Those of us who stayed awake during fifth-grade English class no doubt remember the grammatical axiom that double negatives cancel each other out, a significant rule to bear in mind when considering Help, a new compilation featuring the cream of the current pop Brit Pack. How else do you explain the fact that, by combining the single most reviled format in modern music history (the concept album) with what is surely its closest runner-up (the benefit album), the caring folks at War Child have assembled a release that is not only tolerable but also quite often enjoyable? Grandma was right: The wonders never cease.
The beneficiaries in this case are the young victims of the Bosnian war (which was Krist Novoselic's cause celebre last year; he wrote the liner notes), and the concept was to record Help in a day and release it within a week. No small feat, considering that the album is comprised of 20 tracks by at least as many artists; indeed, the clock-racing goal was only met with the aid of planes, helicopters, couriers, and ferryboats. Putting aside the fact that with those resources, the organizers could've airlifted half of the kids in question and dropped them off in Beverly Hills, the results are surprisingly worthwhile -- even without the "it was done in one day" and "it's for a good cause" qualifiers.
Oasis' album-opening "Fade Away" (apparently featuring Johnny Depp on a rather inconspicuous lead guitar) offers a refreshingly stripped-down look at the neopsych Wunderkinder; Suede's take on Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," while characteristically histrionic, is also uncharacteristically sincere; Radiohead's Kinks-on-Quaaludes "Lucky" isn't without a certain sleepy-eyed charm; and priestess of piety Sinead O'Connor's bare-bones reworking of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" has a chilling resonance.
Which is not to say that Help isn't without its misfires; certain tracks may benefit the children of Bosnia, but they won't do much to help the careers of the artists. Stone Roses, prolific lot that they are, weigh in with a perfunctory live performance of "Love Spreads" that only underscores the wonders of studio wizardry; Blur's instrumental "Eine Kleine Lift Musik" is more an afterthought than a composition (as is Terrorvision's loungy, improbably titled "Tom Petty Loves Veruca Salt"); and if Manic Street Preachers had any friends, they surely would've told the band that the world doesn't need another version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Still, at a 60 percent success rate over 20 tracks, Help fares better than many full-blown studio productions cluttering the racks lately.
Besides, it's all for a good cause. Which isn't saying nothing, you know.
-- Tim Kenneally
Return of the DJ
(The Bomb Entertainment)
Back in the day, when hip hop was but an itty-bitty sperm in the nuts of street culture, the DJ reigned supreme. Hip hop's forefathers, like DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, waged sonic wars in the Bronx for musical and auditory supremacy, melting instrumentals ranging from P-Funk to the I Dream of Jeannie theme together and thereby creating the breakbeats that pulled b-boys (then called break dancers) off the walls. Today, as many artists choose DATs over the traditional iron horse 1200 Technics turntables for their live shows, DJ tricks and scratching (stroking a record back and forth against the needle on a particular word or beat) have lost their mass appeal.
Bay Area mad scientist and The Bomb hip-hop magazine Editor David Paul could spark a technic(al) renaissance with Return of the DJ, an international 12-track polemic on why the wax will never relax. DJs of all ilks -- battlers, tricksters, and those who produce beats for the Jeeps -- speak with their hands here. Illadelphia native DJ Ghetto and NYC's Rob Swift mercilessly slash and burn rhythms, Swift's wizardry shining when he strips apart then puts back together a Biz Markie intro. Then there's the buttery-smooth "The Chronicles" by the Bay Area's own Peanut Butter Wolf. Of course, S.F. kings of the cross-faders leave melted turntables in their wake. Former world DJ champ Mixmaster Mike's "Terrorwrist" masterfully combines his sense of humor (count how many times you hear "mike") with his incredible battle skills as he reduces beats into liquidlike sounds. Not to be outdone, Invisible Scratch Pickles members Disk, Shortkut, and Q-Bert, another world champion, make it clear that no beats are safe as they push the envelope with their blisteringly fast scratching; they even somehow transform a scream into a fly guitar riff.
Although some excellent DJs are absent here (who may possibly appear on an upcoming second volume), this compilation's solid production highlights amazing tricks that will leave listeners muttering, "Damn, how'd they do that?"
The double vinyl Return of the DJ is available at local stores or by calling 821-7965.
-- Philippe Shepnick
Barry Black is not an Irish folkie but the rather outr, mostly nonverbal solo project of Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann. 5ive Style is not a bad pseudofunk band performing in suburban meat markets but a rather good pseudofunk band with champion Guyville pedigree. As the surf/exotica revival finds cushy work providing between-song filler for modern rock stations, these two discs suggest the innovative directions in which instrumental rock is headed.
Barry Black could be considered Bachmann's tongue-in-cheek plea to be accepted as an "artist." An unlikely mix of X, Y, and Z (externalized peculiarities, Yiddish instincts, and Zappa identification), the record sounds ridiculous on paper, but it's more fun than a collection of Archers outtakes would have any right to be.
Most of Bachmann's songs are culture collisions, beginning with the lead track, "Train of Pain," a sort of rummy Native American lament reworked for organ grinder -- but without the organ. Some of the tracks acknowledge the hallmarks of traditional instros: The anchor of "Boo Barry Blip" is a fatback Duane Eddy-ish guitar, and "Vampire Lounge" is unsurprisingly creepy and campy. But for the most part, Bachmann gleefully stretches the bounds of what constitutes alternative rock (or rock at all), dragging out a banjo on several tracks, incorporating cello and trumpets to wheezing effect on others.
5ive Style is a Chicago quartet led by bassist LeRoy Bach (formerly with Liz Phair) and drummer John Herndon (ex-Poster Children, currently in Tortoise). Bach is also the catalyst of Uptighty, a 12-piece funk collective known for its wigged-out soul workouts. The press notes to 5ive Style point out that the band is enamored with New Orleans' Meters, an extraordinary place for any soul combo to start. In fact, the group blends a host of influences from the early to mid-'70s -- Bad Company's "Call on Me" is etched into the coda of the first cut, and "Hard Afro Rubalon" is built upon a stinging disco rhythm section. Amazingly, none of this music sounds dated. What makes the group contemporary are the gifts of its relative newcomers: Billy Dolan's chunky, spirited guitar playing and Jeremy Jacobsen's computer-age keyboard enhancement.
The beauty of instrumental music is that there is no literal agenda predetermined by a singer. With the Archers, or Liz Phair, we know what to expect; with these two groups, our expectations are trashed. The vast catalog of pop music is primed to be ransacked and reconfigured -- for its own sake, and not for what the artists have (or don't have) to say.
-- James Sullivan
Nice Work ...
It's not off-base to compare that great explosion of English lyric poems in the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, and Donne with the American songwriting that blossomed in the years 1911-1949 thanks to artists like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Jerome Kern. Think about it: The art of both eras is full of wit, conceits, oxymorons, and slang; is grounded in Petrarchan philosophy; and references such figures as Romeo, Cupid, Arthur, and Lothario. And while the poetry has suffered from its presentation by fourth-rate English teachers, the songs have usually come to us via equally mediocre singers.
But Weslia Whitfield interprets the canon of American song on par with the top jazz, Broadway, film, and cabaret artists of the past. Accompanied by her husband, Mike Greensill, her performances of such classics as "Nice Work If You Can Get It" or "How Deep Is the Ocean" are as intimate, fresh, and heartfelt as the originals, and the duo's collaborations as seamless as the masterful Lester Young/Billie Holiday recordings. Like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Libby Holman, and Fanny Brice, Whitfield combines jazz elements with torch stylings to beautiful and dramatic effect. Eschewing the superficial trappings of scat singing, or the trends toward camp or pretension, Whitfield relies on the subtleties of rhythmic shifts and the sheer pathos of her voice to take us down her personal street of dreams.
Far from being simple fare from a simpler time, multilayered pieces like Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" reveal a more sophisticated approach to love than we have come to expect from song these days. Fully aware of the music's depth and complexity, Whitfield rises to the interpretive challenge.
Weslia Whitfield and Mike Greensill play Wed-Sat (plus a New Year's Eve gala), Nov. 29-Dec. 31, at the Plush Room in S.F.; call 885-2800.
-- Ira Steingroot