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Wednesday, Aug 26 1998

In the short time since the cathartic obliteration of Swans at the beginning of this year, each of the band's two principals has issued a solo album that illustrates the visceral tug of war within the group's previous work. Swans founder Michael Gira's Body Lovers is the first in an ongoing series of abstract solo releases that explores ambient soundscapes and droning cacophony; meanwhile, former keyboardist and singer Jarboe uses personal experience for violent artistic cleansing on her first official post-Swans outing.

Jarboe initially demonstrated her songwriting talents on her folk-based 1996 solo album Sacrificial Cake and on three albums for the Swans side project the World of Skin. However, Anhedoniac is the first work to strongly distance itself from Swans' influence. On the record, Jarboe emerges as a multifaceted performer and a complex thinker with the ability to create characters and give them life with her alternately angelic and pornographic voice.

In contrast to the relatively high-profile Swans releases, Anhedoniac is only available via mail order from Jarboe herself. (Go to or write PO Box 420232, Atlanta, GA 30342.) The surreptitious approach to distribution is partially due to the controversial nature of the CD booklet photos, a series of shots that depict Jarboe in fetish gear, body paint, and various states of undress. They were taken by photographer Richard Kern, who is best-known for his transgressive erotic works. On the album, Jarboe plays keyboards, bass, percussion, tapes, and creates various atmospheric elements to accompany her lyrics and multiple voices. Support players from ambient experimentalists Panasonic, among other musicians, were brought in to flesh out tracks with drums, guitars, and other sounds.

In the title song -- named after a psychology term that describes the inability to experience pleasure -- Jarboe's voice flits from childlike chanting to a witch's cackling clamor. Looping Middle Eastern brass tones atop the plodding descent of bass and acoustic guitar bolster the schizophrenic vocal rounds imploring, "Come and give me what I need/ Come fill your cup with a vile disease."

"Sinner" begins as a gentle acoustic ballad, Jarboe delicately, innocently, singing, "And what do I do with the gift you present to me?/ The one no one else would buy." Her cherubic vocals twist into a sinister whisper as the music shifts to lunging mechanical drums and grunting bass guitar. Then in "Not Noah's Ark" she opts for gut-wrenching screams and wails similar to Linda Blair's demonic cries in The Exorcist. Jarboe's guttural skree is backed with buzzing noises, a low hum, moaning cello, and squeaking strings.

Startling in its iconoclasm, Anhedoniac tries to embody all of the characterizations of women and pleasure served by our mythologies of sexuality. Jarboe softly coos to her listeners as her purging eroticism calmly and deliberately peels back every fingernail.

-- Dave Clifford

Sex Mob
Din of Inequity
(Knitting Factory Works/Columbia)

Slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein has paid his dues. He's making his major-label debut at 37, an age at which many of his more conventional-minded peers are making their comebacks. Yet Bernstein has built toward this moment steadily and intelligently. He's done tons of studio work and played important background roles in some of the better jazz of the decade. He's been the music director of New York's John Lurie & the Lounge Lizards for eight years, arranged for the all-star big band that played in Robert Altman's Kansas City, and leads Spanish Fly, a tuba-slide trumpet-guitar trio whose Fly by Night was one of the best indie jazz recordings of 1997.

Sex Mob is Bernstein's party band, a slide trumpet-alto sax-bass-and-drums outfit that honed a ribald sense of humor during a two-year run of Thursdays at the Knitting Factory, New York's epicenter for innovative off-mainstream music. In something of a reversal of form, the band developed a repertoire of originals, which they relegated to a secondary role in favor of pop covers. Sure, it's calculated to play to the pop crowd, and in fact Bernstein says he's more interested in appealing to non-jazz fans than the usual hard-core jazz crowd. Many jazz devotees grumble that pop fans are incapable of comprehending anything other than Master P or Kenny G, but there's a lot more creativity in a DJ Shadow remix than a bunch of conservatory grads in Armani suits studiously replicating jazz styles that were tired 40 years ago. Jazz acts like MMW, the Charlie Hunter Group, and Cassandra Wilson have built large followings by going straight to the pop crowd and letting the jazz world catch up.

Sex Mob would like to follow that path; but they're trying a little too hard. Yes, they roar through such covers as Prince's "Sign o' the Times," "House of the Rising Sun," and the Cardigans' "Been It," rendering them fresh, lively, and, above all, fun. But that gets offset by clunkers like "Live and Let Die," "Macarena," and "Goldfinger," which are played for kitsch value, a quality that wears thin quickly. Bernstein's slide trumpet, an instrument that has not been used much since the early days of swing, gives him the robust sound of the trombone but in a higher register. It makes for excited unisons with Briggan Krauss' alto and gives the ensemble a restless energy. The group works well on the four originals (though two of the numbers check in at less than 75 seconds) as well as Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday." Sex Mob has a good idea in skipping past the usual jazz constituency, but ironically and perhaps to their own detriment, they're underestimating the smarts of the pop music crowd.

-- Martin Johnson


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