Recordings

Frank Zappa
Have I Offended Someone?
(Rykodisc)

Have I Offended Someone? probably won't offend anyone. In fact, it is hard to imagine this album offending anyone even back in 1973 when the first of its 15 tracks was originally released. Put together by Zappa in the final months of his life, this album is, by his stated intentions, a "best of" collection for his satirical years. And no one (except bitter straight white wanker nerdballs) shall be spared: gays, Catholic girls, hippies, Valley girls, the record industry, Jewish princesses, rednecks, badass black folks. Zappa's is a bad satire -- worse than (though reminiscent of) those grim Saturday Night Live skits where the strokes are painted so broad that it's hard to tell what exactly is being ribbed. "I like your peeennis!" shouts the spastic comedian. "I'm gaaaay!" That's the joke? It wouldn't rate a titter in the third grade. I'll admit Zappa's storytelling technique sucks you into the song immediately, but this suction is always accompanied by a steady wince at his endless, predictable rhymes ("Dumb all over, yes we are/ Dumb all over, near and far/ Dumb all over, black and white/ People, we is not wrapped tight"), his stupid plot twists (such as the devil's arrival in "Titties and Beer"), his penchant for insipid bathroom humor ("Bobby Brown Goes Down"), and his smug collection of goofy caricatured voices (everywhere). Not to sound like his older sister or anything, but Zappa was so immature. In "Tinsel Town Rebellion," when he tries to take down Devo for being shallow by mocking a couple bars of "Whip It," he comes off not only as the shallow one, but as blatantly spitting up those sour grapes you knew were always there. Why? Because Zappa, in spite of his risque mention of titties and caca and golden showers, was a bitter moralist -- even more so than his archnemesis, Tipper Gore. He was simultaneously turned on by what he saw as our cultural excesses and too scared to pull out his thrumming pecker.

But then, thank god, there's music to lift his preschool satire to a higher plane. Or not. Slick, soulless noodling, ranging from borderline jazz fusion to zany overproduced doo-wop -- all of it stuffed full of musicological in-jokes that more often than not serve to mock the topic being poorly satirized. Granted, not every musician could play along with Zappa's strange time signatures and unpredictable key shifts, but those who succeeded -- the Terry Bozzios and Steve Vais -- aren't given any credit here. Maybe it's better that way. None of these songs rise above cheap novelty. If you want satire, read David Sedaris. If you want weird, difficult music, listen to Captain Beefheart.

-- Curtis Bonney

Us3
Broadway & 52nd
(Blue Note)

It really is a shame that the fusion of jazz and hip hop had its MTV moment before any of its musical alchemists perfected the concoction. During the first blast of hype, most of the recordings were awkward and clunky, more suited for ethnomusicological presentations than parties (unless your idea of a party is hanging out at an espresso bar). However, the union of these disparate styles foreshadowed the wonderful, dazzling array of polyglot hybrids in the electronica and organica dance worlds. Acid jazz -- yes, a term that everyone involved hates -- established itself a niche in the music world.

Us3's second recording, Broadway & 52nd, is an odd testament to the staying power of this subgenre. In contrast to the highly successful mixtures of hip hop and jazz offered by Steve Coleman, the Roots, Vernon Reid, and Graham Haynes, among others -- all of whom bring musical elements including rock, blues, and ambient into their recipes -- Us3's disc is just jazz and hip hop. It represents a back-to-basics approach, an old-school revival in a brand-new academy.

Us3's snazzy use of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" as the underpinning for clever rapping made their single "Cantaloop" into a smash success three years ago. It was intended as a novelty, but its success forced a hurriedly-pieced-together recording that sounded, well, like a rush job. There was a positive result, though -- the creators, Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson, had to put together a touring group, and the music soon lost its studio-based tidiness and became a messy, created-in-the-moment jazz band sound. Comparatively, Broadway & 52nd is a refreshingly solid recording. Horn solos pick up right where raps leave off and vice versa. Rather than the wholesale sampling that characterized the debut recording, Hand on the Torch, the samples here contribute to an independent song structure. Rappers KCB and Shabaam Sahdeeq are superior wordsmiths to their predecessors, and their rhymes flow to rather than against the lithe beats.

Still, there is a nagging sense that all this musicality is much like the nattily dressed couple who arrive after the party has moved on to the next stop. The jazz-hip hop thang is too old to be new and too new to be retro. As a pop event, it's off the mark, but on the boombox it swings and keeps heads ringing.

-- Martin Johnson

Cranes
Population Four
(Dedicated)

It must be gratifying for a goth-rock act to have their latest release touted as "scariest of the year," and this is certainly the sort of regard that Population Four earns. Even if it is of the latter-day, black-velvet-and-roses cut of goth, where there's more finery and fewer severed heads -- dinner goth, if you will, and you must. Cranes -- no "the," thank you -- are an English quartet who've been doling out this sort of scare since '91, however imitative it may be. But here we turn from the usual array of flying-buttresses-on-a-decrepit-cathedral praise for the genre -- the general evocation of egocentric despair and gloomy-to-harsh instrumentals, territory better navigated by that other, better, now defunct bird-named act -- and point out the inadvertent way in which Cranes have always excelled: Alison Shaw's vocals. Old press clips downplay its quality by describing it as a "babyish voice" or a "pre-pubescent vocal lilt" or "the character of a child trapped in the body of an adult." But listen, we're not dealing with anything so cutesy-poo. Instead, Shaw must be some sort of elf. And not a cheerful toy-building Christmas elf, nor a Keebler cookie elf, nor even a stalwart, sword-slinging Dungeons & Dragons dork-out elf -- no, I'm thinking of the sort of leering, pointy-eared creature you might, on some bleary Sunday morning while venturing outside for the paper, discover molesting your lawn gnomes. The kind of annoying house sprite that toothless serfs used to placate by dropping cat hair in the butter churn, or some such. The type of tiny, hypersonic dental-drill troll that Norwegians would shoo away from the gravlax. Shaw's simply cannot be a human voice -- child, midget, conjoined twin, or otherwise. And if it's the product of studio manipulation, it could be used more effectively in a voice-over for some pedophilic version of a Grimm's tale. Listening to Population Four creates the overwhelming desire to commit superstition -- only most of us these days don't have butter churns, even if our apartments are chock-full of cat hair. The horror. The horror.

-- Michael Batty

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