CD Reviews

THE BETA BAND

Heroes to Zeros

(Astralwerks)

The Beta Band have the worst song endings since Luscious Jackson. The same ones, too, both of them: a single, mildly ringing chord, delivered out of nowhere with even less authority than drama, and a simple, abrupt halt. Such lazy exit strategies seem natural for L.J., who had the depth of a tortilla chip and an air of psychic inertia so vicious that you couldn't help but marvel at their ability to start songs, let alone finish them. But the fizzlefest tainted Jackson's live shows alone; someone (producer? engineer? janitor? Beastie Boys?) had the presence of mind to fade them in the studio. Not so for the Betas, a puzzling lapse in light of the fact that Heroes to Zeros—the Edinburgh-based quartet's third album and their first since 2001's Hot Shots II—crackles with spectacularly crafty arrangements. (Clarification: For once, they don't sound like Dire Straits remixed by Beck.) Album opener "Assessment," a gently rolling rocker, culminates with a concise but convoluted freak-out driven by guitarist-vocalist Steve Mason's sticky-fingered rhythm and a wall of horns that simultaneously evokes Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and "Tonight," by Supergrass. The interlude is so packed with stop-start surprises and whimsical flourishes that its anticlimactic ending only makes you wince a little bit. Same for "Liquid Bird," a dubby micro-epic that runs on Mason's gated-delay guitar mindfuck and drummer Robin Jones' fluid variable-tempo breakbeats. As with most of the album, the song's meaty means justify its clunky end: Heroes maintains such a ferocious level of synaptic activity that you can't help but wonder if the Betas are simply saving the compelling conclusions for touring time, like Luscious Jackson in reverse. ROD SMITH

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT

Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole

(Querbes Service)

After opening Rufus Wainwright's Moore Theatre performance last winter with her sometimes smoldering, sometimes shy folk/pop cabaret songs, Martha Wainwright spent the rest of the evening accompanying her brother on acoustic guitar and singing her heart out—on backups. She gripped the mike stand emphatically as she harmonized, and bent as if submitting to the songs. Martha Wainwright the solo opener was no different than Martha Wainwright, stage left. Behind, in front, on the side—that's irrelevant. To sing is the thing. Like her brother's, her songwriting style both acknowledges her famous folkie parents (Loudon the III and Kate McGarrigle) and dis­regards them, making way for modern, irreverent, loose-lipped torch songs where "love" is not the only four-letter word. Check the title track of this self- released EP. Over an acoustic guitar and sparse, slow keyboard lines, Wainwright repeats, "Oh, you bloody mother fucking asshole," with sweet, throaty determination, turning it into an odd little pet name. Borrowing "Pretty Good Day" from her father's catalog, her expressive, upside-down hopefulness is backed by a quiet, twangy pull. Wainwright told the UK's Guardian Unlimited that she tried acting, for no other reason than to differentiate herself from her family, but found it unsatisfying; and while she's yet to find commercial success in the music business on par with that of the rest of her family, it seems inevitable. "I am comfortable/In the corner/Whispering, 'Please,'" she sings on "I Will Internalize." Yes, but it's obvious that she's also quite comfortable bleeding those pipes under the spotlight. LAURA CASSIDY

Martha Wainwright plays Chop Suey at 8 p.m. Mon., July 5. $8.

CALIFONE CALEXICO

Heron King Blues Convict Pool EP

(Thrill Jockey) (Quarterstick/Touch & Go)

Califone and Calexico have little in common—except that each is an eclectically inclined, oft-augmented duo with roots in '90s alt-rock that records for a Chicago indie label, and either would make a dandy opener for Wilco. Califone hail from Chicago; Calexico live in Tucson. Califone's name comes from a manufacturer of record players that last forever but sound like shit—not unlike Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Calexico derive their nombre de guerra from a hamlet on the California side of the Mexican border, just north of Mexicali. Calexico founders Joey Burns and John Convertino—both ex-members of Giant Sand and Los Angeles transplants—have never actually inhabited their namesake, but the sobriquet reflects their ongoing (four albums, plus a slew of singles and EPs) exploration of amicable culture clash far more eloquently than "Tucson" ever could. Not that Calexico limit their peregrinations to the U.S./Mexico interface. The Convict Pool EP, a six-track whistle-stop between last year's Feast of Wire and their next gran trabajo, finds Burns and Covertino playing a mighty game of pin-the-tail-on-the-map with the instrumental "Praskovia," integrating Eastern European melodies, French chanson, Tex-Mex horns, and incendiary surf guitar into a deliciously vertiginous whole. Califone's sixth album, Heron King Blues, splays with equal success but different orientation. Ben Massarella and Tim Rutili—both late of Red Red Meat—concoct an admixture straight out of The Wire: fractured funkadelia, twisted Fahey-esque folk, and Dead-like instrumental interplay all frolic in these bitches' frothy brews. Problem is, they need a bigger cauldron: Even at seven minutes–plus, "Sawtooth Song a Cheater's Song," a banjo-driven mini-epic that starts on the same back porch as the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water" and ends in para-Yoruba sex-cult ecstasy, seems far shorter than its possibilities allow

for. But that's why God invented shows. R.S.

Calexico play the Showbox with Mum, Why?, and Miss Ohios at 9 p.m. Fri., July 2. $13 adv./$15.

CAETANO VELOSO

A Foreign Sound

(Nonesuch)

The covers album is a thoughtful way for an established rock artist to tell their audience, "The muse has deserted me," or, "I'm trying to quickly fulfill a contract," or, "I give up," but Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso is too given to critique to make A Foreign Sound into one of those. This collection of standards of "American popular song" slyly implicates them both as agents of American imperialism, underscoring the vexed but fascinated relationship he's always had with the cultural products of the U.S.A. He even adds a few zings for new listeners via uncompromising covers of DNA's no-wave "Detached" and Morris Albert's schlock-horror "Feelings." Which is great, really, but oh gawd, the singing! Compared to Veloso's '60s–'70s heyday, it's grotesquely careful, nasal, and fey, with range and emphasis gone AWOL. Sometimes Veloso's struggle to remain singerly adds emotional ballast where it's needed—the a cappella "Love for Sale" is as sordid as Madame George reciting an aria with clenched fists—but usually he sounds too detached to care much. And though in leaner days he could rock on out with the best of them, Veloso now not only limps all around the eccentric meter of Dylan's "It's All Right, Ma" but blurts out "chocolate chip cookie" in the Talking Heads' "(Nothing but) Flowers" so embarrassingly desperately, he might as well be a Let's Make a Deal contestant calling out for door number three. Stick to the Polydor Brazil compilation A Arte de Caetano Veloso and the 2002 memoir Tropical Truths, now out in paperback, if you're curious about Veloso's considerable gifts. MICHAEL DADDINO

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Suck My Deck: Mixed by Ivan Smagghe

(Bugged Out, U.K.)

If electroclash at its worst looks and sounds like an unnecessary sacrifice of dance music's best qualities for the sake of rock and roll glamour, then Black Strobe's Ivan Smagghe is a bit like a Trojan Horse wheeled inside of rock's city walls. From its naughty title to its cover shot of Ivan the Rock God, Smagghe's latest mix-disc (his third in little over a year) bears all the outward hallmarks of belonging to the current trend of eclectic, songcentric, and rock-friendly DJ mixes: see Playgroup, Ladytron, Erland Oye, etc. Instead, Suck My Deck is Smagghe's most monomaniacally minimal and "tracky" release yet, determinedly charting a narrow course between rigid electro and seething acid house, and avoiding anything quite so garish as vocals almost entirely. This feels like a line in the sand at times: Anyone who doesn't enjoy subjecting their body to the groove is unlikely to respond to this. But it's rigorously abrasive fun, streamlining the "dark side" tendency of any number of scenes, although a mix that takes the camp out of acid house, the reggae out of bleep and bass, the dazzle out of French house, and the rock glamour out of electroclash is vulnerable to charges of excessive furrow-browed seriousness. What renders Suck My Deck compulsive is the palpable sleaziness of its grooves, which oozes out of every selection in spite of its defiant antihumanism. At its propulsive, fidgety best, such as Phonique's glowering "The Red Dress," Smagghe's mix offers up a definition of "plugged in" that's at once kinky and slightly disturbing. TIM FINNEY

VETIVER

Vetiver

(DiCristina)

Considering this San Francisco band's sound, Vetiver—a thin, tall East Indian grass—is an apt name. Their first release gathers disorienting folk songs so wispy they could be crushed by a child's foot or blown away by a slight breeze at any minute. Instead, vocalist Andy Cabic, guitarist/vocalist Devendra Banhart, cellist Alissa Anderson, and violinist Jim Gaylord stay the faltering course and provide for a pleasant, meandering journey along the way. Escape via automobile is a prevalent theme here: "Oh, papa/I'm takin' the car/You won't mind me missin' at all" ("Oh Papa"), and "Without a song I left the city/Borrowed a car with no radio/Gone before the sun had a chance to shine/The freeway weighed on my mind" ("Without a Song"). Similarly, Vetiver seems like a departure from somewhere and an arrival somewhere else, with a lot of stops to pick up temporary passengers: Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval croons hushedly on "Angel's Share," and My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O'Ciosoig taps "Luna Sea" and lightly thuds the toms on the closer, "On a Nerve." All of it rides spare production (from Thom Monahan and Cabic) that the material fits like a skeleton. GRANT BRISSEY

RAMMELLZEE

Bi-Conicals of the Rammellzee

(Gomma)

Rammellzee is hip-hop's Captain Beefheart. A gruff-voiced old soul who lives in an alternate universe where sound is king and words lose their meaning, he's a progenitor of everything weird in rap music. The MC and graffiti artist spent the early '80s helping to define street culture, working with people like Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and appearing in the landmark film Wild Style. The Basquiat-produced single, "Beat Bop" (1983), on which Ram and partner K-Rob paraded around a Kool Keith–sized collection of alter egos, stretched the toddler genre to its anything-goes limits. But like Don Van Vliet, Rammellzee retreated into the visual art world, concentrating on paintings, sculptures, and costumes that express his self-created "Gothic Futurist" philosophy. Two decades later, Rammellzee's dark, intense solo debut proves that the man remains a lunatic visionary. Leadoff track "Do We Have to Show a Resume?" is what the Creature from the Black Lagoon's rap record might sound like: muddy bass and frenetic breakbeats punctuated by disembodied screams and cell phone rings, over which Ram spews venom in an echo-laden roar. Throughout the album, he comes across as a time- and space-traveling street-corner crank prophet, his lyrics making little sense on every song save the old-school party jam "Pay the Rent" (produced by Jaws from Quannum's Poets of Rhythm, and featuring Wild Style vet Shockdell). But the force of Rammellzee's menacing growl tells you all you need to know. AMY PHILLIPS

BATTLES

EP C

(Arclight)

1812. Little Big Horn. Bull Run. The Network Stars. Don Caballero's final tour. Battles are when pretenses drop and hearts burst with ideas and blood. Battles are ex–Don Cab guitarist Ian Williams, ex-Helmet/current Tomahawk drummer John Stanier, Brooklyn avant-guard Tyondai Braxton, and David "Lil' Ian Williams" Konopka. EP C contrasts instrumental prowess, time changes, and lengthy songs—prog for the almost-hot, aka math-rock—with chiming carousel hooks that loop upon themselves, never escaping their gravitational orbit. For those familiar with Don Caballero, EP C is a continuation of the band's final and best album, American Don. Honky-futuristic jazz-funk dearly cradles melodies shaken from Cracker Jack boxes while thousands of Little League cleats pitter-patter on waxed linoleum. With American Don, Don Cab became Williams' band as his delay-pedaled riffs and hammered strings overcame the deliberate fractals of Damon Che's drum kit. Williams' Faulknerian (as the Ivy Leaguer in him would undoubtedly appreciate) picking re-emerges in Battles, only slightly shattered by Braxton's own pedal pranks and Stanier's shockingly precise drumming. While Stanier's work in Helmet recalled John Bonham, on EP C he repeatedly yanks his sticks from the snare to the hi hat like a marionette. Opener "B + T" cockily constricts then elongates an ice-cream-truck melody, and "Hi/Lo" confers crunk a doctorate, slowing its centerless bounce. It's white music and all, sure, but motherfuckers move. YANCEY STRICKLER

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Greensleeves Rhythm Album #50: Marmalade

(Greensleeves)

The version is the lingua franca of all dance music. To "version," in Jamaican parlance, is to reuse the same basic backing track with a new vocal and/or song on top. And with dancehall's recent American surge, even "rhythm albums" like Greensleeves'—discs devoted entirely to variations on an oft-narrow theme that would seem on the surface like exercises in pure monotony—are starting to catch on. Created by Donovan "Vendetta" Bennett and Kingston radio DJ Wayne, the "Marmalade" rhythm is less generic in the sense that it's interchangeable rather than that it sums up its genre. Over tablas, hand claps, stick percussion, and a bass part that slams on three beats and then pauses for breath, a nodding organ alternating with a pinched little keyboard on the vaguely Middle Eastern preset plays the same couple of notes. The rhythm coils and springs constantly, and its internal tension is down-and-dirty enough to bring out the unblinkingly randy side of nearly every participant, particularly Lady Saw, whose "Mr. Long John" is self-explanatory ("Don't make me beg, please"), and Tanya Stephens, whose "Pop It Off" is not about pull tabs. Thing is, the Marmalade beat is so elastic and brings out such elasticity in the people riding it that it actually holds your attention for an hour. The exception, oddly enough, is current Kingston top dog Vybz Kartel, who apparently liked it so much he reworked it twice; both "Tattoo" and "Cut Yuh Speed" are good, but they'd sound extremely similar even if their backing tracks were different. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

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