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Wednesday, Oct 16 1996
ZZ Top

Nasty is the word on the streets. Old-style is the buzz. Gone back to the Rio Grande mud, they say. Down and dirty delta blues. It's finally happened.

People clad in buckskin rags and bunged-up boots scamper up and grab my collar. "Rhythmeen," they say, hands shaking, one eye wide, bulging, and about to blow. "The best Top since the bicentennial," they promise, "as good as getting drunk on shitty beer while driving your Caddy toward a cantina in Ciudad Juarez."

And I stand there, struck dumb, those cold and windy mean streets spinning around me. "Could it be true?" I ask myself. Has ZZ Top dropped the poorly programmed sequencers, the god-awful fuzzy synth? Have they chucked the cold distortion of the transistor in favor of Big Warm Tubes? Have they let the Tejas geography back into the mix, letting us get dirt under our nails? Did they prune their ugly beards and donate their zebra-striped overalls to Goodwill? How did they get the rabbit fur off their guitars? As for the gold-plated key chains, the chopped '40s coups, the miniskirted babes -- if not these, then what?

Sometimes the word on the street reflects desire more than reality, and sometimes bands run out of ways to reinvent themselves. ZZ Top has been around longer than most, and if their music has slid into a pathetic parody of itself (and of the blues), they have -- to give credit where credit is due -- taken the low road and remained tasteless. Rhythmeen is better than the last couple of albums, maybe their best since El Loco, which isn't saying much. Billy Gibbons' guitar is full of digitally processed swamp gas, as is his crackling voice. There's less dumb sequencing (maybe) and a little more variation in the rhythms and tempos (maybe), but somewhere around the fourth song ("What's Up With That"), Rhythmeen gets as boring as the long haul across west Texas, drunk or not. As a band of "elder rock statesmen," it should be easy to picture them, for better or for worse, playing bottleneck on MTV Unplugged. So, how is it that, at this late point in the millennium, this still seems impossible? Sometimes, maybe bands reinvent themselves in ways that preclude any effective future reinvention.

-- Curtis Bonney

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Now I Got Worry

Incompetents, freaks, poseurs, frauds -- these are the architects of some of the most entertaining music of all time, more engaging for the mistakes, funnier for the lack of intent. Immune to embarrassment, thoroughly incapable of humility, such individuals swagger headlong into the public arena, pleading their "genius." Who cares whether we're dealing with ingenues or wise guys? If these characters are regarded with proper callous distance, laughing at becomes just as satisfying as laughing with.

With notable exceptions, of course. Take the case of Wesley Willis: a genuinely schizophrenic black Chicago vagrant who until recently "fronted" the Wesley Willis Fiasco, an all-white thrash band, singing about such chemically imbalanced subject matter as "Casper the Homosexual Friendly Ghost." Yes, I have been entertained firsthand by this display, and have chuckled at Willis' unfortunate expense. But the departed (and probably sane) white boys' professional relationship with Willis was purely exploitative; a clear-cut freak show. Rick Rubin's American label has signed Willis, and dumped the Fiasco, taking on the mantle of exploitation. (True, Willis wants nothing more than to be a rock star, but any other schizo lagging behind in his medication might just as easily aspire to the Brazen Throne of Planet Mars.) Ignore questions of taste, authenticity, or racial politics: The major problem with the Willis/Fiasco collaboration was its affectation of the unintentional. To wit: The Fiasco claimed to back Willis simply because he is an amazing musician. In other words, the Wesley Willis story is that of a man rising to fame in spite of his illness, not because of it. Even a Keene-eyed Pollyanna's meager bullshit detector should throttle into the red on that one.

Similar are the problems with any Jon Spencer Blues Explosion effort (including the latest, Now I Got Worry), though the band boasts no schizophrenics. One would think their music a joke, and an exceedingly good one: tongue-in-cheek aural blaxploitation played with Pussy Galore sloppiness and, more important, Pussy Galore attitude. But are Spencer and his cohorts kidding, or are they truly oblivious to the klutziness of their own attempts at "blues"? The press releases roil with embarrassing pleas of authenticity, claiming that this stuff is "bringing back the blues." Bullshit. The music on Worry fairly smokes, but some effects, like that nefarious disco string section complementing the first track on the last album, Orange, are obviously not the product of deep reverence. Advice to American (re Willis), to Matador (re Blues Explosion promotion), and to the Blues Explosion (re their music): Don't claim obliviousness, or, god forbid, authenticity. Really -- you'd all stand much stronger ground if you proceeded in a crass and exploitative fashion and didn't sweat none. Joking is good. Genuine insensitivity is at times even better. We can regard you with the proper callous distance. (Here's your review: Side 2 of Worry [in cassette format] is much better than Side 1. Thumbs up!)

-- Michael Batty

John Scofield

Bill Frisell Quartet
John Scofield and Bill Frisell have garnered such critical and popular acclaim over the past decade that they've had little reason to further develop their distinctive styles. Excluding the fringe innovations of folks like Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, or Myles Boisen, their playing has come to represent the definitive polar approaches toward contemporary jazz guitarspeak: sly groove-blues subtlety vs. impressionistic meditation.

Reared in one of Miles Davis' last decent bands in the mid-'80s, Scofield set out on his own with a string of well-received but largely sound-alike Gramavision and Blue Note discs which for many years running have contributed to his honors as the top axeman in year-end polls. Frisell first came to prominence via the more arty or "progressive" ECM imprint. His later contributions to John Zorn's volatile Naked City showed that the guitarist could do more than lull one into sweet slumber with trademark volume-pedal hypnotics. But up until last year's exceptional pair of soundtracks for the films of Buster Keaton, Frisell's prolific output for subsequent label Elektra/Nonesuch rarely ventured beyond his unique but Charmin-soft balladry. Still, the records hooked quasi-cultists, and the critics always raved, certainly due in part to Elvis Costello syndrome (i.e., the critics liked him because they looked like him).

As jazz's most popular guitarists hit their mid-40s, it seems they've assessed their achievements and drawn up new plans for the future. On Quiet, Scofield abandons his Ibanez AS 200 for a plugged-in classical six-string. A change in sound is one thing, but Scofield also sacrifices groove-consciousness for an elegant, almost too pristine compositional focus on middle-aged self-reflection. The music is unquestionably beautiful, ideal as a backdrop for a friendly chat on retirement plans.

Frisell's eponymous quartet debut, largely drawn from rearranged soundtrack themes, pushes forward with audacity, echoing the quirky momentum introduced on the initial Keaton projects. Scores for the silent film comedian's Convict 13, the TV special Tales From the Far Side, and the Italian film La Scuola offer the guitarist the necessary impetus to recast the color and definition of his own vision. The unusual configuration of guitar, trumpet, trombone, and violin (or tuba) provides Frisell with a free voice and an edgy ambience absent from Scofield's breezy listening. Obviously, mortgage and family take precedence for the former Miles Davis sideman, leaving Frisell alone to extend the vocabulary of guitarspeak.

-- Sam Prestianni


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