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Joe Satriani
Joe Satriani
(Relativity)

Joe Satriani has always been an odd sort of guitar virtuoso. Too flashy to ever play sideman, too song-oriented to just wail away in some fusion project, and too weak-lunged to sing with any kind of Clapton-like proficiency, he tries to make catchy instrumental music that people who aren't guitar dorks might listen to but that doesn't sound too much like the rock-musicesque sounds in the background of a Pontiac commercial. On 1987's Surfing with the Alien, he hit the right mix and scored about the closest thing to a pop hit any guitar instrumentalist has come up with since Duane Eddy. At his best, Satriani writes and plays unfussy boogie platforms so freighted with hooks that you barely notice that the vocals never come in. At worst, well, it's Pontiac Excitement time.

Joe's fiddled with his formula considerably in pursuit of more hits A he even tries singing now and then. This self-titled effort edges him closer to a sort of updated Jeff Beck Group idea, sans vocals. Former Who producer Glyn Johns supplies a grittier, bluesier, less effects-laden sound, and a bona fide band (with talented Peter Gabriel sideman Manu Katche on drums and British vet Andy Fairweather Low on rhythm guitar) supplies some semblance of group chemistry amid Satriani's bouts of weedly-weedly-wee. Joe can throw together blueslike sounds as well an anyone; and while "Cool #9" and the lengthy "Slow Down Blues" aren't about to make Son Seals lose any sleep, they're pleasant enough displays of Satriani's impeccable tone and melodic instincts. Elsewhere, "Killer Bee Bop" is a loony piece of juiced fret pyrotechnics, and "Moroccan Sunset" offers a vaguely Middle Eastern vamp. The best noises, however, happen when he falls back on his old strengths -- stringing familiar-sounding riffs into head-bobbing rock throwaways, as on the Zeppelinesque "If" and the bottom-heavy "Luminous Flesh Giants."

By David Dudley

The John Doe Thing
Kissing So Hard
(Forward)
The Mother Hips
Part Timers Go Full
(American)

A fool and his preconceptions are soon parted. (The fool, as you might expect, being me.) I received these two albums the same week, and without so much as opening them I was all set to drool over the Mother Hips, having taken a shine to their previous album, and to trash John Doe, who I vaguely recalled as an exile from the never-quite-as-cool-as-they-thought-they-were L.A. punk band X.

Wrong. Very wrong.
John Doe's second solo project is a bracing achievement, a record flush with juicy riffs, sly arrangements, and distinguished songwriting. From the melodic fuzz of "Fallen Tears" to the bluesy grind of "Safety," Doe and his talented backing cast create a sonic landscape that brings his themes of emotional and cultural dislocation alive. Gibsons blaze, notes quiver, drums throb, and Doe's wailing tenor -- not pretty, but plaintive -- floats precariously atop the dark ambiance.

His ballads are at once haunting and tender. "Williamette" tells the tale of a fatherless kid living in a town with as many "broken sidewalks" as broken dreams. "Field of Dirt" weds the twang of country with a mournful string section, the end result sounding something like an updated version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles."

Fortunately, Doe leavens the mix with moments of playful punk excess. "Love Knows," for instance, sounds like the Peter Gunn theme melted down and cast into something more ornery than foreboding. "Beer, Gas, Ride Forever" is an ironic paean to the joys of trash culture, alive with guitars that buzz like chain saws and roar like stock cars.

Doe's ability to build sophisticated songs around relatively simple hooks is a talent the Mother Hips seem to have forgotten (or disregarded). This Northern California quartet's 1993 release, Back to the Grotto, hinted at greatness: muscular roots rock served up in deceptively complex arrangements; confident musicianship; delectable harmonies. The Grateful Dead, in other words, with more vigor and less spaced-out pretension.

There are moments of similar brilliance on Part Timers (the raging "Stoned On Up the Road" leaps to mind), but not many. Instead the band appears determined to go the route of so many other Dead wanna-be's, losing the thread of strong melodies in technically proficient but ultimately tiresome jams, changing directions so many times within one composition that all momentum is lost. What you end up with is a gimmicky sound that flies in the face of the down-home image the boys obviously want to project. And the lyrics, I'm sorry to report, are just as dippy and diffuse as the songs' infrastructures.

With Jerry Garcia dead and gone, the Mother Hips might have a built-in market, nibbling at the rootsy end of the Deadhead spectrum while Phish works the jazz end. I certainly won't be investing in another one of their records without giving it a good listen first. Nor, for that matter, will I be jumping to any nasty conclusions about John Doe's next project.

By Steven Almond

Pizzicato Five
The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five
(Matador/Atlantic)

Some look into the face of American popular culture and see the deep dark abyss of lowest-common-denominator commercialism; the Tokyo duo Pizzicato Five, however, peers stateside and sees the sparkling disco-ball inferno of souped-up, drag-race hyperenthusiasm; a kitschy, retro-futurist youthquake; and a high-fashion, heavy-plastic glob of fun. P5 is the ultimate in fabulousness and prefabrication, their music one grand wink that tickles us indulgently silly -- like a soundtrack to Lifestyles of the Hip and Groovy. They are hair hoppers, lounge lizards, club kids, and space cadets in one exquisite package, on sale everywhere and available all night long.

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