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JUNE 1, 1999: 

*** Sasha + John Digweed EXPEDITIONS (Ultra/Sony)

Two of electronica's most house-music-friendly DJs, Sasha and John Digweed, collaborate here to create a 20-track, two-CD set of ambient, computer-tongued sounds riding atop a tense, cold beat that ranges in texture from fast trip-hop to hard Eurobeat to acid house. Voices rarely intrude upon these programs, at least not without suffering mischievous distortion. But they're not missed, because the DJs' electronic riffs take on a nearly vocal shape. And when combined with their frequent quoting from classic space disco -- note how often "Hills of Katmandu," the dream disco sequence from Celso Valli's 1979 hit Tantra, pops up -- the complex music has nearly as much narrative power as voices do in a standard pop song. When vocals do appear, as in "Lost Without You" and "Free," they lighten the music's feeling, placing the human elements in its comfort zone while consigning everything else in this sonic universe to a state of flux. Thus, subtly do Sasha and Digweed make it clear that however dramatic the external universe may be, people still matter most.

-- Michael Freedberg

*** Ron Sexsmith WHEREABOUTS (Interscope)

Weird: it takes a certain volition, some might say a certain cheer, to make pop melancholy transcend its inherent drowsiness. There are singer-songwriters -- Richard Buckner for example -- confused about this; they invariably droop toward the doldrums while explaining their broken hearts. Not Ron Sexsmith. Whereabouts finds the way-too-blue Canadian linking himself with both Nick Drake and the Beatles. Forlorn enough to conjure visions of the feathery Brit folkster, he's nevertheless craftsman enough to give his audience something meatier to chew on -- as with the Fab Four's quieter moments, there's rigor below the hush.

This third major outing fortifies Sexsmith's trademark ennui with the most coercive melodies of his career. That French-horn voice of his is applied to the laconic parade of "One Gray Morning," the emphatic backbeat on "Must Have Heard You Wrong," and the Celtic lilt of "Every Passing Day." Each has a luster about it (Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake are tweaking again), and they balance the whimpers and sighs of sleepy ballads like "Riverbed" and "Doomed." "I never said I'd be your superhero/Never said that I was strong," he broods on the former. Whereabouts suggests otherwise. Sexsmith's musical muscles are limber enough to carry mucho weight.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Ronnie Dawson MORE BAD HABITS (Yep Roc)

What's that guitar rumble, that sound like an old Chrysler chugging through a 40-year-long tunnel? It's the opening chords of "Good at Being Bad," track one on the new CD from leather-tough rocker Ronnie Dawson. Decades after the Blonde Bomber won the amateur talent contest at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Dawson's still playing fierce, brittle Fender guitar and exuberantly sing-talking some lighthearted lyrics about chicks, cars, food, and drink. Even if he doesn't cotton to the word, Dawson is a hard-luck "rockabilly" legend who found out a few years ago that a new bunch of fans in the UK had been digging his old stuff. He then recorded a few CDs for the British label No Hit Records and is now back at it full strength stateside.

Recorded last year in Cape Elizabeth, Maine (birthplace of John Ford), More Bad Habits is the very first stereo recording in all of Dawson's years (60 of 'em come August). But that doesn't change his fevered, twanging attack on such original numbers as "Rippin' and a-Roarin'," "Waxahachie Drag Race," and "Rockin' Country Cat," stripped-down, reverb-laden sounds true to the roots of a man who came up alongside Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee.

-- Bill Kisliuk

*** Georg Graewe Quintet CONCERT IN BERLIN 1996 (Wobbly Rail)

German pianist Georg Graewe explodes the hard-bop quintet from within on this exceptional live performance. "Snapshots 1-53," the Graewe "composition" (it's more of a directed improvisation) for five players, breaks up the full ensemble into soloists and smaller groupings, then shuffles the subgroupings into contrasting sections that keep the music varied and orderly. For instance, the track's second section alternates the trio of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, cellist Marcio Mattos, and drummer Mark Sanders with the duet of Graewe and trombonist Sebi Tramontana. The final section juxtaposes solo cello and drums against the full ensemble.

If that sounds schematic, the players make sure that the piece progresses organically in performance. Graewe's luminous, rounded sound envelops the band, unifying the group without dominating it, and the great clarity with which he develops his ideas ensures that the music always moves forward logically. The horn players all use a wide range of extended techniques that produce a range of textures and colors. Gustafsson's short bursts of sound explode like a string of Chinese firecrackers in the fast and furious trio episodes. Tramontana's almost casual command of virtuoso contemporary technique, from multiphonics to jungle growls and flatulent blats, adds color and weight to the graceful gestures of Graewe's piano in the duets. In the end, Graewe's approach gives structure and focus to a quintet that improvises with attention to detail and plenty of energy.

-- Ed Hazell

*** Dressy Bessy PINK HEARTS YELLOW MOONS (Kindercore)

For those not up on their '70s toy collectibles: Dressy Bessy was a doll designed to help kids learn dexterity skills by teaching them buttoning, lacing, and the like. On this Denver quartet's full-length debut, Dressy Bessy the band demonstrate a few dexterity skills of their own, though their brand of fluffy twee pop tends to raid the attic of '60s nostalgia: cheery, multi-tracked girl-group harmonies (courtesy of singer-guitarist Tammy Ealom), loopy melodies, and an abiding affection for pre-breakdown Brian Wilson. What's weird, though, is how '90s this stuff is beginning to sound, what with the proliferation of all those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed indie boys and girls like the Minders and Apples in Stereo -- the latter of whom share lead guitarist John Hill with Dressy Bessy. (Head Apple Robert Schneider also helped engineer and mix Pink Hearts.) Fortunately, amid all the la-la-las, the guitars of Hill and Ealom are just Fuzzy enough to add some oomph to the proceedings, and that keeps it all from getting too cute. Which is a good thing, because if this stuff got any cuter, it'd be a puppy.

-- Jonathan Perry

**1/2 Dangerman SELF TITLED (550 Music/Sony)

"I do not play no rock 'n' roll," croaks sepulchral bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell in a sample used for the title of the closing track on Dangerman's debut. Indeed, the NYC duo (guitarist/bassist Chris Scianni; percussionist Dave Borla) play not rock but some new kind of post-rock; call it urban folk. Like their NYC pals Fun Lovin Criminals, Dangerman offer a loose, hip-hop-inflected, streetscape melange (electric blues, Caribbean salsa, hard-bop jazz, Indian raga) that sounds pretty fly for a coupla white guys. Their rarefied taste in samples (McDowell, Willie Colon, Elvin Jones, Mongo Santamaria) echoes through their own playing styles (Scianni's fondness for slide guitar, Borla's Jones-like hard-swinging skins pounding). How much of this surprisingly rich texture is the twosome's is an open question given the omnipresence of producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine), who plays keyboard and mellotron and has a co-writing credit on every song. Still, what does it matter when the results are as melodic as "Let's Make a Deal," "Good Friend," "Remember," and "It'll Comeback"?

-- Gary Susman

**1/2 Atari Teenage Riot 60 SECOND WIPE OUT (DHR/Elektra)

The attraction of these German electropunks simmers with their exclamation-point-saturated DIY rabble rousing; their refusal to decide whether they want to be Slayer, Minor Threat, Public Enemy, Bikini Kill, or Throbbing Gristle; and the pulsing white-noise throb of chaos surrounding their every bell, whistle, breakbeat, and thrash riff -- a static jigsaw anti-sheen that puts them in a league with Japanese semiotic rock geniuses Guitar Wolf. In both cases, what you hear is a vaudeville on the subject of technology, a useful fiction in which all instruments and panels are overwhelmed by what the listener can only presume to be the superheroic, decibel-smashing, needle-pinning, rocking-ness of the players.

On 60 Second Wipe Out, ATR tone down their ADD theatrics for, oh, about 10 minutes. The album's first five songs -- from the straightforwardly punkish opener, "Revolutionary Action," to the Wu-style hip-hop of "Western Decay" -- are the group's most accessible to date. After that it's back to familiar territory: a race through "Too Dead for Me," which nicely co-opts their Beastie buddies' "Time for Livin' "; more self-promoting shout-outs than a Jon Spencer best-of; innocuous cameos by Kathleen Hannah and Fear Factory's guitarist; less-innocuous cameos by actual rappers the Arsonists; and a descent into maddeningly pastichy Merzbowisms, which by disc's end no longer shock, with all the predictable formalism of 1-2-3-4.

-- Carly Carioli

** 10,000 Maniacs THE EARTH PRESSED FLAT (Bar None)

The 10,000 MAniacs lost most of their audience around the time they lost singer Natalie Merchant, but they haven't changed all that much. The instrumental members (including guitarist/writer John Lombardo) are back aboard, and the absence of star producer Peter Asher means that their sound has returned to its rustic, acoustic roots. (Robert Buck's instrumental trademark -- playing a distorted guitar as if it were a mandolin, and vice versa -- is also intact.) New frontwoman Mary Ramsey is a more versatile, more appealing singer than Merchant: she can do Merchant's trademark deep/haunted tone, but she also gives the band a warmth they've seldom had before. The problem here is the same one from the old days: inconsistent songwriting. When 10,000 Maniacs are good, they're gorgeous; when they trip up, they're merely pleasant.

-- Brett Milano

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