Recordings

Come
Near Life Experience
(Matador)

You are perhaps aware that this record has been available for conspicuous consumption for months. If so, I hope you strapped on the feed bag, since it was without question one of the best records released this past piss-poor year. (Just thought I'd say so before time was up.) There are a few other bygone '96 CDs worth the redirection of your attention -- the Melvins' Stag, for reasons stated in July; the Louvin Brothers' Satan Is Real reissue, for bearing the greatest ingenuous album art in record-industry history; the Cherubs' Short of Popular, for further blurring the distinction between "stupid" and "great"; and, yes, goddamn it, even Odelay -- but to cite each of them with New Year's rearing up and all would beg an all-too-predictable numeric sequence, which in turn would only highlight the fact that I have yet to hear that ubiquitous Sleater-Kinney album. Oops -- there goes indie cred.

Least impressive of Near Life Experience's many coups is that lauded by most of the criterati -- namely, the fact that the record was produced at all. Come, you see, lost half their permanent lineup when bass player Sean O'Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson opted out. The split was actually a relatively minor hurdle, considering the fact that Come's unusual dual guitar mesh, as rendered by Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw, is what has always stood out. And even though a recent performance at Bottom of the Hill was more subdued than I expected, all of Come's, dare I say it, art was still in evidence. It's not just any earnest, depressive, humorless outfit -- singing about (unfortunately) pat subject matter like drug addiction and suicidal depression -- who can duck the heartless ridicule of reprobates like, uh, myself. Abrupt key, mood, and rhythmic changes like those on "Weak as the Moon" and "Secret Number" only further demonstrate Come's craft -- their ability to avoid typical verse-chorus structure while retaining emotional punch and without sounding like weak prog rock. And who else could pull off a seedy lyric like "Sitting still and pulling hairs/ From a comb I found underneath the stairs" ("Shoot Me First") while conveying heartbreak? An impending New Year's Eve isn't a good setting for auditing a death wish, but just wait until the morning after, when most of us will only wish we could die. Then try Near Life Experience, and discover how persuasive gloom can be. Just remember you have a whole new year to enjoy, or survive.

-- Michael Batty

Wilco
Being There
(Reprise)

An album's "live energy" has never particularly interested me. This concept was heavily bandied about in the early '70s, at that musical moment where so many bands stripped down and followed the Rolling Stones into the hinterlands to make "roots" music. In fact, by the time live energy -- that is, what you get when a bunch of folks sit around in a circle with jugs and washboards jamming on ol' Jerry Jeff Walker tunes with the recording light on -- is properly processed and digitized and ends up on my CD player, it seems as ludicrous a construction as if the band recorded one track at a time, during separate space shuttle missions over a 10-year period. And the vocabulary that's used to describe these albums -- words like "natural," or "organic." What is this? A Metamucil commercial? Or even worse, the word "warm," as in "a warm, live sound." Ooh, baby. That makes me think -- on a good day -- of porridge. And what do rock and porridge have in common? (I don't have a punch line -- the Eagles?) As a critic/consumer, I'd prefer a breakfast of Diet Pepsi and last night's Chinese. To make matters worse, these "warm" albums are invariably full of photos of the guys emoting next to mike booms and drum stands, with headphones on, caught in the creative moment. "Yeah," you're supposed to say, "that was one historic jam session."

Wilco's Being There is exactly -- nay, proudly -- this kind of album. A two-CD organic jam, with the photos to prove it. And there seems to be very little tongue-and-cheek to let us know that 24 years have passed since Exile on Main Street was released. That's not to say the album's bad. Jeff Tweedy has a wonderful, malleable voice, and is genuinely moving (emotionally, not intestinally) when he's sappy. Tweedy's accomplices are more than accomplished, and the songs vary nicely, ranging from Stones/Small Faces roots rock to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Spartan folk to the melancholic/melodramatic piano of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. No -- not bad, just conservative. Most of the songs on Being There seem designed to fit pre-existing forms (rock's Platonic Ideals): The instrumentation leans toward acoustic/tube amp purity; the guitar and fiddle and mandolin lines are set on infinite deja vu; the chord progressions, for the most part, stay clear of any fresh cow pie; and the lyrics even focus self-consciously, but earnestly, on this '70s organic/essentialist rock aesthetic. As Tweedy croons in "Sunken Treasure": "I was named by rock 'n' roll/ I was maimed by rock 'n' roll/ I was tamed by rock 'n' roll." I could have guessed. I was feeling kind of warm.

-- Curtis Bonney

Ghostface Killah
Ironman
(Epic Street/ERG/
Sony Music Entertainment)

Despite being as hard to hate as they are to love, Wu-Tang Clan is one of hip hop's most aggressive rap families. Their sonic tenor -- a gritty earful of baleful breaks, hard-boiled beats, brusque rhymes, and vintage-to-obscure kung fu and gangster flick samples -- sounds like nothing else on urban radio (although more and more of urban radio sounds like it).

Three years ago, their debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was designated the SUV (sport utility vehicle) of choice for part-time listeners eager to cross the wasteland separating hip pop from hip hop. And for die-hards committed to rap music and its culture, Enter was a sure-footed step in a new direction for an underground street art stymied by parasites from within and without.

Six albums later (one group and five solos), innovation and adoration continue to follow the Clan around like a pair of groupies. But while the Wu-Tang sound, engineered almost exclusively by Prince Rakeem (the Rza), remains the most "distinct" (used here in the pejorative) in rap, it's beginning to smell like status quo. Like solo albums two through five, Ironman spotlights the rhyme skills of one particular member (Ghostface Killah) and features cameos from other members of the 10-man unit. Or said another way, if you've heard one Wu-Tang record, you've heard them all.

A long album (17 tracks) that feels long, Ghost's debut is rarely playful, always ambitious, and painfully earnest. Kind of like De Palma's Scarface, minus the Hollywood morality play and given a spunkier cast of characters. To be sure, Ghostface Killah is a better than average MC with integrity and intensity to spare. And his rhymes stick to Rza's beats like red beans to sticky rice. But so do Raekwon's and Cappadonna's. And with all that sticking going on, the three of them together seem like a pretty solid package, until you introduce a constant like Method Man into the equation ("Box in Hand"). Suddenly, it becomes obvious that many of the tracks -- "Assassination Day," "Winter Warz," "Motherless Child" -- don't need Ghost to intrigue us.

And while Rza's production alone is reason to take note of the new album, it is also reason for concern. Every single Wu-Tang member save one (Masta Killah) has his own record deal, whether he really needs one or not, and Rza doesn't believe in taking breaks. After producing successful albums for Meth, ODB, Raekwon, the Genius, and Ghostface Killah, you'd think the brother would be ready for a trip to Disneyland, but solo albums from Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, and U-God are slated for release in '97 along with the group's follow-up. Sooner or later, something's got to give. And when it does, the Wu-Tang sound will deteriorate into a parody of itself.

-- Victor Haseman

Muhal Richard Abrams
Young at Heart/Wise in Time

Roscoe Mitchell Sextet
Sound

Joseph Jarman
As If It Were the Seasons

Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre
Forces and Feelings
(Delmark)

Pianist/composer/bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams and his cohorts in Chicago's South Side started the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965. Foremost, the organization provided ostracized jazz players with amenable showcases for their noncommercial works. It also offered free music workshops for the city's poor and endeavored "to stimulate spiritual growth in creative artists."

Present-day guru and wind instrumentalist Joseph Jarman has said that he was "like all the rest of the 'hip' ghetto niggers" before he joined Abrams' Experimental Band. With Abrams he "found something with meaning/reason for doing." In years to come, when the history of this period is reconsidered, Abrams' inestimable role in shaping the performers and philosophies of post-Ornette Coleman jazz will come to the fore.

Out of the quartet of early AACM records recently reissued by Delmark on disc, Abrams' Young at Heart/Wise in Time is by far the most accomplished. This 1969 album features the pianist in an extraordinary half-hour solo where silence and space share equal time with chord clusters, unannounced crescendos, and furious quickness. Abrams' virtuosic grace stands out above all. He evokes boogie-burning Earl Hines and two-fisted Cecil Taylor within the same logical lyricism, always wending his way back to the original theme with an occasional drama that's never cloying. The disc also documents saxophonist Henry Threadgill's monumental recording debut with power players Leo Smith (trumpet), Lester Lashley (bass), and Thurman Barker (percussion).

Roscoe Mitchell's Sound of 1966, the inaugural offering from the AACM and a seminal moment in the jazz evolution, exemplifies the collective's conceptual mission to seek out new and unusual ways to make the instruments sing. The tune "Ornette" is a worthy homage to the man responsible for jump-starting the "free jazz" movement of the time. By using offbeat instrumentation like recorder and harmonica, Mitchell and Lester Bowie demonstrate a visionary use of color on "The Little Suite." The magnum opus, "Sound," presented in two unedited versions on this reissue, underscores the range and vitality of the unaccompanied soloist (an AACM innovation) within the context of extended improvisation.

Joseph Jarman's As If It Were the Seasons of 1968 and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre's Forces and Feelings of 1970 point out the shortcomings of self-consciously "spiritual" music-making and strident, full-ensemble blowing in the inchoate days of free jazz. There are moments: Fred Hopkins' burly bass solos on the McIntyre disc and Jarman's African evocations on fife. But the minimally developed, multihorn blasts on Seasons are superfluous and obnoxious. Same goes for Rita Omolokun's post-gospel hippie vocals ("Wahoooo ...") on McIntyre's "Behold! God's Sunshine!"

Spiritual growth is often an essential factor in the creative musician's maturation. And it's the artist's responsibility to channel the power, lest the "spirited" moments overwhelm his or her judgment.

-- Sam Prestianni

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