The Jesus Lizard
I don't care if, with this CD, Chicago's the Jesus Lizard has moved away from longtime indie home-label Touch and Go and invited cries of sellout from the indie minions. Let 'em cry. I don't care if vocalist David Yow has finally taken the opportunity to sing, rather than just scream, and I don't even care that half the time he's singing, he sounds more like Johnny Rotten than John Lydon ever did. I don't care that the band has spent major label money to spit shine its corporate production values, and I don't care that it's titled yet another album with yet another single-syllable, four-letter name. I just don't care because such things would only matter if Shot didn't do what the Jesus Lizard has done, one way or another, on every last one of its prior seven albums and in every last one of its countless live shows. That thing is this: the Jesus Lizard rocks. All the components are in place. Yow's lyrics are either confrontationally obscure or downright scary, and both modes work with his cracked yelp. "Threphination" tracks a long-distance suicide call before the less whacked party shuts off the conversation with a chilling, "Now calm yourself down / It's really not up to me to be there when you want me to be there / How can I make myself more clear?"
He can't. And neither can guitarist Duane Denison, who continues his choppy ascent to underrated godhood with a monster history-of-rock solo on "Too Bad About the Fire." Beneath it all rumbles the rhythm section of drummer Mac McNeilly and bassist David Wm. Sims -- a bottom-feeding churn of propulsive beats so strong it's tempting to forget about the Jesus Lizard, great rock band, and start thinking about the Jesus Lizard, great dance band. The beautiful thing is, the Jesus Lizard is both. -- Brad Tyer
Reject All American
Kill Rock Stars
When the whole riot grrrl thing got ripped apart and played out, a lot of the bands that had ridden this great publicity gift horse to widespread recognition were suddenly left standing without a musical identity. While we'd heard all about the new feminist lyrics, relatively little attention had been paid to the songs. In Bikini Kill's case, things had been so focused on lead singer/riot grrrl figurehead Kathleen Hanna's mouth that few noticed how inconsistent her band could be. But with three years since its debut CD, Pussy Whipped, Bikini Kill has had loads of time to remedy that problem. Reject All American, the group's new 12-song, 27-minute spurt, reveals a refined punk band with increased clarity, competence and expanded range. While the band's heart still lies in the sneering brat-punk of the Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex, the band also takes a stab at airy, hooky guitar rock ("False Start") and classic new wave pop (the title track's Go-Go's chorus). They even drop a trumpet and xylophone into the mix. Still, it's Hanna's words and vocals that have matured most. It's enough to make you proud: just look at how our little grrrl has grown. -- Roni Sarig
Despite a pleasant first impression, Billy Mann's self-titled debut is ultimately an unsatisfying collection of gentle, acoustic-based pop rock. Though Billy Mann is rife with strong melodies, none are powerful enough to support the bland lyrics, singing and production. Unable, as yet, to develop a distinctive voice, Mann substitutes hollow trickery and convenient cliches for true singer/songwriter marksmanship. Granted, it's not easy to combine folky introspection with crafty accessibility. But while Mann flirts with lyrical and musical substance, he never quite nails it. Furthermore, Ric Wake's production is lightweight and glossy, giving the CD an unwelcome Amy Grant-ish feel. Billy Mann offers the smooth, easy sound of diluted potential. -- Gerard Choucroun
Billy Mann opens for Sophie B. Hawkins Tuesday, May 21, at Rockefeller's.
Chamber Works, Vol. 5
Sometimes, rooting around in the CD bins, you come across a surprise; this new recording of little-known Czech composer Ervin Schuloff, who died in a Nazi prison camp in 1942, is one of them. Schuloff was a man who let his true Dada show, and this selection of works from the teens and the twenties is a reminder to all the punks out there that strangely interesting things have been going on in music a lot longer than they might imagine.
Schuloff's melodies often soar in natural, uncontrived splendor. One piece here, the Divertissement for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon, adds a Charleston among other more traditional markings to its short, two-minute movements. The "Bassnachtigall," a bassoon solo written in 1922 but not discovered until 1980, offers more unusual fodder. Poetic, yet drawing from the classical, its lines excel in both lyricism and freedom of phrasing. And in the Sonata Germanica, the pianistic accompaniment sounds like an atonal flag burning in abstract, with impossibly rapid-fire, staccato percussion bursts.
Yet another piece here, the "Sonata Erotica," was written in 1919 under the influence of a dancer with whom Schuloff was smitten, but didn't have its first public performance until 1994. It's another fascinating curiosity, filled with the unmistakable sighs and moans of a soprano emulating orgasm. It's probably not the sort of thing destined to make the classical top ten list, but it's nice that this all-Czech lineup of performers decided to resurrect one of their own. -- Seth Davis
Ralph Sharon Trio
Portrait of Harold
Even if you've never heard of the Ralph Sharon Trio, chances are good that you've actually heard it. As Tony Bennett's secret weapon for more than 40 years, Sharon's feather-dusted piano style and musical direction was integral to the success of Bennett's 1994 Grammy-garnering, platinum-selling unplugged release. Now Sharon returns with a new, all-instrumental release, Portrait of Harold. Mood music with substance is a rarity, but that's precisely what this threesome conjures up on its second CD, which is a nod to composer Harold Arlen (the first was a tribute to the late Sammy Cahn).
Still, to simply tag this carefree jazz as "mood music" would be doing it a disservice. The trick with Sharon's arrangements is how they hold steadfast to the original work while giving the appearance of whimsical, improvisational jam sessions. Sharon and company achieve this by adhering to the compositions' original melody lines. Where many jazz noodlers go off into nowhere land and come back ten minutes later to remind you that you were, indeed, listening to a song, Sharon selflessly keeps his music restrained and, consequently, instantly memorable. -- Sam Weller
With a critical dash of overstatement, you might say rappers were in danger of writing themselves out of their own music. Thematic redundancy and a dearth of talent are making lyrics increasingly irrelevant to great hip-hop. Besides, DJs such as Krush don't make it easy for emcees to keep rap music primarily a tapestry for vocalists. Krush doesn't write lyrics, he doesn't rap -- hell, he doesn't even understand English. But this renowned Japanese turntable maestro creates richly detailed and expansive tracks that, vocals or not, ooze hip-hop.
Meiso, DJ Krush's third release, is one of two CDs (along with Beastie Boys sideman Money Mark's solo debut) that introduce the U.S. market to the music of Mo'Wax, a British label that's fast becoming the premier launching pad for a progressive, internationalist beat often (if somewhat reluctantly) called trip-hop. Perhaps to gel with American notions of what constitutes hip-hop, Meiso features guest appearances by well-known rappers C.L. Smooth, Guru and the Roots on four of the CD's 14 otherwise instrumental cuts. Though the emcees perform admirably, and perhaps provide welcome human contact, the raps are mostly an afterthought -- and, at times, even a hindrance to the music's ebb and flow. There's never any doubt that the star of Meiso is Krush, who imbues his electronic collages with a mystical soul. There's no telling where the music will take you, and that keeps Krush's groove exciting where others are often monotonous. That Krush comes totally detached from hip-hop tradition makes the possibilities even more endless.
-- Roni Sarig
The Best of Red Prysock
Plow this CD with a double shovel, and if you decide you don't dig that crazy boogie-woogie saxophone and piano, you're a cube, daddy-o -- a square from every direction. We're dancing the high edge between roots-rock and anchor-jazz; this is wild, demented small-combo jazz-rock from the late '50s, courtesy of one of the all-time masters of the tenor sax.
-- Jim Sherman
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These days, it's getting hard to tell the real pop twerps from the hip parodists -- both of whom have been known to make music sweeter and more dizzying than cherry wine. Take Sweden's newest hit-makers, the Cardigans, for example. On the one hand, they work the same delicious Bacharach lounge jazz and gooey '60s girl swoons as Pizzicato Five, a group whose retro-kitsch and overstated fabulousness is delivered with a big, fake-eyelashed wink. On the other hand, the Cardigans come from the land that gave us Abba and Ace of Base -- two bands as sincere as pop legends get. The Cardigans, it seems, could go either way, and their subtle blend of pop for pop's sake with pop for a laugh's sake makes their first American release, Life, all the more a gem.
There's no use digging below the surface of Life's amazingly catchy opening quartet of tunes; all the joy to be extracted lies right on the surface. The loopy organ and punchy beat of "Carnival" is all cotton candy and merry-go-rounds; "Daddy's Car" is a fun-fun-fun ride to the up-up-and-away; "Fine" soars heavenward; and "Rise & Shine" is mile-a-minute perk-me-up.
From there, though, things venture deeper, occasionally into dark and moody atmospherics. Singer Nina Persson's crystalline lullaby voice keeps it all sounding innocent as hell, but when she sinks her teeth into a Black Sabbath cover ("Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"), she exposes a few sinister cavities. And by the time Persson closes the CD, exulting "No one can be happier than me!" the mood is eerie in David Lynch-ian proportions.
-- Roni Sarig