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APRIL 6, 1998: 

***1/2 The Fleshtones

MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

(Ichiban)

Nearly 20 years into their career, with a dwindling audience and plenty of dogged persistence, the Fleshtones have made their best album. More Than Skin Deep is where their '60s-obsessed, three-chord garage rock gets raised to something like high art, thanks to a punchy and pointed collection of songs -- nearly all originals, only one longer than three minutes. On the anthemic "God Damn It," they look their career straight in the eye: "Hippies smoking pot/Our management sucks/We gotta make some money/God damn it!" Rock anthems don't get more honest than that.

Largely dispensing with the horns and sing-along soul choruses they've used in the past, the Fleshtones stick to a stripped-down guitar-and-organ-driven sound. But hyperactive singer Peter Zaremba calms down enough to bring a bit of sensitivity to the finale, "Better Days," a resonant song of hope and friendship. Two minutes of sensitivity on a 35-minute album is just about right.

-- Brett Milano


**

PLATINUM ON BLACK: THE FINAL CHAPTER

(ffrr)

Almost 10 years after it began with Silver on Black, ffrr's series of dance compilations is coming to an end with a volume mixed by label founder (and now British celebrity DJ) Pete Tong. It's got a couple of hits (though does anybody who buys dance albums not have Funky Green Dogs' "Fired Up" by now?) and a bunch of entertaining tracks, especially the Brand New Heavies' soulful, anthemic "You Are the Universe" and a nasty little novelty by Wayne G. called "Twisted."

But it's also an example of how retrograde and balkanized the club-music scene has become. The series's first few volumes were full of gorgeous, original work that had been inspired by house's possibilities but spiraled off from it. The centerpiece of The Final Chapter is Ultra Nate's dance-floor hit "Free," a slightly better produced take on house tropes that were standard a decade ago. Nearly everything else relies on the same diva vocals, Chicago rhythms, and 125-beats-per-minute tempos that early volumes were trying to get away from. There's no downtempo material, no big beat, no drum 'n' bass, nothing really new -- just the steady pumping of the same old flavor.

-- Douglas Wolk


*** Plan 9

PLEASURE FARM

(J-Bird Records)

On their first album in years, Rhode Island's redoubtable Plan 9 remain unreconstructed garage-rockers. As on their mid-'80s underground classic Dealing with the Dead, which was reissued on CD last year, their songs remain driven by leader Eric Stumpo's gristly vocalizing and nasty guitars and the cheesy '60s-period keyboard melodies of Deb Demarco. Here they've augmented their sound with fiddle and steel guitar, which gives tunes like "Pleasure Farm" and "Relief Mop" occasional country and Celtic flavorings.

Pleasure Farm does best when it turns creepy, as on the opening "Blip/Open Wound," where the music stops, slows down, then moves into a higher key, and Stumpo begins intoning like a resurrected Anton Sandor LaVey. He remains a highly charged soloist, too, whose most fiery moments -- take the finale of "Animals Doing Things to Each Other" -- are full of chirping harmonic digs and gnarly string bending. Tired of waiting for the next Lyres album? Here's relief, served up with teeth-gritting authenticity.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Karl Hendricks Trio

DECLARE YOUR WEAPONS

(Merge)

The Karl Hendricks Trio aim to do regular-guy rock: T-shirts and jeans make up their uniforms, bare-bones guitar/bass/drums augments their sound. But even in the world of indie rock, that's become outsider stuff -- and at first, Hendricks's delivery seems just another contrived pose. Fortunately, he backs it up with a Replacements-style sloppiness coupled with a stubborn sense of melody, keeping the emphasis on big guitars and prickly sentiments. He can be smarmy: "Your Lesbian Friends" and "The Colonel Feels Alright" stand in place while Hendricks delivers all-too-clever soliloquies. But when the rhythm section (drummer Noah Leger and bassist Caulen Kress) kick in, as on "Know More About Jazz" or "Like John Travolta," the rock outweighs the schlock.

-- Joe Harrington


*1/2 Feeder

POLYTHENE

(Elektra)

Bush took it on the chin critically for being Nirvana clones from 'cross the Atlantic, but they worried their pretty faces not a bit as they found favor on American modern-rock radio. The newest UK regurgitators are Feeder, but this time Midwestern grunge -- Smashing Pumpkins, to be specific -- is the primary influence. Hey, could work. The CD's big (huge, in fact) production values and riff heaviness come replete with emotional, note-bending guitar solos, lush vocalizations, and forceful rhythmic dynamics. Sounds like a great album.

So what's the problem? After all, nothing's original in this post-postmodern world, and we can look forward to generations of familiarity, right? But familiarity breeds contempt, and Polythene -- with its almost total lack of recombinant possibilities -- is contemptible. Still, you can hum (skate, snowboard, whatever) along to it. Maybe, like Bush, Feeder will be licking their critical wounds all the way to the bank.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Chicane

FAR FROM THE MADDENING CROWDS

(ffrr)

As moody and instrumental as Robert Miles's big Europop hit "Children," Chicane's Far from the Maddening Crowds features coolly delicate orchestral pop arrangements, acoustic-guitar interludes, the sounds of waves mussing a beach, and -- always -- the throbby, four-to-the-floor pump beat that drives dreamy Eurodisco. Chicane varies his sonic components hardly at all, so there's no point trying to distinguish one mix of "Offshore" and "Sunstroke" from another (the CD includes two of each), or figuring out where "Early" and "Already There" stop and "From Blue to Green," "Leaving Town," and "The Drive Home" begin. No, just savor the ease with which he recycles the always lighthearted, soft-melodic elements of his lush dance music, 72 minutes of sonic idealism in which quiet and softness are the theme as well as the form.

-- Michael Freedberg


***

ANOUSHKA

(AP)

This self-released debut conjures up some smoky nightclub lounge where the lights are dim enough to make everyone look pretty good, the torch songs are witty and sad, and the singer sounds as if she'd lived through those hard times and good times herself. Anoushka is a local Berklee grad who's put together an impressive collection of tunes here in a retro, jazzy pop style reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones or Phoebe Snow. Her affecting songs exert a seductive charm, leaving a vivid impression of their cast of searching characters: barflies with the cocaine blues, slumming covergirls, lost runaways, lovelorn 12-step diehards. "This is a story about Charlie -- Charlie's a guy I used to know," Anoushka murmurs casually to introduce a lilting tale about a wise guy whose luck has finally run out. "Four a.m. she's reeling home in leather laced with gin," she sings in the lovely "Call Daphne," her knowing voice altogether sympathetic to the lot of another partygoer unsteadily toeing the thin line between fun and the inevitable hangover.

-- Ivan Kreilkamp


*** Abunai!

UNIVERSAL MIND DECODER

(Camera Obscura)

Like their Terrastock brethren the Olivia Tremor Control and Bardo Pond, Boston's Abunai! are impressionistic sonic explorers unafraid to draw on the past: from Syd Barrett to Donovan to the pastoral-folk side of T. Rex. On Universal Mind Decoder they conjure hazy, mushroom-stoked clouds of space-age psychedelia and tell tales of gypsy kings and stormy seas amid snippets of Funkadelic samples, shortwave-radio broadcasts, and a kaleidoscopic collage of guitars and percussion.

The ethereal "Quiet Storm" finds history in the band's own backyard: the tune is a dead ringer for a Galaxie 500 cover. Not all the material works (the stilted "Chromatic Moire" reaches a bit), but the pulsing undertow of tracks like "Calvary Cross" and the disc's overall sense of adventure make this a captivating album. And any band who can incite Bevis Frond's Nick Saloman to strap on a guitar and jam with them have gotta be doing something right: this disc offers 10 (okay, maybe nine) reasons why they got the master's ear that night at the Middle East last fall.

-- Jonathan Perry



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