The Muffs, Hamza El Din, The Mary Janes

The Muffs

Alert Today Alive Tomorrow

(Honest Don's) In the Can't Get a Break Sweepstakes, the Muffs have always been prime contenders. Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kim Shattuck has been turning out melodic punk rock gems since the dawn of this decade—she's now on her fourth album—but despite the support of the Warner Bros. marketing juggernaut, her band never found the mass audience it deserved. Now the Muffs are back on a small San Francisco indie label, and this may actually work to their advantage, since their rabid but small core of fans will seek them out no matter how few dollars get spent on advertising. Most importantly, the Muffs' experiences in the major-label grinder haven't seemed to have adversely affected their aesthetic or their enthusiasm. Alert Today Alive Tomorrow is another collection of killer songs composed at the crossroads of Ramones Avenue and Shirelles Street. Though Shattuck continues to work the pop-punk motherlode, she has a relatively wide range—from bratty rave-ups like "Silly People" to sweet love songs like "Your Kiss" to twangy, tangy kiss-offs like "I'm Not Around." Granted, this isn't earth-shattering stuff, but it doesn't pretend to be: tossing out melodies effortlessly and reeling them back in with her raw, throaty voice, Shattuck makes rock sound fun again. In a perfect world, she'd be gracing Harper's Bazaar covers and headlining Lilith Fair with Courtney Love fetching her coffee. But the inmates are still running the asylum, so don't hold your breath.—Jackie McCarthy

Hamza El Din

A Wish

(Sounds True) Time was when a new record by a Nubian oud player would be fortunate to be released in the US, much less find air time on college radio stations. Not so anymore: Sounds True Records has lovingly packaged the latest work of oud virtuoso Hamza El Din, and while it's not going to get heavy rotation on MTV, it's a powerful and accessible set of music. El Din played the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and has since become known as perhaps the world's foremost master of the oud, or North African lute. He has performed with Western artists from the Grateful Dead to the Kronos Quartet. The oud is essentially a guitar with a large gourd-shaped body and no harmony; while it lacks the emotional range of the guitar, the rhythmic complexity of North African music makes it an enormously engaging and vigorous instrument. The tunes on A Wish, based on traditional forms and composed by Hamza El Din, come in exotic meters like 10/8 and 8/8. "Greetings" is a duet between lovers separated by cruel fate; "Griffin 2" is a setting for a poem by the early-20th-century Arab poet Ilia Abu Madi, a companion of Khalil Gibran; "Nagrishad" is a percussion-and-vocal wedding processional. The final track, "A Wish" (featuring Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud), is a gorgeous lament for El Din's home village of Toshka, flooded in 1964 by the completion of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile, which created Lake Nasser. Recently the Egyptian government has announced plans for new agricultural settlements near the site of Toshka. "We will build new water-wheels./We will be prosperous and peaceful/in this new-built country where we will gather/where we will sit and chat again."—Richard Martin

The Mary Janes

Record No. 1

(Delmore) Songwriter Janas Hoyt of Bloomington, Indiana, created the Mary Janes as a creative outlet from her regular band, the Vulgar Boatmen. In fact, the band's name comes from "Mary Jane," a song off the Boatmen's You and Your Sister LP from a decade ago. But considering the fresh sounds of the Mary Janes' debut record—a swarm of textured orchestration and stripped-down arrangements—Hoyt made the correct decision in making the Mary Janes priority number one. Her tenuously plaintive vocals cleverly splice into the pop-bordering-on-classical music, layers of mandolin, pedal steel, piano, and a haunting violin similar to the Silos' "Cuba" and Dylan's "Desire." The diversified folk/rock tone mixes Carter Family spirit, Velvet Underground strings, and Pete Buck guitar; the Mary Janes improvise their two- and three-tiered melodies as often as their ever-changing lineup (only Hoyt and fellow Boat-woman Kathy Kolata remain from MJ's original 1993 roster). While there's plenty of evidence of old-country influences on Record No. 1, the 37-year-old Hoyt wears a rock-and-roll heart on her sleeve. The record's opening cut, "Shooting Star," begins with a sparse guitar accompaniment and builds over seven minutes to a booming crescendo that's consonant with the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." On "Throwing Pennies," Hoyt borrows a riff from Guided by Voices' "Blimps Go 90," then turns the song over to a violin covered with John Cale's fingerprints. "She Flies Away" is a perfect pop song, with its provocative harmonica leading each verse straight into a harmonious sing-along chorus. These nine songs, which clock in at a tad under 40 minutes, leave you begging for more. The record's title hints that you just might get it. —Scott Holter

 
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