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AUGUST 17, 1998: 

*** Spalding Gray

IT'S A SLIPPERY SLOPE

(Mercury)

Hard to believe, but this is the first of Spalding Gray's many monologues to be released as an album. It's also the producing debut of James Taylor. In audio terms, the result is just your standard spoken-word recording, as Taylor augments 73 minutes of Gray's chatter with some snippets of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and some judicious, unobtrusive sound effects. Of course, Gray's own voice is his own best sound effect -- not just his expertise at mimicking, say, a tape winding down in a player with dying batteries, but also his trademark crescendos of dramatic intensity. The topics of the monologue, as comical and self-lacerating as any of his previous works, include becoming a father, dealing with his own Rhode Island WASP parents, ending his relationship with long-time girlfriend and collaborator Renee Shafransky, and finally learning in midlife to ski. Gray uses this last as a metaphor for becoming an active, risk-taking participant in his own life rather than a detached observer. Of course, if he has truly shaken off his passivity, this may also be his last recorded monologue.

-- Gary Susman


**1/2 Symposium

ON THE OUTSIDE

(Red Ant)

Despite having cute tags like "brat-pop" foisted on them by the English weekly press, this young London-based quintet of former Catholic schoolboys transcend trendiness on a debut full-length marked by strong dynamics, quintessential teen urgency, and surprisingly savvy songwriting. High on atmospheric pop, riff-rock hooks, and naturalistic imagery (the repertoire includes "Farewell to Twilight," "Drink the Sunshine," and "Paint the Stars"), Symposium deliver wide-eyed gems that marry tender melodies to stomping alterna-rock.

Vocalist Ross Cummins handles heart-on-his-sleeve moments with a winsome choirboy charm, but he also manages a venomous snarl on "The Answer to Why I Hate You" and the ska upstrokes of "Puddles." Although a huge pool of songs (17) leads to a longish disc (over 70 minutes) that could've used a little editing, On the Outside's has energy to burn. On "Paint the Stars," Cummins sums up the band's optimistic approach to the future: "I'm not that scared of all the things I ought to be scared of/It's all so easy/It's easier than I thought it would be." Maybe it really is.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Various Artists

GET YOUR ASS IN THE WATER AND SWIM LIKE ME!: NARRATIVE POETRY FROM BLACK ORAL TRADITION

(Rounder)

A Rounder release bearing a parental-advisory sticker? No, Rounder hasn't signed the Wu-Tang Clan. But this collection of African-American narrative poems -- also known as toasts -- isn't as far from contemporary rap as you might think. Recorded mostly in Texas prisons during the '60s, Get Your Ass is an aural companion to Bruce Jackson's 1974 book of the same title, which was a study of the literature and culture surrounding toasts.

Toasts come to life only in their individually stylized recitations. For example, the disc offers two different takes on the popular fable of one-upmanship, "Signifying Monkey," delivered four years and hundreds of miles apart. And they're almost completely different. "Partytime Monkey" and "Poolshooting Monkey" provide further embellishments on the same wily primate. Selections like "Pimpin' Sam" and "Hobo Ben" are as violent, obscene, and misogynist as they are playful and humorous. The bawdy "Titanic" is an extended "dumb whitey" joke charged with racial and sexual politics. And "Stackolee," an age-old outlaw tale, puts the continued popularity of gangsta rap in perspective. Much has changed in the years since the toast evolved into rap, but much has also stayed the same.

-- Roni Sarig


**1/2 Vocokesh

PARADISE REVISITED

(Drag City)

Vocokesh probably deserve some kind of award as Milwaukee's best-ever krautrock band -- their aesthetic is almost entirely derived from German groups like Amon Düül and Cluster, who made the world safe for long, long, long instrumental jams built around surges of electronic keyboards. Led by guitarist/electronician Richard Franecki, who made his name with the psych/obscuro group F/i, they write via collective improvisation and then monkey with the tapes in the studio.

Sometimes what comes out on their second CD, Paradise Revisited, is lead-footed, crushing four-chord rock (notably "The Circle in the Square"); sometimes it's arrhythmic and as smooth as sheet metal, driven by reverberating electro-whirs and what sound like wind chimes. The centerpiece of the album is "One Brief Glimpse at the Face of Oblivion," a 17-minute drone piece that sounds as if it belonged to the movie scene where the intrepid astronauts discover the singularity in the void. (It seems incomplete without Leonard Nimoy's voice saying, "Fascinating.") Of course Paradise gets draggy over its hour-plus length. But that's sort of the point.

-- Douglas Wolk


*1/2

PURE SUGAR

(Geffen)

What's the point of creating 20-year-old disco music when the original 20-year-old disco music already exists? Still, if you liked the remakes of King Kong and Godzilla, you might find something to like in these tracks. Pure Sugar use too many of original disco's best-known sound effects, rely on infallibly familiar arrangements, and offer too much songcraft and too little rhythm on their debut CD. As for Jennifer Starr's power singing, self-conscious to the max (nearly diva in "The Feeling' 98," carefully cute in "Got To Be Love"), why do Taylor Dayne when Taylor Dayne's already done it? Lorimer and Vission, the creators of Pure Sugar, quote Chic and D Train in "These Are the Times," a nice touch. But Starr's skim-surface singing deflates the feeling. As for "Very Cherry," it's a hard-house track that almost works -- until you compare its lack of dialogue between rhythm and voice to the real rhythm-and-voice stuff on Danny Tenaglia's Tourism CD, for example.

-- Michael Freedberg


**

GETAWAY CRUISER

(550 Music)

If a band's music has loads more personality and presence than their singer, there are two solutions: bury the singer in the mix or get rid of him/her entirely. That's the situation with the otherwise promising electro-rock outfit Getaway Cruiser, but on their debut, they turn nondescript singer Dina Harrison up in the mix and let her commandeer a dozen tracks with her unwaveringly bland warble. It's not that she's bad, just indifferent -- which is almost worse, because it's boring.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of music to like here, as songwriters Chris and Drew Peters (who also play the bulk of instruments) fuse the slinky guitar raunch of early-'70s-era Stones ("Not Yet Gone," "Come To Say") with a battery of late-'90s technotronica touches that suggest Garbage's dance-music-with-guitars hybrid. With a guest rap by the Fugees' Pras, a cover of Tony Toni Toni's "Let's Get Down," and deep-shag production by the Butcher Bros., this could have been something to get down to. But in the end, Harrison's voice just becomes something to get away from.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Derek Bailey & Joëlle Léandre

NO WAITING

(Potlach)

Bailey has placed his brittle, elusive guitar playing in some unexpected contexts lately (including Japanese punk rockers the Ruins and a quartet with Pat Metheny), but here he's in a more familiar setting, one-on-one in concert with another European free improviser, in this case, contemporary classical French bassist Joëlle Léandre. A veteran of several of Bailey's Company free-improv get-togethers, Léandre brings a fine ear for sonic and rhythmic nuance, a highly developed sense of structure, and a large repertoire of extended techniques. She's an uncommonly lyrical free-improviser, with an almost song-like quality and focus to even her most abstract moments. She and Bailey are sympathetic partners with independent concerns but enough in common to give the music intriguing creative tension. The warmth of her playing makes a nice foil for Bailey's prickliness, and their search for new sounds and unexpected juxtapositions is full of shocks and surprises.

-- Ed Hazell


**** Derek Bailey

TAKES FAKES & DEAD SHE DANCES

(Incus)

Improvising guitarist Derek Bailey prides himself on defying the rules of guitar vocabulary, but I swear I hear some near-flamenco licks in the first two pieces on this album. That's before the clusters of darting notes surge in and he starts sliding a wet finger over the top of his guitar's face to elicit squeaks. He actually vocalizes on the last number, in which seven and a half minutes of slashing chords, frenetic picking, and a feedback finale frame his calm-but-creepy spoken intonations. On all of these tracks, which have been culled from two 1997 concerts, the distortion that's heard in his other recent releases is largely absent. But the same instant, fierce crafting of little melodies and sonic bombs plays out.

A few words about Bailey the artist: this Brit counterpart to Cecil Taylor remains one of the most aggressive guitarists around even as he ages into his late 60s. (His tastes run from music-hall tunes to Napalm Death.) Bailey's free-ranging tonalities and progressions are more defiant than anything the young jazz guns or woolliest punk-rockers are calling rebellious. And though he may seem traditional in his strict devotion to the guitar, pick, and amp as his only tools, under his command they produce more sounds than most arty string slingers can coax from a stack of effects. If you're a lover of guitar music and you're not hip to Bailey's brand of brain expansion, it's time to feed your head. (Write to Incus Records, 14 Downs Road, London E5 8DS, England.)

-- Ted Drozdowski



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