Cryptic and clamorous, San Francisco's Rrope joins the ever-growing phalanx of bands bent on creating seriously enigmatic sounds within the "rock" framework of guitars, bass and drums. On this debut CD, Rrope's four collaborators manage to assemble a high-caliber suite of noisy nuggets, stuff sure to quicken the pulse of those partial to the strident sounds of groups like Thinking Fellers, Slug and Trumans Water.
Rrope charges into things with "Step Right Up," an attention-getting punch in the ear packed with clanging, yowling guitars redolent of early Sonic Youth. They segue immediately into "Mercury," an initially straight-ahead number that lures you into a bewildering fog. From there on, it's pretty much acid time in an abandoned funhouse, as the ensnared listener gamely chases nebulous, songlike apparitions, only to run into mirrors or step in unidentifiable goo. During "Axis in Collapse/Ivy Bottles," you get everything from carnival organ and clanking metal to some weird squiggle that sounds disconcertingly like a CD player going south. All the while, chaotic guitars and drums tenuously hold things together.
After toying with its captive prey for about half an hour, Rrope lets the listener find the way out through "Only Around," a scurry for the exit sounding a tad like early Pere Ubu. Nice work, guys; you've managed to create something both vaguely familiar and utterly foreign, not unlike that "thing" on the cover -- what is it anyway, a moldy Tater Tot?
Rrope plays Sun, March 12, at Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.
Highway 61 Interactive
This "interactive music CD-ROM" features Bob Dylan's music, his lyrics, even his drawings -- it could also easily serve as a metaphor for his career. Like Dylan himself, this interactive disk is both brilliant and frustrating; it sets a new standard for what the genre can convey, then rarely bothers to live up to its potential.
Unlike most music-oriented CD-ROMs, Highway 61 Interactive is designed to combine music with text and video in order to flesh out an artist's work. Rather than allow users to "remix" Dylan's songs, Highway lets them take a stroll through his history. It's part low-tech virtual-reality Bob's World, part nonlinear multimedia essay. After the disk loads, the screen displays a collage of icons associated with Dylan, most of which lead to different "areas" of the CD-ROM. Clicking on a stone archway leads to a virtual early-'60s Greenwich Village. Users can "walk through" seven graphically detailed virtual environments, including the Village and a recording studio, and each contains audio and video clips triggered by clicking on objects such as paintings and televisions.
Some of the clips are well placed, but others seem scattered about. "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" makes clear the potential of music-oriented multimedia, pumping the song's folkie kiss-off through the speakers while a negative review of the Newport concert at which Dylan first performed with a rock-and-roll band appears on the screen. At times, though, Highway 61 is too clever for its own good. Clicking on a chessboard to see Dylan play "Only a Pawn in Their Game" adds nothing to a powerful performance, and the playing-card triggers for "Jokerman" and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" are downright silly.
What's most striking about Highway 61 Interactive is how completely Dylan's songs dominate their multimedia environment. The disk is well worth wandering through just to hear "Medicine Show," an unreleased early version of "Temporary Like Achilles" that offers a rare glimpse into Dylan's creative process. Another highlight is Highway's second track -- Dylan's electric version of "House of the Rising Sun" -- which can be played on any audio CD player. It says as much about his artistry and influences as anything else here.
Archers of Loaf
Here's an example of the fi>ckle nature of street-level fancies. The Archers of Loaf are a North Carolina band who rode a left-of-the-dial bullet in 1993, their debut Icky Mettle charming its way onto more than a few year-end Top 10s. Recently, someone called a local college station to request an Archers track. "We used to like that band," the DJ said -- presumably a whole few weeks ago, before the Archers, trying to sell a few copies of their new record, began touring with (gasp) Weezer, a rock-and-roll outfit that stinks out loud to the in-crowd.
Now, this observer can be as guilty as the next when it comes to musical typecasting (I'm undergoing treatment for that). Were we to listen to the Archers of Loaf in a vacuum, we'd find ample reason to ignore their current fraternizing -- such as their high-voltage, melodic singing sensibilities, engagingly snakey mid-tempo guitar playing and the boredom-battling gambits of their spirited kitchen-sinkery. Because pop culture takes place in anything but a vacuum, we feel compelled to assign the Archers' components to the corresponding parts of their predecessors. They've distilled vocal stylings from Superchunk, guitar parts from Television and a distinctive method of sinkhole patchwork from Pavement.
But there's a good deal more to Vee Vee than duplication: "Step Into the Light," for example, is a cud-chewing introduction to the Archers' own brand of guitarist introspection. The wry out-of-tunefulness of "Greatest of All Time" sends up rock stardom with a smirk. "Floating Friends" might be the band's entry in the signature-tune sweepstakes for the latest Lost Generation; similarly, the album closer, the cheeky fife-and-drum anthem "Underachievers March and Fight Song" is targeted for the Archers' age group -- loafers all, at least in the popular imagination. Take heart, indie rockers: The Archers of Loaf will not abandon you!
Archers of Loaf open for Weezer on Sat, March 11, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call (510) 762-2277.
Mary J. Blige
This entire album takes you way back to the day when polyester ruled and doin' the bump was cool. My Life succeeds in keeping the rich melodic sounds and soulful lyrics of the past without compromising a thing in the process.
The rocking drama of "I'm the Only Woman" almost makes you forget that this is supposed to be a sad song. When Blige breaks it down with the lyric, "do thangs ... do thangs," just grab a tissue and keep on dancing. The title track is a song every preacher in America could use in his or her pulpit to rouse the congregation: "Life can be only what you make it/ When you're feeling down you should never fake it."
The classic remake of "I'm Going Down" is full of peaks and valleys with the sun shining through onto the horns, cymbals, drums, bass violins and the heart-aching vocals. And who would have thought the best song of 1995 would be called "Be Happy"? If you listen to this one 10 times in a row, you'll come out believing that anything is possible. Barry White must have blessed this song -- I envision him in full mackdaddy '70s wear, tilting his head to the beat, holding his cobra-faced walking cane with ruby eyes, waving one hand in the air and urging, in that oh-so-sexy voice, "Go Mary!" Everything that worked musically in the '70s works here: bass line, violins, beat and that Blige voice. My Life proves that if it felt good in the '70s, hell yeah, it still feels good in the '90s.