THE FIRE SHOW Above the Volcano of Flowers (Perishable)
This record arrived out of nowhere, popped me twice on the forehead, and swiftly jettisoned Radiohead’s new live album — the tedious, why-was-this-released? I Could Be Wrong — from the CD tray, never to return. Why? Because that eight-song, 40-minute record, Radiohead’s third in a year and a half, delivers little that Kid A and Amnesiac didn’t, while the seven-song, 40-minute Above the Volcano of Flowers sounds like the guitar-centric follow-up to OK Computer that Radiohead might have imagined but couldn’t/wouldn’t deliver.
Which probably isn’t fair to M. Resplendent and Olias Nil — former members of unremarkable ‘90s indie rock band Number One Cup, who, as the Fire Show’s primary creative forces, have with this record made something that arrives at post-”Paranoid Android” six-part nervy epics by way of much older (and in some ways more artistically rewarding) routes. The obvious influences here are the amazing postpunk bands of the late ‘70s: groups with cropped guitar and funk-dub bass and vocals that spat, sparred and then went all melodic. Think Gang of Four, the Pop Group, the Fall, Wire, Levine/Wobble–era Public Image Limited, and (later on) the Minutemen. Throw in the rulelessness of prime Can and the vaulting, proglike compositional ambition (and poetic lyrics) of Television, and you come up with something like the songs on Volcano — tracks that regularly break the five-minute mark (the fantastic “Dead Like Latin,” which features a deep vocal chorus hook, stretches past 10 minutes), that keep the refrains and riffs coming from all angles and instruments (guitar, bass, keyboard, horn, strings, whip-crack drums, bits of computer glitch, etc.), that feature lines like “I’m designing a steeper cliff/to hang from my own thread,” “Can you please let me plead like I have a right,” “There are phantoms in this blood,” “By the rivers of Babylon/I swallowed my own tongue.” The vocals are desperate, tense and determined — I have no idea what those lyrics mean, either, but someday I might. (Radiohead lyrics only occasionally have that virtue, and you have to put up with Thom Yorke’s never-ending marble-mouthed mewling to hear them.)
This is seriously good stuff — imaginative, hot/cold, body-and-brain music that builds on its antecedents and doesn’t get stuck relying on clone work. Volcano is so good that one wonders why the record is being billed as a stopgap, between-albums release, limited to only 1,000 copies. It’s as if the band isn’t aware of what it’s achieved — or has something even greater up its collective sleeve. I dunno. I could be wrong — but the Fire Show may be right. (Ordering info is available at www.fire-show.com)
BJÖRK “Pagan Poetry” video (Elektra)
Björk has been one of the most engaging music-video artists largely because her directors invariably succumb to her ravishingly zonked child-woman fantasia. Even with Chris Cunningham, a director known for his mature nightmare science, Björk preferred dreamy sci-fi androids with lubed sprockets to do what should have obviously been reserved for consenting women (“All Is Full of Love”). No question, her numerous inner children have been beautiful to watch, from wonderland fables (“Bachelorette”) to cartoon head rushes (“I Miss You”) to stuffed animals on the hunt (“Human Behavior”). But there’s a moment in “Hidden Place” — a video that follows an enchanted living stream of kiddie snot dripping out her nose — where Björk looks like a person who’s starting to show her years at being a girl.
With “Pagan Poetry” she finally takes on, with a jaw-dropping sexual agenda, what is woman’s work. Directed by the British photographer Nick Knight, the video begins with abstract doodling whose veiled allure reveals itself upon a focused viewing: a girl giving head, then getting fucked; the colors and lines (traced from live-action material) register the contrasting regions of live nude flesh. In the second half, a full view of Björk, in mesmerizing grown-up beauty, slowly emerges from the graphic foam — she’s wearing a topless dress seemingly made of pearls, her midnight hair longer than ever, with gusts of wind splashing on her like the tides. Alas, it’s Venus as a woman, and there isn’t an ounce of lewdness to her myth-making rise — her bare breasts are for us to see, but more beautifully they’re for her to see: “This time I’m gonna keep my all to myself.” Suddenly, she complicates that resolve when she yells, “But he makes me want to hand myself over.”
Before the video’s premiere, many Web sites had quoted the above lyric as “But he makes me want to hurt myself again.” Fascinating, because in the video, at the moment she might have said those words, a skewer pierces the flesh of a woman’s back. The video then concludes with a view of the woman’s exquisite dorsal erotic body art — a string of shiny gems laced between six flesh-fastened hoops. As with our heroine, there’s elegance to be found in such carnal affliction. This is pagan poetry, as poetically pagan as, say, tattooing the face of God or Jesus on your back — adult art that is worshipfully sensuous, with breathtaking idols here on Earth. (Tommy Nguyen)
NINEY THE OBSERVER Microphone Attack, 1974–1978 (Blood and Fire)
Coupled with the boasting and babbling of whichever toaster was at the mic, ’70s dub sailed north from Jamaica, entered the U.S. at the Bronx and mutated into rap, the dominant music of our era. Winston “Niney” Holness may not have invented the art form, but along with Lee Perry, King Tubby and others, he was there at the source.
Okay, history lesson’s over. Fact is, these tracks are to current cut-and-paste, off-the-hard-drive methodology what Robert Johnson was to a Marshall stack 30 years ago. Although it was studio technology that made Niney’s great tracks with Dennis Brown easily transferable into the chassis of U-Roy’s phenomenal “Train From the West,” one’s jaw drops at the crudity of the sound effects: the smashing-of-the-plate reverb for that “thunder and lightning” effect, the abrupt shift from echo drench into bone dry that makes the horn parts feel like hard jabs, the sped-up repeats for the “fun house” vocal effect. All were done by hand, which is why the U-Roy cut that opens the disc is such a hoot — you can’t even tell whether the track has faded out or ended.
Pre-sampling era that it was, the musicians played snippets of tunes instead of just lifting them; bits of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and the Drifters’ “On Broadway” (transmogrified into “Fresh and Clean” here by I-Roy) were underpinnings, as was the Mighty Diamonds’ reggae classic “Right Time” used by Big Youth on “Four Sevens.” Not so much rapping as scat singing, Youth, Dillinger and I-Roy made good use of Niney’s cleaner bottom; by 1974, the scratchy and overdriven 4-track sound of ska/bluebeat, having evolved into slick soul, was perfect for their invocations.
It’s loud and organic and lovely and mean and tender, all dunked in a mixmaster and shot out in shotgun blasts of monstrous sound and fury. Today’s dancehall mixers, despite their aural blitzkriegs, sound tame compared to these JA O.G.s. (Johnny Angel)
CHANO POZO El Tambor de Cuba (Tumbao)
Eating a raw-octopus-and-cucumber salad at a Hollywood sushi house, Venezuelan percussionist Rudy Regalado suddenly decides to teach me how to play a basic timbales beat. He pounds the counter and sings on top of the rhythm, mimicking the violent riffs of a brass section. The song is “Manteca,” the Latin-jazz classic composed by Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie and arranger Walter Gilbert Fuller. Regalado will remember Pozo once again before leaving the restaurant. “Blen, blen, blen,” he sings while bidding me goodbye. Just like every performer of Afro-Cuban music before and after him, Regalado carries within him the constant memory of Pozo, the Cuban conguero who dazzled New York in the late ’40s with his African-folklore-based percussion before being murdered in 1948.
Pozo, who between 1939 and 1948 wrote 41 tunes, is celebrated in the lavish box set El Tambor de Cuba. Tropical-music aficionados will recognize most of the material in these three discs, as well as the names of its famous interpreters: Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Miguelito Valdés with the Orquesta Casino de la Playa, Tito Gómez and, of course, Gillespie with Pozo himself. Though the sound quality of the original recordings is rough at times, the warmth emanating from these pioneering sessions is undeniable. Together with Gillespie, Machito and Mario Bauzá, Pozo invented an irresistible new combination of American jazz and Cuban dance formats that still fuels Latin America’s tropical music.
On November 22, 1948, someone stole two congas from Pozo’s dressing room in North Carolina while he was on tour with Gillespie. He returned to New York, bought 25 joints and, unhappy with the quality, beat up the dealer, who returned and shot him seven times. A few minutes before, Pozo had been dancing with a beautiful waitress to a recording of “Manteca.” His death came as no surprise in Cuba. Though one of Shangó’s priests had warned him that he should be initiated into Santería before leaving the island, Pozo refused. He died 24 hours before December 4, the day when the spirit of Santa Bárbara, the equivalent of Afro-Cuba’s Shangó, is celebrated. (Ernesto Lechner)
VARIOUS ARTISTS Alpha Motherfuckers: A Tribute to Turbonegro (Hopeless)
Tribute alert: Calling all denim demons and suburban Antichrists! A mere rock band Turbonegro was not. Raw, funny as fuck and fronted by the animistic, incubustic Hank Herzog van Helvete, Turbonegro swallowed everything loud and good and true that had come before, added some snotty Norse mojo, and kicked ass all through the ’90s. Immortal in Europe and larger than life everywhere else, they tossed out anthems of erections and pizza, sailors and sodomy, triumph and destruction. The melodic intuition of guitarist Happy Tom and the crash-bam capabilities of Pal Pot and Rune Rebellion brought to mind the Stooges, Cheap Trick and Judas Priest. The music was revelatory and visceral. The lyrics were nihilistic, brilliant and obscene. Turbonegro conquered, and after five albums (Hot Cars and Spent Contraceptives, Never Is Forever, Ass Cobra, Apocalypse Dudes and Darkness Forever) they vanished.
Alpha Motherfuckers is a testament to Turbonegro’s unwavering influence. Nashville Pussy opens with an austere rendition of “The Age of Pamparius.” Finland’s HIM fuzzes out “Rendezvous With Anus”; Ireland’s always-intense Therapy? makes adolescent angst poignant again with “Denim Demon.” Supersuckers add a swaggery, bluesy-punk vibe to “Get It On,” while Norway’s Satyricon turns “I Got Erection” into a black-metal nightmare. “Are You Ready for Some Darkness?” becomes a twisted call-and-response between Bela B. and Denim Girl. There’s freewheeling abandon from Zeke (“Midnight Nambla”) and Queens of the Stone Age (“Back to Dungaree High”). Dwarves and Splittin Wax shred “Hobbit Motherfuckers” into sampled splurch-splots, and Toby Dammit’s trippy atmospherics transform “Prince of the Rodeo.”
Turbonegro cast one of the longest shadows in rock. Deluged with tribute contributions, Germany’s Bitzcore.com plans a second volume for next year, and Alpha suggests that’s not a bad idea: A blazing, balls-out conduit of Turbonegro’s timeless, terminal essence, it more than lives up to the dudes’ example. (Hopeless Records, P.O. Box 7495, Van Nuys, CA 91409; www.hopeless.records) (Skylaire Alfvegren)
SUGARBOMB Bully (RCA)
Polished, ultramelodic prog-pop is hardly synonymous with Texas music, but it’s nonetheless the proud mission of the Fort Worth quintet Sugarbomb. These camp cowboys are mining the ’70s — not the Melrose Avenue ironically cool part of that decade, but the much-maligned art-student rock; both ELO and prime-time Queen cast their bell-bottomed shadows across Bully. Few bands master this style, which demands highly developed songcraft, instrumental dexterity and considerable vocal ability, but on their charmingly crafted sophomore album, Sugarbomb have it down — bouncing chops, banks of phased harmonies, spanky lyrics and oodles of joie de vivre. Even the production flashes period touches, yet remains sufficiently buffed to avoid an overly retro feel.
Sugarbomb are built around flamboyant front man Les Farrington, who’s finally surrounded himself with a bunch of colorful cohorts capable of realizing his grandiose vision. Bully is effectively a filler-free Best of Farrington, compiling his brightest tunes from the last few years (five of which appeared on Sugarbomb’s ’99 debut, Tastes Like Sugar). The standout track, “Motor Mouth,” with its cartoon organ, layered call-and-response vocals and haunted lyrics, epitomizes Sugarbomb’s brassy brilliance.
Bully is similar to the shtick Jellyfish served up some years back — it went over our heads then and, with radio programming at its most conservative, will probably slip under the radar now. (Paul Rogers)
DAVE RALPH Naturalized (Kinetic)
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L.A. is on fire with the sounds of trance — uh, excuse me, progressive house. Trance conjures images of Eurotrash, or teens with cheesy visors and kitschy glowsticks; progressive house seeks to provide a face-lift. While for some the re-labeling isn’t much different from changing Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC (to divert attention from “fried”), there is a distinction. The candy ravers might not care, but progressive house is more sophisticated, and Dave Ralph’s Kinetic Records release Naturalized is definitely that.
Having made his name warming up for Sasha in the U.K., Ralph also owns the distinction of mixing Tranceport II for Paul Oakenfold’s series, an effort that landed him an opening slot on the superstar DJ’s tour last year, where — according to some fans who caught the Vynyl show here — he may have played a more engaging set than the headliner. His follow-up, Naturalized, a souvenir of the set he performed at the Love Parade massive in Berlin, is a testament to his draw, but it’s the relic of a Ralph who’s turned away from the globe-trotting aspirations that motivate many superstar DJs: He’s currently getting to know his new home — the USA.
With Dave Ralph in the mix, you hear fewer abrasive squelches and bleeps than muted handclaps and ear-pleasing pulses, and his progressively minded crowd responds to sounds from other subgenres like breakbeat and tech-house. Ralph blends his own tracks with others by Fatboy Slim and Laurent Garnier, proving once again that the mix CD is a bankable recipe, perhaps even more so than the summer tour. Ralph was supposed to take part in the canceled Mekka touring festival, but don’t fear — he’s roading it on his own as we speak. (Daniel Siwek)