Record Roundup

Mood Elevator

Medium Cool/Restless

THOUGH YOU MAY not have heard it, Jack Logan's 1994 debut, Bulk, stands as a singular achievement in rock history. A 42-track, two-hour double CD, Bulk collected the best from some 600 songs Logan had written and crudely recorded over the 15 years he worked as a swimming pool motor repairman in rural Georgia. It was a triumph of folk art: honest and powerful rock music made from a purely creative impulse, without any regard to ever being heard by anyone outside Logan's circle of friends. And smart too--Logan's songs had an economy and precision that relayed everyday moments full of extraordinary character and complexity. Critics squealed with glee: a lost treasury of rock had been found.

Of course, Mood Elevator, Logan's first post-discovery release, could never be the rare, pristine finding Bulk was. Logan is now an alternative up-and-comer with piles of press clips, national tours, and access to a real recording studio. But if Mood Elevator stands quite plainly as the work of an earnest Paul Westerberg-type songwriter (with his band, Liquor Cabinet, as the replacement Replacements), it stands proud and tall nevertheless. With an entirely conventional rock structure of guitar, piano, bass, and drums, Logan's songs succeed on their subtle melodies and hearty accompaniment. Messages that work first on a very literal level--"What Was Burned" about valuables lost in a fire, "Unscathed" about surviving a car accident--deepen as metaphors for the hurting soul. With Mood Elevator, Logan ably begins a recording career long in the making--and he's out to prove there's life after anonymity. (Roni Sarig)

The Grifters

Ain't My Lookout

SubPop

BEFORE I HEARD this record, one of their fans, disappointed, told me "it sounds like the Grifters trying to be the Grifters." After a dozen or so listens, I think that line may be true; I can only answer, "Well, about time."

Until now, I hadn't understood the band's appeal. They sounded too slovenly, the lead singer reminded me too much of Bruce Springsteen, and whether they were lo-fi or arena-rock in disguise, they didn't have many good songs. But now I know the Grifters aren't a song band. Despite what's been written about them, they're not obsessed with tunes like Guided by Voices or into destructo-roots-slop like Royal Trux or the Strapping Fieldhands. What they are into is... Bowie.

Well, not exactly. But what Bowie did for classic rock, The Grifters do for the indie aesthetic: subject it to an abrasive self-consciousness. They're smart guys who fuck with their music conceptually, and still rock out in style. Going for mood rather than pop pleasure; juxtaposing hard riffs, funk rhythms, prog bombast, and mellow noodling; reciting meaningless tropes ("the U.S. Army crash into me"; "forgot about Jesus") until they become motifs; the Grifters disorient. They don't play the blues for boogie power; they update the willful emotional form of the blues and, in the end, capture its irreducible quality. This is indie as AOR, a sound and a mood that enlarges itself over the length of a disc. It fades out, futzes around, sneaks up on you, hits you over the head and, most importantly, is built to last. (Stephen Tignor)

Eazy-E

Str8 Off Tha Streetz of Muthaphu**in Compton Ruthless/Relativity

EAZY-E, THE gangsta rap pioneer who died of AIDS complications last year, led a life of mixed intentions and results. As head of both N.W.A. and Ruthless Records, he did as much as anyone to bring South Central Los Angeles's problems to national attention, though his music also helped glorify a culture of violence, misogyny, and criminality that became the caricature of his neighborhood. He gave back to his community through charity, but he also sold out his people by reinforcing racist notions of them. His death was another powerful symbol that AIDS touches everyone, but his life expressed a who-cares attitude that encouraged ignorance. And when he died, for better or worse, a large part of gangsta rap died as well.

But Eazy didn't go out without leaving us one last shot of rhymes and beats: Str8 Off Tha Streetz posthumously releases music from the rapper's final years. Far from being a haunting voice from the grave, the record makes no mention of Eazy's disease--the only deaths here come by way of gun or baseball bat. Instead, "L--kin, S--kin, F--kin" indulges in the kind of behavior that killed the rapper, "Sorry Louie" is less about street violence than serial killing, and "My Baby'z Mama" is Eazy's theme song for deadbeat dads.

On the other hand, Str8 Off Tha Streetz also contains Eazy's spoken defense of gangsta rap ("we're underground reporters," "we do have a serious problem in L.A.") and some of his best songs. In particular, two tracks cowritten and produced by members of Naughty By Nature ("Nutz On Ya Chin" and "Hit the Hooker") contain memorable hooks and impeccable mixing. But having heard him say all he had left to say, it's time to leave Eazy and his contradictions to rest in peace. (Sarig)

Freakwater

Old Paint

Thrill Jockey

FINALLY, ATHEIST COUNTRY.

Unlike most indie label traditionalists, Freakwater play and sing their roots straight. Not because they're purists, really, but simply because they can. Vocalists Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean, out of Louisville and Chicago respectively, come together on harmonies so pure, there's no reason to update or twist their sound for the sarcastic '90s. This is old-time mountain vocalizing, bypassing the usual country-rock influence, Gram Parsons, and going straight to the Blue Ridge sources, the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family.

Freakwater also bypass mainstream country's lyrical tripe. Freed from obsessions with sin, family duty, and working class authenticity, these women can raise their voices to express undistilled emotions without excess baggage. The first line of the album announces that these sad stories are not going to be sad in any of the clichéd ways: "I wasn't drinking to forget/I was drinking to remember/How I once might have looked through the eyes of a stranger." Where country sung by women typically revolves around their hopeless wishes for a faithful man or a stable family life, Freakwater's songs give the women involved full agency; their longing, their sadness, their bitter humor, their waitress work, is theirs, beholden to no one.

But the pleasures of this music don't come from feminist politics; they come from the singing. Whether it's in the swelling harmony on "Gone to Stay," the ethereal call and response to "Smoking Daddy," or lovely, understated covers of Woody Guthrie and Dorsey Burnette, these women do celebrate tradition. When they sing "There's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist" they aren't being provocative. They're trying to say that the joy and kindness and sorrow in the world can be celebrated for their own sakes, not because those things serve any higher power. (Stephen Tignor)

various artists

Funkmaster Flex Presents the Mix Tape Volume 1: 60 Minutes of Funk

Loud/RCA

MIX TAPE DJs are to rappers as curators are to painters. That is, while rappers create original works (their songs), DJs decide which works to present, where, and how (on their tapes). There's an art to the mix tape, both conceptual and technical. DJs craft their tapes into a cohesive and unified whole, where scratches, dubs, and overlays link the best moments of the best songs in the best order to make a nonstop hip-hop odyssey. A great mix tape will be three things at once: A greatest hits compilation of the finest new and old hip-hop, a rarities bootleg with unreleased tracks from top artists, and a live album that captures the spirit of a hopping house party.

Until now, mix tapes were sold on the streets for about $10 a pop--a bargain considering most rap records run at least $15 and contain mostly filler. With 60 Minutes of Funk, the first-ever major-label mix tape, RCA plays "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" and capitalizes on superior distribution to offer the joys of mix tapes to people outside the inner cities. The "tape" (available on CD), done in one continuous take by popular New York DJ Funkmaster Flex, weaves together classic tracks (LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells," A Tribe Called Quest's "Award Tour") with in-studio freestyles (Fugees, Method Man, Keith Murray) and other hip-hop miscellany (DJ Kool's "20 Minute Workout," KRS-One's "Speech"), and ties it all together with Flex's own cut-ups and shout-outs. By including only the most relentless beats and craziest rhymes, Flex makes hip-hop that's all about having a party, the way it's rarely heard these days, but the way it was always meant to be. (Sarig)

Mekons/Kathy Acker

Pussy, King of the Pirates

Quarterstick/Touch & Go

A MATCH MADE in avant-pop heaven: Kathy Acker, lesbian punk heiress to William Burroughs's edge-of-humanity literature, together with the Mekons, eclectic punk survivors and underground music gods/goddesses. In a musical/literary pairing that easily beats the Burroughs/Cobain collab a few years back, Acker and the Mekons meet to produce what must be the first-ever soundtrack to a novel. Pussy, King of the Pirates is an aural companion to Acker's latest written work of the same name, a typically brutal journey into a wonderland of oblivion where the real and imagined intermingle freely, and horror and obscenity live side by side with childhood fantasy and adventure.

Though the record might make a bit more sense after reading the book, the Mekons do an exceptional job conjuring musically what Acker attempts in words. Acker reads book excerpts to introduce each of Pussy's seven songs, which echo the writer's disjointed and cacophonous collage style by mixing samples from pirate radio ("Ange's Song As She Crawled Through London"), dub reggae ("The Song of the Dogs"), lesbian pirate shanties ("Ostracism's Song to Pussycat"), industrial noise ("Intro the Strange"), and disco synth pop ("Antigone Speaking of Herself"). Acker brings out the Mekons' savage female side--with vocalist Jon Langford taking a back seat to Sally Timms's singing and Susie Honeyman's shrill fiddle--while the Mekons bring Acker's lyrics into a new sensual realm without compromising the power of her naked words. (Sarig)

Local ShotsBalloon Guy

The West Coast Shakes

Warner Bros./Generator

"YOU NEVER EXPECTED this from a welterweight!" cries Matt Olson in the very first moment of The West Coast Shakes, after which Balloon Guy erupts into a stop-start barrage of jagged, controlled noise. Olson's right--you probably don't expect this 14-song tour de force from a 3-year-old band that is still best known for the hyped major-label race to sign them. But Balloon Guy has spent its existence as the closet-intellectual, shut-in ironicists of local rock. They'll fuck with your mind by hinting at more secrets than they actually reveal, which is half the pleasure of dissecting the band. Peel the layers away from BG's stream-of-consciousness white noise, and the potential for interpretation--and misinterpretation--is staggering. And guess what: That's the point.

The West Coast Shakes was crafted locally with producer Ed Ackerson at the helm--proof that a world-class recording can be made in our backyard by modest means. Through the scorching "I Read It All" and "Plaque Slayer," the dual guitars of Olson and Mike Hill bob and weave with Scott Tretter's bass, while drummer Erik Mathison's adroit bombast compels me to pull out In Utero for technical comparison. Above this, in his unmistakable gravelly whisper, Olson spins a web of contradiction and half-truths, his determined singing pulling images from his subconscious. "I don't know anything/I lie/I'll try," he claims in the album's first verse. In "Russell," he imagines escaping an unidentified foe (or himself?), only to conclude, "Thank God/Thank God for camouflage." The eerie "I Ratted on You" could be about a breakup or an act of terrorism. Yet on the acoustic closer, "Blame," Olson seems to lift his veil of obscurity for the first time: "Tender emotional/Standard confessional/I am hard to rile... You can blame me for this."

West Coast works in part thanks to its huge sound and immaculate quirks--the strange samples in "Salty Language," the 007-esque hook in "Plaque Slayer," jive titles like "Tipsy Russell" and "Springtime in HoChi Minh City"--but this is mind-expanding music of the non-narcotic flavor. Confession time: Last night I even had a dream about Balloon Guy. Olson had left the band, so they replaced him with a woefully inappropriate R&B singer in time for the record-release party. (Yes, this came in the midst of other nightmares.) The West Coast Shakes has infiltrated at least one subconscious mind, in aptly bizarre Balloon Guy fashion. I'm sure mine won't be the last. (Simon Peter Groebner)

Balloon Guy performs Friday with Polara and Mountain Singers at First Avenue in Minneapolis.

Strawdogs

John Perkins John Perkins

SMA

WHAT A LEFT-FIELD delight this turned out to be. An outlandish homage to the musical spirit of New Orleans courtesy of an inspired batch of Minnesota boys and girls in the form of a septet with four guest stars, John Perkins is just the sort of smoldering snake oil to thaw frigid bones and unclog inhibitions. Begin with J.E. Thiede, who sings with a throaty gusto that recalls David Johanson's alter-ego Buster Poindexter and writes tall musical tales (like "Loupgarou") that sound as if they rolled out of a Bourbon Street speakeasy. In true Crescent City style, the horns strut and preen with a velvety blare while the rhythm section slings syncopated beats like so many bucketfuls of marbles.

Is there a downside to this crawfish shindig? Maybe when someone other than Thiede handles the singing. Female thrush Dana Thompson lacks the requisite bravado for a tune like "Four Fat Fingers," especially with Andy Sullivan pumping out the banjo licks, and the other male vocalists likewise don't cut their ham with saltpeter the way Thiede can. But Thompson redeems herself on the down & out "Tchoupitoulas Waltz" and, even without Thiede on the mike, the music always compensates. Check out the glorious intro to Louis Armstrong's "Old Man Mose" (the only nonoriginal on the disc), or the '50s-prom feel of "Don't Get Too Close" (is Bobby Rydell in the house?). The finale, "Creepy Creepy," starts out like an even cheesier "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida," adds a dollop of "Secret Agent Man," and stumbles down a flight of nasty saxophone squawks. In the race to embrace Strawdogs, I'd bet on Dr. John and Pulp Fiction's Quentin Tarantino. (Britt Robson)

Ride Ruby Ride

Brothers

LRM

COVER ART FEATURING a crown of thorns mended from guitar strings is just one clue that brothers Tim and Paul Frantzich (formerly known as Ruby) aren't afraid to test the limits of expressive overindulgence. They've certainly spared nothing in sound quality; former Fine Line sound mixer Alex Oana blends cellos, mandolins, pianos and vocal harmonies over warm basic tracks to create a digital bliss that truly breathes, and the brothers themselves reach Brian Wilsonian heights on modest pop numbers such as the opening "Divine Effect" and the romantic "Wine."

But on other numbers, this musical beauty fails to compensate for incredibly preposterous lyrics and vocal overdramatics. "Turn You On" and "Motorhome of Love" make clammy stabs at sensual deliverance, and moments of phony funk clash with the disc's overall serenity and stretch already dubious lyrics way past the breaking point. "Wings on a Broken Angel" is about how God's locket contains Kurt Cobain, "because it's so huge" (honest). "Ballroom (In Your Mind)" wastes a sweet title image on a dead-end Biblical allusion that spools into seven minutes of metaphorical tangles. Similarly, Paul takes six-and-a-half long minutes to gently say, "It'll All Work Out."Admirably ambitious, Brothers is a magnificent mess in which the creators try to impress, but rarely make a deep impression. (Jim Meyer)

Ride Ruby Ride perform at a CD release party Saturday at the Fine Line Music Cafe.

The King's Machine

...A State of Mind

Nightmare

THESE METAL SURVIVALISTS feature vocalist Lance King of late '80s local giants Gemini, and guitarist Dave Barilla, veteran of Touched and Barilla. Not surprisingly, you can't teach old hot dogs too many new tricks.
At times, Barilla himself demonstrates the crucial Jimmy Page/Eddie Van Halen-style spring in his string work, and mild-mannered King is still an operatic rock screamer, railing into the wind about societal ills and world problems. But the world won't listen, probably, since the underlying grooves can't amplify the lyrical emotion, though tunes such as "Crave the Dirt" manage a serviceable impression of Alice in Chains. (Meyer)

John Ewing Band

Delta Flares

TRG

THERE'S A NEW logo at Twin/Tone, but not much else has changed, apparently. Imagine the lamest Replacements or Magnolias filler; now divide by half, since Westerberg wannabe John Ewing demonstrates little of Westerberg's or John Freeman's colorful personality or passion. Now multiply by 11, since no song on this de
but rises above banal. Ewing's shaky vocals become mere muffled shouts in this guitar-heavy mix, pushed ahead by Tom Cook's mechanical beat-keeping. Flashy guitarist Steve Brantseg roars ahead crazily, but what can ya do with compositions that call for little more than stock rock & roll time-killing. Softer songs stand out, though I think someone's already written "Maybellene" and "Throwin' It Away." You can bet Ewing will never write one called "Unsatisfied"; this veteran foursome seems perfectly pleased with big dumb shuffles, and one bad dose of thunder. (Meyer)

12 Rods

gay?

self-released

12 Rods have a lot of time on their hands, and they've taken advantage of it. The best parts of their effects-drenched, generically packaged CD EP gay? could be the richest recording ever made in the basement of a Minneapolis band's house. (Granted, it's not digital, but I was never much of a fidelity snob.) The ambiguously titled CD roams a peculiar territory between gritty, low-end aggression and light new wave textures. Tripping through six songs in 38 minutes (not counting the deft shorter edits of the two best songs, "Red" and "Mexico"), 12 Rods have no interest in the perfect pop song. Instead, they take four to 10 minutes a piece to develop a mood, build to a subtle, intoxicating climax, then stealthily exit just as you've lost track of the time.

As the Rods' faux-'80s edge reimagines new wave as deeper and darker than it really was; singer/guitarist Ryan Olcott sounds (like many of us) like he spent the decade hiding in his room from the adolescent hell beyond. In his endearing, peculiar tenor, he rips his hometown in "Make-Out Music" and wallows in the slow, humid "Gaymo," with his melancholy conclusion, "Everybody's cool except for me." There are a lot of uncool things about 12 Rods: their art-rock trappings, their technical proficiency, their brainy sarcasm, maybe even their four sets of eyeglasses. But you know and I know that the cool kids who once called the shots won't necessarily be the winners at the class reunion. (Groebner)

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