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Wednesday, Apr 17 1996

Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes Under the Stars

Last year's Next Big Thing, Guided by Voices made it kinda medium-big at least, attracting a devoted cult following and sparking a critical buzz duly followed by a backlash. Known for murky home-taped geek rock, the band has finally made the daring leap into a 24-track studio with its umpteenth (well, 11th, anyway) release, Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

GBV's previous four (or so) albums conceptualize pop as fleeting pleasure. Brief, fuzzy, catchy fragments run together and fade in and out, like snippets of old songs heard on a staticky car radio wavering between signals -- seductive, but, after repeated listens, frustrating. Bushes takes laudable steps toward substance, yet its songs retain the unfinished quality that detractors find irritating and fans find irresistible.

Hi-fi production may gain GBV accessibility, but the mystique and texture of lo-fi are lost. Tape hiss, distortion, and extreme compression were the emperor's old clothes without which the simpler songs stand exposed as decent but straightforward post-R.E.M. college rock, while their more complex counterparts are revealed as formulaic in their wayward eclecticism. Robert Pollard's vast appetite for obscure British psychedelic and art rock yields still more fanciful lyrics about witches and werewolves and a hundred more hooks that turn out to be ladders -- melodies ascend and descend them without getting anywhere.

It's ironic that the prolific Pollard has a reputation as a gifted songwriter yet can't meet the challenge of producing an album's worth of "complete" songs. There are some brilliant Pollard pieces here ("Underwater Explosions," "Redmen and Their Wives"), but too many are either obvious retreads or fine compositions that suffer from flat execution and underdevelopment. ("I Am a Scientist" [1994] was arguably the only classic single that the band has produced to date.) However, there is hope: Second-string singer/songwriter Tobin Sprout's contributions are the surprise stunners here. "Atom Eyes" delivers full-fledged pop so perfect as to make the dreadful pun excusable, and "To Remake the Young Flyer" and "It's Like Soul Man" offer teasing glimpses of dazzling possibility.

In short, the Voices still offer latent "potential" as blatant content. Meanwhile, can anyone explain how a much less intelligent band like the Stone Temple Pilots can sound like they've learned more from GBV's Daytonian producer/mentor/drinking partner Kim Deal than GBV have themselves?

-- Sally Jacob

MC Ren
The Villain in Black

Even in hip hop, where fashions die with the speed of fruit flies, N.W.A's fall has been precipitous. The albums that launched a thousand drive-bys are moldy relics; Ice Cube, now a more interesting actor than rapper, hasn't really mattered since 1991; Dr. Dre, savvy entrepreneur though he is, will be hard-pressed to top 1992's The Chronic; Eazy-E's final burst of celebrity underscored how long he'd been away. And that's not to mention MC Ren -- which is exactly what happened. Always the crew's most generic voice -- go ahead, quote me one of Ren's raps from Straight Outta Compton -- his two forgettable solo albums never mustered much of an argument for their own existence.

But with The Villain in Black, he's onto something. The cover features a shaved head and somber clothes, the acknowledgments pay tribute to Allah, and inside there's abundant evidence that the makeover isn't merely cosmetic. This music is hard but not ugly: gangsta with a social conscience. The gratuitous misogyny is gone (save for his favorite epithet, "bitch-made nigga," but you need something for your boys, right?), and the fuck-the-world nihilism is replaced with community awareness and hope. Ren disses swine and gets a turkeyburger instead, rips Arsenio Hall, calls his "shit so down and dirty/ you would swear it's hepatitis," and makes "killing" only a metaphor for what happens to the suckers who try to bite him. Ren will never be silver-tongued, and the beats could be a little fiercer; I also wish he'd taken five minutes to think up song titles better than "Keep It Real" or "It's Like That." (His last album featured a perfect if inadvertent self-critique called "Same Old Shit.")

Intentionally or not (I'd guess not), that very ordinariness sends his message home: Connecting the personal and the historical, he argues for hardness as what a regular black man like him needs to survive these days. Following a sermon by Khalid Muhammad on the horrors of slavery (which, thank whoever, forgoes the gratuitous anti-Semitic mythifying), the album culminates with a stunning gospel chorus on the turnabout-is-fair-play "Bring It On" that forcefully confronts white America's indifference: "So why you scared of me?/ 439 years of slavery/ And we still ain't free/ But we're supposed to act like we're living in harmony." Hard to argue. MC Ren is the first N.W.A alum in years to graduate to maturity. Who'd've thunk it?

-- Jesse Berrett

President's Breakfast
Bar*B*Que Dali

A street-wise white kid growing up in the Black Power-era Fillmore and Mission, President's Breakfast bandleader and drummer Bill Langton, aka Click Dark, was reared on cultural cross-pollination. He immersed himself in multimedia -- television, video, computer, electronics -- and unsurprisingly, multigenre pastiche seemed the natural point of flight when Dark eventually took up musical composition. So about five years back, President's Breakfast was born, an outlet for all of Dark's influences. Anchored by slamming backbeats and funky bass, PB explored a thickly layered, chaotic integration of avant-jazz saxophone, vinyl scratching, provocative samples, and screaming guitar, all tightly bound together by squiggly strands of electronics.

Despite Dark's fondness for the scripted safety of funk, his schizoid soul led him to the "100% improv" Bar*B*Que Dali project. Core PB members Dark, Dred Scott (piano), Nate Pitts (bass), and Will Bernard (guitar) teamed up with Dark's former New England Conservatory schoolmate and internationally renowned clarinetist Don Byron, rented out Annie's Hall in Berkeley, and eventually whittled about nine hours of spontaneous material into a one-hour CD.

Those accustomed to PB's locked-in structures are in for a surprise. First off, all of Bar*B*Que Dali's performers augment their principal playing with extended techniques on "prepared" instruments or through the use of a battery of electronic effects. And the occasional grooves are determinedly not of the danceable variety, but roomy, chunky, and clunky, not unlike the rhythm of falling backward down a massive spiral staircase. Ultimately, the songs tend to focus on kaleidoscopic sound portraits of constantly shifting tonal colors and textural juxtapositions, from delicate nuances to forceful crescendos. More than a nutritional supplement, it's Breakfast inbred.

The Bar*B*Que Dali record release party, featuring Don Byron, happens Thurs, April 18, at Cafe Du Nord; call 861-5016.

-- Sam Prestianni

Hissing Prigs in Static Couture
(Touch & Go)

Don't let the Coen brothers' film Fargo give you the impression anything actually happens in the Denver-to-Detroit, midcontinental void we call the American Midwest. Sure, somebody occasionally shoots up an Albertson's or seduces barnyard animals or makes slipcovers out of his family, but all in all, most residents' highlight is the annual VCR sale at Wal-Mart. Midwest joke: What did one tractor say to the other? Hold me closer, John Deere.

On its third release, the Dayton, Ohio, foursome Brainiac rails against this crippling flatlands ennui with jagged, high-octane p(f)unk that bolsters the boosters like a triple espresso snuck into your 7-Eleven coffee mug. While the band lurches along in the manner of a cranked-up Blues Explosion, frontman Timmy Taylor barks through a variety of processed vocal channels, cooing like Valentino in "Kiss Me You Jacked-Up Jerk" and screaming his lungs dry in "I Am a Cracked Machine." Taylor's anti-fascist rant in "Vincent Come on Down" -- "2-4-6-8/ Tell me who I'm s'posed to hate" -- segues nicely into "This Little Piggy" 's whispered lechery; "70 Kilogram Man" is a-a-almost a rap track (imagine Shellac backing Ween), and "Strung" punctuates a serial killer's lullaby with human screams. Lovely.

The Daytoners join a crop of bands (Jesus Lizard, Cows, Killdozer) who hail from Midwest cities (Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison) and feature an appealingly psychotic lead singer (David, Shannon, Michael) -- groups whose sole raison d'etre is to fuck your shit up. South by Southwest conference attendees verify that Brainiac is a great live act, its show a hilarious blend of pyrotechnics and kinetics and as twisted as a licorice rope. But until Brainiac blows into town, Hissing Prigs will have to tide us non-Midwesterners over, a gentle reminder that anticipation -- for corn to grow, for the arrival of "occupant" mail -- can be a good thing.

-- Colin Berry

Jacky Terrasson
(Blue Note)

Often, it's only after realizing the relative security brought by a major label deal that a young jazz musician begins to show signature eclecticisms. In the case of Paris-born pianist Jacky Terrasson's second Blue Note recording, Reach, five compositions reveal a modus operandi further developed in the year since his self-titled debut.

Even though he categorically departs from major influences Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, except for the occasional reference, he dedicates the first cut, "I Should Care," to these piano titans. To be exact, this tune features Powell-like runs with Monk-ish accents, but only at intervals and paraphrased rather than quoted directly. On "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," Terrasson recasts this ballad made familiar by Nat "King" Cole into a tune of surges in both volume and velocity. Again, on "Just One of Those Things," Terrasson dips in and out of the piece's contours to explore his own associations, and no matter where the excursions lead, Terrasson darts back to familiar phrasings -- this, in fact, has become his definitive style.

Terrasson's trio with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Leon Parker prefers the minimalist approach. With half a drum kit, Parker creates cymbal patter that often mediates between lyrical segments, while Okegwo punctuates the sonic intricacies with puffs of diaphanous pulse. These musicians provide the equilibrium as Terrasson's piano figures run in circles or repeat, as in the aptly titled tune "Reach/Smoke Gets in Your Eyes/Reach." There, he splices a Parisian-sounding "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with his own fathomable "Reach." No Velcro here: Terrasson smoothly mounts this nostalgic set piece within a larger installation that manifests his yen for collectible improvisations.

Reach is a flawless recording of a commanding performance -- no less than what was expected of him as sideman for drummer Arthur Taylor and singer Betty Carter. You can't help but wonder if Terrasson took Carter's cue to take any tune far afield.

Jacky Terrasson Trio plays Wed-Sun, April 17-21, at Yoshi's Nitespot in Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.

-- Zoe Anglesey


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