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Wednesday, Aug 30 1995
The Dambuilders
Ruby Red
(Eastwest Records)

Unless you're fortunate enough to be a nouveau punque, making your pop dreams rock isn't a very fashionable musical strategy these days. Just to make things interesting, the Dambuilders stack the deck against themselves even further. David Derby has a naturally thin singing voice that forces him to push it well past its limit, while guitarist Eric Masunaga alternately favors brittle patterns and airy leads. Meanwhile, Joan Wasser's violin flies into the gap, a disembodied, rootless cry devoid of folky connotations. As an added bonus, the Dambuilders play most of their songs a little too fast.

When these disparate elements click, the effect is like experiencing the world through the window of a speeding car: Passing colors are blurred, and sounds are skewed by motion and the Doppler effect. Derby's lyrics alternately capture the urge to move (down the highway, into the stratosphere) and the realization that you're often literally or figuratively stuck in one space, which might have something to do with the band's early origins in Honolulu. In "Kill Haole Day" from last year's Encendedor, Derby narrates as a white kid about to get his ass kicked on the last day of school, one of Hawaii's fabled post-colonial traditions. Derby knows that this myth rarely becomes reality; instead, he imagines what it would be like if the guy welcomed his yearly fate because it taught him how to fit in. If that isn't stasis, what is?

Ruby Red isn't quite as bracing as Encendedor, though the group continues to fine-tune its sound. The Dambuilders tastefully favor a kinetic rhythmic kick, and if that means occasionally plundering the Gang of Four ("Velocidad") and Joy Division (Encendedor's "Shrine"), that's a small price to pay. Derby and Wasser have begun to harmonize more, which lends an aching John-and-Exene quality to cuts like "Lazy Eye." Subsuming Masunaga's guitar underneath the searing violin is an admirable attempt to mess with aesthetic conventions, but it often creates an unrealistic burden of sonic space for Wasser to fill. But when Derby's penchant for corn -- spoken-word bits, for example -- threatens to overwhelm, Wasser is a consistent secret weapon. At moments as disparate as the somber "Drive-By Kiss" and the screw-the-kids "Teenage Loser Anthem," she can always launch the songs into a lightheaded orbit.

-- Greg Milner

T.J. Kirk
T.J. Kirk
(Warner Bros.)

It sounds like an absurd novelty: Four Bay Area jazz cats -- guitarists Charlie Hunter, John Schott, and Will Bernard with drummer Scott Amendola -- play the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rashaan Roland Kirk; have been known to sport matching fezzes onstage; and once called themselves James T. Kirk until those pesky copyright laws persuaded them to cut-and-paste the William Shatner reference. But notions of shtick evaporate quickly as the quartet's catalytic talent shapes a musical playground for the rhythmic landscapes of the Godfather of Soul, the deep abstract musings of Monk, and the unequivocal liveliness of Kirk.

T.J. Kirk is not a jazz record per se. Because guitars dominate, classics like Monk's "Epistrophy" and Brown's "Soul Power" emerge as innocuous conflations of jazz, rock, and the almighty groove. "Serenade to a Cuckoo" and "Jackie-ing" are mellower jaunts into the soulful, what Wes Montgomery might have sounded like had he been down with San Francisco's diverse music scene. Cleverly juxtaposing compositions -- Kirk's "Rip Rig and Panic" with Brown's "Cold Sweat," for example -- is another way the group builds upon the composers' skeletons rather than merely covers their tunes.

Undoubtedly, avid followers of one or more of the band's three namesakes will find some aspect absent from T.J. Kirk's executions, be it Brown's rich, full-funk sound, Monk's moodiness, or Kirk's bravado. Still, T.J. Kirk is out to reimagine these artists' classics, not carbon-copy them, and inject personality into the tired tribute-band model.

-- Jazzbo
T.J. Kirk plays Sun, Sept. 3, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

Various Artists
Red Hot + Bothered: The Indie Rock Guide to Dating
(Red Hot/Kinetic)

Various Artists
Spirit of '73: Rock for Choice
(550 Music/Epic)

Mediocre as they often are, "various artists" compilations are a godsend to the insatiable culture vulture. Era-chroniclers (see K-Tel) and soundtracks are stalwarts of the genre's bins; tribute albums, a relative newcomer, have already crowded the section with sketchy product. The benefit release, another v/a niche, began inauspiciously, checking in from the outposts of Bangladesh and Kampuchea before coming home to roost in L.A. during the cause-crazed '90s. Besides sweeping up dust-bunny B-sides, outtakes, and live tracks, these records offer the bonus of arm-chair philanthropy: A good deed is now as simple as directing one's purchasing power toward the phrase "a portion of proceeds."

Raising funds for AIDS relief, the "Red Hot" series has been a particular winner to date, both causewise (a reported $5 million) and artwise (Iggy Pop doing Cole Porter, Roy Ayers vibing with the Roots). Now comes the "indie rock" contribution to the series, a pair of 10-inch vinyl releases soon to be compiled on CD. Most of the songs are good, if misleading: Though Red Hot + Bothered claims to be sex-positive in scope, you'd be hard pressed to tell, given the resigned lyrics and lack of lubricant. For instance, Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion offers muted advice for young lovers -- its cut is instrumental, and chaste at that. Apparently, Barlow's bedroom eyes belong to his four-track.

Elsewhere, the Grifters' "Empty Yard," featuring backward-masked guitar parts, resembles a fun-house mirror, while the nerd-rock of Built to Spill's "Still Flat" is just muscular enough to stand up to its clowning trombone accompaniment. The package concludes with the wistful "Rex's Blues," a duet between Kelly Willis and ex-Uncle Tupelo leader Jay Farrar. Not all is well in indieland, however: If offshoot band Freedom Cruise is any indication, Guided by Voice's smarty-pants style has gone stale in record time.

Sad to report that Rock for Choice's Spirit of '73 is pretty much a dud altogether. True, Babes in Toyland's "More More More (Pt. 1)" is a peppy non-rockist remake of the Andrea True Connection come-on classic, while country royalty Rosanne Cash and Blue Note vocalist Cassandra Wilson rush to the rescue with proud readings of songs by Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack, respectively. But do these "I Am Woman" hits of the '70s need reprising if all the artists can muster is reverent precision? Word has it that nearly every songstress in the business was interested in this project. If so, then what about, say, the Muffs' Kim Shattuck warbling Minnie Riperton's "Loving You"? Just a thought.

-- James Sullivan

Slap Happy Humphrey
Slap Happy Humphrey
(Public Bath)

Taking their nonsensical name from the moniker melding of English art band Slapp Happy and pro wrestler Happy Humphrey, Slap Happy Humphrey is an experiment in contrast. The concept -- to combine the ethereal folk songs of late '70s/early '80s Japanese chanteuse Morita Doji with extreme noise guitar -- had long been stewing in the brain of Hijokaidan guitarist Jojo Hiroshige, Japan's self-proclaimed "King of Noise" and a big Doji fan. But it wasn't until Jojo encountered the heavenly warblings of Angel'in Heavy Syrup vocalist Mineko in 1990 that his "long-cherished dream" began to take form.

The group debuted on an obscure Japanese compilation in 1992, but plans for a full CD were delayed by a surprise resurgence of interest in Doji when one of her songs became a TV show theme. Now that the threat of overkill has passed, Jojo, Mineko, and acoustic guitarist Fujiwara have seen fit to fully unleash their vision -- and it was well worth the wait. Though each of these eight tracks is oddly gorgeous in its own right, a similar structure prevails: The listener is lulled by a hauntingly airy ballad, then sucker-punched with a psychotic noise-guitar blast often so left field it's not even in the ballpark. It sounds a bit incongruous, but the elements congeal surprisingly well. Stylish and tasteful, the disc serves as an effective Japanoise appreciation primer: One afternoon, I noticed a steady grinding tone embellishing "G-Senjo ni Hitori." Nice touch, I thought, not realizing for a full three minutes that it was actually some guys across the street cutting plywood.

-- Mike Rowell

(Almo Sounds)

All work and no play makes Butch a dull boy. As in Butch Vig, the knob-twiddling guru behind Nirvana's Nevermind and a host of other important alternative documents. So it makes perfect sense that when Vig finally got sick of standing behind the mixing board, he'd assemble a supergroup like Garbage to blow off a little steam. Guitarist Steve Marker and bassist/keyboardist Duke Erikson date back to Vig's New Wave drumming days with outfits like Spooner and Firetown. But the coup here is sultry siren Shirley Manson from the Scottish goth-pop combo Angelfish. Vig may have some brilliant musical ideas, but it's Manson who pushes them across with chameleonesque acuity.

In Angelfish, Manson's Debbie-Harry-on-lithium voice could set your flesh creeping and your heart a-pumpin' with a solitary sneer or subtle turn of phrase. Here, she rides shotgun through Vig's conceptual maelstrom, as on "Vow," in which Manson keeps up with ping-ponging guitar lines and a nonstop synthesizer buzz which sounds like a nest of angry hornets. Her voice distorted by effects, she hisses, "I came to cut you up/ I came to knock you down/ I came to tear your little world apart/ And break your soul apart." Time to book a one-way ticket out of town. But on the Russ Meyer-inspired "Supervixen," Mason plays the come-hither seductress, delicately purring over Vig's trademark production: guitars meowing in heat, pouncey folk strumming on the verses, a cantankerous wall o' noise for the chorus, and periodic screeching halts.

Lest you try to pin Garbage down, though, "Queer" (a tribute to Burroughs) couples trip hop with cabaret crooning, while techno and grunge battle in the sinister "As Heaven Is Wide." Then Garbage goes for the Top 40 jugular with the Blondie-like "Stupid Girl." Obviously, Vig wants to scamper all over the stylistic map, and he knew just the right crowd to run with. Once you've heard Shirley Manson sing, you'll probably follow her anywhere.

-- Tom Lanham


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