Listen to the spark of the bite-size guitar implosions, the reconstituted Wire drum kicks, the cheeky cockney delivery: Yes, it would be easy to dismiss Sleeper as the latest commodity to roll off the U.K.'s new wave of New Wave conveyor belt, which has already produced for our conspicuous consumption the tarty delicacies of Elastica, Blur and Echobelly. But Sleeper's Smart debut suggests that given a head start, it'd have topped them all with its taunting glamour, its sharp rhythmic sense and the dazzling absurdity of frontwoman Louise Wener. Add to that a dozen songs that pack bravado, taut pyrotechnics and the neuroticism so essential to this genre, and the results are anything but tired -- even if Wener likes to don an "Another Female Fronted Band" T-shirt in photos.
"Inbetweener," the opener, whirs and bounces like the long-lost bastard sister of Elastica's "Connection," with spewed-out lyrics like, "She's shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through/ Keeping the rain off her Saturday hairdo/ She stops for a coffee, she smiles at the waiter/ He winks at his friends and they laugh at her later." Then comes the guitar-shredding, irresistibly poppy "Delicious," a sloppily rabid paean to sex that ends with the plea, "You're so dirty/ Make it dirtier." Even in the more delicate moments, Sleeper has a knack for making you choke on air. On "Amuse," Wener recites sweetly, "You're tragically vain/ You knew I'd adore you for it." How true.
-- Aidin Vaziri
Sleeper plays Mon, June 5, at Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.
Out of Our Way
After regaling audiences with its oddball sound spectacular this past year or so, the Bay Area's own Mingo 2000 has finally translated its loving homage to early '60s instrumentals to vinyl. Plundering the vast booty of incidental and obscure movie soundtracks, the Mingos cover everything from "Frankie Machine" (from The Man With the Golden Arm) to themes from flashy flicks manufactured in Bombay, India, the film capital of the world. Enjoy the loping quality of "Hawks and Sparrows"; the eerie pre-digital UFO sound effects of "War of the Satellites/Let's Dance the Jet"; the back-alley teen desperation of "Beat Girl"; and the sheer grooviness of the mellow Herb Alpert-isms of "Tesla's Menses" (a phonetic spelling of a Hindi song). Live, the band will set you dancing to "Goldfinger" and "Eight Miles High," but for now audiophiles will have to content themselves with more obscure covers -- unknown authors charge no royalties.
When I asked if Out of Our Way was available on CD, I was met with looks of shocked indignation: Long-playing, high-fidelity, file this one under "Smooth and Easy."
-- Lisa McElroy
Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick
You won't hear Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick amid the born-again honky-tonkers cluttering the "Young Country" airwaves. The duo's fiddle, guitar and vocals represent a subset of country music far outside the mainstream; a bluegrass album is considered "platinum" these days when it sells more than 15,000 copies. It doesn't help matters that Lewis and Kallick, who formed the California bluegrass band the Good Ol' Persons 20 years ago before going their separate ways, play a type of old-timey music more associated with groups sporting some variation on the name "Good Ol' Boys." Or that the duo hail from deep in the lonesome hollows of Berkeley. "There's still this attitude, especially in the Southeast, where bluegrass originated, that Californians can't possibly know how to play the music," Lewis once said.
But one listen to Lewis and Kallick's recently re-released collaboration, Together (originally out on the now-defunct Kaleidoscope label in 1991), and you're instantly transported to Appalachia. Lewis' fiddle wails like a runaway freight train on the bluegrass standard "Lost John" and on the album opener, "Going Up on the Mountain," both songs also featuring Kallick's blistering finger-picking and Tony Furtado's lightning banjo. The mood turns just as easily to heartbreak, bluegrass music's most well-worn and satisfying path, in "Is the Blue Moon Still Shining." Kallick and Lewis belt out aching harmonies -- "Will you ever come back and love me?/ Or tell me, are we really through?" -- with local dobroist Sally Van Meter and mandolinist Tom Rozum laying down plaintive backup lines.
Foot-stomping fiddling and heartache in two-part harmony, with a mountain version of the Maverick theme song and a little religion and yodeling thrown in for good measure: What else could a bluegrass lover ask for?
-- Mickey Butts
Laurie Lewis & Grant Street play Fri, June 2, at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley; call (510) 548-1761.
Fred Frith/Chris Cutler
Live Vol. 2
Given the unsettling intensity of the music of guitarist Fred Frith and percussionist Chris Cutler, it might seem odd at first that an audience member is laughing it up on the kickoff track of these 1991 live recordings from Trondheim and Berlin. But the rationale is quite simple: astonishment. If you've ever witnessed Frith's feverish performance as he scrapes knives across steel strings or bangs metal rods like drumsticks along the fretboard, such gape-mouthed incredulity is familiar. As scary as his soundscapes get, the sheer artistry of this founding father of avant-garde guitar never fails to leave one bemused.
Frith's peculiarly detuned guitar evokes alien, murky and often disturbing sounds. Unexpected barks, guttural shrieks, noise-laden chunks of chaos and pointed feedback pierce the wasteland to riveting effect. Cutler's clangorous percussion and spiky electronics are the self-described "flotsam" to Frith's "jetsam." Amid the debris of this sonic auto wreck, there are weighted silences, which form a haunted union with Cutler's toxic machinations and Frith's otherworldly demons. These are not the type of soundtracks you'll turn to on a sunny morn, but the fringe legions swear by their cathartic powers.
-- Sam Prestianni
Fred Frith plays solo Sat, June 3, at Berkeley Store Gallery Annex; call (510) 528-8440.
The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black
The core of this New York outfit -- provocatively grotesque rock goddess Kembra Pfahler and guitarist/husband Samoa -- started off making soundtracks for their low-budget art films, and, in a way, they've never really stopped. Like the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's previous work, the anthemic glam-slams on The Anti-Naturalists serve primarily as a foundation for the band's lewd-icrous live spectacles. These goofy, punked-out, KISS-riff-rock tunes hold their own fairly well, but devoid of visual backup courtesy of some half-naked, garishly painted individuals and cheap cardboard props, one can't help but feel they're a tad, um, out of context.
Of course, millions have found the recordings of primarily theatrical groups like the aforementioned Knights in Satan's Service eminently headbangable, and this disc provides 11 tracks of comparable two-to-three-minute fist-wavers, albeit more aberrant, occasionally disturbing ones. Pfahler has said she was prompted to sing after being mugged a few years back; unsurprisingly, her lyrics are sparked by existential rumination and confessional soul-baring. In her inimitable, tonally challenged chirp-growl, Pfahler celebrates life's little banalities ("So Many Things"), alien abduction ("Am I Blue?"), transvestitism ("Honky Tonk Biscuit Queen") and the joys of hocking stuff ("Pawn Shop"); she also bemoans illness ("Sick Bed"), obsessive relationships ("Spelling Bee") and more. In 'n' out in half an hour, TVHOKB checks out strongly with the booming "Make It Look Easy," wherein an emotionally vulnerable protagonist shields herself from the world with a dark-sunglassed veneer of toughness. Now who could Pfahler possibly be singing about?
-- Mike Rowell
The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black plays Wed, May 31, at the Trocadero in S.F.; call 995-4600.
A Man Called Destruction
Alex Chilton is the "Tex" Cobb of the music world: No matter how many times he's been knocked silly by tangled business affairs and a fickle public, his spindly legs refuse to give out. High-school prodigy of the Box Tops, co-leader of cult footnotes Big Star, solo performer, sideman in exile, comeback kid, Chilton is a rock archaeologist's delight. His latest outing, archly titled A Man Called Destruction, proves he's nigh indestructible.
Much of this release is traditional rock 'n' roll, the sort that only a very few cool papas can still cut with credibility. For instance, the novelty tune "What's Your Sign Girl?" ("Is it compatible/ To mine?") reads ridiculously on paper. But Chilton's faltering falsetto and the refrain's sunny chords reveal a soft spot for lonely hearts that transcends the song's goofy gimmick. The rest of Destruction offers similar anomalies. Last year, Chilton recorded a loungy set of standards for Ardent; picking up where Cliches left off, his band plows through "Il Ribelle," a rollicking number sung in Italian. Chilton even brings respectability to Jan and Dean's Brian Wilson-penned "New Girl in School," a corny, dated piece of teeny-bop that's not out of place here.
Speaking of bop, "Boplexity," one of the half-dozen Chilton originals here, is a hand-clapping soul revue reminiscent of Memphis' heyday. Besides his rock purism, Chilton has also been known for his despairing alter ego; ominous confessions made some of his late-'70s material uncomfortable to witness and you'll find some depressing themes here. But "It's Your Funeral" is a buoyant brass-band dirge that recalls the music of New Orleans, his adoptive hometown, and the "Devil Girl" is actually a saucy vamp in black nail polish. Simultaneously boyish and intractable, Destruction is a primer for rock longevity.
-- James Sullivan
God of Love
It's easy to distrust popular groups that disband, only to reunite when solo projects go nowhere or the money runs out. In this case, the Bad Brains carried on after frontman H.R. left a few years ago, and though H.R. actually released a respectable solo portfolio, his former bandmates went on to something distinctly forgettable. Now, with their original lineup intact, the Bad Brains return with an unassuming, heavy-ended work that atones for frittered time.
The Bad Brains' allure has always been their ability to navigate between a thunderous barrage of hardcore punk and the smoothest of reggae rhythms, to unify a unique hybrid of styles under a black-music vibe. The formula has not changed, though these new songs are fuller and more rhythmic. The title track and "Cool Mountaineers" both rock with a commanding certainty, while "To the Heavens" evokes an almost cosmic reggae mood. Still, as God strays from the short, punk spurts of earlier material, it's not nearly as detonating.