Displaying a reticence that barely conceals a fluid sense of dynamics, Dirty Three creates an inviting space out of what ought to be a house of cards. This instrumental unit from Melbourne, Australia, typically builds its compositions around the barest of frameworks -- usually guitar, drums, and violin, though the occasional accordion and harmonica find their way into the mix. Due to its odd-man-out status, Warren Ellis' violin is usually the lead voice by default, but these songs often threaten to implode from collective hesitation. That they usually don't is a big part of their charm.
In fact, the Dirty method is least successful on a cut like "Better Go Home Now," in which guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White lay down a solid rhythmic backing, letting Ellis carry the riff/melody line, the way a purely "rock" trio might structure a piece. It's more fun to hear the Three struggle to give each other space while building to an unexpected climax, as on "Indian Love Song," the record's 10-minute opener, which is built on the sparest of Bo Diddley beats. A minimalist track like "Odd Couple," constructed around mournfully undulating accordion chords, achieves a certain beauty because of what isn't played; it keeps ripping holes in itself but always remains upright.
Call it a jazz ethos coupled with a rocklike inclination toward psychic meltdown. Ellis made a name for himself playing on Nick Cave records, and both Turner and White did time in Venom P. Stinger. Like other musicians who've made the transition from post-punk to post-rock (most notably the Universal Congress Of, recalled here on the frenzied "Dirty Equation"), the Three often finds itself fusing unexpected stylistic elements. The best example of this is "Everything's Fucked," in which the despair invoked by the title is reworked by slowly cascading violin lines to evoke a sense of rebirth. You know, that 4 a.m. mood when you realize that everything's fallen apart but you now have the freedom to put it back together again.
-- Greg Milner
Dirty Three plays the Lollapalooza Second Stage Thurs, Aug. 17, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View; call (510) 762-BASS.
One would be right to assume that with a name like Versus, conflict is the order of the day for this NYC-based trio of post-Sonic Youth power-popsters. If you're looking for political diatribes and ideological rants, however, you're better off toting your merry pink ass down to Tower to pick up the new Rancid, 'cause there aren't any here; in Versus' case, the conflict is internal, galvanized into an existential tug of war and articulated via the scrape of a guitar string and quavering voices groping toward resonance. Can quiet desperation be said to make noise? In this case, it can.
Comprised of various early singles, compilation cuts, and unreleased material from the band's nascent period (one suspects that TeenBeat compiled this puppy on the quick to correspond with the band's Second Stage stint on the Lollapalooza tour), Dead Leaves lacks the steam-building oomph of 1993's Let's Electrify! EP or The Stars Are Insane, last year's full-length watershed, but it still serves to neatly exemplify Versus' MO. Richard Baluyut's circular, muted guitar figures, coupled with the pining timbre of his and bassist Fontaine Toups' vocals, inevitably lull the listener into a reflective state. Problem is, the resultant ruminations almost always lead to someplace you'd rather not be. Toups' "Forest Fires" is a case study in alienation, with the bassist moaning that "all we've got left are memories," while "Crazy" finds Baluyut brooding over a ghostly visitation from a long-dead friend. He may claim, in "Bright Light," that "I'm sick of melancholia," but the wistful la-la-las that follow instantly belie him. Melancholia is Baluyut's muse; without it, he'd be even more lost than he already is.
If imbalance characterizes the lyrics, though, it's carefully countered by Versus' masterful grasp of dynamics. Thus, when the inner children are in imminent danger of becoming too precious for words, the visceral roar of Rock Power swoops down to save the day, trumpeted with the pistol crack of a snare drum and the stomp of a fuzz box. Again and again, the band parlays elegy into euphony, with a knack that few outfits share. Still, while executed with exactitude, the clashes of calm and clamor are of enigmatic origin: Is it resolution or progressively maddening frustration that finally lowers the sonic bomb? Does it matter? Probably not. In the end, it's just another conflict to be explored.
-- Tim Kenneally
Versus plays Thurs, Aug. 17, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.
Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home
The members of Carla Bozulich's last band, Ethyl Meatplow, couldn't decide whether to introduce guitars into their synth-bondage dance-floor mix, so they broke up. The Geraldine Fibbers, her new group, not only has guitars but also violin, viola, banjo, and lap steel as well -- and it's emerged as one of the most affecting new bands in recent memory.
With Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, the Fibbers unveil the full-length version of their newfangled take on traditional songwriting. Many of these cuts have previously appeared on Sympathy for the Record Industry releases; late last year, bidding-war victors Virgin put out a teaser EP that included a hidden track co-written and performed with Beck.
The Fibbers sing their campfire songs on the burning streets of L.A., adding to that age-old purist's form an element of decay that makes their music grungy -- in the original sense of the word. Leader Bozulich has reinvented herself from steely urban sex trader into a farmer's daughter who's seen too much, and she slaughters the myth of country quietude with her convulsive, cold-turkey singing. On "The French Song," she rolls out a sirenlike wail that's the human embodiment of the theremin, that creepy electronic machine that's a favorite instrument of B-movie soundtrackers and blues boy Jon Spencer; on "Outside of Town," she eulogizes herself and a sinful boyfriend in a lurching dirge that trades life for the thinnest shred of dignity.
This is one of the few records you'll find that gives lyric sheets a good name: Bozulich is an incisive writer who's able to skate effortlessly from free-flowing mumbo jumbo ("The girl downstairs with her crem-delish and the one on the couch eating Bananafish") and wizened aphorisms ("The lust for luck and security is a hopeless romance"). Consider the band the expressway to Bozulich's psyche. Voyeurs , take note.
-- James Sullivan
My Wild Life
When it comes to great indie pop, I have one simple rule: If it arrives courtesy of former members of 1980s phenoms Let's Active, it moves to the top of my playlist. Back in the day, that band's summery but brainy sound gave even an early, crusty R.E.M. a run for their college-kid money. On that note, Grover's debut, My Wild Life, is doubly blessed: Vocalist/guitarist Angie Carlson did a stint with Let's Active in the mid- to late '80s, while Active founder Mitch Easter produces and guests on half of its 12 tracks. To put a cherry on it, Grover drummer Chris Philips hails from Subculture, an overlooked '80s hardcore band. Such a rsum promises a mix of both quality and quirkiness, and, predictably, this North Carolina trio offers up a steaming plate of shiny, three-minute nuggets.
As with Active, less is more, and the simpler stuff works best here, like "Yeah, I'm Dumb" with its schoolgirl crush lyrics, and the fuzzy, echo-laden Primitives/Darling Buds sound of "I'm Dreaming." Trouble sets in only when the band succumbs to that very powerful '90s music disease -- punk rock. When Carlson takes a tough-gal stance and cranks the guitar, sacrificing subtlety for faster-louder-harder-more, Grover winds up sounding like a bargain-bin version of those more famous N.C. pop-punk icons, Superchunk. Still, if you value crisp, bright pop (without the punk) as a lost art, My Wild Side is a commendable first effort with minimal flaws.
-- Jamie Kemsey
Grover plays Wed, Aug. 16, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.
Here Comes the Hotstepper
In the 1980s, Ini Kamoze was one of the most promising young singers in Jamaica. Albums like Statement were critically and fan-acclaimed essays on freedom, Jah, spirituality, and the Babylon system. Kamoze peaked in '86 with Pirate, a chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, which featured Sly & Robbie's futuristic, dub-style production. Later, after switching labels and recording Shocking Out, Kamoze faded into the background of the reggae scene, although he continued to release singles in Jamaica. One of those, "Here Comes the Hotstepper," released in '91, became Kamoze's biggest hit ever when it was remixed three years later. Utilizing the chant from "Land of a Thousand Dances" and the bass line from "Heartbeat," the song hit No. 1 in America, although Kamoze himself reportedly hated the revision.
Soon a bidding war ensued, and when Eastwest beat out Columbia for Kamoze's services, Columbia's parent company, Sony, bought the rights to the artist's old material and released it as the Here Comes the Hotstepper compilation. Meanwhile, Kamoze was recording Lyrical Gangsta in New York. And while Hotstepper sounds pretty good for 12-year-old tracks, proving again that Sly & Robbie were way ahead of their time, Kamoze's newest disc has a progressive sound that fuses the sounds and attitudes of Kingston and Brooklyn.
Unlike Kamoze's older, roots-oriented work, Gangsta looks no further than the streets for inspiration. Kamoze is a little out of his element, though, in his duets with NYC rappers Guru and Nine, trading verses and trying hard to be hip hop. He fares better with the cultural reggae styles on Side 2. "Imagine ... in Dub" is a chilling tale of police brutality loaded with dubwise echo and reverb, while the ethereal "King Selassie" rides on Kamoze's trademark sing-jay vocals. But overall, in an attempt to please his new audience, Kamoze has lost some of his vitality.
-- Eric K. Arnold