Heavy Petting Zoo

"There's something grand about being nothing," sings NOFX bassist Fat Mike on "Philthy Phil Philanthropist," concluding, "There's something lame about being grand." Leave it to the perennial piss-takers of NOFX to lay bare, with syllogistic eloquence no less, the lie of slackerdom still subscribed to by many of their peers. Even within a genre in which iconoclasm is de rigueur, the Hollywood-based quartet has always been ahead of the pack, winning the Punker-Than-Thou Olympics without even trying -- which, of course, is the only way to win.

Heavy Petting Zoo, NOFX's seventh album, is replete with such caustic observations, delivered with the Fat one's trademark bratty whine and roguish wordsmithery. Considering its relatively brief (35 minutes) length, a surprisingly broad range of topics get lined up in the NOFX cross hairs: disturbingly obedient children in "What's the Matter With Kids Today" ("They don't drink or fuck or fight," sings Fat Mike, scratching his head in bewilderment) and anti-porn crusader Catherine McKinnon in "The Black and White" ("Catherine should be busy porkin'/ That dolt Andrea Dworkin/ 'Cause she may be off her back/ But she needs to get off ours"). "August 8th" finds Fat Mike paying elegiac -- ahem -- homage to a certain other corpulent rocker: "I see a bunch of hippies crying/ Yeah, August 8th is a beautiful day/ Like waking up from a real bad dream/ Suddenly everything is OK." Meanwhile, "Bleeding Heart Disease" transforms Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Do-Re-Mi" into a socialist sing-along, railing against "the pursuit of million-dollar happiness," and ignoring the obvious irony that Fat Mike himself is a SoCal denizen who's built a seven-figure nest egg out of the punk rock dream.

But Zoo may be most effective when Fat Mike turns the slingshot on himself and ups the humor ante. "Hot Dog in a Hallway," in which he sings the praises of his plus-size honey, is as funny as it is puerile. The same could be said of "Whatever Didi Wants," which may also be the most pragmatic love song ever penned in the climb-the-highest-mountain vein: "I wouldn't walk 500 miles when I could fly coach/ But [I'd do] almost anything/ That doesn't mean I never loved you/ I love you long time when you're on top of me." Proclaimers, take note.

-- Tim Kenneally

Various Artists
Planet Soup
(ellipsis arts)

The compilation masters at ellipsis arts have come up with the ultimate metaphor for cross-cultural integration. Forget the melting pot and salad of yore: In 1996, it's soup time. The perfect image of harmonious cultural exchange, a hearty broth can be crafted by thoroughly combining any number of disparate ingredients, each individual flavor contributing to the full palatal impact. Although aural hybridization has become increasingly prevalent in recent years in virtually every genre worldwide, the three-disc anthology Planet Soup documents the kind of wildly creative (and successful) fusions that typically elude the average musical experimentalist.

Tuvan throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar teams up with Boston-born Cape Verdean Paul Pe–a for an unusual but soulful Delta blues outing, Ondar moaning "low as a frog" and whistling overtones "high as a bird." The dazzling mix of Bulgarian women's choir Ensemble Piri with Zairian multi-instrumentalist Ray Lema boldly defies expectations of incongruity, while Toque de Caixa illustrates the pervasive Celtic influence in -- of all places -- Portugal. Meanwhile, Eitetsu Hayashi's quintet underscores the African/Asian connection to America's exploratory jazz traditions by fusing the tumbling hypnotics of taiko and Senegalese drumming with open-ended saxophone improvisation. Of course, the collection wouldn't be complete without big names such as Finland's harmonizing Varttina, Argentina's Astor Piazzolla, or the "Godfather of Nubian roots music," Ali Hassan Kuban, all of whom have consistently pushed the musical envelope.

That many of these adventurous fusions seem utterly alien to us demonstrates the myopic vision behind much of the music promoted to demographic-specific America. After all, Planet Soup reveals that transcultural unity often lurks where you least expect it.

-- Sam Prestianni

Abraham Burton
The Magician
(ENJA Records)

A twentysomething midway to 30, Abraham Burton MCs like he's on the younger side of the divide, especially when he airs his humor. (Remember how silly Dizzy got?) When Burton picks up his alto saxophone, though, a ripe fluency expressed in either pyrotechnical marathoning or a sustained lyricism belies his age.

On The Magician, Burton's second disc and recorded live, he comes off as a seasoned cat. He started playing front line in Taylor's Wailers, and though there's nothing tangible by way of tune titles or dedication, this release's bouquet of ballads suggests Burton is paying respect to the late drummer/leader Arthur Taylor. Burton's measure of maturity must also be marked by schooling from altoist of the first order Jackie McLean.

If Burton's band seemed any less prepared than he, his efforts would go largely unheard. When drummer Eric McPherson opts to solo, it's in a comping mode. That's not a contradiction -- too many solos spoil the flow. Keyboard logician Marc Cary, who also put in road time with Taylor, takes several solos that first reel in, then release a listener's focus. He's got the touch to articulate each consummate syllable, the ideas that link the helixed bottom-lines. Bassist Billy Johnson, with references like Abbey Lincoln, holds his own in the thick weave of pulse. Really, the whole band kicks.

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