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Rocket From the Crypt
Scream, Dracula, Scream!
(Interscope)

From Gene Pitney and the Crystals to the Gap Band and the Lyres, great singles artists have had trouble filling albums with worthwhile songs. San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt are cut from the same patchy cloth. They've cranked out close to a dozen singles, nearly all of them winners, but their first two albums have teetered between the bombastic and the banal. The raw power and punk-rock ferocity of A-sides such as "Pigeon Eater," "Pure Genius," and "Normal Carpet Ride" are doled out in skimpy portions on Paint as a Fragrance and Circa: Now, both half-baked affairs that only hint at the roaring din this sextet can conjure within the confines of seven inches of round black plastic.

On Scream, Dracula, Scream!, however, the din sticks around from the under-a-minute opener "Middle" to the dramatically blaring finale "Burnt Alive." Like their masterful, recently released ten-inch The State of Art Is on Fire, the fourteen-track Scream is packed with jumbo power riffs and dense horn charts that flank the leather-throated wail of John "Speedo" Reis, a shouter in the finest Joe Strummer tradition. Reis has also started to crank his vocals higher into the mix, and though he's not exactly the most profound lyricist (this is a guy who's written about rats chasing mice), Reis is now building his songs on more than random phrases and broken images. Well, sort of: I could argue that "Born in '69," "Young Livers," and "On a Rope" are his most coherent statements to date, but I'm still not exactly sure what they're about. They sound important, though, and like everything else on Scream, they kick and screech and rumble and burn like little else on the barren landscape of indie rock.

(Fans of the Rocket roar should also look for the vinyl-only Hot Charity, a pretty decent lo-fi album released a month before Scream on the band's Perfect Sound label. There's also a whoop-ass five-inch single on Sympathy for the Record Industry that features blazing covers of two Sixties-punk classics by the Music Machine.)

By John Floyd

P.M. Dawn
Jesus Wept
(Gee Street/Island)

Maybe it says something about rap's limitations that hip-hop's most creative acts move away from the form in order to expand artistically. While the Beastie Boys, for example, head increasingly (back) toward hard rock, P.M. Dawn continues its course into the outer space of sonic gloss. Perhaps Jesus Wept, the duo's third album, relies on a celestial combination of airy R&B and acoustic hippie pop to float the Cordes brothers (Prince Be and J.C. the Eternal) into a higher level of consciousness than booming beats and rhythmic rhymes could take them. Or more likely P.M. Dawn's musical evolution simply indicates these Jersey City homeboys are individuals unwilling to be limited or formated.

Jesus Wept is, in fact, not all that different from the heady potion of English psychedelic synth pop, East Coast new-jack sway, and new-age metaphysics the group brewed on 1993's The Bliss Album . . . ? A only it's much more that way. Vocalist Prince Be's existential voyage through his religious and spiritual identity crises is surprisingly endearing, and songs such as "The 9:45 Wake-Up Dream" and "Apathy . . . Superstar!?" are every bit as inventive as their titles suggest. And though the duo's typically heavy-handed production can make the mix sound marshmallowy at times, mostly the lush string/piano/acoustic guitar orchestrations ("Sonchyenne"), smooth dance beats ("My Own Personal Gravity"), and well-placed samples ("Downtown Venus") make Jesus Wept another exquisite slice of P.M. Dawn's gourmet aural pastries.

By Roni Sarig

Pretty and Twisted
Pretty and Twisted
(Warner Bros.)

Back in 1990, I saw Johnette Napolitano, then bassist/front woman for the L.A. punk-pop trio Concrete Blonde, kick a security guard in the head. The guy had gotten a little too rough with a kid who wanted to join the band on-stage, and Napolitano responded with a sharp jab from one of her black pumps. She then reached out and pulled the kid up, planted a kiss on his face, then shoved him off-stage. The scene has always resonated with me, because it seems to suggest the warring factions in Napolitano's personality: her ballsy anti-authoritarianism, her volatile temper, her sensitivity to fans, and, ultimately, her tendency to push those fans away. All these elements coalesced last year when she broke up Concrete Blonde, after having led them -- mistakenly, it would seem -- to the brink of superstardom with the breakthrough album Bloodletting and its hit single "Joey." Superstardom is far too bright a place for Napolitano.

Since that time, she has teamed with long-time pal and former Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland and drummer Danny Montgomery to form Pretty and Twisted. The band's debut is an often brilliant but equally distancing effort, one that reveals a musician grown a bit too big for her britches, but one still too compelling to ignore. Much of this hourlong disc is occupied by the sort of brooding, relentlessly dark tunes that I associate with adolescents in black eye shadow. "The Highs Are Too High," "Mother of Pearl," and "No Daddy No" fall into this gothic pit. At the other end of the spectrum are a few riveting tunes. Chief among these is "Singing Is Fire," which showcases Napolitano's knack for syncopated Latin rhythms and cleverly disguised pop melodies; the song's lyrics, courtesy of Beat poet Charles Bukowski, come alive in her whiskey rasp. "Come Away with Me" builds to an emotional apex thanks to Montgomery's cannon-blast drumming and Napolitano's alternately furious and vulnerable voice.

It's hard to fault her for her decision to recruit Moreland. His virtuoso fretwork leaps from an R.E.M.-inspired jangle (on the pretty "Ride") to squalling, haunted-house chords (on the supercharged "Don't Take Me Down") to an ambient shimmer (on the quietly moving "Watching the Water"). Napolitano's songwriting, along with her prominent bass lines, remains distinct and affecting. Some of the time. But for every winning cut ("Billy," her spooky paean to a drag queen), the listener has to slog through a conceptual dud (the pointless and cloying "Dear Marlon Brando"). The album improves with repeated listens but lacks the melodic punch that marked Napolitano's later work with Concrete Blonde. This is probably just fine with her. By her reckoning, those fans who matter will stick with her; the ones who were just along for a "Joey" joy ride are welcome to peel off.

By Steven Almond

Various Artists
It's Hard to Believe: The Amazing World of Joe Meek
(Razor & Tie)

A pioneer of space-age pop, gay British record producer Joe Meek spent his solitary childhood playing with electronics. As an adult he plumbed his technical faculties to produce dozens of unique records in the Fifties and Sixties (twenty of which are compiled on this CD) that reek of his obsessions: outer space, the macabre, and American rock and roll. Employing early synthesizers and audio processing equipment he invented himself, Meek attempted to convey what the future might sound like through his homemade sound effects.

His least successful experiments A those songs most constricted by Top 40 conventions, such as Heinz's 1963 hit "Just Like Eddie" (Cochran, the legendary American rocker) and the naughty "Chick a 'Roo" (1960), sung by bodybuilder Ricky Wayne A are mildly entertaining kitsch; only Glenda Collins's "Something I've Got to Tell You" (1966), a melodramatic slice of girl-groupish angst with lyrics that beg a gay reading ("There's something I've got to tell you, baby / Something's giving me hell, baby"), transcends the genre.

But Meek's imagination runs wild with his instrumentals. Inspired by the 1962 launch of the world's first telecommunications satellite, the Tornados' "Telstar" melds all of Meek's trademarks A eerie electronic organ, galloping percussion, atmospheric sound effects A into a minisymphony that still sounds otherworldly today. Earlier, Meek responded to the space race with a 1960 promotion-only album titled I Hear a New World, credited to the Blue Men. The two Blue Men tracks featured here stand light-years ahead of the work of mood instrumentalists such as Esquivel and also reveal much about Meek himself. The inhabitants of his stereo fantasy are the Saroos, "rather sad people . . . cut off from the rest of the moon . . . they live and love each other but never leave the valley, for surely they would die." They're sustained by the Bublight, "a wonderful sight . . . it casts a magic spell . . . and safeguards them from evil."

Meek's personality is further exposed in 1966's "It's Hard to Believe It," in which singer Glenda Collins complains about the arms race, world hunger, and general social fuckedup-edness, insisting, with a conspiratorial tone in her voice, that creatures live on the moon. The following year, while obviously teetering on the brink, Meek crossed over the line separating genius from madness, plagued by lawsuits, loneliness, barbiturates, and little blue men. In 1967, eight years to the day after his idol Buddy Holly died, Meek shot and killed his elderly landlady during a schizophrenic episode, then committed suicide. Two years later astronauts discovered no life when they walked on the moon. Meek would have found it hard to believe.

By Jeffery Kennedy

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