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MARCH 16, 1998: 

***1/2 Unwound


(Kill Rock Stars)

On their last two albums, Future of What and Repetition, Washington's Unwound (they're from Tumwater) introduced aesthetic innovation to American postpunk, primarily through electronic embellishments and the occasional dubby break. But both albums still functioned like most punk rock albums -- as documents of live performances that just happened to take place in the recording studio. With Challenge for a Civilized Society, Unwound acknowledge the CD as an entity in and of itself by subjecting their Joy-Division-by-way-of-Black-Flag-and-Fugazi squall to the same approach dub-music pioneers adopted when melding live musicians with studio-produced noise. The powerful result, best heard on "Side Effects of Being Tired," is a very physical form of rock that subtly slips into digitally produced sonic loops and then back, once again, to physical guitar rock.

-- Justin Farrar

*** Towa Tei



Former Deee-Lite trickster Towa Tei packs his second solo album with sufficient diversity to make the United Colors of Benetton look positively monochromatic. Despite the lofty title, there's nothing musty or didactic about this charming object lesson in how different grooves -- from house to hip-hop, from bossa nova to bubblegum -- can yield a disc that's more than the sum of its variegated parts. The glittering array of guest stars, including rapper Biz Markie, poet Ken Nordine, and international pop tart Kylie Minogue, cavort through the frisky tracks like the cast of a demented variety show. A few offerings prove less tasty than they promise on paper (a samba cover of Hall & Oates's "Private Eyes"), but Sound Museum is essentially light and refreshing, just far enough left of center to appeal to a wide range of palates.

-- Kurt B. Reighley

*** Sue Garner


(Thrill Jockey)

Sue Garner is best known these days for playing bass and singing in Run On, but she's also been in projects more thoroughly devoted to weirdness (Fish and Roses, the Biggest Square Thing) and to sweetness (the gloriously gentle Shams). Her first solo album is much less rock than Run On; it's governed by her predilection for pretty sounds. But its roots are in her avantist impulses, which mostly show up in the arrangements (featuring Chris Stamey and members of Run On and Yo La Tengo) that perpetually find new routes around the conventions of guitar-bass-drums. Some are pretty in odd ways (like a cover of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," supported by super-distorted bass and sliding violin parts); a few are overtly discordant.

The warm Southern lilt in Garner's voice, though, makes everything glide gracefully, even when she hides her singing in the mix or treats it as accompaniment rather than the focus of a track. Her own songs are a solid framework for this thoughtful soundplay too. The disc ends with a remake of the Shams' "Continuous Play," whose sentimental honesty represents some of her best writing, emotionally complex and pure as sunlight.

-- Douglas Wolk

*** Ratsy


(Ratsy Records)

It might seem audacious to release a compilation of earlier recordings when you have only one original CD to your credit, but Ratsy is nothing if not bold. The Boston-based singer/songwriter styles herself as a "songstress girl/superstar" and writes funny songs insisting that John Gorka is secretly in love with her and demanding utter devotion from her listeners.

What saves her from succumbing to the status of novelty act is her deft way with a melody, her insinuating vocals, and her sharp satirical wit. The 11 solo acoustic numbers here were originally released on cassette in 1988 and 1992, when she was a subway busker. Fans will undoubtedly cheer the opportunity to own CD versions of favorites from her live act, including her "trilogy of stupid boy songs," which is really a quartet, as well as a few covers that showcase her vocal talents, including a glistening version of Leonard Cohen's "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" and the folk standard "The Water Is Wide."

-- Seth Rogovoy

*** Olu Dara



Olu Dara is suddenly sorta famous these days as the father of multi-platinum New York rapper Nas, but the cornettist has long been one of the most respected players on the jazz scene. Dara has also had a second musical career less visible to jazz fans -- that of a composer and songwriter for theater pieces and other occasional projects. The songwriting spans more than 20 years on this solo "debut," and he covers the geography of the title convincingly.

There's an offhand charm in everything he does here -- whether he's delivering sexy come-ons with a Caribbean lilt or testifying country-blues style with an acoustic slide guitar. It's a Taj Mahal-style smorgasbord of roots music, but Dara's approach is ego-less. (Nas gets an acoustic urban rap.) His guitar and warm vocals hold all the styles together, and so does his tart cornet. Especially when he's playing a plunger-mute tribute to the great Ellingtonian Bubber Miley, against brushes, guitar, some spare bass notes, and Mayanna Lee's hushed vocals.

-- Jon Garelick

*** Labradford



Labradford represent that odd place where progressive rock lies down on its deathbed and confesses all its sins. The band drink deeply of prog's old instrumentation (mellotron, Moog, spooky chimes, oddly tuned guitars) while apologizing for the operatic bombast committed by groups like Van der Graaf Generator -- whose chord structures and tortured vocal styles are frequently quoted here, as they were on the 1996 Labradford LP. Mi Media Naranja is a sustained exercise in brooding meditation, from the slack, painfully slow guitar arpeggios that open the album to the analog synth and string lines that drone throughout. Given song titles like "S," "G," "C," and "V," you might suspect Labradford are pushing the pomposity index a bit high, but the music never quite becomes a self-indulgent noodlefest. It's too slow and deliberative for that: the band are too committed to their elegant explorations of droning atmospherics to put on showy, virtuoso airs. Maybe prog did learn something in its old age, after all.

-- Chris Tweney

***1/2 Fred Frith


(ReR FFI/Cuneiform)

Most of Fred Frith's recordings from the last 15 years are improvised. But here Frith the composer/arranger pays homage to John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown. These three pieces are mood music, profound in their use of silence and quiet details like the rumblings of prepared piano or the smooth interjections of clarinet and long, sustained bass tones from Frith's guitars.

The writing trundles closer to ambient music than the shorter pieces he's written for TV and the stage in recent years (collected on the recent Eye to Ear on the Tzadik label). Vocal interjections give the Cage piece human warmth and a dash of humor -- qualities always present in Frith's best work. But the tribute to Brown is the most delicate and colorful. Guitar, probing piano melodies, woodwinds, violin, chattering percussion, vocal interjections, and early-morning bird calls establish a running conversation -- which builds to lively rhythmic crescendos -- that presents music as a language so universal it crosses even the division of species. (Write to Cuneiform at Box 8427, Silver Spring, Maryland 20907).

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Black Grape



Madchester madman Shaun Ryder was never content to be Happy Mondays. Nope, Ecstasy Tuesdays, Heroin Wednesdays, and Acid Thursdays were (and very possibly still are) the main orders of business for England's reigning have-a-good-time-all-the-time hooligan. In case you're wondering what a weekend might look like in the Ryder household, consider this disc by his latest band of merry pranksters, Black Grape, your invitation to drop by.

Like '95's salacious dub-inflected funkfest, It's Great When You're Straight . . .Yeah, Stupid Stupid Stupid is gleefully that and so much more. It's a house party, with the material functioning as one blunt-buzzed groove. On "Get Higher" the voice of Ronald Reagan opens the festivities with the announcement that reefer is in abundant supply and that he and Nancy are hooked on smack (so that's why he was always nodding off). Elsewhere, Hammond organ, sitars, and a battalion of horns fuel potboilers like "Tell Me Something" and "Spotlight," and Ryder's slurred, Mad Hatter vocals leer and trip through ditties like the autobiographical "Dadi Waz a Badi." Is this stuff essential? No. But it's like a good party: you wouldn't wanna miss it.

-- Jonathan Perry

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