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MAY 17, 1999: 

*** John Stein Trio, GREEN STREET (A-Records)

You'd think elegant guitar/organ jazz must be an oxymoron, but guitarist John Stein brings a deceptive finesse to this familiar greasy soul-jazz sound. He has a softer attack than, say, organ-trio guitar king Grant Green, but the funk is there in his riffing original tunes, in the easy-swinging drive of his lines. Beneath the bold outlines there's infinite detail that you don't often find in the genre. Listen to the stunningly articulated ornaments on his original "Hotcakes," or the Wes Montgomery-style mix of chords, octaves, and single-note phrases in "Booga Lou." They're the kind of details that might not register the first time around but keep the album fresh on each relistening. It doesn't hurt that Stein has done serious playing time with soul-jazz (and bebop) master Lou Donaldson, or that he's joined here by another veteran of the groove, sax/flute man David "Fathead" Newman. Ken Clark is the able keyboard man, Dan Hurst the drummer.

-- Jon Garelick

*** Natacha Atlas, GEDIDA (Mantra/Beggars Banquet)

Someday, perhaps, the lady's handlers in Transglobal Underground will again release an entire Atlas CD as eloquent as Diaspora. On her third album, however, as on last year's Halim, one needs accept a whole lot of songs Arabicized and trip-hopped in search of the one or two that allow Atlas to be what she really is: the decade's lushest and most persuasive singer of exotic, romantic dream pop.

On Halim, that song was "Agib," the last of 12 tracks. This time the high drama comes first: her version of Françoise Hardy's "Mon amie la rose" -- in which Atlas's olive-garden French meets the most fragrantly Arabic shaabi beat imaginable, expressing all the grace in Hardy's lyric of love and death, the short-lived intensity of the first leading to the unrequited sad permanence of the second. Atlas touches the ecstatic summit, but though Gedida offers other moments of symphony-and-Cairo-talk elevation -- "Bahlam," "Ezzay," "The Righteous Path," and especially "Bastet" (a clever blend of shaabi and rap) -- none reaches the heights of "Mon amie." Gedida is less disfigured by tricked-up rhythms and costume-drama Arabism than Halim, but too much of it lacks the fragile music and vocal vulnerability that made Diaspora an album to love.

-- Michael Freedberg

**1/2 Stephen Prina, PUSH COMES TO LOVE (Drag City)

An LA conceptual artist and a member of the current Red Krayola line-up, Stephen Prina spends most of his solo debut playing intriguing word games. "Cums for, cums to/That's where he came/My modest, one-room home/He pushed it in/And then he pulled it ouch," he sings on "Cums for Shove," the disc's opening track. It's a punning narrative fragment that might be about a rape or just an extremely detached sexual encounter, and its peculiarity is heightened by Prina's cold, lounge-singer vocals and Teletubby synths. This chilling contrast between the sterile tone of the vocals and music and the violently sensual content of the lyrics is a specialty Prina shares with Krayola's Mayo Thompson and Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs, though he doesn't have either's penchant for art-rock, avant-noise, and jazz flourishes. Instead, despite backing here by Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, he relies mostly on peppy trumpets and cheesy keyboard tones.

It's also worth noting that the lyrics Prina intones with such hermetic panache are mostly the work of other people: LA splatter-pop novelist Dennis Cooper, poet Amy Gerstler, New York fiction writer Lynne Tillman. Still, Push Comes to Love is a fascinating example of what pop music might sound like if Brian Eno and Marcel Duchamp were muses more popular than the Beatles.

-- Alec Hanley Bemis

** Simon Says, JUMP START (Hollywood)

The culture factory's synergism is admirable, if obvious. Just as teen films are massing for spring and summer multiplex campaigns, support troops (the music Marines?) are at the ready. With producers Rob Cavallo (Green Day) and Mark Needham (Cake) as generals, Sacramento's Simon Says deploy martial rhythms and adrenalized riffage as representatives of the uniformity of the new teen order. Jagged and nimble one moment ("Ship Jumper," "Life Jacket"), massive and behemoth the next ("Sever," "Nucleus"), the young quartet are notable for bringing the battle to a new flank -- in lieu of established festivals (Warped Tour, Ozzfest, et al.), Simon Says previewed their debut's April 20 release with a tour of West Coast high schools, taking their aggressive sonics straight to the converted. It might pay off, as the next part of the band's tour of duty includes special ESPN shows. First the kids, then the jocks -- grab them by their balls and their hearts and minds will follow.

-- Mark Woodlief

*** Jimmy Cliff, SHOUT FOR FREEDOM (Milan)

Jimmy Cliff, the only reggae star whose profile matches that of the late Bob Marley, toured Africa in 1985. While he was in the Congo (then Zaire), he recorded the tracks for this album with three of that country's most influential bands: TPOK, led by Franco, the guitar sorcerer who was probably the most influential African composer of the past 50 years; Afrisa International, fronted by Tabu Ley Rochereau, the man who set the standard for Congolese singing; and Grand Zaiko Wawa, a group who evolved from Zaiko Langa Langa, the best African "new wave" band of the late '70s.

These bands play soukous, a fusion of Cuban son and various Congolese folk forms that's been the West African dance music of choice since the early '60s. Soukous is marked by its fast tempo, emotive vocals, and dazzling guitar work. Most tunes have two syncopated lead lines dueling for your attention; Afrisa use lead bass and an extra rhythm guitar to add complexity to their arrangements. But since the lyrics are usually in Creole or French, this music hasn't been widely available in this country. With Cliff's name recognition, soulful vocals, and English lyrics, soukous could finally make an impact on American listeners.

-- J. Poet

*** Big Sugar, HEATED (Capricorn)

Capricorn's best signing since Gov't Mule combine big guitars with big influences: the reverb-drenched sweep of Jamaican dub and the rhythmic tics of reggae, as well as the tight hi-hat and whomping snare of hip-hop. But they are purely a rock band, driven by Gordie Johnson's nasty, fat-assed guitar and an urge to grind that cuts into blaring declarations of purpose like "Where I Stand" and the smooth groove "100 Cigarettes." They're Canadian, too, so they've got the balls to cover Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Let It Ride" like the sparkling rock gem it is. Johnson's also a chameleon-like singer who can glide to a pleasing near-falsetto or shout like the bluesmen he copped some of his licks from as a kid. If all new mainstream rock were this inventive, I'd actually be able to listen to WAAF.

-- Ted Drozdowski

** The C. Gibbs Group, 29 OVER ME (Atlantic)

Owsley may claim that the radio has him by the ear, but it's Christian Gibbs who sounds like the radio itself -- kinda predictable, polluted by a glut of styles, titillating in small doses. The short of it: Gibbs comes off like a cipher on his first major-label disc. 29 over Me is a spinning FM dial spewing out bits of alterna-pop and classic rock, hitting and missing its marks with equal mediocrity. The one-time Modern English hireling is an adept studio rocker, however; his work is competent if not compelling. When nonchalant ("House in a Bottle), he's Jeff Lynne beveling a another multitracked jewel. When he's blue ("29 over Me"), it's more like Robert Forster crooning a Grant McLennan tune. Both have their catchy sides, so I foresee "Animals Criminals" grabbing the "Sex and Candy" crowd, or at least being segued into "Closing Time." After all, Gibbs is an impressive shape shifter. And he sounds more natural copping Jagger's "Fool To Cry" falsetto than Michael Stipe did on that Monster tune.

-- Jim Macnie

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