Recordings

Ass Ponys
The Known Universe
(A&M)

On 1994's Electric Rock Music, Ass Ponys vocalist/lyricist Chuck Cleaver sang of spontaneous combustion, microcephalics, and protagonists born -- literally -- spineless on the same day as a UFO sighting. In keeping with this skewered legacy, Cleaver populates The Known Universe, his band's second major label album, with parrot-threatening drunks who eat pickled eggs until they die of indigestion, magnifying-glass-toting lonely hearts who fry ants under God's orders, and spectral visitations in the dead of night.

A keen storyteller with an eye for the vagaries that emerge from soul-numbing normalcy, Cleaver has garnered a well-earned reputation as a musical biographer of rural America's deluded and demented. And yeah, it's a threadbare tactic: Singer/songwriter dips into the well of human anomaly and plays on the audience's voyeuristic instinct for a quick lyrical fix.

But lacking the affected eye-poppery of, say, David Byrne's True Stories, The Known Universe is no gratuitous freak show, and Cleaver is no Rhode Island art school brat indulging in cultural vampirism. Neither glorifying nor pitying, Cleaver remains mostly anecdotal in his detailing of twisted modern folklore, spinning his yarns matter-of-factly and allowing the listeners to draw their own conclusions. One can't help but surmise that his approach is a function not only of tastefulness but empathy; as a citizen of southwestern Ohio, he's among the breadbasket oddballs whose foibles, frustrations, and failed ambitions he chronicles.

More than that, though, he's of them. A stocky, way-past-30 family man trolling the altie gutter for salvation and validation, armed with a strained warble that sits somewhere between a doorbell and a dog whistle, it's possible that Cleaver is, in fact, the strangest guy on the block -- even if his neighbors include the barber in "It's Summer Here," who gleefully stinks up the town by burning his collected clippings out behind the shop.

None of which would mean much without some measure of artistic merit; strangeness for strangeness' sake rarely resonates beyond the first nervous chuckle. Fortunately, Cleaver proves himself to be an able wordsmith, coloring his observations with evocative imagery ("And the birds/ Will gather around our heads/ And they'll peck at our cornlike teeth" from "Shoe Money") and clever, tightly honed couplets. And, while the rootsy, Americana-flavored twang brandished by the band isn't particularly inventive, it complements Cleaver's narrative musings perfectly, giving the album the feel of a front-porch bull session that lazily unfolds as the moonshine takes effect. The Universe that Cleaver sings of may not be the greatest place to live, but it sure is interesting to stop in and visit for a spell.

-- Tim Kenneally

Junk
Kiss My Acid Jazz
(Faffco Records)

The Bay Area acid-jazz conceit crested several years ago, most of the participating bands being neither fish nor fowl, but a couple finally coming into national prominence (Charlie Hunter Trio, Broun Fellinis) in the last year. Indeed, what passes for jazz in the public mind nowadays is so acrid and pompous that the good-timey sounds of, say, T.J. Kirk might come across as Sonny Sharrock to one who didn't know that there's plenty of the real stuff out there if you know where to look.

On Kiss My Acid Jazz, Junk's second release, the quartet reveals itself a step above most of its contemporaries. Junk understands that just because you improvise, it doesn't make you Jazz, and in the past they held no pretenses to such. They're a Funk band through and through -- bass, drums, rhythm guitar (plenty of subdued wah-wah with almost no soloing), and baritone sax. They're also a good one, with intricate and sympathetic polyrhythmic interplay.

Unfortunately Junk jettisoned its original drummer (Malcolm Peoples) who took his inspiration from the JBs, not those groups who sample them, nor from the the Chili Peppers or any of those other god-awful punk-funk bands who confuse dancing with sweaty movement. His replacement, Diego Volino, wears hams on his fists, in the great Bay Area tradition (not even Sly Stone got his rhythm section quite right until There's a Riot Goin' On), sounding more Primus than prime. This propulsive liability may be the reason Junk delves into the gooier swamp of Bitches Brew territory on a few tracks. But those waters are a bit too deep; only the sharpest can maneuver to shore when they swallow that acid.

Junk plays every Tuesday at the Up & down club in S.F.; call 626-2388.
-- D. Strauss

Gillian Welch
Revival
(Almo)

Usually when a singer/songwriter debuts, he or she records a few choice nuggets by favorite artists as a thank-you or a statement of purpose. With newcomer Gillian Welch, it's been the other way around: Before she released her first album, her songs had already been covered by the Nashville Bluegrass Band and by "alternative country" icon Emmylou Harris, who made Welch's "Orphan Girl" a featured track on last year's Grammy-winning Wrecking Ball LP.

Revival contains nobody's songs but Welch's own. Remarkably, the young stylist says she learned her tradition from a bluegrass band that played Tuesday nights at a pizza joint at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she spent her undergrad years. Her voice evokes such hardscrabble sobriety, you'd never guess she's a dilettante. But Welch comes from a professed alternative background; she claims she's big on the Pixies, and that's as good a calling card as any in a country-music environment as vapid as the present one.

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