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MAY 4, 1998: 

**1/2 Walter "Wolfman" Washington

FUNK IS IN THE HOUSE

(Bullseye Blues)

This is a mess of straight-up soul music the way they used to do it. Sweaty, live-sounding funk grooves, a busy brass section huffing and puffing, late-night love songs, and heartfelt vocals that follow no script because the Wolfman is just feeling it too much. But the veteran New Orleans blues man also tosses in a cheesy ballad or two and a little R&B lite on this, his first stateside release since 1991. The candle-lit highlight is Wolfman's take on Gamble & Huff's "Close the Door," originally a slow seduction production for crooner Teddy Pendergrass: Wolfman leaps from bass tones to falsetto moans as background singers chirp earnestly behind him. Elsewhere, Funk Is in the House features Wolfman's brittle and dynamic guitar work sparring with the well-tuned Roadmasters on several uptempo instrumentals, a fiery reading of Ray Charles's "Mary Ann," and a handful of originals.

-- Bill Kisliuk


*** Semisonic

FEELING STRANGELY FINE

(MCA)

Semisonic have a way of sneaking up on you. On '96's Great Divide, the Minneapolis trio fused a woozy after-show-breakfast-at-Denny's vibe with sparkling bursts of chorus-laden heartland pop that sounded at once familiar and distinctive. Although the rush isn't so immediate this time around -- the new disc opens with the mid-temp plaint "Closing Time" -- the rewards are there.

Pianos, strings, and looped guitars comfort the arid loneliness of Dan Wilson's voice, which is well suited to these songs about loneliness, restlessness, and emotional limbo. Even the infectious bash-and-pop of "This Will Be My Year" conceals a less certain sentiment, and the Ben Folds Five-ish bounce of "Never You Mind" feels like the denial that glosses over the way a troubled relationship is unraveling underneath. The songs' characters, who appear shaken and surprised by doubts and failures, are entirely recognizable, as is their plight. Sometimes the murky, messy realities of life sneak up on you too.

-- Jonathan Perry


**** Othar Turner & the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band

EVERYBODY HOLLERIN' GOAT

(Birdman)

This is blues from the days before blues began. Othar Turner leads what's apparently the last of the Mississippi fife-and-drum bands, playing a music that sounds straight off the slave ships. Turner, who's about 84 years old, blows a hand-carved cane flute over a clutch of drummers beating out trance-inducing polyrhythms with martial intensity. The difference between this music and its motherland parent is in the drums -- which are parade-style snares and basses rather than the skin-covered variety -- and the tunes. Turner's as likely to take a pass at "My Babe" (on this CD) or "Spoonful" (not here) as to play long, hip-shaking jams that induce the slow drag and other juke-joint dances that grind a whole lot dirtier than the lambada.

Everybody Hollerin' Goat is the first commercially available recording of this music in more than 20 years. It isn't a field recording, but it's not far from one. The 15 tracks are essentially jamming variations on Turner's usual repertoire, spiced up a bit when producer Luther Dickinson (son of Memphis music kingpin Jim Dickinson) sits in on slide guitar. "Shimmy She Wobble" and "2-Stepping Place" are especially mesmeric in their gamboling feel. Crank it up, get some barbecue and your favorite intoxicant, and shuffle around the room and you'll be approximating what goes on for 12 hours or more at Turner's annual summer picnics where his famous slow-smoked goat -- hence the title -- is the main dish. Bon appétit, y'all.

-- Ted Drozdowski


**1/2 Los Amigos Invisibles

THE NEW SOUND OF THE VENEZUELAN GOZADERA

(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

Rock en español? More like Spanish-language disco/funk/house, or a soundtrack to a yet-to-be-produced Pedro Almodóvar película centered on the grooves of this catchy Caracas-based sextet. Making music to watch girls by, Los Amigos serve up a smart, bright pastiche of tradition subverted to celebrate dance-floor hedonism.

On the disc's intro, a narrator describes Los Amigos' sound as "a fusion of different elements of Latin dance and sex culture." The group embrace both on the manic opening track, "Ultra-Funk," and a host of others devoted to women, including "Mi Linda," "Sexy," and "Quiero Desintegrar a Tu Novio" (loose translation: "I Want To Kill Your Boyfriend"). Frank sexual content (the trip-hoppy "Otra Vez," with guests Arto Lindsay and Bill Ware, and "El Disco Anal") will certainly keep Los Amigos invisible even on Latin radio stations, and some of the tunes suffer from a retro vibe -- the Esquivel swipes are so three years ago -- that's too ironic for this group of rowdies. Keep a tongue firmly in cheek, find a mirror ball, and let the cultures clash.

-- Mark Woodlief


*1/2 LaBouche

S.O.S.

(BMG)

"Sure to escalate their posture from a dominant dance force into a mainstream pop mainstay," says the PR release accompanying this German duo's long-overdue second US CD. Dance-music fans know this scam all too well: the first CD has fiery, lurid, over-the-top music so fast and metallic it scares your ears off and arouses lots of controversy. Then comes the second CD: tempos slow down, melodies get polish, the group quote hooks from previous pop songs.

As always with LaBouche, the ballads lack drama. As for the covers: do we really need to hear LaBouche render Lime's 1984 tender-voiced cult classic "Unexpected Lovers" in their own inappropriately screaming style? Or listen in "S.O.S." to a false replay of Rhetta Hughes's "Sending Out an S.O.S.," a 1975 disco secret? Only in the lushly dreamy "Whenever You Want" and "Sweet Little Persuader" and in the gothically Latinized "Bolingo" do Lane McCray, Melanie Thornton, and their German studio cohort offer the dangerous lusts and spacy idealism that made LaBouche's first CD Eurodisco's best ever.

-- Michael Freedberg


*1/2

JANA McCALL

(Up)

Eight years or so ago, Jana McCall played bass in a Seattle band of women. Dickless weren't what you'd call subtle, but they were vigorous, funny and terse -- in short, exactly the opposite of this solo debut. Jana McCall doesn't rock, it oozes, drenched in Angelo Badalamenti-style reverb and inching along. Almost every song circles droningly around two or three minor chords, on and on, never going anywhere in particular.

Mood music like this can be made to work by a particularly distinguished vocal performance, or by especially powerful lyrics, or by devotion to melody or mood -- Mazzy Star have pulled it off -- but McCall never rouses herself from her torpor. She sings like a ventriloquist, never quite making her words clear; when they are audible, they're not too hot. Her melodies barely make it beyond a range of a few notes, and none of them sticks in the memory past the last note's throbbing fade-out. It's pretty in a background-music sort of way, but that's all.

-- Douglas Wolk


*** Cash Money

HALOS OF SMOKE AND FIRE

(Touch and Go)

When Mississippi musicians originally brought the blues to Chicago, they couldn't have anticipated Cash Money, a young, white, Windy City guitar-and-drums duo who mix Delta mud with ferocious guitar growls and solid groove. Although it's clear that Led Zeppelin loom large in the souls of guitarslinger/screamer John Humphrey and skin pounder Scott Giampino, the pair's love of early Sun studios recordings and Southern boogie bleeds through each track of this sophomore release. Call it sludge-a-billy, or imagine the Flat Duo Jets with more blues and less "billy."

Although they employ the same vintage tube-mike distorto-vocals as bands like the Delta 72, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the Duo Jets, Cash Money openly disdain such comparisons; on Halos, they push out beyond the blues to incorporate violin, lap steel, and organ. The guys always bring it back to basics, however: there's Humphrey's darkly romantic vocals and acoustic guitar on "Evangeline," and then there's Giampino's "cowbell," a dead ringer for the sound of your apron-clad ma whacking your moonshine-soaked pa in the head with a frying pan -- probably like the one Cash Money use to make bacon on stage at their live shows.

-- Meredith Ochs



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