Recordings

The Dambuilders
Ruby Red
(Eastwest Records)

Unless you're fortunate enough to be a nouveau punque, making your pop dreams rock isn't a very fashionable musical strategy these days. Just to make things interesting, the Dambuilders stack the deck against themselves even further. David Derby has a naturally thin singing voice that forces him to push it well past its limit, while guitarist Eric Masunaga alternately favors brittle patterns and airy leads. Meanwhile, Joan Wasser's violin flies into the gap, a disembodied, rootless cry devoid of folky connotations. As an added bonus, the Dambuilders play most of their songs a little too fast.

When these disparate elements click, the effect is like experiencing the world through the window of a speeding car: Passing colors are blurred, and sounds are skewed by motion and the Doppler effect. Derby's lyrics alternately capture the urge to move (down the highway, into the stratosphere) and the realization that you're often literally or figuratively stuck in one space, which might have something to do with the band's early origins in Honolulu. In "Kill Haole Day" from last year's Encendedor, Derby narrates as a white kid about to get his ass kicked on the last day of school, one of Hawaii's fabled post-colonial traditions. Derby knows that this myth rarely becomes reality; instead, he imagines what it would be like if the guy welcomed his yearly fate because it taught him how to fit in. If that isn't stasis, what is?

Ruby Red isn't quite as bracing as Encendedor, though the group continues to fine-tune its sound. The Dambuilders tastefully favor a kinetic rhythmic kick, and if that means occasionally plundering the Gang of Four ("Velocidad") and Joy Division (Encendedor's "Shrine"), that's a small price to pay. Derby and Wasser have begun to harmonize more, which lends an aching John-and-Exene quality to cuts like "Lazy Eye." Subsuming Masunaga's guitar underneath the searing violin is an admirable attempt to mess with aesthetic conventions, but it often creates an unrealistic burden of sonic space for Wasser to fill. But when Derby's penchant for corn -- spoken-word bits, for example -- threatens to overwhelm, Wasser is a consistent secret weapon. At moments as disparate as the somber "Drive-By Kiss" and the screw-the-kids "Teenage Loser Anthem," she can always launch the songs into a lightheaded orbit.

-- Greg Milner

T.J. Kirk
T.J. Kirk
(Warner Bros.)

It sounds like an absurd novelty: Four Bay Area jazz cats -- guitarists Charlie Hunter, John Schott, and Will Bernard with drummer Scott Amendola -- play the music of James Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Rashaan Roland Kirk; have been known to sport matching fezzes onstage; and once called themselves James T. Kirk until those pesky copyright laws persuaded them to cut-and-paste the William Shatner reference. But notions of shtick evaporate quickly as the quartet's catalytic talent shapes a musical playground for the rhythmic landscapes of the Godfather of Soul, the deep abstract musings of Monk, and the unequivocal liveliness of Kirk.

T.J. Kirk is not a jazz record per se. Because guitars dominate, classics like Monk's "Epistrophy" and Brown's "Soul Power" emerge as innocuous conflations of jazz, rock, and the almighty groove. "Serenade to a Cuckoo" and "Jackie-ing" are mellower jaunts into the soulful, what Wes Montgomery might have sounded like had he been down with San Francisco's diverse music scene. Cleverly juxtaposing compositions -- Kirk's "Rip Rig and Panic" with Brown's "Cold Sweat," for example -- is another way the group builds upon the composers' skeletons rather than merely covers their tunes.

Undoubtedly, avid followers of one or more of the band's three namesakes will find some aspect absent from T.J. Kirk's executions, be it Brown's rich, full-funk sound, Monk's moodiness, or Kirk's bravado. Still, T.J. Kirk is out to reimagine these artists' classics, not carbon-copy them, and inject personality into the tired tribute-band model.

-- Jazzbo
T.J. Kirk plays Sun, Sept. 3, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

Various Artists
Red Hot + Bothered: The Indie Rock Guide to Dating
(Red Hot/Kinetic)

Various Artists
Spirit of '73: Rock for Choice
(550 Music/Epic)

Mediocre as they often are, "various artists" compilations are a godsend to the insatiable culture vulture. Era-chroniclers (see K-Tel) and soundtracks are stalwarts of the genre's bins; tribute albums, a relative newcomer, have already crowded the section with sketchy product. The benefit release, another v/a niche, began inauspiciously, checking in from the outposts of Bangladesh and Kampuchea before coming home to roost in L.A. during the cause-crazed '90s. Besides sweeping up dust-bunny B-sides, outtakes, and live tracks, these records offer the bonus of arm-chair philanthropy: A good deed is now as simple as directing one's purchasing power toward the phrase "a portion of proceeds."

Raising funds for AIDS relief, the "Red Hot" series has been a particular winner to date, both causewise (a reported $5 million) and artwise (Iggy Pop doing Cole Porter, Roy Ayers vibing with the Roots). Now comes the "indie rock" contribution to the series, a pair of 10-inch vinyl releases soon to be compiled on CD. Most of the songs are good, if misleading: Though Red Hot + Bothered claims to be sex-positive in scope, you'd be hard pressed to tell, given the resigned lyrics and lack of lubricant. For instance, Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion offers muted advice for young lovers -- its cut is instrumental, and chaste at that. Apparently, Barlow's bedroom eyes belong to his four-track.

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