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Wednesday, Feb 14 1996

Silkworm is supposed to be the Next Pavement, according to Steve Malkmus, since Guided by Voices were last year's Next Pavement but fizzled out. Thing is, on Firewater, their fourth album, these Missoula-by-way-of-Seattle boys sound more like San Francisco sadcore a la Toiling Midgets or even Timco, if played at a faster rpm. There's no smarty-pants indie-rock irony here, and no happiness either. Resignation and despair prevail through songs that mainly limn the pleasures and pains of heavy drinking. It's too excessive at first -- too many emotions, too much drama. "No more simple tunes, no more easy poon, it takes so many millions to get laid," grumbles vocalist Tim Midgett. Well, whining is no aphrodisiac, muthafucka. Maybe it's just the weather.

Though there're hints of Television, the Jam, Nirvana, and -- yup -- Pavement, the music doesn't share those bands' brainy accessibility. Midgett pleads like Greg Dulli of Afghan Wigs (another not-quite-indie-rock band); instruments loop around and crash into each other (rather ineffectively, I might add); Andy Cohen's guitar slashes and burns -- cliched but true -- stretching out on solos with hints of Mascis and Verlaine though he's not quite in their league, letting riffs drop abruptly only to be picked up again elsewhere; the drums sound wrong, and spare production by Missoula homeboy Steve Albini only highlights it.

In fact, Firewater seems irrevocably flawed at first, like an important element is missing. That, of course, is the idea, the sonic companion to themes of loss, regret, and waiting. Eventually, though, the guitarwork starts to make sense. Tunes that fell flat two days earlier sound vaguely anthemic. Disjointed song structures look better from a different angle. The indie-rock paradigm etched in the brain takes a half-step toward something new.

Dig the Pavement guitar references in "Killing My Ass" and smirk as Silkworm rips off the plagiarists. The rest of Firewater will eventually come to you, but not without initial reluctance on your part. As always, the best records are often the most difficult.

-- Paul Wagenseil

Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton
(Ruthless Records)

When reflecting on the death of a musical icon, the media generally puts on kid gloves. But though, for instance, the drug abuse heavily contributing to Jerry Garcia's death was conveniently glossed over, many reporters hit Eric "Eazy-E" Wright hard for his lifestyle, subtly blaming him for contracting AIDS. Of course, as a self-professed O.G., Eazy-E's legacy is troublesome: When we remember that he played an important role in gaining recognition for West Coast rap and lyrical gangstas, we can't forget that the young men he talked about blowin' away were mainly his brothas. When we remember that Eazy, with his first group, N.W.A., was reporting on the sinister behavior of the LAPD long before CNN had ever heard of Mark Fuhrman, we can't forget that he helped institutionalize misogyny in rap.

But Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton, recorded in the months before Eazy's death, offers a full-frontal view of his talents: phunkey drops that take you rolling through the CPT, dome noddin'; the eerie sound effects that signify that someone, somewhere, is up to no good; his penchant for kickin' game, telling a story so well you can almost smell the 40 on his breath; and, when the little-known sista Sylk jumps off, his knack for discovering and nurturing raw talent.

Most of these songs, though, attest that Eazy's ability to put a new twist on the same old street tales had worn thin. The once combatively playful mockery of former N.W.A. homey Dr. Dre (remember that infamous picture of Dre in makeup on Eazy's 5150 Home 4 tha Sick?) now sounds merely bitter and querulous. Even his squeaky voice had lost its verve. Still, the production finesse by associate producer DJ Yella on "Tha Muthaphukkin Real" and by guests Naughty by Nature on the, er, obliquely titled "Hit the Hooker" and "Nutz on Ya Chin" makes this double-CD worthwhile.

Chillingly, Eazy-E often speaks portentously of his death, one he's sure will come in a hail of bullets. That's one aspect of his legacy we can all agree on: that, for too long, the kids in the streets have ignored the threat between the sheets.

-- Gwendlynn Meno

Francis Wong
(Asian Improv Records)

Asian Improv aRts co-founder Francis Shih-Ming Wong is one of the Bay Area's leading proponents of Asian-American culture. By organizing provocative cultural events and launching the recording careers of hotshot artists like Miya Masaoka and Vijay Iyer, he's helped foment national attention for the West Coast's prolific Asian music community. He's also a monster saxophonist, and his soulfully fat-toned, often rambunctious improvisations have fleshed out discs by eminent jazz/improv cats Jon Jang and Glenn Horiuchi.

On Ming, his second outing as a leader (released simultaneously with Chicago Time Code, an exceptional album of duets with bassist Tatsu Aoki), Wong augments his horn playing with lively performances on flute and violin. Teaming up once again with manic pianist Horiuchi, who occasionally doubles on shamisen and outta-bounds vocalizations, Wong rekindles his fiery association with former S.F. Mime Troupe partner Elliot Kavee, who manipulates the cello and percussion ranging from the drum kit to -- really -- the kitchen sink.

Fusing traditional and experimental approaches from both Chinese and American musics, Wong and company strive to rectify the self-described "Imbalance in Our Times" with the harmony of wide-open cross-cultural connection. The music's vast range of expression -- from chaotic eruptions to madcap antics to empathetic rumination -- resonates with the turbulence and all-too-infrequent compassion that inform our global society. Like true prophets of the ming (the Chinese word for light) in pieces like "Lovers Embrace ... Then Dance," Wong, Horiuchi, and Kavee never cave in to cynicism, but offer unity and hope as the only solution for survival.

Francis Wong's Desert Flower Ensemble performs Sat, Feb. 17, at Center for the Arts Theater in S.F.; call 221-2608.

-- Sam Prestianni

The Business
Death II Dance

Unlike most of the old-timers putting out "new" punk rock these days, the Business has managed to keep some semblance of integrity. The Business, who along with Sham 69 and the Cockney Rejects helped to originate Oi!, never gave up the fight, taking only a three-year break in 16 years of playing. Death II Dance, a six-song teaser for the up-and-coming The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth, does not break any ground for the Business -- the band still rails against government bureaucracy in anthems like "N.H.S." (as in England's National Health Service), and still slags off club music (as in "Death to Dance," a rave-repulsed update of the early single "Smash the Discos") -- but at least the Business never lost its passion for Docs or its enthusiasm for playing to a street-level crowd. This EP is worthwhile simply for the riotous interpretation of the Smiths' "Hang the DJ (Panic)" and the acoustic "unpubbed" version of "Drinking and Driving" -- downright purty, guys.

The Business plays Sun, Feb. 18, at the Trocadero Transfer in S.F.; call 995-4600.

-- Silke Tudor
The Grifters
Ain't My Lookout
(Sub Pop)

Grifters guitarist/vocalist Dave Shouse's father once described his son's art as "pop music through a Veg-O-Matic," which is probably as accurate an assessment as any father could hope to make of his child's musical endeavors. Still, to confine the band to the parameters of any one musical idiom, purŽed or not, is to do it a disservice. Truth is, the Grifters are an entity unto themselves, ensconced in a warped insularity and exiled -- partly by necessity and partly by choice -- to a world of their own making.

This cosmos, alternately (and, sometimes, simultaneously) majestic and bleak but always devastating (or devastated, take your pick), defined with such clarity on last year's Eureka EP, is further detailed on Ain't My Lookout, a collection of 13 new cryptographs. In the Grifters' bio, Scott Taylor (aka Hot Monkey, the other half of the guitar/vocals juggernaut), claims that "we were totally surprised we came up with such a poppy record this time." They might be the only astonished ones -- the Grifters' vision has been growing increasingly lucid for some time -- but Lookout constitutes the Grifters' most ambitious and fully realized compositional effort yet.

"Mysterious Friends" is a gumshoe narrative of cement footwear and guilt-ridden benders in SoHo, given an appropriately noirish bent by its lurching rhythm, ominous guitars, and world-weary vocals, while "Pretty Notes," a lilting chantey reminiscent of Eureka's "Banjo," rings sweetly with a chiming confluence of organ, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and steel drums. "Give Yourself to Me" is both slinky and chilling, a tale of addiction awash in eerily dissonant wah-wah guitar flourishes that concludes, "Woe to the angels, they fall at my feet/ I am your victim, spread your disease." Conversely, "Last Man Alive" boasts an eccentric air and infectious melody that Robyn Hitchcock might kill for.

Lookout could easily be the record to elevate the Grifters to the status enjoyed by many of their less worthy indie-rock brethren. It's a shame, really, that said phenomenon hasn't already occurred, but as the band itself concedes on the closing epic, "Radio City Suicide," "Stars burn the brightest when you don't see them at first." At their current metabolic growth rate, the Grifters may soon be the best band the world has never heard.

-- Tim Kenneally


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