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Wednesday, Jan 15 1997
Pre-Millennium Tension

Everything you need to know about Pre-Millennium Tension, proper album No. 2 from urban import Tricky, is on the album cover. It features an androgynous (but definitely feminine) nude torso bathed in soft darkness. Between open thighs, two hands gently cup a tiny Earth that glows a warm red. If the image were less haunting, maybe even a little inviting, it might be ironic, in that agonizingly superior way that most British musicians fascinated with American music seem guilty of. Sort of like James Bond title credits meet Ohio Players album covers: tacky but hip.

But it isn't. Tricky is guilty of many things. He's a gifted hip-hop producer with a taste for sonic collage. He's a lyricist who ponders the tensions of living the way Hamlet ponders "being." He's even guilty of thinking himself Nearly God. But irony isn't funky enough. We're T-minus three years and counting to the year 2000, and he's got this sinking feeling that everyone's losing their marbles in anticipation. Obliged to lump himself in with all of the rest of the loons, Tricky's 11 monologues devoted to society, sex, and survival feel ponderous and manic.

Take "Christiansands," for instance. As a lone blues guitar toys with an intrepid dance beat, vocalist Martine coos, "I met a Christian in Christiansands/ And a devil in Helsinki" over a lengthy vamp about commitment, eternity, and mastery, courtesy of Tricky. Sometimes in unison ("Vent," a funeral march on acid), other times in opposition ("Christiansands,") Tricky's vocal arrangements deliberately push the limits of identity. So even if reality says that Tricky is a 28-year-old black man -- with Afro-Caribbean roots -- from Bristol, England, Pre-Millennium Tension finds Tricky alternating between a masculine and a feminine persona with the reliability of a jack-in-the-box toy. Up pops Martine on the melodically unsettling "Makes Me Wanna Die" and the racy covers of Chill Rob G's "Bad Dreams" and Eric B. and Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury." Then comes Tricky on the hip-hop-flavored "Tricky Kid," and the fluid "Bad Things." Though he's on record as saying his interest in hip hop runs deep and wide, what's traditionally made Tricky so appealing to critics and fans alike is his interest in all things musical. It's what made Maxinquaye such an invigorating breeze in a stale room of churban. Pre-Millennium Tension is that gust of cold air that seeps in under the weatherstripping. Dogged in approach, consistent in effect.

-- Victor Haseman

Feel Like Makin' Love: Romantic Power Ballads
(Heart Beats/Rhino)
Rarely is it as easy to parse out good intent from marketing ploy, tainted premise from employee subversion, and nostalgia from stereotype as it is in the cant regarding Heart Beats, Rhino's new "by women, for women" division. I'll demonstrate. Given the imbalance of male-oriented vs. female-oriented commodity (tainted premise), when in fact women consumers respect the woman-to-woman approach over the male-in-tactical-drag method (marketing ploy), then forming a women-friendly company (good intention) that sells famous back-catalog songs in new format (nostalgia and marketing ploy) with women's interests in mind should prove to be a profitable venture. But there's plenty of stereotype in the assumption of women's interests herein: All Heart Beats discs, as suggested by the valentine-design logo, are romantically oriented, lovey-dovey compendiums of all manner of pop sappery. That's right: A company formed by women, for women has apparently worked from the assumption that your average woman's primary preoccupation is with romance. (Could be that demographics backed this up. I recall an item in the news last year about a multimedia company that dispersed a questionnaire among various groups of young women in malls to see what would interest them in a CD-ROM game. This resulted in a product wherein the protagonists went shopping, talked on the phone, and gossiped about boys.) The women I know are more likely at any given moment to be changing their oil than getting all swoony over some cleft-chinned Romeo to the tune of "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge -- and, frankly, it's not like they're all that weird.

And here's where the missing "employee subversion" part of the above formula proves possible, and priceless. Because rest assured that the whole idea of a "women-only, romance-only" division at Rhino came down from some misguided male, and the assembled team of women made it as much a joke among themselves as a sucker-ready product line. Just look at the lineup on Feel Like Makin' Love, the culling of poof-haired power ballads (sung one and all by men, of course): "Still Loving You" by the Scorpions. "I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner. "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. "Heaven" by Warrant. (What? No CrYe?) If you can reach your insulin, look at the packaging, also well-considered by a women-only team: the red rose in the background, on the Marshall stack; the microphone in the foreground, on a boner oblique; the scarlet Steven Tyler scarf dangling from the mike stand. Then read the introductory liner notes: "If love will keep us together and music is the universal language, then a romantic ballad must surely be the most passionate form of communication." Perhaps to a sullen adolescent boy in the back of his primer-coated GTO receiving a blow job from his feathered-haired edna. Man, those women at Rhino slay me. Either they've honed a marvelous instinct for gender-packaged satire, or the regard held for women, by women out there is just as bad as that held for women, by men. Which way would you rather have it?

-- Michael Batty

A Minor Forest
Flemish Altruism
(Thrill Jockey)

For three years local brain punks A Minor Forest have tailored each live performance to a specific venue and crowd. At Bimbo's, it's a pretty set, accompanied by electric cello and soft lighting; at the Chameleon, it's all punk-rock screech and red murk. At one show, someone's shot their girlfriend; at the next, the band's offed the landlord. In either case the murder weapon and the motive change more often than in a crooked game of Clue.

But the rules of the game shift for vinyl. Obviously, a recording can't respond to individual listeners or environment. For Flemish Altruism, the group's first full-length after a spate of 7-inches and singles, it's almost as if the trio -- guitarist/vocalist Erik Hoversten, bassist John Benson, and drummer Andee Connors -- sat down for a debate before entering the studio. Gracefully use the knife in the lounge, or bloody Mr. Body with a lead pipe in the billiard room? Should an album ape live performance, recording a specific moment at a specific time? Or, with the aid of multitracks and the ability to edit and refigure, should it take on a life of its own?

On Flemish Altruism A Minor doesn't want to choose; it's a rock 'n' roll fear of commitment. Why else would the band use two different producers, each with a steadfast sense of his own sound and talents? On the five even-numbered cuts hardheaded Steve Albini buries Hoversten's vocals and cranks his guitar. Surprise. On the odd tracks Polvo knob-twister Bob Weston lets the man sing and pipes in Dominique Davison's strings.

Still, a coherent idea emerges from the production duality. A Minor Forest seems intent on doing with rock what Thrill Jockey labelmates Tortoise did with jazz and dub and Gastr Del Sol did with folk: implode traditional structures by reworking the verse-chorus-verse into multilayered ambient "songs" that rely on repetition and crescendo, then punctuate with silence. It's prog without the tight pants. Or Slint with more talent.

Here, the art-rock opuses stretch for 14 minutes. Despite the mathematical skills (Connors is a wizard of a drummer; Hoversten's three-to-five-note filigrees are inventive; Benson somehow bridges the two) the band has an uncanny ability to conjure emotion. At one moment the songs hang like ornate wallpaper, the next they abruptly shift to immediate punk retch. No matter if it took a rope, a wrench, or a revolver, all the players agree someone got murdered.

-- Jeff Stark


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