Recordings

Wilco
"A.M."
(Sire/Reprise)

For years, St. Louis' Uncle Tupelo was the rootsiest of alternative bands. The group treated songs the way heartland farmers treat crops -- mowin' 'em down with a thresher one week, carefully planting seeds the next. From the lamentably scorched earth of U.T. comes Wilco, which is really Jeff Tweedy and his supporting cast, minus queasy former collaborator Jay Farrar. The new moniker Tweedy et al. adopted is appropriate enough: "Wilco" is radio-biz lingo for "will comply," and their debut bends over backward to meet mid-tempo expectations. Songs like "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" and "Casino Queen" are solid, but they're nothing we haven't heard before in the catalogues of Tom Petty, late-'70s era Stones -- or Uncle Tupelo, for that matter.

The sharpest sounds on the release are the lyrical barbs Tweedy tosses at his estranged partner Farrar. In an age-old songwriters' tradition, Tweedy frames his grievances in terms of "lovers," blaming a fictitious woman for the emotional pangs caused by his old (guy) pal. On "I Must Be High," the album opener and his first song written after Farrar's departure, Tweedy sings, "You/ Always wanted more time ... Now you got it." "Box Full of Letters" sounds like another bitterness rising: "I got a lot of your records/ In a separate stack/ Some things that I might like to hear but I/ Guess I'll give them back," the singer bellyaches.

Bumpkin-wise, David Lowery's Cracker has worked Wilco's territory to greater commercial success, but that's because he brings an affable, chuckleheaded humor to the table. Wilco is a much more pensive quintet, content to mill around the outskirts of the dinner party, brooding. Hopefully, it's nothing a therapeutic knee-slapper can't cure.

-- James Sullivan
Wilco plays Mon, May 15, at Slim's in S.F. and Tues, May 16, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call (510) 762-BASS.

Boukman Eksperyans
Libete (Pran Pou Pran'l!)
(Mango)

Boukan Ginen
Jou a Rive
(Xenophile)

Rockers like to adopt a rebel stance, but how many of them would be in bands if their lives were literally in danger? During Haiti's military reign of terror, musicians faced imprisonment and death for playing their populist anthems. Despite the threats, Boukman Eksperyans and Boukan Ginen have emerged triumphant with albums that chronicle their country's struggle.

The most popular kind of Haitian pop is compa, a smooth dance music akin to the soukous of Zaire. Compa was favored by the ruling class, so Boukman leader Lalo Beaubrun chose to explore the musical, religious and cultural roots of vodou. Driven by a battery of Afro-Haitian drumming and politically charged lyrics, Boukman's vodou music was perceived as a threat to the European pretensions of the ruling class. The band, named in honor of the revolutionary vodou priest who freed Haiti from colonialism, formed in 1978, but public appearances were rare due to the ire the group aroused in the military regime -- and not without reason. The song "K'em Pa Sote (I Am Not Afraid)" became the theme of the pro-Aristide faction in 1990, and is popularly credited with helping remove dictator Prosper Avril from power.

On tour when the military overthrew Aristide, the band was unable to return home, so they recorded LibetŽ in Jamaica. If anything, exile intensified Boukman's commitment to its roots. The three lead drummers weave a percussive web so strong the singers and instrumentalists can bounce off of it and touch the sky. "Konbit Zaka" and "Legba" feature slow, hypnotic grooves and traditional choral singing, but the energy really kicks in on extended tracks like "Peye Poe Peye," when the relentless rhythms are complemented by the humming, sustained notes of guitarist Mackel Jean-Baptiste. (Rock fans will be impressed with his slashing Hendrixisms on "Jou MalŽ" and "Sa'm PŽdi.") On the ballad tip are "Ki Moun" and "Zili," showcases for Marjorie Beaubrun's emotional alto and Dean Frazier's smoky sax. LibetŽ's only flaw is a mix that often relegates the percussion to the background, an odd strategy for music this rhythmic.

Boukan Ginen is fronted by former members of Boukman, and while vodou rhythms provide the foundation, the sound also incorporates rara (a festive variation of vodou played at Easter festivals), compa, reggae and African pop. The energy of Jou a Rive is infectious, jumping out of the speakers to set you spinning like a top. Things open with "Nati Congo," a compa with Rastafarian lyrics, reminding the uptown folks that their roots are African as well as European. Other strong tracks include "Ede M Chante," a rumbling a cappella chant that sounds like Ladysmith Black Mambazo; "Sa RŽd," which uses a roots reggae skank to address poverty and hunger; and the stomping rara raves "An N Ale We" and "Pale Pale W," the biggest Carnival song of 1991 -- an anti-authoritarian tune that infuriated Haiti's rulers.

-- j. poet

Free Kitten
Nice Ass
(Kill Rock Stars)

Ironic and sardonic, Free Kitten is a sassy swipe at guy-dominated indieland by Julie Cafritz (ex-Pussy Galore) and fashion designer/Lollapaloozer/postpunk mom Kim Gordon. With the Boredoms' Yoshimi and Pavement's Mark Ibold joining the feline fray, they've managed to transform what was probably at first a one-off lark into a sorta-supergroup with a decent-size discography and a taste for parody. With claws out but tongue in cheek, Nice Ass is essentially one huge indie-rock ribbing that takes cracks at everyone from NINwit Trent Reznor to Belly's Tanya Donnelly.

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