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Wednesday, Jan 24 1996
Heavy Petting Zoo

"There's something grand about being nothing," sings NOFX bassist Fat Mike on "Philthy Phil Philanthropist," concluding, "There's something lame about being grand." Leave it to the perennial piss-takers of NOFX to lay bare, with syllogistic eloquence no less, the lie of slackerdom still subscribed to by many of their peers. Even within a genre in which iconoclasm is de rigueur, the Hollywood-based quartet has always been ahead of the pack, winning the Punker-Than-Thou Olympics without even trying -- which, of course, is the only way to win.

Heavy Petting Zoo, NOFX's seventh album, is replete with such caustic observations, delivered with the Fat one's trademark bratty whine and roguish wordsmithery. Considering its relatively brief (35 minutes) length, a surprisingly broad range of topics get lined up in the NOFX cross hairs: disturbingly obedient children in "What's the Matter With Kids Today" ("They don't drink or fuck or fight," sings Fat Mike, scratching his head in bewilderment) and anti-porn crusader Catherine McKinnon in "The Black and White" ("Catherine should be busy porkin'/ That dolt Andrea Dworkin/ 'Cause she may be off her back/ But she needs to get off ours"). "August 8th" finds Fat Mike paying elegiac -- ahem -- homage to a certain other corpulent rocker: "I see a bunch of hippies crying/ Yeah, August 8th is a beautiful day/ Like waking up from a real bad dream/ Suddenly everything is OK." Meanwhile, "Bleeding Heart Disease" transforms Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Do-Re-Mi" into a socialist sing-along, railing against "the pursuit of million-dollar happiness," and ignoring the obvious irony that Fat Mike himself is a SoCal denizen who's built a seven-figure nest egg out of the punk rock dream.

But Zoo may be most effective when Fat Mike turns the slingshot on himself and ups the humor ante. "Hot Dog in a Hallway," in which he sings the praises of his plus-size honey, is as funny as it is puerile. The same could be said of "Whatever Didi Wants," which may also be the most pragmatic love song ever penned in the climb-the-highest-mountain vein: "I wouldn't walk 500 miles when I could fly coach/ But [I'd do] almost anything/ That doesn't mean I never loved you/ I love you long time when you're on top of me." Proclaimers, take note.

-- Tim Kenneally

Various Artists
Planet Soup
(ellipsis arts)

The compilation masters at ellipsis arts have come up with the ultimate metaphor for cross-cultural integration. Forget the melting pot and salad of yore: In 1996, it's soup time. The perfect image of harmonious cultural exchange, a hearty broth can be crafted by thoroughly combining any number of disparate ingredients, each individual flavor contributing to the full palatal impact. Although aural hybridization has become increasingly prevalent in recent years in virtually every genre worldwide, the three-disc anthology Planet Soup documents the kind of wildly creative (and successful) fusions that typically elude the average musical experimentalist.

Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar teams up with Boston-born Cape Verdean Paul Pe–a for an unusual but soulful Delta blues outing, Ondar moaning "low as a frog" and whistling overtones "high as a bird." The dazzling mix of Bulgarian women's choir Ensemble Piri with Zairian multi-instrumentalist Ray Lema boldly defies expectations of incongruity, while Toque de Caixa illustrates the pervasive Celtic influence in -- of all places -- Portugal. Meanwhile, Eitetsu Hayashi's quintet underscores the African/Asian connection to America's exploratory jazz traditions by fusing the tumbling hypnotics of taiko and Senegalese drumming with open-ended saxophone improvisation. Of course, the collection wouldn't be complete without big names such as Finland's harmonizing Varttina, Argentina's Astor Piazzolla, or the "Godfather of Nubian roots music," Ali Hassan Kuban, all of whom have consistently pushed the musical envelope.

That many of these adventurous fusions seem utterly alien to us demonstrates the myopic vision behind much of the music promoted to demographic-specific America. After all, Planet Soup reveals that transcultural unity often lurks where you least expect it.

-- Sam Prestianni

Abraham Burton
The Magician
(ENJA Records)

A twentysomething midway to 30, Abraham Burton MCs like he's on the younger side of the divide, especially when he airs his humor. (Remember how silly Dizzy got?) When Burton picks up his alto saxophone, though, a ripe fluency expressed in either pyrotechnical marathoning or a sustained lyricism belies his age.

On The Magician, Burton's second disc and recorded live, he comes off as a seasoned cat. He started playing front line in Taylor's Wailers, and though there's nothing tangible by way of tune titles or dedication, this release's bouquet of ballads suggests Burton is paying respect to the late drummer/leader Arthur Taylor. Burton's measure of maturity must also be marked by schooling from altoist of the first order Jackie McLean.

If Burton's band seemed any less prepared than he, his efforts would go largely unheard. When drummer Eric McPherson opts to solo, it's in a comping mode. That's not a contradiction -- too many solos spoil the flow. Keyboard logician Marc Cary, who also put in road time with Taylor, takes several solos that first reel in, then release a listener's focus. He's got the touch to articulate each consummate syllable, the ideas that link the helixed bottom-lines. Bassist Billy Johnson, with references like Abbey Lincoln, holds his own in the thick weave of pulse. Really, the whole band kicks.

Eager, hungry, his reed sound full of yearning, but too intense to indulge in the pleasure of reverie, Burton presses beyond a melody's parameters. The Magician begins with, ironically, "I Can't Get Started," then it's on to McLean's renowned "Little Melonae." This soaring tune sets the criteria by which to judge the compositions by band members (they hold up). On the album's most controversial rendering, Burton sings through his alto akin to Trane playing soprano. This work, Eric Satie's "Gnossienne #1," pays homage to victims of the Holocaust; the story is detailed in the ample liner notes. By the finale, Burton's breathy, seductive coda, the listener is inspired to further decipher The Magician's powers, and play it again and again.

-- Zoe Anglesey

Noise Addict
Meet the Real You
(Grand Royal)

Reviewing Ben Lee's Grandpaw Would last year, I called Grand Royal headquarters in Los Angeles with the question that would cornerstone my capsule: "How old is the boy?" "Sixteen, and yes, his voice has changed already," answered the eager Royaler. Sure, I remember 16: a driver's license, a face full of acne, girl trouble, and the thrills of uncovering new music. So it was tough to dis an endearing Lee who hit on precisely those themes.

But now Lee's a year older, and he's put down the acoustic guitar that dominated his solo effort for a distortion pedal with his full-time band, Noise Addict. Unfortunately, the four-piece can't muster the aw-shucks reverence that Lee's solo work elicited. Granted, Noise Addict avoids the traps of fellow Aussie youngsters Silverchair, who ape only the most obvious alternacrap, but they'd still be easily targeted to the buzz bin crowd. Songs like "16" and "Blemish," voiced by a gleaming teen-ager with a knack for rhyme, would ensure the Noisters a mention in the former, cooler Sassy's "cute band alert."

Meanwhile, "Body Scabs & Bizzos" and "Brinsley" both rock with that pop-punk thing, but they're short on the attitude and sneer; instead, they're carried by clever pokes at the glut of slacker bands ("Why are you lazy and so proud? Two thousand kids with guitars"). It's the mellow "Boyfriendship" that highlights Brad Wood's superclean production. Wood, who produced Grandpaw Would, as well as work by Liz Phair and Seam, fools around with the knobs a bit more than usual, adding organ, maybe a squeak toy or two, and odd studio tricks to flesh out the young group. But the members betray their youth with "Poison 1080," rhyming "statement" words like "suicide" with "genocide," and riffing boring power chords with silly guitar noodles.

Meet the Real You probably won't show up on many top 10s in '96, but it's a decent effort by a budding songwriter and a group that might still be outpacing its collective jean sizes. There's room to grow, and as Lee sings, "I can't be jaded yet, I'm only 16."

-- Jeff Stark

Dub Syndicate
Stoned Immaculate
(On-U Sound/Restless)

Dub Syndicate knows its true reggae roots inside out, it's just the U.K. collaborative would rather twist them into mind-warping, primaldelic dub. The rotating lineup of musicians working under the Dub Syndicate moniker belong to a larger organization overseen by dub don Adrian Sherwood. Sherwood's eclectic On-U Sound label has been recording otherworldly sounds by luminaries like African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, and Dub Syndicate since 1980.

Originally released in the U.K. in 1991, Stoned Immaculate finally saw the light stateside due to a new joint venture between On-U and Restless. An while it may be five years old, the material still sounds fresh and innovative. Like today's newest dub warriors, Dub Syndicate tweaks the low 'n' slow riddims of dub into a mishmash of spaced-out soniference. To that end, the title track becomes a red-eyed, crystalline haze of burbling computer noize running beneath a wash of jaunty reggae keyboard fills. Samples of Jim Morrison repeating, "Out here in the perimeter there are no stars/ Out here we are stoned immaculate" keep the mood trippy. "Forward Not Back" incorporates a snake-charming Middle Eastern raga riff and phase-shifts it with echoes, slacked-out guitar bits, and grinding keyboard passages.

Dub Syndicate occasionally swaps the intergalactic travel for more traditional dub fare: "Glory to God" bears a heavy Augustus Pablo influence; "More and More" introduces female chorus singers for a Wailers-like reggae soul feel. But even when treading these seemingly trad grooves, the Syndicate still manages to flip the riddim, always out to feed your head.

Dub Syndicate plays Fri, Jan. 26, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750. Also Sat, Jan. 27, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.

-- Spence


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