Boxing Gandhis

Rock critics of the early Seventies did our best to banish all thought of eclecticism, since it was usually a key word denoting fraud of the art-rock or jazz-rock sort. No one ever called Bitches Brew eclectic, though it was; that term was reserved for the likes of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and worse. But funk (or maybe it was just Prince all by himself) rehabilitated the term; today's eclectic bands, a group that includes, to my ear, everybody from the new Heads to Dave Matthews to 24-7 Spyz, borrow freely from a variety of elements that have in common mainly that they came together on the North American mainland and in the Caribbean; this is eclecticism as inside stuff, not an imposition from a superior culture. It's less beyond genre than self-defining.

Boxing Gandhis already stand out as the best of the new eclectics, even though Howard is only the group's second album. In particular, Howard expands their palette in the two most difficult areas: The quality of both singing and songwriting has grown impressively. The Gandhis are as comfortable singing emotionally scaled-down power ballads as they are popping the one on an uptempo dance number, and they effortlessly incorporate elements of performed poetry, alternarock, R&B harmony that hints of gospel ancestry, hip-hop beats, and a variety of Latin accents. The three lead singers combine in ways that are as surprising as Sly and the Family Stone. "Roll" despoils wife beating with an audaciousness reminiscent of George Clinton. "Funky Little Princess" starts off like Morissette redux, but quickly adds the stronger groove necessary to convey the story of a homeless teenage junkie prostitute. "Far From Over" fuses Santana, P-Funk, and Living Colour into a song that's less protest anthem than statement of American immigrant facts of life, a journey from hope to despair.

The Gandhis, like Sly and the Family Stone and Prince and the Revolution, do not just include but feature a true cross-section of humanity: In this case, Asians, Hispanics, whites, men, and women. Thus their concern about the state of society today -- if you make music in a world of inclusion, the harsh divisions outside your band must be even more striking and painful. The power of this music at its best is that it not only uncovers the damage but also, with those sweet and ravaged voices, these wracked and loving tales, aims to heal it. My idea of the perfect ambitious rock 'n' soul band. -- Dave Marsh

Elf::Gulf Bore Waltz

A screwy, charmingly eccentric batch of four-track psychedelia and post-punk prog-rock from a quartet of Tampa-based diddlers with a previous CD and a mountain of cassette releases on their resume. Haven't heard the older stuff, but this new one is pretty amazing. By infusing their reefer-clouded musings with concise, penetrating melodies, Home strike an intriguing balance between the Seventies Kraut rock they've obviously heard before and the more focused of their experimental indie-rock brethren (especially Pavement, for the inventive use of guitars, and Sebadoh, because some of the stuff on Elf is catchy as hell). Like their South Florida brethren (Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, most notably), Home are toiling far from the dim lights of the fanzine media and even farther from whatever city is this week's underground capital. Which means they are free to indulge their every idiosyncratic whim and tinker with the complexities of their art. And which means the best parts of this sprawling 50-minute set will stick with you far longer than the average piece of privately pressed noise.

-- John Floyd

Steve Forbert
Rocking Horse Head

You wanna root for Steve Forbert. The Mississippi-bred songwriter with the sandpaper tenor has battled through so much adversity in his nineteen-year career: He's been bounced from label to label, watched sure-fire hits get ignored by radio programmers, and was known chiefly, for a few ignominious years, as "Cyndi Lauper's boyfriend." That's got to hurt.

Rocking Horse Head, his eighth album, looks awfully good on paper. Forbert recorded it in live takes, backed by members of the nifty twangy outfit Wilco. Unfortunately, somewhere between conception and execution, the potential was squandered. The problem isn't the album's country feel. Max Johnston's virtuoso turns on mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, and banjo are most welcome, as is the sometimes flaming guitar work of Jay Bennett. The problem here is the songs. They're dull, lacking both indelible melodies and the sly bluesy swagger that mark Forbert's best work.

Hard-core fans will find a few keepers scattered among the dross. "Moon Man (I'm Waiting on You)" is a goofily charming monologue built on a jaunty backbeat. ("I've been alone so long I'm a loon/Up in an all-night cable cartoon/So call, fax, e-mail me soon.") "Don't Stop" is a fetching Dixieland romp, and "Good Planets Are Hard to Find" boasts a rollicking riff worthy of the Stones. Too often, though, the album purrs where it should roar, with "If I Want You Now," "Dear Lord," and "My Time Ain't Long" sounding like pale imitations of his usually excellent ballad work.

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