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Marshall Crenshaw
The 9 Volt Years: Battery Powered Home Demos & Curios 1970-198?)
(Razor & Tie)

Marshall Crenshaw is one of rock and roll's unsung heroes; he first beautified the airwaves in 1982 with his modest hit "Someday Someway." Amid the postpunk new-wave pop of Joe Jackson and Split Enz, Crenshaw has consistently speckled the fringes of pop-rock culture. Whether portraying Buddy Holly in the 1987 biopic La Bamba, editing the 1994 movie-music compendium Hollywood Rock, overseeing album compilations and writing liner notes for various record labels, or keeping his day job composing smart and jangly pop songs, Crenshaw has generally tickled the critics. Unfortunately, as a musician with nine albums on a total of three labels, he has toiled in relative obscurity. Covers of Crenshaw's songs by artists such as Bette Midler ("You're My Favorite Waste of Time") and the Gin Blossoms (he co-wrote their hit "'Til I Hear It from You") have won him adulation and royalties, but his own renderings of his songs have languished in FM purgatory.

On The 9 Volt Years, Crenshaw gathers some crude demos and early recordings he made on a battery-powered tape recorder when he hit Manhattan, after having left his native Detroit. The result is an exuberant ride straight out of the musical-instrument department at Montgomery Ward. Most of these stripped-down versions of his best songs surfaced on subsequent records, though the loose arrangements here are as much of a rush as are the final, major-league takes. Shades of Elvis Costello and the Attractions tint "Rockin' Around in NYC," while "Something's Gonna Happen," Crenshaw's first single from 1980, clearly demonstrates his knack for writing catchy, tuneful ditties. For the hard-core faithful, The 9 Volt Years is a blast from the past. To new enthusiasts, Crenshaw's subtle masterpieces-in-development will be a breath of fresh air relieving the stench of the haphazardly written pop that dominates the airwaves.

-- George Pelletier

Don Byron
Nu Blaxploitation
(Blue Note)

There's one thing you can say for certain about jazz clarinetist Don Byron: He'll never appear in one of those cheesy Gap commercials like Aerosmith or LL Cool J. You see, Byron is a musical radical, the kind of articulate, independent thinker (see also Rage Against the Machine) you don't find too often on major labels. On his recent release, Nu Blaxploitation, Byron blends jazz, poetry, and funk into a work that owes its overall form and feel primarily to the early-Nineties hip-hop of Public Enemy and Ice Cube.

As much as Byron has accomplished with his clarinet, having recorded a string of musically diverse and critically acclaimed solo albums, the heart of Nu Blaxploitation is clearly its lyrical content. On "Blinky," the poet Sadiq (guest vocalist) bemoans the story of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was brutally beaten and sodomized with a plunger by New York City police officers last year: "Yes, Abner, the whole world is a ghetto/You ran from the torment of the Tonton Macoutes/Only to find them hiding in the 70th precinct." In the background Byron plays riffs from Charles Mingus's "Fables of Faubus," a tune inspired by ugly racial incidents in 1950s Arkansas. It's a stark reminder that racism still manifests itself in hideous forms, even in America's supposedly enlightened urban centers.

On "Dodi," Sadiq eulogizes Dodi al-Fayed, Princess Diana's paramour: "How subtle the chill when we first discover/You and the fair princess are doing it undercover." But the song suggests (as does al-Fayed's father) their deaths were no accident, implicating a British throne that couldn't stand the prospect of a dark-skinned Egyptian becoming stepfather to the future king. Throughout the album Sadiq maintains an ironic sense of humor, skillfully avoiding the risks of sounding pretentious or downright silly.

But Nu Blaxploitation isn't all biting social commentary. Some tracks are straightforward jams inspired by the music of funk group Mandrill. "Fencewalk" and "Hagalo" are particularly juicy, conjuring the soul-soaked atmosphere of Seventies blaxploitation films with the requisite horn section and stylized "Superfly," superfunky guitar licks.

While Byron chooses to step away from center stage musically on Nu Blaxploitation, his conceptual vision and production talents are impressive. It's one of the boldest, most eclectic, and most original albums you're likely to hear this year.

-- Chris Duffy

The Melvins
Alive at the F*cker Club
(Amphetamine Reptile)

The Melvins remain one of the nation's greatest rock bands, and may someday, one or two rock revivals from now, be recognized by the general public as having been among the most important acts of the Nineties. Their knack for eliciting the extremes of rock's elemental sensations -- weightiness, motion, impact -- is simply unmatched. Lead singer/guitarist Buzz Osborne has a gift for automatic poetry that dwarfs Beck's, and that savant-like ability to express the unspeakable in pure sound is recapitulated in every element of the best Melvins compositions.

"Savant" is the key word, because great as they are, the Melvins are also idiotic. Though they may bristle at the concept, they need help editing their work and making it suitable for public consumption. It seems no accident that much of their best music was released during their adversarial and ill-fated relationship with Atlantic Records (1994's Stoner Witch and 1996's Stag). Alive at the F*cker Club, a twenty-minute EP recorded live last year in Melbourne, Australia, sounds like a cheap bootleg made on a Walkman foolishly placed too close to a blaring speaker. It's the third lackluster release from this great band (following 1997's shoddy Honky and an even more uneven singles compilation, 1997's Melvins Singles 1-12).

The sound on Alive is far too muddy to do justice to the ferocious "Antitoxidote." The impossibly heavy "Boris," which in its original version on 1991's Bullhead wipes the mind clear of all thoughts, is rendered here almost completely ignorable. A pointless spoken intro to "It's Shoved" is annoying even the first time through the disc, though Osborne playing the riff from "Purple Haze" over the song's bass line (which, by the way, Nirvana borrowed for "Milk It") is a nice touch.

The best tracks on Alive are expansive numbers like "The Bloat," which showcases drummer Dale Crover's superlative power; his predatory timing would impress on an album recorded through a kids' tin-can telephone. This EP may be only a technological step above that, but until the band comes to town (no doubt opening, yet again, for some cornballs not fit to tune the Melvins' guitars) or finds the focus so abundant in their Atlantic catalogue, this is all the Melvins we're going to get. (Amphetamine Reptile, 2200 4th St. NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418)

-- Adam Heimlich

Prolapse
The Italian Flag
(Jet Set)

If publications such as Rolling Stone and Goldmine are to be believed, Prolapse and their fellow Scots are on to something. According to the scribes at those celebrated journals, Scottish alternative rock groups are currently riding a wave of collective recognition not seen since the Cardigans and the Dandy Warhols reminded us that there was more to those bands' native Sweden than reindeer, tall blondes, and wide-open attitudes about human sexuality. Although the alt-rock of Scotland is less pop and more avant-garde, it has struck a chord with rock critics.

And the critics may be right: Prolapse mixes highland folk, the psychedelic noise of the Velvet Underground, the jagged punk of the Fall, and low-fi electronica into an ear-catching scream for recognition from rock's underground. The Italian Flag, Prolapse's third album, is the band's most ingenious and diverse release to date, if not one of the great albums of the year.

The disc opens with a brash slap in the face. The confounding "Slash/Oblique" is, for the uninitiated, the perfect introduction to the Prolapse sound. Over a swelling surge of guitar noise backed by steady, pounding drums, Linda Steelyard's lush voice opens the song: "You will never understand me." A split second later she repeats, "I know I need my head examined" at a tongue-twisting rate, as drummer Tim Pattison pounds on his machine-gun tom-toms. But the delirious chanting of second vocalist Mick Derrick, who offers a counterverse in an unintelligible Scottish accent to each of Steelyard's refrains, best illustrates the band's rousing, and often very regional, perspective. Afterward, the band throttles the listener with "Deanshanger," an atonal surge of guitars and bagpipes with Derrick angrily spitting, "Do you remember the 1980s/The music was crap, the hair was crap."

But Prolapse doesn't restrict itself to grating spasms of anguish. The band does great pop, too. "Autocade," a song about the suspicious actions of a significant other, hints at their Stereolab influence and highlights Steelyard's sensuous voice above layers of bouncy guitar melodies, backed by chiming, driving, ambient-electronic sounds. Then there's "Tunguska," which recalls the angular guitar work of Gang of Four.

There isn't a throwaway on the album, a passionately crafted work that raises alternative rock to a new level. With the Italian Flag Prolapse has grafted modern eclecticism to the roots of past genius and has created something vital.

-- Hans Morgenstern

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