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Wednesday, May 8 1996
Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire

Rage Against the Machine cares a lot. During their recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, their caps said "Commie" and they wrote "Arm the Homeless" on their instruments in masking tape. Which isn't just posturing: On Evil Empire, frontman Zack de la Rocha spits out defiance against the military-industrial complex, the radical right, corporate greed, and racial segregation. He's sharp and articulate, and his politics forgo Sproul Plaza sloganeering for a, well, rage that erupts from lived experience.

One of his best lines, for instance, goes, "Rolling down Rodeo [Drive] with a shotgun/ People ain't seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one." Then there's the savvy media analysis, worthy of FAIR or Project Censored, that closes "Wind Below": "G.E. is gonna flex and try to annex the truth ... ABC's new thrill ride -- trials and lies." Admirable stances, to be sure, recalling this thing that used to be called, um, "conscience rap" or something like that.

Admirable, but not that enjoyable. Rage isn't nearly as wanky as a band like this could be, which shows a surprising sense of restraint, but their sound has no charity and little give in it. It's, how shall I put it, one-note: chunky, metallic grinding and churning with yelled vocals that pour down like acid rain. Those bits that don't revive thrash funk (you remember thrash funk -- Next Big Thing, 1990?) never rise above footnotes to the furthest-out raps of the '80s, the Slayer-powered "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" (Beastie Boys) and Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero." Which would be fine -- innovation is, after all, highly overrated in pop music -- except that it suggests a failure to learn from the past.

If there are lessons in radical mass art's century-long lack of mainstream appeal, surely one of them is that the audience needs soft as well as hard, butter as well as guns. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of nourishment or comfort here, which means this band probably won't move beyond cult status to the wider public its convictions deserve. As Emma Goldman, from whom Rage should learn the art of crossover, is supposed to have put it: "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution."

-- Jesse Berrett

Paul Westerberg

The most obsessively self-referential rocker in the history of the music was spawned in the strange and insular Amerindie movement of the 1980s. From it (and his adulatory press coverage), Paul Westerberg absorbed an affecting self-deprecation and a rather more problematic obsession with the psychic effects of selling out, buying in, and becoming a star. In a series of ever-more-polished Replacements albums over the course of a decade, he gleefully detailed what was supposed to be his incipient commercial debauching. In the mournful "Left of the Dial" he bade a sad farewell to his indie compatriots; in the concussive "Alex Chilton" he pointedly saluted another underappreciated demi-star. The cover of Pleased to Meet Me showed a businessman's hand shaking with a shabby artist's, and the title of Don't Tell a Soul mocked the band's continuing lack of commercial success. And because in the process Westerberg produced some of the most urgently felt music of the period, it did seem possible that his expanding talent might indeed burst into Springsteenian proportions; surely no more extravagantly pop-minded talent has existed on rock's fringes.

Finally released from the constraints of his stupid and contagious mates in 1991, Westerberg put out the soberer 14 Songs. On it, and particularly on its first single, "World Class Fad," he yet again warned himself of the perils of his (still) approaching stardom: "If you want it that bad/ [To] be a world class fad/ Remember leave a trail of crumbs/... Remember where you started from."

The new Eventually keeps up this subtext in its wry title and but one song, but that's where it ends, and so, on the evidence, does Westerberg's career. It's an unrecognizable album, in the sense that listening to it makes it hard to remember that anyone thought Westerberg was important anytime recently. It turns out that, freed from his naive obsessions with stardom, he has nothing to say; worse, unmoored from the ragged, searching attack of his fellows, he drifts into a VH1-ish calm marked by overly tasteful instrumental fills and production touches and a studied winsomeness that quickly becomes almost homicidally irritating.

14 Songs shared many of these faults, but at this point we can be allowed a little exasperation. When Westerberg tries to rock he sounds pinched and unpleasant ("You've Had It With You"), and when he doesn't the results are dismal: Songs like "Hide N Seekin' " and "Once Around the Weekend" are so slight as to make it difficult to concentrate on them, and "Good Day" is so dopily bathetic that you want the alcoholic ghost of rabid Bob Stinson to haunt him forever. He crafts one effective hook, on the lilting "Ain't Got Me"; yet listen closely and it turns out to be Westerberg gnawing again on his psychic scabs: "You ain't got me," he sneers at his dwindling fan base.

Eventually is the sound of things we don't want to hear: the enervation of a star who never was, and the accompanying chuckle as rock 'n' roll eats its young once again.

-- Bill Wyman

Cyrus Chestnut
Earth Stories
(Atlantic Jazz)

On Earth Stories, his third recording for Atlantic, pianist Cyrus Chestnut leads a cohesive unit with an astounding trio sound -- no small feat for three young guys. In supreme sync with bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Alvester Garnett, Chestnut displays virtuoso fluency. "Decisions, Decisions" kicks off the album, an introduction to just what bounty pianistic percussion coupled with magnanimous touch can yield. Only 33 years old, Chestnut has gigged with Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison, and received hard-core trio training during his two years with taskmaster and superb jazz vocalist Betty Carter. It shows.

Earth Stories continues with the blues and gospel underpinnings his previous recordings Revelation and The Dark Before the Dawn established. And as before, his compositions are rendered with a grit that seems determined to deliver fun. Yes, fun, although in church they'd say "joy." Essentially, Chestnut samples genres within jazz, but he puts his own stamp on anything we might call a ballad, a bebop tune, or even a love song. On "Cooldaddy's Perspective" the trio welcomes trumpeter Eddie Allen, tenor saxman Steven Carrington, and alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, proof that Chestnut and company can also jam. We get some updated stride on "Nutman's Invention," while other tunes build off almost danceable rhythms. Accessible but always smart, Chestnut is never less than engaging.

The Cyrus Chestnut Trio plays Wed-Sun, May 8-12, at Yoshi's Nitespot in Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.

-- Zoë Anglesey

Experimental Audio Research
Beyond the Pale
(Big Cat)

Experimental Audio Research is a "supergroup" composed of Sonic Boom (Pete Kember) of Spacemen 3, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Martin of GOD, and Eddie Prevost of AMM. Before you get all excited, recall that supergroups never sound like the sum of their parts: Beyond the Pale's continuous harmonic loops efface any trace of musical personality. But before you get all excited again, recall that all continuous harmonic loops are not created equal. EAR's sine wave trance comes on like Spacemen 3 with no pulse and no life. "Repetitive" would be the wrong adjective, implying that something -- anything -- happens more than once.

Beyond the Pale does not visit the lawless frontiers evoked in its title; it begins nowhere and stays there. When applied to music, the term "experimental" typically implies an exploratory brio: At their best, the presences and absences of improvised free jazz, the rough-cut formalisms of punk, and the split-atom tunings of microtonality all take us somewhere that at least feels like a free country. EAR's "experimentation" is clinical, confining; to listen to it is to participate in a laboratory test of a new anesthetic intended to make you forget your pain by substituting mere discomfort. Only an elaborately articulated musical masochism could validate this sort of experience -- and if you buy that argument you're probably already listening to SPK or other superior electronic/industrial variations on EAR's theme.

This platter goes down like green eggs and ham: There is no context which would enhance the listener's pleasure. What EAR is doing with harmonics could only sound transcendent 1) live, 2) on really good drugs, or 3) on a $4,000 stereo. Rule out Option 1, since EAR was conceived and executed as a studio project (back in 1992 -- kinda makes you wonder why it didn't come out then). As to Option 2, any drug which could make EAR sound incredible would also make your air conditioner sound good. Option 3 works only if, in addition to the expensive equipment, you also have the perhaps greater luxury of 49 uninterrupted minutes in which to immerse yourself. But even under these conditions, Beyond the Pale lacks the edge and vision to pass as Art. If Iannis Xenakis needed a 1958 World's Fair pavilion and 400 loudspeakers for his musique concrete, EAR needs to rent an entire city.

-- Sally Jacob

Richard Davies
There's Never Been a Crowd Like This

In 1968, the L.A. group Love reached a pinnacle of hallucinogenic rock with Forever Changes, a medievally inspired album tracing bandleader Arthur Lee's flights of fancy through songs like "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This." Such orchestrated indulgence would later endure mixed results in the hands of theatrical groups like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, before succumbing altogether to more concise pop conventions. Today, the exploration of the inner reaches of the mind through music is primarily the domain of nonvocal forms -- techno, ambient, etc.

Ex-Mole Richard Davies is a notable exception. He writes word-driven songs as if he were a cutout character from Terry Gilliam's animation for old Monty Python sketches: He's a proper gent with a British accent (he's Australian, actually) who seems to unhinge the top of his skull at will, pouring forth streams of eccentric, unedited thought.

Though Davies composes on guitar and piano, his strength is his conceptualizing; he doesn't play anything on his solo debut but a spot of harmonica, farming out his fastidious acoustic-guitar-and-trumpet arrangements to a studio support group. Whereas the symphonic Sub Pop songwriter Eric Matthews -- Davies' erstwhile partner in the ad hoc group Cardinal -- creates string-laden pop scores akin to those of short-lived '60s hit-makers the Left Banke ("Pretty Ballerina"), Davies, like Love's Lee, is more inclined toward challenging time signatures and idful wordplay. His is still very much pop music, however: "Sign Up Maybe for Being" could be a companion piece to John Lennon's "#9 Dream," while his stagey delivery of "Chips Rafferty" borrows liberally from Lennon's friend David Bowie.

Single-handedly representing a "paisley underground" redux -- this time with the emphasis on acid-tinged words, not guitars -- Davies makes music that "rolls the planet around" ("Why Not Bomb the Movies?") -- if only temporarily.

Richard Davies opens for the Flaming Lips Tues-Wed, May 14-15, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.

-- James Sullivan


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