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AUGUST 24, 1998: 

**1/2 The Figgs

COULDN'T GET HIGH . . .

(Absolute A Go Go)

Releasing their fourth album on as many labels proves these pedigreed New York rockers have perseverance, and Couldn't Get High . . . 's 12 songs show the quartet are still offering high-quality tunes. In the past, the Figgs have participated in Undertones and Graham Parker tributes, so it's only natural to hear an element of throwback to their sound. At the same time, the band possess the same timeless rock-and-roll hooks and sensibilities that made heroes out of those influences.

Now that they've toiled more than a decade in obscurity, you can hear more than a little frustration rising to the surface on guitarist/vocalist Mike Gent's "A Fuse About To Blow," "The Noose Was Tight," and the bristling "Now!" Gent leaves more playful but no less energetic weekend themes to drummer Peter Hayes ("The Bar") and guitarist/vocalist Guy Lyons, who delivers an impressive R&B/skiffle romp, "If That's What You Want." Bassist/vocalist Pete Donnelly contributes the CD's most poignant, complex number, the Graham Parker-esque "Like To Know."

-- Mark Woodlief


**1/2 Sexy Death Soda

CALIFORNIA POLICE STATE

(Bong Load Custom)

Two things in particular make this Southern California combo notable. The first is their Beck connection -- both singer/songwriter Steve Hanft (a/k/a Steaksauce) and drummer Lisa Demerol played with the inimitable Mr. Hanson in Liquor Cabinet earlier in the '90s, and Hanft has directed several of Beck's videos. The second is their fairly faithful and remarkably well-executed cover of Captain Beefheart's "Plastic Factory." And on the wigged-out "November Reign," SDS do a fine job of combining the styles of those two LA mavericks (who aren't as dissimilar as you first might think).

The rest of California Police State is unexceptional fun, with nasal singing and zany toilet-mouthed hipster lyrics that are more than a little reminiscent of Ween. Although the band's attempts to sound psychedelic usually fall flat, they do tap into a winning, garage-rocking groove on the appropriately named "Acid Trip." In fact, SDS are at their best when they're at their most aggressive.

-- Mac Randall


***

OZOMATLI

(Almo Sounds)

If the music that best defined the zeitgeist of Los Angeles in the '70s was the country rock of the Eagles, and the late '80s were measured by the rage and defiance of N.W.A and Ice Cube, then what sort of sound will come to represent the LA of the late '90s? The debut album of Ozomatli, a 10-piece muticultural crew from Southern California, provides the answer with an original brew of Latin grooves, low-rider funk, reggae, and hip-hop that works as a soundtrack to a post-riot LA. "Super Bowl Sundae," one of the album's highlights, is a perfect example of their hybrid aesthetic: it begins with a sitar and tabla duet, then smoothly moves into a guitar-and-turntable workout, which is followed by heavy hits from the horn section, soaring Spanish harmonies, and baritone rhyming from the group's MC, Chali 2na (who, along with Ozomatli DJ the Cut Chemist, is also a member of the LA hip-hop group Jurassic 5). The result is an inspiring mix of ancient and modern, acoustic and electronic, Spanish and English, politics and dance.

-- Michael Endelman


*** Guster

GOLDFLY

(Hybrid/Sire)

What's left to say about Somerville's own Guster at this point? The acoustic power trio have become one of the East Coast's most popular live club acts, winning fans with their furious strumming and Indigo Guys vocal harmonies. Their second CD, Goldfly, had already sold tens of thousands of copies as an indie release on AWARE before being remastered for this major-label version. The result is highly polished, complete with a few mournful but subtle string arrangements and reinforced bass-playing augmenting the acoustic guitars of Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel's congas. The vocals from Gardner and Miller are especially clear, and the "I'm not special -- no, really!" tone of the lyrics is emblematic of the earnest resignation prized by masculine post-grunge guitar rockers these days. Still, the band's pop songcraft is impeccable and catchy, and there's one truly creepy gem in "Airport Song." More important, Guster's grand, expansive soundscape (like that of Morphine, another heroic Hub trio with an unorthodox sonic palette, in its unexpected vastness and fullness) remains gloriously intact.

-- Gary Susman


**1/2 Bernard Butler

PEOPLE MOVE ON

(Creation/Columbia)

It's always risky when an artist opens his debut album with an eight-minute opus whose plodding pace makes Pink Floyd sound like Megadeth. But British rockers have never been an understated lot, least of all guitarist-turned-solo-artist Bernard Butler's former band, the London Suede. So it comes as no surprise that the lofty sense of drama and atmosphere that was so much an element of Butler's old outfit is in large supply here. People Move On is loaded with Butler's spacy guitar weaving hazy, languorous soundscapes around a ride cymbal à la the Verve while his crushed-velvet, guitar-hero flash splits the difference between Stone Roses/Seahorses axman John Squire and the quietly adoring side of Billy Corgan.

Unfortunately, despite lovelies like "Not Alone," and "In Vain," Butler's songwriting rarely moves beyond impeccable, standard-issue Britpop balladeering. And as a singer he's fine but faceless: he hits all the notes but chooses so few of them to hit. Although one would never accuse London Suede singer Brett Anderson of restraint, at least he's got personality. When Butler closes the disc with a listless "I'm tired, I've got no more to say," it's far too easy to believe him.

-- Jonathan Perry


***

V. MAJESTIC

(Edgy)

Providence greenhorns V. Majestic have musical tastes as exotic as they are vast: chilly krautrock burps, kaleidoscopic acid-guitar solos, jazz-infected freakouts, and glimmers of exotica and eerie pop textures are all part of the group's Beefheartian mix. More than eclecticism, it's the enthusiasm with which guitarist Robert Jazz and his cohort throw themselves into these various styles that makes their mostly instrumental V. Majestic debut so appealing.

On the opening "I Was Kicked in the Horse by a Head When I Was Three," the quintet plunge into a smooth brass solo and brazen guitar bit with equal élan. On "Freudis Sexualis" they likewise jump from horn to guitar, then conjure even greater gusto as the number skids toward chaotic electronic squealing. These noisy peaks dotting the soundscape give you a cathartic tingle like those you might get from Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo. But the album's real highlight is "Open Casket (for Tiny)," where the band add otherworldly, emotionally detached vocals to a mix of prominently placed vibes, thunderous percussion, and ominous horns, an amalgamation that brings to mind the quaint pop mastered by Brian Eno in his solo career's first phase. Eccentric yet playful, creepy yet comforting, the number is the ideal sendoff to this whimsical left-field gem.

-- Jay Ruttenberg


***

PENDULABELLUM

(Legpress)

This young Boston jazz trio bring together the considerable talents of pianist Tyson Rogers, guitarist Eric Hofbauer, and wind player Jared Sims. Eleven originals mark this, their first recording, and there's a curious division among the tunes. The opener suggests roots in early Ornette Coleman, with its nervous, twittering energy and the quirky notion of the blues that percolates through the three improvisers' neo-bop runs. Lots of single-string guitar figures and chordal shards offer evidence of a running deconstructionist fever. Then there's the rhapsodically romantic strain (Paul Bley's influence on Rogers?) realized on the disc's masterpiece, "Hymn." The tension between these two schools of jazz remains gloriously unresolved throughout the disc. Pendulabellum are a free jazz trio in love with sentimental melodies. Which means that they're smart players with ample chops, and new voices in Boston jazz very worthy of attention.

-- Norman Weinstein



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