-- Robert Wilonsky

Roni Size & Reprazent
New Forms
Talking Loud/Mercury

Although it's been a little more than two years since drum and bass started its run as the new "next big thing," only in the last few months has any music surfaced that truly substantiates that claim. The genre then known primarily as "jungle" had been a staple of British nightclubs for years when, in late 1995, Goldie grabbed American media attention. Despite his charisma (and block-rocking body), Goldie's sound was, for the most part, one-dimensional: chattering drum beats mixed with smooth-jazz synthesizer washes and classically trained female vocals. The sound was a delightful novelty, but offered scant evidence of an emerging genre.

A few years before and concurrent with jungle's emergence, the musical sophistication of Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack established trip-hop as something more than a Beth Gibbons moan, a Martine Topley-Bird wail or a subdued Nellee Hooper beat. The savoir-faire of those groups elevated the fragmented pieces from pleasant ideas to elements of a style. More recently, acts on a similar mission for drum and bass have arrived in droves. Some of the best recordings include both of Spring Heel Jack's releases, 68 Million Shades and Busy Curious Thirsty, and Alex Reece's So Far. But easily the best yet is Roni Size & Reprazent's New Forms.

Size is from Bristol, England, home of the aforementioned trip-hoppers, and he brings a comparable musical savvy to the unabashedly ambitious New Forms. Spread over two discs, the effort is proudly arty in songs such as "Destination." That cut's dense, well-articulated layers and pedestrian -- as opposed to Indy car -- beats per minute make it better suited for home stereo than for the dance floor. Rather than rely solely on texture or the clever use of samples, Size's music creates dazzling, catchy rhythms -- often with acoustic bass lines -- then fucks with them; it's the DJ experience fully articulated for the CD player.

Size prefers to use terms such as "universal" rather than "pop" in reference to his music. He backs it up by forging strong bonds with other related styles: "Brown Paper Bag" locks into a walking jazz beat; "Railing" uses dancehall-style toasts; and the title track features low-key scat-rapping from Philadelphia-based hip-hopper Bahamadia. The CD's best track, "Watching Windows," easily reads as a tribute to Nellee Hooper. With his unique brand of jungle, Size plunges into the mainstream without letting it wash away his most uncommon characteristics. It's integration without assimilation. (****)

-- Martin Johnson

Tito and Tarantula

Tito and Tarantula's blustery showcase at the 1997 South by Southwest music conference had critics and record-label flacks alike buzzing in more ways than one. First, there was the obvious: El Paso native Tito Larriva is a formidable frontman, and his roles in Robert Rodriguez's south-of-the-border shoot-'em-ups Desperado and From Dusk 'til Dawn make his an even more potent rock and roll persona. Second, Tarantula, his hearty backing ensemble, packs one hell of a sting, punching holes in audiences with its technical skill and pronounced passion for Larriva's darkly mystifying, Latin-tinged blues-rock compositions. What's more, the group does so while sitting down on stage.

With Larriva's various film-score credits and membership in such noteworthy Los Angeles acts as the Plugz and the Cruzados, not to mention Tarantula's combined experience with everyone from Don Henley to Devo, T&T is an outfit that's been around, a bunch as well coached in the ways of the music industry as any band out there. It was just that combination of age and seasoning, said one writer after the band's Austin show, that was apt to be lethal for the group, and I had to agree: While deserving, Tito and Tarantula are simply too old and stubborn to land a major-label deal.

Indeed, Larriva's world-weary machismo informs every foreboding inch of Tarantism, Tito and Tarantula's debut CD on the L.A.-based Cockroach Records, a new independent label that wisely snatched up the band. "In the sixties I was young / And I lost my mind on acid / In the seventies I was pitiful / And lost nothing but disco / In the eighties I was dying / From white lines up my nose / In the nineties I'm crazy / And nobody really knows," sings Larriva in his grainy vocal scowl as he waxes confessional on the disc's riveting centerpiece, "Jupiter." Dragged kicking and screaming through "Slippin' and Slidin'" by the taut slide guitar of Peter Atanasoff, Larriva howls like a pained Bon Scott, "I shot a man in the street / Clipped his wings like a dove." And on "Smiling Karen," he continues his vicious streak, hissing "I'm not your hero / I'm not your daddy neither" with numbing matter-of-factness.

But near the end of Tarantism, after bombarding us with Larriva's relentlessly tough stance and the band's equally harsh sonic accompaniment, Tarantula and their leader suddenly lighten the weight on their shoulders. "The mother of them all took my hate / Then sent me on my way," Larriva sings in a near-whisper on the tender, mandolin-kissed ballad "Flying in My Sleep." Larriva's emotional U-turn reaches an embarrassing impasse on the disc's most melodically memorable track, "Sweet Cycle," where he mutters, "Let my arms be a tree / Let my eyes be a bee," concluding with a bit more grace, "Well, who am I to complain / About a bit of earthly pain."

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