Even though they dropped out of Philadelphia three years ago, Zen Guerrilla are an S.F. band -- and that's a good thing. San Francisco mainstream bands are pathetic (Counting Non-Blondes, Blind Eyes, and Crows), and the local indies are losing relevance fast. The ailing S.F. music scene needs a Zen Guerrilla infusion more than its participants know.
Zen Guerrilla opened a monthlong tour two Wednesdays ago at the Bottom of the Hill with Chicago's Cash Money supporting. With but two members, on guitar and drums, Cash Money sound beefy. Playing to a largely empty room, they valiantly strove to overcome the limitations of their instrumentation with a set of songs that used the blues as a launch pad and took off through rockabilly and grunge with frequent blasts of punk rock. Both players spent the set apparently deep in concentration, which allowed them access to their substantial musical gifts and kept the songs afloat, despite the fact that dynamics was the only tool they carried beyond the straight sounds of their amplified instruments.
Zen Guerrilla, who just released a 7-inch EP on Alternative Tentacles, move beyond the sonics of a traditional four-piece rock band by couching their songs in noise. While not a particularly novel approach, it works well enough to put distance between Zen Guerrilla and bands like Aerosmith or Lynyrd Skynyrd, two other muscular rock groups who use rhythm and blues as a touchstone, but not well enough to distinctly separate them from contemporaries like the Blues Explosion and the Delta 72. At the Bottom of the Hill, vocalist Marcus Durant drenched his glossolalia in a thick soup of digital delay and reverb, constantly adjusting it via the effects unit standing prominently downstage left. His guitar, absently groped before a few songs, emitted nothing but shrieks of feedback, which in turn flowed through the same effects console. The rest of the band was not so much tight as compact, the sounds of guitar, bass, and drums snugly fitting into one another like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle.
Zen Guerrilla have one attribute that marks them as fundamentally old-school punk: They look insane, and are as ugly as a snootful of crank. (When did all those pretty people start playing punk, anyway? It's wrong.) They look like the type of people who'd follow you home from a bar and never leave, forcing you, ultimately, to move.
This potential danger is certainly heightened by the music; Zen Guerrilla's songs have the distinct flavor of malice and threat. Durant crawled the stage shrieking with the microphone practically down his throat, but still demonstrated his honest ability to sing when necessary. Guitarist Rich Millman pulled riffs out of his instrument with a thrilling disregard for accuracy, while bassist Carl Horne and drummer Andy Duvall played so fiercely and tightly together that there was ample room for Millman's guitar to go off into dissonant and spacious leads without the power of the song suffering.
What you have here is simply a damn fine band with musical skill and the songwriting sense not to bore you with it. The energy Zen Guerrilla put into a small midweek show promises good things if there is ever a time when brave, original music can draw S.F. audiences like Neil Diamond- and ABBA-cover bands can today.
-- Paul Kimball
The Velvet Rope
There's more to Janet Jackson's career than a string of hit singles. Each of her last four albums boasts a thematic unity that makes them much more than the sum of their songs: Control (1986) was about assertion of adult independence; Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) traced the development of her social conscience; Janet (1993) celebrated the joys of love and was even kind of sexy. Her latest, The Velvet Rope, is about the inner resources that maintain a healthy level of self-esteem and the risks that such self-confidence can embolden you to take. As a whole, these four records -- chronicling Jackson's life from age 20 to 31 -- are a stunning body of work. Rarely has someone from such a dysfunctional family achieved adulthood with so much grace.
Jackson's music has grown more complex and nuanced with each recording. Given the Fiona Apple-/Tori Amos-ish theme, The Velvet Rope is refreshingly free of psychobabble. Jackson takes herself seriously, but doesn't spend a lot of time demanding that you do too. This position makes her songs work at many different levels. It's just as easy to groove on Vanessa Mae's contributions to the title cut as it is to delve into the metaphors about passion. Jackson and her producers, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, have good ears; they are especially adept at locating their own voice in styles they didn't invent. This leads to clever pastiches like the counterpoint of the Joni Mitchell "Big Yellow Taxi" sample with Q-Tip's low-key rapping in "Got 'Til It's Gone."
The Velvet Rope is less about finding one's self than broadcasting it. Jackson builds on the sexual provocation -- most notably her topless Rolling Stone cover -- that followed Janet. In the CD booklet she seduces the camera and models latex and nipple rings in one photo. Her interest in bondage is confirmed on songs like "Rope Burn." She also alludes to threesomes and same-sex relationships in "Free Xone," and lusciously covers Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" without heterosexing it up. Given her slow evolution over the years, her ventures into transgressive sexuality come off sincere, unlike the calculated titillation of Madonna's Erotica or the sexual machinations of L'il Kim or Foxy Brown. Instead of gunning for a cheap thrill, Jackson portrays her sexuality and desire as essential parts of her being; in the process she's reshaping the stereotype of the sexually confident black woman.
In striking contrast to her brother, Jackson is a major pop artist who isn't particularly interested in the privileges of her position. Instead, by matching the honesty in her lyrics with an easygoing accessibility, she seems simply to be letting us know what's on her mind. Rather than wrestling with pop artifice, Jackson has made a career of eliminating it.
-- Martin Johnson
The only thing rarer than a band like Portishead is an album like Portishead, the follow-up to the band's wildly successful debut, Dummy. What makes the group unique is how it constructs its musical palette: To an eccentric but not entirely original collection of premium breakbeats, electronic colorings, compulsively moody bass lines, and mod- and Mancini-inspired melodies they add the extravagant, haunting melancholia of singer Beth Gibbons. And what separates the recording from other contemporary trip-hop offerings (besides the fact that most pop bands self-title their debuts, not their sophomore efforts) is its simultaneous expansiveness and narrow-mindedness.
Portishead stays close to its trip-hop roots, and by association close to trip hop's hip-hop roots, devising the kinds of sonic schemes that progressives like Wyclef Jean (from the Fugees), DJ Shadow, Prince Paul (former De La Soul producer), and DJ Muggs (from Cypress Hill) will find inspiring, and maybe even a little threatening. With tunes like "Seven Months" and "Elysium," Portishead also seem to have tapped into a creative vein very similar to the shape-shifting sound of Wu-Tang Clan's Rza. Unlike the phony rappers who steal Rza's style in lieu of real creativity, Portishead's Geoff Barrow (drums, sampling, etc.), Beth Gibbons (the voice), and Adrian Utley (guitar, bass, and other instruments) make music that experiments with the same musical tropes.
"Elysium," for instance, is much less a deliberate musing on the possible direction of a progressive, hard-core hip-hop producer and much more Gibbons' very own private vocal conundrum. In one of the tune's darker moments, she whines in tuneful distress, "It's written in your eyes/ And how I despise myself/ But you can't deny how I feel/ And you can't decide for me." But no matter how engaging her lyrics, how morbidly playful, they are forgettable. It's all in how the vocal delivery crashes into the packaging: From scratchy and filtered like a cigarette ("Cowboys") to waiflike and fragile ("Undenied") to she's-having-a-bad-trip ("Half Day Closing") to unplugged ("Humming").
The net effect is, well, that you get to listen to the net effect. All by her lonesome, Gibbons could invoke the melodic intensity of the score to Hitchcock's Vertigo. But trip hop is about something different, about finding a different place and staying there. That space is a cross between emotional deluge and psychedelic otherness; Portishead works because the collective is able to descend into the depths of bittersweet sadness and frustration and despondency and blues and not only stay there, but make it danceable, endurable, and unforgettable.
-- Victor Haseman