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The Monks
Black Monk Time
(Infinite Zero/American)

Everything that's great about the Monks is right there on "Monk Chant," the lead cut from the group's 1966 underground classic Black Monk Time, reissued on American's Infinite Zero imprint after 30 years of obscurity. Over galloping drums, fuzzed-out bass, horror-show organ, trebly guitar, and chopping electric banjo (yes, electric banjo), Gary Burger lets rip a surreal, frightening antiwar rant -- equal parts leftist manifesto and rock and roll statement of purpose -- with all the hate, bile, and anger a former G.I. stationed in Germany could conjure. It's pure stream-of-consciousness babble driven by frustration and confusion: "Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam? Mad Viet Cong! My brother died in Vietnam ... We don't like the atomic bomb ... Ah, you think like I think. You're a Monk, I'm a Monk, we're all Monks ... It's beat time, it's hot time, it's Monk time!"

And with that unforgettable introduction, the Monks kicked off one of the few longplayers from the garage-rock era of the mid-Sixties that actually live up to their legendary status. With their tonsured heads and black cloaks, the Monks were admittedly something of a novelty back in the beat-crazed days of the British Invasion, much like the costumed statesiders Paul Revere and the Raiders. Certainly both groups knew the value of a good gimmick, but the one album that captured the Monks' hostility and primal-rock drive is no mere joke.

Out of print for decades, and first available only when the band sold it at gigs, Black Monk Time isn't just the last true classic from the nascent days of mid-Sixties punk. It's an assaultive collection that uncannily anticipates the thundering wallop of heavy metal and the raw hate of punk rock. All the elements are here: the shouted lyrics that span a gamut of negative vibes from bad women ("I Hate You") to bad moods ("Shut Up"); the simple but throttling power-chord riffs; the yelped banshee wailing that in Robert Plant's hands would provide the blueprint for thud-rock vocal histrionics. To say that the Monks were ahead of their time doesn't come close to doing justice to just how forward-thinking they really were.

Following a Monks history written by the band's bassist Eddie Shaw (also titled Black Monk Time) and a surge of interest among revivalist Sixties-punk collectors and critics, Black Monk Time first resurfaced a few years back as a pricey Euro bootleg. The Infinite Zero package, though, is far superior, with fine liner notes by Mike Stax (from Ugly Things magazine), a slew of bizarre photos, and a mastering job that doesn't screw with the white-hot original mix. Seven bonus cuts -- forgotten singles and some previously unissued live tracks and demos -- have been appended to the album's twelve original songs; some are essential ("I Can't Get Over You"), others are definitely not ("He Went Down to the Sea"). All should be heard, though, whether you're looking for the missing link between garage rock and punk or you simply want proof that obscurities can sometimes be as good as the cultists claim.

-- John Floyd

Nanci Griffith
Blue Roses from the Moon
(Elektra)

In many ways, this is the finest album that the soft-voiced, country-folk singer Nanci Griffith has ever produced. Recorded live in the studio, Blue Roses from the Moon captures her long-time band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, laying down some of its most beautiful and charged performances. Part of what works best here, in fact, is the players' collective ear for the perfect arrangement: the B-3 organ that rises patiently out of the generally acoustic "Waiting For Love" or the disappointed cellos that weep behind "Is This All There Is?" On still other cuts, its the disc's guest stars that make the difference: Darius Rucker's baritone harmony on "Gulf Coast Highway" helps to muscle up Griffith's weaker voice, and on a cover of Nick Lowe's "Battlefield" (one of five cuts where her regular group is jump-started by Buddy Holly's old band the Crickets), Griffith and the Orchestra reach a steady simmer that's as close to rocking out as she's ever come.

In one important way, though, this album is among Griffith's most disappointing. Her breathy, kewpie-doll singing has always been an acquired taste, but one hoped that the years would grant her music the character that comes with a few rough edges. To that end, the newfound punch of her band helps a lot, and on a song like "Not My Way Home," her voice actually cuts loose as well, just a bit, occasionally cracking with a passion that helps justify her too-precious lyrics. What mainly seems to be happening, though, is that she's started to adopt, at unexpected moments and for no clear reason, singing "voices" other than her own. Why she throws a Dylan impersonation into each bridge of "I'll Move Along" is unclear, and the exaggerated Rainmakers twang that turns up out of nowhere on "Morning Train" distracts from the song's considerable strengths. "Maybe Tomorrow," which Griffith co-wrote with the great Harlan Howard, is all but ruined by the silly, stylized way she sings it. Griffith's albums have always been mannered, but when the playing's as tough as that of the Blue Moon Orchestra this time around, her vocal weaknesses seem even more of a shame than usual.

-- David Cantwell

Roy Ayers
The Best of Roy Ayers
(Polydor)

As sadly happens with many staples of black culture, Roy Ayers is only really celebrated in places like Japan and the U.K., while remaining pretty much an afterthought at home in the States. Ayers's intricate fusion of disco, jazz, funk, Latin, and African elements epitomized as well as anything else the openness and boldness of black music in the Seventies. Equal parts musician, philosopher, spiritual guide, and down-low mack man, his continued influence and worldwide popularity fly in the face of all revisionist thinking that brands that decade as anything less than the apex of American music and culture.

It would be too simple to say the debt owed by his present-day disciples is huge. While the worst of them cheaply copped his sound (the entire acid-jazz movement, for instance, is built on Ayers's innovations), the best of them also picked up his vibe and his vision. Bands ranging from Brand Nubian to Sade to "alternative" urban artists like Sweetback and Me'Shell NdegeOcello have all kept Ayers's legacy alive, using his unique, multilayered approach as a starting point for their own endeavors. Whatever their stylistic differences, to my ear these neo-funk outfits are all striving in their own way to make one record that is as beautiful, perfect, and all-encompassing in simplicity and transcendence as Ayers's "Everybody Loves the Sunshine."

While it's only a single disc, The Best of Roy Ayers should satisfy both the new and the older fan. The fifteen-song set is culled from albums issued between 1971 and 1981, with all the essential stuff making the cut, including "Sunshine." Whether dispensing hard doses of reality on "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby," with its bad-ass violin riffs, celebrating love and life on "Searching," celebrating the dumping of a significant other in my all-time favorite "Running Away," or just laying down some mellow vibraphone work over deep pocket grooves on any number of other tracks, Roy Ayers always sets the mood and never fails to deliver the sounds.

-- Jesse Ballinger

Nuno
Schizophonic
(A&M)

This album's gotta be a joke, right? After all, this is the same Nuno Bettencourt who played guitar for that ridiculous hair-metal band Extreme. The man half responsible for the cloying slow-dance nightmare single known as "More Than Words." Well, throw away the book on Nuno (as he now prefers to be called these days). Schizophonic surely ranks as one of the year's finest records, a tour de force that moves effortlessly from shimmering acoustic balladeering to thrashing pop.

Although he is rightfully revered as a guitar god, Nuno has turned away from his fret wizardry on this solo debut, opting instead to concentrate on soaring melodies, thumping beats, and genuinely thoughtful, if not tremendously profound, lyrics. From the opening peals of the jagged "Gravity," it's clear Nuno means business. His scratchy voice wails while his guitar punches out punky chords more in keeping with the Offspring than with his former band. "Fallen Angels" opens with a hip-hoppy clang courtesy of percussionist Anthony J. Resta, over which Nuno layers a pulsating bass line and a swirling guitar that manages to sound for all the world like a sitar. The bristling power pop of "Note on the Screen Door" is spiced with a flaming guitar solo and rising vocal harmonies. "Karmalaa" is a pastiche of droning guitar, computer effects, and distorted monotone vocals that deftly capture the angst of loving a sexual psychopath. "I think I like you," Nuno declares. "I really hate you. Don't even know you."

Much of the joy here consists in Nuno's ability to astonish. His compositions, while always tuneful, twist and turn constantly. Thrashing refrains give way to chanted choruses, spidery solos to Beatles-esque bridges. Most enchanting of all are Nuno's softer offerings, which exude none of the postured treacle of his previous work with Extreme. Instead, cuts such as "Pursuit of Happiness," "Confrontation," and "You" come across with quiet grace. The lush melodies, the tight instrumentation -- almost entirely Nuno's doing -- and yearning vocals produce genuine pathos. That's a rare achievement in any genre, one all the sweeter given Nuno's inauspicious origins.

-- Steven Almond


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