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Survival Songs

THE KINKSMuswell HillbilliesEverybody's in ShowbizPreservation Act 1Preservation Act 2(Konk/Velvel)

Ask any Kinks fan about the band's records between 1970's Lola vs. Powerman and 1977's Sleepwalker, and chances are you'll get an answer that lies somewhere between defensiveness and abject shame. Of all the twists and turns in the Kinks' career, the period spent at RCA was indubitably the strangest, as Ray Davies, high on the commercial success of Lola, tried to bridge the gap between his music-hall influences and full-blown musical theater. The results were less than commercially successful and (according to the critical consensus) more than a little bit misguided. Now that Velvel has announced plans to reissue the band's entire RCA and Arista output, it's time to wave the old "critical reconsideration" wand over the first four releases in the series: Muswell Hillbillies, Everybody's in Showbiz, Preservation Act 1 and Preservation Act 2. Were they really as embarrassing as, say, the Who's It's Hard? The answers are, in order, Absolutely Not, No, No, and Oh Lord Yes.

Recorded in 1971, Muswell Hillbillies remains one of the finest records in the Kinks' entire catalog. From the dourly humorous "20th Century Man" to the wistful jangle of "Muswell Hillbilly," the album follows the plight of a working-class English community struggling to come to terms with urban angst and government-imposed "improvements." Despite the potentially cumbersome theme, Ray's lyrical touch is surprisingly light, with wit and pathos present in equal doses. Originally released on RCA's godawful "Dynaflex" vinyl (which sounded like shit, but you could bend it in half without breaking it), Muswell Hillbillies now sounds better than ever, and anyone who digs the Kinks truly needs a copy. The same can almost be said for Everybody's in Showbiz, the half-live/half-studio concept album about life on the road. The live stuff (recorded in 1972 at Carnegie Hall) captures the Kinks at their most endearingly campy, and "Celluloid Heroes" remains a genuine classic, but too many of the other studio tracks sound like weak outtakes from Muswell Hillbillies. More worrisome, titles like "Maximum Consumption" and "Unreal Reality" show Ray veering toward the sort of heavy-handed social commentary that would reach full flower on the Preservation albums.

Based around that most cliched of concept-album premises - an Orwellian society - the Preservation albums could have been utterly unlistenable; and, with the exception of "Mirror of Love" and the bonus live recording of "Slum Kids," there's precious little to recommend on the exposition-laden Act 2. But Ray still managed to get off some great songs on Act 1, including "Daylight," "Sweet Lady Genevieve" and "One of the Survivors," making the album a treat even for those who don't care to follow the plot. Neither of the Preservation records sold well, but Ray would return to the rock-opera well - with 1975's Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace - before leading the Kinks into arena-rock glory in the late '70s and early '80s. Even now, Ray prattles on about reviving Preservation, when the characters, plot and songs of Muswell Hillbillies always made for a superior musical. It's kind of sad, really. But then, that's the Kinks for ya. (BY DAN EPSTEIN)

DEREK BAILEY/MIN XIAO-FENViper (Avant)

This is a good time for Derek Bailey fans. In the last few years there's been a gratifying glut of Bailey releases - solo, group, archival/historical. And some of his recent recorded collaborations represent a kind of branching out and genre-crossing that's still comparatively scarce in, say, pop music. Their unusualness falls into two categories: playing with the relatively conservative - Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, Lee Konitz - and surprising-to-odd genre-pairing with people like drum 'n' bass DJ Ninj, dancer Min Tanaka (hear Music and Dance on Revenant, an absolute, permanent classic), poppish Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino (which was probably inevitable; Haino's played and recorded with practically everybody else) and Japanese rock band Ruins, to name a few.

Which leads me to Viper. Listening to this new record, a string duo pairing Derek with the Shanghai-born Min Xiao-Fen on the pipa - a very small, very ancient four-stringed Chinese instrument - reminds me of a comment once made by a critic to the effect that it was no surprise how quickly and enthusiastically Bailey's idiosyncratic, "non-idiomatic" guitar playing had been taken up by Eastern audiences. The guitar language he created, with its strong emphasis on pure "string sound," high-note pointillism and rhythmic elasticity, not to mention his fondness for extreme varieties of timbre and attack - in a word, his "physicalist" approach to his instrument - does, to my Western ears, bear a conceptual and musical resemblance to some Asian string music.

Viper also provides interesting examples of the fascinating language (or languages, or perhaps dialects) of free improvisation. There's a tasty but short sequence midway through "Zhu Ye" ("Various Species") where Bailey plays a walking-rhythm pingpong of high and middle notes that sounds like a cross between a koto and the cigar-box-banjo sound of Min's instrument. Min's playing on the pipa ranges from rapid, virtuosic trills and scalar arpeggios to a dull scraping-cardboard sound that at times runs the risk of reducing the music to percussive materialism - a pitfall of free improvisation avoided, fortunately, through Viper's momentum and inventiveness. This is a record that will reward repeated - and concentrated - listening. (Tony Mostrom)  

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)

FRONT 242Re:Boot - Live '98 (Metropolis)

Industrial purists may scoff at the idea of pop-influenced F242 leading the vinyl-clad legions into the 21st century, but their marriage of Throbbing Gristle's inaccessible aggression with pile-driver dance rhythms is undeniably infectious, and much copied. It is their influence, not the metallic dissonance of SPK or T.G. (who coined the term "industrial" back in '76), that spreads its seed in the hybrid that is '90s music. (If it weren't for F242, Prodigy would still be a wimpy techno outfit instead of a redundant industrial-rock band.) Yet none of their beat-driven disciples - everyone in the WaxTrax! and Metropolis catalogs - can match F242's drum-synth wallop or Jean-Luc DeMeyer's vocal growl.

The hour-plus, aptly named Re:Boot (bewilderingly similar to 1993's Live Code, another official "concert bootleg" and the band's immediate prior release), recorded in Brussels and other points Flemish, pummels through nearly every anthem these Belgians have recorded over the last dozen years, from 1986's "Masterhit" to 1993's "Happiness," and proves that even decade-old synthesizer hits can still pound you like an LAPD officer. Double whammies include "Moldavia" following a relentless "Masterhit," then, later, "Headhunter" leading into "Welcome to Paradise." The latter pair, arguably the most recognized leather-and-leash mantras not penned by Mr. Reznor, got a better work-up on Live Code, but are still menacing enough here to pack a punch. Stripped down, these songs confirm what detractors refuse to believe: that there is good songwriting in industrial music.

The '90s have taken their toll on pseudo-noir acts that rely on sampling, nihilism and graphically violent imagery to lure disaffected teens. Now commonplace in rap and alt-rock, these empty shock tactics usually offer no distraction from the banal writing underneath. While F242 do use a smattering of samples and often scrape the bottom of humanity's collective barrel for subject matter, they don't rely on such parlor tricks to hold their audience, which is why that audience has grown. (Kristin Fiore)

SUGAR PLANTHappy/Trance Mellow (World Domination)

In the other room, Trance Mellow is playing, as it has been all day, and going in there is like dangling a foot off the end of a slow-moving sailboat. You can feel the current of those swirling, sorrowful keyboard sequences in your ankles, sense life teeming somewhere beneath the burnished surface, note the hour getting late and the sun going down without minding either too much, even though it's Sunday.  

The soulful quality of this two-CD set, from the Japanese ensemble Sugar Plant, derives largely from its apparent effortlessness. Happy, the more recently recorded collection, displays an evolving sophistication of lyrics ("Everything is trying to go/where I can't reach it anymore") and melody. Played together, these discs create a mood as lush and tangible as it is consistent. Like their Canadian labelmates Perfume Tree, Sugar Plant use the instruments and techniques of electronica to induce an organic ambiance. Thus beats come in sets, regular and rhythmic as waves, but with enough subtle variation in impact and timing to feel played rather than generated. Guitar and keyboard lines emerge from and sink into the background like the tendrils of jellyfish. Over everything hangs a deliciously heavy heat-haze as chords slip from major to minor in long sighs, and the plain, pretty vocals evoke and memorialize the kind of regretful longing that makes for good humming, as opposed to bad dreams. (Glen Hirshberg)

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