Reviews

Various Artists
Audio Alchemy 2
(Ubiquity)

DJ compilations promising new experiments in beats and sampling are about as rare as furniture and equally exciting. In the past two years, two excellent compilations -- the turntablist-heavy Return of the DJ Vol. 1 and Audio Alchemy, an experiment in beat restructuring from DJs like Cut Chemist, Wally & Swingsett, and Sharpshooters -- sent underground record companies on a frenzied star search that quickly depleted a relatively shallow talent pool. All the labels turned up were cookie-cutter turntablists who overlooked innovations in production and sampling in favor of mimicking the masterful scratching and beat juggling of their forebears.

But the collection of DJs on Ubiquity Records' Audio Alchemy 2 schools the subpar lot with a course in Sound Manipulation 101. Alchemy 2 is a glimpse into the twisted minds of producers and DJs (many from the bubbling San Francisco scene) hellbent on tearing down established beats with a sample-driven jackhammer and then reconstructing them with creative production. Going beyond the first Alchemy's beat obsession, the new record proves that production tools are as important as turntable scratches in etching the future of DJ music.

A common refrain among contemporary turntablists is that scratching is key to being a true DJ. While there's some truth to the claim, several cuts on Alchemy 2 -- particularly N.Y. DJs Ming and the Mac's sample-driven and almost scratch-free groove "Sugar Kane" -- prove they're oversimplifying. Turntablists can create diverse grooves yet fall short of the rich, dense worlds that truly innovative production elicits.

"Weightless," Thievery Corporation's surreal, futuristic ambient piece -- straight out of a sci-fi version of a James Bond movie -- sets a tone that resonates through the rest of Alchemy 2. On "Colors and Squares," San Francisco DJ Andrew Jervis and producer Dave Biegel, collectively known as Bugs, twist this feeling into a midtempo jazz cut that sounds like Coltrane with a turntable. Also from the city, DJ Darkhorse uses his track, "Dr. Strange," to invoke the spirit of the Gardening Club -- a once-important experimental S.F. DJ showcase -- with murky, rolling bass lines that shuffle along, interlaced with glass timpani samples. Finishing the compilation is "Atmosphere" by J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science, a strong track of dub-heavy hip hop that sounds like kicking it on a Buddha Thai cloud with Shiva herself.

By the time Boogie's beat drops away, the instructional genius of Alchemy 2 doubles. Besides schooling today's DJs on the importance of production and skills, the record allows the next set of independent labels to make a choice before releasing their own so-called experimental compilations: Innovate, or take a seat.

-- Robert Arriaga

Roni Size & Reprazent
New Forms
(Talking Loud/Mercury)

Although it's been a little more than two years since drum 'n' bass started its run as the new "next big thing," only in the last few months has any music surfaced that truly substantiates the claim. The genre then known primarily as "jungle" had been a staple of British nightclubs for years when in late '95 Goldie's Timeless grabbed American media attention. Despite his charisma (and block-rockin' body), Goldie's sound was for the most part one-dimensional: chattering drum beats mixed with smooth-jazz synthesizer washes and classically trained female vocals. The sound made a delightful novelty, but offered scant evidence of an emerging genre.

A few years before and concurrent with jungle's emergence, the musical sophistication of Portishead, Tricky, and Massive Attack established trip hop as something more than a Beth Gibbons moan, a Martine Topley-Bird wail, or a subdued Nellee Hooper beat. The savoir-faire of those groups elevated the fragmented pieces from pleasant ideas to elements of a style. More recently, acts on a similar mission for drum 'n' bass have arrived in droves. Some of the best albums include both of Spring Heel Jack's releases, 68 Million Shades and Busy Curious Thirsty, and Alex Reece's So Far. But easily the best yet is Roni Size & Reprazent's New Forms.

Size is from Bristol, home of the aforementioned trip-hoppers, and he brings a comparable musical savvy to the unabashedly ambitious New Forms. Spread over two discs, the new album is proudly arty in songs like "Destination." That cut's dense, well-articulated layers and pedestrian -- rather than Indy car -- beats per minute make it better suited for home stereo than the dance floor. Rather than rely solely on texture or clever use of samples, Size's music creates dazzling, catchy rhythms -- often with acoustic bass lines -- then fucks with them; it's the DJ experience fully articulated into the compact disc player.

Size prefers the word "universal" to "pop" in reference to his music. He backs it up by forging strong bonds with other related styles: "Brown Paper Bag" locks into a walking jazz beat; "Railing" uses dancehall-style toasts; and the title track features low-key scat-rapping from Philadelphia-based hip-hopper Bahamadia. The CD's best track, "Watching Windows," easily reads as a Hooper tribute. With his unique brand of jungle, Size plunges into the mainstream, without letting it whitewash his most uncommon characteristics; it's integration without assimilation.

Size beat out Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Spice Girls, Beth Orton, and others for the coveted British Mercury Music Prize. Given that and the concurrent run of media hype, a backlash from the underground may be imminent. But New Forms is an outstanding album and would tower over what's out there even without the buzz. It deserves to survive the slew of knee-jerk responses.

-- Martin Johnson

Neko Case & Her Boyfriends
The Virginian
(Mint)

Virginia-born Neko Case's first solo album, The Virginian, offers 12 tracks of straight-faced, irony-free sounds that don't seem to care whether they're alternative, hillbilly, or anything in between. As the drummer/vocalist for Vancouver's bad-girl punkabilly trio Maow, Case has parlayed her long-standing love of all things country into a repertoire that includes, among other things, a rip-roaring cover of Wanda Jackson's "Mean Mean Man," and a my-Hank-Williams-can-beat-up-your-Eric-Clapton ditty called "Very Missionary." The Virginian heads deeper into the genre, and though one or two songs here wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a "new country" playlist -- notably the polished, poppy "High on Cruel" -- on the whole, The Virginian settles into its own brand of aural Americana like an old gingham tablecloth.

The album has a bit of everything: There's twangy, swinging, slide-guitar country ("Timber"), sore-hearted-ballad country ("Somebody Led Me Away"), and goofy, "Achy Breaky"-dance country ("Honky Tonk Hiccups"). There's Everly Brothers country ("Bowling Green") and Ernest Tubbs country ("Thanks a Lot"). There's even Freddie Mercury country -- a category that, admittedly, may not have existed previously, if not for Case and company's cover of the Queen song "Misfire" -- a duet that has Case and one of Her Boyfriends, Matt Murphy, trading lines over a chugging guitar line and rapid-fire backbeat, and ultimately exploding into soaring, perfectly imperfect harmony. It's one of the album's several toe-curlingly beautiful moments.

The Virginian's original material uses tradition for a starting point, but Case can't hide her punk/garage past on tracks like the whooping-and-hollering rockabilly rave-up "Karoline," which has the same spit-in-your-drink pissiness that characterizes Maow. Then again, some of these tunes are downright mournful: Case loops her silvery lasso of a voice around the gospel-tinged title track, a downbeat tale of a girl who "fell away from the side of the Lord." The vocal sob on that song would make George Jones himself snap to attention.

Despite the stylistic branch-swinging on The Virginian, there's a truly cohesive feel that comes not only from Case's obvious affection for her material, but also from Her Boyfriends, the group of 13 musicians who back her up with various combinations and capacities. Among the Boyfriends are bluegrass musicians, lap-steel supremos, and Canadian indie luminaries from wise-ass bands like the Smugglers and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, all of whom see to it that not a moment is wasted on instrumental flab, indulgent backbeats, or overbearing harmony. Honest and honestly enjoyable, Neko Case's new album might not cut through contemporary country's Velveeta, but it does show that the heart of country still beats in The Virginian, if not Nashville.

-- Andi Zeisler

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