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Music Reviews 

Wednesday, May 20 1998
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RAMBLIN’ JACK
ELLIOTT
Friends of Mine
(Hightone)

Among singer-songwriters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a key figure, largely owing to his huge influence on Bob Dylan, but not only for that. His style melded equal parts Woody Guthrie, cowboy songs and hard country, and he was then (as now) a magnetic performer whose records were often tame compared to his live shows.

Friends of Mine is a disc of Elliott singing with 10 well-known, or semi-known, musical compadres. Producer Roy Rogers keeps things minimal, as if to simulate picking with friends in the living room. Arlo Guthrie helps out, and the Western swing–flavored "Riding Down the Canyon" features both non-singers to great advantage. Rosalie Sorrells helps read "Last Letter," and it’s stunning; Guy Clark is in for a version of Merle Travis’ "Dark as a Dungeon" that is raggy folk dueting at its best. "Rex’s Blues," with Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, is predictably long on gorgeous harmonies. "Walls of Red Wing," with John Prine, is again a predictable case of something that should work, and does.

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Would that it was all this good. Peter Rowan is Elliott’s duet partner on a version of "Me and Billy the Kid" that never takes off. One duet with Jerry Jeff Walker would have been enough. There is also a needless duet of "Friend of the Devil" with Bob Weir. Tom Waits wrote and took the lead on "Louise," and it’s breathtaking, a gentle country ballad as beautiful and out-of-step with the times as anything on Van Dyke Parks’ new album. Elliott’s weather-beaten high harmony is perfect — to the point of not letting Waits steal the entire disc, which he nearly does.

Friends is a pleasure with a few flaws. More important, it shows that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is alive, well and still vital. (Skip Heller)

ARAB STRAP
Philophobia (Matador)

Nearly everything about this Scottish duo smacks of personal insecurity and physical inadequacy, from the band name (a sexual aid worn to sustain an erection) and the disc’s title (not just the fear of love, but the fear of falling in love) to the collection of often-brutal experiences singer Aidan Moffat has thoughtfully turned into lyrics. The pair’s erratic perform-ances and overindulgences have already made them something of a legend among British ‘zines, with nearly every writer noting Moffat’s propensity for drink and drugs and apparent failure with the opposite sex. Adding to the lore (and their wallets), "The First Big Weekend," the single from Strap’s 1996 U.K. debut, was recently remixed for a British Guinness beer ad.

Listening to Arab Strap is a mixed bag of pleasure and pain, the former being Malcolm Middleton’s minimal, narcotic and often beautiful soundtracks. There are murky drum samples, Magnus organs, E-Bowed guitars, and textures reminiscent of Another Green World, while occasional strings create the effect of a Southern-gothic Salvation Army band. As with bands like Palace Music, Smoke and Lullaby for the Working Class, there’s both an intensity and comfort to be found in the subdued production.

The latter, Moffat’s half-spoken tales delivered more as prose than lyrics, see love and sex as a size 11 delivered squarely to the sweets. In the opening track, "Packs of Three," his first words are sure to grab your attention: "It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen, but you’ve no idea where that cock has been." Out of context, it may seem like a cheap attempt to shock the listener. But as the tunes unfold, it’s clear that Moffat’s bluntness is neither contrived nor isolated. Like Lou Reed on reds (with a dash of Robert Wyatt’s phrasing), in "Piglet" he half-slurs the lines, "You can’t get over your dead dog — well, it takes one to know one" and "You get up to get dressed — I think your pants are by the door. I think tomorrow we might be sore."

If the two appear motivated by their misery (Strap’s first disc was inspired by a woman they both dated — at the same time), it brings to mind the timeless edict of rock & rollers: You don’t have to be miserable to write great songs — but it sure helps. (Michael Lipton)

 

CONJUNTO CÉSPEDES
at the Conga Room, May 15

"They’re from San Francisco? You’re kidding! I thought they were from Cuba . . . directemente." Shaking his head, Arturo, an Orange County lawyer who left the island nation in ’61, relit his Cohiba outside the Conga Room. Conjunto Céspedes had just finished its opening set, giving credence to one of the paradoxes of diaspora: You can leave the land of your roots, but that doesn’t mean you leave your roots behind — and sometimes those roots grow deeper when they’re a few times removed from the motherland.

Touted as the Bay Area’s No. 1 Latin band, Conjunto Céspedes proves that appellation rather limited. Because its evolved take on son cubano, guajiras and the like emphasizes the African in Afro-Cuban, with a heavy dose of that old-time Lucumi religion always present, the band turns any venue it plays into hallowed ground. So maybe the crowd of nattily dressed revelers, already high on the pumped-up energy of the classy midtown nightclub, didn’t get religion when lead singer/high priestess Bobi Céspedes sang "El Tambor Tiene Su Magia" ("The Drum Has Its Own Magic"). And maybe they weren’t overcome with sudden pangs of latinoamericano solidarity during the anthemic "La Misma Herencia" ("The Same Heritage"). But what did pull them onto the dance floor was Conjunto Céspedes’ unerring knack for tension and release. Restless, relentless arrangements — of both original tunes and reverently chosen covers from Cuban saints Miguel Matamoros, Pablo Milanes, Celina González and others — consistently targeted the pelvic area with uncanny precision.

When not shaking her shekere or singing the praises of various orishas, Bobi C. displayed a worldly-wise playfulness and world-class vocal stylings. She pushed "Son Caminos" ("Path of the Son"), a love letter to Cuba, to multiple peaks, as her nephew and musical director Guillermo hammered the real montuno shit on piano, the horn charts careened toward arterial collapse, and the percussionists mounted and rode the clavé like Preakness jockeys. Conjunto Céspedes’ gifts of celebrative redemption helped us forget our troubles and dance. (Tom Cheyney)

LIBIDO, WIREWOOD
at the Mint, May 14

A handful of locals mingled with a wash of industry hipsters at the Mint the night Norway’s Libido made their L.A. debut. Wirewood, the band preceding Libido, are from Australia, and feature a bespectacled singer who tricks the audience by looking like Elvis Costello and sounding like a Hootie–Gavin Rossdale combo, with that mumbly, earth-tone baritone that has characterized so many male vocalists over the last half-decade.

Bergen, Norway’s Libido are fronted by an actual singer, Even Johansen, who has the choirboyish lilt of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and an emotive hissing-cat scream as well as a latter-day-Lennon sunny-day-sailing style. He really means those things he says about girls and dreams. He’s got a peculiar sort of stage presence as well — his shoulders, hips and feet twist as if each section were attached to a Sit ‘N’ Spin rotating in opposite directions. The other two-thirds of the trio — the jumpy Cato Eikeland on bass and the hulking Jorgen Landhaug on percussion — hold down the fort without overpowering Johansen.

The sound is fairly anonymous, which is to say that, unlike so many other new groups, they don’t rip anyone off outright. Libido could be described as a sort of Britpop-Mudhoney-Beatles-Replacements hybrid, an unpretentious, white-T-shirt sort of band with solid, catchy, efficient rock songs. Nothing fancy. They plowed through numbers from their recently released debut, Killing Some Dead Time (Velvel/Fire Records), including their single, "Supersonic Daydream," dramatic, Britpoppy swoops with shimmery guitar bursts. The more subtle ditties, like "In My Shadow," "Crash Out" and a moving version of Kate Bush’s "Running Up That Hill," showcased Johansen’s pristine voice.

Libido’s official U.S debut came at South by Southwest. It’s not hard to foresee a handful of hit alt-rock singles, numerous KROQ Weenie Roasts and a Saturday Night Live appearance or two. (Skylaire Alfvegren)

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