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MARCH 28, 2000: 

*** Russell Mills/Undark PEARL + UMBRA (Bella Union/Instinct)

Visual art and music don't usually mix. You don't need to own a David Bowie watercolor to know that musicians make lousy visual artists. And overrated painter Julian Schnabel demonstrated the reverse with a CD of his aural doodling a few years ago. Yet the debut by visual artist and installation specialist Russell Mills defies this commonplace. The relative success of Pearl + Umbra might be attributable to Mills's music-related CV: he develops exquisite CD packaging for globetrotting aesthetes Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian, among others, and he frequently collaborates with musicians on gallery exhibitions. (Approaching Silence, featuring Sylvian's phenomenal soundtrack to a gallery co-production with Mills, has just been released.)

Pearl + Umbra makes the most of Mills's filofax. His Undark ensemble is a veritable ethno-ambient dream team that includes Peter Gabriel, Eno brothers Brian and Roger, Bill Laswell, Seefeel's Mark Clifford, Thurston Moore, Michael Brook, and Graham Haynes, plus Sylvian lending his throaty vibrato to "Rooms of the Sixteen Shimmers." Much of the release evokes the sparse, ethereal qualities of This Mortal Coil and like-minded 4AD acts, especially given the dominance of female sirens and the presence of label boss and former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie, who is credited as "sonic mandarin." -- Patrick Bryant


*** Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca SÌO SALVADOR (Putumayo)

World-music successes often depend on combinations of disparate but complementary elements. It makes all the difference when the artist comes by the combination honestly, and Lemvo does. Born in Zaire (now Congo) with Angolan ancestry, Lemvo moved to Los Angeles as a school boy, and when he rolls Congolese soukous, Afro Cuban son, Puerto Rican bomba, and funky R&B together, it really works.

His second album leans more to the Latin than the African side, but Africa is there, as when he sings a classic Congolese rumba in Lingala and Spanish and melds piano montuna with cycling African guitar. The title track, a lovely ballad honoring a martyr of the ancient kingdom of Kongo, works accordion into the mix. Lemvo pulls in Congolese vocal star Bopol and delves into Dominican merengue on one track; his excursion into multi-lingual funk -- "Nganga Kisi" ("Witch Doctor") -- doesn't ring quite as true. He's not a four-star vocalist by Latin or African standards, but his take on the Afro-Latin grab bag is solid and convincing. -- Banning Eyre


*** PJ Olsson WORDS FOR LIVING (C2/Columbia)

If he weren't such a positive-minded songwriter, PJ Olsson could be compared to Nick Drake. But the Michigan-bred Olsson isn't that ethereal, delicate, sorrowful thing that can stop you in your tracks, the way Drake was (and there's no reason he should be, except modern music needs more Drake types and fewer catchy pop Olsson types). Still, if Words for Living is any indication, Olsson is also superlative, especially when it comes to production and arrangements. He does come off as a product of latter-day pop culture and middle-class comfort: his songs are wry and heavily soused in dance beats, and they offer both more concerns and a sunnier disposition than the average young American. And simple lyrics prevent intriguingly adorned songs like "I Am the Sun" from hitting the mark of genius. The catchy, Beck-styled R&B number "Through Rock Songs" laughs at taking oneself seriously; "Visine" laughs at pop and consumer culture. Olsson's words are made for intelligent suburban living, and in that sense he's hit his mark. -- Linda Laban


*** Mindless Self Indulgence FRANKENSTEIN GIRLS WILL SEEM STRANGELY SEXY (Elektra)

As if their name weren't evocative enough, this Lower East Side quartet also dreamed up a genre tag that's an even better description of their shtick: "industrial jungle pussy punk." It's the jungle that impresses most on Frankenstein, even if the disc actually sounds more like Atari Teenage Riot's digital hardcore with all the BPMs and none of the artifice. As for "pussy," it refers not to the two women in the band but to lead singer and programmer Little Jimmy Urine, who also gets away with calling himself a punk since his lyrics are even more perverted than his musical vision. Mindless Self Indulgence present themselves as a joke: they look like Information Society, they sequenced the 30 songs on Frankenstein alphabetically, and their most memorable rhyme is "I hate Jimmy Page/Get those faggots off the stage." But the verses on "I Hate Jimmy Page" are as outlandishly homoerotic as the chorus is dumb, and Urine even manages to get introspective without sacrificing his wackiness on "Keepin' Up with the Kids." Score one for the idiots. -- Sean Richardson


*** Luke Vibert and BJ Cole STOP THE PANIC (Astralwerks)

Luke Vibert might appear to be just another of those pasty-faced British electronic auteurs with dazzling control over sequencers and samplers, an overwhelming output of releases and remixes, and more working aliases than a card-carrying member of the Wu-crew. But operating in various oddball styles -- spazz 'n' bass, avant-acid jazz, headphone techno -- he distinguishes himself from the experimental-electro crowd with a profound playfulness that usually aims for silliness over significance.

Stop the Panic brings together Vibert and pedal-steel session man BJ Cole (Beck, Björk, Marc Bolan) for an inspired session of shits and giggles. After an intro that promises music "that's a little different from what we normally do," the duo launch into "Swing Lite -- Alright," which grooves like some imaginary collaboration between Esquivel and Eric B. in a Tennessee tiki bar. It really is uncharted territory, as the duo jam their way through a batch of tunes that suggest new subgenres like Hawaiian swing 'n' bass boogaloo ("Party Animal"), country-pop lock ("Start the Panic"), and ambient house for the Hee Haw generation ("Cheng Phooey"). -- Michael Endelman


**1/2 Julius Papp GO DEEP WITH JULIUS PAPP VOL. 2 (Maxi)

Papp is one of the new generation of house-music DJs, folks who were club kids themselves, or had only recently become DJs, during house music's 1986-1991 first phase. Now a 13-year veteran of the house scene, Papp is a mixer of the old school, one who improvises his segues from one record to another instead of just selecting a program. Thus, as he moves from Cevin Fisher's "The Way We Used To" to Big Muff's "Feel What You Know" to his own "Diskomystic" to the Soul Movement's "Something About the Music," the beat syncopation doesn't just progress, it kicks its heels, slides, curtsies, jets -- effects created in the music by Papp's cuts, overlays, drop-ins. The Maxi people have, unfortunately, restricted him to tracks released on Maxi, and the sameness of tone and personality detracts from his delicate sleights of hand -- though the label does get to showcase the ingenious Big Muff, plus two Soul Movement tracks that deserve attention from Philly disco adepts as well as house fans: "Deidre" and the already mentioned "Something About the Music." -- Michael Freedberg


*** Gov't Mule LIFE BEFORE INSANITY (Capricorn)

Like the Band at the turn of the '70s, Gov't Mule write songs that look forward while refusing to eschew the nourishing links of tradition. On the full-tilt stunner Life Before Insanity, the Mule weave between bad-ass boogie and complex balladry, retaining the subversive essences of their roots-music patrimony and moving from expansive groove orientation toward radio-ready rockers. The centerpieces of the disc reflect the exploration of previous forays distilled into a vibrant cohesive style, from the Zeppelinesque title track to the superbad single "Bad Little Doggie," where Hook Herrera's sublime blues harp underscores every strut and thrust, to the disc's hidden track, a rollicking cover of Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession over Judgment Day." Singer/guitarist Warren Haynes's lap-steel-playing peer Ben Harper guests on the other stellar song, "Lay Your Burden Down," a spontaneous hybrid fusing that patented Little Feat funk with gospel. Sure, Gov't Mule still bash out anthems with grace, but Life is an adult version of rock and roll distilled with equal parts inspired musicianship and the moral weight of Haynes's gothic folk fables. -- Kandia Crazy Horse


*** Alex Chilton SET (Bar/None)

One sure sign of a gifted songwriter is the ability to, well, pen memorable songs. Another less obvious but telling sign is the ability to recognize a great tune when you hear it. Alex Chilton, the author of a suitcase full of beloved songs written mostly for his beloved band Big Star, is also known for covering the coolest, quirkiest material that pop, country, or whatever else struck his fancy had to offer. Even on spotty solo albums like 1979's Like Flies on Sherbet, Chilton's cracked, blue-eyed soul-boy charm shone when he tackled nuggets like Jimmy Newman's "Alligator Man" or unearthed gems like Cordell Jackson's "Stranded on a Dateless Night" in concert.

On the strictly covers Set, he's smoothed out the usual rough edges somewhat (not too much, thank you), but he still applies his wry, perpetually boyish voice to the material in a way that pays homage without becoming stultifyingly reverential. With stripped-to-the-skivvies production (the disc was cut in one day in New York City), minimal backing on bass and drums, and Chilton accompanying himself on wonderfully sloppy guitar, the set moves with casual, swinging aplomb from easygoing rockers like "Never Found a Girl" and "Single Again" to the jazz stylings of "There Will Never Be Another You." In short, Chilton sounds like a guy digging deep into his record collection and having a laugh at what he finds. -- Jonathan Perry


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