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Wednesday, Apr 9 1997

Local western crooner (and archaeologist) Paula Frazer has taken her pet "project" Tarnation to some interesting places. A couple of years back we visited an Arkansas trailer park in I'll Give You Something to Cry About, one of the better debuts of that time, and a cornerstone in the then recently hatched alternacountry oeuvre. As I (piss-poorly) reviewed it: "[I'll Give You Something has] traces of the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers ... Loretta and Tammy, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Chocolate Watchband and the Velvet Underground." Alas, this creepy quality couldn't last. Frazer took Tarnation without its excellent original lineup to England (metaphorically at least) with the 4AD label. Out plopped Gentle Creatures (overproduced by Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive), an awful record that rerecorded much of the first album's songs and undermined the simplicity that I'll Give You Something tried to legitimize. To give it a PR spin: an attempt to connect gentle glooms along the Ozarks-Manchester axis. Rumor had it Frazer was displeased with the final product, and last I heard she was excavating over in the Presidio on some sort of archaeological soul-search. (OK. Maybe the disappointing album and the Presidio dig aren't related in any way at all.)

Now comes Mirador, on Warner's Reprise subdivision, no less. We're in new territory again -- and lots of it. True, there's a return to the sparseness of I'll Give You Something (and all the aforementioned influences stand), but there's a different flavor here ... something spicy ... something Sergio Leone. Twaaang goes that E-minor chord on "An Awful Shade of Blue" as Frazer's contralto slips up into her trademark lonely, lovely falsetto, reminding us of squinting Clint and a high noon that glints off gun metal. But the homage isn't just spaghetti western, because by the time we reach the second cut, "Wait," we're noticing something distinctly British: a clean, warbling plaint in the production -- something Smiths. Then comes "Your Thoughts and Mine," where the Leone twang and the lovely falsetto merge with the big confessional shoegaze, mariachi horns, and nylon-stringed Mexican solo guitar. Wow. Feel that desert sun/London fog. Then behold the somber cellos on "Destiny"; the psychedeliharpsifuzzichord (for lack of a better word) on "There's Someone"; the monochromatic organ on "Like a Ghost"; the silly '60s Tommy Roe pop groove on "Little Black Egg"; and the cool Hitchcock soundtrack violins at the end of a rerecorded "Christine" -- a delightful Thorazine-induced slide guitar ditty about a girl named Christine who makes a doll that comes to life. All of these doodads are firmly nestled under Frazer's two-tiered croon and the initial Leone twang. If there's any problem here, it's that the songs seem restrained, rather than buoyed, by the obvious aping of an established cinematic-score style. Still, Frazer has accomplished something rare: Either she's pushed on into new frontiers, or dug down and discovered a fresh batch of ruins.

-- Curtis Bonney

Various Artists
Love Jones: The Music

Just beneath the surface of Love Jones, Theodore Witcher's glossy, upscale black romantic drama, there is a strong subtext about identity politics. The movie raises points about establishing black archetypes that are not 'hood-based, and which are equally fluent in the language of white and black cultures. The soundtrack -- or at least the 14 songs included on the disc, 11 of which actually appear in the film -- drives the point home.

Love Jones' music is a willfully eclectic mix of traditional jazz, jazz hybrids, and conventional and alternative R&B that meshes together nicely -- doing so without the weight of such knee-jerk dogma as "It's all black, ergo it's all good," nor with the bulky requirements of scholarship in asserting that all black music is aesthetically connected. Instead, the recording provides a casual walk among some of the best performers in a variety of genres. Some, like Lauryn Hill and Xscape, are well known, while others, like Groove Theory and Dionne Farris, are deserving of wider recognition. It's what you might hear visiting the different tents if the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival were held in Oakland.

In a romantic movie where He prefers typewriters to computers and She opts for trains instead of planes, the lead single, Dionne Farris' "Hopeless," is a canny choice. Farris' forlorn reflection is underpinned by strength and resolution; the attitude is a throwback to country blues. The backing is subdued and effective. Much of the soundtrack is given over to sultry yet surprisingly cliche-free love songs: Cassandra Wilson's "You Move Me," Trina Broussard's "Inside My Love," Groove Theory's "Never Enough," Lauryn Hill's "The Sweetest Thing," Kenny Lattimore's "Can't Get Enough," and Me'Shell Ndegeocello and Marcus Miller's "Rush Over." In this sort of mix, it is no surprise to find Ellington and Coltrane's version of "In a Sentimental Mood." It is a collection of highbrow smooch music, focused on redemption through carnality rather than cheap, transgressive thrills. After all, it portrays black men -- well OK, one black man -- whose orgasm is an act of submission rather than conquest.

Not everything works here. The "Mellosmoothe" mix of Maxwell's "Sumthin' Sumthin' " works as backing music to the protagonists' first roll in the hay, but lacks something on its own. Cassie's "Girl" is shrill and too forceful for this crowd. And the Brand New Heavies' "I Like It," featuring their new vocalist, Siedah Garrett, doesn't work as well as Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," which is used in the same party scene in the movie, but which isn't on the disc.

For the most part, the emerging genre of "urban alternative" has been better defined by what it's not: less street-obsessed than b-boy hip hop and less class-conscious than buppie R&B. However, those genres have a self-perpetuating authority that each of the contributors to the soundtrack lacks. Their individual recordings have been lauded as exceptions to the rule. By pulling them into one place, this disc seems to articulate a set of aesthetic principles for a movement.

-- Martin Johnson

OP8 Featuring the Ilk of Lisa Germano
(Thirsty Ear)

Just what is the mean distance between distorted guitar and easy listening? Howe Gelb is the desert-rat leader of a weird Arizona ensemble called Giant Sand; Lisa Germano is a former John Cougar Mellencamp sideperson, and currently a keening introvert. The first track of their collaborative album, Sand, may not be stretching out the measuring tape on purpose, but it certainly gives the impression that the distance isn't very far. OP8 opens with a low-mixed guitar squall that turns abruptly into brush beats on the snare and a tango-strummed acoustic. The same feedback returns to the mix here and there, but doesn't overwhelm the xylophones or mandolin. Germano, singing lines like "Young woman share your fire with me," in a low-pitched voice, is soon joined by Gelb -- singing the woman's parts. It all makes for excellent and hilarious novelty music -- but it's still more in the easy-music arena than that of rock. (I've heard that "Sand," a Lee Hazelwood tune, was also covered by EinstYrzende Neubauten, so the novelty value is well-established.)

And perhaps easy listening is the best thing to call OP8 -- but it's a wholly offbeat take on easy listening. While Gelb, as usual, throws in a number of unusual timbres -- like "Leather" 's glass harmonica, vibes, and cello -- all the consonance of adult contemporary programming is there. That's not to say OP8 isn't a wonderful album. It is. But these days, the freak-flag sounds of yore (like guitar distortion) are as easy on the ear as a hot-water bottle, soothing to an achy tummy. They're negligible to the market-driving youngsters who prefer techno. I'm sorry, "electronica." I enjoy OP8's wonderful gestures and orchestrations, square or not. Gosh, I guess I'm on the outs with rock.

On "If I Think of Love," Germano delivers two-note vocal phrases and words that could be placed in almost any configuration and still work: "Immature/ Senseless/ Simple/ Don't think/ Intimate/ Confident/ Infinite/ Lay off/ Disconnect/ Subtly/ Indifferent." The low-key and creepy "Leather," the chorus of which simply runs, "The wind turns the skin to leather," demonstrates that Gelb can still write off-the-cuff lyrics that suggest volumes of story material: "Well-versed in mechanics, she believes in the mechanical/ She relies on only what she can handle." Giant Sand bass player Joey Burns' "Lost in Space" offers syncopated strums against stripped but accent-loaded drum parts catchier than anything I've heard between a guitar and a traps kit in a long time. And the cover of granddaddy weirdo Neil Young's "Round and Round," with its bizarre array of strings and vibes and Germano's reverb-saddened voice, actually improves the original. Then again, that's admitting that I've actually heard the original. But I'm content to pass the wayside along with distorted guitar, because, frankly, Prodigy and their ilk sound just like dogshit might if you could plug it in.

-- Michael Batty


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