"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
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
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.
The Sea and Cake are less relentlessly larkish than Shrimpboat, but several songs still pine for lost youth, or, more precisely, adolescence. Recorded at Brad Wood's Idful Studios, "Nature Boy" (an original tune, not the Nat Cole chestnut) kicks off the album with an agitated rhythm supported by sprightly organ lines reminiscent of Jerry Harrison's playing in the Modern Lovers. "The Cantina" is a similarly skittish number that proves not everybody's forgotten the Feelies. "A Man Who Never Sees a Pretty Girl That He Doesn't Love Her a Little" is an echo-laden lite-funk breakdown that would be pointless, were it not so darned catchy. Finally, if Nassau were to spawn a single, "Lamont's Lament" would be it, featuring as it does Prekop's seriocomic soul shouts and drummer John McEntire's rolling loco-motion. There isn't an island riddim in the bunch on this curiously titled album, yet the Sea and Cake's Nassau is a place of relaxation, an oasis of relative serenity offered up to the children of urban sprawl.
-- James Sullivan
Back to the Grotto
Chico's Mother Hips literally go Back to the Grotto, giving their independently produced 1992 debut a second spin. Quirky and eclectic but still thoroughly accessible, the band caught the eye of Rick Rubin, who signed them to his American label, home of acts as diverse as Johnny Cash, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Black Crowes. Now Grotto's mix of retro rock and roll, blues, country, rockabilly and Beatlesque harmonies has been remastered for a cleaner, broader sound. The result is a filling musical stew that smells of the Dead (a band the Hips claim to have "never been into at all"), Pink Floyd, the Black Crowes, Cracker and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Listen hard and even the sounds of Schoolhouse Rock can be strained from the mix.
Making sudden changes in tempo and styles, this quartet of diverse and talented musicians refuses to be hemmed in by any rules or genres. The result is akin to going on a first date with a person who's trying so hard to impress you that he acts out every pleasing personality trait he can think of: It leaves you with a favorable impression but unsure of who you've just met. As vocalist Tim Bluhm sings on "Chum," "I don't even know who I'm singing this to/ But I know it's kind of strange." Definitely worth a second date, though, which is already recorded and set for release this summer.
-- Laura Rohde
Top 40 Hits
Formed in 1988 as a grindcore parody, A.C. stands for, well, let's just say it rhymes with "banal stunt." But taking offense at this deliberately incorrect Massachusetts quartet is just taking their bait: They've made a quasi-career out of confrontational performances and ludicrously obnoxious recordings (one seven-inch noisefest allegedly contains 5,643 "songs"). Using only gravel-gargling vocals, drums and guitars (they insist only poseurs play bass), their shtick is often diabolically amusing, but not for the timid. As the title suggests, A.C.'s third CD features a mere 40 tracks -- most less than a minute long -- and disciples of extremists like the Boredoms, Naked City and Napalm Death should find it entertaining. Inscrutable blasts of noise with nutty titles abound ("Living Colour Is My Favorite Black Metal Band," "Old Lady Across the Hall With No Life"), and you'll never hear Elton John or Rupert Holmes covered quite like they are here. High points include an oi version of Stayin' Alive and a crunching take on "American Woman" that makes the Butthole Surfers' rendition sound sedate; some sophomoric/homophobic lyrics serve as the nadir. Over 39 minutes of straight A.C. can be a challenging listening experience, but, um, as a source of really short songs for compilation tapes, Top 40 Hits is ideal.
-- Mike Rowell
A.C. plays Fri, May 5, at Hanno's in S.F. (982-1837); on Sat, May 6, they play an unplugged afternoon show at Bottom of the Hill in S.F. (621-4455), then an evening gig at 924 Gilman in Berkeley (510-524-8180).