All artists show their influences in their work. What separates the sublime from the hapless in this regard is the ability to do it without being crass. And there's certainly nothing crass about Colossal Head, the seventh long player from Los Lobos. Genius is mostly what's at work here, though it might be more accurate to call it genius at play.
Ever resistant to pigeonholing, Los Lobos come through yet again, this time with an album that embraces a gamut of musical styles without ever stooping to cliche. If the nostalgia of the opening cut, "Revolution," evokes War (another L.A. band) in its prime, "Can't Stop the Rain" is more a hypnotic meditation, Sly Stone meets the Cisco Kid. A pair of Cal-Mex entries, "Mas y Mas" and "Maricela," have Santana written on their percussion-driven jamming, but not all over it. There's also more than a taste here of Tom Waits, another artist from the City of Angels: in the moving tango that informs the truly lovely "Maricela"; in "Manny's Bones," a funky funeral march ("Manny's dead, didn't leave me nuttin'/Went off to Heaven, left his bed undone") that employs a hefty baritone sax to carry the coffin; and in "Everybody Loves a Train," which is set in motion by a steel-bodied guitar and a distorted, spoken paean to living near the tracks that sounds as if it's coming from a speaker on a subway. Even John Lennon seems to get a nod, in the shrill guitar and thin, distorted vocals of "This Bird's Gonna Fly."
But the title cut might be best of all, a loud, raucous rocker that puts everything all together as it rewrites the Little Red Riding Hood story in the Lobos' own peculiar tongue: "What big eyes you have/What big lips you have/What a nice head/I love you/Ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya/What you said -- I can't hear you/Do the colossal head."
If you were carrying around this breadth of musical sophistication and depth of talent, your head'd be colossal too.
-- Tom Finkel
Melinda (Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt)
Say it's late. Say there's another argument, lots of yelling in a parking lot -- always, a parking lot -- and say, at last, that she gives you the heave-ho, the ass-dump, the nonrefundable sigh-a-nora. You arrive home and don't even bother flicking on the lights. A door slams and you sit alone, broiling, half-mad with rage.
It is precisely at this juncture that you need to make Lifter a part of your life.
Eschewing the postured solipsism of the Seattle bratpack, this ragged Los Angeles trio makes music that roils with self-doubt, with unabashed bitterness, with an unhinged will for vengeance. You want angry? Check out these lines from "Big and Tall," delivered with a furious yelp by Mike Coulter, over the dirgelike roar of his guitar: "If you wound up homeless/If you turned up strung out/Wouldn't even help/The way I feel right now/I'll shoot you down/In your silver-plated beds/I'll cut you down/In your cozy, creepy bars/I'll bring you down/from your lousy lofty heights."
Of course, rage alone does not a band make, and Lifter's got the riffs and chops to back up the attitude. Coulter's guitar zigzags from buzz-saw flailing to plaintive strums, with bassist Jeff Sabelia and drummer John Rozas providing rhythms to match the mood. The anthems are pure sonic power, bottom-heavy and explosive A angst waiting to blow your woofers. But Lifter also shows a remarkable gift for the soft touch. Ballads such as "402," "Something Borrowed," and "Beach" reveal the vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface of Coulter's homicidal rants.
In the lushly textured "Rich, Dark, Sultry Red of Hate," he confesses: "I'm weak with a heart from the old school." The same can be said of this entire, splendid debut. Heartbreak hasn't sounded this true for years.
By Steven Almond
White Moon shines. Here's an excellent example of the concept album, done classical style. Subtitled "Songs to Morpheus," this disc offers a collection of vocal music that deals with aspects of night -- the moon, sleep, and its cousin, death. The dark hours can be a time of respite and oblivion, but they also can be a time when the lonely cry out, when the violent grow stronger, and when the will to live flickers like a candle in a dark window.
Selections from three centuries of nocturnal music are included on this ambitious CD. Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel rub sagging shoulders with more excitable moderns such as Joseph Schwantner and George Crumb. Crumb's Night of the Four Moons is an ear-expanding setting of words by Federico Garcia Lorca. White Moon's highlight, this work is notable for the innovative demands that it makes on the singer and on the instrumental ensemble -- an unusual combination of alto flute, piccolo, banjo, electric cello, and percussion. Another notable selection is the aria from the popular Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.
American soprano Dawn Upshaw is the sensitive goddess of the art song, and throughout the disc her customary radiance glows with the color of the moon. She moves from one musical style to another with serene confidence; as always, she knows how to make words as memorable as the music that complements them. Her partners include members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and brothers Sergio and Odair Assad, the Brazilian guitar duo. The latter pair gives unconventional but pleasing support to the selections by Purcell, Claudio Monteverdi, and the doleful John Dowland.
Turn out the lights, but leave White Moon playing as you drift off to sleep.
By Raymond Tuttle
Jack McDuff and Joey DeFrancesco
It's About Time
The jazz organ has enjoyed artistic and commercial good health during the present decade, but that hasn't always been the case. After its heyday in the Sixties, the schmaltzy and cumbrous keyboard lay moribund as a jazz instrument, usurped by the more portable and convenient synthesizer. That is, until the appearance in 1989 of whiz kid organist Joey DeFrancesco on the high-profile Columbia label. Soon enough, Hammond B-3 masters Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff were enjoying career revivals, and younger players such as Barbara Dennerlein, John Medeski, and Jeff Palmer joined DeFrancesco to dispel any lingering notions of the organ as anachronism.
It's About Time is the first studio meeting of McDuff and DeFrancesco, and it's a deliciously swinging affair. The two have performed enough times together in clubs to understand how to heighten the musical drama of the standards and McDuff originals they're partial to. It's DeFrancesco, some 45 years younger than his colleague, who has the sharper technical skills and deeper harmonic knowledge. Yet McDuff makes a virtue out of his simple approach to building solos, ultimately achieving a warmer, blues-soaked sound on his B-3 than does his more youthful associate. And it makes perfect sense that DeFrancesco's grooves should match those of McDuff on "Pork Chops & Pasta" and a half-dozen more numbers here, since Joey learned the art of groove making from his elder. (Two additional tracks, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "Our Delight," are superfluous features for DeFrancesco and McDuff, respectively.) Amid all the organ washes and swirls on It's About Time, capable playing is delivered by the men in McDuff's quintet and DeFrancesco's trio, with the latter group's Paul Bollenback especially alert in his five guitar solos.
By Frank-John Hadley
Amrita . . . All These and the Japanese Soup Warriors
Just what is meant by "cultural piracy"? The term gets thrown around now and again -- when Paul Simon makes an album of African-derived music, for instance, or when David Byrne tries his hand at Latin rhythms. More recently the imperialist charge has been leveled at musicians who appropriate non-Western traditional music into Western club beats, a genre known variously as trance, world-dance, ethno-techno, or global ambient. But those truly offended by the globetrotting grab-bag sounds of groups such as Trans-Global Underground, Banco de Gaia, and the leaders of the stew school, London's Loop Guru, seem to have lost any connection to the basic joys of music. Would such doubters suggest a showing of passports to determine one's qualifications to perform or experience a culture's folk music?
Besides, as proven by Loop Guru's second album, Amrita, techno and non-Western styles are natural bedfellows. Both unfold along fluid, nonlinear paths that put them at odds with Western pop's infatuation with the structure of verse-chorus-verse. And sociologically speaking, the ecstatic release that comes on the dance floor has tons in common with the spiritual exorcism in mystic-folk music from Bali, Java, India, Iran, or Morocco A just some of the places represented on Amrita. In fact, the only impediment to ethno-techno's beautiful marriage is how well producers turn the music's cultural dislocation into postmodern enlightenment. The meticulous studio crafters and enthusiastic live performers of Loop Guru fare quite well as middlemen. They are not looters, nor are they musical teachers. They're doing this for the best reason of all: It sounds good.
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By Roni Sarig
Ask Me What It Feels Like
As Veruca Salt is to the Breeders, so Fluffer is to Veruca Salt. And the music goes round and round and it comes out . . . nowhere. (121 W. 27th St., #401, New York, NY 10001)
By Michael Yockel