(Independent Project/World Domination)

Like Ennio Morricone on peyote, or Dick Dale after a couple of bong loads, Scenic makes dreamy, hypnotic instrumental music of operatic scope but minimal construction. The quartet -- fronted by ex-Savage Republic mastermind Bruce Licher -- build their evocative soundscapes around slinky twang-guitars and washes of keyboards, and embellish them with flourishes borrowed from spaghetti Western film scores, surf music, world-beat percussion, early Eighties Eno, and the tribal stomp-and-throb of Licher's old band. Acquatica is a lush, 75-minute expansion on the themes introduced on Scenic's debut, 1995's Incident at Cima, with the band's proclivity for eclectic instrumentation ensuring surprises at every turn: A snaky muted horn lends an eerie feel to the galloping epic "Ionia"; bouzouki and acoustic guitar dance together through "Improvia"; and "Sidereal Hands at the Temple of Omphalus" features the sounds of a hard desert wind, a crackling fire, and random splashes of melodica and autoharp. Alternately majestic and understated, boisterous and meditative, Acquatica is a masterpiece of mood, tension, and atmospheria.

-- John Floyd

Polyester Players
Double Knit Boogie

In his important new book, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, San Francisco DJ Rickey Vincent laments the demise of the self-contained soul/funk horn band and the musical, social, and political banners they upheld from the late Sixties to the early Eighties. While it's true that computers, hip-hop, and touring costs have put horn bands on the endangered species list, the Polyester Players are living proof that they aren't dead yet.

Double Knit Boogie is an artful combination of studio and live material -- the Players are a Tuesday night fixture at Hollywood's Luna Park, where their Soul Sister Nights attract both Black Pack actors and folks from the hood. The album reflects both irresistible funk silliness (frontmen G-Mack and Pretty Terry in the roles of Morris Day and George Clinton) and virtuosity from a crew of studio vets leavened by teenage trombone phenom Isaac Smith.

The Players' music is steeped in the Seventies but, despite making no concessions to hip-hop or the new jack sounds of current R&B, their sound is startlingly fresh. They project a cohesively powerful group persona and are capable of great delicacy, too. Midway through "Organize and Rise," the vocalists drop out, keyboardist A.J. busts a beautiful five-note piano figure, guitarist G-Mack pumps it up with some Wes Montgomery chords, then A.J. drops back in with just-right synth doodles as the horns and singers re-enter, setting the stage for Pretty Terry's impassioned "People! People! We've gotta get over, before we go under!" The whole thing takes fifteen seconds tops, yet it's one of the most thrilling musical moments of 1996. (Polyjam, 6201 Sunset Blvd., Suite 186, Hollywood, CA 90028)

-- Lee Ballinger

Travel On, Rider
(Elektra Records)

If I were a boy and I found out that my girlfriend was listening intently to Scrawl's new record Travel On, Rider, I'd take a good long hard look at my relationship and try to figure out what was bugging her. Alas, boys don't usually think that way; it's far more likely they'd listen to the record and say, "Hey, these chicks can't play guitar" and be done with it. Scrawl's strengths as a band have always been subtle ones, and although Travel On, Rider -- their fifth LP and first on a major label -- is by far the best album of their career, it is also their most difficult.

Because they're from Columbus, Ohio, Scrawl is often associated with Afghan Whigs, and Travel On, Rider is indeed Ladies to the Whigs' tour de force Gentlemen. On the latter album, singer Greg Dulli sang about the dark side of the male psyche; here, Scrawl's Marcy Mays is equally versed in exposing feminine self-delusion.

But where Dulli disowns the actions of the men he writes about, Mays is deep inside the behavior of her protagonists: This is one from the heart. When she sings, "I'm smart enough to know you have no use for me, and sure enough to know you will someday" on "Musgrove Story," one is overcome with a sense of elation: To me, one mere line of self-knowledge and profundity is worth a thousand songs of female chest thumping by bands like Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill, and Hole.

Like the music of those bands, Scrawl's is slightly atonal; its chord sequences have a kind of trademark clangy-ness. Although Mays can certainly sing, her voice is neither conventionally pretty nor quite as arresting as, say, PJ Harvey's. Travel On, Rider is not a pretty or poppy record, but it sure is a true one. It's full of deeply realistic songs about how girls feel when they're in the thick of an unsatisfying relationship; the recognition factor is unsettling. How many women, one wonders, can bear the implied moral scrutiny of "Circus Song," for example, whose lyrics consist of the word-string "he cleaned up/She took him back/He fucked up/She kicked him out" repeated over and over again at an ever-increasing pace?

And if it's true that women love Alanis Morissette because they like to imagine themselves confronting a duplicitous ex-lover, how will they react to the far more recognizable image of a disingenuous woman who sings things like, "It might look like my wheels are spinning/I swear they're spinning for a reason," and, "Sure, it's a good time/Maybe not the best time ... but I swear that I'm not stuck." That song -- along with others like "Come Back," "Good Under Pressure," and "The Day She Was Through With Punk Rock" -- are so emotionally resonant they're almost (not quite) too painful to listen to. If you're looking for someone to tell you that acting like an insane and crazy female is okay, this is not the record for you. But if you're willing to look a little deeper into the roots of romantic self-deception, you might do well to listen hard to Travel On, Rider.

-- Gina Arnold

Various Artists
Leonard Bernstein's New York

Whether he loved it or not, Leonard Bernstein had good reason to pay tribute to the Big Apple. It was the site of his early conducting triumphs, and its social scene in the Fifties and Sixties embraced him because he was young, handsome, politically progressive, and yet a steward of the New York Philharmonic and other symbols of the city's musical heritage. Again and again, New York played an important but nonspeaking role in Bernstein's works for the stage, which include the musicals West Side Story, Wonderful Town, and On the Town, and the ballet Fancy Free. The city's ethnic tensions and its underworld, as well as its struggling artists, lecherous cabbies, and wide-eyed tourists, found musical voices in Bernstein that were heard literally all over the world.

Leonard Bernstein's New York cleverly reviews these voices. It includes shiny new performances of selections from each of the above works, plus a selection from his score for the film On the Waterfront. Listening to them, you are reminded that Bernstein was fortunate to have collaborated with fine lyricists such as Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. Together, these people made even crime, concrete, and knife fights seem romantic. The Fifties-style violence and alienation almost elicit feelings of nostalgia when compared to their modern varieties.

Operatic soprano Dawn Upshaw shines on this disc, as do Broadway singers Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald, and Judy Blazer. Mandy Patinkin gets around his notes with more cunning than voice (his attempt to scale "Tonight" is a lesson in chutzpah); Richard Muenz, a relatively new figure on Broadway, has precisely the opposite problem. The Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted here by Eric Stern, is much less hip than your average Broadway pit band, but their classical training and control score points on their own merit.

A helluva town? Maybe, maybe not. But like Woody Allen, Leonard Bernstein can make you think so, at least for the moment.

-- Raymond Tuttle


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