For years, St. Louis' Uncle Tupelo was the rootsiest of alternative bands. The group treated songs the way heartland farmers treat crops -- mowin' 'em down with a thresher one week, carefully planting seeds the next. From the lamentably scorched earth of U.T. comes Wilco, which is really Jeff Tweedy and his supporting cast, minus queasy former collaborator Jay Farrar. The new moniker Tweedy et al. adopted is appropriate enough: "Wilco" is radio-biz lingo for "will comply," and their debut bends over backward to meet mid-tempo expectations. Songs like "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" and "Casino Queen" are solid, but they're nothing we haven't heard before in the catalogues of Tom Petty, late-'70s era Stones -- or Uncle Tupelo, for that matter.
The sharpest sounds on the release are the lyrical barbs Tweedy tosses at his estranged partner Farrar. In an age-old songwriters' tradition, Tweedy frames his grievances in terms of "lovers," blaming a fictitious woman for the emotional pangs caused by his old (guy) pal. On "I Must Be High," the album opener and his first song written after Farrar's departure, Tweedy sings, "You/ Always wanted more time ... Now you got it." "Box Full of Letters" sounds like another bitterness rising: "I got a lot of your records/ In a separate stack/ Some things that I might like to hear but I/ Guess I'll give them back," the singer bellyaches.
Bumpkin-wise, David Lowery's Cracker has worked Wilco's territory to greater commercial success, but that's because he brings an affable, chuckleheaded humor to the table. Wilco is a much more pensive quintet, content to mill around the outskirts of the dinner party, brooding. Hopefully, it's nothing a therapeutic knee-slapper can't cure.
-- James Sullivan
Wilco plays Mon, May 15, at Slim's in S.F. and Tues, May 16, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call (510) 762-BASS.
Libete (Pran Pou Pran'l!)
Jou a Rive
Rockers like to adopt a rebel stance, but how many of them would be in bands if their lives were literally in danger? During Haiti's military reign of terror, musicians faced imprisonment and death for playing their populist anthems. Despite the threats, Boukman Eksperyans and Boukan Ginen have emerged triumphant with albums that chronicle their country's struggle.
The most popular kind of Haitian pop is compa, a smooth dance music akin to the soukous of Zaire. Compa was favored by the ruling class, so Boukman leader Lalo Beaubrun chose to explore the musical, religious and cultural roots of vodou. Driven by a battery of Afro-Haitian drumming and politically charged lyrics, Boukman's vodou music was perceived as a threat to the European pretensions of the ruling class. The band, named in honor of the revolutionary vodou priest who freed Haiti from colonialism, formed in 1978, but public appearances were rare due to the ire the group aroused in the military regime -- and not without reason. The song "K'em Pa Sote (I Am Not Afraid)" became the theme of the pro-Aristide faction in 1990, and is popularly credited with helping remove dictator Prosper Avril from power.
On tour when the military overthrew Aristide, the band was unable to return home, so they recorded Libet in Jamaica. If anything, exile intensified Boukman's commitment to its roots. The three lead drummers weave a percussive web so strong the singers and instrumentalists can bounce off of it and touch the sky. "Konbit Zaka" and "Legba" feature slow, hypnotic grooves and traditional choral singing, but the energy really kicks in on extended tracks like "Peye Poe Peye," when the relentless rhythms are complemented by the humming, sustained notes of guitarist Mackel Jean-Baptiste. (Rock fans will be impressed with his slashing Hendrixisms on "Jou Mal" and "Sa'm Pdi.") On the ballad tip are "Ki Moun" and "Zili," showcases for Marjorie Beaubrun's emotional alto and Dean Frazier's smoky sax. Libet's only flaw is a mix that often relegates the percussion to the background, an odd strategy for music this rhythmic.
Boukan Ginen is fronted by former members of Boukman, and while vodou rhythms provide the foundation, the sound also incorporates rara (a festive variation of vodou played at Easter festivals), compa, reggae and African pop. The energy of Jou a Rive is infectious, jumping out of the speakers to set you spinning like a top. Things open with "Nati Congo," a compa with Rastafarian lyrics, reminding the uptown folks that their roots are African as well as European. Other strong tracks include "Ede M Chante," a rumbling a cappella chant that sounds like Ladysmith Black Mambazo; "Sa Rd," which uses a roots reggae skank to address poverty and hunger; and the stomping rara raves "An N Ale We" and "Pale Pale W," the biggest Carnival song of 1991 -- an anti-authoritarian tune that infuriated Haiti's rulers.
-- j. poet
(Kill Rock Stars)
Ironic and sardonic, Free Kitten is a sassy swipe at guy-dominated indieland by Julie Cafritz (ex-Pussy Galore) and fashion designer/Lollapaloozer/postpunk mom Kim Gordon. With the Boredoms' Yoshimi and Pavement's Mark Ibold joining the feline fray, they've managed to transform what was probably at first a one-off lark into a sorta-supergroup with a decent-size discography and a taste for parody. With claws out but tongue in cheek, Nice Ass is essentially one huge indie-rock ribbing that takes cracks at everyone from NINwit Trent Reznor to Belly's Tanya Donnelly.
Uneven as hell but charming nonetheless, it manages to rock in its own sloppy sort of way -- I'd take Free Kitten over the latest Sonic Youth, maybe even the new Thurston Moore. It's certainly good for more laughs. "Our guitars are always in tune/ The European tour is in June," the Kittens mew on "Proper Band," adding, "We've got a lighting crew/ We're Kitten and we're better than you." "Rock of Ages" pokes fun at the sniveling hunks of modern rock: "Stop thinking about the bitch who screwed you, there's a million who would do you/ Acting like a social retard, can it really be that hard?" Other highlights include "Greener Pastures," with its sarcastic praising of the rock lifestyle's many perks (free beer, all-access pass), Gordon's dope(y) rap on "Scratch the DJ" ("Play some records, tell it like it is, I'm sick of Stone Temple Pilot jizz") and the back-bending thrash blast, "Secret Sex Friend." Grrrlish tirades pervade throughout, but they're humorously packaged and they successfully avoid diatribe. The album closes with "Alan Licked Has Ruined Music for an Entire Generation," a five-second noise burst and the epitome of in-joke indie irony. Don't sweat it if you don't get it: You're certainly not alone.
-- Mike Rowell
If you're tired of ignorant rappers who bore you with talk of gats and hoes ad nauseum, then pick up the remote control and flip it to Channel Live. The programming is conducive to mental elevation, with no static and a clear signal. Former high school teachers who turned to rap when their Afrocentric curriculum got too radical for the N.Y. school board, MCs Hakim and Tuffy are true disciples of the blastmaster KRS-One, who produced most of Station Identification and does a cameo on "Mad Izm." With a tight concept and solid production, these consciousness-oriented songs will spark a cipher in your brain as they break down stereotypes and build a positive reality. "What (Cause and Effect)" is a discourse on the overuse of words like "nigga" and "bitch"; "Sex for the Sport" looks at just how easy it is to get caught up in being fly without regard for the consequences.
With just enough skills to pay the bills, Channel Live has the good sense to refrain from one-dimensional didacticism; their brand of edutainment frees your mind as your ass follows the groove. "Internalize, externalize, check the exercise/ Kick the lyricals/ The buddha smoke helps me reach my high/ My eyes bloodshot/ Buckshot for the props/ Say what you didn't know/ Why'd you sleep on Hak?/ I'm not Sealy Posturepedic, the boom bap I need it/ To get the shit correct my style comes orthopedic," goes "Reprogram," which is emblematic of the album's content: basic headnodda's delight infused with metaphysical references that never get over your head. Channel Live may puff "Mad Izm," but the duo's clear and articulate ideology is deep enough that no one could accuse them of short-term memory loss. If rap is the CNN of the young black male, as it's said, Station Identification is Headline News -- with no reruns.
-- Eric K. Arnold
Dopes to Infinity
"A diverse, strange album with the intensity of 1,000 exploding suns," is how Monster Magnet lead singer/guitarist/producer Dave Wyndorf pegs Dopes to Infinity. It's an apt description: The Jersey band serves up a hard flurry of psychedelic songs laden with menacing, acid-dosed guitars set against a backdrop of demonic voices. Stringy-haired Wyndorf is the kind of guy you wouldn't take home to mama -- until he opens his mouth and lets his intelligently sinister lyrics unfold. The same goes for his music, which may sound bombastically heavy at first, but gets more complex and elliptical with each listen. Wyndorf expanded the Monsters' already huge sound, recording with 48 tracks as opposed to the 24 he used on 1993's Superjudge. The addition of sitars, mellotrons and organs softens sharp edges, dropping a gauzy veil over Wyndorf's deadpan vocal delivery.
There's nothing deniable about the first single, "Negasonic Teenage Warhead" (which appears in demo form on the S.F.W. soundtrack), with its sing-song refrain of "I will deny you, baby" and its crunchy instrumental hook. "Dead Christmas" skips down '60s pop lane on the strains of the mellotron; it's a happy little song unlike any of the band's previous work. Though the album's lyrics reflect a functional drug culture enriched by vibrant color, Wyndorf says Dopes is more about sex than drugs. But for him, the two go hand in hand.
-- Kim Taylor