PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.
(4 Men with Beards; dist. by Runt)
In his recent book Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds calls Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box "postpunk's absolute crowning achievement." And with the 4 Men with Beards label ludicrously replicating the original three 12 inches in film reel packaging to great effect, its intent comes across even more so now.
Built out of the wreckage of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon's new "corporation" mostly eschewed rock. PiL seemed conscious of their music existing solely in the circular blackness of a vinyl record and responded accordingly, grabbing from every style but punk across its six bass-heavy sides. From the opening throbs of "Albatross," the band lose the burden of linear chord-based trajectories, instead evoking mesmerism and repetition, built on bass lines that—like their beloved Jamaican dub reggae—throb and wobble into infinity. The rhythms lumber like a cement truck with a flat tire: bulky, gritty, ever churning, while Keith Levene makes his guitar lines spire like razor wire, circular and cutting with each rotation. "Swan Lake" epitomizes the amalgam: disco high-hats, gut-squishing bass, a tinfoil-on-teeth guitar line that bites its ballet namesake. Such churn is topped by Lydon's maddened vocal performance, less snotty punk sneer than Arabic-sounding screams rendered at a wailing wall.
Sure, it's the touchstone for two generations of American music; from the bleak and twisted anguish of Scratch Acid, Rapeman, and Butthole Surfers to New York's rhythm-minded Rapture, Radio 4, and Liars, but Metal Box spins on in its own world of pulverizing gravity. ANDY BETA
The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album
As album titles go, The Avalanche is perfect. Although promotional materials refer to the opening track of Sufjan Stevens's latest release as the centerpiece of this collection of "musical debris" from Illinois, it could also refer to the creative outpouring that gave birth to another 21 tracks in addition to the 16 that made it onto Illinois—or to listeners being overwhelmed by the onslaught of said 21 songs.
Fortunately, Stevens has the talent to justify this kind of release. Avalanche never feels like a cheap batch of second-rate material trotted out to take advantage of his success. While die-hard Stevens fans are more likely to tune in closely to every breathy crescendo, there are more than enough great songs to make this a notable album in its own right.
The bulk of Avalanche doesn't deviate much from the delicate, literary chamber-pop that Stevens has perfected. There's the vaguely prog-folk of "The Avalanche," the Stereolab-ish "Dear Mr. Supercomputer," and beautiful twangst of "Springfield." Seattle chanteuse Rosie Thomas makes guest appearances on several standout tracks, adding her voice to the jaunty "Adlai Stevenson" and wintry melancholy of "The Mistress Witch from McClure," among others, and the three separate versions of "Chicago" are brilliantly placed as familiar landmarks at key checkpoints on the nearly 76-minute journey. Amazingly, even Stevens's "debris" serves to underscore his position as the king of modern soft rock. BARBARA MITCHELL
Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia
On lonesome sound alone, you can tell that the fourth track of Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia is a sad love song. Indeed, the notes reveal the untitled recording to be an example of a Jarai songform called Ayin/Ayon, denoting male and female. The lovers are repped by a weary female voice and a male guitarist that plucks it as if pulling petals off a rose. Nearby, a baby gurgles, and then cries. Later on, the he said/she said battle continues, a battery of gong players chimes against eight clapping virgins getting documented. When these small, disappearing tribes aren't singing of the war of the sexes, a woman recalls the B-52 bombings.
Elsewhere, Sublime Frequencies ventures as far west as they've dared yet, meaning the Mediterranean climes of Radio Algeria. As on most of SF's shortwave radio collages, tribes and sects intersect in bizarre, imagined bazaars with a twist of that dial. Hence, you have moments of glorious rai music strutting right into the wikkidy-wikki of "Theme from Shaft." Elsewhere, Berber folk, furious fingerpicking, wheezing accordions, Francophone interludes, and Islamic chants arise. Appropriately enough, a pile of moldering cassettes denotes the region's taste to acknowledged masters like Jacques Brel and Tracy Chapman.
Radio Thailand sounds more frenzied, even aleatoric in its assembly. And when you go from "the Thai Caruso" to techno-grunge within a minute's time, some whiplash is bound to occur. Radio offal of sound doughnuts, station identification, and sing-alongs accrue; at one point a sound clash between hillbilly hoedowns and a radio show about catfish breaks out. By the end of the double disc, you're vomiting up your Berlitz lessons in a Bangkok alleyway, learning to babble in Thai inanities like, "I usually blow-dry my hair after I wash it." The things you have to learn to say on a blind date. ANDY BETA
Bardo Hotel Soundtrack
Tuxedomoon formed in the late '70s as a kind of art-punk cabaret, a collective of musicians and artists dedicated to pushing the boundaries of a then-nascent punk scene. Their live shows were spectacles of music, film, dancing, and performance art, and their recorded music ranged from the gothic synth punk of "No Tears" to Brian Eno–inspired ambient tape loops.
Bardo Hotel Soundtrack, their follow-up to 2004's reunion, Cabin in the Sky, is the soundtrack for a film Tuxedomoon are currently shooting with Greek visual artist George Kakanakis. The project draws inspiration from Brion Gysin's novel The Bardo Hotel and from the "cut-up/fold-in" writing technique he created there with William Burroughs. The album explores themes of transience and stability (Tuxedomoon describe the film as a "road movie of the mind"), focusing on their old home, San Francisco, where they returned to record this album, and upon the globe-spanning travels of their individual members. Found sound, snippets of conversation, and recorded airplane and BART announcements are cut and pasted throughout the soundtrack, hinting at some abstract narrative.
For all the group's cerebral intentions, the compositions come off as fairly tame, if lovely, background music. The songs are largely instrumental and atmospheric, mixing such disparate elements as improvisational jazz, opera, New Orleans brass, and Tuxedomoon's own peculiar brand of post-punk noir. As a film score, Bardo Hotel is satisfying, even without the visual element, but as a Tuxedomoon record, it's a bit of a disappointment. ERIC GRANDY
As obscenely prolific as the Sun City Girls have been over the years, the trio's members always manage to save some of their best and most conceptually focused work for their solo releases. The last couple of years have seen a superb new album from guitarist Sir Richard Bishop, Improvika (Locust), plus two pseudonymous minimasterpieces from his brother Alan: Superstars of Greenwich Meantime (as crotchety lounge lizard Uncle Jim) and Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset (as alien-folk alter ego Alvarius B).
This self-titled CD reissues the first of the three Alvarius B full-lengths (and adds four previously unreleased bonus tracks), and was originally released on LP in 1994, but culled from cassette recordings made throughout the '80s. Unlike the other two, this one is entirely instrumental, consisting mostly of brief acoustic-guitar sketches in Bishop's own self-styled folk idiom. There are hints of the Byrds-gone-Mediterranean melodic sensibilities heard on SCG's landmark album Torch of the Mystics, as well as echoes of Indonesia, the Middle East, the Old West, and God knows where else. Given Bishop's way with words, one wishes there were some vocals here and there, but for fans of SCG or the new wave of neofolk weirdness, there's plenty to discover—or at least zone out to—here. WILLIAM YORK
Yellow Fever! (fievre Amarilla)
The idea of Señor Coconut is charming: German musician disenchanted with European dance music moves to Chile, becomes enamored of Latin rhythms, produces salsa and merengue interpretations of pop favorites with a throwback pseudonym and sound. His covers of Kraftwerk are fairly well known and even enjoyable in ragtop-down weather. On Yellow Fever! Uwe Schmidt (here as Atom as Señor Coconut, gah) takes a playful paso at Japanese synth-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, covering a handful of their hits and rarities alike. Exciting, right? Yes, if you like a martini tossed in your face repeatedly for 50 minutes.
Señor's coconut has cracked, and, alas, from it no sweet milk flows. Despite contributions from YMO's original three members, a shining constellation of electronica stars (Towa Tei, Akufen, Mouse on Mars, among others), vocalist Argenis Brito, and a full Latin big band, Yellow Fever! fails to capture the gravity and opacity that made YMO's work so unmanageably fresh. Gone, too, are the rubato, subtlety, and erotic spirit of the Latin music in which the tunes are costumed. The album burns to be an intersection of Buena Vista Social Club and Deee-lite, but Schmidt's direction lacks the restraint of the former and the arc of invention of the latter. The tempos and the overplaying of vibes and marimba make many of the tracks nervous, rather than intense, causing Yellow Fever! to come off as a spoof of, rather than a genuine homage to, Yellow Magic Orchestra. NICHOLAS SCHOLL