Dirty Three
Horse Stories
(Touch and Go)

Why Australian instrumentalists Dirty Three should have piqued the interest of higher-profile supporters and tourmates like Pavement, Sonic Youth, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Nick Cave, the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Rickie Lee Jones -- I shrug heartily (and blush from all the name-dropping). Granted, like those more bankable interests, they're weirdos, prone to fits of experimentation (yup, noise). Unlike the others, however, they have (obviously) no vocals, and, short of those gusting moments toward the end of various cuts on Horse Stories where structure dissolves and tonality's no more a concern than a stray sheet of toilet paper trod underfoot, they're rather homey. Their music is, in fact, pure folk. Not like that of a hootenanny or a be-in, mind you: Everything's stripped (like Jim White's unpredictable and entirely rocking drum accents) and expressive (like Warren Ellis' fiddle, which often sounds like it's breathing), and you certainly couldn't picture a hirsute Guthrie sitting in for a spell. Good thing, too. Instrumental music of this caliber would only suffer by being paved with some moist-lipped protest song or ode to Paul Bunyan.

What I mean by "folk music" is instead a more genuine sort of collaboration, in which so many modern bands forget they're participating, where everyone has a spontaneous and equal say in the construction of the music. In Dirty Three, the drum kit, violin, and guitar all speak an equal piece, though their roles by necessity remain defined: Drums play in and around the rhythm, guitar provides the harmonic meat, and violin injects melody and sound effects. Any of these tracks -- whose titles, like "Hope," "Warren's Lament," and "Sue's Last Ride," are essentially just conveniences for referring back to specific instrumentals -- could have been constructed only moments before the recording session, and it's a testament to the talent of all involved that none of the tracks feel like filler.

That's not to say that Horse Stories is an untouchable, vacuum-sealed masterpiece. When music is this spontaneous, it's prone to roughshod characteristics. Several of the tracks fall back on a predictable form in the key of E -- a sort of distorted flamenco where everything splashes about and squeals like a greasy, lewd otter. But this speaks also to that wonderful quality of instrumental music, where you need lend it only as much attention as you'd like. Horse Stories is equally contemplative and carnal; which is to say, both and neither. Depending on your mood (and, I guess, the stereo volume), it can envelop you like an overly affectionate, dyspeptic amoeba or bore you half to fucking death. Unlike many of the notables mentioned up top, at least there's the former option.

-- Michael Batty

The Hi-Fives
And a Whole Lotta You!
(Lookout)

If you'll kindly hum an old Kinks-style garage rock riff, I'll let the Hi-Fives address the topic: "Play smart and you're dumb/ Believe me man it's been done/ Try not to succumb -- Smart and Dumb have been known to do lunch" ("Say What'cha Want"). Yes, there are indeed many ways to define intelligence, and in the music biz, as the Hi-Fives deftly remind us, one of them is knowing how to access the building blocks of rock.

1) Respect your audience; wear uniforms. With idiots like that Prodigy guy marching around in a bee suit showing off his bald spot, much less the general level of hyperbolic '70s fashion, the Hi-Fives are positively rad as they whip their ties around and sweat up their streamlined suits.

2) Keep the chops simple and catchy, tight, gritty-clean. Don't bother with "experimental" chords. Remember: Rock is about the kids getting out there and shaking their asses. Give them something to shimmy to. Remember the antithesis: that guy from Jethro Tull prancing around in a karate suit diddling his flute.

3) Be relentless. Never pause for more than a four count between songs. Drummers take note: Frenetic energy is your responsibility. Steal your mom's Dexatrim if you have to, or your little brother's Ritalin. Round off the edges with a six-pack of Schlitz. But pound those skins like there's no tomorrow.

4) Sing melodies about obsessive teen desire -- no wandering, mystic forays into the land of elves. Let the lyrics fold in on themselves until all meaning becomes opaque, and desire boundless: "We could go for a walk and call it a stroll/ Have a talk and call it a chat/ I wouldn't really care/ Nothing at all just as long as I'm where you're at" ("I'll Take You There").

5) Have the background vocals jump in with simple harmonies on words like "Whoa" and "Yeah-yeah-yeah." Leave Pet Sounds to the Beach Boys. When you can, accent "you." It should go without saying that at least 90 percent of your songs should be in the direct address. With the other 10 make sure to use "girl" or "boy," never "lady" or "bitch" or "bad-ass dude."

6) When in doubt (or hyperventilated), play a quick and twangy surf-oriented instrumental. Or break out your favorite cover tune from the Sonics or the Clash or the Dave Clark Five -- or Soft Cell, as the Hi-Fives have done with a snappy rendition of "Tainted Love."

7) Spit on anyone who calls you a conservative, a music fascist, a retro freak. Tell them you voted Nader. Then turn up the treble. Play your crunchy Kinks licks faster. Sweat and sing: "I've studied hi-stor-y, yet I'm doomed to repeat/ Sense makes a retreat all because of you" ("Black and Blue"). Have fun.

-- Curtis Bonney

Sandra St. Victor
Mack Diva Saves the World
(Warner Bros.)

"I don't like men in cages/ Just let me be outrageous," sings Sandra St. Victor on her long-awaited solo debut, Mack Diva Saves the World. No one is stopping her anymore. She is smart, savvy, and sexy on her own terms. For St. Victor, this means pouring the spirits of Bessie Smith, Chaka Khan, and Patti LaBelle into an African-American post-feminist cat suit all her own, with platforms and Afro puffs to match. Her volatile mix makes a potentially sex-kittenish purr like "I want to cross the ocean/ Wearing just desire and lotion" into a lioness' rumble.

St. Victor has had to fight for her right to party. A longtime session singer and backup to Khan, Freddie Jackson, and others, she first arrived with the Family Stand, an iconoclastic black rock group who scored one hit, "Ghetto Heaven," and won loads of critical acclaim despite mainstream radio neglect. St. Victor originally signed to do a solo project for Elektra, but when Sylvia Rhone, the honcho who dropped the Family Stand, took over that label, St. Victor was freed to look for a new deal. Under these circumstances, she, and not some Versace mannequin, could tattoo the word "slave" on her cheek.

For all of St. Victor's, um, alternative cred, Mack Diva sounds like a fairly conventional bit of black pop. Most of the tunes range from ballad to midtempo. There is only a touch of hip-hop influence, and its hour-plus length seems strikingly radio-friendly. However, below its commercial surface lies the kind of record that Mary J. Blige might make if she survives a decade of fame. St. Victor's songs tell of a struggle between longing and self-reliance, desire and prudence, as well as what she wants and what she'll settle for. And as you may have figured out by now, she isn't the kind of woman who makes compromises easily.

-- Martin Johnson

Marisa Monte
A Great Noise
(Metro Blue)

In recent years, Brazilian pop has fused with a wide diversity of world music elements to produce a label-defying form of music. The undisputed queen leading the pack is the vocally gifted Marisa Monte. With A Great Noise, she proves it's no longer the Technicolor Samba of Carmen Miranda or the sedate strains of bossa nova jazz that characterize the music of Brazil. She and her contemporaries cruise a vast musical terrain. Monte's album, made in collaboration with longtime producer Arto Lindsay, combines studio sessions with live performance for a package that embraces Bahia reggae, indigenous funk, and the aesthetic richness of the '60s "Tropicalia" movement, along with highlights from her "Rose and Charcoal" tour a couple of years ago. Monte perfumes her songs with an expressive passion and saudade (that sad, bluesy yearning so important to the character of Brazilian music), using an operatic soprano to scream and growl, tease and tantalize. On the three studio cuts, she teams up with Carlinhos Brown, one of the most innovative and charismatic stars on the scene today. His "Arrepio" opens the date with the lilt of a lullaby and a drone that transforms into a choral rainbow; Monte soars sweetly over his acoustic guitar and a mat of bells and light percussion. Gilberto Gil's "Cerebro Electronico," which was written around '69 when he was on the shitlist of the military dictatorship for his protest songs, gets a rockish face lift with its prescient condemnation of computers.

Yet it's the live stuff, taken from performances in Rio and Recife, that showcases Monte's flawless talent. The flow and sequencing is perfect, with enthusiastic audience sounds that draw you in. Pieces like George Harrison's "Give Me Love" are flavored with tinges of accordion and the mandolinlike bandolim for a forro color. The sequence of "A Menina Danca" ("The Girl Dances") and "Danca da Solidao" ("Dance of Solitude"), written by sambista Pauhlino da Viola, has me going ape, but it's all so vibrant and tingly it will certainly have you dancing. The cover art features the underground porn of Carlos Zefiro, who printed crudely drawn mini-soap opera comic books in the late '50s during the military regime -- but it's Monte who soars, and who will certainly capture your heart if you let her.

-- Jesse "Chuy" Varela

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