Graham Connah's Sour Note Seven
Pianist/composer Graham Connah is arguably the silliest serious bandleader in town. Perhaps you've seen him perform in bovine mask at premier beef eatery Harris', where he once worked for a spell as the unlikely house cocktailer, or maybe you've encountered his parched between-tune banter at hip jazz/improv hangs like Bruno's or Beanbender's. Since 1992, the former 'shroom-peddling leprechaun of UC Santa Cruz has crafted an unusual music-man image here in San Francisco that's at once off-kilter and rigorously sober. (That he cites celestial free-jazz pioneer Sun Ra and out-rock madman Frank Zappa as influences comes as no surprise.) One of the scene's most respected jazz composers, Connah tempers the absurdist bent of his lingual gymnastics with intricate scores that draw on the considerable chops of his Sour Note Seven bandmates -- clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, trombonist Marty Wehner, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Smith Dobson Jr., and Charming Hostess vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg. The arrangements on the wryly titled Gurney to the Lincoln Center of Your Mind, the bandleader's third self-produced recording, extend his concept of striking a balance between the fiery unpredictability of improvisation and the development of fully notated composition. The vocal tracks add an extra theatrical dimension to his work, with nutty lyrics like, "I live in terror of a Dred named Scott/ Those fidgety digity chops he's got/ The groove is phat his licks are mack/ Stay out of the way of his staccato attack," which reinforce Connah's self-styled role as perhaps the drollest, smartest songwriter in Bay Area jazz.

Lee Press-On & the Nails
Forget what you heard about swing music being safe for Mom and Pops. Lee Press-On & the Nails play swing from a time when hip flasks were mandatory, pants were bigger than cars, and spit doubled as hair tonic. The band consists of 10-plus cool cats from all over the Bay Area who dreamed of starting "the most feared jump-swing band." They succeeded. Frontman Lee Press-On -- who often wears a black-and-white striped zoot suit to complement his elevated hair and fangs -- commands the stage like a cross between James Brown and Pinocchio: a mojo-workin' fairy tale character wrapped in a sheet of blotter paper. Each band member, jumping, jiving, and stopping on a dime under the direction of their crazed bandleader, is at ease with both swing classics ("I'm Beginning to See the Light") and adrenalin rockers (Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher"). The Nails' debut record, Jump Swing From Hell, captures the group in their element -- threatening audiences with infectious rhythms and heat-tempered brass. It starts with a Dizzy Gillespie cover and quickly moves to the appropriately titled original "Big Pants Dance." Throughout the rest of the album, the band raises the roof with voodoo drumbeats, searing trumpet solos, and medleys that flirt with cartoon soundtracks. Somewhere in between, Lee Press-On provides a dictate for all of his listeners: "Yank those trousers higher than Corey Haim/ Because it ain't hip till you're in total pain."

Beth Lisick Ordeal
About four years back when poetry slams still ruled San Francisco's smaller clubs, one-time suburban mall rat Beth Lisick began reading her coming-of-age ruminations on guys, girls, work, shopping, clubbing -- basically, the stuff of life -- to word junkies at local hipster joints like the Chameleon and Paradise Lounge. Her clearsighted observations, brutal honesty, and pungent sarcasm almost at once drew high-profile attention. She performed in the Revival Tent on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour and a couple of years later started to appear around town with some of the more adventurous rock and jazz improvisers like Eskimo guitarist John Shiurba, Splatter Trio drummer Gino Robair, and saxophonist Dan Plonsey. In 1997, Manic D Press published Monkey Girl, Lisick's incisive debut collection of prose-poem shorts, featuring hilarious-horrific tales ("Devil's Vacation," "Elegy for a Greedy, Slothful Orthodontist") and essential mantras ("The Answer Is Plastic," "Nice Is Easy"). Later that year she mounted a successful DIY reading tour of the States, placed "Empress of Sighs" in the distinguished Best American Poetry anthology, and founded Beth Lisick Ordeal with Actual Size bassist George Cremaschi, Eskimo vibist David Cooper, and Eskimo/Tom Waits drummer Andrew Borger. Entertaining, provocative, and surprisingly musical, Lisick's charismatic spoken-word style meshes easily with the instrumentalists' unusual grooves. Equal parts quirky ambience, unpretentious lounge pop, and swinging/slamming jazz, the Ordeal's CD debut, Pass, on local Du Nord Recordings, should hit stores by mid-November. Though the group's eclectic sound may repel narrow-minded listeners, Beth Lisick's a magnet near impossible to resist.


Mexican wrestlers wearing chicken suits and tutus, synchronized flaming guitars, and throngs of fans pumping their fists in the air: For San Francisco punk band Ain't, it all comes with the territory, or at least it did last May, when the group filmed a video for their song "Drag You Down" at the Transmission Theater. "Drag You Down" is just one in a cache of quick-and-dirty rockers -- the kind that inspire kids to lock their bedroom doors, crank it up, and bounce off the walls -- from Ain't's most recent release, Washing the Blood Off. Jack Endino (the same Jack Endino who engineered L7, Nirvana, Hole, Mudhoney, and Babes in Toyland) sat at the controls for this album and the band's last, If It's Illegal to Rock and Roll, Then Throw My Ass in Jail, which both demonstrate the group's extensive punk and rock roots through their choice of material and collaborators. Endino supplied bass and Hazel's Pete Krebs played steel guitar for a killer cover of Brenda Lee's plaintive country number "Break It to Me Gently," and former Mudwimmin bassist Shug Lee weighs in on the Sonic Youth-like jam at the end of the arresting ballad "Que Dio a Luz." Old-school Boston punks may remember guitarist Sluggo from his days with Hullabaloo, but singer Laurian Rhodes' Portland hometown gets the nod throughout the Ain't catalog as well, from Elliott Smith's guest guitar work on Nope to Blood's final track, a cover of "Deep Sleep" by punk heavies Poison Idea.

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