Elsewhere, the Grifters' "Empty Yard," featuring backward-masked guitar parts, resembles a fun-house mirror, while the nerd-rock of Built to Spill's "Still Flat" is just muscular enough to stand up to its clowning trombone accompaniment. The package concludes with the wistful "Rex's Blues," a duet between Kelly Willis and ex-Uncle Tupelo leader Jay Farrar. Not all is well in indieland, however: If offshoot band Freedom Cruise is any indication, Guided by Voice's smarty-pants style has gone stale in record time.

Sad to report that Rock for Choice's Spirit of '73 is pretty much a dud altogether. True, Babes in Toyland's "More More More (Pt. 1)" is a peppy non-rockist remake of the Andrea True Connection come-on classic, while country royalty Rosanne Cash and Blue Note vocalist Cassandra Wilson rush to the rescue with proud readings of songs by Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack, respectively. But do these "I Am Woman" hits of the '70s need reprising if all the artists can muster is reverent precision? Word has it that nearly every songstress in the business was interested in this project. If so, then what about, say, the Muffs' Kim Shattuck warbling Minnie Riperton's "Loving You"? Just a thought.

-- James Sullivan

Slap Happy Humphrey
Slap Happy Humphrey
(Public Bath)

Taking their nonsensical name from the moniker melding of English art band Slapp Happy and pro wrestler Happy Humphrey, Slap Happy Humphrey is an experiment in contrast. The concept -- to combine the ethereal folk songs of late '70s/early '80s Japanese chanteuse Morita Doji with extreme noise guitar -- had long been stewing in the brain of Hijokaidan guitarist Jojo Hiroshige, Japan's self-proclaimed "King of Noise" and a big Doji fan. But it wasn't until Jojo encountered the heavenly warblings of Angel'in Heavy Syrup vocalist Mineko in 1990 that his "long-cherished dream" began to take form.

The group debuted on an obscure Japanese compilation in 1992, but plans for a full CD were delayed by a surprise resurgence of interest in Doji when one of her songs became a TV show theme. Now that the threat of overkill has passed, Jojo, Mineko, and acoustic guitarist Fujiwara have seen fit to fully unleash their vision -- and it was well worth the wait. Though each of these eight tracks is oddly gorgeous in its own right, a similar structure prevails: The listener is lulled by a hauntingly airy ballad, then sucker-punched with a psychotic noise-guitar blast often so left field it's not even in the ballpark. It sounds a bit incongruous, but the elements congeal surprisingly well. Stylish and tasteful, the disc serves as an effective Japanoise appreciation primer: One afternoon, I noticed a steady grinding tone embellishing "G-Senjo ni Hitori." Nice touch, I thought, not realizing for a full three minutes that it was actually some guys across the street cutting plywood.

-- Mike Rowell

(Almo Sounds)

All work and no play makes Butch a dull boy. As in Butch Vig, the knob-twiddling guru behind Nirvana's Nevermind and a host of other important alternative documents. So it makes perfect sense that when Vig finally got sick of standing behind the mixing board, he'd assemble a supergroup like Garbage to blow off a little steam. Guitarist Steve Marker and bassist/keyboardist Duke Erikson date back to Vig's New Wave drumming days with outfits like Spooner and Firetown. But the coup here is sultry siren Shirley Manson from the Scottish goth-pop combo Angelfish. Vig may have some brilliant musical ideas, but it's Manson who pushes them across with chameleonesque acuity.

In Angelfish, Manson's Debbie-Harry-on-lithium voice could set your flesh creeping and your heart a-pumpin' with a solitary sneer or subtle turn of phrase. Here, she rides shotgun through Vig's conceptual maelstrom, as on "Vow," in which Manson keeps up with ping-ponging guitar lines and a nonstop synthesizer buzz which sounds like a nest of angry hornets. Her voice distorted by effects, she hisses, "I came to cut you up/ I came to knock you down/ I came to tear your little world apart/ And break your soul apart." Time to book a one-way ticket out of town. But on the Russ Meyer-inspired "Supervixen," Mason plays the come-hither seductress, delicately purring over Vig's trademark production: guitars meowing in heat, pouncey folk strumming on the verses, a cantankerous wall o' noise for the chorus, and periodic screeching halts.

Lest you try to pin Garbage down, though, "Queer" (a tribute to Burroughs) couples trip hop with cabaret crooning, while techno and grunge battle in the sinister "As Heaven Is Wide." Then Garbage goes for the Top 40 jugular with the Blondie-like "Stupid Girl." Obviously, Vig wants to scamper all over the stylistic map, and he knew just the right crowd to run with. Once you've heard Shirley Manson sing, you'll probably follow her anywhere.

-- Tom Lanham

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