Mecca Normal don't mess around with introductions. The opening sounds of "Medieval Man," the first track on the Vancouver band's ninth record, Who Shot Elvis?, come out with fangs fully bared. Over a low, sinister guitar line, vocalist Jean Smith growls, "If you know, if you know what a gun can do for you/ You know that the knee can produce a reaction in a jerk/ Who won't shut up." Another guitar, barely perceptible, shivers beneath Smith's words, like an electric eel flickering under the ocean's glassy surface.
Such is the uneasy listening of Mecca Normal, a duo that've never made music with the intention of being foot-tappingly accessible. And because there's plenty of music out there serving as aural wall-paper, Mecca Normal have never needed to. Since the release of their first album on their own Smarten Up! label in 1986, the twosome of Smith and guitarist David Lester have been aligned with anarchist punk, spoken-word art, and Riot Grrrl politics, but their approach has never held strictly to any particular political or artistic ideology. Their 1995 record Sitting on Snaps was the sound of the pair evolving into a band, with New Zealand musician Peter Jefferies on drums. (Jefferies and Smith also collaborate in the band 2 Foot Flame.) Who Shot Elvis? finds even more folks entering the fold -- Jefferies now sits in the producer's chair, the drum seat is filled by Charlie Quintana, and supplementary guitar is provided by Duane Crone. Still, the sound is as spare as ever; the focus remains on Smith's vocals and Lester's feedback wrangling as they alternate in an endless game of follow-the-leader.
In some places, though, the lineup allows for a few moments that totally -- dare say? -- rock. "Excalibur" begins with Smith reading the riot act to a disappointingly wimpy consort, after which the drums and guitar kick in; it's not exactly Bad Company, but the shake-your-ass adrenalin in the backbeat is almost terrifying. It fits oddly, yet perfectly, in with the rest of the stylistic gearshifting on Who Shot Elvis?, from the title track -- a galloping, western-soundtrack paean to American history -- to the singsongy "Step Into My Sphere," to the mournful slide-guitar of "Don't Heal Me Like a Dog Just to Break Me Like a Horse." The unifying factors are Smith's voice -- full of both the doomsaying dourness of a medieval witch and the clarity of a true punk believer -- and her lyrics, which convey multiple shades of menace in a single line.
On top of that, Smith's funny. The final song on the disc, "In Canada," finds her detailing the trials of a scorned lover over a somewhat generic series of folk chords; the poor guy rides through "the longest covered bridge in the world" to spy on his girl with another man. Smith parodies folk every which way: the romanticized loved, the lonesome journey, the physical hardships. But in the old days, the lover had an ally in the singer. Not anymore. When he finally finds her, all the cheating lass has to say is that he's covered in pigeon shit. "That's what happens," Smith deadpans, "in the longest covered bridge in the world." Mecca Normal aren't letting anyone off easy.
-- Andi Zeisler
When Disaster Strikes
Busta Rhymes is a rebel and a clown and much more than that. He refuses to play by the rules of pop culture: He doesn't fit into a handy stereotype that would simultaneously define and destroy his individuality. He's also smart, but not at the expense of his sense of humor, especially the ability to laugh at himself -- how else to explain his numerous music video cameos where he dances like he's channeling Jackie Chan reinterpreted by Rosie Perez?
Rhymes began with the Long Island, N.Y., Leaders of the New School, a young group discovered by Public Enemy's production outfit the Bomb Squad in the early 1990s. His raspy, gravelly rap style (unusual in hip hop, but somewhat common in his native Jamaica) and his sly wit differentiated him from his more straightforward counterparts. When the Leaders broke up after two fondly remembered commercial duds, Rhymes blew up: The Coming, his 1996 solo debut, went platinum and then some.
Now, barely a year later, he's stretching his ambitions with an 18-track meditation on the state of hip-hop culture. When Disaster Strikes is a sprawling work full of creative rhymes and clever samples. Even the obligatory Sean "Puffy" Combs-produced track doesn't depend on a nostalgic retread. Themes range from outrage toward a hip-hop culture that glorifies "hardness" (both parts of "Things We Be Doin' for the Money") to the underpinnings of contemporary black love ("One"). On the first, Rhymes says glorification creates violence; on the second, a duet with Erykah Badu only one track away, he wants black lovers to recognize but not stick with black nationalism's traditional patriarchy. It's bright, challenging stuff, but Rhymes' skill isn't spread evenly throughout this CD -- at times he's a revelation, but in other instances, even within the same song, he sounds like he's auditioning for a future in TV or movies.
When Disaster Strikes arrives at an interesting juncture in hip-hop culture. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie had little to do with an intramural East Coast-West Coast rivalry, but the music made in response to the tragedies has distanced itself from the caricatures promoted by the bicoastal rift. The result has cleared the way for both exciting experimentation and idle commercial gropes. Rhymes wants to break hip hop out of the still-standing dichotomy between being real and pop. He seems to know that when faced with an either/or proposition, the right answer is usually both or neither.
-- Martin Johnson
For a guy who once said, "I have very little interest in playing the guitar," Chicagoan Jim O'Rourke manages to get a lot of time in diddling around on Ye Olde Fretboards. Aside from accumulating a fairly hefty catalog of his own, the hyperprolific O'Rourke moonlights in experimental bands Gastr del Sol, the Red Krayola, and Brise-Glace, and has recently lent his singular talent to labelmates Smog and Edith Frost (on this year's Red Apple Falls and Calling Over Time, respectively). In between, O'Rourke has managed to spend a little bit of time behind the mixing board, pulling production duty for the likes of German noise pioneers Faust and Ohio electro-skronkers Brainiac.
Then again, the ubiquitous -- and, one would imagine, sleep-deprived -- O'Rourke also once claimed of his compositional process that "if a personal emotion comes into it, I throw it away." Listening to Bad Timing, O'Rourke's latest offering, one can only assume he's had a change of heart. Known for his keen manipulation of the electric guitar's idiom (1993's Remove the Need found O'Rourke "playing" his axe with a fan and weaving knives into the strings), the guitarist uses the four instrumentals that make up Bad Timing as an opportunity to explore his more recent interest in acoustic finger-picking. In this context O'Rourke, working heavily under the influence of flattop subversive savant John Fahey (whose latest, Womblife, O'Rourke also produced -- Jesus, this guy gets around), proves himself to be both a deft technician and an intriguing texturalist. It's the combination of these attributes, of course, that makes Bad Timing an engaging listen; "There's Hell in Hello But More in Goodbye," the album's leadoff track, begins with a sprightly, nimble, and ultimately innocuous melody -- the kind of thing any Macrame Manny might lift out of the Arlo Guthrie songbook in order to charm the bell-bottoms off of Patchouli Julie -- but truly gets interesting when O'Rourke veers off into the Land of Nods, interweaving an insistent pedal tone drone with pristine harmonics and daintily minimalist piano. Similarly, "94 the Long Way" meanders, O'Rourke's guitar gently pondering with pregnant pauses, until it hits pace with whispering organ and Ken Champion's lyrical pedal steel. The thing is, every second -- and most of the songs edge toward or shoot past the 10-minute mark -- is integral to the ultimate effect; the payoff necessitates that buildup. Time, anyway, is irrelevant throughout most of Timing. You only notice its passage after the last note is struck, the spell is broken, and you realize that you've spent the last 12 minutes in a fugue state that began on a steamship and ended on a camel.
Mood music? Sure. But the moods are ambivalent, conflicting, and ultimately indefinable. When O'Rourke lets his fingers do the walking, the destination is still unknown even when he gets there.
-- Tim Kenneally