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FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

***1/2 Violent Femmes FREAK MAGNET (Beyond)

Let's hear it for second drafts. This album was first set for release on Interscope almost two years ago, when it sounded like the latest in a string of Violent Femmes efforts on which their eccentricity had gotten way out of hand -- 1995's Rock!! was so odd that it came out only in Australia. Interscope yanked Freak Magnet from release at the last minute and sent the band packing. The result is a long-overdue comeback for the Femmes. And as a follow-up to a live album devoted mainly to revisiting songs from their 1983 debut, Freak Magnet finally rescues the Femmes from becoming the first alternative oldies band. Remixed and resequenced, the new Freak Magnet deletes some of the original's weaker material (including a cover of "Positively 4th Street") and adds a handful of obvious singles.

The tracks here are all short and punchy and, for the first time on a Violent Femmes album, nearly all electric-guitar-driven. The Femmes have decided that the best way to win back fans is to head back to garageland. Their old trick of working gospel and bluegrass touches into punk-rock songs still works fine: "Rejoice & Be Happy" could be the Ramones at a revival meeting. Gordon Gano has started writing memorable songs again, regaining the sense of humor that turned sour last time, remembering how to turn a good catch phrase and write a strong hook. There are a couple of hilarious songs (including the hardcore send-up "Mosh Pit") and a few miserable ones, but it all sounds friendly and unforced. On the best tracks -- "Sleepwalking," "At Your Feet," and the psychobilly "I'm Bad" -- Gano proves that he's blossomed from a wise-ass disaffected kid into a wise-ass disaffected grown-up. -- Brett Milano

*** Skull Kontrol ZZZZZZ . . . (Touch and Go)

There's no stability on this Virginia quartet's second EP, and maybe that's apropos of its being their last. Guitars race ahead of the rhythm section, skidding and sliding in and out of time with slaughterhouse cries of feedback and shards of caustic riffing. That the bass and drums are chasing these frantic guitar lines and almost keeping up with all their erratically seesawing motions is impressive enough in its own right. When Black Flag did this (post Damaged), they had trusty Bill Stevenson (All/Descendents) on drums and steady Kira Roessler on bass, so if Greg Ginn lost you with his prog-punk guitar moves, you always had a warm groove to come home to. Skull Kontrol don't have that option, but they don't need it here. Despite the high-wired tension and tunelessness, ZZZZZZ . . . is compelling in a scratch-that-itchy-scab kind of way (plus, the pain is over in just 15 minutes). And looking at the band members' résumés -- Monorchid, Delta 72, Circus Lupus, and Born Against -- you have to figure that this is really what these sick punks had in mind from the start. -- Lorne Behrman

***1/2 Rick Rizzo and Tara Key DARK EDSON TIGER (Thrill Jockey)

Pure musical communication, sparked not by a song but by an emotional or even spiritual connection between players, is rare and beautiful. And that's what Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Rick Rizzo and Antietam six-stringer Tara Key achieve on the eight moody instrumentals here. The build-to-climax-and-release flow of the recording begins with acoustic guitars, limns the Eno school of head music with the aptly named "Farfisa Drone," and combines machine-like electric-guitar textures with dark piano chords until the freight-train rocker "Low Post Movement in D" reaches a flash-and-roar peak with Rizzo's standard Neil Young-stained leads ripping through. Then it's back to the salt mines, or the oil wells, or some other source of industrial inspiration, for "Chasing Tails." Rizzo and Key ramp down by blowing a hot wind of feedback through a ringing spider's web of a melody in "Duo," then roar once more on the closing "Missive," which sounds at times like the thrash and crunch of a pair of over-amplified dinosaurs breeding. It's astonishing that most of Dark Edson Tiger was done by exchanging tapes in the mail -- each player adding a just-right blend of inspiration and improvisation to the others' musical missives. -- Ted Drozdowski

*** Neko Case & Her Boyfriends FURNACE ROOM LULLABY (Bloodshot)

Hipsters have been stumbling across pop culture's history in thrift shops for generations. Something looks or sounds cool (Esquivel albums, dragster magazines, whatever) and suddenly an entire sound emerges from the dollar bins, the whole mess recontextualized, recycled, redeemed. Reduced, sometimes. Whatever music (and clothes) our parents were embarrassed by we'll happily explore.

Which is how punk rock periodically bangs into country music. Neko Case, once a drummer for the Vancouver punk-pop trio Maow, is on her way to becoming a formidable singer of country torch songs. Like Patsy Cline apostle k.d. lang, Case emerged from Canada, and like Cline herself, she lived in Virginia (hence her 1997 debut, The Virginian). Even so, for wellsprings of inspiration, she cites the Muffs or gospel music as readily as she does Cline. Case has a pleasingly limber voice with reasonable range and a solid instinct for phrasing. Her debut was sprinkled with tasteful covers; Furnace Room Lullaby offers only co-written originals. All of this is enormously promising. But Case still wants for a moment of greatness, for a phrase -- written or sung -- that might become her signature, for that instant of discovery when she is no longer learning, but doing. And it will come. Probably. -- Grant Alden

*** Lambchop NIXON (Merge)

Just what this Nashville outfit's fifth album has to do with Tricky Dick isn't clear, except for the report that Lambchop singer Kurt Wagner liked a painting of our 35th president so much, he put it on the cover of the disc. But that title might also have something to do with Wagner's songs of troubling truths that lie beneath the façade of a misguided American Dream. There are lots of tracks here, after all, about settling down to home and hearth and then discovering things aren't quite what they seemed.

"Nashville Parent" finds Wagner overhearing squabbling neighbors and thinking about predatory owls; a girl betrayed by a philandering butcher boy hangs herself in her bedroom in "Butcher Boy." Everywhere, seemingly benign sentiments get turned on their heads. Even a gospely choir's exhortation of "C'mon progeny!" on the relentlessly chipper "Up with People" sounds funny -- and just a little creepy. And check out the cracked, weird elegance of "The Old Gold Shoe" that opens Nixon: over a butter-smooth country-folk melody, in a La-Z-Boy recliner of a voice, Wagner observes that "the world goes away/Each and every stinking day . . . " Ultimately, the songs -- filigreed with touches of vibraphone, piano, and pedal steel, and burnished with a backdrop of strings and horns -- suggest a fallen king and the sprawling kingdom of suburban decay he presided over. -- Jonathan Perry

*** Juvenile THA G CODE (Cash Money/Universal)

On Juvenile's fourth album, Cash Money house producer Mannie Fresh blunts some of his trademark edges. Beats that might ordinarily sound like a rottweiler making love to a PlayStation here ooze out somewhat more shmoovely -- think of a zooted Model 500 playing the Love Unlimited Orchestra catalogue at a strip-club sound check. The liner notes credit a real live bass player, and the apparently live acoustic guitar on "Fuck That Nigga" ripples so mellifluously, it could be Babyface's -- if Babyface penned murder ballads for jewel-encrusted-Humvee lessors. Elsewhere, the neck-wrecking NASA-countdown samples and wobbling test-tone scratches are looser-limbed, and some of the drum lines (on "Something Got 2 Shake" and "Get It Right," for example) allude to the New Orleans brass ensembles that have taken to covering BG's "Bling Bling" and Juvie's hit "Back That Azz Up." A Cash Money album where the lyrics can hold their own against the production remains an elusive prospect; for now, Juvenile's content is all game, dames, and ghetto thangs, rhyming "Tiger Woods, but I won't" with "Eat no pussy, 'cuz I don't" and "vivrant thing" with "Burger King" (would Q-Tip be scandalized?) and using words as aural analogues for the bricks, clips, Glocks, and gloves in his crew's toolbox. When he barks, "Where you from, motherfucker, where you from," it's both a territorial challenge and a fierce flash of roots-rap pride. -- Alex Pappademas

** Ghostface Killah SUPREME CLIENTELE (Razor Sharp/Epic)

Ghostface Killah's always been a particularly likable Wu-Tang MC, in part because he's the most sentimental: whether he's shouting "Suck my dick, it's the kid with the fat knob!" or whispering "Word up, mommy, I love you," he generally sounds as if he were about to cry. His first solo record, Ironman, was both intense and half-assed (several songs were missing entire verses!), and his subsequent star turn on Wu-Tang Forever only made his emo-rap that much more tantalizing.

Supreme Clientele is the long-delayed follow-up, and it's loose and offbeat in a way that would have been unthinkable in the years before RZA As Bobby Digital in Stereo and Nigga Please redefined the Clan as less of a gang and more of a quirky drinking club. It's not a bad approach to take on a sophomore disc, as it gets around the high expectations and rewards curious listeners with unexpected pleasures (there's an engrossing three-minute skit set in a crack house). But most of the time, the music on Supreme Clientele is as puzzling as its title: there's a recurring pseudo-jazz theme song complete with off-key instruments and black-nationalist lyrics, a high-energy posse cut produced by RZA ("Buck 50"), and stultifying appearances from B-teamers like Cappadonna. The most memorable moment is a melancholy, vaguely psychedelic track called "Child's Play," which is so wistfully nostalgic that it almost sounds like a swan song. -- Kelefa Sanneh

**1/2 Apollo Four Forty GETTIN' HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY (Epic)

"Are we a rock band or what?" is the title of the minute-long ambient intro to this Liverpudlian big-beat techno outfit's third album, in mocking tribute to electronica's aspirations toward such "forward-looking" genres as prog and demijazz. But with shades of Hendrix, the Temptations, and the Beach Boys spread across most of Gettin' High on Your Own Supply, it appears that Apollo Four Forty are attempting to regress past the mere rock of their Van-Halen-riff-driven 1998 single "Talkin' 'bout Dub" all the way back to classic rock and roll.

"Stop the Rock" is about as primitive-sounding as dance music ever gets, piling Nuggets' Farfisa and haunted-house sound effects onto three and a half minutes of riff skank guaranteed to get the frat jocks bobbing up and down. This is what it sounds like when DJs cry 96 tears. But if Fatboy Slim (not to mention almost every band on the Nuggets box set) are singles specialists who can't help coming up short over the long haul, why would we expect anything different from Apollo Four Forty? Riff-rock dance music simply gets dull if it isn't taught stupid pet tricks at every turn. So even if the way each "Hey man!" makes the song "Crazee Horse" sound like a post-verbal version of "Suffragette City" doesn't drive you nuts, its failure to break into a "Awwwwwww . . . Wham! Bam! Thank you ma'am!" probably will. -- Kevin John

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