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Wednesday, Aug 14 1996
Giant Sand
Volume One: Official Bootleg Series

"Come watch us fail," chirps the fine cover print -- a rather low-key plea for attention for a live album. Equally low-key is my fondness for Giant Sand, but fond I am. Frontman Howe Gelb aims for nothing more -- just a pleasant, receptive smirk at best, no spectacle, no big deal (or deals). Even the "live" aspects of Volume One are relatively sedate: audience response so minimal that after the first track, "No Name Guitars," you'd think it consisted of a sole, toothless freak whooping and clacking together his prosthetics.

Detecting the exact location of humor in Giant Sand's creepy, western-tinged compositions is difficult, but it's in there somewhere. "Elevator Music" simultaneously serves as a ballad on the death of elitism, a lament for an underground flayed open, and a taunt to get over it: "Now we got Dylan in the elevator/ Distortion at the farmers market/ And the same feller that owns the Jaguar/ Listens to the same stuff as the guy who parks it." Of course, the humor might be unintentional, seeing as how Gelb's personality keeps the revolving door for Giant Sand backup musicians twirling at a blur. (Essentially, Giant Sand is a one-man, morose Ween.) And some of Giant Sand's improvisational efforts do indeed fall flat on their face; on "Spit," you can hear Gelb's panicked brain downshifting for the next idea during the pauses. Still, when the band advertises its own propensity for failure, one doesn't get the impression of an ass being busily covered. Instead, there he stands, awkward and indifferent: Howe Gelb, goof of the desert. Volume One's humdrum live spirit is Gelb's rebuttal to recorded rock-star imperatives like "Scream for me, Long Beach!" (Iron Maiden, Live After Death) or "Fuck the Revolution! OK, Edge -- play the blues!" (U2, Rattle and Hum), and their invariable response: full-lung enthusiasm 50,000 strong. Christ, Gelb seems to be saying, It's only music.

-- Michael Batty

William Hooker
The Heat of Light "Dream Sequences"

The Gift of Tongues
(Knitting Factory Works)

When enthroned behind his formidable traps, the Godzilla-like William Hooker can crush cars like insects, smash the Transamerica pyramid with a single blow from his mighty 26-inch kick drum, and basically tear shit up. But even though he confronts the listener with a barrage of thunderous abstraction and relentless forward momentum, his music is not about destruction. It screams, as he says in his poetry, in "free flowing birth."

Cyclical rebirth, the boundless renewal of energy through ecstatic release, is the stuff of improv-heavy jazz and feedback-drenched rock. No wonder Hooker has captured the ears of the Downtown underground. NYC avant-gardists David Ware and Matthew Shipp have called on the drummer to propel their explosive improvs, as have Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. In the past year, the man who in a burst of liner-note poesy calls his music "four limbs (with MIND/HEART/and SPIRIT) on a drum set" has added no less than four ferociously expressionistic recordings to a loud discography spanning nearly two decades.

This quartet of recent discs stresses the composer/improviser's protean skills as bandleader (Armageddon and Tibet), egalitarian collaborator (The Gift of Tongues), and soloist/poet (The Heat of Light "Dream Sequences"). The solo album marries Hooker's free-flowing spoken verse with choreographed percussive textures. Drinking in every nuance of the drummer's cymbalism feels like the rush of frozen Sierra air from aboard a fleet Harley Fatboy. The sonic barrage of Tongues, with feedback maven Ranaldo and electric harpist Zeena Parkins, is a cathartic exercise in deep noise. Tibet debuts two expansive improvs from a curious piano-guitar-sax-drums unit that takes some time to hit the collective groove, but once there, transforms the shadows into a spectral glow. Armageddon showcases Hooker in solo, duo, trio, and quartet configurations, including a spooky trip with DJ Olive. The in-yer-face skins at once push the sounds skyward and inward -- toward a cosmic-primal core -- leaving little doubt that William Hooker is indeed a monstah.

William Hooker and DJ Olive with Glenn Spearman play Thursday, Aug. 15, at Slim's, 333 11th St.; call 522-0333.

-- Sam Prestianni

The Bluetones
Expecting to Fly
(Superior Quality/A&M)

Explanation for boastful album title and opening airplane sounds? Not a tip of the hat to the Members' The Sound of the Suburbs, but an in-joke: The Bluetones are from Hounslow, right next-door to Heathrow Airport. (Sad songs. Americans won't know the old joke: What are the three most depressing words in the English language? "Welcome to Heathrow.") Hooks? Plentiful, convincing, and seductive. (Check out "Cut Some Rug," "Bluetonic," "Slight Return," "Carnt Be Trusted"). Sexual personas? Nice boys, possibly New Men, yet lustful; might like soccer, but definitely not ale-swilling hooligans. Chances of flying into the stratosphere of rock success on the basis of this debut album? On a scale of one to 10: six (U.S.A.), eight (U.K.), 10 (Hounslow). Extra points for good taste and political correctness: using an Adrian Mitchell poem (on "Bluetonic"). Worthless cuts: "Things Change," "Putting Out Fires." Anything Anglophobic, grunged-out, rockin' American alterna-dudes might miss first time around? Yes, poignant and witty lyrics that repay several listens: "When I am sad and weary/ When all my hope is gone/ I walk around my house/ And think of you with nothing on." This, producing a charming ambiguity about who is nude, is 10 times more subtle than Hugh Jones' jingle-jangle, geetar-drenched, irritatingly formulaic Britpop production. Chances of late arrival on the now barely mobile Britpop bandwagon? Band desperate to miss this bus. (More points here for media savvy.) But actual potential to sell Yank teens on its sophisticated Britpopishness? Unmistakably, substantial. (Somewhere between Oasis and Cast, unitswise.) My dream? Let Thomas Dolby or Flood produce the next set of tunes, and watch the Bluetones fly so far beyond Hounslow that they actually make it to Swindon.

-- Andrew Goodwin


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