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JUNE 15, 1998: 

***

THE JEWISH ALTERNATIVE MOVEMENT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

(Knitting Factory/J.A.M.)

The concept of "radical Jewish culture," conceived by groups like John Zorn's Masada as a subset of the larger avant-garde scene, has now blossomed into a "Jewish alternative movement" big enough to warrant its own label. To kick off the Knitting Factory's J.A.M. imprint, tracks by 15 acts representing the wide spectrum of modern Jewish music -- including better-knowns like the Klezmatics (doing psychedelic klezmer) and Hasidic New Wave (with a skronky Yiddish drinking song), as well as relative outsiders like Wally Brill and Neshama Carlebach -- have been compiled on A Guide for the Perplexed. JAM pioneers like Zorn and guitarist Marc Ribot are noticeably absent, though their influence is felt in the likes of Paradox Trio and Naftule's Dream. This "guide" forgoes cohesion in the interests of maximum breadth as it lumps together bebop "Hava Nagila," cantorial ambient, Jewish-themed spoken word, wanky Middle Eastern jazz fusion, and drony prayer adaptations. You'd be right to brand the concept of Jewish alternative music as something of a gimmick, but the music itself rarely sounds forced.

-- Roni Sarig


*** Sportsguitar

HAPPY ALREADY

(Matador)

The fun of Switzerland's Sportsguitar -- aside from the gooey melodies and shambling amateurism -- is hearing familiar echoes ricocheting around inside your head, like the hazy riff that opens "Romeo Goes" and sounds as if had been copped from, of all people, the Faces. On the duo's third disc, songwriter Oliver Obert sings as if he were still mastering the English language, and if the result sometimes comes off as little awkward, a little unsure, well, it suits the spirit of the music. Sportsguitar teeter on the precipice of hope and hopelessness at all times. "Come Home" is a poignant grabbing at straws; "Fish" is suffused in simple, universal longing. Obert makes like a less verbose Steve Malkmus on "Mistake," a ditty about drinking away the lingering memory of an unfaithful lover, reassuring yourself that the relationship wasn't worth the trouble anyway -- and feeling your heart break into a million pieces.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Scrawl

NATURE FILM

(Elektra)

Twelve years ago, Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe founded Scrawl in Columbus, Ohio, where they survived on indies until Elektra finally grabbed them in 1996, releasing the terrific Travel On, Rider that year. Drummer Dana Marshall replaced Carolyn O'Leary in 1992, so you can't blame the trio for revisiting out-of-print, pre-Marshall favorites ("Charles," a rewrite of Kiss's "Beth," the world-weary, anthemic "Clock Song," the restless "Standing Around," and three others) on their second Elektra disc, Nature Film. Appropriating John Lydon's "Public Image" (key lyrics: "I will not be treated as property" and "It's not the same as when I began, it's not a game") is a genius move -- Mays delivers the song with the grit and determination of a veteran of professional and personal wars.

The newer work is also top-notch. Scrawl's unflinching glimpses into relationship dynamics are backed by stalwart musicianship that builds tension by juxtaposing delicacy with raw power. Buzzing guitars and loping bass meet tender keyboard nuances to yield unpretentious, deeply personal rock. As much as you'll hear about their perseverance and survivor status, this band haven't been around so long merely by force of will. Scrawl still exist because they make great music.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Quasi

FEATURING "BIRDS"

(Up)

Even if it consisted solely of instrumentals, the third album from this Portland (Oregon) duo would merit attention. Whereas an air of barely organized chaos marked their previous CD, R&B Transmogrification, this latest offering comes closer to carefully orchestrated confusion. The drumming of Janet Weiss (who also pounds skins in Sleater-Kinney) provides an essential pivot for the Quasi sound, and Sam Coomes's vintage keyboard -- the chameleon-like Roxichord (also a favorite of Sun Ra, if that offers any illumination) -- holds the spotlight. Atop the chugging rhythms and deceptively cheerful melodies, Quasi dole out a regiment of lyrics so bleak they make Pittsburgh look like the Emerald City. "You fucked yourself and don't know where to go/Split wide open like a sturgeon for the roe" is just one among countless couplets so grim yet inspired, the cumulative effect threatens to transform Featuring "Birds" into the indie-rock equivalent of The Bell Jar. And if the bittersweet "It's Hard To Turn Me On" doesn't touch your heart, well . . . break out the oil can, because you must be a pre-Dorothy Gale Tin Man.

-- Kurt B. Reighley


*** Komeda

WHAT MAKES IT GO?

(Minty Fresh)

"Binario," the leadoff track of Komeda's second US album, is one of the year's brightest pop frolics -- a hip cyber-funk groove with a playtime vibe and percolating organ topped with Lena Karlson's breathy-gal vocals. The rest of What Makes It Go? plays like a Swedish Stereolab, or what Stereolab might sound like if they were more than a one-and-a-half-trick pony. And had a sense of humor. And better singing. Although it's not as immediately clever as the previous The Genius of Komeda, there's a more devious nature lurking beneath the new album's devil-may-care whistles and snowy-white songcraft. This frisky spirit permeates the quartet's lazy lounging grooves (bossa nova, lurching rock), krautrock futurism, and penchant for soundtrack melodies -- the band take their name from Krzysztof Komeda, the composer who scored Rosemary's Baby. But though humor colors the entire CD, Komeda never smirk with enough irony to betray their love of pure pop.

-- Tristram Lozaw


***1/2 Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana

CHAMALONGO

(Blue Note)

Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett is one of North America's most serious students of Afro-Cuban music, and her latest project shows how much she's learned. Now that she's recorded several albums with Cuban musicians, she plays like a resident on the distinctive clave beat that underlies the diverse forms of that country's music. On Chamalongo she essays an ambitiously wide range of those forms, working with the Cuban Folkloric All-Stars, the late, great singer Merceditas Valdes, the venerable percussionist Tata Guines, Cuban jazz pianists Hilario Duran and Frank Emilio, and fellow Canadian jazz trumpeter Larry Cramer.

Several tracks here are quite traditional -- but then there's Emilio's feature, "Descarga à la Hindemith," a modern classical-rhumba fusion pulled off with sophistication, fiery aplomb, and an utter lack of pretension. The explosive saxophone duet between Bunnett and young Cuban tenor firebrand Yosvanny Terry on "Freedom at Last" would sound at home in a New York loft, but underpinned by the rollicking percussion section, it rises to a higher level of excitement. Bunnett's marvelous soprano -- a fatter, warmer version of former teacher's Steve Lacy's piping intelligence -- weaves its way into the complex skein of percussion with grace. Little wonder that during Bunnett's solo on "Mondongo," vocalist Ernesto "El Gato" Gatell cries out "Beautiful!"

-- Ed Hazell


*** Capercaillie

BEAUTIFUL WASTELAND

(Rykodisc)

The latest from Scotland's Capercaillie (named after the largest and most beautiful of their country's grouses) continues their trend away from trad and into fusion. The good news is that more than half of Beautiful Wasteland is delivered in Gaelic by Capercaillie's knockout lead singer, Karen Matheson; the bad news is that too often her gorgeous voice is overtracked into innocuousness, and the line-up (mostly fiddle, guitars, and drums) confounds fusion with laid-back grooves and funky sounds.

The traditional numbers, like the puirt-a-beul "Hebridean Hale-Bopp" and the tweed clapper "Co Ni Mire Rium" ("Who'll Flirt with Me"), work best, but what should have been the album's highlight, a setting of poet Sorley McLean's stunning "Am Mur Gorm" ("The Blue Rampart"), is spoilt by "added" lyrics like "Don't tell me it's easier alone." The poppy contemporary tracks, by Donal Lunny and the band's Donald Shaw, point up the difference -- just compare McLean's "And on a distant luxuriant summit/There blossomed the Tree of Strings/Among its leafy branches your face/My reason and the likeness of a star" with Shaw's "It rarely makes the news today/The place where I was born" on the title track.

"Am Mur Gorm" excepted, there's no lyric sheet and precious little by way of synopsis. Beautiful Wasteland has many beautiful moments, but when you set it next to the sharp-colored, hard-hitting eclecticism of fellow Scot (by way of New York) Talitha MacKenzie or Capercaillie's early albums (Crosswinds, Sidewaulk), it seems a bit of a waste.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


*** B-52's

TIME CAPSULE: SONGS FOR A FUTURE GENERATION

(Reprise)

Some greatest-hits albums radically recontextualize parts of artists' earlier albums. Others provide a representative sample of their work. And still others make the earlier releases irrelevant. Time Capsule is one of the latter: though it doesn't flow as well as most of the B-52s' past discs, it has everything you'd reasonably want to hear from the group's 20-year career, from the early-new-wave dance classics "Rock Lobster" and "Private Idaho" to the four hits from Cosmic Thing and the two good songs from Good Stuff, as well as a representative sampling of their weirder early-'80s moments ("Song for a Future Generation" is particularly strange and wonderful). There are also two new songs, for which singer Cindy Wilson has returned to the fold. It's interesting to hear how the group moved from their early emphasis on rubbery live instrumentation toward showcasing harmonies, especially after founding guitarist Ricky Wilson's death in 1985. Three of the four current members are singers only -- at least if Fred Schneider can be called a "singer." The essence of the band, though, is the way they make silliness bittersweet, tempering the absurdity of their songs with hints of sadness and loss.

-- Douglas Wolk



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