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Wednesday, Sep 20 1995
The Presidents of the United States of America
The Presidents of the United States of America

Talk about your party platforms: Judging from the self-titled first effort of Seattle's Presidents of the United States of America (actually, a re-release of their PopLlama debut), the Emerald City's rock scene isn't all syringes and shotguns anymore. Whilst the trio's regional contemporaries seem determined to while away their time (and fill their coffers) romanticizing the generational ennui that supposedly pervades the current Zeitgeist, the Prezzes blow a big fat raspberry in grunge's glum mug, campaigning on a single promise of good grooves for all, and armed with a repertoire that's one part frat house, one part nut house, and, to borrow a phrase from King Kurt's kiss-off note, 100 percent fun.

It's well nigh impossible to take POT USA seriously, particularly when they steadfastly refuse to do so themselves. Which is, of course, the infectious beauty of it all. Singer Chris Ballew is no master of the metaphor -- when he sings, in his Claypoolishly adenoidal yodel, about a little blue dune buggy driven by an equally diminutive blind spider, you can be pretty sure he's not making a veiled reference to urban blight or the evils of TicketMaster -- but there is a certain poetry to his unceasingly giddy abstractions. Prufrock may fret over whether he dares to eat a peach, but Ballew will gleefully tell you that, "If I had my way, I'd eat peaches every day." The message? Carpe diem, motherfuckers, and shake your asses while you're at it. Ballew may rehash the theme with only slight variations a dozen times over the course of as many tracks, but let's not forget that Ballew's got his work cut out for him. There are, after all, 6 zillion copies of Vitalogy out there, all perilously within reach of America's youth.

Luckily, he's got POT USA's music behind him, which is just as, if not more, compellingly goofy as the lyrics it buoys. Lord only knows what the two-string basitar and the three-string guitbass are, but Ballew and Dave Dederer brandish them, respectively, with an oddly graceful charm. Apparently, having fewer strings at their disposal between them than the average lone hair farmer doesn't dissuade them from exploring a full tonal palette; the propulsive, hook-heavy semihit "Lump" and the chicken-scratch frenzy of "Boll Weevil" are but two arguments that might compel Yngwie himself to ditch that high E. Meanwhile, drummer and Love Battery/Skin Yard alumnus Jason Finn reigns it all in with judicious measures of abandon and restraint.

Can't find a better man? Don't bet on it, Eddie -- I just found three of them for you. And the only stomachache they're likely to give you is the kind that results from busting a gut.

-- Tim Kenneally
The Presidents of the United States of America play Thurs, Sept. 21, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.

James Blood Ulmer's Musical Revelation Ensemble
In the Name of ...

Whatever possessed Sony to release a jazz album of enormous merit after holding back multifarious musics through its ignoble distribution deal with the Japanese label DIW (including much of journeyman visionary David Murray's work this decade) is beyond me. Taking into account the manner in which guitarist Ulmer was treated during his first go-round with DIW in the early '80s -- it put out three of the most influential jazz-punk/funk-blues albums of the time, whose influence still hovers, and which are still not yet available on CD, and then dumped Ulmer to channel more money into the Marsalis Contras -- one wonders what powders have been floating in the Sony water cooler as of late.

Feh. In the Name of ... is Ulmer's finest album since that period, a great improvement over the compromised Blues Preacher of last year, and featuring his trio and several master guest reedsmen, including altoist Arthur Blythe, with whom Ulmer recorded some of his finest music about 15 years ago on Blythe's Columbia releases. Their connection is telepathic, their sound looms stately, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett are fine, too, and underrecorded enough to merit extra interest. One wonders how the acid-jazz rocket-ship riders, so used to having their expectations met and their egos stroked, will take to funky music that brings Ornette's anarchic Prime Time Harmolodics to heart. How can you dance when your heart is singing? Or, in the true sense of funky -- stinking?

-- D. Strauss

The Blue Moods of Spain

Charlie Haden is an accomplished jazz bassist, and a longtime sideman to alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Haden's own quartet is credited with a handful of effusively praised records: quasi-soundtracks that solemnize the golden age of Hollywood noir, eerily layered with the detached voices of songbirds like Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford. His twentysomething progeny have also picked up the bass, on the electric side: Daughter Petra plays in the Geffen band that dog, and son Josh fronts the doleful rock quartet Spain.

While both siblings target a young peer group, Josh Haden's musical ideas pay tribute to his father's roots. Don't expect Ornette-style adventurism from Spain, however (which features two Bay Area members). Given the group's fake-book chord progressions and geriatric pacing, even the elder Haden's filmland scores seem avant-garde by comparison. Moreover, Josh Haden's impossibly breathy vocalizing makes Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" sound operatic, and his lyrics suggest a three-ring binder of embarrassingly lovesick junior-high verse.

Any readers who have endured this critique thus far are fated for The Blue Moods of Spain. Spain's unironic wistfulness isn't for everybody, just those of us lured by words like "noir" and "doleful." More seductive modifiers for your listening pleasure might include "measured," "unrequited," and "Chet Baker." The quaint idiom "to be blue" invoked by the album title deftly captures the singular atmosphere of this 60-minute debut. Average song lengths are over six minutes; Spain seems to wield utter motionlessness as its most effective instrument. Tunes like "I Lied" and "Ray of Light" approximate the effect of spinning timeless soul 45s at half the RPMs -- and that, it turns out, is a compliment.

-- James Sullivan
Spain plays Thursday nights at Cafe Du Nord in S.F.; call 861-5016.

The Chemical Brothers
exit planet dust

The Chemical Brothers are demented, in the sense that they're completely oblivious to notions of classification or identity, and thrust themselves headlong into every major musical movement of the last 30 years: techno, rock, jazz, funk, hip hop, and pop. The Manchester duo's sound ranks with the likes of Underworld and Sabres of Paradise, both of which are meticulously re-establishing the U.K.'s role as primary provider of ecstatic club fare. exit planet dust, the Brothers' debut, vigorously wipes the cobwebs from the dance floor, dislodging expectations in a controlled chaos of sound: "In Dust We Trust" juxtaposes scratching records and an apocalyptic beat against fierce electric surrealism; "Life Is Sweet" opens with a tumbling electronic groove and sparse rhythm track, then picks up muscle when a tweaked vocal track by Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess kicks in. Similarly, "Alice Alone" flows beautifully from an innocuous ambient foundation into a minor storm, via gritty beats, a shimmering melody, and the angelic voice of Beth Orton. If the assembly-line feel of most club music has turned you off to the genre, this exit makes a fine re-entry point.

-- Aidin Vaziri


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