Recordings

Soundgarden
Down on the Upside
(A&M)

Long before there was grunge, there was Led Zeppelin, who, from their sock-stuffed loins, spawned a small army of would-be arena rockers armed with twin lusts for grandiosity and the collected works of Aleister Crowley. Among them, of course, is Seattle's Soundgarden, who took Zep's chop-conscious opulence and applied it to both '90s-style malaise and Motsrhead-style intensity. Not that there's any great crime in vocalist Chris Cornell and company's, er, appropriation of certain Zep trademarks. The distinction between the amateurs and the professionals, it has often been accurately noted, lies in the latter's ability to steal from the best. Said maxim is particularly true in these postmodern, cut-and-paste times, when anyone who claims that any contemporary musical offering is "without precedent" is either a fool or a publicist.

Still, having become for-real arena rockers with 1994's Superunknown, the band has exhibited distinct progress, at least. Down on the Upside continues along that trajectory, though the difference this time is more in scope than style. A self-produced effort, Upside is, in essence, Superunknown compressed. There's nothing so overwrought as "Black Hole Sun" this time around, but the band does maintain its knack for tricky time changes and bigger-than-life riffmongering, and Cornell still effects his Jesus Christ pose, detailing persecutions real or imagined and dispensing spiritual platitudes ("So follow me into the desert, as desperate as you are," he sings on "Burden in My Hand"). Which is fine, really, as the gloomily sweeping suites tend to be the most effective tracks, thanks in no small part to guitarist Kim Thayil.

A master at balancing texture and technique, Thayil colors "Zero Chance" with big, moody chords that nicely augment Cornell's introspective musings (obvious nods to "The Rain Song" notwithstanding), throwing in a delicate acoustic filigree on occasion as dynamic sweetener. Conversely, when the band launches into tear-it-up mode, as it does on the thrashy "Ty Cobb," Thayil saves the song from rote rockism with his nimble-fingered mandolin picking.

Upside's downsides are few but prominent. "Applebite," contributed by drummer Matt Cameron and built from a skeletal frame of eerie guitar and mumbled incantations, lopes about ominously in an ultimately vain search for a destination. The lumbering, smack-addled funk of "Tighter and Tighter," meanwhile, is prototypical Soundgarden and, at six minutes plus, lingers a little too long on previously trodden ground. Overall, though, the blossoms are many and the fertilizer minimal, which is about all you can ask from any garden.

-- Tim Kenneally

Cassandra Wilson
New Moon Daughter
(Blue Note)

Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson has to be the oddest diva ever to dominate the jazz charts. Though steeped in the blues roots of her upbringing and well-versed in traditional jazz, she brings a Joni Mitchell-inspired folk flavor to her music and is at home interpreting tunes by the Stylistics, Van Morrison, and Robert Johnson, all on the same album. Remarkably, these peculiar bedfellows complement one another via the sensual style and grace that have defined the artist's output for nearly two decades.

Working closely with Henry Threadgill's guitarist, Brandon Ross, on the follow-up to 1993's successful Blue Light 'Til Dawn, Wilson maps similarly eclectic terrain while simultaneously charting new directions. New Moon Daughter drops the feverish piano and horn arrangements of Wilson's M-Base days and replaces them with guitar-laden, acoustic balladry. In minimal but stunning arrangements, the contralto's earthy, lulling voice (which sounds like Sade's silk crossed with Joan Armatrading's deep resonance) takes center stage with no self-aggrandizing solos or histrionic asides. Wilson's vocals give extraordinary emotional breadth to covers of tunes by U2, Hank Williams, Son House, Neil Young, Billie Holiday -- even the Monkees. You'll barely recognize "Last Train to Clarksville" with this multitiered syncopation.

But Wilson is not just a talented singer, she's a distinctive songwriter as well, with a range that moves from the ironically peppy "A Little Warm Death" to the bluesy poetry of "Find Him." The best track, "Until," employs the markedly non-jazz accompaniment of accordion, six-string, bass, and spare percussion. The song's soulfully melodic tone and impeccable lyrics embrace the "sweetness in life" while searching for a seemingly lost cause. Such passionate optimism is rare these days; then again, Wilson is out to redefine the jazz-vocal genre.

Cassandra Wilson performs Thursday, May 23, at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F.; call 474-0365.

-- Sam Prestianni

I.M.P.
Ill Mannered Playas
(In-A-Minute Records)

Most San Francisco natives would get upset if you called the city "Frisco," but Hunters Point natives Cougnut, C-Fresh, Rob V., and Stingy, better known as I.M.P., would probably get mad if you didn't. There is nothing pretentious about I.M.P., one of the Bay Area's original rap acts, who first made noise in 1989 with the underground sensation Scandalous. On Ill Mannered Playas, their comeback album, Cougnut and company remind us what the fuss was about. Unlike many of today's wannabes, I.M.P. didn't take to gangsta -- or "reality rap," as they might call it -- because it was trendy. This crew earned its street stripes way back in the day, and the way they rap is the way they live their lives -- raw and uncut. I.M.P. has had its share of ups and downs and legal troubles, including founding member Maxacious' death in 1990, but its strongest asset is the members' will to survive.

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