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FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

**1/2

THE JESUS LIZARD

(Jetset)

Okay, Rock Band Production 101 students: you've got the best live band on the planet. What is the one thing you absolutely, positively don't want to do? How 'bout this for starters -- you sure don't want to strip away any trace of a well-honed industro-sleaze live rock band and replace it with a bunch of sterile art-school knob-twiddling electronics. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what John Cale talked the Jesus Lizard into doing for the second half of this one-off EP (the Lizard's second full-length for Capitol is due in the spring). Even the remix alchemy of Jim (Gastr del Sol) O'Rourke can't save it from sounding like wanky, pointless, hack meddling. The Jesus Lizard ain't June of '44 or Tortoise, and for God's sake, why the hell would they wanna be?

There's hope for the future, though, in the first three tracks, which were produced by Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill (who's also said to be producing the new album). "Cold Water" and "Inflicted by Hounds" are prime Lizard steak: desperate wild-man drowning rant by David Yow, sub-conservatory sizzle by guitarist Duane Denison, volcanic rhythm-section rumble, yadda, yadda, yadda. With the Lizard it oughta be a no-brainer: wind 'em up, let 'em rock. Anything less would be way too civilized.

-- Carly Carioli


*** Tab Smith

TOP 'N' BOTTOM

(Delmark)

Reedman Tab Smith was a jazz-blues instrumentalist who cut some 90 tunes for Chicago's African-American-owned United label in the '50s. Twenty-one of them are here, either delighting with their uptempo grace or playing the groove slow and deep. Smith's sound has the mellow burnished tone of a should-be legend -- especially on alto and tenor saxes. His melodies are generous and easy, but swing is his main thing. Everything he plays has a spring in its step, whether it's the breathlessly happy title track or "Zig-Zag," or his emotionally loaded versions of "Prisoner of Love" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," on which he brings the blue notes down like warm rain. There are a few vocal numbers here too. The zesty double-entendre blues "I'm a Bouncing Mama" (with an uncredited female vocal) is the hands-down gasser. But Smith's sophisticated way with his horn never goes too far uptown to keep anybody from bouncing.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Ray Wonder

GOOD MUSIC

(NONS Records)

From the Swedish pop label North of No South Records comes this delightfully peculiar little record from a delightfully peculiar little quartet from UmeΠin the north of Sweden. Over the course of 11 topsy-turvy tracks crammed into 37 minutes, Ray Wonder -- a band, not a guy -- pay unwitting tribute to the masters of this sort of gleefully warped pop, managing to sound almost exactly like XTC (with a bit of Jeff Buckley thrown in for dramatic measure).

But part of what it means to evoke the ghost of Andy Partridge is to be endlessly inventive, and Ray Wonder manage to keep the bounce in their, well, bounce and its quirkiness, well, quirky. Unlike an overweening XTC wanna-be band like, say, Sugarplastic, who can't seem to distinguish between clever and cloying, singer Henrik Andersson and his mates strike a fine balance of musical novelty and pop scholarship. From the giddy stop-start shifts in rhythm and melody to the orchestral swell of strings and the cocktail-tinged horns, there's a lot here to keep one amused -- and attentive.

-- Jonathan Perry


**** Porter Wagoner

THE ESSENTIAL PORTER WAGONER

(RCA)

A fixture of the Grand Ole Opry, the late singer and songwriter Porter Wagoner had one of the most distinguished careers in country music, from his early Top 10 hits in the '50s through his late-'60s and early-'70s duet sides with Dolly Parton. Unfortunately, much of the non-country audience knows him through covers done by the likes of the Byrds ("Satisfied Mind") and Tom Jones ("Green, Green Grass of Home"). Their smooth, crossover accessibility cheats Wagoner of much of his power.

But if you listen to Wagoner's originals, leaving yourself fully open to the craggy vocals and braying guitar lines of a Southern soul in torment, you realize this guy sang the way he must have lived, refusing to be pushed aside by hardship. The covers of Wagoner's songs suggest someone trying to get somewhere -- or perhaps away from something. The originals convey the feeling of having not only arrived, but, even more important, overcome.

-- Colin Fleming


**1/2 Martha Wash

THE COLLECTION

(Logic)

As one of dance music's longest-serving gospel divas, Wash merits this compilation's extended survey of her career. From the howling glory of "Gonna Make You Sweat" (which she sang for C+C Music Factory), "Keep on Jumpin' " (a remake of Musique's 1978 disco hit), "Catch the Light," and "Strike It Up" (originally released by Italy's Black Box) to the campy glitter of "It's Raining Men" (first credited to the Weather Girls, who were Wash and Izora Armstead, but performed here with RuPaul), Wash displays a steady command of ferocious celebration. Less known in clubland but equally rubicund are solemn hymns like "God Bless the Road" and such Gladys Knightish soulful intimacies as "Talking Away Your Space." Unfortunately, the compilation includes nothing of Wash's first sessions, when she and Armstead sang back-up to Sylvester as the Two Tons of Fun and on their own as disco's first and largest Size Queens.

-- Michael Freedberg


*** Halo Benders

THE REBELS NOT IN

(K)

"A real career ender" is how the Halo Benders referred to themselves in the de facto theme song "Halo Bender" on 1996's Don't Tell Me Now (K). But that line was just a convenient rhyme for the two principals in this indie-rock supergroup: Built To Spill singer/guitarist Doug Martsch and K Records/Beat Happening dude Calvin Johnson. Both have continued to lead productive musical lives outside the Halo Benders, and both have once again found time to collaborate with keyboardist/engineer Steve Fisk on another wonderfully loose and tuneful collection of Halo Benders material. (Violent Green bassist Wayne Flower and Feelings drummer Ralf Youtz round out the cast.)

This pair's voices are an acquired taste -- Martsch's in a high, whiny, Perry Farrellish sort of way, Johnson's in a flat, deep-throated manner that brings to mind the dude from Crash Test Dummies (especially on the tender ballad "Love Travels Faster"). But that's all part of the skewed fun of a Halo Benders tune, which typically features the two singing disconnected circles around each other over scruffy strum-and-drone guitars, a steady backbeat, and the kind of simple yet artful hooks and melodies that remain fundamentals of both men's busy indie-rock careers.

-- Matt Ashare


***1/2 Black Flag

LIVE '84

(SST)

Previously available only on cassette, Live '84 documents what was arguably the most crucial Black Flag line-up in the band's tangled history doing what they did best -- pummeling through a damaging live set. Having just emerged from a legal squabble with Unicorn Records in 1984 -- a situation that had virtually silenced Black Flag for a couple of years -- guitarist Greg Ginn regrouped with then long-haired singer Henry Rollins, bassist Kira Roessiter, and Descendents/All drummer Bill Stevenson, who would be gone by the time Black Flag recorded their next live album, 1986's Who's Got the 10-1/2? (SST).

The disc opens, as did most of their shows in that era, with a long, torturous display of Ginn's inimitably sloppy and intentionally artless fretwork, the 8:37-minute instrumental "The Process of Weeding Out," which brings to mind what Cream might have sounded like if Clapton had never learned how to tune a guitar. Then Rollins jumps aboard for a blast from the past, the short and sour thrasher "Nervous Breakdown." The rest of the 75-minute set, which was recorded at the Stone in San Francisco, bypasses oldies like "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie" and "TV Party" in favor of the proto-grunge of the bitterly paranoid Flag discs of the day -- '84's My War and Slip It In, both SST releases, and both as essential as Live '84 to the American postpunk experience.

-- Matt Ashare


*** Air

MOON SAFARI

(Caroline)

The French duo Air owe less to the new, dance-friendly school of electronic music than to the old-school synthesizer tone tweakers of the '60s like Jean-Jacques Perrey (with whom they've collaborated) and '70s prog types like Cluster, whose cooled-out grooves melted into soundscapes. Air's instruments of choice are mega-cheesy old synths like clavinets and Moogs, which they use to fill their songs with coruscating Space Invaders sound effects. On a few tracks Nicolas Godin even employs a Vocoder. Air's specialty, though, is (of all the old-fashioned gimmicks) songwriting: "You Make It Easy" and "Talisman" have tricky, heart-tugging chords worthy of Burt Bacharach (there are occasional guest vocals by one Beth Hirsch, who sounds not unlike British folkie/Chemical Brothers collaborator Beth Orton). In places, the album gets so mellow it threatens to turn to pudding, but its lush throb is a pleasant soundtrack for late-night hallucinations.

-- Douglas Wolk


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