Barry Black could be considered Bachmann's tongue-in-cheek plea to be accepted as an "artist." An unlikely mix of X, Y, and Z (externalized peculiarities, Yiddish instincts, and Zappa identification), the record sounds ridiculous on paper, but it's more fun than a collection of Archers outtakes would have any right to be.

Most of Bachmann's songs are culture collisions, beginning with the lead track, "Train of Pain," a sort of rummy Native American lament reworked for organ grinder -- but without the organ. Some of the tracks acknowledge the hallmarks of traditional instros: The anchor of "Boo Barry Blip" is a fatback Duane Eddy-ish guitar, and "Vampire Lounge" is unsurprisingly creepy and campy. But for the most part, Bachmann gleefully stretches the bounds of what constitutes alternative rock (or rock at all), dragging out a banjo on several tracks, incorporating cello and trumpets to wheezing effect on others.

5ive Style is a Chicago quartet led by bassist LeRoy Bach (formerly with Liz Phair) and drummer John Herndon (ex-Poster Children, currently in Tortoise). Bach is also the catalyst of Uptighty, a 12-piece funk collective known for its wigged-out soul workouts. The press notes to 5ive Style point out that the band is enamored with New Orleans' Meters, an extraordinary place for any soul combo to start. In fact, the group blends a host of influences from the early to mid-'70s -- Bad Company's "Call on Me" is etched into the coda of the first cut, and "Hard Afro Rubalon" is built upon a stinging disco rhythm section. Amazingly, none of this music sounds dated. What makes the group contemporary are the gifts of its relative newcomers: Billy Dolan's chunky, spirited guitar playing and Jeremy Jacobsen's computer-age keyboard enhancement.

The beauty of instrumental music is that there is no literal agenda predetermined by a singer. With the Archers, or Liz Phair, we know what to expect; with these two groups, our expectations are trashed. The vast catalog of pop music is primed to be ransacked and reconfigured -- for its own sake, and not for what the artists have (or don't have) to say.

-- James Sullivan

Weslia Whitfield
Nice Work ...
(Landmark)

It's not off-base to compare that great explosion of English lyric poems in the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, and Donne with the American songwriting that blossomed in the years 1911-1949 thanks to artists like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Jerome Kern. Think about it: The art of both eras is full of wit, conceits, oxymorons, and slang; is grounded in Petrarchan philosophy; and references such figures as Romeo, Cupid, Arthur, and Lothario. And while the poetry has suffered from its presentation by fourth-rate English teachers, the songs have usually come to us via equally mediocre singers.

But Weslia Whitfield interprets the canon of American song on par with the top jazz, Broadway, film, and cabaret artists of the past. Accompanied by her husband, Mike Greensill, her performances of such classics as "Nice Work If You Can Get It" or "How Deep Is the Ocean" are as intimate, fresh, and heartfelt as the originals, and the duo's collaborations as seamless as the masterful Lester Young/Billie Holiday recordings. Like Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Libby Holman, and Fanny Brice, Whitfield combines jazz elements with torch stylings to beautiful and dramatic effect. Eschewing the superficial trappings of scat singing, or the trends toward camp or pretension, Whitfield relies on the subtleties of rhythmic shifts and the sheer pathos of her voice to take us down her personal street of dreams.

Far from being simple fare from a simpler time, multilayered pieces like Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" reveal a more sophisticated approach to love than we have come to expect from song these days. Fully aware of the music's depth and complexity, Whitfield rises to the interpretive challenge.

Weslia Whitfield and Mike Greensill play Wed-Sat (plus a New Year's Eve gala), Nov. 29-Dec. 31, at the Plush Room in S.F.; call 885-2800.

-- Ira Steingroot

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