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MAY 11, 1998: 

**1/2 Tribe 8

ROLE MODELS FOR AMERIKA

(Alternative Tentacles)

With their tongues placed equally in their cheeks, your face, and various nether regions, Tribe 8 dish 40 minutes of viscera and vignette on their third full-length. The San Francisco dyke-punk band pour as much punk snot as rock blood into a mix of songs dealing with mastectomy, the love of bike-messengering, and "the scene."

Tribe 8's brassy-sass take on gender identity "issues" may at first sound like ladies aping macho moves to have a good time and make a vague lesbian-liberation point. But these women go well beyond "if they can do it, so can we." Lyricist Lynn Breedlove switches from heavy-handed sloganeering to ticklish suggestion, forming an identity at once angry and amused, clever and blunt. Some tunes -- "Queen of the Scene" and "Hapa Girl" -- can come off as run-of-the-mill politicking; others, like "Estrofemme" and "Ta Ta, Ta-Ta's," reveal the band's collective sympathies, criticisms, and contradictions. But whatever Breedlove is singing about, having a good time seems to be Tribe 8's main rock-and-roll goal.

-- Chesley Hicks


** The Rock*A*Teens

A LITTLE RAIN MUST FALL

(Merge)

The Rock*A*Teens (named after a one-hit-wonder band of the '50s), from Cabbagetown, Georgia, have an extraordinary defining sound: mammoth, dramatic ballads that suggest Roy Orbison singles pitched up about five levels of desperation (another point of similarity: practically all their songs are about crying) and played with grit, disregard for tuning, and enough reverb to fill the Grand Canyon. On their first few albums, if you listened past the reverb, there was some pretty extraordinary songwriting going on too. This time, though, the songwriting seems just an excuse for the sound. The density of guitar smog seems to have diminished too, maybe because the band have lost two members since last year's Cry and replaced just one of them.

When they're on, the Rock*A*Teens are still jarring and refreshing: "N.Y. by Helicopter" has something that sounds like a banjo making its way through the garage haze, and "I Could've Just Died" is a classic wall-of-sound weeper with an army of tambourines crashing in. But for most of Baby, they drag their songs along instead of being pursued by them.

-- Douglas Wolk


* Silkk the Shocker

CHARGE IT TO DA GAME

(No Limit Records)

On any other label, the commercial performance of this debut CD by the self-professed thug and drug dealer Silkk the Shocker would be as unremarkable as his rap style is unoriginal. But since hardcore rap fans value family connections like lifeblood, his success is guaranteed by the mythic stature of his executive producer and main man, Master P, the founder and owner of No Limit Records. A New Orleans-bred entrepreneur, Master P has over the past year and a half built a gangsta rap empire by dragging the sound of Suge Knight's once mighty Death Row Records down to a new level of dull crudity and uniformity. From the regulation cover art to the rinky-dink keyboard effects to the simpish praises of hustling and bad-mouthing of women, everything on Charge It to da Game adheres to that principle. For every well-produced cut, you get four or five shots of rote product, a formula for cutting good junk with bad that any pusher will recognize.

-- Franklin Soults


*** Ron Gill

THE SONGS OF BILLY STRAYHORN

(WGBH)

It's hard to believe, but this is the first album by a singer devoted exclusively to Billy Strayhorn's songs. Long in the shadow of his employer Duke Ellington, Strayhorn was a brilliant composer; his "Lush Life" and "Something To Live For" are as sophisticated as pop songwriting gets. Yet these are not songs for the callow or the technically facile -- they call for maturity and finesse, and Gill is the singer for the job. His warm, congenial tenor gives intimacy to "Day Dream" and "My Little Brown Book." His unquenchable zest for life that romantic pain can't extinguish, his in-spite-of-it-all optimism -- these imbue Strayhorn's exquisitely sad-yet-funny songs with a rueful irony.

The back-up of pianist Manny Williams, guitarist John Stein, bassist Ron Mahdi, drummer Reid Jorgensen, and saxophonist Bill Thompson works selflessly to make each song beautiful. Gill has spent more than 20 years learning the ins and outs of Strayhorn's music, and the fruits of his devotion show on every track -- Strayhorn has rarely been in such sympathetic and understanding hands.

-- Ed Hazell


**** Oren Bloedow

THE LUCKIEST BOY IN THE WORLD

(Knitting Factory)

This whispery, world-weary collection of songs is an act of calculated savantry. Singer/guitarist Bloedow's bone-deep lyrics pine for lost days and loves in the simplest terms. Not only are his words plain and poignant, so are his vocal melodies. Bloedow's voice is thin, a tad whispery, and always just a sharp or a flat away from cracking, whether he's pining for his dead father and the unsatisfied promise of childhood or simply crying out for inspiration.

The arrangements thrust his singing way out front, matching his phrases with spare but savvy accompaniment. It takes a great band to distill a sound that teeters on the edge of collapse and to sustain it for an entire album, milking each song for every trace of fragility. And Bloedow, a former Lounge Lizard, has a line-up that's all aces. It includes his fellow ironic jazzers Medeski Martin and Wood and hipster downtown Manhattan slide-guitarist Dave Tronzo. Together they've worked hard to create an album that tugs at the heartstrings while smirking with delight in its own craftsmanship.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**** Helen Boatwright

THE SONGS OF CHARLES IVES AND ERNST BACON

(CRI)

About 30 years ago I heard a concert at Sanders Theatre I'll never forget -- a song cycle by Hindemith sung by the American soprano Helen Boatwright. The singing was limpid, honest, emotionally open. Her diction was perfect. Her voice was exquisite. For years, the recording of hers I wanted most was an album of songs by the cantankerous Charles Ives, where she was accompanied by the great Ives pianist/editor/scholar John Kirkpatrick, on the small Overtone label. In 1974, CBS (now Sony) released a landmark five-LP Ives set commemorating the centennial of his birth (now also out of print). There were performances by Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas, and even rare recordings of Ives himself, both playing and singing! One of the highlights of that set was an entire LP devoted to Ives songs, with Boatwright and Kirkpatrick. The original 1954 album has now been reissued by CRI -- Composers Recording, Inc. -- and it's a gem.

"A song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens," Ives wrote. "If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of a street . . . or sitting on a curb, why not let it?" There's nothing predictable about Ives's songs. And they include an extraordinary variety: parlor ballads, hymn tunes, and setting of short poems and other texts that caught his eye in the daily newspapers. A particularly exquisite minute-long song, "Two Little Flowers" (1921), is to a poem by Harmony Twichell Ives, Ives's wife, about their six-year-old daughter Edith and her playmate Susanna. The quirky little "Ann Street" (about a street) sets a poem by someone named Maurice Morris that Ives found in the New York Herald on January 12, 1921. At the other end of the spectrum is the almost satiric rambunctiousness and sublimity of Ives's amazing 1914 setting of Vachel Lindsay's "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" -- a nearly six-minute musical phantasmagoria.

This CD also includes Helen Boatwright singing a series of Emily Dickinson poems set to music by Ernst Bacon, a colleague of her composer/violinist husband at Syracuse University, with the composer himself at the piano. Bacon worked on these from the 1930s to the 1960s, and they're affective without nearly the daring of what Ives wrote decades earlier.

-- Lloyd Schwartz


*** Brooklyn Bounce

IN THE BEGINNING

(Edel America)

"Progressive attack! This is the beginning!" So burps the funkadelic voice that powers this German-made Eurohouse CD. Let's call In the Beginning's 14 cuts "rhythm-and-rhythm speak": deep-octaved synth riffs and even deeper-octaved voice riffs -- the basics. But the basics, as Matthias Menck and Dennis Bohn apply them, do not mean unvarying repetition any more than in rockabilly (an equally basic, equally open-ended genre). Menck and Bohn sequence voice and synthesizer this way and that, combinings that veer from harsh metal sound effects to high, pinched synthesizings at tempos faster than most US dance fans like but that are de rigueur in Eurobeat. From "Feel My Energy" and "Take a Ride" to "The Night" and "Pump It Up," the pair vary their attacks far more than the limitations of a two-step seem to allow, until the dancer (who owns only two feet, after all) feels himself centipedal, able to dance, and become, anything he dares. Produced by Art of Noise's Trevor Horn, this is the year's most useful Eurodisco CD.

-- Michael Freedberg


* Silkk the Shocker

CHARGE IT TO DA GAME

(No Limit Records)

On any other label, the commercial performance of this debut CD by the self-professed thug and drug dealer Silkk the Shocker would be as unremarkable as his rap style is unoriginal. But since hardcore rap fans value family connections like lifeblood, his success is guaranteed by the mythic stature of his executive producer and main man, Master P, the founder and owner of No Limit Records. A New Orleans-bred entrepreneur, Master P has over the past year and a half built a gangsta rap empire by dragging the sound of Suge Knight's once mighty Death Row Records down to a new level of dull crudity and uniformity. From the regulation cover art to the rinky-dink keyboard effects to the simpish praises of hustling and bad-mouthing of women, everything on Charge It to da Game adheres to that principle. For every well-produced cut, you get four or five shots of rote product, a formula for cutting good junk with bad that any pusher will recognize.

-- Franklin Soults



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