Medeski, Martin and Wood
Blue Note

The keyboard, bass and drums trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood have been a favorite on the college jazz circuit for a few years. Blending elements of avant-garde jazz, soul-jazz, rock and funk, they've become the crossover jazz band of the late nineties. Like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Pat Metheny, they're the band college jazzheads use to convert their friends, though artistically MMW is not really on par with either.

Combustication, MMW's first release for Blue Note and fifth overall, is their most accessible recording to date. There is less dissonance and more emphasis on groove and acid-jazz styles. Angular passages are fewer, and flavors of alternative rock are present. Guest artist DJ Logic appears on three tracks providing turntable scratches, and his embellishments add to the crossover appeal, if nothing else. The spoken word passage by Steve Cannon on one track, however, is like bad beat poetry and will do little for mainstream appeal.

Even with their crossover appeal, there's something off-center about MMW. They hit solid grooves, but unlike true soul-jazz which is usually hot from the opening bar, MMW builds to a slow simmer, but doesn't always boil. Sometimes, when they get hot, they purposely take a left turn and cool down the affair. It's only on the longer songs like "Latin Shuffle," where they milk a piece for nine minutes, that MMW really catch fire. On shorter songs, they don't maintain a perpetual swing like Jimmy Smith or Charles Earland. Yet, at the same time, there's something cool about the way they tease tension and release, even if they don't deliver the release often enough.

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Much of the material on Combustication is about atmospheric creations and grooves. Solos are sometimes well designed, but often they're choppy with a "throw it together and see what sticks" feel. When it works, the results are fascinating, but other times it just seems contrived. Oddly, that's a major part of their appeal. It doesn't sound perfect, but there's a cool sense of adventure to the proceedings. That might be why MMW is better live than on Memorex.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Medeski, Martin and Wood at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, Tuesday, November 24, 520 Texas Ave.

Soul Coughing
El Oso
Warner Bros.

Back in 1994, Soul Coughing released the heady sonic cocktail Ruby Vroom, a funky, smart, genre-bending record which introduced M. Doughty's Kerouac meets pop culture lyrics and signature deadpan delivery, and the band's hip-hop, downtown New York aesthetic. With Mark De Gli Antoni adding spare, textural keyboard, Sebastian Steinberg's fluid acoustic bass and Yuval Gabay's manic drumming, it was a band that built songs from throwaway bits and strange sounds into beautiful and danceable music. Ruby Vroom was a startling and exciting record, and the band that had once played to sparse crowds at New York's hipster Knitting Factory was selling records and converting fans across the country. On the hooky strength of the single "Super Bon Bon," their second release made even more commercial headway, but Irresistible Bliss, while a moderately good record, showed the first evidence of a band slipping into a rut. El Oso finds Soul Coughing pretty firmly stuck in place. That's not to say El Oso is a bad record -- and in terms of instrumentation and beats, it's probably their best -- but despite some great moments, the tracks seem to run together, and when the band gets it right, as they do on "Misinformed" and "Houston," it just makes the rest of the record seem mechanical and repetitive. Another stellar track is the contemplative "Maybe I'll Come Down," which features some of Doughty's finest singing/talking along with atmospheric Beatles-esque piano, but too many of the songs are near misses, never reaching the heights that the band has shown they're capable of. Ruby Vroom was and still is an album that convincingly proselytizes, but El Oso is more like a late-night talk radio host preaching only to the already converted.

-- Seth Hurwitz

Afghan Whigs
Columbia Records

Showcasing their ongoing fascination with hip-hop and R&B on the Whigs' sixth album, Greg Dulli explicitly references Puff Daddy, Mase, Nas, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Perhaps it was the New Orleans recording location, but adding horns, P-Funk keyboards and female backup singers removes them further from their Sub Pop roots and closer to the upbeat sensuality of mid-seventies Motown combined with Midwestern rock. The group has slowly evolved into the soulful incarnation which created 1965.

The record opens with a match striking and Dulli confessing on "Something Hot" that his desire is so strong that he'll "never walk the same." It is a clue of what's ahead. In the past, the Whigs have offered paeans to the downside of bad love, but this is a record about the night before it all goes to shit -- this is about trying to get laid. On "John the Baptist," Dulli uses wine and Marvin Gaye to charm a lover before offering himself, quoting the soul legend with, "Let's get it on!," which sends the band into a funky, horn-laden, wah-wah guitar workout complete with a trumpet solo. And it doesn't slow down; the band hangs on for the ride while hoping to make a love connection.

The highlights come when Dulli doesn't try so hard to do everything by himself. Letting the piano and cello build the sexual tension and the bass set up the groove, his laid-back singing about focused lust has much more impact. Still, this is another ambitious and stunning album from a terribly underrated band.

-- David Simutis

Psycho Circus

As a preteen, card-carrying member of the KISS Army, I was completely enthralled with the stadium-rock comic-book heroes come to life. I responded to their crunchy brand of raunch and roll with enthusiasm, wearing out the vinyl grooves of my Destroyer and Alive II LPs -- even if I didn't always grasp certain subtleties (You mean a "love gun" isn't an actual weapon?). After the makeup came off, I still checked in with them from time to time, like a favorite Dungeons and Dragons buddy who'd moved away. As an adult, though, I realized that KISS was as much about marketing and merchandising as it was about the music -- even as I stood in line to buy a ticket for their '96 full-makeup reunion tour.

Psycho Circus is the first studio effort from the original quartet in almost two decades. The grease paint and costumes are still flawless, but like most circuses, this one has a fat lady -- and she's probably singing her heart out after hearing this truly wretched release. Loaded down with dumbed-down, thoroughly unrocking rock songs, the CD takes stabs at a new rawk anthem ("I Pledge Allegiance to the State of Rock & Roll"), updating the '70s power ballad (the execrable "I Finally Found My Way"), and renovating the band's own self-flagellative tributes ("You Wanted the Best," "Raise Your Glasses"). Thankfully, they've eschewed the tired groupie-banging narratives.

Lacking any genuine soul, spirit and (amazingly) almost any Ace Frehley guitar solos, everything here is very nearly a laughable parody of the KISS of yore -- laughable, that is, were they not performed in earnest and passed off as the real item. Only the hotter-than-hell title track and the brooding "Within" save Psycho Circus from being a complete washout. The title is appropriate in at least one sense: You'd have to be insane to enjoy this cheap sideshow.

-- Bob Ruggiero

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