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JANUARY 3, 2000: 

**1/2

TORCHBEARERS

(Risk)

Those disco die-hards who liked the cute, wispy electronic beats that typified Miami disco in the 1980s -- Debbie Deb, Nice and Wild, Company B -- will certainly enjoy hearing that giddiest of dance-floor musics once again, in an 11-track collection that updates Miami style just enough to link acid and techno to it. There's more crash and less sweetness in tracks like DJ Tim Ryan's "Super Crush" and DJ Merritt's "Slappin Skinz" than on an '80s Miami disco disc, but the streakier the acid sound gets, the faster the tempos, so that none of the compilation's variety of blips, streaks, and funk-dabs carries unnecessary poundage. As for classic Miami disco's girlie dreamscape, it survives full-cry in sweet-pea songs like DJ Ray Valasquez's "Dreamatorium" and Christian B's "You and Me."

-- Michael Freedberg


*** Sonny Fortune

IN THE SPIRIT OF JOHN COLTRANE

(Shanachie)

This is Fortune's third outing honoring a jazz ancestor, and, like his previous two efforts focused on Thelonious Monk, Fortune proves himself no slavish imitator of dead heroes. Equally fiery on soprano, alto, and tenor sax, Fortune gathered about himself a lively quartet full of energetic enthusiasm. Pianist John Hicks particularly shines in a role that might bring out the McCoy Tyner clone in any pianist. Seven out of nine tunes are originals. The Coltrane covers are "Olé" (more percussive than Coltrane's, though Eric Dolphy's wail is missed) and "Africa." The originals have something of the sound of Coltrane's first Impulse recordings, modal workouts that play at the edges of pantonality. Fortune, who has performed with electric Miles Davis and electrifying Tyner has never gotten his due critically or commercially. This might earn him the respect he has long deserved for extending the Coltrane legacy.

-- Norman Weinstein


*** Saturnine

AMERICAN KESTREL

(Motorcoat/Victorialand)

For makers of such meticulous, painstakingly enigmatic music, Saturnine sure are prolific: four albums and as many seven-inchers in five years, not counting compilation tracks. American Kestrel essentially finds the band continuing its obsessive odyssey traveling the half-lit worlds of jangle-and-drone indie-pop. As deceptively buoyant as Saturnine's melodies have become since Autoguider, their spectacularly sad (and beautiful) debut (they've since added brighter colors like horns and country-fair keyboards), they're still two or three shades darker, and a step or two more tentative, than similar-minded folks like, say, Luna. In fact, singer Matt Gallaway's voice isn't unlike Dean Wareham's: diaphanous, slightly unsure of itself, and somewhat distracting when it totters off key. Guitarist Jennifer Baron always provided a sweetly harmonious (though underused) vocal counterpoint, but she's since left the band to join Ladybug Transistor.

Nevertheless, the music here remains as gently heartbreaking -- and painstakingly enigmatic -- as ever. The band's favorite subjects are still seasons and time as metaphors for distance and loss. "Neither Lost Nor Stayed" carries a country jangle that recalls Gram Parsons-era Byrds; and, improbably enough, both "Tallis Canyon" and "The Future According To Palm Reading" borrow their signature riff from Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave," of all places. But there's no heat here. Just another one of Saturnine's chilly, rainy autumns.

-- Jonathan Perry


** Richie Hawtin

DECKS, EFX & 909

(Novamute/Minus)

Midway through Richie Hawtin's confident, sardine-tight dance compilation Decks, EFX & 909 -- 38 tracks in 61 minutes! -- comes the feisty pounce of the German-acting, British-born techno-industrial group Nitzer Ebb. The shout-along fist-pumping of these pre-Reznor Teutonic industrialists is a welcome detour from the electronica terrain navigated by Hawtin, the artist also known as Plastikman, Fuse, and From Within. As an apostle of the sleek, propulsive, beat-concentrated electrogroove of minimalist Detroit techno, Hawtin favors a straight-ahead mix that, though fluid, lacks the kitchsy-poo lark of Fatboy Slim-style Big Beat, the concrete turntablism of Coldcut, the handbag house divadom of Junior Vasquez, or even the spastik acid house of Hawtin's previous compilations. Such asceticism is part of minimalism's charm: like its neoclassical counterpart (e.g., Glass, Reich, Nyman), Hawtin's less-is-more approach yields a kind of maniacal repetition that occasionally achieves a hypnotic effect. Decks has a beat and you can dance to it, but the collection is characterized by anonymity rather than the dexterity and wizardry displayed by expert Detroit spinners Carl Craig and Jeff Mills. Save for snippets of Nitzer Ebb and Santos Rodriguez's la vida techno, the relentless sameness of these tracks leaves me yearning for a more imaginative mix that explores the lipstick traces between Detroit minimalism, old skool funk, German techno, and hip-hop.

-- Patrick Bryant


*** Ralph Carney

I LIKE YOU (A LOT)

(Akron Cracker/Birdman)

If Jad Fair could play worth a damn, he might make albums like Ralph Carney's -- full of the same kind of childlike invention, yet musically fertile, rambling from impish yelpings like the title track to the Middle Eastern sax work-out "Far Oud" and the fractured Delta blues "Eye Protection." Not to mention the cunning blend of jazz textures this sideman to the stars of America's art-pop underbelly (Tom Waits, Marc Ribot, Hal Willner, David Thomas, David Hild) coaxes into his swirling variation on Don Redmond's 1932 obscurity "Chant of the Weed." (Hmm, sounds like Carney inhaled . . . ) Carney, who now hails from San Francisco, resided in Akron 20 years back when he played in quirky pop group Tin Huey. Since then his sax, violin, percussion, keyboard, and flute playing have led him on a search for his muse. Judging by this CD and his 1997 solo debut, Ralph Sounds, he's found her and she's a schizophrenic, but they make merrily weird music together.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**1/2

MICHAEL HUTCHENCE

(V2)

Since he is dead, and Michael Hutchence was a project the INXS guy worked on intermittently for two years (the rest was finished posthumously by its producers), not only is it impossible to tell whether Hutchence would have liked it, it's impossible to tell whether it's really something he ever would have conceived at all. And, in some cases, it's just impossible to tell what it is. An electronica album? The Australian Jim Morrison trying to be the Australian Marilyn Manson? Let's just leave it as a farewell note, even if it's not all scribbled in Hutchence's handwriting. Was Hutchence trying to give his signature teenybopper R&B grooves a gloomy, electro-dance makeover? Every track is so layered with beeping gizmo upon beeping gizmo that the conflux of textures sends mixed signals. The choppy, anthemic chording of the chorus in "Put The Pieces Back Together" belies the tender desperation of its verses. And even if you're not interested in giving tunes like "Don't Save Me From Myself" and "Slide Away" a charity reading (after all, the dude is dead), try finding a real song beneath the studio muck.

-- Lorne Behrman


*** John Abercrombie

OPEN LAND

(ECM)

Guitarist John Abercrombie is a veteran explorer of unmarked terrain, as his 25-year trail of recordings on the frontiers between jazz and what used to be known as Third Stream reveals. Abercrombie's steely tone and bent or broken-off notes miraculously project warmth and ease, and he is in flawless form here, floating in sync with organist Dan Wall and the brilliant, intuitive percussionist Adam Nussbaum. Violinist Marc Feldman occasionally shrieks or offers jagged descending runs on "Free Piece Suit(e)," but always ends up serving a higher musical purpose. Sax titan Joe Lovano and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler also join the proceedings, which range from mellow originals with the easy lilt of jazz standards to songs with classical or Indian spices. The wholeness of Abercrombie's approach -- his tone, his compositions, the democratic use of improvisational passages -- allow the ensemble to remain cohesive and compelling whether landing on lunar musical surfaces or staying closer to the ground with more-accessible jazz melodies.

-- Bill Kisliuk


**1/2 Faze Action

MOVING CITIES

(F-111/Nuphonic/Warner Bros.)

The vocoder flamenco, P-Funk on steroids, and punk-garage swagger of Basement Jaxx's mind-blowing debut perked many American ears to London's ever-growing house scene. Faze Action come from the same side of the pond as the Jaxx duo, but as the restrained and minimalist packaging hints at, their stuff is the cool yin to the Jaxx's hot yang. Not that Moving Cities doesn't promote booty-shaking: its 74-plus minutes of smoothed-out deep house nicely represent that genre's current fascination with all things Latin- and African-derived. These percussion-heavy influences, along with plenty of live instrumentation, faux-African soul-chants, and some disco-fied string arrangements make this easy listening for funk fans, crate-diggers, and ethno-groove enthusiasts. So easy, in fact, that the 12 mostly hookless and homogeneous tracks just breeze by without leaving much of an impression.

-- Michael Endelman



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