Peter Jefferies/Jono Lonie
At Swim 2 Birds
(Drunken Fish)

Out of print since its 1987 release in New Zealand, an obscurity to even the most fervid Kiwi-noise devotees, At Swim 2 Birds has been the missing link in the long, weird history of Peter Jefferies. Arriving just after the disbanding of This Kind of Punishment and the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist's solo debut (The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World), At Swim was a harbinger of the wildly prolific Jefferies' experiments with improvised diddle-and-plink.

Although it could use a shot of Jefferies' bleak, mournful vocals, the all-instro At Swim sets an affectively dark, somber mood through its sparse instrumentation and red-eyed, hung-over vibe. A lone violin cries amid the cinematic drone of the title track, a wobbly guitar loop on "Tarantella" recalls the early-Seventies experimentations of Brian Eno, a galloping drum figure arrives on the horizon of industrial noise on "Interalia" and is joined by a heap of treated, Mideast-style guitar. Does it rock? Nope, not a bit. Does it move you? Oh my yes. At its best ("Piano [One]," "Piano [Two]," and "Aerial") At Swim does for postpunk avant-garde minimalism what Ennio Morricone's groundbreaking work in the Sixties did for the film soundtrack -- namely, elevates it to an evocative, beautiful art form. (Drunken Fish, P.O. Box 460640, San Francisco, CA 94146)

-- John Floyd

I Got Next

The latest from the South Bronx master of hip-hop is presented in the form of a basketball game, perhaps in response to recent attacks on sports participation by bourgeois types, both black and white (including California Attorney General Dan Lundgren). Certainly, what Kris Parker is all about is defending and promoting hip-hop culture and the people who create and sustain it. In the first two minutes here he gives a much-needed detailed definition of hip-hop that goes beyond music to include graffiti and dancing and spirit ("You are not doing hip-hop/You are hip-hop"), endorses the bootlegging of his own music, and obliterates traditional left-wing whining about the rich getting richer by urging his fans to "Visualize wealth/And put yourselves in the picture."

On "Neva Had a Gun" this picture is expanded with an interpolation of Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" that urges people to rely on hip-hop, not guns. But just when you think KRS-1 might join the anti-gangsta coalition that dominates mass media discussion of violence, he goes on to insist later that guns per se are not a problem, it's the consciousness of the person with a finger on the trigger. This is clarified on "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," a high melodrama in which KRS-1 plays the part of a small-time drug dealer whose suppliers are the local cops.

Yet Next is nothing if not diverse. "A Friend" is a plea and a pledge that is a hip-hop bookend to James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend," while "Heartbeat" is a lighthearted affirmation that literally becomes its title as the hook plays against a slightly speeded-up backing track. The album ends with the rolling horns and pulling bass of the jazzy "Over Ya Head," followed by the vaguely Nirvana-ish and utterly convincing "Just to Prove a Point." The title indicates Parker is just proving he can rock it like that, but the track is actually a powerful rock/rap take on betrayal. The album, heavily flavored by heated male boasting, ends with the prediction that women will dominate the next millennium.

-- Lee Ballinger

Various Artists
Out Classics II -- Stepping Out
(RCA Victor Red Seal)

Various Artists
The Ultimate Opera Queen
(RCA Victor Red Seal)

RCA invites us to "step out onto the dance floor of queer music history" with a "collection of the world's greatest classic dance music by gay composers of three centuries," a sequel to the notorious Out Classics. Well, Tchaikovsky and Copeland sure beat a night at Kremlin. Other "queer" composers represented here are Corelli, Handel, Schubert, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Barber, Porter, and Bernstein. Don't argue with me if you disagree; argue with annotator K. Robert Schwartz. In his notes, he quotes Handel scholar Gary Thomas: "There's not the slightest shred of evidence to suggest that Corelli was guilty of heterosexual interests.... That's the line that needs to be taken: innocent until proven guilty; shift the burden of proof to where it rightfully belongs." This, then, is a CD with a very big chip on its shoulder, and as such it discourages rational discussion of its musical contents. Suffice it to say that if your idea of musical satisfaction is Handel giving naked backrubs to Tchaikovsky and Chopin banging pelvic bones with Corelli, then the performances from RCA's back catalogue (Reiner, Ormandy, Fiedler, et cetera) are generally excellent; operators are standing by.

Unless I'm discussing monarchy, I like the word "queen" even less than I like "queer." (Nothing like adopting the language of the oppressor.) RCA says, "For those just testing the waters and for confirmed fanatics, this collection [of arias] is truly fit for a queen." (Who writes this stuff, anyway?) What's good about The Ultimate Opera Queen is the fact that, divorced from its subtext, it's a solid package of soprano arias in classic recordings by the likes of Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, and (what a nice surprise!) Anna Moffo. Back in the Sixties Moffo was considered 75 percent glamour and 25 percent voice, but she sounds pretty darn good here, especially when compared to the talentless "stars" who stalk the stage today. This disc is Battle of the Divas all the way (there's not even a mezzo in sight), and there's none of that nasty French or German opera either. The Ultimate Opera Queen is a great listen, but I despise its condescension, from its hateful cover art down to its simple-minded text summaries.

Shall we call an end to silly concept CDs? And don't call me Mary or I'll claw your eyes out.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole

On their debut album, Exit Planet Dust, the Chemical Brothers -- Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons -- seemed most interested in adding element after element to their beats, then pulling them unexpectedly out of the mix and letting the tension build up relentlessly, anxiously, as we tried to anticipate just when the other beat would drop, when everything would come crashing back in. But on Dig Your Own Hole the Brothers have so many ideas to make us move, so many beats they want to throw down, that they don't have time for such old-school dance floor tricks. Instead of dulling the musical momentum in order to restore it, these new tracks simply and suddenly divert the momentum into some new, unanticipated direction. In "Piku," for example, a loping, loud, hip-hop groove suddenly steals the steering wheel away from the intense whirring that had been driving us forward just a breath before; the challenge is to keep up and hang on as more and noises scream by and as the rhythms pile up. Throughout Dig, the Chemical Brothers have cranked the BPM's and made the samples even more dense, the rhythms even more complex, and the wonder of it all is that, like the Bomb Squad before them, they've created music that sounds more powerful and focused the more crazed and seemingly out of control it becomes.

Possibly in an attempt to make techno more understandable to the rhythmless masses, the duo has also added voices on a few cuts here, but it's unlikely that the results will get them over. In fact, the least interesting moment on the album is the most conventionally song-based composition, "Where Do I Begin," in which vocalist Beth Orton crawls through a meandering, indolent melody that never catches hold. At least so far, voices work best in the Brothers' world when they serve as just another rhythmic element, or as pure atmosphere. For about the first minute of the psychedelic "Setting Sun" right up until this piercing, trumpety synth blast comes firing in (only to be almost immediately replaced by some spy-flick sitar riffs), you almost expect the Brothers to break out singing "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" from the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." But then guest Noel Gallagher appears, shouting and echoing along in a sing-song melody, and the main effect is to make the beats slam all the harder when they quickly yank back the song. Like the album's great first single, the thundering "Block Rockin' Beats," the music on Dig Your Own Hole is about sound and rhythm most of all and the inchoate meaning that can be expressed only by a joyous, rocking noise -- and by the way it makes us want to move.

-- David Cantwell


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