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Reverend Billy C. Wirtz
Pianist Envy
(HighTone Records)
By Bob Weinberg

The cover photo shows the tattooed Rev with his leopardskin-go-to-Hell boots plunking a Shroder-size toy piano while dreaming of a baby grand. Pianist Envy! Get it? (On a label called HighTone, yet.)

All that's just a taster of Wirtz's off-kilter backwoods, inbred, Wrestlemania, sittin' in the double-wide beneath the velvet painting of Elvis, Jesus, and John Wayne humor. Okay, so it ain't Noel Coward, but it is damn clever stuff ("Mama was a Deadhead," he sings in the song of the same name, "Daddy's brains were fried/They named me Casey Jones at birth/My diapers were tie-dyed").

And best of all, unlike many novelty acts, the funny biz never obscures the Rev's musicality. A ferocious honky-tonker, Wirtz studied alongside barrelhouse legend Sunnyland Slim. Even though or maybe because it was recorded live in a club in South Carolina, Wirtz's manic keyboard attack comes across loud and clear on Envy.

Wirtz includes a couple of concert favorites, the vividly descriptive epic "Roberta" and the raucous "Mennonite Surf Party" (complete with the bridge from "Wipe Out") where the audience supplies the drum parts by banging on walls, tables, and neighbors.

But some of the best moments are new songs: "Butt for the Grace" is a hilarious tale of a relative whose ass becomes an icon when it develops a growth that looks like Jesus; "The King Gets a Day Job" proves that Elvis is still alive, in show biz, and more popular than ever (at least with the under-three-foot set) in his new purple suit; and "Margarita Hell" should be required listening for all SoFla musicians who will lose it if asked to play just one more Jimmy Buffett song. One tune conspicuously missing is the alien-lesbian-truckstop rave "Brenda," from the Rev's last album, Turn for the Wirtz, perhaps as an inducement to buy that one, too. Nonetheless, it's one of the best the barrelhouser has ever laid down, and we were saddened by its absence.

But not for long. The Rev's patter, served up between, during, and after each number, remains as entertaining as his musical forays, and he picks on audience members and shames them into participating in his songs. Only the Rev could manage to carry out his infamous "Blues Face" routine, a visual joke accompanied by various piano vamps, on record and still make you feel as if you could see every contortion on his long mug. (For those with less imagination, it's pictured on the back of the disc jacket.) Envy proves that the best way to catch Wirtz is live, live, live. But if you can't, this recording is the next best thing.

Various artists
Reality Bites
By Greg Baker
Reality bites? No. This record bites.

Shonen Knife
Rock Animals
By J. C. Herz

Those wacky Japanese cream puffs are at it again. With the sugary voices of Japanimation ingenues and chops borrowed from the Seventies New York punk scene, Shonen Knife has been described as "the Ronettes meet the Ramones." Nirvana digs the Knife. Sonic Youth has covered them. They have attained cult status in Los Angeles. They are, paradoxically, fiendishly cute and edge.

The tracks here are cherry-picked from a sunny Speed Racer world where pristine executive secretaries can slip into fishnet hose and strap on guitars without sacrificing a shred of respectability. While the trio's bass lines veer into hardcore territory, lead singer Michie Nakatani chirps with all Juliana Hatfield's teen-girl sweetness about concrete animals, butterflies, and clean-cut, Ping-Pong playing neighborhood boys. The sum effect is a Hello Kitty cupful of punky insouciance -- and a shot of the innocence American pop has long lost.


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