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
Year of Mondays
"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
Axiom Altered Beats: Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated
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.
Krush's style of "turntablizing" is the link between old-school beats and the new school that erases boundaries between techno, dub, and jazzy swing; the mix encourages headphone head-tripping without stripping the music of its forward mobility. The two-minute instrumental "Blank" is appropriately titled -- its all-purpose hip-hop stride could serve as a foundation track for the hippest karaoke joint in town -- while "Ground" demonstrates Krush's ability to fuse ancient history with the future-is-now, as he folds an unearthly Moroccan drone into another straight-up rhythm track. Though Guru and the Roots are among his guest vocalists, it's Krush's nine-minute collaboration with Davis, Calif.'s DJ Shadow, "Duality," a balletlike hang glide through the inner city, that most effectively demonstrates the adventurousness of the Mo' Wax roster.
Krush also appears on the forthcoming Axiom Altered Beats, a consistently engaging collection of sonic collage on which producer/vanguardist Bill Laswell uses his Island Records subsidiary as a hothouse for turntable art. Featured in addition to Krush and Laswell's Material are two variations on Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9" theme and the Bay Area's DJ Q-Bert and Invisible Scratch Pickles (whose "Invasion of the Octopus People" originally appeared on the black-jacketed Return of the DJ compilation on Bomb Recordings).
Though the Axiom project's subtitle, Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated, may be a semantic mouthful, the music it encompasses makes perfect sense in a world that does so less and less. The human voice carries little currency here; when it crops up, it's an embarrassment, such as Dateline's Stone Phillips reporting that the Oklahoma City bombers were said to be Middle Easterners. Though the intro "Temporary Power Surge" serves as a broadcast warning ("The American dream is over/ The American nightmare is here"), the music of Axiom Altered Beats suggests that forecasts of doom often coexist with upturns in creative ingenuity.
-- James Sullivan
Man of Sin
To put it simply, Varnaline grave-robs folk music and casts it into the not-too-distant future. Essentially the brainchild of Space Needle confederate Anders Parker, Varnaline is the twisted descendent of barefoot troubadours and front-porch bluesmen. As the ghosts of Phil Ochs and Robert Johnson hang ominously in the air, the music teeters on the brink between solid construction and nerve-racking entropy; guitars clamor, twinge out of tune, then snap back with a resilient melody that lodges itself into memory. "The Hammer Goes Down" opens Varnaline's Man of Sin with crisply muddled power pop marked by Parker's raspy vocals and blunt, six-string flail. Parker trades in the rage for some rusty sparks on the bittersweet "Gary's Paranoia." The calm is short-lived, though, and the song breaks up into ragged chunks of warm fuzz and muddled feedback. The blissful "Little Pills" may be soothing, but its gentle grace is constantly besieged by flurries of white noize symptomatic of the struggle between hope and defeat implied in the lyrics. Man of Sin is a desperate album, in which enlightenment means sorrow and redemption is just out of reach.
Varnaline plays Mon, April 29, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.