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MARCH 2, 1998: 

*** Tommy Keene

ISOLATION PARTY

(Matador)

If consummate power-pop craftsman Tommy Keene were a professional student instead of a musician, Isolation Party would be a PhD dissertation. His stint in DC new-wavers Razz (with bassist now turned producer Ted Nicely) was his undergraduate fun. A subsequent solo career (with releases on obscure North Carolina indie Dolphin and Geffen in the mid to late '80s) found him working toward a master's degree, which he took his time delivering to committee on 1996's brilliant Ten Years After.

Now, with Isolation Party, Keene refines his pop theses, striking an intelligent balance between the buzzing riffs and rhythms of Ten Years After and the gorgeous buoyancy of early favorites like "Places That Are Gone." He takes on Mission of Burma's "Einstein's Day," flirting with indie nostalgia, then follows it with a song ("Battle Lines") that refers to 1982 in its lyrics. When he declares, "The war goes on . . . " he could be talking about his own career. But like real academics who struggle in today's cruel job market, or other professorial popsters (the dBs' Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, Let's Active's Mitch Easter, Game Theory/Loud Family's Scott Miller) who keep turning out great music without commercial recognition, Keene seems prepared to stick around.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** The Radio Kings

MONEY ROAD

(Bullseye Blues)

Boston's Radio Kings have reinvented themselves as a roots-rock outfit. That might appear an odd choice given that their career as a national touring and recording blues band is well under way. But it's a good artistic move. To me, they seemed merely adequate when they recycled blues, with a surfeit of soul. By playing hard and tough on Money Road they've avoided making another mediocre album and come up with perhaps the best revivalist rock since the Blasters (whose Dave Alvin penned this CD's liner notes) busted up.

Sure, there are shuffles and slow blues here, but they're delivered with a new attitude. Brian Templeton's hard-edged voice bites into these impressively written songs with total commitment. Michael Dinallo's guitars work like hip-pocket razors, slashing vibrato-laden licks into tunes like "Money in Her Pocket" or drawing blood with the emotionally knotted solo he carves into "My Day of Reckoning (Has Finally Come)." In that song, the Radio Kings may have found their first truly great signature number. Templeton's vocals sound haunted and honest, trapped in a world of trouble. It's the kind of edgy, believable performance the band couldn't quite muster on disc in the past. And it's proof they've found their calling.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** Mike Ireland & Holler

LEARNING TO LIVE

(Sub Pop)

Sub Pop may be best known as the indie responsible for grunge, but with Mike Ireland & Holler's debut the Seattle label puts its feet down in rootsier terrain. Ireland and his Kansas City-based backing trio romp, stomp, croon, and, well, holler their way through country with a two-step twist. Theirs is a pop/honky-tonk hybrid accented by string-sweetened countrypolitan melodies. Viola, cello, and violin swell around the pained weeper "Worst of All" and underpin the drama of Ireland's aching tenor on the opening number, "House of Secrets." Pared down to a guitar/bass/drums foursome, the band still hold their own on the pessimistic but uptempo "Headed for a Fall," which is energized by twangy guitar riffs and swinging roadhouse rhythms.

-- Phillip Zonkel


*1/2 GodheadSilo

SHARE THE FANTASY

(Sub Pop)

GodheadSilo are the loudest duo in rock: one bassist, one drummer, and, as they say, volume, volume, volume, almost all at bowel-shaking frequencies. On this album, their fourth, they've gone metal, or as metal as you can get without guitar. Getting heavy lets GodheadSilo show off what they can do -- their twitching, low-end riffing is impressively massive, and the harder they can hit, the better. But this also points up the band's chief weakness: an over-reliance on ironically distancing allusions toward other music. Share the Fantasy keeps underlining its detachment from its sources -- from the fake black-metal graphics of the cover to the silly between-song samples to the new-wave synth near the end of "Goin' Commando" to, most egregiously, a rocked-up but basically faithful cover of "In the Air Tonight" (yes, that one). There's no way to reclaim the song from its kitsch context. But it's also the best-written song on the album. Although GhS's own compositions get lots of room to rock, they aren't that interesting on their own: the album is big on style and empty at its center.

-- Douglas Wolk


*** Fred Hersch

THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK

(Nonesuch)

Another Monk tribute? Leave it to pianist Fred Hersch to breath some life into a tired concept. Hersch understands the architecture of Monk's tunes: many of this album's dozen selections offer ingenious variations and paraphrases. But he's also different enough from Monk to come at the material from unique angles -- Monk ambushed by lyricism.

The attraction lies in hearing the many subtle and surprising ways Hersch accommodates Monk's conception of the piano with his own. There are Monkish angles protruding from the softer ripples of a meditation on "Crepuscule with Nellie." Hersch builds his solo on "Think of One" by playfully repositioning the spaces in the melody while his characteristic voicings and wider dynamic range flesh out the tune without changing its essential character. He embellishes "Evidence" with sly riffs that peek out between the interstices of Monk's tune. And on the brilliant "Five Views of Misterioso," one of the most skeletal of Monk's compositions, he coaxes shades of meaning from a few notes by simple variations in touch, dynamics, and tempo. It's an insightful, economical performance worthy of the composer himself.

-- Ed Hazell


***

FATAL MAMBO

(Tinder)

The eight members of Fatal Mambo, a band from Montpellier in France's Occitan South, call their salsa-based dance sauce "salsaioli" -- salsa, yes, but blended with aioli, the garlic-and-olive-oil mayonnaise featured on Mediterranean fish menus from Barcelona to Bordighera. The aioli part of their music is to sing in French. In their music, however they cling much more closely to the delicate triplets and piano-and-horn arrangements of traditional salsa than the Gipsy Kings, say, do to the formats of Gypsy rumba. That they need not do so is proved by the Parisian love-comedy "Tu le sais" (with a surprise Arabic tarab beat break!) and by "Salsaioli" itself, a mix of rock guitar, triplet beats, and hard-knock bass lines that plays all the mischief it can with salsa tradition. In Mediterranean music, the more culture clash and mischief there is, the better.

-- Michael Freedberg


** Chris Mills

EVERY NIGHT FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE

(Sugar Free)

Set martyrdom to music and it's been known to pay the rent. If Chris Mills has his druthers, you'll come away from this disc thinking he learned that the hard way. Aches and pains are the take-home message he packs into Every Night, his quivering sophomore follow-up to (yes, really) Nobody's Favorite. Subtle the man is not. Mills laces his Uncle Tupelo-esque tracks with Gen-anXiety and pours on the echoey reverb -- you can practically see the girls wringing their hands in the first row. Yet his voice is just gravelly enough to be interesting: it sounds best on the disc's more uptempo tracks and when Edith Frost (Drag City) joins him to lay down the lovely and straightforward duet "Sawtooth." Too bad the track collapses into a pathetic "chopsticks" ending picked out on the piano. Mills pulls off lines like "I've got a fresh young mouth/Just wish that I could shut it," with charming aplomb. That song, "Fresh Young Mouth," makes sense on both counts: if he could only curtail his tendency to wallow in self-pity, he might have better luck singing for his supper.

-- Katherine Brown


*** Beausoleil

ARC DE TRIOMPHE TWO STEP

(Hemisphere/Metro Blue)

The dreamy French-Caribbean tones of Beausoleil's recent L'Amour ou la Folie are a far cry from the youthful rocking exuberance of this 1976 CD, the group's Paris-recorded debut, which has now become available over here. Rollicking out of southwestern Louisiana's murky bayou country, Beausoleil have grown to become cultural ambassadors for French-Americans. But even early on they showed impressive finesse for a group of five teenage and twentysomething hippies digging into their vibrant ancestral music with assertive accordion, zipping fiddle, and high-pitched vocals. Cajun music has always transcended language barriers -- here the country-pop standard "Just Because" becomes a whirling two-step. "CIA" sounds eerily ancient. Although fiddling leader Michael Doucet is the only member of the current group who was around for Arc de Triomphe Two Step, Beausoleil's goal hasn't changed a bit: solid historicism entwined with bon temps rouler.

-- Bruce Sylvester


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