Vocalist Tomas Antona and his Alice Donut cohorts have never made particularly effective poster children for Mental Stability in the Modern Age. Long before Michael Douglas brought the downsized, demoralized, and bazooka-toting D-FENS to the silver screen in Falling Down, Antona was plumbing the murky psychological depths of the world's Bernie Goetzes, sitting atop the fence between sanity and madness and chronicling the Dance of the Disenfranchised that took place below; not for nothing did AD charmingly dub an album Revenge Fantasies of the Impotent. Even more disturbing was Antona's bemused take on the scene: On "New Jersey Exit" from AD's debut, Donut Comes Alive, he details the real-life tale of four Garden State teens who took the Final Exit via carbon monoxide poisoning in Dad's sedan. "Your kids are having a gas in the garage," he mocks. Lovely stuff, that.
On Pure Acid Park (a Jurassic pun), Antona finally topples off the perch after seven years of anthropological observation -- and guess which side he lands on. It seems he's dragged his bandmates over the edge with him. True to its title, Pure Acid Park is an effort of Sandozian proportions, a kaleidoscope collection of fractured soundscapes that march to the beat of misfiring synapses. I suppose it should have been taken as an omen when AD started covering Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" in their live set, but Park is more redolent of Barrett-era Floyd than the navel-gazing Roger Waters model; disillusioned post-punks that AD are, they actually prefer a strychnine chaser with their shots of "orange sunshine."
After "Millennium" unfolds with something akin to Gregorian chant, Antona ponders the apocalyptic nature of the year 2-triple-0, deciding that "it don't mean a thing," a stance that requires either cojones the size of coconuts or a brain the size of a pea. Similarly skewered, "Big Cars & Blow Jobs" begins with the most homogeneous of cock-rock guitar riffs -- a common Donut tactic -- before dissolving into fanfare that's part New Orleans funeral, part Deliverance, a flurry of banjos, trombones, and kazoos. Likewise, "Mummenschantz Pachinko" might have been intercepted from Radio Lithuania, while "The Unspeakable Pleasure of Being Me," a direct-to-the-board instrumental that clocks in at 1:40, is so unremittingly blissful that insanity is its only logical wellspring. Bizarre, yes; how else to describe an album on which a cover of legendary acid-casualty Roky Erickson's "I Walked Into a Zombie" is the most pedestrian offering? Beats the hell out of watching a bunch of computer-generated dinosaurs prance around the screen, anyway.
-- Tim Kenneally
Alice Donut plays Tues, Sept. 12, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.
Permanent: Joy Division 1995
A Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division
During a recent Lollapalooza performance, Hole blundered through a short rendition of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," a move riddled with irony. The frying-pan-over-the-head aspect of Courtney Love yowling the titular lyrics aside, consider the parallels between her late husband, Kurt Cobain, and JD vocalist Ian Curtis: Both were angst-ridden individuals who transmuted their personal anguish into powerful songwriting. Both committed suicide at the height of their careers, just prior to impending U.S. tours. Both left a wife and a daughter behind, both had six-letter surnames that began with C, and [insert favorite conspiracy theory here].
But the big difference between these two seminal musicians is that when British Curtis shucked his mortal coil in 1980, it barely blipped on the U.S. radar screen; the first news I heard about his death came via the last paragraph of a one-page Creem profile that ran shortly thereafter (talk about burying the lead). But the snowball of notoriety began rolling, and 15 years later, Joy Division is considered one of the most important early post-punk bands. Named after the euphemistic slang for Nazi prostitution wards, JD's starkly minimalist minor-key excursions have greatly impacted the realms of indie, industrial, techno, and beyond. Oh yeah, and JD spawned some new-wave act called New Order.
So now, for those who missed the Joy Division party train the first time around, we have Permanent: Featuring two versions of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (JD's only real "hit"), the anthology is culled equally from JD's three studio albums -- Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and Disc 1 of Still -- and rounded out with a smattering of singles. Although the term "best of" seems especially subjective in regards to JD, this sturdy little collection serves as an admirable intro -- or flashback, for those of us who overdosed on this stuff in the '80s.
And now there's A Means to an End, the inevitable tribute LP (the second, actually; one with Italian bands was released in 1989). Conceptually, it's a solid idea: Assign a diverse bunch of indie artists to cover JD songs, simultaneously showcasing both their disparate styles and Curtis and company's breadth of influence. To a degree, it works. The only cringe-inducer is Stanton-Miranda's sugar-pop "Love Will Tear Us Apart," caught somewhere between previous versions by Paul Young (1983) and the Swans (1988). Somnambulists Low and Codeine sound exactly as you'd expect, Kendra Smith provides a mesmerizing "Heart and Soul," and indie stalwarts like Further and Versus turn in serviceable, albeit unsurprising, takes.
It's the mavericks who stand out: Moby's hardly techno take on "New Dawn Fades"; Desert Storm's raucous "Warsaw"; and Face to Face's Orange County speed-reading of "Interzone." But with nobody matching the brooding tone and tension of the originals -- the hallmark of Joy Division, after all -- Means is more a band sampler/curiosity than a tribute. If for some odd reason you've never been properly exposed to Joy Division, by all means check out the real deal first.
-- Mike Rowell
Grand Puba is permanently enshrined in the hip-hop pantheon for his opening verse on "Slow Down," a track on Brand Nubian's first album. The horn bleat and guitar sample that initiate it pull like puppet strings on people who don't even like to dance, and the song's longevity as a DJ favorite is an anomaly to say the least. Puba went solo after that record, releasing Reel to Reel in '92. Few fans liked it, though I found that the Memphis soul samples, nationalist themes, and hilarious raps stood the test of time.
Too bad 2000 doesn't even stand the test of today. Producers Mark Spark, Minnesota, and Shuga Liggio (whoever they are) and Alamo from Puba's posse obviously copped their clichd, basic beats from the DJ Premier stylebook. The layered synth sounds seem out of place on a record without P-Funk samples; though they differ from Dre's trademark keyboard lines, you can't help but think Puba et al. are just mimicking what's selling. What's worse, the aggressively educational stance that dominated Puba's earlier raps is replaced by puerile stunts-and-blunts posturing. And two tracks featuring the R&B vocals of Michelle Valdes Valentin are two too much for me; I've always found that trend in hip hop annoying. If I want to hear a generic singer, I'll buy SWV.
But Puba's got an undeniable talent for rhythmic rhyming, and if you're hooked on his voice and humor you'll still want 2000 (though Puba duplicates some of his own rhymes). If you're hungry for some original, intelligent New York hip hop, though, keep searching.
-- Paul Tullis
Rare Surf Vols. 1 & 2: The South Bay Bands
By now, we the people of the premillennial neobop era have been irreversibly irradiated by the Tarantino suitcase, that unnaturally glowing valise with sand in its pockets carrying the considerable baggage of the surf-music revival. It's utterly amazing what a few seconds on a Hollywood reel can do> for a dead-and-buried phenomenon, but there you go.
Dick Dale is back with a ponytail, Del-Fi has just released the Pulp Surfin' compilation, and every two-bit bar band in the land has swapped the blues for surf. Now comes AVI's Rare Surf collections: Compiling obscure tracks by stalwarts of the original SoCal surf movement, these releases are mainly for connoisseurs and die-hards. But the many stylistic variations featured on these 50-plus cuts make for a handy guidebook to the places these bands came from and the waves they were riding, before the British Invasion panicked them into cockney harmonizing.
Swinging blues bandleader Freddy King proves to have been a major influence on the peach-fuzz guitarists of acts like the Revelaires and the Journeymen. Other sources ripe for plundering include rockabilly, Tex-Mex, West Coast jazz -- even medieval folk ("Wild Goose")! Paul Johnson, who wrote the classic "Mr. Moto" for the Belairs, was one of the guitar heroes playing the ice-cream stands and "supermarket openings" of the South Bay; here, his side projects are documented for the first time. Between PJ & the Galaxies and PJ & Artie -- which enlisted such seasoned musicians as saxophonist Plas Johnson ("The Pink Panther") and bassist Ren Hall (Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens) -- Johnson appears on most of Vol. 1.
The Nocturnes kick off Vol. 2 with 11 songs lifted from the otherworldly songbook of screwy Brit producer Joe Meek ("Telstar"). Its members were "ho-dads" (urban greasers), which might explain the Nocturnes' rollicking, adventurous style. The rest of this disc is merely serviceable. If finances are a concern, pick Vol. I, the more substantial of the two: The Galaxies were a tight, versatile band that should've released more than one single ("Tally Ho"), while the Journeymen cover Milt Jackson's skulking "Bag's Groove" and toss in a dippy flute solo ("Rum Runner") for good measure.
-- James Sullivan