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SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

*** Widespread Panic TIL THE MEDICINE TAKES (Capricorn)

Widespread Panic are a jam band -- their forte is the live concert and their strengths come through on stage. They were in their element on the live double disc Light Fuse Get Away, but their studio recordings have been much less impressive, boring even. Here, however, they take the sense of adventure that inspires their live sonic explorations and channel it into the composition and production of the songs; the result is their first consistently solid studio recording. Over the course of 12 tracks, drummer Todd Nance takes a shot at vocals (and pulls it off) on "You'll Be Fine," the Dirty Dozen Brass Band give a funky New Orleans flavor to "Christmas Katie," producer John Keane adds catchy banjo to "The Waker," Big Ass Truck's Colin Butler scratches along to the band's concert favorite "Dyin' Man," and Dottie Peoples gives a gospel twist to "All Time Low."

-- Robin A. Rothman

***1/2 PHUNKY DATA: FASHION OR NOT? (Edel Americana)

From France comes this 11-track debut CD by the DJ duo Niko and Olivier Raymond. They do a slightly dreamier version of the Paris house-music style established recently by Laurent Garnier and Daft Punk. The dreamy component -- woozy instrumentals, beats with a soft exterior -- closely resembles the Eurodance music of Milan (Robert Miles, Gala, DJ Dado), and it blends surprisingly well with the basic techno funk of these tracks, which is droll and bittersweet, like most Paris house. Almost always non-vocal, the music of Nico and Raymond expresses every detail of dance-floor attitude and angle -- which means that listening to the entire CD is like watching a 3-D movie of disco bodies heaving and twittering. Here you'll find the soft and flirty, in "Original" and "Miss"; the drop-dead cool, in "Fashion" and "Mental Machine"; the slap-me-five joyful, in "Who Need the Funk" and "The Way"; and both tender and throbby in the CD's brashest house track, "Rotation of Life." And all of it works.

-- Michael Freedberg

**1/2 Liquid Todd ACTION (Ultra Records)

To succeed in a market suddenly swamped with "exclusive" DJ mixes, a successful foray into the genre has to include at least one of the following: jaw-dropping turntable trickery (DJ Q-Bert); a barrage of eclectic cut 'n' paste tactics (Coldcut); or exclusive remixes and dubby post-production that stretch standard 12-inches to the limit (Kruder and Dorfmeister). Former WFNX DJ and Spin Cycle creator Liquid Todd doesn't scratch much or take many chances in the mixing department. And the track selection on Action isn't going to leave fellow DJs burning with jealousy. But his debut disc succeeds through sheer exuberance and energy, and by delivering, with a kiss of kitsch and a handful of rectro-electro, '80s-nostalgia tracks like Electrotheque's luscious cover of Chocolate Funk's "Everyone's a Winner," Todd's own "Axel F" reminiscence "Rocktronix," and the cheeky "(Hey You) What's That Sound," by the faux French duo Les Rhythmes Digitales. Although big-name producers like the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim receive top billing here, the new-wave tactics of the lesser-knowns -- vocoded vocals, cheesy guitar riffs, and squiggly synth solos -- prove to be more fun than the balls-to-the-wall drum loops and big-beat breakdowns.

-- Michael Endelman


After 15 years, the classic late-'70s/early-'80s dance label West End has reopened its doors. No new acts have been announced, but that's fine because the label has such a rich past to mine. This flagship release is a bit weak: nine tracks in 73 minutes leave no time for Karen Young's "Hot Shot" and Raw Silk's "Do It to the Music" so it's not a solid overview of the label's best material. But Ednah Holt's "Serious, Sirius, Space Party" is the only dud, and even that's fun trash. Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and maybe even the Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" are as talismanic as funkin' "Louie Louie," so resilient that no definitive versions exist. In fact, it was through their amazing amenability that Paradise Garage mechanic Larry Levan helped West End keep disco alive in the years after it supposedly died. Every disorienting dub technique and mix trick here is touched with the exuberantly experimental spirit that afflicts subcultures in flux as zeitgeist threatens to slip into poltergeist. Electronicats might want to listen up.

-- Kevin John

*** Iggy Pop AVENUE B (Virgin)

Avenue B opens with a monologue in which our recently divorced, 50-year-old anti-hero sits alone in his study(!), surrounded by books instead of a band, contemplating his own mortality in simple, straightforward prose. "I wanted to find a balance between joy and dignity on my way out; above all I didn't want to take any more shit, not from anybody." From there we travel to the bedroom, where Iggy spars with his "Nazi Girlfriend" (whose "French is perfect, so's her butt") in hushed tones against a soft, drumless backdrop of languid guitar arpeggios and spare organ chords, and then outside to "Avenue B," where Pop picks up the pace a bit, strumming along on acoustic guitar to the mellow accompaniment of the jazz-rock trio Medeski Martin & Wood and hoping for a miracle of some sort.

This is easily the quietest, gentlest, most reflective album the Godfather of Punk's ever made -- more than half the tunes are strum-and-sing acoustic numbers, and there are two other dramatic readings like the opener. It's also one of Pop's best in the past decade, if only because his efforts to recapture the raw power of, well, Raw Power will always pale in comparison to the real thing. Which is not to say Iggy's completely lost his will to rock. Pop punctuates Avenue B with a couple of cranked-up workouts, including a back-to-the-garage cover of "Shakin' All Over." And "Corruption," with its thick, acid-metal guitars and pounding beat, gives Iggy a chance to prove that though he may not be the street-walking cheetah he once was, his heart's still full of napalm.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Gilberto Gil QUANTA LIVE (Atlantic/Mesa)

This superb live album by Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil captures the party atmosphere of his concert performances. The bulk of the songs come from his 1997 Quanta album (Atlantic/Mesa), but Gil also throws in some earlier material plus two Bob Marley covers (sung in their original English, for those who are Portuguese-impaired).

Gil is a charismatic performer, with a falsetto that Smokey Robinson might covet, an energy level that rivals Springsteen's, and the relaxed, yet powerful delivery of a jazz singer. Since his emergence in the '60s as part of the música popular brasileira movement, he has made a conscious effort to appeal to a wide, international audience, mixing the music of his homeland with radio friendly pop music -- like reggae, funk, jazz, and rock -- from other countries in the African Diaspora. The result is an irresistibly danceable and sensuous cultural fusion. He's also a crafty lyricist, offering ironic critiques of the Information Age on "Pela Internet" and "Cérebro Electrônica," celebrating absurdities of love on the tender "Estrela," and lamenting the limitations of rational art and science in "Quanta." That may sound like a heavy load to saddle pop songs with, but Gil's philosophical musings never get in the way of his groove.

-- Ed Hazell

*** Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire OH! THE GRANDEUR (Rykodisc)

Five years ago, nobody would have guessed that pop music would end the 20th-century in the midst of a swing-music revival, but here we are in the midst of a full-blown rebirth of le jazz hot surrounded by sharp cats in porkpie hats and elegant-looking frails in slit skirts. One of the finest aggregations in this hip display of retro-cool is Bowl of Fire, a quartet led by Squirrel Nut Zipper pal Andrew Bird. Every player here has chops to spare, plus with the good taste to hold the grandstanding down and tailor the playing to the desired mood. On "Wait," Bird's fiddling raises a sultry cloud of smoke over Colin Bunn's sparse comped guitar chords; on "Vidalia," Bird's solo is finely balanced between klezmer melancholy and Gypsy fire and driven to the outer limits by Kevin O'Donnell's breakneck stick work. Bird is also an inventive lyricist and a creative singer with an impressive command of yesteryear's vocal styles. He can croon like Rudy Vallee, clown around, jump octaves and lay down a clever line of scat like Cab Calloway, or deliver tongue-twisting asides with the arch humor of Noël Coward.

-- J. Poet

*** Aluminum Group PEDALS (Minty Fresh)

This Chicago group's second album isn't a note-for-note re-creation of the kind of swinging bachelor-pad muzak your parents may have cocktailed to in the '50s and '60s, but there's a suave, easy-listening quality to the Bacharachian horn charts and velvety female background harmonies (courtesy of Edith Frost and the Mekons' Sally Timms) that brings to mind that era. Handling lead vocal duties are a pair of smooth-crooning, fashionably dressed brothers -- John and Frank Navin -- whose sincere delivery suits deadpan lyrics like "The next time that I tattoo something on my arms and back, tell me if I'm wasting needles, ink, and arms and back" ("Lie Detector Test") to a tee. Producer Jim O'Rourke helps the brothers build upon the mix of fetching melodies and downy keyboards that dominated the Aluminum Group debut, Plano, adding everything from new-wave synths to plucking banjo when appropriate. Cameos by Sean O'Hagan of Stereolab/High Llamas, and Tortoise's Doug McCombs are nice indie-rock selling points. But the Navins have strong enough personalities -- equal parts Pet Shop Boys cool, lounge-pop swank, and bookish smarts -- that, even with all the familiar guests, Pedals remains their cocktail party.

-- Lydia Vanderloo

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