CD Reviews

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Princess Superstar, and more.

BILLY BRAGG AND WILCO, Mermaid Avenue II (Elektra) Summer of '98—my friends and I borrow a Volkswagen van and head to Orcas Island. The trip is characterized by two things: gray, summer drizzle and the first Billy Bragg/Wilco album, Mermaid Avenue. The van's five-disc changer, set on random, unfailingly selects tunes from the album—as if we had loaded only that CD. Woody's words, Wilco's strumming and twang, and the ages-old voices of Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy keep us company as we wind through the hills and curves of the island. The songs, which we so quickly and easily sing along with, render the rain insignificant. We feel real and alive. We feel like adults at summer camp. Upon hearing Mermaid Avenue II, the second edition of Woody Guthrie songs set to music by alt-country-turned-pop-band Wilco and England's brawlin'est folkie, Billy Bragg, I immediately began to fantasize about the weekend adventure this disc will accompany. "Aginst Th' Law" (with vocals by bluesman Corey Harris) and "All You Fascists" are rockin', rabble-rousing examples of why we love Woody's words. Today's "socially conscious" musicians can't match the wit and integrity of his socio-political ramblings. The first disc's lovely "California Stars" finds a companion here in the closer, "Someday Some Morning Sometime," another perfect cuddle-with-your-honey-in-a-sleeping-bag song. That Bragg and the Wilco boys were able to create one more album's worth of rich, folk ballads and stompin' blue-collared ear benders must surely mean we've got an incredible summer awaiting us.—Laura Learmonth

PRINCESS SUPERSTAR, Last of the Great 20th Century Composers (The Corrupt Conglomerate) Boldly going where no white chick has gone before, Concetta Kirschner resurrects electro funk and merges it with slutty attitude and slippery slang delivery on Princess Superstar's Last of the Great 20th Century Composers. Featuring guest spots from Kool Keith, John Forte, Jon Spencer, and Prince Paul, the hip-hop-meets-smartass approach isn't as confusing or as corny as it might sound. Kirschner doesn't shoot straight from the hips, but wiggles around with a lick of the lips. "I've been thinking about Kool Keith's ass for a long time now," she raps without irony on—what else?—"Kool Keith's Ass" over a gurgling electro soundtrack. Her rhymes flitter past Keith himself and the track's creepy crawly beat, while "NYC Cunt" gives a wink and a nod to ghetto tech's hyperfast nasty beats, sandwiched between acid squelchy noises usually reserved for hard trance. If you're searching for a definition to slap on Princess Superstar, you may be out of luck; there's no equivalent for this collision of hip-hop, punk rock, pop, techno, electro, and funk. It's pure anarchy. Kirschner does Debbie Harry one better on "Do It Like A Robot," only raunchier, ruder and way cooler: "Advance on mechanicals unstoppable I'm topical/Invent new robot shit like butt mixed with popsicle—What?/It's the Babygotbackical." Kirschner turns rhymes likes tricks, flipping them inside out; she repeats the phrase "I like sex" a hundred times just in case you didn't get it at first. For the disc's closer, "My Life," she lets it go slow and low—giving the listener a peek at what a more subdued and introspective Superstar might sound like. "I just wanna sing a song about my life," she sings simply, sweetly.—Tricia Romano

SPRING HEEL JACK, Oddities (Thirsty Ear) As you might guess from its modest title, this disc is nowhere near complete nor is it a proper follow-up to the recent Treader, not least because it concentrates on stuff the band recorded after their brief dalliance with the American arm of Island Records ended. This is too bad—wish they'd rescued "Double Edge Dub" from 1995's Macro Dub Infection compilation, for instance. Of course, back when they were on an American major, people thought avant-garde breakbeat dabblers John Coxon and Ashley Wales might actually make drum-and-bass America's household sound, and we all know what a pipe dream that was, right? Well, so is expecting this six-cut, 53-minute comp to cohere: that's what Spring Heel Jack make albums for, albums to buy and live with and savor. In a dance world where "intelligent" is too often synonymous for "pseudointellectual," Coxon and Wales flaunt smarts their peers would envy if they'd only get their heads away from their Monty Python reruns. So it is here, only far less consistently. You can safely skip over "2nd Piece for LaMonte Young" and "BBC Radio 3-Mixing It Bath Festival Commission-Piece For Six Turntables-Version 4," a.k.a. the disc's second half. But "Root" and "Trouble" are musique concr败 with zing, bite, wit, tang, whatever your adjective of choice for head music that stays there happens to be. And they buttress the howdy-pardner drawl of William S. Burroughs on "The Road to the Western Lands" something nice.—Michaelangelo Matos

MYRA MELFORD'S CRUSH, Dance Beyond the Color (Arabesque). "What do you mean, 'heavy'?" my classical music friend asked when I tried to tell him about this disc. And what I meant is that there are all these jazz players who blow you away with their ability, whose music is mostly about their own technique, and then there are players like Myra Melford who's coming from a much, much deeper place. Spare and baroque, mournful and exhilarated, Melford and her trio keep up an emotional intensity that wrings you out with its beauty. "Equal Grace" is like a cautious gypsy processional in three accelerating movements, with Melford on fervid harmonium; "Always Chant Could One" builds from a kind of proto-swing riff into some mad pounding. The pianist's free compositions are framed with clear melodic lines and shifting themes, with drummer Kenny Wollenson stoking a rhythmic clatter that's as powerful as any steady pulse, and electric bass innovator Stomu Takeishi creating waves of gentle but firm undertow. Sure, Melford gets some of her song titles from refrigerator magnets. But I'd say magnetic poetry has never sounded this heavy.—Mark D. Fefer

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