San Francisco's most despondent entertainer kicks off his solo career with a controlled version of a telltale cover: Dusty Springfield's "No Easy Way Down," from the cult classic Dusty in Memphis. After more than a decade with American Music Club, Eitzel -- like Elvis Costello and not many other rock-identified male singers -- is perfectly capable of trying on a feminine persona without pummeling the role with costume jewelry and platinum-blond wigs.
On songs like "Always Turn Away" and "Southend on Sea," some of the polished, piano-based pazz & jop that backs Eitzel's husky emoting comes across like an Everything But the Girl with 5 o'clock shadow. Still, Eitzel's band, which includes longtime AMC members Bruce Kaphan (keyboards, pedal steel) and Danny Pearson (upright bass), has settled comfortably into its craft, gently redefining it with the inclusion of mood-setting trumpeter Mark Isham.
Eitzel's real calling card is less his band's arrangements than his ability to write pop verse that sits well on the page. One of Eitzel's most indelible trademarks as a songwriter is his sense of place in San Francisco, where the usual rejoicing over the city's panoramas and unique cultural climate only serves to intensify the singer's perpetual malaise. To Eitzel, the city's greatest treasure troves remain its bars: the old North Beach dive Specs', for example, where "Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon," and the "Mission Rock Resort," where, despite the magnificent shade of dusk over the bay, still "nothing changes/ not ever." On the latter, Isham's mocking muted solo suggests that Eitzel is painfully aware of his characters' pathetic reliance on the bottle and the near-comic quality of their self-loathing. "Relax my love," Eitzel sings, almost breezily, on "Aspirin," "it's just the gates of hell swinging open." Don't let them hit you in the ass on the way in.
Mark Eitzel plays Tues, April 16, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.
-- James Sullivan
Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects
Every culture has its goddesses of destruction: The Greeks had Circe and the Sirens, Indian Hindus have Kali and Shiva, Americans have Courtney Love and Hillary Clinton, and the Moroccans have Aisha Kandisha. According to Moroccan mythology, she's a water-dwelling she-devil who drives both men and women to insanity and paralysis. Lalla Aisha, as she's popularly called, is blamed for everything from depression to arthritis, and according to pervasive superstition, her wrath can be invoked by simply uttering her name. The Moroccan trance-band Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects is not only tempting fate by naming itself for the legendary succubus but one-upping Prince as the-band-who-cannot-be-named, in its own country, at least.
Such a contrarian spirit is apparent in AKJE's spin on Moroccan music. Co-produced and remixed by Bill Laswell, Shabeesation, the band's second release (shabee is a term for Moroccan dance-pop), propels the hypnotically rhythmic religious trance that's long fascinated Westerners into the technological age: Picture the Master Musicians of Jajouka if they took to samplers, drum machines, and the bootleg hip-hop and techno tapes traded in the Marrakech markets. In songs like "Dunya," which opens with sounds from urban Moroccan life, diverse influences meet in a Tower of Babel: traditional Moroccan instrumentation, keyboard lines courtesy of P-Funkman Bernie Worrell, AKJE frontman Cheb Ahmed's haunting Arabic vocals, and pulsating techno beats that build unrelentingly toward orgasmic release.
Unlike many cross-cultural collaborations, Shabeesation doesn't relegate the Easterner to mere exotic flava (see some of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's disco sitting-duck work) and retains the integrity and spirit of the Moroccan music; nor was a Western influence projected onto the band: Although AKJE's first release was the psych-acoustic El Buya, the members became increasingly drawn to electro dance through repeated travels through Europe. After all, both techno and ethnic trance have one thing in common: ritualistic ecstasy. Take "A Muey A Muey," for instance, a lamentation (the title translates as "Mama, Mama") that binges on pain but purges out joy. Modern anomie is nothing compared to Lalla Aisha's curse.
-- Sia Michel
Railing on the disappointments of romantic relationships has long been a staple of pop music, but few female artists can take men to task quite like Lush's Miki Berenyi; as she's quoted in the press notes to Lovelife, "There are certain songs about telling blokes to fuck off." Though bassist Phil King and drummer Chris Acland have endured from the beginning, the boys take a back seat as far as songwriting duties go. Rallying cries like "Hey, Helen" from 1990's Gala contained the seeds of feminist awakening, but now Berenyi has forsaken arty symbolism for, well, a ballsy approach. While "I've Been Here Before" displays a wary resentment of "typical males," the harmonica-anchored "Ciao!" is a witty slugfest of estranged lovebirds, with guest singer Jarvis Cocker of Pulp doing the ex-boyfriend bit -- echoes of Justine (Elastica) and Damon (Blur) perhaps?
What hasn't changed are the ethereal melodies and layered vocals that initially earned Lush the shoegazer label, although Lovelife is far more guitar-driven than its previous work; forget simple bar chord progressions -- Emma Anderson offers intricate picking and elaborate configurations steeped in balmy reverb. Strings and bass back several songs, including the wistful "Olympia" (oddly reminiscent of the theme to the British film Georgy Girl). Even if it's a romantic downer, Lovelife is musically upbeat. Now all Lush needs is a good relationship counselor.
Lush plays Mon, April 15, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.
-- Andrew Lentz
Back in the old-school days, MCs were judged by an entirely different set of criteria. East Coast lyrical pioneers like Rakim, Melle Mel, KRS-One, and L.L. Cool J expanded the boundaries of what an MC could be while remaining true to the b-boy code. In the pre-N.W.A era, hardness was defined by lyrical skills, not by references to guns and slanging drugs. Things done changed, to quote Dr. Dre (by way of Biggie Smalls): As hip hop has become increasingly commercialized and homogenized, MCs chasing platinum status have let the art form fall by the wayside.
But recently, just as rap seemed tired and old, a new generation of hip-hoppers including the Wu Tang Clan, Jeru the Damaja, the Pharcyde, and Aceyalone has been redefining the role of the MC. Add Leaders of the New School alumnus Busta Rhymes to the list: On his solo debut, The Coming, he presents the MC as superhero, an apt metaphor in Busta's case. A melodramatic if tongue-in-cheek intro worthy of a comic book kicks things off, and over the album's 13 tracks, Busta spins syllables like the Electric Company's Letter Man, piling flows on top of flows in his original staccato (and slightly spastic) lyrical style. "I will endanger your species like an ostrich," he boasts. With Busta, it's not only what he says, it's the way he says it. His offbeat, Caribbean-influenced cadences could make you seasick, yet every time he seems like he's about to fall off, he comes back with an even tighter verse.
What really makes The Coming special, though, is the way that Busta and his Flip Mode crew retain old-school sensibilities while dropping some next shit: "Flip Mode Squad Meets Def Squad" hearkens back to songs like "The Furious Five vs. the Sugarhill Gang" and updates the old-school tradition of crews battling on record. Unlike many of today's lackadaisical MCs, Busta is more than willing to assume the mantle of a hip-hop Atlas, burdened with bringing "the ruckus to all you muthafuckas." Of course, hip hop cannot be "saved" by any one MC or crew. To that end, will you support another Snoop or Biggie clone or an original like Busta? As Black Sheep once said, "The choice is yours."
-- Eric K. Arnold