in the mix but powerful nonetheless, soaring guitar overlays, an alternately thumping and throbbing bass, and the capper, the means to 3's harmonic culmination - an intertwining involvement of violin and viola that pushes the envelope from merely beautiful to breathtaking. To call this chamber rock in the VU tradition is a good starting point, but the intricacies of the individual parts and the overwhelming tonal tranquility carry it beyond that basic dimension. The trade-off of electric and acoustic guitar in "Oafish," when applied to the shuffled measure that seems impossible to accurately follow, keeps your tympanic membrane in check and your auditory nerves entranced. From singer Curtis Harvey's bone-chilling bazouki on "Waterbug" to the haunting guitar refrain of "Balloon," this album speaks a different language entirely, one in which grandiose visions of the human condition are a given, not a goal.
4 stars - Christopher Hess
Preemptive Strike (London/FFFR)
Since the 1996 release of Endtroducing..., DJ Shadow's groundbreaking post-jazz, proto-hip-hop full-length debut, American fans have scoured import sections for Shadow's 12-inch singles and CD EPs - sides full of remixes, outtakes, and oddball snippets. For the ambitious completist, collecting Shadow's archives was possible, but expensive. Now, as a stop-gap before a new full-length, the majority of Shadow's extra-curricular import activity is collected on Preemptive Strike, a valuable package for even the most casual of Shadow's admirers. For real historians, a 1993 single, "In/Flux" b/w "Hindsight," is compelling mostly for the latter tune - a funky precursor to Endtroducing's jarring cut `n' paste drum spasms. And while two parts of "What Does Your Soul Look Like" served as Endtroducing's undeniable anchor, Shadow's misstep here is using those two audio collages, plus two additional but less ambitious sections, to anchor Preemptive Strike. Even so, compensation comes in the form of the drum-heavy "High Noon," the album's only new track, and an extended overhaul of "Organ Donor," which turns a remotely interesting Endtroducing track into this genre's equivalent of "Green Onions." Better still, even if the 22-minute bonus disc featuring turntable master Q-Bert's patchwork scratchwork never gels into anything more than a novelty worth a few spins, its herky-jerky failure reinforces Shadow's real talent: a clean and unparalleled representation of atmosphere, rhythm, and soul - even on his throwaway B-sides.
3 stars - Andy Langer