Homegrown for Christmas

Packages for the mid-decade wrapped in South Florida

Those who enjoy -- and by extension support -- music made in South Florida by musicians who live in South Florida must constantly deal with naysayers. Stevo, of the Strength of Unity rap-fusion outfit, has a lyric about it in which he imagines all his critics gathered, wearing white robes and hoods. The main complaint: Local music is overrated.

The oldest defense against such thinking: All music is local. Local to somewhere.

Compared to other cities, the argument goes, we're lucky to have Arlan Feiles, Diane Ward, the Goods, Sixo/Milk Can, Raw B Jae and the Liquid Funk, Harry Pussy, Nil Lara, and the rest. A nice little scene, they say, but the work of these and other top local artists doesn't stand up to the national test. It's not that good. And those who maintain that it is are all just a bunch of parochial cheerleaders.

Bullshit.
Gloria Estefan is a local artist; Jon Secada, too. Neither of them is talented enough to carry Arlan Feiles's duffle bag. And in the big picture, why shouldn't the Goods be as worshiped as, say, Nirvana, or Stevo ordained as the New Jack? Is anyone willing to go on the record claiming that the Goods are not ten times the band Nirvana ever was or that Stevo and Unity can't bury Snoop Doggy Dog like a bone? We'll see.

And we're speaking musically of course; doubters need only play their Top 10 collection alongside the "local" releases reviewed below to know the truth. A blind test might be even more effective. Probably all the South Florida bands put together never will outsell Nirvana or Snoop or Gloria. That has nothing to do with quality or validation. It merely proves once again the masses are asses. Why fight it? If you've got a good thing, hold it tight and squeeze it and let the rest of the world spin as it sees fit.

Rooster Head
Traditional Cock
(independent CD)

Rooster Head redefines the concept of what a rock band is in the Nineties. Michael Kennedy and Bob Wlos have been at the group's core since its inception and throughout its career, which includes four full-length albums, plus single and EP releases. Other members come and go and come back and switch instruments and generally make it difficult to contemplate this thing called Rooster Head in any standard or traditional context. Those transient members are not hired guns -- they're always given room to shine and permitted a good deal of conceptual input. Occasionally a song not written and sung by Kennedy actually finds its way onto a release.

Even so there's no arguing that Rooster music is the vision of Kennedy (songwriter-singer-guitarist) filtered through L7 studio owner-producer-pedal steel guitarist Wlos.

Kennedy is clearly a student of the Left Bank school of literature (in a skit on a previous release, he invoked the name of Rimbaud in the midst of a psychological breakdown). This background leads him to "expose myself to unspeakable torment where you need the greatest faith," a tenet of the Left Bankers, who believed that self-abuse leads to transcendence. The inclusion of a cover of "Walk Away Renee" is doubly ironic -- not only is Renee the name of Kennedy's girlfriend, but the original version was performed by a baroque-rock band called the Left Banke.

Irony isn't the best reason to include a song; "Renee" is but one of three interruptions in the otherwise gripping flow of diverse and intriguing songs. Two spoken-word-over-sonic-clatter pieces, "Jesus Christ Revisited Pt. 1" and "Jesus Christ Revisited Pt. 3," also get in the way. Then again there's always that handy skip-forward button, and besides, not all of the tunes included on the disc are even listed on the sleeve. Rooster Head simply refuses to do anything the normal way.

There's a song here called "Barnyard Delights." Barnyard Delights was the title of the group's previous album. (You're not supposed to do that, Mr. Kennedy, now go to your room!) Anyway, the song "Barnyard Delights" is a showoff piece with fun lyrics ("I knocked her up/She knocked me down") running at high-speed with the instrumental tracks meticulously separated so the varied riffs and chops never clash or stumble over one another. Like hot spattering fat making cosmic patterns in the pan.

As with the group's earlier material, Kennedy's ability to skip from genre to genre makes for a gratifying listen. On the first track, "Disregard," Kennedy morphs into Robyn Hitchcock (as he sounded back when he mattered), and that voice can be found again in the verses of "Soul Avenue," the album's legitimate closer (followed by the "Jesus Christ" gibberish). But "Soul" ups the stakes by switching out of those verses into a carefully constructed progression of chorus hooks that makes for the perfect soundtrack to your next epiphany, coming in just under the wire of being overwrought. Female backing vocals (by Noreen Downey) mix with postsurgical lyrical tics ("One is blind/One can't see") scalpeled out precisely by Kennedy.

There's also "Tough Old Man," with mourn-inducing pedal-steel cries coda-fying each lyric line and guiding the stately outro. The song itself has Kennedy baring hard emotions in the form of a poignant monologue to the protagonist's father -- the short version: Tell your dad you understand now and you love him, and do it before it's too late.

The centerpiece of the album is the group composition "GOT (Get on Top)," an irresistible rocker that will require a time-edit for radio airplay. Its three-dimensional lyrics leave stains of blood and semen and the meaning of life (the Son of God, Nobel-winning biochemist Julius Axelrod, Simon and Garfunkel, and violent pedophilic bestiality form just one A-B-A-B half-verse in the bridge).

This over-the-top, gotta-be-a-hit entry is followed by the unlisted "Mr. Geffen," originally included on their album Legendary Cock but remixed here, a tongue-in-cheekiness jab at the archetypal mogul who wouldn't know good rock and roll -- and all the emotional significance it entails -- if it launched a hostile takeover (which is exactly what this humorous, Beatlesque circus song attempts). But defeat is self-evident; Geffen can't hear enough to get it, so why bother yelling at him? For our amusement? Okay. Thanks for the chuckles.

Yes, there's lots of laughs to be had here, but those are countered in equal measure by Kennedy's insightful and touching skill with troubling topics. "Sometimes I think it's gibberish, and sometimes it comes out sounding profound," he says. In the dozens of original songs this band has put to disc during its career, profound is winning by a mile.

Along with redefining what composes a rock band these days, Rooster Head in many ways defines what a rock band can be if it puts a great mind to it.

By Greg Baker

Jim Wurster
Goodbye Paradise
(independent CD)

What if Lou Reed found a trunkful of undiscovered Buddy Holly songs? What if John Prine fronted Poco back in the Tim Schmit days? What if David Lynch filmed an episode of Twin Peaks in a motel's poolside tiki hut off Federal Highway?

They all might sound somewhat like Jim Wurster's Goodbye Paradise.
Wurster wraps his world-weary vocals around unabashedly romantic lyrics; even song titles sound like Hallmark sentiments: "Never Let Me Go," "Fallin' Again," "Something So Good." But Wurster's sly delivery lends a hint of irony, the old weasel-in-the-woodpile kind of subversion that puts the tang in the Sweetart.

Paradise begins with the Black Janet front man's Holly homage, "Never Let Me Go," blending the hiccup and cry of Texas hillbilly with a twinge of over-it-all ennui on top of some blistering rock and roll. "Fallin' Again" is a gentle folker that rings with bright acoustic guitar (damned if this doesn't sound like the beginning of about a dozen Poco tunes!) behind Wurster's mellow-whiskey voice. Standouts such as the snarky "The Wind Cries Kathryn" and "Goodbye Paradise" are aided by Bob Wlos's plaintive pedal-steel guitar and John Tillman's rhythmic six-string. Mary Karlzen also guests, dueting with Wurster on the countryish "Over You," and, adding to the family feel, Rooster Head's Michael Kennedy provides guitar on the title track. (Janet's drummer Frank Binger is also here, here being Wlos's L7 Studios in Deerfield.)

Rootsy and intelligent if not lyrically profound, Paradise gets the feel and attitude right. Makes you want to stop in at a dark bar in the middle of the day, have a shot and a beer, and play Roger Miller songs on the jukebox.

By Bob Weinberg

Josh Smith and the Rhino Cats
Born Under a Blue Sign
(independent CD)

As with Charlie Sheen's character in Platoon, there's a war going on for the soul of fifteen-year-old blues guitarist Josh Smith. Only instead of Tom Berenger doing battle with Willem Dafoe, it's Eddie Van Halen versus Albert King in the fight to win over the blues prodigy. So what'll it be: rock and roll godhood provided by flurries of furious, unrestrained riffing (as on this album, which isn't aided by its mediocre original material; however, we kinda dig "Guitar Jones," a slow-grinder where Josh's playing is sure to introduce your jaw to the carpet) or stinging, concise blues soloing bred of years of hard work and learning life's lessons? We know who we're rooting for. When Josh reins it in, as on the Stevie Rayish shuffle "Little Baby" -- his own composition, as is "Guitar Jones" -- he shows his brilliance; same with his off-hand riffs and fills. But as for most of Blue Sign, we'd like to crib another movie example by quoting the king from Amadeus who says to Herr Mozart -- another child superstar -- "Too many notes!"

By Bob Weinberg

Johnny Conga and Caribe + Roots of Rhythm
Johnny Conga and Caribe + Roots of Rhythm
(Skyward)

Despite the ocean, despite the sun with its tongue of fire, despite the aroma of multicolored beans, even despite the recent powwow of diplomats, the true measure of a city's greatness is its art. Several mediums have already flourished and carved themselves a small niche in our coconuts. Yet it is only recently that Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz has let its sonorous gun-gun pa-kin waft into the warm breeze.

Co-producer and musical director Johnny Conga (J.C.), himself a New York via L.A. transplant, assembled some of the highest caliber Latin jazz musicians in South Florida, including extraordinary bassist Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera of Batacumbele fame, trombonist Juan Pablo Torres (founding member of Cuba's Irakere), timbalero Edwin Bonilla, pianist Mario "Del Barrio" Marrero, saxman Johnny Padilla, and many more. The result is a terrific blend of the Latin jazz band Johnny Conga and Caribe and the Afro-Caribbean percussive quintet Roots of Rhythm, also fronted by J.C.

The Roots of Rhythm tunes are traditional, but arranged by J.C. or Skip "Brinquito" Burne: Afro-Caribbean rhythms like Puerto Rican bomba; the Afro-Cuban Iyes…, comparsa, and rumba; and the Brazilian Afro-samba. These strategically dispersed short Afro gems give the recording a historical base, the same one from which most Latin music originates.

The tight and faithful renditions of Chick Corea's "Guajira," Oscar Hernandez's (of Seis del Solar) "Midnite Mambo," and the soon to be standard "Siempre me va bien" by David Torres throb with crisp solos and energy. There are also several original compositions by J.C., including the popular favorite "Caribe Madness"; the reflective "Mariel" by Mario Marrero; Johnny Padilla's descarga-style "J.C.'s Revenge"; and Gua Gua's "Cathy's Theme."

Latin jazz only recently has begun to rearrange our musical landscape. We must be careful of projectiles. Here the congas are flyin' alongside the coconuts -- um-pa-kin-kin ah.

By Adrian Castro

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