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By Stewart Mason

JANUARY 17, 2000: 

The Music Tapes First Imaginary Symphony For Nomad (Elephant 6/Merge)

You know, a lot of albums by members of the Elephant 6 collective have been pretty weird, but never before have I actually wondered about the creators' sanity. If Julian Koster is not genuinely mentally or emotionally disturbed, then he's doing an awfully impressive simulation of someone who is. Koster's endearing/annoying adenoidal voice (imagine Screech from "Saved By the Bell" with his own indie band) and musical saw have previously appeared on records by Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control, but the debut album from his own band The Music Tapes is more outre than anything either of those bands has ever attempted.

It combines a trippy, sometimes disturbing collage of tape effects, voice manipulations, bizarre instrumentation and arrangements with a near-impenetrable overarching concept about televisions being alien invaders. Somehow it's able to weave in both the 1959 suicide of television's first Superman, George Reeves, on "Fanfare for Speeding Bullet" and a creepy Freudian subtext on songs like "March of the Father Fists" and "Song for the Death of Parents." First Imaginary Symphony For Nomads is undeniably a powerful and often fascinating work. There's even a handful of really catchy skewed pop songs in the best Elephant 6 tradition.

But from the elaborate packaging, with a comic-book-style explication of the story, an odd cardboard pop-up, and several photos of rooms wallpapered with Koster's strangely obsessive drawings and scribbles, to the contents of the CD itself, there's a definite air of Roky Erickson/Syd Barrett-style instability. Your enjoyment of this album may be limited by your comfort level for that sort of thing.


Osibisa Sunshine Day: The Very Best of Osibisa (Dressed To Kill)

More than a decade before Paul Simon's Graceland and the U.S./UK breakthroughs of King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti, the African group Osibisa was well-known to mainstream rock audiences, especially in England where their releases on the hip indies Island and Virgin, complete with the period's de rigeur Roger Dean artwork on their sleeves, found wide acceptance among the rock cognoscenti. This translated into genuine popular success when 1974's charming, infectious single "The Coffee Song" became a much-played UK radio hit.

Sunshine Day: The Very Best of Osibisa collects 28 of their classic Afropop tunes on three CDs, each around 40 minutes. While "The Coffee Song" may be the band's best-known track, all of these songs are exciting, potent African pop, from the exhilarating title track to the hypnotic, powerful "Africa We Go Go." Heard with more than 25 years of hindsight, this jazz-tinged pop music might seem a little tame to audiences familiar with more challenging African artists like Thomas Mapfumo or Fela, but novices to the joys of African music will find Osibisa an excellent start. And at a list price of $14.99 for about two hours of music, it's a bargain as well.


Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers Falling Into Place (RPM/Columbia)

Still best known as the guy who sang the title song in That Thing You Do!, Mike Viola has had much worse luck with his own band. Booted from his previous label after they rejected his debut album, Viola spent two years in legal limbo before reappearing with the entirely new Falling Into Place. Sporting a revised, somewhat rougher singing voice, Viola also proves to be a fairly inconsistent songwriter. He gets credit for mixing things up -- the stark clavinet ballad "Stop When It Hurts" and the harmonica-and-brass-tinged "Once I Was" are highlights -- but 14 relatively lengthy songs is at least two too many, and even some of the good songs are rather unmemorably arranged and produced. At least half of this record is excellent, though, and with a more sympathetic producer and slightly better songwriter, Viola may finally put his movie-voice past to rest.


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