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Wednesday, Jun 14 1995
Music From a Sparkling Planet

A cocktail nation looking for a forefather to emulate could do no better than Juan Garcia Esquivel. Known simply as Esquivel! in his '50s and '60s heyday, the "Madcap Mexican" cut the swankest of figures, a cool cat attired in exquisitely tailored suits, with impeccable hair, manicured nails, and smoldering bedroom eyes that drove the ladies wild. This is the man who learned how to walk so his shoes wouldn't crease at the toes, who fined his dancing girls $5 for every extra pound they put on, who managed his band with a velveteen fist, all in the name of perfection. Image, as the neo-loungers know, is everything. And with his Latin American background, Esquivel! offers the "exotica"-hungry set ethnicity to fetishize, one more familiar than, say, that of Indian organist Korla Pandit. All this pales, though, next to Esquivel!'s futuristic genius. If Martin Denny created roots music for suburban swingers, Esquivel! molded astral works for hi-fi hounds and saucer people alike.

With interest in Esquivel! growing since his rediscovery in the '80s, Bar/None released Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, an anthology culled from Esquivel! classics like Latin-Esque and Infinity in Sound, to great critical acclaim. Music From a Sparkling Planet presents more of the same: that is, otherworldly arrangements of standards like "All of Me," south-of-the-border traditionals like "La Paloma," and insanely catchy Esquivel! originals like "Question Mark (What Can You Do)."

The band leader calls his arranging style "sonorama": bizarre instrumentation courtesy of gizmos like the buzzimba, the vibraslap, and the mighty theremin; quick-fire tempo switches; creative dissonance; and a barrage of plinks, boings, vocal pow!s, whistling, yodeling -- even the rattle of a human jawbone with teeth (on "La Paloma"). Esquivel! sculpted the oddest effects imaginable in an age before synthesizers made such experimentation easy.

As Esquivel! comments in the liner notes, he "preferred to work with well-known songs" so the listener is likelier to appreciate his arrangements. Indeed, he takes "My Blue Heaven" to another planet, toys with tempo like a kid on a Hammond home organ on "All of Me," and gives "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" a zippy cha-cha-cha feel. Who needs lyrics when choruses of zu-zu-zus and ra-ras speak volumes?

Esquivel! was once called a "pop avant-gardist," which isn't as oxymoronic as it first seems. A child prodigy and virtuoso pianist, Esquivel! was conducting his own 22-piece band by the time he was 18, studied briefly at Juilliard, and earned a degree in engineering, which explains the grounding mathematical precision of his work. Behind the kitschy veneer of Esquivel!'s music and his Don Juan image is a boundless talent for innovation that was never diminished by the confines of his genre. Esquivel! is to the tiki brigade as Brian Wilson is to Michael Bolton. Meaning, in its celebration of swank banality, the have-martini-will-travel crowd actually stumbled upon something great.

-- Sia Michel
A listening party honoring Esquivel! happens Thurs, June 15, at Bimbo's in S.F.; call 474-0365.

Tales From the Punchbowl

Primus has always been a love-'em-or-hate-'em proposition: The Bay Area threesome's off-kilter virtuosity and unabashed goofery either instantly endear them to you or relegate them to the cutout bin in your mind. Tales From the Punchbowl, Primus' fifth offering, won't change matters any. The band remains slap-happy in a variety of ways: Lanky Les Claypool still thumps into oblivion, twanging like an adenoidal Huckleberry Hound, bashmeister "Herb" Alexander still pokes gaping holes into the concept of tempo, six-stringer "Ler" LaLonde still bounces his noodly riffs off of distant satellites and back -- and "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" doesn't score Primus any points for sophistication. As the copy for one Tales ad reads: "If you didn't like Primus before ... you probably won't like them now." True, and always has been.

So why does each Primus record move more units than the one before it, and why will Tales be the biggest seller to date? Because the world gets more Primus-like every day. Even more so than previous releases, Tales is frenetic, fractured, and chaotic -- a familiar sensation, right? The Sousa-esque fanfare that opens the disk promises a carnival, one that this affable crew delivers. But on the Primus midway, the roller coaster careens off the tracks, the fun-house mirror distorts everything, and a childish game of keep-away spurs a deadly knifing on "Mrs. Blaileen."

Is there a more succinct musical metaphor for the center-cannot-hold nature of the modern world than LaLonde's frenzied eruptions of nimble-fingered Frippery on "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats"? Not that I've heard. Then, on "Hellbound 17 1/2 (theme from)," Claypool neatly encapsulates the quiet desperation of contemporary Everyman: "Questions deserving answers/ Answers deserving action/ What am I of the populi/ I am but a fraction." Bleak, yes, but Claypool offers some respite in the next verse: "Is there a heaven, is there a hell/ Is that a tuna melt that I smell?" He's underscoring the essential rule of survival for a tumultuous age: When traditional beliefs prove inadequate, one can only follow one's nose. And Claypool ought to know; he's packing more proboscis than Geddy Lee.

Which is why the world will come to Primus in the end, and not the other way around. When the cheese hits the fan and the apocalypse comes, you're going to need a guiding hand and a decent soundtrack. Primus provides both.

-- Tim Kenneally

June of 44
Engine Takes to the Water

I could tell you all about June of 44's resume -- its rise from the ashes of Louisville, Ky., one-disc wonders Rodan, its members' stints with Codeine, Rex, and Sonora -- and the cool hand-printed packaging of Engine Takes to the Water, but that would get in the way of describing one of the most thematically consistent releases of the year, one even more intriguing than Rodan's remarkable Rusty.

From the opening cut, "Have a Safe Trip, Dear," to the nightmare of ringing flight-attendant call buttons and hissing locomotives that follows it, Engine is a metaphor for human movement -- of people traveling between places, between relationships, between stations in life. When guitarist Sean Meadows, his voice a choking whisper, sings, "We write songs like letters, a safe journey in scars/ I've saved your drawings of moments and spaceships and stars," he revisits a failed chapter in his life, telling a story that anyone who's ever searched for someone -- physically or spiritually -- could relate to.

Like a travel itinerary, Engine feigns an initial orderliness, yet it's not long before compasses spin, lighthouses go dark, and human connections are reduced to voices on the phone. On "Pale Horse Sailor," when co-guitarist Jeff Mueller looks about him in a panic, chanting, "Port and bow! Stern and starboard!" like a protective mantra, finally abandoning it to cry, "What am I doing here?" he's asking it as an ordinary person living a frail life of misdirection, of planes and trains missed, of fright and loss and sadness.

Named for Mueller's mom, and a vague reference to June Miller (Henry's wife), June of 44 takes up sonically where Rodan left off, preferring electric tracks alternating between oppressed composure and white-hot screams, and vocal poetry that favors speech over melody. A supergroup, a concept album: The combination usually raises a warning flag, but here it gives a one-two knockout punch.

-- Colin Berry
June of 44 opens for Steel Pole Bathtub Fri, June 16, at the Trocadero Transfer in S.F.; call 995-4600.

Lingo Allstars
Spittin' Lingo
(Scotti Bros.)

Various Artists
Latin Lingo: Hip-Hop From the Raza

Hip hop owes a great deal to Latin culture, from the cholo fashions 'heads adopted to the lowriding imagery of many rap videos to terms like "loc," which derives from the Spanish word loco. Still, though Latin musicians have been involved with the genre from the get-go, Latin rap is hip hop's forgotten stepchild. Media hype focuses on gangsta; critics praise positive, jazz-inflected styles; the masses flock to R&B-flavored pop-dance. Meanwhile, artists who combine mellow hip-hop funk with Spanglish rhymes have built their own faithful followings with little crossover success into the greater rap community, Cypress Hill excepted. Without assimilation, Latin hip hop continues to thrive, and two new compilations -- Spittin' Lingo and Latin Lingo -- celebrate its rich tradition from two very different perspectives.

Spittin' Lingo, in keeping with the Scotti Bros. commitment to breaking new artists from the underground, features the stars of tomorrow. Local boy Cisco, the Frisco Mack, kicks things off with "Mas Chingon" and "Microphone Jones," in which he adapts a strong, deep-voiced flow reminiscent of Tupac. Narrow Path Clique and Street Bumz both offer traditional West Coast hip-hop funk, smoothly and roughly, respectively, while Mideval Hermits turn in an East Coast-sounding jam, "30 Feet Unda," that hits with gritty simplicity. Also notable are New York's Frankie Cutlass and his subterranean hit "Puerto Rico," and R&B diva Gigi and her honey-sweet "When You Touch Me." Emphasizing the Latin community's embrace of oldies, the release includes the Vanguards' 1969 lowrider classic "Somebody Please."

Though less creatively adventurous, Rhino's Latin Lingo is more of a complete package. With the music's quintessential image -- a '64 Impala lowrider -- on the cover, the disk delivers the greatest hits of Latin hip hop's greatest hitters. Gabriel Alvarez of Rap Pages recounts the rich story of the genre in the liner notes, lending significance to an otherwise obvious collection of commercially successful music.

Proper Dos represents three times with "Somethin' ta Bump," "One Summer Night," and "Mexican Power." Other classics include Mellow Man Ace's debut "Mentirosa," Hi-C's "Froggy Style" and "I'm Not Your Puppet," pop sensation A Lighter Shade of Brown's "On a Sunday Afternoon" and "Homies," and Anita Ward's disco bomb "Ring My Bell" redone by Jew Lay. Though not comprised of Latinos, War was a major contributor to the Latin funk of the '70s and is remade twice: On "Don't Let No One Get You Down," raps by Hispanic MCs complement Lonnie Jordan's legendary crooning; "Rap Declares War" teams the band up with all-stars like Hi-C and Kid Frost, who get busy over a medley of War melodies.

You could argue that the titles and artwork of these two releases are corny, even demeaning, and that pegging them "Latin" as opposed to just "hip hop" only increases the racial divide in our culture. Regardless, awakening interest in good music like this is a first step in broadening hip hop's horizons.

-- Josh Levine


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