As far as contrived personas go, Greg Dulli's reputation as an erstwhile soul man isn't particularly newsworthy, or offensive, or even all that surprising. His cultural inputs -- the records he owns, the movies he's seen, the lingo he's learned -- give the music of the Afghan Whigs an outsider's cachet, as well as a gentility that ostensibly separates them from the mewling major-label rock hordes. Dulli realizes that one of the privileges of being a frontman is that he gets to front big time, so he adopts the voices of "fictional" losers who proclaim their sins bluntly and then get to "atone" by letting the music wash over them. "This ain't about regret," he testifies disingenuously on 1993's Gentlemen. "It's where I tell the truth."
Gentlemen succeeds largely because the music merges a swank strut with a drunk stagger, as if one glance over his shoulder at what was gaining on him would be enough to make Dulli fall flat on his face. The fact that the second track of Black Love, the Whigs' sixth release, steals its signature riff from the Tubes' "Talk to You Later" doesn't bode well for the band's current sense of time and place, but the problems run much deeper. Dulli has an impressive facility with irony and iconography, from the album's winking title to the plentiful images of gangstas and macks. "Honky's Ladder" mines slang both old ("baby brother") and new ("I got five up on your dime") to create a sense of timeless paranoia, augmented by guitarist Rick McCollum's modern dissonance.
Listening to Black Love means taking in all these gestures, a process that emphasizes how little they add up to a transcendence Dulli probably felt in the original source material. Dulli's a canny race trader, always trying to maintain his distance, but he can't resist sneaking in everything from programmed beats to clavinets ("Going to Town" has both), as if spreading himself all over the map could help him find his voice.
It's a shame the results are so consistently awkward, because there's a story here that goes beyond mere commercial miscalculation. The shysters at Sub Pop, the band's former label, convincingly lumped the Afghan Whigs in with the Seattle herd, which only obscured the Whigs' Cincinnati origins. When rootless cosmopolitans like Jon Spencer or the Beastie Boys pull the time-honored miscegenation trick, they're both responding to their immediate environment and asserting their authority to shape it. But in smaller cities -- especially in the Midwest -- the music of the local "outsider" isn't put under the same pop cultural magnifying glass, and pervasive segregation makes it even more difficult for the self-appointed white hipster to strike the requisite pose. Dulli's shown how to make this crapshoot work in the past, and, in fact, he's probably too honest for his own good: He finds that the most genuine way to document his characters' empty souls is through empty soul.
-- Greg Milner
As Brazil's primary (and possibly only) heavy metal export, Sepultura's secondary role as cultural ambassador is as inevitable as it is imposing. Not that the Belo Horizonte-born shredheads have ever attempted to shirk the double duty: To the contrary, singer/guitarist Max Cavalera and company have taken plenty of opportunities to promote a deeper understanding of not only their own culture (through highly politicized lyrics detailing the socio-economic tumult of their homeland) but other ones as well (i.e., their documentation of Indonesian piercing rituals in last year's Third World Chaos video). And, of course, they've also done much to dispel the widely held belief that heavy metal is the sole province of the pale-faced and poodle-haired.
Roots, the band's sixth album, continues along the path of cultural cross-pollination. Part Carnaval, part Day on the Green, part anthropology lesson, Roots finds Sepultura going native, digging into the deep pockets of Brazil's musical heritage to forge a new hybrid, a rain-forest crunch that melds the band's familiar sonic assault -- staccato, heavier-than-lead guitar riffing and Cavalera's larynx-lacerating vocal stylings -- with an array of indigenous South American rhythms.
Left in less capable hands (worst-case scenario: visions of a leather-clad Tito Puente jamming onstage with Glenn Danzig come to mind), it's an idea that easily courts disaster, but, fortified by a host of traditional instruments, the frequent accompaniment of popular Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown, and hearts that by birthright beat to samba time, the band manages to fuse the disparate elements into a seamless, organic whole. On "Attitude," the centuries-old berimbau (a single-stringed instrument on which a cup attached to its bow is pressed against the player's stomach to create tonal variations) coexists peacefully (well, perhaps not peacefully -- this is still Sepultura) with the very modern rumble of the detuned electric guitar. "Ratamahatta," a collaboration between Brown and the band with lyrics rooted in Brazilian slang, pulsates with an energy that could be equally appreciated in the streets of Sao Paulo or the burbs of Anytown, U.S.A.
Roots' biggest stretch by far, though, is "Itsari." Recorded in the Mato Grosso region of the Amazonian jungle with the Xavantes tribe, the track finds Max and co-guitarist Andreas Kisser plying delicate melodies from their acoustics as 50 tribesmen encircle them, stamping their feet and singing a healing ceremony chant. Strange, yes, but the strangest part is that it works. Welcome to the jungle, indeed; this is the real world music.
-- Tim Kenneally
New Music for a New America
At its best, experimental music is mind-blowing innovation; at worst, it's a self-indulgent morass of postmodern cliches. New Music for a New America by Bay Area enigma Rituel hovers somewhere in the ambiguous middle (under)ground. Rife with deconstructionisms -- cut-up tape loops lifted from media talking heads ("MTV today is violent, coarse, kinky, weirdo," blathers one pundit) and artfully juxtaposed multigenre pastiches -- and ironic detachment, Rituel draws on both popular and fringe elements of American culture.
Nothing is sacred, or rather, all sounds assume one sacred voice within the ceremonial celebration of the "new music" ritual -- which isn't really "new" at all. Apparently, Rituel's ethos is "Everything's been said and done so why don't we urbanites splurge on all the goodies in the postmodern megamart like Aunt Ida at the church bake sale." Pugnacious punk wailing, Xenakis-inspired percussion, and the screaming ghost of Albert Ayler meet operatic mooning on "Unseen Rain," a schizoid meditation on Sufi mystic Rumi's lovelorn verse. A nutty reworking of "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool" speaks corncob pipefuls about the genre. And, tellingly, the kickoff track is a pungent, sax-laden "Are You Experienced?" By now, we all are -- aren't we?
Rituel plays a record release party Wed, April 3, at Beanbender's Berkeley Store Gallery; call (510) 528-8440.
-- Sam Prestianni
(5th Beetle Records)
Look at what the Beastie Boys have wrought: What do you get when you cross a bunch of white kids who grew up on punk and moved on to hip hop with a four-track, a voice box, malt liquor, and a New York ZIP code? If you said Luscious Jackson, Jon Spencer, and Butter, you'd be correctamundo, if not exactly an interpretive genius. Princess Superstar, the latest white-punks-gone-dope, wear their East Village origins like a big, shiny sheriff's badge they found at a thrift shop near Tompkins Square.
On the quixotically titled Strictly Platinum, the co-ed quartet's debut, they trumpet their would-be downness with a mix of braggadocio, barely self-effacing irony, and a sharp sense of humor. Like all the Beasties' bastard children, Princess Superstar makes knowing nods to singsong hip hop, specifically the old-skool NYC kind, and couples them with pop-punk riffs. The album's first track, "Theme Song," is just that: punchy waves of bass lines, spacey effects, grooved guitar, and only one lyric -- "Princess Superstar," of course. On the honky manifesto "I'm White," lead vocalist Concetta Kirschner (who sounds eerily like Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff at times) intones, "I'm white and I'm from Pennsylvania/ I don't have no gold and I don't have a pager/ Where I'm from there isn't a scene/ I got my information reading Highlights magazine." Thankfully, the laughs are reserved for the lyrics.
Strictly Platinum's production, which is co-credited to Kirschner, is simple and sparse but always smart: a sample here, a little effect there, and a constant awareness of when to change the pace. And while these Superstars sound ragged throughout, they've got that garage-band energy that's hard to pull of on record. Princess Superstar is nowhere near as sophisticated as most of its musical influences, but rarely does self-parody so skillfully straddle that thin line between clever and stupid.
-- Zev Borow