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MARCH 23, 1998: 

*** Vance Gilbert

SHAKING OFF GRAVITY

(Philo)

Flight has become a recurring theme for Boston singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert. In the past, he's sung of Amelia Earhart and of racing pigeons. On "Shaking Off Gravity," Gilbert uses the theme to explore interpersonal relationships. He alludes to a mythological tragedy during "Icarus by Night"; he explores the frustration of lovers taking flight from each other. The humorous, between-song banter of his live shows is missing, but Shaking Off Gravity compensates with personal revelation and Gilbert's passionate delivery. He produced the album himself, and it's more sparsely arranged than his earlier efforts, though additional tone colors are supplied by Everett Pendleton (electric guitar), Vinx (udu), John McCann (mandolin), Cliff Eberhardt (dobro), Matt Glaser (violin), Patty Larkin (accordion), and Dee Carstensen (harp). Yet the spotlight remains on Gilbert's delicate acoustic fingerpicking and his pure and soulful tenor.

-- Craig Harris


*** The Bells

THE ULTIMATE SEASIDE COMPANION

(Hit It!)

Don't be fooled by the innocuous band name, or the new label affiliation: the Bells is former Ministry/Revolting Cocks affiliate and ex-Wax Trax recording artist Chris Connelly -- collaborating, this time, with Gastr del Sol dude Jim O'Rourke and former Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin. You can't blame the Scottish-born singer for wanting to distance himself from his aggro-industrial past, particularly in light of his newfound appreciation of subtle melodicism and soft acoustic mellow dramas. The disc's title does maintain the nautical theme of his last Wax Trax offering (Shipwreck), and as usual, Connelly sounds as if he were swimming in a sea of Bowie, somewhere between the Isle of Hunky Dory and the rise of Ziggy Stardust. That despite his obvious desire to refer to, as the press bio points out, Nick Drake and the Tindersticks with haunting folk-rock arrangements and surrealistic poetry (nautically themed, of course). He can't help it if he sounds like The Man Who Sold The World -- so much so that The Ultimate Seaside Companion is probably the best Bowie disc since, hell, Scary Monsters.

-- Matt Ashare


**

RHYTHM & QUAD 166 Vol. 1

(EastWest)

Once a year or so Atlanta's bass scene provides some ridiculous, inescapable, wonderful hit -- "Dazzey Duks," "C'mon and Ride It (The Train)." But that's only the public face of a mini-industry that's always cranking out woofer-taxing tracks that are huge in the Deep South and mostly ignored elsewhere. Rhythm & Quad collects singles from bass up-and-comers, and though it's got the sound for the cars that go boom, it's a little disappointing, mostly because it's not quite crass enough.

It's a given that bass records are going to be made according to a specific formula -- the basic beat hasn't changed since "Planet Rock," because that's what makes the asses shake -- but the ones that are the most fun are usually the dumbest and dirtiest, too. The majority of these tracks come across as some kind of crossover attempt, but the singing and rapping aren't quite interesting enough on their own to break free of the big boom's gravitational pull. There are a few exceptions. B.M.E.'s "Kissable Spot" adapts smooth harmony R&B to bass; "Stationwagonpimpin'," from Sammy Sam and Skinny Man, is as insistent as "MyBabyDaddy" if not as clever. And the skit "MC Foul-Mouth" neatly tweaks the style's reflexive cussing.

-- Douglas Wolk


*** Loudon Wainwright III

LITTLE SHIP

(Charisma)

Loudon Wainwright isn't aging very well, which is good news for his art. His droll little songs of trepidation and perplexity have grown richer now that getting older has become a permanent subtext. Not that he's all that direct about it: only one of the 15 originals here, "The Birthday Present II," addresses that feeling of sentimental dread one gets when realizing that there's more -- much more -- life behind than ahead. But this feeling whiffs through the various one-more-broken-relationship songs, heightens the sense of improbability that he has actually raised children on "Bein' a Dad" ("You got to shoe 'em and clothe 'em/And try not to loathe 'em"), and adds a patina of absurdity to the social-commentary parody "Mr. Ambivalent" (a "Nowhere Man" for people who can't decide which socks to wear). It's all oddly heartening -- here's a man heading toward the far side of middle age and he's still obsessing over the inflections his lover leaves on his message machine ("OGM"). Wainwright has always sounded cleverly cranky, but now he's starting to sound weirdly wise. He knows that the small sufferings never end -- and that that in itself is pretty damn funny.

-- Richard C. Walls


**1/2 Junkie XL

SATURDAY TEENAGE KICK

(Roadrunner)

The Amsterdam-based techno outfit Junkie XL deliver innovative, hard-hitting beats on their debut CD, scoring in spite of the annoying atonal raps of former Urban Dance Squad dude Silver Surfering RudeBoy. At his best, RudeBoy comes across as a low-grade Mike D. He manages the low-intensity tracks, but Saturday Teenage Kick opens by highlighting his worst tendencies -- the screeching vocal performance of "Underachievers." And RudeBoy's lyrics are just as bad: "Be the coolest, Mr. Nuisance/Mogul cruisin'/Limo usin'/Tax-rate abusin'/Counterfeit usin'/Snake-attack impostor," he spits on "Billy Club." Fortunately, the controlling force behind Junkie XL is mixman Tom Holkenborg, a capable DJ whose bass-boosted beats have caught the ear of techno luminary DJ Keoki. Holkenborg weds trance and hardcore beats with extraordinary intuition, keeping the mix fresh with underwater effects, backwards tape loops, and other sonic embellishments. The best way to save this package would be to throw away the rapper.

-- Katherine Brown


*** Joe Satriani

CRYSTAL PLANET

(Epic)

Of all the current inhabitants of the shred-guitar subgenre, Satriani's the most consistently rewarding, probably because his music is conceived as music, not just as a platform for fretboard heroics. Crystal Planet is another fine collection of instrumentals, and considerably heavier than his last album, 1995's comparatively laid-back Joe Satriani.

Things get off to a powerful start with "Up in the Sky," as the urgent pace and energy of Satch and his band (Stu Hamm on bass and Jeff Campitelli on drums) prove more important than the inevitable yet gratifyingly short solo. And just in case you were concerned Joe didn't get enough blowing time on that one, "House Full of Bullets" follows up with some fluid, bluesy breaks. Over the course of 15 tracks, there are a few departures from the basic formula: the lovely sound painting "A Piece of Liquid," the solo rumination "Z.Z.'s Song," the experiment in 5/4 time "Trundrumbalind." But in general the goal is to lay down some mighty rock, and then rock some more.

-- Mac Randall


*** DJ Spooky

SYNTHETIC FURY EP

(Asphodel)

A self-referential, science-fiction-savvy writer/artist/musician in a hip-hop landscape that prides playas over thinkers, DJ Spooky -- a/k/a Paul Miller -- went from being 1996's avant-electronica critical darling to 1997's pomo punching bag following the release of the trippy, collagist soundscapes on his shrewd debut, Songs of a Dead Dreamer. But even as New York scribes blasted him for the circuitous, academic syntax and $10 vocabulary of his self-penned liner notes -- only critics are allowed to do that! -- Spooky emerged on several fronts at once: remixing Metallica for the Spawn soundtrack; texture-toasting on Ryuichi Sakamoto's symphonic Dischord; appearing on an album of works by 20th-century composer Iannis Xennakis; jamming with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo; preparing a book titled Flow My Blood the DJ Said; and hanging his art at the Whitney Biennial.

Fury brings jump-cut drum 'n' bass grooves and pounding funk loops into his trademark echo-heavy stereo spectrum, drawing on uncredited samples like the slashing, shower-scene string section from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho soundtrack. Deteriorating train whistles, fax/modem squeals, distant sax meanderings, and surprisingly supple scratching and turntable moves distill in a grainy, lo-fi sonic contraband that evokes the Burroughsian cut-and-paste dialectic of freaks, dreams, semiotic riddles and space-age distortions from where Spooky drew his still apt alias: the "Subliminal Kid." So, word up: who's playin' who?

-- James Rotondi


**1/2 b tribe

SENSUAL SENSUAL

(Atlantic)

Sometimes in this uneven set of 13 tracks, b tribe's music sounds exactly like Enigma's. Sometimes it's just like the Gipsy Kings'. Best are those songs that sound like both: "Háblame," "Desperada," and the title tune. The two styles work, when joined, as a kind of aural costume drama, very exotic indeed, and very uninhibiting. Once you've accepted orchestrations of Enigma-like odor languishing alongside flamenco guitar and Kings-ish vocals, it's no stretch at all to see yourself linking all manner of exotic scenes. For example: waterside sounds and Mexican canción in "Sa trincha" (folks who've heard Montreal's Lhasa de Sela sing her 1997 CD La Llorona will be less surprised by this one). Jazz, Enigma, and soul in "Sometimes." And best of all, the CD's exit track, "La única excusa," in which flamenco passion meets Brooks & Dunn's country.

-- Michael Freedberg


*** 6 String Drag

HIGH HAT

(E-Squared)

Add this Raleigh outfit to the roster of country-minded artists like the V-roys and Cheri Knight who have found a cozy little home on the E-Squared label of Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy. And chalk another one up for those boys, who sure do know how to pick 'em. 6 String Drag come at country-pickin,' foot-stompin', shot-shootin' goodness by way of the Stones' Let It Bleed -- even if Kenny Roby does sometimes sound a tad like Elvis Costello. But his voice, and his ability to turn a phrase, is where the Elvis similarity ends. This is a CD that spills over with lots of carousing gee-tars (Earle even drops by to pick a little acoustic on "I Can't Remember"), bass fiddles, mandolins, and even a honking sax or two. Steady strumming and drumming keeps tunes like "Ghost" and "Elaine" moving along at a nice, jaunty clip -- kinda like a pick-up truck bumping along a dirt track to the road house. 6 String Drag don't offer anything as essential as their boss's last few albums, but that's okay. Sometimes having a good time bumping along an old dirt road is enough.

-- Jonathan Perry



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