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Wednesday, Mar 6 1996
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook
Night Song
(Real World/Caroline)

Various Artists
Dead Man Walking Soundtrack

Though the movie Dead Man Walking is as much about the American Judeo-Christian tradition as it is the death penalty, the voice of superstar Sufi Muslim vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan best communicates the universal themes of vengeance and redemption. Singing in Persian and Urdu over minimal accompaniment, Khan sets a mood of unfathomable sorrow, one that transcends matters of language, religion, and politics. Khan's voice has been sampled by numerous dance music producers over the years, but "The Face of Love," one of two duets with Eddie Vedder found on the film's CD soundtrack, is a true cross-cultural collaboration and a real stunner. Producer Ry Cooder seamlessly integrates two folk musics -- guitar-based roots rock and harmonium- and tabla-driven qawwali -- with Khan soaking in Vedder's customary angst and transforming it into a shamanic force. It's seemingly an odd-couple pairing -- the 350-pound Pakistani demigod with the scruffy, Jack Sprat rocker -- but both men's art is grounded in unfettered emotionality.

Perhaps that's why Night Song, co-written by Khan and ambient guitarist Michael Brook and a follow-up to 1990's Mustt Mustt, is such a bust. Sacred qawwali is a music of ecstasy -- fans are usually taken from rapture to whirling-dervish chaos and back again at live shows, to the chagrin of house security -- while ambient trance tends toward the serene and antiseptic. Though Khan tills his customary themes of "Sweet Pain," his notoriously B.I.G. presence is drowned by heavy Western instrumentation (guitar, bass, electronics) and New-Agey production on songs like "Longing." The haunting "Lament," an almost trip-hoppy love song in which Khan trades "dialogue" with the "acid wah" riff, is the most successful blend of Eastern and Western musical styles. Still, with a cult of personality to rival his girth, Khan is a perverse candidate for the identityless diva treatment. Come to think of it, who isn't?

-- Sia Michel

Jack Logan featuring Liquor Cabinet
Mood Elevator
(Medium Cool/Restless)

Though Jack Logan's music is as workaday as his real job -- he's a mechanic -- his debut, the 42-song lifework called Bulk, was an unqualified success that lent the singer impeccable lo-fi credentials. Its 1994 release was viewed in the rock press as some sort of wonderful biological find, as if a previously unrecorded strain of mosquito had just been discovered deep in the rain forest. As a result, the prolific songwriter was awarded a certain amount of indie cachet, a record-industry currency on which you can't place too high a premium these days.

Logan's sophomore effort, Mood Elevator, finds the Athens, Ga.-area singer and his sometime backup band, Liquor Cabinet, ironing out a sound that has been compared most often to the Replacements, with Logan in the Paul Westerberg role. (In an ironic twist, longtime 'Mats bassist Tommy Stinson will trot out his newest band, Perfect, in support of Logan's upcoming headlining gig at Slim's.) Logan also gets sized up against Bruce Springsteen for the writerly quality of his character assessments, and against Neil Young for his unconditional love of frill-free barroom rock.

But Logan isn't just the next lunch-pail-toting Great White Hope -- no Joe Grushecky, he. He and his group identify the finer points of rock's more indulgent styles and condense them into hard, memorable nuggets. The homely soul-searching of "New Town," for example, is a restrained version of the old maudlin singer/songwriter ploy, while the brief but serpentine guitar solos of songs like "Chinese Lorraine" and "What's Tickling You?" are straight out of the era of acid tests. The luxury of a single focused session with Liquor Cabinet has resulted in a record that hews a little closer to convention than Logan's debut, though it remains the work of a nobody with undeniable talent.

-- James Sullivan
Jack Logan and Liquor Cabinet play Thurs, March 7, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.

Dark Sun Riders featuring Brother J
Seeds of Evolution

It's official: Opening up a hip-hop record with a dramatic, synth-filled spoken-word ode to a newfound quasi-spiritual/Afrocentric/urban consciousness is tired. What's more, the action is often evidence of a troubling dilution of a part of hip hop's soul. At a time when even the most ostensibly positive and high-minded rappers are often crossing the line into hypocrisy (usually in the form of misogyny, race baiting, and glorifying the punishing life of the ghetto), one must be wary of artists who readily adhere to the clichŽs of "gettin' all abstract 'n' shit"; see the intro to Dark Sun Riders' Seeds of Evolution, for instance.

But once the rich and powerful boom of leader Brother J unfolds prophetically over the bass-heavy if deceptively textured old-skool beats, it's obvious the Riders are indeed keepin' it real. Which is not really anything new: Brother J is the former "Grand Verbalizer" of the X-Clan, whose hit "To the East My Brother ..." seemed to crystallize the late-'80s wave of black nationalism in rap. The landscape has changed vastly since then, but Brother J's new crew (which includes three former X-Clan members) is still concerned with well-crafted and substantive messages like the takedown of gangsta-fronting on "Jewels of Evol." J's methodic flow and thick, eerie NYC-style production recall a recent but seemingly finished era in hip hop -- one that made up in depth what it lacked in surface pyrotechnics. Ironically, while the Riders have updated their focus for current times, it's their nod to the past that proves most refreshing.

-- Zev Borow

In Orbit
(Double Play)

Lord knows the Bay Area harbors enough "noisy but melodic" guitar combos offering navel-gazing, deconstructive takes on classic pop structures to fill 3Com park (right before the bulldozers move in, we hope), but the Snowmen are a golden nugget in the dirt. Like Okie acidheads the Flaming Lips, this quartet (headed by guitarist/vocalist Cole Marquis, whose pedigree includes stints with 28th Day and the Downsiders) has a knack for concocting artfully anarchic guitar psychedelia that flirts with chaos without dropping over the edge of complete entropy. In Orbit, the band's first domestically released album (following last year's Soundproof on Germany's Normal Records), amply showcases that talent, delivering nine selections of narcotized spaciness that beg the caveat: "Warning: Do not play while driving or operating heavy machinery."

"Crash and Burn," which opens things with a raggedly raucous protogarage riff, is an upbeat anomaly; more representative are "Dy-no-mite" and "Corner Store," a somnolent dirge that finds Rich Avella's guitar moaning like a love-struck sea lion as Marquis sings in a sotto voce so woozy that you can practically smell the NyQuil on his breath wafting through the speakers. From that point on, it's sleepwalk city (and I mean that as a compliment), with very little exception: "Undertow," with its winsome melody and jangle-heavy chord progression, leans a little too heavily toward the pop end of the fuzz-pop spectrum (for my taste, anyway), but the band atones for the transgression with a staggering one-two punch (well, more like a lurch) that ends In Orbit on a decidedly buzz-friendly note; "Alabama Rain" plods along a lunar landscape of reverb-heavy guitars and reedy, melancholic organ, while "Gold Coast Head" layers a bedrock of backward guitar with yet more of Marquis' deadpan, stream-of-semiconsciousness imagery: "Cigarettes you leave just like a trail/ Maybe there's a bomb in the mail/ California's ghost, buried on the coast." Who needs lucidity when the clouds are taking on such interesting shapes? Drift on, Snowmen, drift on.

-- Tim Kenneally


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