Here's a drummer who should lead more sessions. Working with Stephen Scott, Stan Getz or Bobby Watson, Victor Lewis has been ever serviceable, rarely outstanding. But the last several years have seen a few releases under his own name, and Three Way Conversations, on which he composed all 10 tracks, shows a musician seething with ideas and ready to beat his own drum.
The rhythms, of course, are motivational. Do not listen to this record near breakables, because your arms and feet are going to be flying all over the place with the relentless swing of "Tri-Domainal," the blunt-nosed Latinesque push of "Complex Dialog" and the body percussion of "The Shaw of Newark." Any top drummer is bound to command an arsenal of beats, though, so it's a real kick to find the tunes just as strong. "He's More Good Than Bad" recalls Monk and Coltrane; the cumulative surge and thrust of "The Roamer" is topped with an eyebrow-raising melody; the quick sweep of "With Dignity" supports a simply elegant paired-horn riff that will drive you nuts for hours.
Lewis' main ally is bassist Ed Howard, perfectly recorded so you can hear every vibration of his elastic strings as he gnarls his way between the dense, insistent drums. The album's conceit is that the rhythm pair play host to one of three single horns per selection, and in keeping with the schematic concept they play clean, clean, clean. Observe the way tenorman Seamus Blake runs before Lewis' snare gunfire on "Tempo in Time." Check altoist Steve Wilson dodging the bass & drums knock-around on "Another Angel." Stand up for Terell Stafford as his flugelhorn makes a shining entrance, round and clear, on the git-busy "The Cloisters."
I've mentioned nearly all the titles already, and I wasn't even trying. No fat, no waste, just pure nourishment. (Greg Burk)
Star City (Matador)
Given Pell Mell's inherently uncommercial format - tight, evocative instrumentals - it was more of a surprise that this long-lived bicoastal quartet was signed to Geffen Records than that it was quietly dropped two years later. Clearly undaunted, the band takes its latest collection (recorded while still under contract with Geffen) a step deeper into the narcotic combination of simple grooves, murky textures and exquisite guitar work.
While Interstate, Pell Mell's 1995 release for Geffen, recalled spaghetti Westerns, the minimalist rhythms of '80s N.Y. band Polyrock and a dash of Booker T. organ, Star City retains the band's deliberate backbeat while giving a chameleonlike nod to British instrumental groups like Egg ("Sky Lobby" and "Orange Roughy") and latter-day Can ("On Approach"). From beginning to end, these 14 songs are uncommonly well-conceived and -arranged, moving through moods ranging from the restrained calm of "Upstairs" to the Fripp-y beat heaviness of "Smokehouse" and "Gelatin." Vaguely recalling the squishy sounds of Bowie's Low, "In Polka Dots" offers one of the most ear-pleasing interludes.
Unable to rely on a catchy chorus, sooner or later most instrumental bands resort to gimmickry (Nashville's Los Straitjackets immediately come to mind). What's most surprising about Pell Mell is that you're likely to recall the melody of a tune like "Lowlight" or the south-of-the-border flavor of "Field of Poppies" long after most lyric-filled songs have had their 15 minutes of fame. On the other hand, the guitars in the delicate "Upstairs" speak volumes more than most bands' lyrics. (Michael Lipton)
The Champs (or C4AM95) have probably never had the pleasure of snorting lines of coke with Sammy Hagar at Cabo Wabo or enjoyed Lita Ford in the back seat of a Camaro. They may have never tried on a pair of Spandex trousers, guzzled Jack Daniel's in Ozzy's pool or trashed their hotel rooms with a bunch of naked groupies. Maybe they're complete poseurs, but no question, these three unlikely mortals have drunk from the great golden chalice of Ronnie James Dio and been commanded to bring pure rock to the 21st century. With the great metal bands of yore wussing out one by one (no doubt Slayer's electronica album is on the way, and Carcass will be playing Poptopia next year), the Champs are still doing Satan's work: frightening kitties, angering Mom and playing dark black metal suitable only for killing.
Most of the songs on III are ferocious metal instrumentals with two guitars and a monster drummer. As virtuosic as the musicians are, they choose not to wank; some of the tunes, like "Andres Segovia Interests Me" and "The Trees," are epic-sounding in an Iron Maiden sort of way, while the two vocal numbers, "Dale Bozzio" and the vicious "Some Swords," are somewhat akin to what nouveau-metal acts like Karp or Quicksand try to pull off. "Some Swords Reprise" is a depressing minor-key solo-piano piece, and there are a few short, bizarre electronic numbers, like "Now Is the Winter of Our Discotheque" and "Atop the Pyramid That Is You."
At 75 minutes, IIl is too long, but don't let that stop you from hurtling yourself toward a discriminating record store and picking up the heaviest thing since Judas Priest's Love Bites or Maiden's Powerslave. (Or send $12 to Frenetic Records, P.O. Box 640434, San Francisco, CA 94164-0434.)