The 6ths
Wasps' Nests

"The 6ths' Wasps' Nests" is impossible to pronounce, and Stephin Merritt likes it that way. He's quite a cranky prankster: The impressive cast of vocalists on his latest project -- Barbara Manning, Lou Barlow, Helium's Mary Timony, Luna's Dean Wareham and Mac of Superchunk, to name just a handful -- reflects his talent for songwriting, not schmoozing. Whereas most current lo-fi artists use four-tracks to scale down already paltry ambitions, Merritt fashions intricate, layered compositions miniature in scale. Musically, he echoes (and sometimes eclipses) numerous production whizzes, including ABBA, Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach and Van Dyke Parks. Lyrically, he shares the melancholy gay spirit of Neil Tennant, but his wit and wordplay are colorful enough to make Cole Porter comparisons plausible.

Though guitar-based, these 15 songs sound like they're performed by an orchestra of toys. They follow a simple pattern: None lasts longer than four minutes and all employ verse/chorus structures to tell tales of love lost or gone awry. Travel often symbolizes change for the narrators, romantic introverts who prefer daydreams to conversation. Merritt's gift for phrasing is evident in titles like "All Dressed Up in Dreams," and his knack for pithy putdowns resides in couplets like "Now you're older/ And I'm wiser." Almost all of his rhymes are quotable; "You said you'd arrive at eight/ But you're 17 days late"; "Are we breaking up tonight/ Or can we have a pillow fight?"

Playing puppeteer, Merritt places some unlikely characters in homoerotic settings: The Bats' Robert Scott walks the piers in search of "Heaven in a Black Leather Jacket," and more perversely, Heavenly's Amelia Fletcher -- the Doris Day of indiedom -- cruises dimly lit backrooms in "Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors)." Surface rarely matches content: The latter song's shiny, surreal imagery masks some harsh commentary on gay male conformity and obsessions with looks and youth. Listening to Wasps' Nests, one can't help but wonder how Merritt's knob-twisting talents would translate to a real studio with professional singers. Making classic pop on an indie budget at a time when you can't even hear it on the radio anymore is paradoxical -- both nostalgic and futuristic.

-- Johnny Ray Huston

Various Artists
Pump Ya Fist: Hip Hop Inspired by the Black Panthers

Though flawed, Panther, the new film by Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, has the potential to educate and excite a disenchanted generation whose most recent revolutionary action has been the L.A. riots. At best, it could be the hip-hop nation's Battle of Algiers, a blueprint for organizing along community lines in order to decolonize occupied minds and neighborhoods. Pump Ya Fist -- an unofficial "soundtrack" composed of music loosely "inspired by the Black Panthers" -- has similar possibilities but falls short of the mark.

Despite the presence of some of rap's most politically conscious and influential orators, the malaise of the gangsta era has apparently sapped some of the motility out of the enlightenment movement. The kind of cultural nationalism signified by Afrocentric braids and beads and lyrical history lessons has been temporarily replaced by guns-'n'-blunts machismo and "reality bites" narratives.

The release's main problems lie in a few unlikely spokespeople: Is Tupac's "Throw Your Hands Up" and its call for fisticuffs instead of gunbusts the stuff that revolutions are made of? Is Yo-Yo the most articulate female voice in hip hop? Can we expect the youngster Ahmad to drop science beyond his years?

Like radical rap itself, Pump Ya Fist's most effective songs evolve from the hearts and minds of the self-proclaimed activists. "Ah Yeah," the most incendiary cut, booms with defiance as KRS-One proclaims from the mountaintop: "Don't call me nigga/ This MC goes for his/ Call me God/ 'Cause that's what the black man is." Extolling the virtues of African American womanhood and recasting himself as everyone from Jesus to Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X, KRS-One demonstrates how the black power legacy is manifest in hip hop. Then the Five Percent Nation of Islam represents with Grand Puba ("Black Family Day") and a resuscitated Rakim ("Shades of Black") weaving tales of self-knowledge and black unity. Indulging in a bit of reverie, Chuck D forsakes his rhyme-animal stance for a more subtle approach to remembering those who once struggled on "It's the Pride." The track lacks the urgency of past Bomb Squad-produced hits, making one long for the days when Chuck D was a rebel without pause.

Ultimately, Pump Ya Fist, too, suffers from mediocre production and mixed messages. Still, it's an admirable attempt at a meeting of the minds on the Black Panthers' enduring imprint on hip hop and popular culture.

-- Brett Johnson

The Sea and Cake
(Thrill Jockey)

On their second LP, the Chicago quartet known as the Sea and Cake display a knack for nuance, playing foppish organ washes and 10-year-old jangle chords that float like bubble-gum wrappers in a stiff breeze. It's not "easy listening," exactly, yet Nassau's appeal will lie with those persistent pop contrarians who flew in the face of alternarock by purchasing the greatest hits of Henry Mancini and Esquivel's Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. Fans of the Coctails will note that guitarist Archer Prewitt divides his time between that band and this one; from the detritus of another Chicago oddity -- the now-defunct Shrimpboat -- comes vocalist/guitarist Sam Prekop.

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