CD Reviews

GORGE TRIO

Open Mouth, O Wisp

(Skin Graft)

Piano! How refreshing! It turns out that Ed Rodriguez's little doodle of harmony on the opening track of the latest from San Francisco–Minneapolis binaries Gorge Trio is the first of many small surprises. The out-jazz-rock trio's third release is rife with sketches as evocative as unfinished conversational fragments. Chad Popple's vibes on "The Age of Almost Living" play as an answer to John Dieterich's whining guitar on "Paris Trap," while Rodriguez's snare echoes the synthetic beats found on "The Lurker." Open Mouth is a playful listen, which you might expect since Dieterich's principal group, Deerhoof, has built a Candyland cottage industry of artful, messy punk rock. Here, Dieterich's guitar indulges in fuzzbox feedback, yet often skips a beat or two in order to accommodate Rodriguez's polyrhythmic tones ("Plum Sign"); "Intimate Addition" could score a slapstick cartoon. Dieterich weaves his jagged guitar like pipe-cleaner spirals, relaxing into "Roof Halves and Dew Drop Gems" by tickling Sun City Girls–style mono-riffs, then teasing them into blooming feedback. Gorge Trio's 22 instrumental vignettes appear assembled as haphazardly as their acid Mad Lib song titles, and like an ad hoc score to a Hal Hartley flick, Gorge Trio can be chatty. But they'll slow down just enough and let the picture do the talking. KATE SILVER

Gorge Trio play the Hideaway with Cheval de Frise and Point Line Plane at 9 p.m. Fri., July 16. $6.

JOEL R.L. PHELPS AND THE DOWNER TRIO

Customs

(Moneyshot)

Joel Phelps' first full-length since 1999's Blackbird isn't a comeback—his just isn't that kind of career—but it is a welcome return to active duty, if not a welcoming one. For many, the deal will be sealed or broken by Phelps' voice. Like Mark Eitzel's, it moves from a thick whisper to an elastic wail, often midphrase. This approach isn't well served by the full-metal-jacketed "Be First!" and "Shame," songs that markedly resemble Phelps' old band Silkworm, which he left, tour-weary, after 1994's Libertine. Customs is far more distinctive when longtime rhythm section William Herzog and Robert Mercer supply color rather than propulsion. "From Up Here" couches a soldier's letter home ("Remember me to no one, says I wouldn't fight") in plush, thrumming bass, a jarring steel-drum sound, and several strata of loosely synched guitars. The acoustic "Lamplighter" and "Darla Don't You Go" are less inventive but leave plenty of room for Phelps' contents-under-pressure vocal dynamics. And his largely grim narratives: That same soldier shows up twice more, leaving home on "Mother I Am Missing" and enduring basic training in "What the Sgt. Said." Everyone sung about here is struggling, either to get out or just not go under; a few songs, notably "North and Annie-O," suggest that the effort isn't futile, but it's all taken back by the closing "When Will We Bury You?" In this traditionally structured folk dirge, every Q receives the same A: "They're comin' for you, boy." No wonder Phelps keeps a low profile between records. FRANKLIN BRUNO

ROBERT ROTH

Someone, Somewhere . . . 

(Pattern 25)

Live Aid 2015. CBGB is an IKEA now. Tom Verlaine, Debbie Harry, David Byrne, and John Doe gather for one last nostalgic hand-in-hand on the Supremes' "Reflections," a lamentation over the death of downtown. But "downtown" as a state of mind lives on with Robert Roth, who has ideas about do-it-yourself culture that don't involve furniture assembly. Roth plays all of the instruments on his solo debut, Someone, Somewhere . . . , from effervescent Farfisa and Hammond organ to smog-thick guitar. "Walk All Over Downtown Life" enjoys one last drag before the smoking ban hits Seattle, anxious to preserve what's left of bohemia before its price gets jacked up; elsewhere, he eavesdrops on a dive bar roundtable reminiscence of the way things used to be ("Laugh Till We Cry"), recalls "Yesterday's War" fought against the everyday world, and makes light of last year's New York blackout. "At least we have the moonlight," he drawls. The same moon illuminates "Vicki and Jacky" a couple sharing a streetlight lip-lock to the tune of Roth's Television-inspired guitar. Roth may be a by-product of the Pacific Northwest (his old combo Truly featured former members of Screaming Trees and Soundgarden), but Someone, Somewhere . . . is pure New York rock. KATE SILVER

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Ragga Ragga Ragga! 2004

(Greensleeves)

Dancehall label Greensleeves' Ragga Ragga Ragga! series began as cheap samplers for First Worlders to sort through the annual flood of Jamaican 45s. But four years ago, the label began packaging its "Rhythm Album" series for audiences beyond the DJ market, setting the stage for dancehall's global pop crossover. Since then, Ragga Ragga Ragga!—and its competitor, VP's Reggae Gold—has sounded less like K-Tel and more like a preview of urban music's future. That future sounds like a Passa Passa street party reaching its peak. Credit Elephant Man with snuffing the fires and putting the dance back in the hall, but per its song titles, Ragga! 2004's quickening tempos are, as one Tony Matterhorn & Richie Feelings cut puts it, "All About Dancing." Rising star Feelings' "Dancin' Class, Part 2" could be Kingston's quirky answer to Chicago's "Cha Cha Swing." More than at any time in recent memory, Bounty Killer's grim ghettology ("Badman Order") sounds out of place. Instead, the irrepressible Vybz Kartel—Elephant Man with less energy and funnier lines—gets no less than five new riddims (JA parlance for "rhythms") to work, including "Blackout," "Mad Guitar," and "Cool Fusion." Previous Ragga! comps introduced non-Jamaicans to the "Diwali," "Egyptian," and "Coolie Dance" riddims, all of which quickly became fodder for First World one-hit wonders (Lumidee who?). This year's model is the "Aollo!! Aollo!!" riddim, a brilliantly bizarre mix of bhangra tablas, salsa timbales, Anglo-punk "Oi!"s, and Italian accordions. The track is called "Buddy Nuh Done," the ubiquitous Vybz is a Native Tongues fan, and you've just heard the sound of next summer. JEFF CHANG

PHOENIX

Alphabetical

(Astralwerks)

Paris band Phoneix's "If I Ever Feel Better" was one of 2000's more unexpected singles, shoehorning '70s soft rock into French disco's glass slipper. It was Steely Dan house: slick, almost cynical, yet utterly affecting—post-rave gone MOR. Four years later (the French move at a leisurely pace), Phoenix return with an album that finds them growing into their premature maturity, scaling back the sonic largesse of 2000's United. The tight grooves and weedy singing on Alphabetical will have everyone reaching for the "Neptunes remixing [indie band X]" comparisons, but it's actually way more Dr. Dre. (Seriously, check the insistent downbeat and throbbing pizzicato is-it-a-guitar-or-bass line on "Run, Run, Run.") "Everything Is Everything" is "If I Ever Feel Better Redux"; instead of looping and filtering a classic disco record, they "play" a new one with the finesse of a hack casino lounge band. "Tight" is the key word with Alphabetical. I miss some of the woolly genre exercises from the first album (no Vocoder-driven hoedowns here), its charming, juvenile displays of mastery. They play it so straight that its (very brief) 37-minute playing time glides right by, nothing silly or sad or smart sticking in the ear. Phoenix sketch beautiful contours, but there's no devil in their details. JESS HARVELL

TANYA STEPHENS

Gangsta Blues

(VP)

Tanya Stephens tells us on this album's first song that she wants to take us backward in time, "further back than your granddad's hairline," to a golden age of dancehall reggae, when artists were better because they were poor, songs were all deep and singers could all sing, and no one went around imitating Bob Marley or refusing to sign autographs. But it's hard to think of her as a conservative stick-in-the-mud when she launches into a track like "Boom Wuk," wherein she explains to her boyfriend that what is truly great about him is his big dick, or "Good Ride," which is not about bicycles, or the spoken-word piece about the perfect date with the perfect guy ending in tears because he only lasts 10 seconds in bed. In fact, it's hard to pigeonhole Stephens at all. One minute she's doing an a cappella arrangement of "I Am Woman," the next she's loading her man's guns in the Spragga Benz duet "Gangsta Gal." Sometimes she sings beautifully (the dubby slow-burner "Can't Breathe"), sometimes she toasts with the hotness ("We a Lead"); in one song she steals another woman's man, only to tire of him in the next song and ask her rival to "Tek Him Back." Wanting to have it all occasionally leads to some strange choices (e.g., a duet with Marley impersonator Wyclef Jean), but Stephens makes good on all her rockist bravado with songwriting skill, fire in the belly, horny good humor, and insane ambition. MATT CIBULA

AVRIL LAVIGNE

Under My Skin

(Arista)

Worried that Britney and Christina's lipshtick lesbi-antics are turning your innocent little girl into a two-dolla ho? Thank heavens for Avril, the most asexual pop-rock teen queen of the new millennium. She doesn't just subscribe to the "what part of 'no' don't you understand" approach; nah, girl likes to taunt her would-be paramours. "Did you think that I was gonna give it up to you . . . ," Lavigne asks in "Don't Tell Me," Skin's first single, " . . . this TI-EEEEI-EEEEIME?!" (Chalkboard-scraping vocal quirks = par for the course.) Interestingly, the track isn't really about abstinence so much as mind- numbingly vague ennui. The terse kiss-off spreads thinly across the entirety of Skin; she doesn't want anyone telling her what to do ("Freak Out") and prefers, in lieu of authority figures and boys, to just be alone (the ironically titled "Together"). And what does she do in those rare, lucky instances? Focus your webcam on the 19-year-old's bedroom and you'll find her . . . cleaning it ("He Wasn't"). All of this would make for a fascinating Ally Sheedy role but translates into a less-than-compelling pop personality. At least Lavigne ditched songwriting cohorts the Matrix—who went on to famously defang Liz Phair—for Ben Moody (formerly of Evanescence) and Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace; their brooding alterna-angst clang is actually a big improvement from the schizophrenic Lilith Fair bleating on debut Let Go. Too bad they didn't ask the main attraction, "So . . . what do you do?" ANDREW BONAZELLI

DE LA SOUL

De La Mix Tape: Remixes, Rarities & Classics

Live at Tramps NYC 1996

(both Tommy Boy/Rhino)

Hey Nineteen, here's what they used to call hip-hop. You don't remember De La Soul? They were the '90s answer to Prince—well, not the sex or the clothes, but certainly the pursuit of truth, complexity, and groove. And just like Prince, they dropped so many lost gems that fans went bananas keeping track. Unfortunately, De La Mix Tape, which isn't really a mixtape, is no Black Album, either. (Prince's, not Jay-Z's, Nineteen.) Bootleggers and eBay sellers got off easy. A third of the tracks are already on their albums, the remixes are redundant, and the rest are uncollected tracks from other artists' albums. Everything that has made De La so soulful—Posdnous' riddling puns, Trugoy's soft-hearted defiance, Mase's fist-pumping attitude—is here, but who cares? For buddy-loving completists and unknowing shorties alike, it's easily the least essential De La Soul record ever released. The real deal is Live at Tramps, a 1996 document so true-school it flaunts the parked-under-the-bassbin lo fidelity and infectious do-it-fluid energy of pre–"Rapper's Delight" Furious Five or Cold Crush Brothers cassettes. On "Stakes Is High," "Shwingalokate," and "Supa Emcees," they positioned themselves as mid-'90s counterpoint to the Bad Boy/Death Row pop axis. Not that it was all love in the underground: Common steps onstage to rock his Ice Cube–baiting "The Bitch in Yoo," with the Plugs Three snarling at his back, a real rarity. Throughout the set, the crew kicks new lyrics and passes the mike to Native Tongues like Mos Def and the Jungle Brothers, the shit hits the fans, and they scream, "We came to party!" JEFF CHANG

VELVET REVOLVER

Contraband

(RCA)

You were expecting maybe Led Zeppelin V? Let's recap: Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N' Roses spent a great deal of their time in the sun sucking, albeit in an almost incomparably entertaining fashion. Still, which of the following will history remember: Scott Weiland's countless escapades with the H, or his megaphone, Morrison Lite drug metaphors, and latter-day Androgyny 101 makeover? GN'R's rare moments of compact, vitriolic greatness ("It's So Easy," "You Could Be Mine"), or their bloated power ballad video trilogy starring Stephanie Seymour, Riki Rachtman, and fucking CGI dolphins? For what it's worth, Velvet Revolver attempt to rewrite "Mr. Brownstone" for 80 percent of this debut, an approach that wisely exploits each member's assets. Things begin promisingly enough with sweaty opening salvo "Sucker Train Blues" and "Do It for the Kids"; Weiland's melodic aptitude has always been underrated, and the ex-Gunners rhythm section—bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum—thrust like it's '87. The one casualty, surprisingly, is Slash, once the signature lead guitarist of his day, now reduced to post-grunge rent-a-riffs and the too-occasional sparkling solo ("Slither"). Of course, Weiland goes on and on about getting wasted, hitting bottom, and scraping himself out of the gutter, then stops to remind us in "Headspace" that the media are "fuckers" for harping on the drug thing. The arpeggios, wah, and talkbox are all here, as you might expect, but it's just not as gripping as Appetite or the Illusion records. Why? Believe it or not, Axl was deeper—and even more fascinatingly fucked up—than Weiland. ANDREW BONAZELLI

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