Fusing traditional and experimental approaches from both Chinese and American musics, Wong and company strive to rectify the self-described "Imbalance in Our Times" with the harmony of wide-open cross-cultural connection. The music's vast range of expression -- from chaotic eruptions to madcap antics to empathetic rumination -- resonates with the turbulence and all-too-infrequent compassion that inform our global society. Like true prophets of the ming (the Chinese word for light) in pieces like "Lovers Embrace ... Then Dance," Wong, Horiuchi, and Kavee never cave in to cynicism, but offer unity and hope as the only solution for survival.

Francis Wong's Desert Flower Ensemble performs Sat, Feb. 17, at Center for the Arts Theater in S.F.; call 221-2608.

-- Sam Prestianni

The Business
Death II Dance

Unlike most of the old-timers putting out "new" punk rock these days, the Business has managed to keep some semblance of integrity. The Business, who along with Sham 69 and the Cockney Rejects helped to originate Oi!, never gave up the fight, taking only a three-year break in 16 years of playing. Death II Dance, a six-song teaser for the up-and-coming The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth, does not break any ground for the Business -- the band still rails against government bureaucracy in anthems like "N.H.S." (as in England's National Health Service), and still slags off club music (as in "Death to Dance," a rave-repulsed update of the early single "Smash the Discos") -- but at least the Business never lost its passion for Docs or its enthusiasm for playing to a street-level crowd. This EP is worthwhile simply for the riotous interpretation of the Smiths' "Hang the DJ (Panic)" and the acoustic "unpubbed" version of "Drinking and Driving" -- downright purty, guys.

The Business plays Sun, Feb. 18, at the Trocadero Transfer in S.F.; call 995-4600.

-- Silke Tudor
The Grifters
Ain't My Lookout
(Sub Pop)

Grifters guitarist/vocalist Dave Shouse's father once described his son's art as "pop music through a Veg-O-Matic," which is probably as accurate an assessment as any father could hope to make of his child's musical endeavors. Still, to confine the band to the parameters of any one musical idiom, purŽed or not, is to do it a disservice. Truth is, the Grifters are an entity unto themselves, ensconced in a warped insularity and exiled -- partly by necessity and partly by choice -- to a world of their own making.

This cosmos, alternately (and, sometimes, simultaneously) majestic and bleak but always devastating (or devastated, take your pick), defined with such clarity on last year's Eureka EP, is further detailed on Ain't My Lookout, a collection of 13 new cryptographs. In the Grifters' bio, Scott Taylor (aka Hot Monkey, the other half of the guitar/vocals juggernaut), claims that "we were totally surprised we came up with such a poppy record this time." They might be the only astonished ones -- the Grifters' vision has been growing increasingly lucid for some time -- but Lookout constitutes the Grifters' most ambitious and fully realized compositional effort yet.

"Mysterious Friends" is a gumshoe narrative of cement footwear and guilt-ridden benders in SoHo, given an appropriately noirish bent by its lurching rhythm, ominous guitars, and world-weary vocals, while "Pretty Notes," a lilting chantey reminiscent of Eureka's "Banjo," rings sweetly with a chiming confluence of organ, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and steel drums. "Give Yourself to Me" is both slinky and chilling, a tale of addiction awash in eerily dissonant wah-wah guitar flourishes that concludes, "Woe to the angels, they fall at my feet/ I am your victim, spread your disease." Conversely, "Last Man Alive" boasts an eccentric air and infectious melody that Robyn Hitchcock might kill for.

Lookout could easily be the record to elevate the Grifters to the status enjoyed by many of their less worthy indie-rock brethren. It's a shame, really, that said phenomenon hasn't already occurred, but as the band itself concedes on the closing epic, "Radio City Suicide," "Stars burn the brightest when you don't see them at first." At their current metabolic growth rate, the Grifters may soon be the best band the world has never heard.

-- Tim Kenneally

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