Recordings

Dr. Octagon
Dr. Octagonecologyst
Instrumentalyst
(Dreamworks)

Dr. Octagon, aka Kool Keith, is one of the great paradoxes in hip hop. Whether for his work on Dr. Octagonecologyst, the Mo' Wax import recently released in these parts by Dreamworks, or for his role in Critical Breakdown, the 1988 Ultra Magnetic MCs release, he has been dissed more than the police. And with good reason. His rapping lacks vigor. His writing is weak: The rhymes are poor fits for the beats, and he pays little attention to meter. In addition, his lyrical conception is unself-consciously sophomoric; 2 Live Crew was mature by comparison. If forced to live on his skills as a rapper, Kool Keith would have been reduced to panhandling years ago.

He wasn't. His old group was lauded for its production and samples, and this disc reflects a solid progression. Although it may not have been consistent progress: Four years ago, Keith told reporters from Urb that he spent some of the intervening years in a mental hospital being treated for manic depression. Nevertheless, he's everywhere now; he's had a hand in 15 releases in the last 18 months and has remixed a track on the new Prodigy release. Keith, now L.A.-based, has joined with two Bay Area colleagues, DJ Q-Bert and the Automator, to form Dr. Octagon. Although Dr. Octagonecologyst suffers terribly from Keith's weak rapping, its companion disc, Instrumentalyst, is a revelation. It features some of the most hypnotic, surreal sonic collages found on any hip-hop recording. The tracks are diverse -- edgy guitars drive one tune, and a string quartet starts another -- and well-sequenced on the album. The music never feels like it lacks a frontman.

These recordings point out a growing dichotomy in hip hop. A significant part of the music is about a proud maintenance of the inner teen-ager in us all -- a celebration of boisterous rebellion that enables hip hop to cross over to rock 'n' roll precincts far more easily than the stylized vehemence of an Erykah Badu ever could. However, the DJ movement, from Shadow to Goldie to UFO to Tricky to the Chemicals to Krush and back again, is about growing up, but not growing complacent. Swiping music from whatever source feels right without regard to its baggage implicitly accepts the polyglot nature of originality. Rather than defining individuality as something apart from the whole, it defines individuality as something within the whole. Kiss paranoia goodbye -- there are better things to spend energy upon, like finding more cool music. Dr. Octagonecologyst and Instrumentalyst suggest that Kool Keith is pretty adept at being an adult, but he makes a lousy kid.

-- Martin Johnson

Fuck
Pardon My French
(Matador)

In equal proportions, Fuck are about gimmick and contradiction. The band's name says as much -- Fuck want people to pay attention to them. On a record, a marquee, or a flier, the name is belligerent, lewd, and impossible to ignore. Their music, however, is full of beauty, simplicity, and restraint.

On their last two records, Fuck always seemed in control of their dynamics, or the musical contradictions playing between -- not within -- tracks. On the first full-length, early 1996's Pretty ... Slow, the band used spare instrumentation and quiet, breathy vocals to lure listeners into minimalist songs both fragile and elegant. Within those, Fuck seemed content with being soft-spoken. But for every two slow songs there was a more aggressive (hardly the right word, but we're talking context here) number to snap synapses and pull listeners out of lulls. The subsequent Baby Loves a Funny Bunny reversed that pattern, making it a more fun platter with a couple of downright upbeat tunes with catchy hooks.

Pardon My French, the mostly Bay Area-based Fuck's big-time debut on Matador, ditches the philosophy of the last two records. Here, Fuck sound like they want to make their songs more severe and dissolve the soft-hard(er) juxtaposition in favor of grueling sessions of slower stuff. It's more like the torturous somnolence of Low and less like the mood swings of Bedhead.

The record doesn't begin that way. "Li'l Hilda" is a minute-and-a-half wake-up song with a gimmicky alarm clock ringing throughout the entire track. The bell continues until the drums kick in on "Fuck Motel," the album's most upbeat number -- a bass-driven tune with country undertones similar to Pretty's "Hide Face."

But then the record drops from 45 to 33 and lurches toward despair. "Le Serpent" is an uncomfortably serious midnight song with almost hokey biblical overtones. "Bestest Friend" is the remedy, complete with a typical play on language (like "Wrongy Wrong" in the past). Then, for four more songs the record goes deeper. "Compromise" is a depressing take on interpersonal alienation. "One Lb of Indiana" promises a ticket out of sullen city, with a buzzing bass that builds to a weak climax. However, the song breaks and leaves us only with the great lyrics, "All I need is a pound of Indiana."

Finally, "Raggedy Rag," with its Louisiana guitar line and short verse, lessens the emotional load of the album. After that, Fuck are back to themselves. "Dirty Brunette" clocks in as a lyrical heavyweight that doesn't topple its music. Stylistically, "Thoroughfare" is comfortably experimental, featuring horns, organ, xylophone, and muttering background voices -- consistent with Fuck's usual gimmicks and contradictions. Unfortunately, it sticks out on a record that trims both.

-- Jeff Stark

Alison Krauss & Union Station
So Long So Wrong
(Rounder)

Fiddler and vocalist Alison Krauss' extracurricular passions include such oddly matched activities as producing the prim, delightful gospel act the Cox Family and headbanging on roller skates to the strains of florid '70s rock music. Much is made of her appreciation of blending in with her backup band, Union Station, and this is reflected in her unassuming, almost perfunctory stage persona.

Much is also made of AK&US's fine instinct when it comes to placing decorative motifs and textures, allowing them to cover just about any species of song outside the perimeters of the bluegrass compound whilst remaining wholly themselves. With this latest album, they have widened their focus to welcome newer material, with a hazy washing of tones, and breezy, slight background voices. While not exactly one of those Daniel Lanoisian electrical ferment affairs -- the rustling of centuries can still be heard in this acoustic pastoralism -- you can spot the occasional modern glint of something plugged in.

Lovers of tradition will be reassured every time the relentless churning of Ron Block's sagely picked banjo looms to the fore. But beware the pre-emptive poke in the eye that comes from AK&US's madcap version of "Little Liza Jane," an instrumental all lit up by red-eyed Hot Club fiddling. Anyone thinking they can't do the old stuff anymore had better shut up.

Krauss' voice sounds more heavenly than ever, with that slo-mo hummingbird wings vibrato and what writer Tony Scherman identified as a "pouting" quality. Her singing now has a coquettish nobility, both in diction and timbre, at times sounding like a (very, very young) Marianne Faithfull. She has a gift for grasping the essence of something and taking it elsewhere. Evidently this technique worked for her during the Def Leppard listening binge she went through while making this collection. She told USA Today how that band's layering techniques inspired the AK&US entity to multitrack those traditionally solitary instruments -- quite startling in a genre where one player equals one piece of sound. You might hear it in the entry points in the choral phrasing, or the wonky swerves of a fiddle familiar with essence de mid-'80s axe wank. All this is distilled in much the same way expert perfumers reduce the repulsive gland secretions of small mammals. Thankfully, we would never know.

-- Cath Carroll

Jean Michel Jarre
Oxygene 7-13
(Epic)

The various radar blips, canned swooshes, and warm Velveeta beats found in the work of Jean Michel Jarre were never quite my idea of good, or even bad, music per se. They were more like cues from some lost new-wave space opera, replete with mylar bodysuits, wraparound shades, and David Bowie. But seeing as how these assorted noises appeal to certain folk (my older brother among them) who are also given to awkward adult pastimes (cyberpunk, D&D, Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Trek conventions, making a killing in the field of computer programming and electronics), I thought I'd give Jarre's latest collection of Gallic android strains, Oxygene 7-13, a close listen -- just to figure out the allure. The dorks are, after all, the new nouveau riche -- not as ruthless, bellicose, and interesting as the old railroad barons or Texas oilmen, perhaps, but just as tacky, and, in their way, taste-makers and market-drivers. And the press releases that now extol Jarre as "the godfather of electronica" (suppress that gag reflex) indicate hope on the part of Epic Records that there's room for the old French synthesizer-izer on the anti-grav bandwagon.

Jarre released his first Oxygene album in 1977. I wasn't aware that this was some sort of landmark, but the press materials assure me that it was. True, anyone who's heard the mellifluvia of Keith Emerson, Evangelos "Vangelis" Papathanassiou, Kitaro, and the like has heard people clearly influenced by Jarre. But anyone who's listened to older, more formless, and far more experimental works like that of Edgard Varese, John Cage, and the Barrons knows that electronic sounds got a lot further "out there" before Jarre was even a grown-up than they have since. (And yes, that includes electronica.) None of which detracts, really, from Jarre's work, or shines a black light on his intentions. He is, after all, the son of prolific soundtrack composer Maurice Jarre (who's scored everything from Doctor Zhivago to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and probably has nothing but sincere motives. But his material is simply not that interesting when compared to that of his predecessors. While not abject, Oxygene 7-13 (and the whole Jarre catalog) is certainly not potent. Its tracks, named in numeric sequence from "Oxygene 7" through "Oxygene 13," offer narrowly variated dynamics, simple melodies, and reams and reams of sound effects. You can al-most see how fans might translate the sounds with their heated imaginations (Sssshhhwwooooow! That was an asteroid zooming by! Peeeeeeeyow! That's the nose cone of our warp sled jittering on re-entry! Ffffffbap! That's the Venusian chimichanga I had for lunch!). Whether or not through-composed or intended to stand on its own, Jarre's work only sounds like accompaniment. No wonder a lot of science-fiction fans seem to like it -- Jarre's sort of pop art, like sci-fi, seems to be about the communication of awe. Not awe itself, but the tell of it -- the impression of awe happening elsewhere, to someone else. And without a cheesy movie to go along with it and keep it complementary, Oxygene 7-13 leaves me wanting awe of my own.

-- Michael Batty

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