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Austin Chronicle Record Reviews

AUGUST 4, 1997: 

THE SEA AND CAKE
The Fawn (Thrill Jockey)

From an aptly named Windy City quartet, The Fawn enjoys its place as the soundtrack to an as-yet-unmade film where Barry Manilow straddles a gargantuan tortoise and runs roughshod over a throng of unsuspecting Lake Michigan beach-goers on a crisp spring day. It may sound ho-hum, but the Sea and Cake are signalling the reprise of the seemingly annulled marriage between soothing rhythmic tautness and tried-and-true melody, where the vocal element becomes the pinnacle of sweetness and the solid keyboard and beat-driven instrumentation rings as sincere as the lyrics themselves. Committed to tape by everyone's favorite producer-in-the-know John McIntyre (Tortoise, 5-Style), this album sounds not-so-surprisingly similar to everything else McIntyre has laid hands on recently; don't underestimate the power of this album to infect your mind with bizarre thoughts of washed-up lounge singers mounting colossal sea creatures.
3.5 Stars -- Taylor Holland


MARCIA BALL
Let Me Play With Your Poodle (Rounder)

Long, tall Marcia Ball's probably had enough record reviews comparing her music to gumbo that she could feed a couple Third World nations with the detritus. On her latest album, Let Me Play With Your Poodle, Ball isn't trying any new recipes, because her cooking is just too good. Banging the keyboards on the ribald, title-song opener, Ball blends a rollicking mix of Louisiana R&B, Texas boogie-woogie, swamp pop, and torchy ballads by drafting some of Austin's best players. Ball's own compositions (she wrote five of the album's 13 tracks) more than hold up to solid covers like Delbert McClinton's "Can't Trust My Heart" and Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," but even when she's shining on her own, some of Ball's richest material is a group effort: On "How Big a Fool," Ball shares singing duties with Doyle Bramhall, which makes me ache for more, more, more of his soulful sound, and "Why Women Cry," which includes gorgeous backing vocals from Kristin DeWitt, whose vocals rise above the Jubilettes' sweet voices and soars like a crystalline bird. Next time someone asks, "What does Austin music sound like?" get them their own Poodle to play with.
3.5 Stars -- Margaret Moser


JIM WHITE

Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

The present-day South is even more complex than the now-clichéd Big Daddy-isms of Tennessee Williams; it's all there -- a boiling brew of sex, oppression, guilt, religion, and genuine menace shimmering beneath a peaceful summer bucolia. Writers such as Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor get right to the heart of this, and so does former pro surfer/Pentecostal fundamentalist/fashion model/filmmaker/cab driver Jim White, though the spiraling miasma of Wrong-Eyed Jesus also pulls in a bit of folk artist Howard Finster and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart on its way. The Wise Blood of rock & roll? Not really, but White's a real storyteller, his dark songs full of rich characters dripping with widescreen sensibility and swathed in religious piety, backed with an oddball acoustic soundscape reminiscent of a kudzu-draped Tom Waits. The electronics obscuring White's voice are annoying and unnecessary, especially without a lyric sheet. Yet Wrong-Eyed Jesus' ambitious originality can't help but impress. "Sometimes I feel so goddamned trapped by everything that I know," White sings, underscoring just how much he has taken in from his rather cataclysmic existence. Novelty? Maybe, yeah. But that doesn't stop this enthralling debut from being one of the year's most unexpected surprises.
4 Stars -- Jeff McCord


BLUE MOUNTAIN

Homegrown (Roadrunner)

At what point does alternative country become Americana become Bob Seger? How 'bout on "Generic America," roughly half-way through Blue Mountain's rugged second album. A restless road song down any back highway into the heartland, "Generic America" veers a little too close to its name. Not so of opener "Bloody 98," another cruising tune, barreling along on a banjo like the Allman Brothers' bus loaded with a whiskeyed-up jug band. The another-town, another-blur "Dead End Street," with its melancholy jangle and nice hook, also finds its destination back among the pines. Most of this Oxford, Mississippi trio's music finds its way to that weather-beaten cabin of its youth -- and in a lot livelier fashion than the group's 1995 debut, Dog Days, a moody, sometimes sleepy affair reminiscent of Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo. When Homegrown ambles gamely up to that front porch, on the worn voice of Cary Hudson (under the law, any musician with the last name "Hudson" cannot disgrace Garth), it's so tangled in a briar's patch of country, folk, and blues, that you begin to wonder at what point alternative country becomes Americana becomes Bob Seger. (Blue Mountain plays Liberty Lunch Friday, August 1.)
3 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez


POSTER CHILDREN

RTFM! (Reprise)

The latest effort from Cham-bana, Illinois' Poster Children is a self-programmed enhanced CD, but luckily for me and my technological ineptitude, the songs are what's worth raving about. The P-Kids approach their work, their music, as they have for 10 years, with as much vitality, ingenuity, and enthusiasm (not to mention volume) as any band that's been around half/twice as long, continuing to introduce new elements to their blinding rock-blast. The dance beat of "21st Century" picks up and improves where Junior Citizen left off, and more importantly, über-bassist Rose Marshack is singing now. She's always had a mike, and often contributed to the thickness of the group's vocals; here, she's full on singing back-up, even harmonizing, and it's brilliant. "DreamSmall" is made sublime by Marshack's presence, her deceptively delicate voice aaahh-ing under the barely contained surface tension of the song, while "King of the Hill" provides indisputable evidence that her voice is a huge asset to their future direction. My advice? BTFCD!
3 Stars -- Christopher Hess


ALLEN GINSBERG

The Lion for Real (Mouth Almighty/Mercury)


TIMOTHY LEARY

Beyond Life with Timothy Leary (Mouth Almighty/Mercury)

Although these two posthumous spoken word releases both start with the same "celebration of a generational icon" premise, the end results couldn't be much more disparate. The Lion for Real is a playful yet highly congruent mix of composition and recitation of 17 poems from Ginsberg's Collected Works 1947-1980. The music builds a wandering narrative that twists and turns its way around Ginsberg's formidable verse. Given the first-rate assemblage of fringe composer/musicians such as Bill Frisell, Lenny Pickett, and Marc Ribot, the notion of music simply as a matte for the poetry is quickly rendered obsolete. "The Shrouded Stranger" finds Ribot enriching Ginsberg's images of a transient's hopeless sexual yearnings with locomotive rhythms and the scattershot squeaks and squabbles of industry. Other compositions, such as Michael Blair's dark and lonely music for "Scribble," suffice by merely setting a perfect mood. The album finally explodes into bawdy and bluesy irreverance on "C'mon Jack," which spies Ginsberg whimpering "Spank me and fuck me" while Todd Rundgren makes authentic back-handed spanking noises. When you contrast Ginsberg's standing in American poetry with his refreshing penchant for silliness, you can't help but miss the guy. Leary's beyond-the-grave offering is more piecemeal in its approach. Culled from two conversations taken 30 years apart, the first eight tracks of Beyond Life are bits and pieces of Leary's stream-of-consciousness spliced together to create a vaguely coherent narrative about the process of passing on. The accompanying music is a sleek, repetitive synthscape that melds Tangerine Dream to Ofra Haza. A new version of the Moody Blues' "Legend of a Mind" and an elegy from Al Jourgensen entitled "Lion's Mouth" are also included, but neither really contribute much to the album's theme. More eloquent is Ginsberg's "A Tale of the Tribe" (originally a preface to Leary's 1971 Jail Notes), an eternal summation of Leary's role in history. Even though Beyond Life isn't the coup de grâce that The Lion for Real is, it does offer compelling evidence that the psychedelic experience is excellent training for the more conventional notion of death-with-dignity.
(Ginsberg) HHHH
(Leary) 2.5 Stars -- Greg Beets


AUDIOWEB

(Mother/Island)

Manchester may hold the world's record for the most hype over the least decent bands (excluding Austin, of course), but The Scene That Wouldn't Die continues to pump 'em out with negligible signs of surcease. New popsters Audioweb have arrived with surprisingly little forewarning, though much of that could be blamed on frontman Martin's annoyingly monotone soprano warblings. That is, after all, the first thing that strikes you after cueing up the CD -- "that voice," reed-thin and twitty, sounding like Morrissey on a twisty-balloon-poodle's-worth of helium. Vocals aside, the band's pop chops are strong, and while they're no competition for Scots hooligans Baby Chaos, Audioweb are true to their name, sucking you into a gooey net of catchy, dub-heavy hooks and raucous guitars. Sounds more Wolverhampton to me, but Brit musical geography is malleable on the best of days. Their cover of "Bankrobber" is inspired, beginning in the traditional Jones/Strummer mode, then easing effortlessly into a near full-scale rave-up by the final fourth. Not your usual Manchester scene, but then I suppose anything at all is better than another silly Spice Girls clone.
2.5 stars -- Marc Savlov


WYCLEF JEAN

Presents the Carnival featuring Refugee Allstars (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Hip-hop is not East/West, hip-hop is worldwide. Such is the lesson of the Carnival, a bold musical statement so eclectic and global that it constitutes nothing short of a hip-hop landmark. On this solo shoutout, Jean, the Fugee's chief cultural and creative liaison, reveals himself not as the self-indulgent hustler with studio tape to burn you might expect, but as a true border-bending street poet and renegade -- with a grasp on Harlem and Havana. Indeed, for all the witty old-skool bounce of "Bubblegoose" or "To All the Girls" (a freaky tip of the hat to Willie Nelson), the real revolution comes within the album's four closing songs: homespun Afro-Caribbean folk and soul authentically delivered in Haitian Creole. The effect of said multiculturalism, plus Latin legend Celia Cruz's priceless cameo on a funky retelling of "Guantanemera," is a reminder that hip-hop, from the Wu to MC Solar is primarily about rhythm & groove, not solely race, class, or economics. And just as the diversity of the Neville Brothers' loose, but gripping, reading of Jean's "Mona Lisa," and a spooky but respectful Marley impression from Jean on "Gunpowder" give more reason to reevaluate hip-hop's traditional lyrical xenophobia and repetitive flow, Carnival is also an excuse to reconsider the Fugees themselves (`Pras' Michel and Lauryn Hill surface as Allstars), a group whose concept has never seemed livelier. For that matter, neither has hip-hop.
4 Stars-- Andy Langer


JESUS ALEMANY AND CUBANISMO

Malémbe (Hannibal)

One recent Afro-Cuban release of major importance was Cubanismo, recorded by an all-star Cuban band organized by the brilliant trumpeter Jesus Alemany. The CD gained attention not only due to its excellence, but also because producer Joe Boyd -- in order to beat the American trade embargo -- recorded it in Havana. It proved so successful that Boyd cut another there with pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, and now we have a second Cubanismo CD by Alemany and many of the men who appeared on the previous one. Their music, while rooted in the work of the great Cuban bands of the Forties (like Arsenio Rodriguez's and Machito's Afro Cubop outfit), has a strong, updated jazz flavor, which is evident in the soloing of Alemany, who seems to have drawn ideas not only from Cuban greats like Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar, Chapotin, and "Chocolate" Armenteros, but Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard. Virtually every moment here is a joy to listen to. The instrumental and vocal solos and ensemble work are consistently inspired and creative, and the interplay of the rhythm section members uncannily cohesive. Impressive as well are the original compositions and arrangements. If anything Malémbe surpasses Alemany's first Hannibal CD, and that's saying a lot.
5 Stars -- Harvey Pekar


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