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Fluffy
Black Eye
(The Enclave)

Call it a backlash against the Gallagher Brothers, trip hop, or all things Manchester. Whatever the case, it was only a matter of time before an English band picked up some screaming guitars and told us exactly everything that's wrong with the world. Such a band would have to be from London; that band is Fluffy, an all-female quartet with the most relentless record of the last six months, reasserting London as the white-hot center of English rock. While it might be a stretch to call Black Eye the punk record of the year, it's clear these four women have a far more sophisticated world view than, say, Elastica.

Black Eye draws obvious comparisons to the '77 debut of the Sex Pistols; Fluffy snared that album's producer Bill Price, who also worked with the Clash and Guns N' Roses to give their sound a snarling hard edge. And while the "I'll burn my house down" offered by singer/guitarist Amanda Rootes isn't quite the same opening salvo as "I am an anti-Christ," it rings far truer than almost anything out of Johnny Rotten's mouth since Never Mind the Bollocks.

A pick-hit selection in the Village Voice and second runnerup in the Rolling Stone Critics' Poll, Fluffy and their brand of relentless aggression clearly belong in the same category as their hard rock ancestors and fellow critics' darlings the Stooges and the New York Dolls. The album's second track, "Hypersonic," is complete with a repetitive three-note solo that is pure Johnny Thunders, leavened with a bit of Neil Young. The title track is offered from the point of view of a victim of domestic abuse, and the anger in Rootes's voice isn't play-acting. In fact, the genuine emotion of the entire album is its major strength, an anger easy to personalize and understand. Maybe it is the best punk record of the year after all.

-- Steve Kistulentz

Cavity
Drowning
(Bacteria Sour)

For the last five or six years Cavity's brand of Miami punk has been rumbling through local clubs at an almost glacierlike speed. Relying on waves of snarling feedback, a singer who sounds as if he's bleeding, and one or two crushing chords played as slowly as possible, Cavity hammers out some of the most brutally simple and purely distilled Miami punk rage ever put on record; Drowning collects the band's output to date. The thirteen tracks -- some pulled from local labels such as Star Crunch and 4 and 1/2 Fingers -- bristle with malice, from the opening "The Saver" (which bobs along like a body in the river) to "Marginal Man Blues." The disc also includes the now-classic Cavity LP, issued originally on City of Crime in an inscrutably stark white cover with no song titles listed and only a black sticker naming the band and the label. It's an album so extreme and so steeped in the pain of life that it could only have been recorded in Miami. As the music staggers forward, you can feel the menace hanging in the air, smell the exhaust from the gridlocked traffic and the rotting trash and dead Santeria chickens. On Cavity LP the band is at its most inspired -- noisy without being noise, heavy without being metal, Miami's answer to the blues, a sound that's so mean and full of ruin that it somehow makes you feel good. (Bacteria Sour Records, P.O. Box 422986, San Francisco, CA 94142)

-- Eric Lyle

Live
Secret Samadhi
(Radioactive)

Live's 1991 debut album Mental Jewelry presented a musically competent band hampered by singer/songwriter Ed Kowalczyk's preachiness. By 1994 Kowalczyk had learned the value of subtlety, and Throwing Copper scored a critical and commercial success, leading to the question of what direction the band would take next. Answer: middle-of-the-road. The overproduced Secret Samadhi erases most of the quirkiness that made Live's music interesting. At least half of its dozen tracks are generic, AOR-flavored songs -- not exactly bad, just unremarkable. The album bulges with hackneyed riffs and unnecessary layers of sound. There's even a female vocalist (Jennifer Charles) warbling in the background on "Ghost." Kowalczyk repeatedly experiments with falsetto, to mixed effect; on "Turn My Head," he parrots Radiohead's Thom Yorke so closely he ought to be paying royalties.

The album isn't a complete waste, however. "Lakini's Juice," the dramatic first single, blends grinding guitars with arranger Doug Katsaros's strings, building to the cathartic wail that is Kowalczyk's trademark. "Heropsychodreamer," also destined for singlehood, is a muscular rocker, and "Freaks," a tune about publicity-seeking weirdos, shows a rare glimpse of humor in a band that takes itself way too seriously. Still, if you're looking for inventiveness and risk taking, Live's Secret Samadhi is dead on arrival.

-- Debbie Gilbert

Doyle Dykes
H.E.A.T. (Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and Tomatoes)
(Step One)

Listening to the clean, ultracompetent, note-perfect backing tracks on today's country records makes you wonder where these sidemen come from. Did they choose this often-lucrative profession over law, medicine, or business? Did they grow up wanting to play the same thing all their lives? Do they think of their jobs as a boring necessity, the way so many of us do?

Listening to Nashville acoustic guitarist Doyle Dykes on H.E.A.T., you get a different take on the situation. Dykes, who plays solo throughout, is a virtuoso, like many of the cool Nashville cats, but he's no showoff. He's about emotion, pouring his heart and soul into the tunes (all of which he wrote, with the exception of two hymns). Yet he's no wild-eyed throwback to honky-tonk days -- he weaves his spell subtly, distracting the listener with some thumb picking while his fingers spin out figures that sneak up on you until your eyes are moist from the depth of his passion.

Dykes is a deeply religious family man and a jazzhead, yet none of these things have to matter to you. He's such an accomplished artist (and, of course, there are no words on the album) that he leaves it up to the listener to adapt the music to his or her personal situation.

At times, there's an almost Christmas-like bounce in the tunes, yet instead of feeling like "Here comes Santa Claus," they come across as a very convincing "Peace on earth, good will toward men." Then on "Battle in the Valley of Elah," Dykes's take on David and Goliath, he paints such an action-packed picture that the song could easily be from the soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

There surely are other Nashville players yearning to breathe free who will find their way to disc. Doyle Dykes has set a high standard for them to aim at. (Step One, 1300 Division St., Nashville, TN 37203)

-- Lee Ballinger

Shonen Knife
Brand New Knife
(Big Deal)

Like their heroes the Ramones and Jonathan Richman, Shonen Knife occupy dubious territory, where the punch line is often obscured. They are sweet and small but play loud and aggressive. When they take the stage at any rock club, their hummable melodies and odes to life's simple pleasures become lovable yet questionable schtick.

Brand New Knife is the first album they've done outside Japan. Recorded in L.A. and produced by the Robb Brothers (Lemonheads, Rod Stewart), Knife builds on simple rock chords and rhythms, and fashions everything into a strong cumulative punch. Take the guitar solo in "Loop Di Loop." Technically it's nothing -- a few stray notes without inflection. But as pop guitar it's perfect, fitting into the song like the missing piece of a puzzle. Or try the harmonies in "Wonder Wine." Just a few sloping notes, nearly trite, transform the track like fairy dust.

Subtle joys are obvious. "Explosion!" takes off like a great unwritten Ramones tune, just bopping along without fanfare until you realize how much you're looking forward to hearing the chorus come around and hook you all over again. "Wind Your Spring" is slower and sounds like the kind of thing Potsie Weber would've sung to his date. "Magic Joe," on the other hand, finds the Knife attempting "heavy rock" without quite knowing how to go about it. The result is not what they wanted.

A few of these tracks are supplemented with Japanese versions -- cute, but they don't mean much to those of us not conversant with the language. Brand New Knife, however, holds enough pure pop to engage you whether you're a "now" person or not.

-- Rob O'Connor

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