Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

The Shazam Godspeed The Shazam, (Not Lame Recording Company)

Step right up, dudes and dudettes, and marvel at the latest and greatest recording by Tennessee's own the Shazam. You may think you've heard easybeats like this before, but your mind was just playing a cheap trick on you. So, my pretty things, come one, come all, and heed the move toward Godspeed The Shazam.

This is the stuff that will surely shatter your squirming soul asunder. Godspeed The Shazam has been designated as the second official album from this thrilling triumvirate, comprised of the melodic mad scientist Hans Rotenberry, buccaneer bassist Mick Wilson, and diligent drummer Scott Ballew. Revealing absolutely no traces of a sophomore slump, the Shazam is augmented in the studio this time around by utility man Jeremy Asbrock and producer Brad Jones (Jill Sobule, Jump Little Children, Imperial Drag), general alchemist and wielder of the mysterious Advanced Inertial Reference Sphere (used to put on AIRS?).

The bright-red cover should act as a warning that the countdown code has been relayed and the end of the world could be just around the corner. As the final hours of the 20th century vanish into the mists of history, the Shazam proposes yet another alternative to cultural oblivion -- party rather than panic in the year zero. Cold War overtones permeate Godspeed The Shazam, but manifest themselves in Kubrickesque/Strangelove-ian twists of twisted fate.

Should the sky indeed begin to fall, Chicken Little's got nothing on the Shazam. Count the mushroom clouds on the horizon while "Sunshine Tonight," "RU Receiving," "Calling Sydney," and "City Smasher" blast at full volume from portable stereos. Cry for tomorrow while "Super Tuesday," "The Stranded Stars," "Some Other Time," and "Sweet Bitch" hang in the thickening air. Laugh until your guts hurt while "Sparkleroom," "Chipper Cherry Daylily," and "Gonna Miss Yer Train" reverberate through the post-apocalyptic haze.

Godspeed The Shazam works on many levels -- it can be a cleverly crafted concept album if you want it to be, or just a collection of random songs that effervescently entertains without offending any puckered-up pop purists. Any way you slice it, there's definitely something for everyone, ranging from sensitive ballads to foot-to-the-floor rockers. If there were any justice in this world, the Shazam would already be known around the globe, but the group still has lost lands left to conquer. With a fresh new record label on its side (Not Lame Records, an understatement if there ever was one), the Shazam stands a chance at claiming its rightful place in rock history with Godspeed The Shazam.

Let Godspeed The Shazam take you away from the pressures of the modern world and leave you fully convinced that rock music still has a life worth saving, although its carcass is ragged and its pulse is highly irregular. The Shazam shines brightly as the Red Kryptonite of modern rock, and long may the band continue to shimmer across the airwaves. -- David D. Duncan

Don Byron Romance With the Unseen, (Blue Note)

Awaiting a new Don Byron recording is always fraught with mystery and excitement. After all, this 41-year-old clarinetist stands shoulders above anyone else playing the instrument today. Equally expressive as an avant-garde blower or a post-bop composer and improviser, Byron's the heir apparent to the late, great clarinetist John Carter. Byron's a wonder, a singularly unique voice who consistently sets new standards for the instrument.

But you never know what a new Byron album will bring. His first solo album, Tuskegee Experiments, was an extremely accessible avant-garde tour de force, revealing him as a fine composer and an improviser without peer. He continued in this vein with 1995's Music for Six Musicians.

Yet Byron's tastes are eclectic, as revealed by his 1993 outing, Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, a totally klezmer record that paid homage not only to Katz's clarinet wizardry, but also to his mirth. In 1996, Byron brought the marvelous Bug Music, where he revisited and reinvented big-band tunes from Ellington, W.C. Handy, and the whimsical Raymond Scott, best known as the composer of the soundtracks to the classic Loony Tunes cartoons: Again, Byron revealed his sense of humor.

His latest effort, Romance With the Unseen, is an extraordinary quartet date, a solid, extremely accessible recording featuring a superlative ensemble. Byron's assembled his best band yet, with guitarmeister Bill Frisell sharing lead duties, bassist Drew Gress anchoring the bottom, and the venerable drum deity Jack DeJohnette on the traps. Given four such luminaries, Byron wisely allows each star to shine brightly. The result is an excellent ensemble recording.

Opening with Duke Ellington's "A Mural From Two Perspectives," Byron sets the tone for the date. He and Frisell swap brief introductory solos, then dance through Ellington's melodic lead together. Gress adds a few improvisational measures, while DeJohnette propels things with a gently shuffling beat, accented by the occasional dynamic outburst. Energy builds as Frisell and Byron exchange ideas. Opening with an Ellington tune is an appropriate way to showcase the sweet and smooth timbre of Byron's clarinet, a sound much akin to that of Jimmy Hamilton, the brilliant clarinetist who played with Ellington for decades.

The selections vary in mood and approach. "Sad Twilight" is a soft ballad, while "Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur, and Me" opens with a furious attack, then settles into a cascading, escalating movement through a theme, as everyone stretches out. "Homecoming" opens with a repeated phrase that is picked up by Gress, as Frisell and Byron harmonize a counter melody, move through a series of stops and starts over DeJohnette's drums, then vary this pattern as a basis for increasingly intense improvisations.

There's also a beautiful rendition of the Beatles' "I'll Follow the Sun," a quirky, percussive number called "One Finger Snap," and a creative, rapid-fire take on Ellington's "Perdido" that coasts over DeJohnette's volcanic rumbles. The disc wraps up with a brief, effects-drenched Frisellian romp. With nary a dull moment to be found, Romance With the Unseen is rewarding from start to finish. -- Gene Hyde

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