Recordings

Beck
Odelay
(Geffen)

Head and Leg
In Your Dreams
(Seeland)

Collage, that most 20th-century of art forms, gets talked about as a consensus -- a meeting of disparate objects or voices that congeal into some utopian whole. But collage really works as a never-ending argument, when all the jagged bits talk at once, overlap, try to crowd each other out. Its deepest force is the power of dislocation; it doesn't (shouldn't?) make sense. Two new albums do the cut 'n' paste tradition proud.

Because they share a haircut and a genre-be-damned will to experiment, people keep talking about rock Wunderkind Beck as Neil Young Jr. But Beck's Odelay exhibits methodology he might have picked up a little closer to home, namely from his anti-art hero of a grandfather, the late Al Hansen. (Hansen, the avant-garde painter and Fluxus performance artist, was himself no stranger to the playful possibilities of collage.) While Beck further explores the hip hop/folkie/funk pastiche of his breakthrough Mellow Gold, his new work (thanks to the help of producers the Dust Brothers) concentrates on the studio-as-instrument. Layered instrumental textures, noisy non sequiturs, and vocals seeping out of a manhole on the other side of town rub up against what can be a clear and gutsy verbal delivery. And as a lyricist, it's clear that Beck has once again renewed his license to surreal.

While Beck might be getting too far gone for radio, the audio collage duo Head and Leg might argue there's no such thing. Their collection of twisted comedy bits, bedtime stories, parables, and sound art, In Your Dreams, is a lot of things at once. Let's just say there's no Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the motel room of their psyches. Imagine nightmares in which Elvis falls into the void, Jesus steals your shoes, and nobody, but nobody, wants to leave "The Womb Room." Plus "The Hits Keep Comin' " offers six shattering minutes of pure pain, which is to say truth. By parodying hit radio's obsession with grueling repetition and lame-ass catch phrases, all the while injecting a steady beat of whips cracking across somebody's back, the track represents what the bulk of broadcast has become: abuse.

In Your Dreams is available through Seeland, 1920 Monument Blvd., MF-1, Concord, CA 94520.

-- Sarah Vowell

Bis
The Secret Vampire Soundtrack
(Chemical Underground)
Bis vs. the D.I.Y. Corps
(Sketch)
"Keroleen"
(K)

Scotland's Bis is three troublesome teens with a gutful of tunes and fueled by an intense desire to smack "alternative" music with all the venom their punk daddies reserved for prog rock. Improbably struck by fame when the BBC's Top of the Pops whisked them from indie obscurity into the living rooms of Britain, Bis have enjoyed (one suspects with gritted teeth) the revved-up pace of success on an instant plate: from first EP to negotiating corporate corridors in six easy months. What fun! Their sound is punky-disco, with hints of what Johnny Rotten might have done to modern Britpop. Their ideology is the tired old credo of independence. Following the inevitable post-TOTP bidding war, Bis signed to indie label Willja, though they have as yet not released a full album. Cynics will notice that their publishing, which is where the money is, is now handled by Polygram. Daddy would be proud.

The space between childhood and adulthood is where Bis play; they know it is both a zone of extraordinary opportunity and a place for opportunists. Bis-world is populated by excited children who can't spell singing disco and bad men in suits (whom they sardonically call the D.I.Y. Corps, who are trying to control the "teen-c power" of youth and music). Now, thanks to the BBC, opportunity has knocked. So Bis fight the pop scene as self-consciously as anyone since Gang of Four, but they cannot defeat their own ability to compose a memorable chorus. (Gang of Four had it easy in that respect.) Of course, Bis would be faintly ridiculous (no, completely ridiculous) were it not for the fact that they make excellent records. Records, because we should all listen to Bis on vinyl. My CD seems somehow a contradictory commodity. The first song is "This Is Fake D.I.Y."; the D.I.Y. is real (it's a "true" indie release, not a vanity-cred label licensed to Global Media Inc.), but the sound is too clean, and the CD is much too shiny. Still, the tunes just come pouring off the bloody thing, all three songs being quite lovable and ultrahummable. These children will snag you with their naggingly catchy hooks, and you will ask: Anyone for Sigue Sigue Sputnik ... without the irony? The biggest Bis-hit, "Knady Pop" (from The Secret Vampire EP), might be euphemistically described as "infectious" (i.e., annoying, but good). The EP's sleeve depicts it thus: "dumb=anthemic=teen-c chant". Listen to the sneering Rottenisms in the vocal line and wonder: Why aren't Bis supporting the Pistols on their money-for-old-rope reunion tour?

As Johnny and company well know, inspiration, like fame, sometimes strikes twice, but rarely does so three times. "Keroleen" (a split single with Heavenly's "Trophy Girlfriend") is mildly disappointing; a familiar stew of Bisisms that reminds us how quickly punk rebels can end up recycling themselves.

-- Andrew Goodwin

 
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