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The Dirty Dozen
Ears to the Wall
(Mammoth)

Back in the late Seventies, when disco ruled, the New Orleans-based Dirty Dozen Brass Band was busy attempting to keep its hometown's old-fashioned "second line" tradition alive. The band accompanied marching funeral processions, a not uncommon sight throughout the city, and added its swinging, thumping brass propulsion to parades and parties before launching a recording career in 1984. On its most recent release, 1996's Ears to the Wall, the octet made some significant changes, advancing into ... the Seventies. "Brass Band" was dropped from the name; two standing "march drummers" were replaced by one trap kit player; a permanent keyboardist and a guest guitarist were enlisted; and the great boom of the sousaphone was augmented by electric and acoustic bass. While a gritty New Orleans vibe still permeated the music, the Dirty Dozen sound veered away from Dixieland-tinged jazz in favor of a blend of funk, soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues. These days they're more likely to lead a Boogie Nights dance sequence than a Decatur Street funeral procession.

Where the Brass Band's music followed a straight two-beat sousaphone line while the fluid brass section -- two trumpets, two saxophones, a trombone -- bounced loose, digressive melodies around the room, the more tightly structured Dirty Dozen features Terrence Higgins popping the funky drummer routine on the traps and the six-piece brass section hanging tight a la the JB Horns.

To discuss a best featured player misses the point. Like a fine gumbo, the band emphasizes no one ingredient over another. On Ears to the Wall, the horn players all shine on solos that range from the punchy baritone sax squawk on "Blackbird Special" to the introspective trumpet modalities on the subdued "Reprieve." Richard Knox adds a Jimmy Smith-inspired depth on the keys, further enhancing a bluesy effect.

The Dirty Dozen's songs vary in tempo and mood, with some playing up the jive ("Funky Nuts," "L'Ascenseur") and others unveiling smooth, Marvin Gaye-inspired soul ("Reprieve" and "I Hold the Key"). The appropriately named "Flow On" even features an innocuous rap by Higgins.

-- Larry Getlen

The Dirty Dozen performs at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 18, at the Islamorada-Florida Keys Jazz and Blues Festival, 87000 Overseas Hwy (mile marker 87), Plantation Key; 305-853-5905. Admission is $10.50.

Bad Manners
Heavy Petting
(Moon Ska)

Though the band's name suggests otherwise, there's nothing ill-mannered about the politely upbeat Heavy Petting, unless you consider thirteen tracks of bouncy rhythms and sweetly crooned melodies a breach of etiquette. Having weathered ska's frequent personality changes, the venerable Bad Manners (active since its 1980 debut Ska 'N' B) bears the torch for traditional English two-tone ska stylists such as the Specials and the Selecter, bands that built their careers on major chords and lightly syncopated rhythms.

That isn't to say that Bad Manners, also English, doesn't display a raucous sense of humor on its first album of new material since 1992's Fat Sound. Consider the disc's opener, a horn-driven instrumental that begins with the raspy chant "Don't knock the baldheads" (also the track's title), then plunges full-on into a crazy jungle cadence. Or the wispy "Down Berry Wood," which offers the lines "If I ask you to be mine/Would you accept?/Would you recline?"

And the album overall? Well, it's certainly fun-gorged and brass-peppered -- just don't expect creative rebellion from these rude boys. (P.O. Box 1412, New York, NY 10276)

-- Leigh Silverman

The Presidents of the United States of America
Pure Frosting
(Columbia)

The title pretty much says it all. This thrown-together compilation of originals, retreads, live outtakes, and cheeky covers is fun to sample, but iffy on substance. The disc, in fact, calls to mind the timeworn music-biz expression "contractual obligations." The Presidents, you see, are no more. The Seattle-based trio, whose self-titled 1995 debut briefly captured the hearts of the alterna-nation, have officially called it quits.

Pure Frosting bids farewell in much the same fashion as the group said hello: with goofy, three-chord ditties and stripped-down instrumentation. Chris Ballew's two-string bassitar and Dave Dederer's three-string guitbass sound as spastic as ever, and drummer Jason Finn provides the necessary thump.

The new material here -- notably the country vamp "Tremolo Blooz" and the feel-good anthem "Japan" -- is lively and fresh. "Mobile Home" offers Dederer a rare opportunity to expand beyond his standard chord-banging, as he takes a sinewy, note-bending solo. Ballew's appeal as a vocalist remains limited. He seems to be smirking his way through too many of the songs, but his rapid-fire ad libs on the live version of "Back Porch" show what he's capable of when he kicks into improv mode. The band's frantic raveup of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" is pleasing mostly for its novelty value.

For devoted fans, Pure Frosting will come as a pleasant-enough surprise. But the disc is ultimately a testament to the band's limited emotional and musical range. Shtick will only get you so far in the music biz -- as the guys in this band seem to have recognized.

-- Steven Almond

 
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