Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes Under the Stars

Last year's Next Big Thing, Guided by Voices made it kinda medium-big at least, attracting a devoted cult following and sparking a critical buzz duly followed by a backlash. Known for murky home-taped geek rock, the band has finally made the daring leap into a 24-track studio with its umpteenth (well, 11th, anyway) release, Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

GBV's previous four (or so) albums conceptualize pop as fleeting pleasure. Brief, fuzzy, catchy fragments run together and fade in and out, like snippets of old songs heard on a staticky car radio wavering between signals -- seductive, but, after repeated listens, frustrating. Bushes takes laudable steps toward substance, yet its songs retain the unfinished quality that detractors find irritating and fans find irresistible.

Hi-fi production may gain GBV accessibility, but the mystique and texture of lo-fi are lost. Tape hiss, distortion, and extreme compression were the emperor's old clothes without which the simpler songs stand exposed as decent but straightforward post-R.E.M. college rock, while their more complex counterparts are revealed as formulaic in their wayward eclecticism. Robert Pollard's vast appetite for obscure British psychedelic and art rock yields still more fanciful lyrics about witches and werewolves and a hundred more hooks that turn out to be ladders -- melodies ascend and descend them without getting anywhere.

It's ironic that the prolific Pollard has a reputation as a gifted songwriter yet can't meet the challenge of producing an album's worth of "complete" songs. There are some brilliant Pollard pieces here ("Underwater Explosions," "Redmen and Their Wives"), but too many are either obvious retreads or fine compositions that suffer from flat execution and underdevelopment. ("I Am a Scientist" [1994] was arguably the only classic single that the band has produced to date.) However, there is hope: Second-string singer/songwriter Tobin Sprout's contributions are the surprise stunners here. "Atom Eyes" delivers full-fledged pop so perfect as to make the dreadful pun excusable, and "To Remake the Young Flyer" and "It's Like Soul Man" offer teasing glimpses of dazzling possibility.

In short, the Voices still offer latent "potential" as blatant content. Meanwhile, can anyone explain how a much less intelligent band like the Stone Temple Pilots can sound like they've learned more from GBV's Daytonian producer/mentor/drinking partner Kim Deal than GBV have themselves?

-- Sally Jacob

MC Ren
The Villain in Black

Even in hip hop, where fashions die with the speed of fruit flies, N.W.A's fall has been precipitous. The albums that launched a thousand drive-bys are moldy relics; Ice Cube, now a more interesting actor than rapper, hasn't really mattered since 1991; Dr. Dre, savvy entrepreneur though he is, will be hard-pressed to top 1992's The Chronic; Eazy-E's final burst of celebrity underscored how long he'd been away. And that's not to mention MC Ren -- which is exactly what happened. Always the crew's most generic voice -- go ahead, quote me one of Ren's raps from Straight Outta Compton -- his two forgettable solo albums never mustered much of an argument for their own existence.

But with The Villain in Black, he's onto something. The cover features a shaved head and somber clothes, the acknowledgments pay tribute to Allah, and inside there's abundant evidence that the makeover isn't merely cosmetic. This music is hard but not ugly: gangsta with a social conscience. The gratuitous misogyny is gone (save for his favorite epithet, "bitch-made nigga," but you need something for your boys, right?), and the fuck-the-world nihilism is replaced with community awareness and hope. Ren disses swine and gets a turkeyburger instead, rips Arsenio Hall, calls his "shit so down and dirty/ you would swear it's hepatitis," and makes "killing" only a metaphor for what happens to the suckers who try to bite him. Ren will never be silver-tongued, and the beats could be a little fiercer; I also wish he'd taken five minutes to think up song titles better than "Keep It Real" or "It's Like That." (His last album featured a perfect if inadvertent self-critique called "Same Old Shit.")

Intentionally or not (I'd guess not), that very ordinariness sends his message home: Connecting the personal and the historical, he argues for hardness as what a regular black man like him needs to survive these days. Following a sermon by Khalid Muhammad on the horrors of slavery (which, thank whoever, forgoes the gratuitous anti-Semitic mythifying), the album culminates with a stunning gospel chorus on the turnabout-is-fair-play "Bring It On" that forcefully confronts white America's indifference: "So why you scared of me?/ 439 years of slavery/ And we still ain't free/ But we're supposed to act like we're living in harmony." Hard to argue. MC Ren is the first N.W.A alum in years to graduate to maturity. Who'd've thunk it?

-- Jesse Berrett

President's Breakfast
Bar*B*Que Dali

A street-wise white kid growing up in the Black Power-era Fillmore and Mission, President's Breakfast bandleader and drummer Bill Langton, aka Click Dark, was reared on cultural cross-pollination. He immersed himself in multimedia -- television, video, computer, electronics -- and unsurprisingly, multigenre pastiche seemed the natural point of flight when Dark eventually took up musical composition. So about five years back, President's Breakfast was born, an outlet for all of Dark's influences. Anchored by slamming backbeats and funky bass, PB explored a thickly layered, chaotic integration of avant-jazz saxophone, vinyl scratching, provocative samples, and screaming guitar, all tightly bound together by squiggly strands of electronics.

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