Good 2 Go
Elephant Man is dancehall's court jester, horny toad, and cheez puff. He's the softcore inside the hardcore. Good 2 Go, his third album, suffers from the usual symptoms of dancehall's attempted crossover moves. There's the awkward collaboration with U.S. hip-hop stars ("Jook Gal," featuring Bone Crusher and Lil Jon); there's the misguided stab at U.S. notions of "pop" ("So Fine"); and then, scattered throughout, there are the bangers for the headstrong. Which is a shame, because whether you're a regular worshipper at dancehall's temple of boom or not, it's the bangers you're buying this for. "Pon De River, Pon De Bank" is one of the few "pure" dancehall tracks to ever chart in America, but "Fuck U Sign," which could only chart on Mars (or Jamaica), was dancehall at its most punk rock in 2003. Produced by Ward 21, a squeal stabs your temples (or tells you that tea is done), Animal from the Muppets smacks some tablas, and Ele shouts the title chorus as if he had founded Pussy Galore—albeit a Pussy Galore that actually grooved and/or rocked. Hearing it, cranked up, you wonder why America's youth are still pissing around with Good Charlotte. (Ele probably buys his Chee-tos-colored hair dye at Hot Topic, too.) He looks like Dennis Rodman. He sounds like a cartoon car alarm. He quotes "Eye of the Tiger" and C + C Music Factory. He doesn't need to hook up with Busta Rhymes or get produced by the Neptunes to become dancehall's biggest crossover star. He just needs to stop giving a fuck what we think. JESS HARVELL
Elephant Man plays Larry's Nightclub at 9:30 p.m. Wed., Feb. 18. $25.
THE CASUAL DOTS
The Casual Dots
(Kill Rock Stars)
"Seems to me you've made your mind up anyway," sings Christina Billotte with a cascading thickness, each syllable unfolding like an old letter or a map, like something long ago creased. Behind her, a slow drum march is resolute but gentle, while two simple, repetitive guitar lines interlace, lock, and let go. "She's the Real Thing," though relatively simplistic, is sour and just awkward enough to nudge it toward the left. The song, like most of this debut, sounds both old—like the Raincoats or an outré Shirelles outtake—and new, like a one-off from the Sleater-Kinney camp. This makes sense: Guitarist/frontwoman Billotte is a veteran of Autoclave (with Mary Timony), Slant 6 (D.C.'s nü-waved grrrl-group answer to Fugazi), and, most recently, Quix*o*tic (a laid-back garage outfit). Kathi Wilcox, who also plays guitar, was in Bikini Kill and, after that, Frumpies; drummer Steve Dore played in Deep Lust with Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe. To their credit, however, the band's résumé is just that. The tracks are wonderfully varied and rarely sound self-referential. Dore's beats are often hypnotically tribal, recalling Krautrock's heyday rather than K Records', and while Billotte and Wilcox expertly blend their diagonal, dueling guitar melodies like they're playing their own private hopscotch game, there's always a bottom end heavy enough to back Dore's dark, driving beats. The result is arty, curvaceously rectilinear, and girly without (praise Shiva) too much Olympia. LAURA CASSIDY
(Gold Standard Laboratories)
The Chromatics' second album struts past similar acts on sheer audacity—neither predecessors nor contemporaries create so much raunch and basement-level fervor with such aural economy. Although they manage more melody than peers like Erase Errata or no-wave pioneers Suicide, Adam Miller, the only original member, and new recruit Nat Sahlstrom do so with a surprisingly minimalist ethic. On the best tracks, simple, plodding bass lines are chopped up by borrowed percussionist Ron Avila's scattershot drumming—indeed, much of the album's instrumentation comprises little more than raw rhythm-section grooves with only sparse guitar fragments echoing out over the barren landscape. Miller hisses, screams, and yowls like Iggy locked in solitary confinement for the duration of a bad acid trip. The collective result could be the soundtrack to either a fever-induced nightmare or a punk's basement dance party. Three-quarters of the original Chromatics are absent on Hounds, and the reduced membership is evident, especially on "Jesus" and "Monarch," which feature only strange electronic buzzing and Miller's fractured missives kept on life support by rickety, anemic drum-machine thump-and-clack. But when Avila drives the rhythm, ass shaking is nearly irresistible. GRANT BRISSEY
MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water
David Banner is inhuman. It's not just the rapper's work rate (two albums in 12 months, dozens of guest spots), it's the very sound of him. When he's not wheezing like broken-down machinery slouching toward Babylon, he's roaring like something that's been rudely disinterred from the primordial depths. On "Fuck 'Em," from the first Mississippi: The Album, he sounds for all the world like his (unintended?) namesake, the Incredible Hulk. David Banner is very human. Every second of his work seethes with barely restrained anger over the situation and station of his people: "New schools/But the black kids still ain't learnin' 'bout shit!" To combat this, he's stuffed five golden tickets into his new MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water worth $10,000 in tuition for the higher-educational institution of the recipient's choice. Sure, it's still philanthropy-via-game-show culture, a Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound, but it beats the crappy shoes and jewelry you might get from Jay-Z or G Unit. The basic writ of Dirty Water is the crunk norm: a black lagoon of bass slime and thugged-out kick drums overlaid with skipping, triple-time snares, blurts of keyboard gunk, and, oh yeah, guys yelling stuff about boobs and alcohol. Banner is smarter than your average, but for the most part, crunk is another in a long line of you-should-really-know-better thrills in pop, from gabba techno to oi! to thrash metal. Then again, Howlin' Wolf sang a lot more about being a backdoor man than being an upstanding citizen, and no one faults him for it, right? J.H.
Music journalists too often rely on love- child-of-so-and-so comparisons—insisting, for example, that the band to hand must be the illegitimate (and impossible) child of Rufus Wainwright, Pulp, and the Flaming Lips. As it turns out, Liverpool's Mountaineers have family trees interesting enough that it isn't necessary to invent their parentage. The most obvious clue comes at the end of the appropriately titled "Backgrounds," when a swift, silly polka punctuates a thrown-together swirl of Eastern Bloc big brass, shortwave-radio transmissions, mumbled propaganda, and an uplifting chorus that could be mistaken for something by NoCal's Grandaddy. Welsh-born singer/guitarist Alex Germains' grandparents were members of a traveling circus, while fellow Wales natives and lo-fi programmers/multi-instrumentalists Ceri James and Tomas Kelar are, respectively, the offspring of a Viennese pianist and a well-known Gypsy singer from the Czech Republic. Where the hip-hop beats come from I haven't a clue, but they're certainly at home alongside Mountaineers' jangling acoustic guitars and elliptical pop outlines. Messy Century's album opener and single, "Ripen," is a cut-and-paste acoustic/electric party starter familiar to listeners of KEXP, while closer "Silent Dues" is a relatively less-tweaked (though still thoroughly modern), quiet love song that really does make one wonder if Wainwright isn't a shoestring cousin. In between, the Mountaineers manage just about everything else; check "Bom Bom" for industrial Kraut references and "Want to Write You" for Beatles allegiance. Though pleasingly eclectic, the bloodlines—and the pop payoffs—are thoroughly legitimate. L.C.
Pop Ambient 2004
The fourth in Kompakt's yearly Pop Ambient series is the perfect definition of "changing same." On the surface, only the track listing separates it from 2003's edition. Or 2002's. Or . . . well, you get the idea. "Boredom" and "repetition" are not the scare words here they'd be in most other contexts. The game is given away in the title: pulsing chords, disintegrating melodies, beats so muffled they sound as if they are individually packed in cotton balls. Nothing here is so garish as to be confused with a song, and there's certainly nothing dance-floor ready. The "Pop" in the title, then, is trickier to unpack. But, if you listen closely (something the music resists, arguably), you'll hear faint traces of '80s synth pop . . . stripped of rhythm, vocals, and overt structure. There are chugging bass lines plucked from the Tubeway Army and thinned until they glow incandescently. There are stabs from Trevor Horn productions that sound as if they have been steamed until they go flimsy as wet paper. And, again and again, there are daubs of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's watercolor synths. But these are all reference points the '04 hipster can deal with. Because, as much as anything, Pop Ambient (the brand) is a revival of (gulp!) New Age. While most chill-out aims for the worst kind of New Age revival— the banal soundtrack to yuppie lofts and coffee bars furnished via the Heimat diktats of Wallpaper magazine—Kompakt are attempting to restore some kind of quiet dignity to music for contemplation and reverie. Avant chill-out, anyone? J.H.
Punk Statik Paranoia
Nü-romantics? Flock of Seagoons? Apart from Nicole Richie's fashionably tattered Deadsy tee on The Simple Life, this odd, new-wave-influenced subgenre of rap-metal hasn't exactly captured the zeitgeist. Given that the intended American Jock Metal demo is comprised of 80 percent, well, jocks, 19 percent bored-with-Manson mall Goths, and 1 percent jockish mall Goths who kinda like that Robert Smith guy who sings on the new Blink 182 album, go figure. It took just the right mix of '80s hairspray nostalgia and Korn kred to help L.A. quintet Orgy score a tiny Billboard blip in '98 with their much-maligned, way heavy cover of New Order's "Blue Monday." Too bad much of Orgy's catalog bulges with their contemporaries' aimless machismo; their doomy, somewhat literate, wall-of-synth-pedals furnace blast sounds more than a little belabored on Paranoia. Almost comically lanky vocalist Jay Gordon makes the mistake of buffering his sultry slurs and purrs with primal, gotta-poop grunts. The players' overt, post-Nine Inch Nails industrial attack drowns the few flourishes "Beautiful Disgrace" and "Ashamed" have to offer. Only on "Make Up Your Mind"—which wisely introduces a lush, acoustic strum behind the gritty, detuned chorus—and the dizzying "Inside My Head" does the band appear to be pushing its limitations. Which is confounding, because now would be the perfect time for Orgy to distance themselves from their dubious pimp-metal origins by taking a grand, hedonistic gamble. ANDREW BONAZELLI
The College Dropout
On TRL the other night, Kanye West ambled onstage in a big red pimp coat, mumbling along to "Slow Jamz," his current single with Twista. He looked for all the world like the pokey little puppy who had just wandered into the headlights. From the title on down, The College Dropout is a decidedly odd fit for the rump-of-bling-skin Roc. (Until, of course, you remember that Kanye-the-producer partially engineered Mr. Dr. Jigga's last great comeback in 2001's The Blueprint, and has defined the label's sound—you don't have to call it retro if the term scares you—ever since.) He calls himself "the first rapper with a backpack and a Benz," but while I have no doubt his advance bought him the Benz, he sounds about as natural talking about crack sales as the Biz. (And when he threatens to pull out his ratchet, it might as well be a Super Soaker.) So Mos Def and Freeway appear on "Two Words," which features what might be rap's first-ever violin solo. And the production is an idealized version of "The Golden Age" (yawn) and the current playa hegemony (double yawn). (West samples, for one thing, a device that at this point might as well be a 12-bar blues lick.) It's not the masterpiece everyone was expecting (wunderkinder have a lot to live up to), but at its heights (like the mix of jittery piano, jumping bongos, keening violins, hand claps, Roger Troutman vocoder breakdown, and testimonials about the benefits of "Kanye's Workout Plan" on "Breathe In, Breathe Out"), he nearly justifies the hype. J.H.
Sometimes you really can go home again. Like their fellow Leodensian class-of-'77 punk grads Gang of Four, the Mekons understood even then that the social was political—and on this reworking of their old material, they prove that some things never change. Punk Rock demonstrates that while their music might have moved on (or in some cases, is just as shambolic as it was then), life in many ways stands still. That makes pieces like "Corporal Chalkie," about gays in the Army, or "Work All Week," concerning the average young couple affording marriage, as relevant now as they were then; "Teeth" sounds slicker, and "Lonely and Wet" has a touch more gloss, but the emotional heart remains as raw and open as ever. About all that's missing is a version of "Where Were You?"—one of the best songs to come out of the era. Though they're more cohesive now than when they began, the Mekons have never followed any approved path, meandering wherever the spirit has led them, including all the way back to their roots. Re-creating yourself with the accrued knowledge of time is a dangerous business. But the Mekons don't turn themselves into a cartoon; instead, this comes across as an acknowledgement that even when they could barely play, they were onto something good. CHRIS NICKSON