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APRIL 5, 1999: 

*** William Hooker


(Knitting Factory)

Versatility is the hobgoblin of postmodernism. Instead of mingling with mutual suspicion, various aesthetic strands, once at war to wear the mantle of the new faith, now lie next to one another in peaceful co-existence. One sometimes misses the barricades. And people who set out to forge new alliances sometimes end up delivering samplers -- a little of this, a little of that -- with nothing really meeting.

Fortunately the samples on drummer William Hooker's new CD are pretty good. The centerpiece is the nearly half-hour long "Sensor Suite," which with its front line of two saxes and trumpet over a piano-bass-drum rhythm section is a fine piece of good old-fashioned avant-garde jazz, from the moody out-of-tempo unison lines to the herniated sax solos to pianist Mark Hennen's Cecil Taylor-ish strategy of comping emphatically amid the firestorm to (most impressively) trumpeter Lewis Barnes's rummaging lyricism. This is bracketed by two versions of Sonic Youth's "Because (Of You)" with a different line-up -- three guitars now -- giving us the rock version of no-bar-line mysticism. For good measure there's a ballad that turns ugly ("Pure Imagination") and a totally charming drum feature ("The Gate"). But my guess would be that Hooker's heart is most firmly rooted in the free-jazz blowout of the suite -- there, at any rate, the blood and drama and little spinning wheels sound most unforced.

-- Richard C. Walls

*** The Gunga Din


(Tractor Beam)

Some bands -- the White Zombies and Marilyn Mansons of the world -- try to give you the creeps by dressing up like creatures of the night, jumping around maniacally, and making a whole lot of noise. Others take a more refined approach, relying on the tension and flow of the music instead of costume pageantry.

The Gunga Din are a garage band from New York, a city in which the concept of jamming in your parents' empty garage just doesn't exist. They're really more of a loft band, featuring current and former members of various underground bands. Singer Siobhan Duffy is from God Is My Co-Pilot; singer/guitarist Bill Bronson was mostly recently spotted in Congo Norvell; bassist Chris Pradica has Supreme Dicks on his résumé; Farfisa organist Maria Zastrow is a member of Stereo Total; and drummer Jim Sclavunos is one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds. On their Introducing . . . debut, the after-midnight vibe is nearly palpable, yet it's achieved subtly. There's no barking at the moon, just cool "96 Tear" organ lines, slow-motion surf-guitar riffs, and Hazlewood/Sinatra vocal duets delivered with tasteful restraint over hypnotic bass and drum grooves that sound as if they could go until dawn.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Grand Mal



This New York foursome's time-capsule nostalgia sounds a lot more quaintly charming than they probably intended. Channeling the glitter-flecked polyester pose of Mott the Hoople and T. Rex through the junkie punk of Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, and maybe the Only Ones, songwriter Bill Whitten (late of the St. Johnny) and his young dudes have made an album that's absolutely disposable -- and often fun as hell to listen to. Which, if we've learned anything from Ian Hunter and Marc Bolan, is probably the point.

The Bowie/Iggy-esque opening track, "Superstars," pretty much nails what's in store: Grand Mal's is a cheap wine-and-Ecstasy world of "neon boys," "broken androids," and Whitten sneering and feeling "like Dracula's teenage son." This theater of seedy scenarios is backlit by a lot of flashy production -- shuffling Madchester percussion, fuzzed-out Jesus and Mary Chain guitars, and little electronic noises that tell you it's a '90s recording. The wholesale Pavement ripoff "Picture You (As Always Falling)" is only one of the best things I've heard this year, and the equally blatant Stooges cop "Fun Fun Fun" is the kind of tune D Generation would give their leather jackets to have written.

-- Jonathan Perry

**1/2 Ginuwine


(550 Music/Epic)

For anyone who can't tell what Ginuwine's all about from his lascivious grin and the Billy Dee Williams 'stache that frames it, a primer: his name's Ginuwine and he's the ladies' choice. He gets up in 'em like a rented Rolls Royce. Or that's what his second album, 100% Ginuwine, leads us to believe -- an admitted "sexaholic," Ginuwine comes off like the king of the speed-dial booty call, a guy who begs, pleads, cries, and moans in every song because he knows the ladies dig that histrionic soul-man stuff. He's a B-team R. Kelly, singing sweet-naughty nothin' with one foot already out the bedroom window, and his finest moment on 100% is a cover of Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life," so note-perfect it could fool Bubbles.

So thank God for producer Timbaland -- he masterminded Ginuwine's 1996 hit "Pony" (a grinding groove that's become many a stripper's ace in the hole), and he turns 100% into a sweaty 16-track honeymoon suite. This is slow-jam Timbo, of course, functioning less like the cyber-funk beat wizard of Aaliyah's look-ma-no-cymbals smash "Are You That Somebody" and more like the guy who tailors Barry White's smoking jackets; and his late-night R&B can be as snoozy as anybody's. But when "Do You Remember" and "Final Warning" come alive -- with rhythmically bipolar drum programs homina-homina-ing and Timbaland speaker-phoning murmuring-playa asides and Jumbotron bass lines rollin' like thunder under the covers -- it almost doesn't matter how slack whatshisname's game is.

-- Alex Pappademas

** Frank Black and the Catholics



Opting for the direct approach again, Frank Black convened his new band, the Catholics, for 10 days of recording straight to two-track. That's more than twice as long as they took with Frank Black and the Catholics, but it still wasn't long enough to work the kind of magic Black has achieved in the past, both as the leader of the Pixies and on his second solo disc, Teenager of the Year. Black has obviously come to favor a stripped-down approach, and though his band are more than capable -- they're tight and forceful throughout the disc -- it's the stripping down of the songs that's the problem. Black's real songwriting successes have come when he's thrown listeners for a loop, sometimes three or four times in a single track. Classics like "Debaser" and newer, lesser-known numbers like "Thalassocracy" were relentlessly weird, dropping beats -- even whole measures -- and twisting through chord changes that by all rights were just plain wrong. This new crop of songs is tuneful and catchy enough, but the closer Black gets to normal, the easier he is to ignore.

-- Ben Auburn

**1/2 Donald Harrison



Alto-saxophonist Donald Harrison is a fluid, resourceful, sometimes adventurous player, in thrall to Coltrane and joined here by a pianist (Andrew Adair) who's steeped in McCoy Tyner. So there's no escaping the sense of familiarity, especially on the reharmonized "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise." On the plus side, "Blue Rose" is a pleasant tune in the vein of Trane's "Giant Steps," and Harrison, to his credit, also draws on Eric Dolphy, Sonny Criss, and Jackie McLean.

Over the last couple of albums, Harrison has been emphasizing funk and his New Orleans roots. He makes the Meters' "Cissy Strut" into an exciting modal swinger and digs in with an imaginative, pensive solo. The soul bass line and percussion of "Mr. Cool Breeze" establish an attractive groove right off, and Harrison sails over it superbly. "Nouveau Swing (Reprise)," a sung paean to jazz, shows how embarrassing jazz musicians can be when they try to go pop. The bit when Donald tells us to "check the blue notes connected to the new notes" might have been more effective if Free To Be gave us a stronger sense that Harrison is really after something "new."

-- Chris Fujiwara

*** Blur



The "woo-hoo" boys are back, it's just that in the couple of years since their last costume change (from Brit-pop mods of Parklife to indie-slackers of Blur) there's apparently been some romantic discord in the Blur camp -- namely frontguy Damon Albarn's break-up with Elastica's Justine Frischmann. So this time there's a bit more "boo-hoo" in the mix, particularly in the gospel-tinged sing-along "Tender," which kicks things off with choirboy vocals and a dash of churchy organ.

13 also finds the band working with the techno-oriented producer who engineered Madonna's last pop coup, William Orbit, though for the most part his tasteful ambient touches are overridden by guitarist Graham Coxon's unruly and abraded guitar tones and Albarn's fondness for Pavement and the Fall. "Song 2" worked so well on the last one that we've now got two more Blur "Songs," the sloppy slide-driven rocker "Swamp Song" and the gentler yet still sonically skewed ballad "Mellow Song." In other words, 13 is more or less a logical and successful progression from Blur, with more art-damaged noises and less in the way of ready-made sports cheers. ESPN may end up disappointed, and that in itself will probably please a lot of Blur fans.

-- Matt Ashare

*** Asa Brebner


(Asa Records)

Asa Brebner is, in no particular order, a savvy songwriter, a gifted roots-rock guitarist, and a first-class, grade-A cynic. On his first solo album (1996's Prayers of a Snowball in Hell), the former Jonathan Richman/Robin Lane sideman kept his darker streak in check and put his witty/romantic songs up front. On this one he basically says "to hell with it" and gets all the cranky, oddball numbers off his chest.

The title track's a catchy little tune about running one's family and one's finances into the ground; on "True Fine Mama" he comes on like a rock-and-roll casualty trying to write a message song, opining that all the homeless people on the street just need to get laid. On a more sensitive note, "Last Laugh" celebrates one of the perks of finding a new girlfriend: being able to flaunt it in front of the old girlfriend. All this venom is worked into tunes that could pass for commercial roots rock: the hooks and the twang are there, and Brebner's voice has taken on a latter-day Lou Reed quaver. The world-weariness gets out of hand only on the half-sung/half-spoken "Ruins"; elsewhere his characters have enough dogged determination to get them through. And he throws in one of his novelty songs, about a jolly family outing to "Indian Amusement Park" -- which, of course, shuts down before they show up.

-- Brett Milano

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