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FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Guajira (Sandia Peak Music)

Guajira has quickly risen to the top of the local world music scene with regular engagements all over town. And it's not at all surprising given the quality of the quintet's self-titled debut. The group's Latin- and flamenco-flavored sound simply begs to be danced to. And there are plenty of other influences hidden in Guajira's music that make the group far more accessible than your average Latin variety band. Case in point: The album closes with a Spanish language cover of the Kansas mega-hit, "Dust in the Wind," a questionable call given the reputation so-called classic rock carries with it these days. But its inclusion on the disc not only comforts the listener with the familiarity of an instantly recognizable melody, it succeeds in making clear the fact that Guajira are unafraid to spread their wings and coax freshness from the tried and true.

Still, it's Guajira's original music that carries the CD. Deft twin guitar playing, lofty vocal arrangements and a tightly locked-in rhythm section add up to a powerful debut by a band whose potential is obvious, if not fully realized. Chances are, Guajira's live shows are still your best bet. But they appear to be well on their way to achieving their onstage passion in more perfect harmony with their undeniable technical prowess. The next record, I expect, will rest head and shoulders above Guajira's altogether respectable debut. -- Michael Henningsen

Two Dollar Guitar Weak Beats and Lame-ass Rhymes (Smells Like Records)

First of all, languid, two-chord verse structures have never sounded as good as they do in the hands of Two Dollar Guitar, the best of a couple of recent side projects led by Sonic Youth drummer and come-lately pop genius Steve Shelley. Indeed, the beats are weak, but in the relaxed, sunny afternoon lackadaisical sense rather than in the sense that they're lifeless and boring. The rhymes, on the other hand, are anything but lame-ass, and with each well-turned phrase comes an expertly wrought melody, often without so much as a hint of "this is where the hook should go." It's an aesthetic that makes Two Dollar Guitar's fourth effort altogether mystifying and magical. It's a quiet album -- as was the previous, the highly improvisational Train Songs -- that speaks loudly in ways the great ones always have: directly into the innermost ear of the listener's soul.

Sonic Youth have always operated and thrived outside the safe and expected, and Shelley has managed to infuse the same ethos into the infrastructure of Two Dollar Guitar: rhythms so simple they appear as quasi-miracles, melodies so natural they, too, fall just short of being the result of divine intervention. To simply say that Weak Beats and Lame-ass Rhymes is an extraordinary album would be to great disservice to millions of hungry listeners waiting patiently for a new band to lead them to the Promised Land. -- Michael Henningsen

Nod Radio Giddy-Up (Smells Like Records)

Drug-soaked meanderings by this post-garage Rochester outfit make for a remarkably tidy sloppiness coupled with Lou Reed vocal style -- a methadone drawl supplied by singer Scrappy Joe. It's gentle yet sassy: a Sunday afternoon drive through the fluffy white snow of a severe blizzard. Or maybe The Stooges meet the Velvet Underground for an afternoon of sucking back melonballs on some New York City rooftop. Guitars chase vocals in Pavement constructions on "Water Down," my favorite track. Stones riffs ensue, but never get real bluesy. The rubber band bass line makes Radio Giddy-Up Nod's funkiest endeavor yet. Not necessarily an avenue I would have perused myself -- more of an appeal to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion/Ritalin set -- but well-executed nonetheless.

Music for a generation nursed on Television, the Modern Lovers, and Pussy Galore, Nod is not for everyone, but those who do get it will be in love. Their previous album (also on Steve Shelly's Smells Like Records), Magnetic Anomaly is still their best work to date and got my vote for best album of '98. I'd recommend it as a starting point for the uninitiated. -- Heather Iger

Us3 Flip Fantasia: Hits and Remixes (Blue Note)

I remember listening to Us3's 1993 debut, Hand on the Torch, lying on the floor of my college apartment with my jazzbo girlfriend Terry as she said, at the beginning of every riff sampled from the enormous Blue Note catalogue, "That's Freddie Hubbard," or "That's Herbie Hancock." Listening to this somewhat unexpected hits compilation -- I'd never heard of them again after that first album -- I'm reminded that neither Terry nor I ever commented on the rapping.

London natives Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson show excellent taste in jazz samples and facility at turning them into hip-hop riffs, as with the lifts from Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" on their excellent hit single "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," probably the best acid jazz single ever. Unfortunately, their rappers are uniformly uninspired and forgettable, and the four remixes, including a Nellee Hooper mix of "Cantaloop" that pointlessly removes the best elements of the song, are unessential. Flip Fantasia sounds great as long as you're not paying too close attention, but you might as well go buy the original Blue Note jazz records. -- Stewart Mason

Seely Winter Birds (Koch International)

Seely released two astonishingly Stereolab-like albums on the British label Too Pure in the mid-'90s, but the Atlanta-based quartet has changed their approach quite a bit. There's a few Stereolabby drones, and the wispy harmonies of guitarist Lori Scacco and bassist Joy Waters still recall those of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, but where earlier records had a definite tribute-band quality, the new songs are considerably more wide-ranging.

That's not to say you can't play "Spot The Similarity" with Winter Birds -- I hear Tortoise, Amp, Mouse On Mars, Pram and a touch of My Bloody Valentine -- but that's because Seely are working approximately the same patch of ground: male and female voices often buried in the mix, atmospheric keyboards, guitars that alternately chime and drone. As the man said, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like, but it's often hard to shake the sense that you've heard this all before.

But not always. Not many bands can pull off an ode to the bassist's dead dog, but Waters' straightforward delivery and non-soppy lyrics make the closing "Sandy" surprisingly sweet and dignified. More importantly, its spacious vibes-and-brushed-drums arrangement makes it probably the most appealing and original-sounding song on the album. I hope future experiments in this arena don't come at such a high emotional price, but with this song, Seely have begun exploring a sound that's truly theirs. Hopefully the next album will continue in this direction. -- Stewart Mason

Pocket Size 100% Human (Atlantic)

British duo Pocket Size's keyboard-heavy pop sounds slickly commercial at first pass but reveals more interesting facets upon further reflection. The first tracks on the album, like the highly-polished singles "Walking" and "Human Touch," are radio-ready late '90s adult pop somewhere in the stylistic vicinity of both Sarah McLachlan and Donna Lewis. Further on, the slinky but strange "Squashy Lemon Squeezy" and the noisy, distorted "Sunbeam," which incorporates schoolyard rhymes into its chorus, are perhaps less immediately gratifying but more satisfying in the long term. On tracks like those and the sample-heavy, trip-hoppy "Miles and Miles," stylistic touchstones become more wide-ranging. The sprightly, horn-heavy "Tell Me Who" actually sounds like some sort of strange but entertaining cross between Badfinger and Split Enz.

Liz Overs has an unremarkable but appealing voice which fits the songs nicely, and the duo's clean self-production and subtle arrangements make up for the fact that not all the songs are as strong as they could be. Still, Pocket Size know how to write pleasing pop hooks, and as disposable ear candy goes, you can't beat this. -- Stewart Mason

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