Victoria, British Columbia, residents NoMeansNo are probably the closest thing to a prog-rock band that hardcore has, and brothers Rob and John Wright might very well be the Jonathan Swifts of the post-punk epoch. Over the past 14 years, the curmudgeonly Canucks have made a few modest proposals of their own (i.e., "Kill Everyone Now" from 1993's Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy?), dissecting humanity's foibles with acerbic wit and clinical precision over intricate song structures made all the more impressive by the manic pace with which they're executed.
Unmercifully caustic as they may be, though, they're nonetheless a welcome presence, because 1) they're unassailably correct in so many of their assessments; 2) they're more likely to include themselves among the flawed race they're reproaching than not; 3) it's probably hurting them more than it's hurting you; and 4) as they point out in their latest apologia, "State of Grace," "If I take a shit in your perfect world, it's only so you'll know me by my smell."
On The Worldhood of the World (As Such), the music is less technically ambitious than it's been on previous efforts, but that only serves to make the hooks and lyrical barbs that accompanies it that much sharper. After the opening "Joy," a one-word paean to an unnamed subject, the band wastes no time in getting to the matter at hand: "Humans" assumes the voice of a carnival barker to catalog the fatal follies of an "immaculate if ill-conceived" race, observing the "little monkeys making money/ Naked monkeys looking funny/ Monkeys wrong or monkeys right/ Mostly flexing monkey might." Likewise, "My Politics" presents the most repugnant protagonist since American Psycho, one who exonerates himself thusly: "What is the bitter explanation for the violence of my indignation?/ Well, it's as plain as the nose on my face/ I am a member of the human race." Nuff said on that count, especially if you've already bought into the Wrights' worldview.
But the release isn't all piss and vinegar: The closing "The Jungle" offers an oddly appropriate sense of resolve (even if its fractured funk backdrop leans a little too heavily on fIREHOSE derivations), hinting that there may indeed be peace to be found for the perpetually cynical heart. Meanwhile, "Lost," though typically savage musically, recounts a peculiarly touching narrative of a man who rummages through the wreckage of a nuclear winter, searching vainly for a loved one (even if he did shut the shelter door on her before the Big Blast). Post-apocalyptic romanticism? May the monkeys rejoice.
-- Tim Kenneally
Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space
The Transformed Man
These two reissues of acid-drenched late-'60s TV tie-ins are even more unsettling than you remember. Leonard Nimoy no doubt assumed that his short-lived matinee-worthy looks and benign alien image would usher him out of the U.S.S. Enterprise and into the laps of many a chickadee. Though several of his recordings would unfortunately be from the heart, Outer Space is not one of them, and one must scold the producers of Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space for pairing all of the titular album with half of Nimoy's more sincere Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy when there was plenty of room for all of it. Or none of it.
Who are they trying to fool? What does the generally astral-themed first album (which includes the instrumental "Theme From Star Trek" -- yes, there is a brief Nimoy vocal, Weill/Anderson's "Lost in the Stars," and the Shatneresque recitation "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Earth") have to do with the peaceful, Rod McKuenesque nut crunching of Two Sides?
But wait! Perhaps it's a symbolic comment on how Star Trek became so deeply embedded in Nimoy's psychoanalytic concerns. Some might link the implicit semiotic relationship between Selleck, Guttenberg, and Danson in the Nimoy-directed 3 Men and a Baby to the Kirk/Spock/Bones triumvirate but for the fact that it doesn't make any sense. Note that Nimoy titled his latest book I Am Spock, while 20 years ago he released a formerly definitive tome called I Am Not Spock. You are what you eat, and Nimoy is crow.
Shatner, on the other hand, has vocal talent equivalent to Marlon Brando's acting skills, and the comparisons don't end there. Both thespians are short men who love the villain, and like Brando, Shatner is certainly high-minded and never less than ambitious, hence tracks titled "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." Unfortunately, they are penned by one Don Ralke rather than Shakespeare, but this only underscores Shatner's Deweyesque philosophy. Likewise, Ralke's orchestrations are a textbook example of a former zeit-guy attempting to mount a dead horse that's flogging itself. Again, I think of Brando's films of the mid-'60s.
KUSF radio has given such method-acted tunes as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" -- both songs marked by the cadences of one severely fucked-up individual -- plenty of play, but it's the recitations (the "Theme From Cyrano" in particular) that allow Shatner to embarrass himself so strongly that we want to take him home and lick his wounds. Space is not the final frontier so much as chutzpah.
-- D. Strauss
The Shirt I Slept In
Checking her answering machine after a gig one night, Beth Custer heard the following words of encouragement and later made them the final track of her excellent solo debut: "Beth, this is Eric Dolphy. I just wanted you to know ... you're the one who picked up the torch ... taking it further. You're really blowing my mind. We're all up here in heaven watching ya. Keep on doin' it, girl."
Whether it was beamed down from the afterworld or not, this message encapsulates Custer's mission as a composer and clarinetist: to push new music to the next level. Her unique vision stems from investigating a host of genres, including jazz, improv, 20th-century classical, and world traditions. By approaching her art from numerous perspectives, she creates colorfully diverse soundtracks rife with emotion and stamped with a powerful, positive voice.
With accompaniment by some of the Bay Area's greatest players, including saxophonist Dave Barrett, bassist Trevor Dunn, and cellist Matthew Brubeck, the quasi-cowboy pep of "Fall of the Imperialist," the silver-lined clouds of "The Lips That Kissed the Paper," the turbulent darkness of "Grey Waters," and the exuberant Middle Eastern rhythms of "Holster" evoke multiple moods both ancient and futuristic, courtesy of her colleagues in Trance Mission. Her songs, many of which were originally commissioned for dance, theater, opera, and film, focus on atmosphere and seamlessly shifting tonality. Though categorization is difficult, they're best described as world fusion. Or maybe just otherworldly.
Beth Custer, Custer/Bernard Ensemble, and Clarinet Thing play Mon, Dec. 11, at the Elbo Room in S.F.; call 552-7788.
-- Sam Prestianni
Afropea: Vol. 3
Telling Stories to the Sea
Besides blood and money and the lingering ghost of slavery, the legacy of Portuguese colonialism is cultural cross-pollination. Compiled by David Byrne and Yale Evelev, Telling Stories to the Sea documents recent generations of Afro-Portuguese music, which links South American, African, and European traditions. Although almost every song is a ballad, shot through with classic themes of yearning, misfortune, and mystery, they're imbued with an inherent politicism that recalls American slave spirituals; both musics played an integral role in the struggle for freedom.
As the liner notes state, these songs are "both the illness and the cure." As such, the artists relay a remembrance of things past or distant -- homelands, lovers, family. On the spare "Mona Ki Ngi Xica," Angola's raspy-voiced Bonga sings passionately of a blessed child he hopes will survive him, but who is threatened by a "tide of misfortune." In "Sodade" ("Homesick"), Cape Verde's internationally popular Cesaria evora masks profound regret with ambivalence: "If you write me/ Then I'll write you/ If you forget me/ Then I'll forget you."
These minimalistic acoustic pieces are beautiful, but the release fails when synthesizers and superslick production kick in. Lisbon-based Dany Silva's "Mama Africa," a bittersweet paean to the future of the beautiful but troubled continent, becomes an overdone mirror-ball-ready ballad just one minute in. But electric instruments succeed on tracks like Africa Negra's "Bo Lega Caco Mode Bo," which represents Sao Tome with fat, fretless bass rolls, inventive guitar noodling, and a steady chug-a-lug percussion to make hips sway. Like Telling Stories as a whole, it's a song that lingers in your mind like melancholy memories and wistful dreams.
-- Josh Wilson
Your Heart's in Good Hands
Al Green's inimitable vocals have kept the greatest of his long line of '70s hits fresh as the day they were hatched. Trouble is, the legacy of Green's elastic, swooping singing style unfairly raises the stakes for his comeback. Mostly recorded well over two years ago for BMG International, Your Heart's in Good Hands sounds as disjointed as a record by this impeccable stylist could. Blame it on a revolving door of methodic producers, including Jodeci's DeVante, Marin County smoothie Narada Michael Walden, and David Steele and Andy Cox of Fine Young Cannibals. Though Green's nearly 50-year-old voice still sounds angelically limber, the rote dance-radio settings of most of these songs keep him shackled to the mere mortals that surround him.
Walden's drippy title track is rescued only during its fade-out, with Green darting from an impossibly rangy falsetto to a "Superstition"-like growl, as if he'll try anything to be freed from his obligation. "Could This Be Love" reduces Green to the slow-jam mannerisms of his backers -- Jodeci -- and laughably, Green leaves them to sing the specific lyrics about earthy relationships, as though the good reverend couldn't bring himself to entertain such blasphemy. Instead, he gurgles and yelps indecipherably, at one point pushing air through his lips like a kid impersonating a motor vehicle.
A cover of the Temptations' "Don't Look Back," one of three overseen by executive producer Arthur Baker, features the goofy sax honk of Curtis Stigers. It's one of several misplaced horn passages that undermine the valiant efforts of the Memphis Horns to resuscitate Green's Hi Records heyday. Somewhat surprisingly, the collection's best cuts are those produced by the Steele/Cox tandem, whose five efforts are suspiciously herded to the second half. Although "One Love" clacks along innocuously to canned dance tracks, the duo's light touch on "Best Love" and "Your Love (Is More Than I Ever Hoped For)" is enough to put these songs in the same ballpark as the reverend's '70s output. Unfortunately, while Green's classics sit in the front row, this stuff has to settle for an obstructed view, way up in the nosebleeds.
-- James Sullivan