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SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

**1/2 The Monorchid

WHO PUT OUT THE FIRE?

(Touch & Go)

When the Monorchid broke up late last year, they left behind 25 minutes' worth of raw, explosive demos that are now their final album. Fronted by singer Chris Thomson and guitarist Chris Hamley (both alumni of Circus Lupus), this DC band focused on multi-instrumental tension. The guitar parts of Hamley and Andy Cone tear at each other like fighting cats; the rhythm section is as tightly wound as the Gang of Four's (a clear influence), with the bass cutting out again and again to make a more solid impact when it re-enters the mix. And Thomson's howls are full of loathing and disgust.

None of the songs here outstays its welcome, but they're almost all variations on the same kind of taut, atonal bounce (though "Skin Problems" substitutes loops of taped voices for Thomson). The final track, "Abyss," has a kind of internal melodic logic that the rest lack; it turns out to be a cover of a song by Sort Sol. The Monorchid's strength, though, wasn't coherence in melody (or lyrics, though some of Thomson's sound great out loud: "Sheared too close to the bloom . . . too much static," he yelps), it was pouncing and abrading. Who Put Out the Fire? is a pleasantly sandpapery swan song.

-- Douglas Wolk


** Mimi

SOAK

(Luaka Bop)

Somewhere outside Athens, Georgia, lurks a cemetery containing the ashen remains of former "next big things" touched by the hand of Michael Stipe -- the Tomb of the Unknown Rickenbacker Bar Band, where Hetch Hetchy, Chicksaw Mud Puppies, and countless others are presumably interred. One of the more unfortunate members of the club would have to be New York's Hugo Largo, a drum-less, guitar-less outfit who bequeathed us two spooky albums in the late '80s, the first of which was produced by Mr. Stipe, and both of which featured the spectral vocals of Mimi Goese.

Now billing herself as Mimi, Goese reunites with Hugo Largo avant violinist Hahn Rowe for some hi-tech SoHo torch-song skullduggery with help from ambient arranger Hector Zazou (a sort of French Bill Laswell). Her hiccuppy hopscotch delivery falls somewhere between Laurie Anderson and Jane Siberry, with lyrics that segue from cliché to nursery rhyme to poetic within the span of a stanza or two. On a track co-authored by Miracle Legion singer Mark Mulcahy she muses, "What would Superman do if he were me?/He'd start running and head for the hills." As playful as it is perplexing, Soak goes on to offer an a cappella version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" that's creepier than Cibo Matto's.

-- Patrick Bryant


**1/2 Imogen Heap

I MEGAPHONE

(Almo Sounds)

Oh no, not another one, you sigh. Another angry chick singer with classical training. I'm sure she hates the comparison, but it's hard not to refer to 20-year-old English pouter Imogen Heap as an Alanis Morissette-ette, given her rankled pose, Cousin Itt hairdo, and back-of-the-throat snarling vocals. (And on the piano-inflected tunes, she can't help evoking fellow redhead Tori Amos.) Aside from her anagrammatic album title, there's little verbal cleverness in the sub-Jewel versifying (she's especially attracted to the words "ugly," "torture," and "sleep") of someone whose limited life experience is apparent. Her songs dawdle (at four or five minutes each) like Saturday Night Live sketches that don't know when to quit.

And yet, and yet -- she's a genuinely gifted songwriter, a crafter of indelibly catchy melodies, passages of delightful weirdness (her seductive cackle on "Come Here Boy," the taunting and vengeful refrain of "Getting Scared," the funhouse-horror breakdown in the middle of "Rake It In"), and even moments of sublime inspiration (when the banal chorus of "Oh Me, Oh My" suddenly resolves into a searing plea: "God, are you there/Are you out there?"). Chops like these (and a shout that could cut glass) could someday have listeners comparing Alanis to Heap.

-- Gary Susman


** Drain S.T.H.

HORROR WRESTLING

(Mercury)

Originally released in '96 by the now defunct EMI imprint the Enclave, Drain S.T.H.'s Horror Wrestling is back on Mercury with three added tracks, including a throwaway cover of Motörhead's "Ace of Spades." This all-female Swedish foursome have a clear fascination for the darker side of metal -- heavy guitar riffing, morbid lyrics, and Nine Inch Nails-style industrial overtones. The disc's catchiest tune, "Someone," brings to mind Alice in Chains. Vocalist Maria Sjöholm has a rough voice reminiscent of Metallica's James Hetfield. And guitarist Flavia Canel shines with a soaring wah-wah-drenched solo on the Marc Bolan-ish "Crack the Liar's Smile." What Drain S.T.H. lack is a sense of humor, the sort of attitude and ironic edge that has helped make American metal grrrls L7 more than just another band recycling old Black Sabbath riffs.

-- Chris Parcellin


*** Chocolate Genius

BLACK MUSIC

(V2)

Marc Anthony Thompson, the singer/songwriter behind Chocolate Genius, is the closest thing to an African-American Mark Eitzel this country has so far produced. Smoky, ragged-edged vocals, somber, downbeat melodies, intense, self-lacerating lyrics dealing with alcoholism and other illnesses -- Thompson does it all on Black Music. For further edification, just catch a few of the song titles -- "A Cheap Excuse," "Stupid Again" -- and note how "Hangover Five" is immediately followed by "Hangover Nine."

What Thompson has over Eitzel is a greater sense of stylistic contrast. On the first three tracks alone, the mood shifts from acoustic Beatlesque pop with dotty Mellotron backing ("Life") to organ-driven mid-tempo Tom Petty-ish rock ("Half a Man") to slow smoldering soul worthy of Isaac Hayes ("Don't Look Down"). The cause is aided by stellar sidemen, including guitarists David Torn and Marc Ribot, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and keyboardist John Medeski. It all adds up to an outstanding 11-song collection. But be warned: "My Mom," about a visit to an Alzheimer's-afflicted parent, may be the most heartbreaking song you'll hear this year.

-- Mac Randall


*** Barry Adamson

AS ABOVE SO BELOW

(Mute)

To hell with empire building. With a few deft turns of arrangement and studio mastery, former Magazine and Nick Cave bassist turned rock composer Barry Adamson can create whole universes built around his whims of interest. His past solo recordings (The Negro Inside Me, Oedipus Schmoedipus) have mostly explored issues of identity. Here he adds God and the Devil, morality and sex, to the mix. And what a mix it is! Lounge jazz tangos with electronica. The rumble and hum of industrial rock purr up to sweet acoustic/electric textures. Big beats ease into transcendent melodies. But at the center of it all beats a dark little heart full of Adamson's witty, cynical observations and his natural inclination to use shades of black as his primary musical colors. On tunes like "Jazz Devil," his smooth-guy intonations come off as a '90s update of Ken Nordine's "word jazz" hipsterism. Those who paid attention to Adamson's soundtrack work for David Lynch's Lost Highway will know the score. Otherwise, this album's a vivid introduction to an inventive rock auteur.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Actionslacks

ONE WORD

(The Arena Rock Recording Co.)

You can count on one hand the number of rock critics who've parlayed their obsessions into life in bands -- among them former New York Rocker scribe Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) and Big Takeover honcho Jack Rabid (Springhouse). Hard to say which came first -- band or 'zine -- for Tim Scanlin, vocalist/guitarist for Actionslacks and publisher of San Francisco's tasty Snackcake, but One Word is one promising disc. This handcrafted gem boasts delicious juxtapositions of power-trio noise pop, genteel guest cello, violin and piano, incidental home tapings, and Scanlin's writerly talents. He's incisive and sassy on "Self-conscious Spiel" ("We have so much cred/It's all I can do to get out of bed") and reflective on "Gentry" ("It's not strength, grace or poise/It's just melancholy noise"). With able backing from drummer Marty Kelly and bassist/vocalist Mark Wilson, Scanlin's made an album that's as meaningfully fun (hidden cover of the Minutemen's "This Ain't No Picnic") as it is funny (indie anthem "Hate L.A.") and as poignant (the Paul Westerberg-like "My 83") as it is powerful.

-- Mark Woodlief


** Ace of Base

CRUEL SUMMER

(Arista)

Ace of Base's happy fast-beat music, clean and blond, found favor among fans of Nordic disco. Sadly, there's little in their third CD to remind would-be Vikings what all the club fuss was about. Where once the band looked to the much too twirly music of Abba for inspiration, Cruel Summer looks to Bananarama, the emptiest of disco-influenced girl groups, and to fellow Swedish star Robyn, the most prefabbed of new-jill girls, as it hip-hops and girl-groups its way from one radio-friendly cliché to another without pushing the envelope of a tempo, lyric, or riff. Not until "Don't Go Away," the disc's sixth cut, do we encounter a club-music secret (the chant line "Please don't go," from Double You's cover version of a K.C. & the Sunshine Band nonhit). Not until "Tokyo Girl," the disc's 10th song, do we encounter fast-fast Eurodisco. And "Tokyo Girl" sounds self-satisfied next to the nervous cuteness of a true Euro hit like Paradiso's "Bailando" and "Bandolero."

-- Michael Freedberg



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