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JANUARY 5, 1998: 

*** Tommy Flanagan Trio

SEA CHANGES

(Evidence)

Pianist Tommy Flanagan's latest marks the 40th anniversary of his first album as a leader by reprising several of the tunes from that effort, along with a handful of standards with ocean themes. Although he's undoubtedly been through these tunes countless times, Flanagan never plays anything by rote, and this album is full of the elegant surprises and modest beauty one comes to expect from perhaps the greatest living jazz pianist. Flanagan never employs more notes than necessary, and he avoids overusing left-hand chords to support right-hand lines. His playing is marked by clarity and precision as well as emotional warmth and maturity. "Eclypso" features chorus after chorus of shapely melody paced to create rising and falling tensions. He takes "How Deep Is the Ocean?" at a perfectly judged medium tempo, knitting together chords, blues inflections, and bopish runs into a lively, varied solo. The delicate warmth and dark shadings of Flanagan's solo on "Delarma," an original ballad, make for one of the album's most intimate moments. Five minutes of Flanagan's unassuming virtuosity says more than an hour of flashy gestures from a lesser artist.

-- Ed Hazell


*** Rockie Charles

BORN FOR YOU

(Orleans)

After 36 years guiding barges and tankers up and down the Mississippi, Rockie Charles left his job as a tugboat captain to grab the guitar full time. Regardless of who he was born to be, on his debut album, Charles sounds as if he's spent as much time in the jukehouse as the pilothouse. And in church. His arrangements, built around simple guitar rhythms, strongly feature the organ. And at age 54, he can make his voice flutter around high notes like a backwater Al Green. The title track recalls "Let's Stay Together" in its melody line; "Something Is Wrong with Our Love" feels as much gospel as secular heartbreaker. He pleads, he testifies, and cries out for love and understanding -- keeping things simple and soulful. An out-of-character paean to Festis, marshal Dillon's sidekick from the TV series Gunsmoke, is the kind of odd twist that proves Charles is a real bluesman. (Remember, Howlin' Wolf used to perform an instrumental version of "Ode to Billie Joe.") This is a warm and winning first effort.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Mick Harvey

PINK ELEPHANTS

(Mute)

Mick Harvey is one of Nick Cave's more versatile partners in crime, having handled guitar/keyboard duties in the Birthday Party, and drums in the Bad Seeds. Harvey can do it all . . . except, perhaps, write songs. So rather than penning his own, he's found his calling in interpreting (and translating into English) the work of the late French pop-star playboy Serge Gainsbourg, a project that began with 1995's satisfying Intoxicated Man and continues with Pink Elephants.

Without being a slave to the originals, Harvey hews closely to Gainsbourg's elegantly gritty arrangements. A string section and femme-fatale vocalist Anita Lane help recreate the dark debauched atmosphere of "The Ballad of Melody Nelson." But Harvey deftly substitutes techno sound effects for the playful cries of "BLAM!," "POP!," and "SHABAM!" that pepper Gainsbourg's version of "Comic Book." Harvey generously lets Cave and Lane perform some erotic karaoke on Gainsbourg's biggest international hit, the orgasmic "I Love You. . . Nor Do I" ("Je t'aime. . . Moi non plus"). Elsewhere, he tackles everything from faux '60s garage rock ("Who Is 'In' Who is 'Out'?") to the stripped-down pop-verité of "The Ticket Puncher." His deadpan delivery is true to the spirit of Gainsbourg's deep-throated severity, which helps mark Pink Elephants as an earnest labor of love, rather than the kind of cynical novelty spoof that characterizes too many contemporary "lounge" revivalists. Of course, you don't have to camp-up a line like "There's no jet on my tarmac/No boat upon my Atlantic" ("Non Affair") to elicit a chuckle or two.

-- Matt Ashare


** King Kong

KINGDOM OF KONG

(Drag City)

As a member of Louisville's influential Slint, King Kong singer/bassist Ethan Buckler helped create a niche for dozens of bleak-sounding indie-rock outfits who emerged in the wake of that group's break-up. But with King Kong, he's been exploring the more lighthearted pleasures of goofball funk, informed by a combination of Southern soul and B-52's kitsch -- 1995's absurd Me Hungry, a concept album about a caveman's love affair with a yak, was a particularly vivid example of Buckler's less serious work with the band. On Kingdom of Kong, Buckler once again dorkily duets with Amy Greenwood over prominent organ and bass lines, but the humorous edge of the group's previous three albums has dulled with age. The disc's saving grace comes at the end, with "Funky Monkey," a tune that employs vibes, bongos, and monkey calls to mime jungle sounds. Perhaps Buckler's next creative coup will come from incorporating Martin Denny-style world music into his white-boy funk.

-- Jay Ruttenberg


**1/2 Isotope 217

THE UNSTABLE MOLECULE

(Thrill Jockey)

Clocking in at just more than 30 minutes, this is a rather thin slice of atmospheric instrumentals peppered with electronics by a group of Chicago-based musicians who, judging by the sparse liner notes, don't care if you know who's playing what. (Thrill Jockey aficionados will recognize guitarist Jeff Parker from the post-fusion group Tortoise, and others may ID cornetist Ray Mazurek, who has garnered some press with a group called the Chicago Underground Orchestra.) The frontline of cornet and trombone is perfect for the dour little thematic gewgaws devised by whoever the composer is, and the added percussion and anchoring bass-lines supply just enough hypno-busyness to hook those who don't necessarily care for jazz. The group's components mesh best on the more reflective pieces -- a quite lovely "La Jetée" (named after the famous Chris Marker short which was expanded into the movie 12 Monkeys) and the moody "Prince Namor," which slides into the kind of protracted suspended-time finale for which headphones were invented. Elsewhere it sounds like good ideas not fully realized (the funk-like "Phonometrics" is especially clunky). Still, good ideas are rare, fully realized or not, and Isotope 217 manages to cram in quite a few.

-- Richard C. Walls


**

INFINITE BEAT, VOL. 1

(City of Angels/Geffen)

Infinite Beat, Vol. 1 is Geffen's heavily marketed foray into the world of "cutting-edge" electronica compilations, and the effort is clearly novice. The disc brings together tracks meant for club consumption, packaged as music for a private-listening home-stereo audience. And the tracks here just don't hold up in that context. The assembled artists do succeed at maintaining a consistently dark tone across the breakbeat subgenres they cover. The mood is a foreboding stew of chronic-induced paranoia, which infects everything from the ostentatious virtuosity of drum 'n' bass parodist Squarepusher, to the big-beat stoopidity of Chemical Brothers-knockoffs the Hardknox; from the techstep jungle malaise of the Nico/Fierce team, to the Atari Teenage Riot-style digital-hardcore of Shizuo. Unfortunately, the beats are almost uniformly funkless and unoriginal, relying on industrial noise and sirens for emotional ambiance. Without compelling rhythms to anchor it, the anxiety Infinite Beat tries to convey comes across as merely so much posturing.

-- Marcus Wohlsen


** Erykah Badu

LIVE

(Kedar/Universal)

For all the good things about Erykah Badu's platinum-plus debut, there was always something contrived -- not to mention a little daffy -- about her Billie Holiday inflections, Earth Mama head scarves, and Afrocentric mysticism. Now, only seven months after Baduizm, this 26-year-old soul singer lays that criticism to rest in a live set that proves she's a lot daffy. Sporting butterfly wings on the album cover, baring her pregnant belly on the back, and dropping oddball monologues throughout, Badu is so completely and fascinatingly enwrapped in her act that questions of how and why she developed her image become moot. It proves she shares more with a self-constructed pop weirdo like Prince than a natural original like Lady Day. Unfortunately, as with most pop artists, her idiosyncratic charm works best with either visual effects or studio polish attached. The wonderful new song "Tyrone" gets that polish in a bonus remix, but with everything else, you probably had to be there.

-- Franklin Soults


*** Animals on Wheels

DESIGNS AND MISTAKES

(Ninja Tune)

Named for those antique children's toys, Animals on Wheels is the drill 'n' bass pseudonym of British producer Andy Coleman. On his Ninja Tune debut, he follows in the footsteps of living-room junglists such as Squarepusher, u-Ziq, and Plug with an amazing range of tweaked-out sounds. From the stop-start, stuttering typewriter rhythms of "Palid" (which features an excellent Thelonious Monk piano sample) to the lush curves of "Fall Like Dandruff," this is a fresh foray into second-generation avant drum 'n' bass. The best tracks give a hardcore nod to the joys of filthy static, free-jazz sax samples, and ferocious, complex beats: try out "Loath," "Eggshell," or "Scene for Ash." The disc's meticulous electronic craftsmanship is engaging on its own, but Coleman sometimes overdoes it with too much slickness (a common drum 'n' bass scenester knock against the Ninja Tune label). Nevertheless, a new face in left-field jungle territory is more than welcome.

-- Chris Tweney



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