Sound Check

Now that the interminable "holiday season" is officially over, I was hoping to start getting some fresh new CDs in the mail for review, but either the labels are following tradition and releasing next to nothing in January, or the flacks responsible for mailing the stuff out never came back to work after New Year's, because it's a slow month again. Which simply means that I had to go out and do something I don't much like to do, which is actually purchase discs from my local retailer on my own dime. The hit-and-miss approach left me, as usual, broke, with some good stuff and some unmitigated crap stacked up on the table for review. It also -- since I wasn't being picky about date-of-release constraints -- left me in happy possession of the absolutely stellar four-disc Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 35th Anniversary Collection and the two-CD set The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country -- both of which, if you've got the cash, are really the only things you'll need to get you through the day till late April at least. Five stars for Smokey and four and a half for George, which should come as a surprise to no one.

But just in case you don't have the cash to fork over for this sort of earthy extravagance, or if you just so happen to be one of those folks who doesn't appreciate men who sing like women, I've rounded up a few other oddities for your consideration. Take your pick.

One's from right close to home, by a band that's been more or less talked into the ground around these parts for years. They're from Austin, called Pocket Fishrmen, and the band's latest on Sector II Records is called Future Gods of Rock in homage to all those cheap-o Mexican compilations of everyone's stingy record-buying youth. The evocation makes sense, because to these ears it sounds like 18 tracks of drunk goofs trying to play the entire series by ear through the filter of a dozen years and a weed-stunted memory. Which isn't at all bad, if you've got an ear for such things, and it helps that singer Brant Bingamon -- who spends most of this outing sounding like Ozzy Osbourne sitting in with KISS -- and company don't take any of this at all seriously. The presumably purposefully amateurish recording helps, too, giving a suitably off-the-cuff sound to off-the-cuff tunes like "Intellectuals Rocking for Women," "Big Ass on Fire" and "We Kill Evil."

Of course there's a reason why hardly anybody makes comedy albums anymore, and the reason is that comedy's not nearly so funny in your living room as it is in a hall full of real live patrons splitting their sides, and for that reason I've got to suspect that Future Gods of Rock serves better as a primer to the real live deal than it does as a self-contained album. But saying that an album just makes me want to see the band live isn't much of a complaint (*** 1/2).

Moving on from former kids stepping amusingly backward to honest-to-God children making leaps and bounds, I stumbled across a precious little opus in the racks called Big Music, Little Musicians! (Retro) that's sub-billed as "Compositions and Improvisations by Oakland Elementary School Children." And while the liner notes outline the predictable do-goodism of the project, the music itself is surprisingly listenable, and on more than a few occasions, just plain pretty. Project organizer Randy Porter took music classes at three Oakland-area elementary schools under his wing and let them have a go at 44 cuts -- some, like Sun Ra's "Planet Earth," composed and conducted, others mere snippets of improvisation built around various combinations of instruments.

Given Porter's focus on the improvisational talents of the youngsters, the disc carries an emphasis on jazz-oriented sounds, and while there are more than a few squealing and grating moments of musical ineptitude on display, it's probably not any harsher than what you might find at the Knitting Factory on a slow night. I guess it was Jackson Pollack more than Charlie Parker who inspired a generation of Philistines to chant, "Hey, my kid could do this," but what emerges on Big Music is the fact that, yes, indeed they can. And what's more, it's worth a listen (***).

Listening to amateur jazz, though, will sooner or later get you amped up to hear the real thing, and if there's a jazz combo working today more audacious than New York's Medeski, Martin and Wood, it must be hiding under a rock somewhere. After the superlatively promising Notes From the Underground and It's a Jungle in Here, MM&W takes another shot with Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Gramavision), which title-wise may sound like a Douglas Adams book, but is in truth the closest thing to a true jazz/pop crossover since rap ran out of James Brown records and started sampling Donald Byrd solos. Not that any of the organ/bass/drums tunes here are structured pop-wise -- actually, the new album is geared more toward the establishment of a jamming groove with free-jazz interludes interspersed and eclectic embellishments laid on top -- but the incorporation of funk, reggae and blues into the jazz trio format brings the players' oddball virtuosity into realms where not-particularly-into-jazz patrons can appreciate the nuance. Organist John Medeski, especially, puts his Hammond B-3 through a soulful workout that only the heartless could fail to appreciate. One of my favorite things (****).

One of the most ambiguous platters sitting on the review table is actually wax: Crutches (Matador), a 10-inch, three-song collectible by indie rock quartet Bettie Serveert. I know little of these Bettie Serveert folks, except what's on the cover, which is that one of the guys looks like Frank Black and there's a girl singer in the band. And it is the sort of unobtrusive object that takes a few listens before you really start to fall in love with it. This Carol woman who sings ain't no Polly Jean Harvey, and she ain't no Sade either, which is to say she's got a rather plain voice, but when you allow yourself to sink into it, the thing that stands out is her quiet personality. (I don't know about you, but it sounds to me like about 90 percent of the women singing punk-influenced rock went to the same vocal coach. Either that or Kim Deal's doing too much moonlighting.) The music's kind of quiet too, even when the guitars are clashing in the background like they do on the title track. The other two are called "Shades" and "Entire Races." I doubt this has the hooks for the radio, but I bet I keep sinking deeper into it. Or else I'll completely forget about it within the week and use this for a coaster (**).

-- Brad Tyer

A Guide to the Ratings:

***** Better than sex
**** Comparable
*** When the moon is full
** Maybe, in a moment of weakness
* Lonely and eyeing a sheep


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