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Smallmouth -- the year in review

By Douglas Wolk

JANUARY 3, 2000:  The proliferation of micro-labels, sub-sub-genres, and, most of all, high-powered recording software for home computers meant that there was more great stuff this year than any time in recent memory. And a lot of the deluge of wonderful music missed people who don't devote their entire lives to listening. But that's our job. Here's my list of 10 great recordings you almost certainly didn't hear this year.

1. Pita, Get Out (Mego). Somewhere between post-dance electronic snowflake engineers like Aphex Twin and full-on white-noise blasters like Merzbow lies Peter Rehberg, a/k/a Pita, one of the figureheads of the new Austrian laptop scene. These nine untitled pieces seem at first like recording mistakes, all squeals and buzzes and hisses, but the noises are only pointillist dots. Approach them from a distance, and they become melodic, beautiful, even moving. The third piece, in particular, sounds like an orchestra transmitting unreliably from the far side of a white hole.

2. Various Artists, Hò! Roady Music from Vietnam (Trikont). A berserk, deliriously messy anthology of what people actually listen to in Vietnam: a rendition of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" with a dan bau instead of a guitar, mercilessly hammering percussion-and-horn spazz-outs played at funerals, the theme from Bonanza reinterpreted as a love duet, street musicians acting as the local equivalent of John Lee Hooker, and a certain amount of awful but fascinating easy-listening. Worth it for the Vietnamese hip-hop track alone.

3. Out Hud/!!! split 12-inch (Zum). Two bands from the Bay Area who grew up in the Gilman Street punk tradition and then discovered early-'80s groups like ESG and Liquid Liquid, who discovered that you could be as inventive and brittle as you wanted if you funked hard enough. One side is Out Hud's cello-centered mixology and crinkly dub; the other is a long, elastic groove by !!! whose lyrical subject, formal model, and main vocal influence are white-hot instinctive sex.

4. Hrvatski, Oiseaux 96-98 (Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge). The last hope for drum 'n' bass, part 1: getting rid of the bass. A spattering, clattering, mattering album with ideas about percussion nobody's ever really tried before. The title suggests, correctly, that Hrvatski are interested in kinds of music both much less formal than d'n'b (like birdsong) and much more formal (like composer Olivier Messiaen's birdsong-inspired work). Have I mentioned the only Pink Floyd cover I ever want to hear?

5. Boredoms, Super Roots 8 (WEA Japan). The last hope for drum 'n' bass, part 2: throwing out every received idea about it. The latest in the Boredoms' series of experimental EPs is three versions of "Jungle Taitei," a cover of the catchy little jungle-exotica theme song from a Japanese animated movie that inspired The Lion King. But the quadruple-time rhythms that are dumped on by the truckload aren't breakbeats, the remixes mess with the groove even more, and the result is like nothing else you've ever heard.

6. Ted Leo, Rx/pharmacists (Gern Blandsten). Leo's old mod/emo band Chisel never did much for me, but this disc -- dubbed and blurred and stretched and spindled bits of his own songs and his friends', spiked with out-of-context shrapnel from his favorite punk and hip-hop records, squeezed out of shape like putty and then imprinted with cautious, introverted new forms and words like fresh newspaper on putty -- is thoroughly original.

7. Cobra Killer, Cobra Killer (DHR). A counterpart to the Leo album, eschewing the usual Digital Hardcore political rage in favor of crudely diced-up samples and two women's delusional shrieking at nothing in particular, with a mix that sounds as though it were accidentally dropped in quicksand a few times. But it's one of those because of/despite situations: nothing else rocked this hard this year, and it sounds like it rocks by accident.

8. Die Trip Computer Die, Stadium Death (Alcohol). Back in the late '70s, the Homosexuals were like a Naked Lunch bad-trip hallucination of punk rock, and this semi-reunion of some of their principals does the same thing to sampler-pop. Things that seem like pleasantly chiming tunes turn out to be arty, caustic, and fragmented, with allusive jokes about violent death in place of romantic clichés, and cut-up defiance filling in for pop-song logic.

9. Blossom Toes, We Are Ever So Clean (Heritage Entertainment). A reissue of the archetypal acid-damaged psychedelic album, originally released in 1968. Song titles include "The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog," "Look at Me I'm You," and "I'll Be Late for Tea." Every track includes backwards instruments, fake-Ringo drumming, sky-high harmonies, and jaw-droppingly precious lyrics. Exactly like Spinal Tap's "Listen to the Flower People," but for real.

10. The Fall, The Marshall Suite (Artful). They're still improbably great and dangerous after 22 years in the trenches, mostly because lead sneerer Mark E. Smith's attitude is "No, fuck you, listen to me." To this end, he tosses his voice into an electronic threshing machine, covers a "Summertime Blues" rip-off, drowns himself in a vat of distortion, and rants as if this is the only chance he'll ever have to prove himself. May we all age so ferociously.


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