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FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

*** Two Dollar Guitar WEAK BEATS AND LAME-ASS RHYMES (Smells Like)

A more accurate title for Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes would be Let Me Bring You Down, but that's what singer/guitarist Tim Foljahn called Two Dollar Guitar's 1994 debut. So though the NYC group's fourth album might have a name that's both misleading (it's not hip-hop, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the beats or the rhymes) and somewhat humorous, the overall tone of the tunes within is just as bleak as that of the group's previous albums.

Foljahn writes about urban decay and the city dwellers who feed off it, and he sings in a chillingly deep baritone while Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Dave Motamed lay down dynamic rhythms. Foljahn's sweetly melancholy guitar work adds a hazy ray of sunshine to the otherwise gloomy musical landscapes, as do the disc's handful of guest contributors -- including avant-guitarist Nels Cline, Geraldine Fibbers/Scarnella frontwoman Carla Bozulich, and Spanish vocalist Christina Rosenvinge, who brings to mind Nico's work with the Velvet Underground.

The stingingly cynical "Everybody's in a Band" finds Foljahn contemplating the current state of rock à la Pavement's "Range Life" and reaching some, well, rather bleak conclusions: "Everybody's got a script, just need someone to back it/Well, it's all about the kids and their sick and twisted kicks, it's sure to be a hit," he moans over pedal steel and a spare backbeat. Later in the song he admits, "I'm guilty of all of it," even though it's difficult to imagine anyone's having a "hit" with an album that's as much of a downer as Weak Beats and Lame-Ass Rhymes anytime soon.

-- Lydia Vanderloo


*** Static X WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (Warner Bros.)

Despite the first track's obvious borrowings from Rob Zombie's drum-and-techno thrash style, the four lunaguys who call themselves Static X find plenty of sonic noise space all to themselves. They rasp their vocals roughly enough ("Bled for Days," "Push It") but always with a melodic flavor; they never sound as distortedly campy as Rammstein, or as painfully theatrical as Trent Reznor. Their riffs slash and crunch but always feel fleshed out, even funky ("I Am"; "Stem") -- unlike the parched minimalisms (acid-house-derived) of the Chemical Brothers. They even embrace orchestration, hi-NRG beats, and sultry girl vocals -- try the Euro-disco intro of "Love Dump" -- far beyond the metallic limitations of standard techno. In short, Wisconsin Death Trip feels more like dreamy flight than deadly flog, a rhythmic pump just as purple as the perfumed darksides of KMFDM, say, and just as silken as KMFDM's semi-feminine mannerisms.

-- Michael Freedberg


*** Van Morrison/Lonnie Donegan/Chris Barber THE SKIFFLE SESSIONS: LIVE IN BELFAST 1998 (Virgin)

Skiffle is the pre-rock British folk music that's been described as a sort of jug-band, rent-party music -- it's a rag-tag, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink genre that evolved in the hands of people who often didn't have much more than a kitchen sink. And it's this spirit that animates Van Morrison's latest outing, a live disc collaboration with England's "King of Skiffle," Lonnie Donegan, and fellow veteran Chris Barber. Many of Britain's rock heroes from the '60s -- from Graham Nash to Lennon and McCartney -- launched their careers beneath skiffle's DIY banner. And so did Morrison, whose formative skiffle outfit was known as the Sputniks.

Unlike Donegan and Barber, Morrison moved on from skiffle a long time ago. But this is still friendly, familiar ground for Van, and he treats it as such. The disc jovially mines all of skiffle's musical veins, including Dixieland jazz, American country and blues, and old English folk, in an appropriately loose setting. Morrison's vivid voice is in fine form throughout, but he shows restraint in order to allow the madcap Donegan his time in the spotlight. And though Morrison brings star power and clout to the proceedings, The Skiffle Sessions is a team effort that at its best -- in the two opening tracks, "It Takes a Worried Man" and "Lost John," for example -- brings to mind a British version of prime Oak Ridge Boys or a proto-Band on a roll.

-- Kandia Crazy Horse


***1/2 Phil Lee THE MIGHTY KING OF LOVE (Shanachie)

Phil Lee comes by his alterna-country roots authentically: he was born in Durham, North Carolina, and he drives a big rig between gigs with his band the Sly Dogs, a rock outfit that has more Rolling Stones grit and Dylanesque snarl than Buck Owens twang. After a brief stint as a Flying Burrito Brother and an in-house writer for a Nashville songwriting factory where the folks weren't amused by Lee's anti-commercial deadpan humor, the singer spent several years working on the tunes that would become Mighty King, and it shows. The album doesn't have one weak track, and several are potential standards, including the wise-ass macho cheatin' song "I'm the Why She's Gone," the working-class boogie number "A Night in the Box," and the shuffling, Eddie Cochran-style shuffle nugget "Blueprint for Disaster," an ode to a pad so small you have to stick your head out the window to change your mind. Lee even pulls off some respectable faux zydeco with the humorous "Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs" (i.e., "The Trash Is White").

Mighty King was being picked as one of the year's best albums by folks in Nashville months before its January 25 release, and it lives up to the hyperbole. Lee has distilled 50 years of great rock and honky-tonk into a 200-proof cocktail that's all his own.

-- J. Poet


**1/2 Lo-Fidelity All Stars ON THE FLOOR AT THE BOUTIQUE (Skint/Columbia)

A good mix CD is only as good as its raw materials. On the Floor at the Boutique comes up strong in that department, with everything from an obscure soul singer (Felice Taylor) to classic techno (Humanoid and Prodigy), remixes of BDP and Jungle Brothers tracks, and the faux French house of Les Rythmes Digitales. This stopgap from London's premier big-beaters -- the Lo-Fidelity All Stars of "Battle Flag" fame -- lets you taste the rainbow, delivering so many different musical colors that it puts most other monochromatic mixes to shame.

But a good mix CD is also a thing of seamless wonder, and too many of the transitions here are either abrupt or simply non-existent. So in spite of all the great material, On the Floor at the Boutique doesn't provide the requisite non-stop thrills. Done properly, the switchover from Tams' 1968 faux Motown tune "Be Young Be Foolish Be Happy" to Prodigy's "Out of Space" would have everyone, well, on the floor, shakin' a tail feather. The cheap dissolve Lo-Fidelity employ would more likely find clubgoers heading for the bar. Portishead DJ Andy Smith pulled off an equally eclectic DJ mix with far more finesse on 1998's The Document, where he segued from Jeru the Damaja into the Meters into the James Gang by interlocking the beats from one track to the next. Yet even there, the genre shifts proved too jarring for a flawless party jam. Perhaps airing out a diverse record collection and turning the beat around are simply mutually exclusive activities.

-- Kevin John


**** HISTORICAL RECORDINGS BY HUGH TRACEY: KANYOK AND LUBA, 1952 & 1957 (ILAM)

The fifth of what will eventually be a 20-CD series of music drawn from Hugh Tracey's enormous library of vintage traditional African music recordings, this 22-track collection is field recording at its very best. And it swings with a vengeance. Tracey's work has long been renowned for its astounding quality and depth, but little of it is as downright entertaining as these village party songs from the mining regions of the southern Belgian Congo. On some cuts you can make out the blueprint for Congo's modern pop sound, mutwashi, which has been popularized by singer Tshala Muana. These lively tracks are defined by the interplay between call-and-response voices and pan pipes, talking drums with their melodic resonance, and tinkling hand pianos, plus shaker rhythms and off-the-beat guitar playing. They all embody that groove that Tracey once described as a "compelling lilt" when he was trying to sum up the sound of the masamba dance song. In retrospect you can hear in the hand-drum parts the pumping feel of today's soukous bass players. In the decades after Tracey made these recordings, Congo (Zaire) would come to dominate African pop music. Much of the raw material that would fuel that musical explosion can be heard here.

-- Banning Eyre


*** Flying Saucer Attack MIRROR (Drag City)

Space. Tides. River. Dust. Rise. These are the things -- motion and the elements -- that preoccupy Flying Saucer Attack's David Pearce. They also happen to be the titles of five of the 11 tracks on Mirror. As those James Michener-esque titles suggest, FSA aspire to -- and often achieve -- a sense of epic sweep and grandeur built on minimalism, repetition, and Pearce's impeccable taste in atmosphere.

Mirror both extends and reflects the fruitful ambient-space rock journey that began with the Bristol outfit's homonymous '94 debut. FSA nod once more to their city's trip-hop/drum 'n' bass scene ("Dark Wind" and "Winter Song") -- in their own distortion-sheathed, white-noise way, of course -- but this time out they're mostly about incorporating prog-experimentalist ancestors like Can, Popul Vuh, and Meddle-era Floyd ("Dust") into a pulsing mix of droning trancedelia and noisy exposition. Mirror's two best tracks, however, are also its quietest and most pastoral: "Suncatcher," which might be about a dying lover, is a lovely acoustic hymn with an exquisite melodic ache that recalls the Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman at his most tender. Ditto for "Tides," on which Pearce confides his fear of being once more helplessly smitten with someone who "half killed me" years before -- an alchemy of elements and motion of a different sort, perhaps.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Atom and His Package MAKING LOVE (No Idea)

Whether it was wisdom or folly that inspired singer/guitarist Atom, a Pennsylvania-based geek punk whose package is actually a cheesy programmable Yamaha synth, to cover a tune by those almost forgotten kings of Pennsylvania geek-punk the Dead Milkmen is hard to say. But since anyone who does remember the Milkmen is more than likely going to hear a little "Bitchin' Camaro" in Atom's amusing oeuvre, the cover at least gives him an opportunity to put forth the radical notion that "the Dead Milkmen wrote some damn good songs," thereby hinting that he himself may indeed be the author of some damn good songs.

And indeed he is. Making Love -- a 17-track rarities collection of singles, EPs, and compilation tracks from an artist whose two proper albums are only marginally less difficult to find -- opens with a belligerent, thrashy, guitar-driven ode to the metric system/rant against the ESM ("The revolution's here/We must overcome at last/As we symbolically stick their fucking 'foot' up their fucking ass"). It goes on to salute in song Judas Priest screamer Rob Halford for coming out of the closet, Mad Libs, and the Jewish Christmas Eve tradition of going out for Chinese food. And just when you sense that the rather limited sonic spectrum of the Package is beginning to hold Atom back, Making Love switches gears to a full-band format (Atom and his Rockage) for four tunes, including a lovely boy/girl duet -- "Head (She's Just a . . . )" -- that really brings to mind the Dead Milkmen.

-- Matt Ashare


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