Recordings

Ui
Sidelong
(Southern)

Ui
Unlike
(Lunamoth)

Sasha Frere-Jones is a New York rock critic who likes to put his theories of hybridity into practice: His band, Ui (rhymes with gooey), genre-splices dub, fusion, funk, no wave, deep house, even bluegrass. I hear you all groaning -- music by critics, for critics. But everyone's a critic these days (put that on your home page), so what seemed all wrong in Lester Bangs' day seems all right now. Even so, I've still got enough invested in "authenticity" (whatever that is) to have been initially skeptical of Sidelong: I expected white guys trying to sound like ESG, Americans trying to sound like the Pop Group, or some washy Simon Reynolds wet dream. Yet Ui manages to avoid sounding nostalgic, derivative, or precious. Maybe it's the banjo.

Well, as with most process-oriented bands, it definitely has something to do with instrumentation. Ui's tip is minimalist -- two basses, percussion, and deft dabs of other noise (such as the banjo). The two-bass lineup is not itself a startling innovation; it's been utilized by the Fall for maximum lurch and by Girls Against Boys for maximum swagger. But freed from the iron rule of the guitar, rock's master signifier, Ui's basses speak with charming and unexpected modesty, meditating on sinuous grooves. Funking on a totally different plane than macho, Chili Peppers thumb-slapping, Ui sounds smooth but not slick, and gently assertive.

Like its compatriots Tortoise, Trans Am, LaBradford, et al., Ui has the sense to realize that it has little to say -- in words anyway. This brevity makes the occasional vocals (on three of Sidelong's 10 tracks) strangely exhilarating. It's as if Frere-Jones has had a revelation, like, "Oh yeah, vocal cords are instruments too!" When, in "Butterfly Who," an upbeat, Beasties-ish funk rave, he raps, "I looked in the mirror/ Oh, damn, who is the handsome devil?" you know he's being a wise-ass, but you also honestly believe he's rediscovered himself.

Speaking of rediscovery, if you dig Sidelong, you might try Unlike for some meta-deconstruction. Tortoise's John McEntire takes minimalism to ground zero with his remix of "Sexy Photograph" -- no more sex, just bloops and blips. But the rest bumps and slides in a gratifying way, especially David Linton's 14-minute revamping of "The Piano." And for the record, all three versions of "Ring" (an earlier Ui number) sound, er, unlike each other. Free your ass and your mind will follow.

-- Sally Jacob

Mike Johnson
Year of Mondays
(TAG/Atlantic)

"Can we live without the circle of friends," bassist Mike Johnson asks an anonymous confidant on "Circle," a track from Year of Mondays, the Dinosaur Jr. bassist's maiden solo venture, "and regain the sense of where we were when we had a vision to ourselves?" Can't speak for the queried compatriot but, in Johnson's case, the answer would have to be "yes." In fact, if there's a lesson to be learned from these offerings, it's that some friends you're better off without.

While Dino Jr. potentate J Mascis has been slackadaisically biding his time, hiring out his plaintive mewl and waiting for his muse to grace him with the next batch from the whine-and-deafen batter, his minion has crafted a collection of marvelously morose sound sculptures that reveal a vision as compelling as it is bleak. And, though Johnson has enlisted his own circle of friends (which includes Herr Mascis on the traps) to flesh out that vision, the voice expressed is entirely his own.

And quite a voice it is. A quavering baritone redolent of the kind of wee-hours soul-searching that builds character and breaks spirits, Johnson's warbly moan lends the aptly titled album's razors-on-the-wrists ruminations an essential air of validity. Mascis can tell us that he feels the pain of everyone, his indifferent drawl contradicting him even as the words drip like cold syrup, but Johnson makes you believe it without saying it in so many words, letting inference suffice where declaration would be overkill.

Not that Johnson isn't beyond spinning a dolorous couplet or two -- Mondays, in fact, abounds with them. Witness "Way It Will Be," when, wandering through a sparse latticework of acoustic guitar and mournful violin, Johnson confides, "Your dreams are neither lost or found/ They're buried underground." Eschewing his usual four-string to take on the acoustic and electric guitar duties, Johnson leads his ragtag team of sidemen through a series of properly languorous arrangements that seem, at times, capable of lying down and dying in their tracks. This one-two lurch is at its most effective on "Eclipse," the album's nine-minute-plus centerpiece. Built on a plodding, minimal chord progression that gains intensity almost imperceptibly with each run-through, the track treads dangerously close to inertia but inevitably leaves a mark through sheer weight and repetition.

While the grooves may eventually wear a bit thin, and Johnson's defective mood ring is perpetually stuck on black, Year of Mondays' impact is undeniable: Color Johnson blue, but color me impressed.

-- Tim Kenneally

DJ Krush
Meiso
(Mo' Wax/ffrr)

Various Artists
Axiom Altered Beats: Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated
(Axiom/Island)

Available mostly in specialty shops, surreptitiously packaged in black record jackets, the art of the turntable has spent years in the underground. Finally, the DJ trade is warming to the commerce of the record industry, and the result should be mutually beneficial. London's Mo' Wax, one of the most swooned-over experimental hip hop/club labels, recently signed a distribution deal with Polygram, unleashing its first two pieces of stateside product -- Mark's Keyboard Repair, featuring the chintzy soul of Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark, and Meiso, the third full-length outing from former Tokyo gangster DJ Krush.

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