Seeds of Democracy
The members of Houston's Wazobia, coalescing at Texas Southern University, represent four countries -- Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, America -- and boast fluency in seven languages. So it's not much of a surprise that their musical product is Afrocentric world beat, with nods to Jamaican dub and reggae and American rap. As represented on Seeds of Democracy, it's a relatively unique sound in a melting-pot city that probably should have more of it, but Wazobia -- which the band says means "come together" -- fills the void nicely.
There's a sampling of dancy party tunes here (including "Jammin' Tonite," "Nasty Boys," "Rastamuffin" and the sole cover, Sir Victor Uwaifo's "Five Days Lover") but for the most part, Wazobia sends its shouts out in the political arena -- without, however, abandoning the danceable vibe of its reggae foundations. South African democracy is a musical priority, and if sloganeering sentiments such as "We got to live together" and "Children of today are leaders of tomorrow" aren't likely to surprise anybody who cares, they do fit more comfortably in the unstilted context of world beat rhythms than in the various political-rock bands that strain to make the same points. Nelson Mandela is name-dropped ceaselessly, alongside Marcus Garvey, Fela Kuti, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, which, in the current party-band climate of beachwear endorsements, feels like more of a statement than it actually is.
Skip track one, "Boom bye bye (Apartheid)," a misguidedly minimalist attempt at fusing dancehall patois and Philip Glass squeaks that sounds like someone forgot to finish it, and jump straight into the rest of the disk, where solid rhythms, chiming upbeats and extraordinary gruff vocals combine for an authentic roots reggae sound, especially satisfying on "Tribute (Part 1)."
-- Brad Tyer
If the trend in dance music is towards industrialization and dissonance, Acacians Kelly Michael Spoden (the stylish boy) and Rose Ann Neis (the blondish girl) are dance track traditionalists, sticking faithfully to the basics of programmed drumbeats, plonking synthesized bass lines and lighter-than-air melodies. Lyrically, the songs are about something, as songs must be, but subject matter is so ethereal in the glossy wash of sound that it hardly seems to matter here.
Spoden and Neis have packaged a professional sounding product, with a restrained instrumental sense that avoids most of the amateur pitfalls of sampled gimmickry, and their vocals, separately and combined, are polished and powerful beyond what one would expect from their minimal resumes. Problem is, what they do so well in the limited generic-dance field has been done well so often before that, without any distinguishing marks in the sound, this offering comes off as the aural equivalent of those model-family photographs that come as standard equipment with a new wallet. It's not hard to imagine KRBE spinning a few of these tracks, but it's difficult to conceive of any-one remembering who they've just heard.
-- Brad Tyer
The Last Wish
The First of February
Royal Blue Productions
The Last Wish has built an enviable local following in what seems like a mere moment (though the CD at hand is actually a follow-up to the band's Rooftop Sessions tape) and it's not hard to see why. Seven kids -- boys and girls, mostly still in their teens -- playing mellow music that even their parents must be proud to recommend to strangers makes for a unique cross-generational appeal in the local scene. And if the kids forego the tired youth-rock sounds of guitar, guitar and more guitar in favor of gently rolling R.E.M.-meets-10,000 Maniacs compositions featuring prominent violins and cello, all the better to set them apart from the crowd, my dear.
In large part it works, especially if you're the sort of college student who thinks it's a crime that your student fees are used to help finance KTRU, which, as everybody knows, is a rat's nest of cliquish miscreants who only play ugly music that nobody likes. The First of February isn't ugly. In fact, it's downright pretty, with the lilting melodies of singers Justin Furstenfeld and Amy Immel wafting over strummed acoustic chord progressions, punctuated by feisty fiddle lines and laid out on a haunting bed of stringed ambiance.
What doesn't work can be attributed to the flip side of one of the band's strengths -- youth. The Last Wish has a tendency to ride a simple chord progression too far, turning some of these songs into repetitive marathons. Likewise, when the group builds these jams into their crescendos, the groove can start to fall apart under the strain of so many elements fighting to keep up. And at 70-plus minutes and running, the music can't fully support Furstenfeld's overbearing melancholy, which reaches a whiny peak on the unfortunately titled "Down."
But overindulgence isn't a crime at this stage of the game, just a fault with plenty of time to be overcome, and with that in mind, The First of February sounds like fresh air.
-- Brad Tyer
The Missiles, a band fond of quips, placed one at the tail end of the liner notes to this, their recorded swan song. "There's good bands and there's bad bands," the line reads, "and we were one of them." If only a larger audience had ever figured out which one they were, the ten-year rock institution might still be plugging away.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's difficult to figure out why the band never broke out of a respectable local following and into the larger national spotlight. As a no-gimmicks rock band, Charlie Sanders, Bill Myers, Ken Jones and Dave Randall possessed levels of talent and flexibility beyond your average three-chording schleps, and as a tireless touring unit with a decade's worth of longevity, they had the requisite stamina. Maybe it was a string of mediocre recordings that torpedoed the band's chances at the big time, or maybe they just never had the luck to be at the right place at the right time when the fashion curve peaked. Moot points all, now that The Missiles have called it quits, but the product at hand makes a strong case in parting that The Missiles were a better band than most of us ever gave them credit for.
Side one spotlights Missiles originals, starting with the retrospective "All I've Done," which is as fine a local-interest rock-and-roll song as this town's produced. "Start Drinkin'" takes another stab at the band's ongoing beer theme, "Twist My Soul" holds its own in the respected I'm-about-to-have-another-ex-girlfriend field and "Already Missin' Me" could be either a response to that very same ex, or to a local crowd that's sure, like me, to afford the band more respect in retrospect than ever they did when it really mattered.
Side two is where the band's flexibility really shines, though, and it comes on four covers. Frank Zappa's "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" gets an inspired reading, followed by The Del Lords' bar classic "Mercenary," locals Tab Jones' heartbreaking "Ash Wednesday" and Tom Waits" "Blue Valentine," on which Sanders has a surprisingly unstrained take.
It's a hell of a collection, and even on the cassette that I have for review, the sound is fatter and fuller than the band's Full Scale Mattress Fire offering of two years back. It sounds like nobody was trying too hard to do anything but generate that bang all veteran bands want to go out with. And this time, they got it.
-- Brad Tyer
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