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All Grown Up

CUONG VU Pure (Knitting Factory)

This post-jazz trio album came out a few months ago, but I haven’t had a chance to absorb it till now, and I figure it’s never too late to write about work this good. I first heard Cuong Vu (born in Vietnam, raised in Seattle, educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, now living in New York) a few years back on a Chris Speed record; I liked the way his trumpet complemented Speed’s sax while establishing its own melodic territory. Pure is Vu’s second CD as a leader.

Listen to Cuong Vu : Real Audio Format Faith Vina, All Grown Up

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It’s pure art. Cuong Vu has dug so deep into himself that the ineluctable ghost of Miles Davis just isn’t an issue, even in an electronically oriented arena like Pure’s, where you’d think that, between 1968 and 1975, Miles did everything that could be done. A crucial definer was the selection of band members. Drummer John Hollenbeck slugs the toms a lot, plays sparely and with a wide range of volume, uses subtle repetition in a way that you wouldn’t have called a groove till you found yourself stomping your foot on the floor. Bassist Stomu Takeishi, who plucks so busily way up the neck when he’s with Erik Friedlander, completely reinvents himself with Vu, squeezing his mud way down between the beats; mutant loops of his riffs are also used here and there as thematic material. Vu himself is determined to play nothing that’s meaningless. He drones essential planes of sustain, sketches slow minisongs of improvisation one after the other, finds brand-new tonal regions of his horn, sometimes sounding like he’s stuffed his cheeks with popcorn just for the effect it’ll produce. And whoever oversaw the electronic touches (Vu? co-producer Laurent Brondel?) cut them in with diamond precision, using them as accents rather than as ends in themselves.

The compositions are stories that simply make sense, though they’re long and full of gradual changes, and aren’t traditionally hooky. There’s dark-darkness (“Faith”), joyful lament (“Vina, All Grown Up”), quick-stepping spy funk (“Pitter- Patter”). All are terrific. But at least once, take the full 18 minutes and pay strict attention to “I Shall Never Come Back.” It starts with sparse echoes in an empty room, follows with some truly scary monster-bass effects, cuts loose the drums for an episode of soulless brutality, then ushers in a trumpet passage that reveals everything about anguish and despair in flat, naked beauty before introducing a beat and an echoing finale that can’t represent anything but a man staggering self-pitilessly toward his death. It will shake you.

THE SOFT BOYS Underwater Moonlight (Matador)

Listen to The Soft Boys : Real Audio Format Old Pervert The Queen of Eyes

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It’s often been said that great records find you, and not the other way around. Half my life ago, inspired by a rave review in the original Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, I spent hours digging vainly through import and used bins for the Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight LP. Originally released in 1980, the record eluded me until my freshman year of college, when a still-sealed copy suddenly turned up in my local vinyl emporium. Its timing was perfect — six months previous, the magic of an album brimming with sex, psychedelia and Fender Telecasters would have been completely lost on an overly serious high school student who hadn’t had much experience with any of the above. But for the next four years, Underwater Moonlight became my ever-present companion, serving as an acerbic Greek chorus to my grapplings with girls, drugs and various other distractions from my academic career.

Truth be told, I haven’t listened to Underwater Moonlight much in the past decade; I spun it so often that I can still download every lick, lyric and muttered aside at will from the Napster of my mind. That said, Matador’s new edition of the album sounds even better than I remembered. Robyn Hitchcock would go on to make several excellent solo albums after Underwater Moonlight, but none of them ever crackled with this sort of visceral electricity. Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew’s Yardbirdsian guitar duels on “Kingdom of Love,” “Insanely Jealous” and the title track are still dizzying in their beauty, while the soaring kill-for-peace anthems “I Wanna Destroy You” and “Positive Vibrations” — not to mention the Beefheart blues of “Old Pervert” — exude a musical confidence completely at odds with the prevailing sounds of the day. And if someone has since come up with a better fusion of the Beatles, Byrds and Hollies than “Queen of Eyes,” I haven’t heard it.

 

One complaint: As with previous CD versions, Matador’s reissue attaches several outtakes to the end of the record. While interesting, their presence winds up detracting from the full-blown excellence of the album’s original contents; they should have been relegated to the bonus disc, which features some previously unreleased rehearsal recordings. But just buy the CD, take the time to program tracks 1 through 10 into your player, and let ’em rip; 36 minutes of twisted pop perfection will be your reward. (Dan Epstein)

VARIOUS ARTISTS East Side Sound Vol. 2 (Bacchus)

The Blendells East Los Angeles’ spontaneous eruption of Chicano rock & roll was one of the most potent homegrown scenes of the entire 1960s, yet this wild garage-bred legacy is still mystifyingly overlooked. Drunk with rock music’s frantic drive, R&B’s finger-popping glamour and soul’s smolder, the youth of East L.A. drummed up some of the most sizzling big beat ever. A crazy union of Motown, oldies, British Invasion and Stax/Volt influences, most of it was put across by teenagers barely able to play their hastily chosen instruments (dig it, we’re talking about 12- and 14-year-olds). That mix of instinct, passion and sheer inexperience has always been rock & roll’s key ingredient, and the 11 groups represented here exploit it in high and happy style.

Listen to Eastside Sound Vol. 2 : Real Audio Format Down Whittier Blvd. Sonny & Cher

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The disc kicks off with Godfrey & Friends’ frosty beatnik rap “Down Whittier Blvd.” (actually a sort of studio-summit event, with Thee Midnighters backing KTYM’s popular R&B DJ Godfrey Kerr), and twists from stomping party-time R&B instrumentals, to outright goofing (get a load of the Atlantics’ “Sonny & Cher”), to inflamed ardor (“I’m in Love With Your Daughter”). Alongside four tracks by the impossibly baby-faced Mark & the Escorts (fronted by the son of legendary singer-guitarist Lalo Guerrero), the other outfits here — the Cassinos, Thee Enchantments, the Blendells, the Premieres, the Atlantics, Thee Impalas — all share a common drive, a funky, soulin’ mood and a walloping, casual sense of groove that manages to overcome any deficiencies by their own out-and-out exhilaration.

Roughly spanning 1962–67, this collection emphasizes rocked-up numbers, rather than the sentimental ballads so prevalent to the East L.A. style, and just about every track is a knockout. The bands uniformly perform with an earnest pubescent vulgarity that is, in all its slop and sincerity, quite moving. Fraught with such delicious conflicting elements — the wide-eyed innocent’s hesitant yet compulsive flirtation with delinquency and lust — East Side Sound Volume 2 is a potent representation of rock & roll’s innate, almost supernatural power. (Jonny Whiteside)

DISCO BISCUITS They Missed the Perfume (Megaforce)

Much ado has been made over the “granola-glowstick connection,” especially in the Northeast, where dreadlocked and patchouli-scented youth have learned that the rave offers the same drugs, all-nite twirl fests and communal love found at a Phish concert. If there is indeed a connection, it only flows one way — c’mon, all those filthy hippies and their cultish obsession with the Dead just isn’t the future. Even so, we’re going to see fewer Widespread Panics and Leftover Salmons and more bands like Disco Biscuits, electronicats who improvise in real time with actual instruments yet cannot hide their love of gadgetry.

While all of They Missed the Perfume sifts and sloshes as soothingly as a Calgon bath, the “Bisco” sound (as its fans call it) occasionally snags on immediately recognizable pop signatures that sometimes recall the neoclassical bombast of Mannheim Steamroller or (ugh!) Bruce Hornsby–esque piano tinklings (“I Remember When”); the sweeping synths of “Mindless Dribble” would be right at home in any Vangelis-scored ’80s flick; in “Spacebirdmatingcall” and “Haleakala Crater,” the keening vibrato of Jon Gutwillig’s guitar flexes like the arena-rock dick-measuring contests of yore. Overall, though, this gentle jam is tight as clockwork and squeaky-clean as keyboardist Aron Magner’s JS 8000, no mean feat in a sound-pie this thick. New Agey lyrics about the sun and stars abound, but mostly the words weigh in like mantras, sung as a chorus by Magner and bassist Marc Brownstein.

Nonlinear and open-ended, They Missed the Perfume is a six-song tableau of swooshing sci-fi F/X and crisp beatdowns where an undulating snakebed of bass pulls it all toward Earth, and Gutwillig’s advanced guitar dissertations build the band’s stairway to heaven — an innocuous mix of brawn and bliss. (Andrew Lentz)

Disco Biscuits

VARIOUS ARTISTS Def Con 4 (Vortex/Celestial)

L.A.’s about to blow up, y’all: While some of you party people never got past the glowsticks and four-on-the-floor of trance and house, there are other Angelenos who search the terrain seeking the latest in frantic bass and beats. And while there are also those elitists who feel that drum ’n’ bass is played out and consider themselves way beyond tech-step, still, listen up, d&b is not only thriving, it’s thriving in Los Angeles. Though it’s still a dubplate culture and strives to emulate the U.K. sound, players here are adding a uniquely L.A. experience to the mix.

 

Produced by Hive, Pieter K and B-Boy 3000, Def Con 4 is a product of Celestial Records, a label owned and operated by the promoters and resident DJs of Koncrete Jungle (a d&b and hip-hop night that originated in NYC), and what they’ve done is bring our hometown hip-hop band, the Freestyle Fellowship, into the dark and noisy world of d&b. Def Con 4 takes the dance floor away from disco and delivers it to beat terrorists, lacing bass-driven rhythms with atmospheric hysterics and threatening verbiage, compelling the listener to dance aggressively.

We’re in a city founded on segregation, but it’s about time for the kids who frequented the Good Life (the L.A. freestyle Mecca) and its godchild Project Blowed (Leimert Park) to mix with the kids who rock the sounds of Photek and Jumpin’ Jack Frost. The hip-hop headz and the bassheadz — cool. With cover art provided by Saber AWR MSK, best known for his 300-foot piece along the L.A. River (deemed the largest illegal piece of graffiti in history) and a lethal alchemy of poems and percussion, Def Con 4 proves that the Man can’t keep a good thang down. (Daniel Siwek)

BERSUIT VERGARABAT Hijos del Culo (Surco/Universal)

Argentina’s Bersuit Vergarabat (pronounced “Bear-sweet Bear-gah-ra-bat,” a meaningless term), nearly destroyed by coke, acid and success in the early ’90s, bounced back in ’98 with the Gustavo Santaolalla–produced Libertinaje. Aided by the huge success of the government-censored rap “Sr. Cobranza,” Bersuit became the party band of the ’90s.

Hijos del Culo, though far more lyrically subtle than its predecessor, is even more powerful. Bersuit differ from most of the other Latin American pachanga mestiza bands in two big ways: They can actually write songs, and they’re fueled not by the urge to dance, but by hate and resentment. Thank God they have a sense of humor. Each song stars a different character representing what Bersuit claims is the real face of Argentina: that of the “sons of the ass,” i.e., those born in the world’s asshole, those who’ve been fucked by, among others, El Norte — what Michael Moore would call “the Big One.”

But instead of screechy metal guitars, Bersuit goes native: cumbia, Cordoba’s cuartetazo, chamarrita, milongón and, especially, Uruguayan murga (a vocal format brought to Uruguay by the Spaniards in the early 1900s) and the savage Afro-Uruguayan rhythm candombe. The murga “Negra Murguera” is possibly the best Latin alternative song in years and the backbone of one of the smartest Latin rock records of the year. (Enrique Lopetegui)


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