Recordings

Silkworm
Firewater
(Matador)

Silkworm is supposed to be the Next Pavement, according to Steve Malkmus, since Guided by Voices were last year's Next Pavement but fizzled out. Thing is, on Firewater, their fourth album, these Missoula-by-way-of-Seattle boys sound more like San Francisco sadcore a la Toiling Midgets or even Timco, if played at a faster rpm. There's no smarty-pants indie-rock irony here, and no happiness either. Resignation and despair prevail through songs that mainly limn the pleasures and pains of heavy drinking. It's too excessive at first -- too many emotions, too much drama. "No more simple tunes, no more easy poon, it takes so many millions to get laid," grumbles vocalist Tim Midgett. Well, whining is no aphrodisiac, muthafucka. Maybe it's just the weather.

Though there're hints of Television, the Jam, Nirvana, and -- yup -- Pavement, the music doesn't share those bands' brainy accessibility. Midgett pleads like Greg Dulli of Afghan Wigs (another not-quite-indie-rock band); instruments loop around and crash into each other (rather ineffectively, I might add); Andy Cohen's guitar slashes and burns -- cliched but true -- stretching out on solos with hints of Mascis and Verlaine though he's not quite in their league, letting riffs drop abruptly only to be picked up again elsewhere; the drums sound wrong, and spare production by Missoula homeboy Steve Albini only highlights it.

In fact, Firewater seems irrevocably flawed at first, like an important element is missing. That, of course, is the idea, the sonic companion to themes of loss, regret, and waiting. Eventually, though, the guitarwork starts to make sense. Tunes that fell flat two days earlier sound vaguely anthemic. Disjointed song structures look better from a different angle. The indie-rock paradigm etched in the brain takes a half-step toward something new.

Dig the Pavement guitar references in "Killing My Ass" and smirk as Silkworm rips off the plagiarists. The rest of Firewater will eventually come to you, but not without initial reluctance on your part. As always, the best records are often the most difficult.

-- Paul Wagenseil

Eazy-E
Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton
(Ruthless Records)

When reflecting on the death of a musical icon, the media generally puts on kid gloves. But though, for instance, the drug abuse heavily contributing to Jerry Garcia's death was conveniently glossed over, many reporters hit Eric "Eazy-E" Wright hard for his lifestyle, subtly blaming him for contracting AIDS. Of course, as a self-professed O.G., Eazy-E's legacy is troublesome: When we remember that he played an important role in gaining recognition for West Coast rap and lyrical gangstas, we can't forget that the young men he talked about blowin' away were mainly his brothas. When we remember that Eazy, with his first group, N.W.A., was reporting on the sinister behavior of the LAPD long before CNN had ever heard of Mark Fuhrman, we can't forget that he helped institutionalize misogyny in rap.

But Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton, recorded in the months before Eazy's death, offers a full-frontal view of his talents: phunkey drops that take you rolling through the CPT, dome noddin'; the eerie sound effects that signify that someone, somewhere, is up to no good; his penchant for kickin' game, telling a story so well you can almost smell the 40 on his breath; and, when the little-known sista Sylk jumps off, his knack for discovering and nurturing raw talent.

Most of these songs, though, attest that Eazy's ability to put a new twist on the same old street tales had worn thin. The once combatively playful mockery of former N.W.A. homey Dr. Dre (remember that infamous picture of Dre in makeup on Eazy's 5150 Home 4 tha Sick?) now sounds merely bitter and querulous. Even his squeaky voice had lost its verve. Still, the production finesse by associate producer DJ Yella on "Tha Muthaphukkin Real" and by guests Naughty by Nature on the, er, obliquely titled "Hit the Hooker" and "Nutz on Ya Chin" makes this double-CD worthwhile.

Chillingly, Eazy-E often speaks portentously of his death, one he's sure will come in a hail of bullets. That's one aspect of his legacy we can all agree on: that, for too long, the kids in the streets have ignored the threat between the sheets.

-- Gwendlynn Meno

Francis Wong
Ming
(Asian Improv Records)

Asian Improv aRts co-founder Francis Shih-Ming Wong is one of the Bay Area's leading proponents of Asian-American culture. By organizing provocative cultural events and launching the recording careers of hotshot artists like Miya Masaoka and Vijay Iyer, he's helped foment national attention for the West Coast's prolific Asian music community. He's also a monster saxophonist, and his soulfully fat-toned, often rambunctious improvisations have fleshed out discs by eminent jazz/improv cats Jon Jang and Glenn Horiuchi.

On Ming, his second outing as a leader (released simultaneously with Chicago Time Code, an exceptional album of duets with bassist Tatsu Aoki), Wong augments his horn playing with lively performances on flute and violin. Teaming up once again with manic pianist Horiuchi, who occasionally doubles on shamisen and outta-bounds vocalizations, Wong rekindles his fiery association with former S.F. Mime Troupe partner Elliot Kavee, who manipulates the cello and percussion ranging from the drum kit to -- really -- the kitchen sink.

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