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Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
(Island Black Music)

As the American art-soul movement continues to gain momentum with acts like the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, the British R&B groups that used to make this genre worth listening to are still trying to figure out what to do next.

Not very much, judging from the debut recording by black British soulster Alistair Tennant. (Ali to us.) With two exceptions, on Crucial he writes the kind of well-crafted, tastefully retro songs that are the trademark of most British soulmen. This sort of recording used to go over just fine, when British stylings contrasted a seemingly rootless American R&B, but times have changed. Until recently, to listen to contemporary R&B meant hearing music that -- save for a few choice samples -- arrived without much of a link to its past. The links between current new jack loverman Keith Sweat and precursor Alexander O'Neal were only implicit. It was as if the monumental struggles (for equality, against racism) that that music represented were of little relevance.

But now commercial successes like Mary J. Blige make overt allegiances to divas like Rose Royce and Chaka Khan, and lesser-known singers like Adriana Evans quote Angela Bofill. This acknowledgement is essential: It gives passion a continuum. And it also serves listeners. Hard-core jazz fans love hearing the homages to Sonny Rollins in the work of Javon Jackson, or the references to the classic quartet of Ornette Coleman in the work of John Zorn's Masada. Yet until about two years ago, to find that sense of history, R&B fans had to look to British bands, where Jamiroquai recalled Stevie Wonder, the Brand New Heavies crossed Rufus and Tower of Power, and Mica Paris brought Dionne Warwick and the Staple Singers together.

Ali works best as an homage to Bobby Womack. The 25-year-old singer was born a year after Womack's "Across 110th Street" -- the Harlem groove classic that opened Jackie Brown -- but the gritty hallmarks of the great soul singer's '70s hits abound on Crucial. In "Love Letters" and "Tomorrow" heartbreak is not an impetus, but an end to itself. "In and Out of My Life" makes clever use of the minor-key guitar riffs found on Womack's Communication.

Two tunes break form. In "Feelin' You" Ali uses modem noise as a light electronica effect to offset his creamy vocals. And in the reprise of the title track his vocals gain an immediacy and urgency that flatten his more measured voicing. Both moments hint that Ali knows where he has to go, but the rest of the time he's obsessed with showing us where he's been.

-- Martin Johnson

The Starlite Desperation
Show You What a Baby Won't
(Gold Standard Labs)

For some artists, the act of committing rock 'n' roll now could best be described as affectionate cannibalism. With our culture's nature to transform physical desires into symbolic gestures, young artists gnaw at their predecessors. And why not, if the ecstasy of rock 'n' roll's former self exists only in the corpus of the aged and experienced?

The Starlite Desperation are a ripe example of affectionate cannibalism; they talk with their mouths full. Show You What a Baby Won't is a richly balanced meal combining the beloved organs of elder garage-punks like the Seeds, the Kinks, and the Troggs; the limbs of Roxy Music, Devo, the New York Dolls, and the B-52's; and the habits of today's best neo-garage bands, who also play with their food as often as they use it for nourishment.

While the Salinas-based three-piece offer an often infectious and flawless homage to their ancestors, the real meat of their sound is vocalist/guitarist Dante Aliano's reverb-skewered yelps. Throughout the album he squeaks, he coos, he quivers with something like the earnestness of a young Elvis Presley and the frenzy of Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. All the while, twin stripped guitars chop and ring out skeletal bar chords and phantom piano trills far off in the background.

Moments on songs such as the chorus to "Sweety" twist the group's astute less-is-more approach. As a single guitar line murmurs a repetitive riff, the vocals perk up suddenly and a fuzz-laden guitar line drops in to increase the pressure. Then, as Aliano's yearning intensity builds, so does the instrumentation: tracks of guitars and keyboard bolster the ensuing climax. Aliano squeaks, "I need to see the kiddies tremble/ We've been chewed up, swallowed whole."

"The Rose" opens with the lumbering fuzz guitar of the Cramps' "Mystery Plane." A creeping guitar line fed by Jeff Lepard's pulsing split-bar drums overtakes Dana Lacono's siren-sounding guitar, and Aliano urgently spins a tale of sexual aggression and romance while quivering falsetto backup vocals repeat "The rose" at the close of each line.

Perhaps "Messed Up Head" is the most illustrative of the Starlite Desperation's corporeal feast. The same fuzz guitar spits out a meandering riff that would do the MC5 proud, while a clean, angular new wave guitar cuts jagged holes in the rhythm. The familiar Stooges drumbeat stiffens to Devo proportions, and Aliano chants proudly, "I fed them, they ate me." And with all the verve of their predecessors, the Starlite Desperation bite down, hard.

-- Dave Clifford

John Scofield
A Go Go

The problem with what's called groove jazz is that it's often more about groove than jazz. That explains a large part of the genre's appeal to late-model hippies. But the possibility of this second-wave phenomenon -- the first centering around artists like Grant Green in the '60s -- turning into a serious branch of jazz has always been there. Acts such as the Charlie Hunter Quartet, the Greyboy Allstars, and Medeski, Martin & Wood have all taken, or are in the process of taking, stabs at being jazz heavies.

But something has always gotten lost in the translation from rhythm-happy dilettantism to the level of transcendence that real jazz demands. When Green was first toying with the form, as on 1965's His Majesty King Funk, you could not escape that he was playing jazz -- the depth was always there. The groove jazz of the late '90s, meanwhile, usually has one foot on the dance floor, instead of a heart opening itself to spiritual depth.

Medeski, Martin & Wood have been some of the most frustrating offenders. Collectively and individually they are clearly gifted musicians. But sometimes not even their intricate little touches can rescue what is often a reductive groove. Finally, someone has drawn the jazz out of them. Strange that it'd be guitarist John Scofield, who's spent his recent outings screwing up other musicians' work (e.g., Joe Henderson's recent Porgy and Bess). Sure, Scofield has always had tremendous chops and a certain godhead reputation in jazz circles -- he was a member of Davis' early '80s band. But he's also been possessed with momentary lapses of taste: Sometimes it's shredding too much; other times he can't keep his feet off his effects boxes.

But on A Go Go, the combination of Scofield and MMW is perfect. Scofield's hard-attack bop lines, muted arpeggios, and half-step bends are the ideal counterpoint to MMW's rhythm work. For once, Scofield runs around without breaking anyone's toes. And keyboard whiz John Medeski uncorks the best B-3 and Wurlitzer lines since the late Johnny "Hammond" Smith.

It's hard to attribute this magic to anything beyond raw energy meshing with thoughtful improvisation. But that's when real jazz and real music come to the fore, not when a bunch of clubbers shake their asses.

-- Philip Dawdy


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