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OCTOBER 11, 1999: 

*** Zen Guerrilla TRANCE STATES IN TONGUES (Sub Pop)

Zen Guerrilla don't really play music -- merely "playing" would be too namby-pamby for these guys. No, the Guerrilla build songs as if they were working on muscle cars, like, perhaps, the twin-cam blues-injected MC5. And the result sounds like a voluptuous machine on Trance States in Tongues -- picture that orange Dodge Charger from Dukes of Hazzard translated into sludgy, jacked-up roots punk driven by a cat with a Rob Tyner soul-'fro and a throat to match.

The interior is no-frills pleather, with bass lines bolstering the guitar screech and scooping soulfully behind the beat. The songs come in two models: the Smoky Blues Super Sport, featuring shuffling beats and "Shake it baby" lyrics that in the hands of a lesser band would come off as mullet blooze, and the Soul De Ville, which offers James Brown ebullience and Booker T. grooves. "Peppermint" and "Magpie" cruise smooth and stealthily, like lowriders looking for short skirts and tube tops. "Preacher's Promise" and "Ghetto City Version" are for I-got-a-raise-and-a-new-hotty joyrides. The only thing missing is the Soul Ballad Riviera -- maybe it's still on the assembly line in some dingy rehearsal room.

-- Lorne Behrman


** SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: THE MUSICAL PERFORMANCES, VOLUME 1 and VOLUME 2 (DreamWorks)

As historical documents, these two 15-track collections (sold separately) of performances culled from two and a half decades of Saturday Night Live have less value than you might think. VH-1's five-part series documenting the music of Saturday Night Live did a much better job delving into the significance of music to the show and putting the performances into context.

It is remarkable, for example, that Elvis Costello's '70s rendition of "Radio, Radio" turns up on Volume 1 unedited, if only because at the time it was so controversial -- Costello was supposed to do "Less Than Zero," but he cut the Attractions off several bars into that song and launched furiously into the punk-inspired media critique of "Radio, Radio," a stunt that reportedly infuriated the producers of the show. (In the VH-1 retrospective, SNL's then music director sternly recalls that Elvis "stopped the show," as if that were a capital crime.) What's more, "Radio, Radio," for all its fury, ends up on the volume devoted to more middle-of-the-road artists like Sting ("If I Ever Lose My Faith in You"), Eric Clapton ("Wonderful Tonight"), Jewel ("Who Will Save Your Soul"), and Billy Joel ("Only the Good Die Young"), as does David Bowie's searing version of "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)." Volume 2, on the other hand, is devoted to more "alternative" fare from Nirvana ("Rape Me"), Green Day ("When I Come Around"), and Beck ("Nobody's Fault But My Own"), as well as all the people of color (save Lenny Kravitz, whose "Are You Gonna Go My Way" is white enough to make it onto Volume 1) like TLC ("Creep"), Dr. Dre ("Been There Done That"), and Mary J. Blige ("Reminisce"). Which I suppose says more about where we're at today then it does about how things were back in the day.

-- Matt Ashare


**1/2 Lida Husik MAD FLAVOR (Alias)

Lida Husik's recordings have always been about space: the space occupied by her luscious, layered vocals; the airy negative space surrounding them; and the empty space she fills with beats or melodic hooks. Husik began as a singer/songcrafter early in the decade, recording spacy pop tunes for Shimmy-Disc, then emerged in the mid-'90s collaborating with electronic musician/producer Beaumont Hannant, who spun highly textured soundscapes around her silky smooth voice.

That's the trend she's followed on her last four releases, and Mad Flavor, her eighth, continues it, this time without Hannant's involvement. The beats are sometimes lulling and mellow, sometimes skittering and dancefloor-ready. They surround her floating, multi-tracked vocals like the gauzy threads of a Maypole. Melodic hooks are not in abundance, despite the smart surroundings. It's an auspicious beginning for Husik as both artist and auteur, but in the absence of strong songs Mad Flavor is merely a beautiful listen that doesn't leave much of a lasting taste.

-- Lydia Vanderloo


**** Junior Kimbrough MEET ME IN THE CITY (Fat Possum)

Junior Kimbrough may eventually become as prolific in death as Jimi Hendrix. This year's second posthumous release by the Mississippi hill-country bluesman was recorded live at his Holly Springs home and at the Sunflower Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale. The sound is raw, even by Fat Possum's standards. At times the buzz of an improperly grounded amplifier and background conversation threaten to swallow his voice.

Yet the lonely beauty of "Done Got Old" and "Baby Please Don't Leave Me," solo performances that make alienation sound as inevitable as it often really is, reaches through the aural minefield. In the corners of these eight songs lies some of Kimbrough's best guitar work. His trademark "All Night Long" uncoils like a charmed snake, notes shifting their slinky way around the mesmeric churn of the African-drum-like rhythms he used for bedrock. And the stumbling cadence and hound-dog cry of Kimbrough's voice in "Junior's Place," with its spoken-word invitation to the juke joint he ran in Chulahoma, makes having a ball all night sound like very lonely business. Deep blues indeed.

-- Ted Drozdowski


***1/2 Everything But the Girl TEMPERAMENTAL (Atlantic)

There's a whole lot of Sade in this latest CD from Tracy Thorn and Ben Watt, the British duo who as Everything But the Girl scored a rare house-music pop-crossover hit with "Missing" a few years back. And why not? From "Blame," which is redolent of "No Other Love," and the soulful reminiscence song "Hatfield 1980" ("suburbia, 1 a.m., you're going home again . . . this is the place I live, where is everyone," they muse) to "Downhill Racer," the aptly titled "Lullaby of Clubland," and a probably definitive "The Future of Future," the two do basic Sade with scarcely any update other than the house beat -- ticklish and fierce -- that underlies nearly every song. And Sade style is not all there is to EBTG's new music. The urbane insecurities of the Pet Shop Boys, mirrored in "Hatfield 1980," become the main theme of "Low Tide of the Night" as vocalist Thorn tenderly asks insecurity's most telling questions: "Who shall I be tonight? Who's gonna see tonight?" Lovers of classic, garage-style house music should not miss this CD.

-- Michael Freedberg


** DAYS OF THE NEW (Outpost)

On the homonymous follow-up to his (also homonymous) debut, 20-year-old Days of the New auteur Travis Meeks imagines a new genre: chamber grunge. If you ever thought Alice in Chains' acoustic Sap EP could have used a little flügelhorn or harmonium, well, this is for you. And it does sound pretty good. After ditching his band earlier this year, Meeks ended up trying his hand at the old Reznor trick of writing, performing, and producing the album all by himself. He sure didn't waste his major-label money -- orchestras, choirs, and Sarah McLachlan-style background singers tastefully complement his morbid AIC vocal melodies and Pagey acoustic-guitar playing on practically every song.

Songwriting, however, plagues Meeks, the way it has cutout bins full of grungers before him. Tunes routinely roll along in a flaccid Rusted Root groove for more than five minutes, and it appears he's acquired the same knack for senseless lyrics that characterizes the celebrated post-rock scene which shares his Louisville address. Thing is, to the legions of high-school boys who drunkenly pass acoustic guitars around the campfire all over rural America every summer, Meeks is at least the new Chris Cornell, if not the new Kurt. And no one needs that sort of thing more than they do.

-- Sean Richardson


*1/2 David Bowie HOURS . . . (Virgin)

At least the guy still knows how to pull off a major change of pace. His last studio album, '97's Earthling, was exceedingly dense, and though the cracked metaphors and alien topography of the lyrics were vintage Bowie, the garbled drum 'n' bass techno sounded desperately up to date.

This time out, having made his bow to contemporaneity by giving the disc a CD-ROM aspect (which turns out to be an ad for his Web site) and allowing it to be downloaded from the Net in toto for those so inclined, he's relaxed and has come up with 10 plain and simple songs. Unfortunately, that means a lot of slow ones with tastefully anonymous-sounding backdrops -- which makes for a pretty snoozy affair since, like a lot of long-haul composers, Bowie seems to have run out of melodies. Even the lyrics are uncharacteristically straightforward, though his spelled-out weary love songs sound as emotionally detached as his more baroque imagery of yore -- minus the fizz of musical discovery. The spirit lifts a little toward the end of the set with "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" and "New Angels of Promise" but quickly deflates for the lugubrious closer, "The Dreamers." This one's for hardcore fans . . . and maybe not even them.

-- Richard C. Walls


*** Bows BLUSH (Too Pure/Beggars Banquet)

In the past, Luke Sutherland, former ringleader of the avant folk-rock band Long Fin Killie, demonstrated his heterogeneous nature with songs that resembled punkified Olde World hootenannies -- imagine Can covering the Waterboys. Of course, as a black, Scottish, multi-instrumental, folk-inflected, post-rocking novelist with queer sensibilities, Sutherland doesn't have to go out of his way to show he's unique.

Now working under the Bows moniker, he's dropped LFK's dulcimers in favor of samplers and breakbeats. With help from home-town Glasgow comrades like a member of Mogwai, he fashions Bows into a post-electronica orchestra that brings to mind Tricky with a heart. Sutherland's nicotine-stoked whisper even recalls Tricky's suffocating drawl. "Britannica" is emblematic of Bows' multi-hyphenated grandeur -- drum 'n' bass syncopations and Bernard Hermann violins punctuate the emotional vertigo of his lyrics. "Sleepyhead" blends electric-piano fuzz and 4 Hero-style junglism. And "King Deluxe," the disc's masterpiece, is accented by funereal tom-toms and surprisingly tender breakbeat flourishes, and buffered by strings and Benedictine chanting.

-- Patrick Bryant


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