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Burn, Li'l Debby, Burn

DEADBOLTZulu Death Mask(Headhunter/Cargo)

For centuries, the jungles of "darkest Africa" have exerted an inexorable pull on the psyches of American and European explorers. Time, technology and National Geographic have gradually diminished the region's mystery, but there are still unexplored corners of the Congo that play host to unexplained forces and unimagined pleasures. Deadbolt's latest musical travelogue finds the San Diego psychobilly quartet hacking their way through these hidden territories, armed only with a reverb-drenched guitar, two basses, a rudimentary drum kit, two chords and an impressive command of tribal dialects, this last apparently acquired through an intensive study of Tarzan flicks. Their mission: to help a French poet, a San Francisco witch doctor and a mercenary from Botswana track down the titular mask, whose powers will enable anyone who wears it to control the world . . .

Yep, Zulu Death Mask is a concept album. But this ain't no Lamb Lies Down on Sgt. Pepper hobbit-rock bullshit, baby, it's about real men with real tattoos and real beer guts, kickin' ass and takin' what's rightfully theirs. Unlike the rapacious explorers that preceded them, however, Deadbolt are down with the nature and native culture of these verdant lands; their deadly wrath is directed elsewhere. In "Macombo's Revenge," a whole boatload of British tourists gets eaten by alligators, as a Hugh Grant sound-alike whimpers in the background. Haight Street hippies are beheaded in "Watongo," while circus clowns and snack-cake mascots meet their appropriate ends in "Return of Patches" and "Burn, Lil' Debby, Burn," respectively.

Deadbolt's pals don't get off any easier. Dig the unblinking character study of one "Swahili Bob," who winds up getting his tongue ripped out by bikers: "Swahili Bob was a real scumbag/He did his phone tricks dressed up in drag/The filthiest things would come from his mouth/He ran a bisexual puppet show way down south." When head honcho Harley Davidson theorizes (on one of the record's hidden bonus tracks) that it's a "creepy world," you'd best be believin'. Do they ever find the mask, you ask? Like they say in poker, you gotta pay to see. (Dan Epstein)

PULLMANTurnstyles & Junkpiles (Thrill Jockey)

Depending on your point of reference, this instrumental quartet's deconstructionist debut will seem a heavy nod to the warm, stark work of acoustic players like John Fahey, or a refreshing attempt to reach a purity of both sound and structure in the vein of Lullaby for the Working Class and Josh Rouse. Based in Chicago, New York and Boston, the band is made up of members of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Brokeback (Douglas McCombs); Come (Chris Brokaw); Rex (Curtis Harvey); and Directions in Music (Bundy K. Brown) - although almost all of the members have, at one time or another, collaborated with each other.

Pullman has taken Tortoise's successful instrumental philosophy a few steps further: Dismantling the rhythm section, the group uses only acoustic instruments - assorted guitars, basses, a mandola and a dobro. But where Tortoise chops, cuts, layers and edits, the entire Pullman disc was recorded direct to 2-track (meaning no overdubs) with just two microphones. The effect is living-room warmth rather than studio-control-room sterility. Of the 14 tracks, the best moments are heady, pastoral pieces like "Sagamore Bridge" and "To Hold Down a Shadow," which rely on intuitive interplay and counterpoint. But if the tunes seem to wander aimlessly through open fields, after a few listens they reveal gentle melodies and interesting chord patterns. While more structured tunes - such as "Barefoot," which brings to mind a hobbled Leo Kottke, and "Lyasnya," written around a "Zorba the Greek"-like melody - don't fare nearly as well, beautiful nuggets such as "So Breaks Yesterday" and the haunting, Fahey-inspired "Fullerton" more than make up the difference.

Make no mistake, this is not a Strength in Numbers CD. There are no Bela Flecks, Sam Bushes or Jerry Douglasses to blind you with acrobatics - and that's exactly why it works. The point wasn't to impress, emulate or break new ground. And rather than songs written for a record (as is usually the case), the record is a vehicle for songs that came about for all the right reasons. (Michael Lipton)

GOATGoat (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Free your inner child and your ass will follow. Goat (a he not a they) arrives on the scene just in time to soothe your pre-millennial anxiety with an album so unabashedly life-affirming that a self-help book can't be far behind. Though funklike in its relentless syncopation and joy-in-repetition, the grooves here are designed to help those of us with two spiritual left feet through a little dance they call the 12 Step.

In a mangled, attenuated voice recalling both Al Green and Randy Newman, Goat sings songs of inspiration and healing and more healing. "I Will Fly," "Free," "I'll Be Good" and the minor hit "Great Life" politely encourage the listener to leave the pain of yesterday behind, start appreciating "our lives, our loves, our liberty," and just basically get your shit together. Producers Joe and Phil Nicolo (a.k.a. the Butcher Brothers) craft a subdued sound, minimalist and bone-dry. For all the mildly jolting samples, backward guitars, distorted whispers and phase-shifting feedback, Goat is strictly funk lite, appropriate for the boomin' system in the Volvo of the album's target audience. Goat - a former Juilliard dance accompanist and Otis Blackwell sideman - is clearly more interested in self-realization than booty-shaking revelation.

A pair of oddball tracks here suggests there's more to Goat than lust for life and happy talk. A cover of Brian Eno's "Baby's on Fire" (sans melody, plus beats) is edgy and taut; Eno's darkly comic lyrics provide a welcome contrast to the Hallmark aphorisms found elsewhere on the record. The real surprise, though, comes with the album's finale, "Goatboy," a menacing postscript that gives the lie to the preceding 40 minutes of midlife-uplift party planning. Oddly, an album that kicks off with a call to "start living a great life" ends on a bleak note of self-disgust: "Sitting in this junkyard of blues/living off love others would refuse/I would rather be someone's doggy/ than be what I am." (Adam Goldman)

GOMEZBring It On (Virgin)

Like other neo-hippie stoner bands (Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic), British retro-rockers Gomez draw their inspiration from the rhythm & blues of American rock groups like the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart and Santana - influences that might also account for why a white-boy band from Sheffield would christen itself Gomez, give its songs titles like "Tijuana Lady" and sing about their "desperado days." The nostalgic crackle of needle-on-vinyl sampled throughout the band's debut, Bring It On, encapsulates this homage. Ben Ottewell's whiskey-soaked vocals echo the bayou backwater flair of Dr. John and the grainy textures of Tom Waits, while the earthy if somewhat bland lyrics and layered rhythms recall the well-crafted accessibility of artists from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Pearl Jam.

Despite its sophisticated ancestry, Bring It On often lapses into music that's more fatuous regurgitation than a fresh re-interpretation of rock's black-light days. Songs like "Here Comes the Breeze" and "Rie's Wagon" evoke the '70s with their endless grooves and psychedelic spiralings but never progress much beyond a deja vu-type listening experience. Gomez suggest a certain speculative intelligence when they put a modern stamp on tracks such as "78 Stone Wobble," juxtaposing samples of language records, gramophones and rude intrusions of maniacal laughter alongside streaks of slide guitar and soulful harmonies. The experimentation continues with "Get Myself Arrested" and the tongue-in-cheek romp "Whippin' Piccadilly," which recounts the mates' Guinness-and-ganja days roaming "out of Manchester" and which has earned this quintet the title "The British Beck" from the U.K. press.

While you can hear Beck's calling card "two turntables and a microphone" reverberate in "Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone" and in the more progressive style of the two aforementioned tracks, the similarities with the meta-master end there. Yet these cuts suggest where Gomez's musical muscle lies and spare their premier effort the dismissive fate of a K-Tel classic-rock compilation. (Madelynn Amalfitano)

LAURIE ANDERSONat UCLA Royce Hall, September 25

In between her major media megillahs, which occur every four years or so, Laurie Anderson goes on the road with a toned-down, lower-tech act. The solo flight tests out material, airs some things that won't otherwise make the cut, and keeps the performance-pop star's audience hungry for more - especially more of her phenomenal shadow games and projections, which are absent from these ears-only gigs. Still, the material in these more intimate presentations coheres thematically and strings together in the same kind of near seamlessness that gives dynamic flow to the big productions and to her recordings.

You'd think Anderson's considerable musical skills would also come to the fore, unobscured by elaborate visuals or sonic gimmickry. But in The Speed of Darkness, this year's crop of Andersoniana, electrosonics are foregrounded, while music itself plays a secondary role, serving mostly as a vamp under and between the stories. On one level the performance is little more than a string of accounts and observations, enhanced with some crucially placed keyboard or violin playing, the whole thing goosed with some of the savviest digital processing this side of THX. On another level, the event is almost neotribal, with Anderson the shaman sharing philosophically tinged tales that pop open little hatches in our sensibilities, letting out our own doubts about and wonder at the amazing world we have helped to shape and now have to inhabit.

With her characteristic concision and sense of timing (most of her zingers come as the punch lines to postmodern shaggy-dog stories), Anderson alights on the sad, silly and stupefying ironies that make life in the digital age so bewildering for some, so exhilarating for others. Reverting more often than not to her electronically achieved faux-male voice, Anderson muses on Web conversations with the proper strangers, space flights that aren't, "wig breaks" that have replaced coffee breaks in certain offices, a Moby Dick-Star Trek comparison that culminates in a fusion of the two, and her poignant observation that "Recently someone said the saddest thing about the fall of the Berlin Wall is that you can no longer defect. There's nowhere left to go. And now that technology is everywhere in the world, most artists, like everyone else, are having to figure it out."

Laurie Anderson is the artist who is closest to figuring it out. For all its lack of bells and whistles, The Speed of Darkness sheds much light on the next century. (Peter Frank)