WITH A DASH of overstatement, you might say rappers were in danger of writing themselves out of their own music. Thematic redundancy and a dearth of talent make lyrics increasingly irrelevant to great hip-hop. Besides, DJs like Krush don't make it easy for MCs to keep the music primarily a tapestry for vocalists, as it's often perceived. To wit: DJ Krush doesn't write lyrics, he doesn't rap--hell, he doesn't even understand English. But this renowned Japanese turntable maestro creates richly detailed and expansive tracks that, vocals or not, ooze hip-hop.
Meiso, DJ Krush's third release, is one of two albums (along with Beastie Boys sideman Money Mark's solo debut) that finally introduce the U.S. to the music put out by Mo'Wax, a British label fast becoming the premier launch pad for the progressive, internationalist groove music often called trip-hop. Perhaps to gel with American notions of hip-hop, Meiso features guest appearances by well-known rappers C.L. Smooth, Guru, and the Roots on four of the album's 14 cuts. Though the MCs perform admirably, the raps seem mostly like an afterthought, and even seem to hinder the music's ebb and flow. There's never doubt the star of Meiso is Krush, who imbues his electronic collages with mystical soul. Intricately cut beats shift gently as loops caress the ear and the mellowest of melody lines weave through. There's no telling where the music will take you, and that keeps Krush's groove exciting where others can get monotonous. And that the DJ comes at his craft detached from hip-hop tradition makes the possibilities seem endless. (Roni Sarig)
Spider John Koerner
THE TITLE OF Spider John's latest collection is a typically wry double entendre referring to his avid love of astronomy and his self-deprecating attitude toward his legendary status in folk-blues circles--as a mentor to Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and dozens of others. A man of many facets (troubadour, sage, joker, hermit, minstrel, everyday Joe), his willingness to let life come to and through him informs the laconic beauty and humor of his music. The 17 songs on StarGeezer are almost evenly divided between those written or adapted by Koerner during the '70s and those copyrighted this year. Yet in terms of style and temperament, it's impossible to distinguish the age of his tunes, or whether he culled them from his brain or the public domain. There are wild yarns like "Jack Of Diamonds" (traditional, adapted 1974) and "Thief River Falls" (original, written with Willie Murphy in 1972). There's the Koerneresque irony of him now recording a tune he wrote in '72 entitled "Taking My Time"; the fatalistic humor of his and Murphy's new song, "Going Down Together"; the winsome, birdlike chirp of "Phoebe" (another new original); and the renewed pleasures of Americana classics like "Casey Jones," "Stewball," and "The Days of Forty-Nine."
Murphy's influence is palpable as producer, bassist, and co-arranger, giving StarGeezer a puckish verve akin to the duo's treasured '70s collaboration, Running, Jumping Standing Still. But the presence of some crack New Orleans musicians, including ex-Professor Longhair drummer John Vidacovich and pianist/accordionist Amasa Miller, adds a jangly syncopation to the sessions. Inevitably, however, and almost against his will, the focus gravitates to Koerner. His 12-string guitar lines are as intricate, delicate, and clean as a fish skeleton left behind by an alley cat, and his plainspoken, penetrating vocals sound like a mix of Randy Newman and Burl Ives, with yearning, upturned phrases that could be yodels decapitated halfway up the scale. When he assumes the mantle of the populist sage, as on his new original "Some People Say," all the myths seem justified, and the timeless, narrative poetry of his folk-blues tradition shimmers with a vibrancy you won't soon forget. (Britt Robson)
THE RANK STRANGERS' retro-fitted rock & roll is a comfortable, familiar call to a pop past exalted by those who lived it and questioned by those of us who didn't. On Mystery Spot, the Strangers do a fine job of drawing on vintage '60s-'70s rock sounds while whittling away at the issues of the here and now.
The band's 1993 Crackpot debut, Far Cry From Here was a rumbling, rough-hewn jaunt from the garage to the fields, drawing as much on Southern-fried roots as it did the balls-out arena rock of the '70s. Mystery Spot irons out some of the Strangers' previous knottiness while smartly building on their influences. From the groovy T. Rex-influenced backbeat-driving "Bitter Honey" to the spaghetti Western strains that reverberate throughout "Wonder Crown" and "I Know They Are Trying to Kill Me," the Strangers raise their musical reach (there're also small doses of rockabilly and surf throughout the album) without compromising their ability to stand out as individuals. Some may squawk at the overt Kinks riffs (à la "All Day and All of the Night") on "In Search of Loser Rain," but hey--at this point it's better to sound like the Kinks than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (who don't even sound like the Rolling Stones anymore, anyway). Singer/songwriter Mike Wisti lends the songs multiple dimensions, whether it's his straight delivery of paranoia on "I Know They Are Trying to Kill Me" or his vacillation between broken-heartedness and a stalker's obsessiveness on "Letter to Juliet." "Passersby" and "Weeds" are timeless capsules of the Strangers at their best; the former lopes with an easy R&B street rhythm, the latter with a melancholy moroseness. Mystery Spot is like a stiff shot--there's no avoiding the initial sting or feel-good after-effect. (Vickie Gilmer)
McAlmont and Butler
The Sound of McAlmont and Butler
FULL-ON STRING sections were once a rocker's worst nightmare. But in the wake of alternarock's current beer-commercial profile and this summer's proposed money-grabbing Sex Pistols reunion concerts, orchestral overkill seems like the perfect tonic. "Yes," from The Sound of McAlmont and Butler is this duo's call-to-arms to all the smooth Philly soul and glam rock kids denied a voice in the grunge era. Lyrically, climbing out of a failed relationship never sounded more liberating. And yes, "Yes" has a glorious string section to boot.
Scrappy guitar whiz Bernard Butler once played the Brit press as Keith Richards to flamboyant vocalist Brett Anderson's Jagger in the U.K.'s flash-in-the-pan Suede. Opting out of Anderson's controlling vision, Butler has teamed up with vocalist David McAlmont and his dizzying falsetto for this fine, apparently one-off venture. White boy guitar indie rock meets black boy soul. The result: a genre-jumping collection that sounds dateless.
"What's the Excuse This Time?" is the sort of stripped-down funk that one wishes (the artist formerly known as) Prince were pursuing, while the quieter "The Right Thing" is a twangy, echoing blues. McAlmont's clear tone bears resemblance to Seal, but with more range and flavor. Butler layers acoustic strumming over lap steel, and distortion track on top of crystal-clear guitar hooks. Trading his former band's simpler charms for a richer, more complex mix, Butler has pulled McAlmont out of obscurity and made The Sound of... not a Suede spinoff but a whole new thang. Some may use the adjective "overblown," but these boys don't seem to mind. They've got 50 string players watching their backs. (Matt Keppel)
Home Alive: The Art of Self Defense
IT'S NOT ALL that uncommon for the artists, writers, and musicians of a community to band together for a worthy local cause. Thankfully, it happens regularly in cities across the country. But when the community is the fabled '90s rock mecca of Seattle, a local benefit is bound to assume national interest. Such is the case with Home Alive: The Art of Self Defense, a double CD of music and spoken-word poetry whose proceeds go to Home Alive, a Seattle area nonprofit organization dedicated to providing self-defense training and resources to combat violence.
Home Alive's primary inspiration is Mia Zapata, singer of the Seattle band the Gits who was raped and murdered in 1993. Memories of Zapata run throughout the set--her music (with the Gits and solo), her former bandmates (as Evil Stig and Dancing French Liberals of '48), and her tragedy (violence and abuse). Brutal words from Lydia Lunch ("Why We Murder"), Natalie Jacobson ("Got What Was Coming"), and Bobby Miller ("Keep You Mouth Off My Sisters") make it clear Home Alive's response is not one of anti-violence but rather counter-violence--and that often requires fighting back forcefully.
With a few honorable exceptions (Jello Biafra, Jim Carroll, Joan Jett), Home Alive draws its talent pool entirely from the Seattle music scene, including the big guys (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Heart), the mid-sized (7 Year Bitch, Presidents of the U.S.A., Fastbacks, Supersuckers), and the little ones (Los Hornets, North American Bison, Catfood, Christdriver). The range of emotions and responses presented sends a tremendous message of solidarity to victims everywhere. And given all the grunge hype thrown Seattle's way, it's both disarming and touching to find real substance and community actually still exists there. (Sarig)
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