Reviews

Hi Fi Killers
Jamaica
(Loose Groove)

Sly and Robbie
Drum & Bass Strip
to the Bone by Howie B
(Palm Pictures)

Sly and Robbie are reggae legends. The Riddim Twins. Kingston ghetto prophets. Old-school rockers who were there at the very beginning of dub reggae, which begat hip hop, which begat techno, which begat ... you get the idea.

The Hi Fi Killers, on the other hand, are a couple of young punks from Seattle.

So, guess who has the more traditional reggae record out?
Jamaica is a boisterous, sprawling mess, which throws a little hip hop down on some nasty breakbeats, takes off for the island, and comes back heavily stoned, thanks to the contributions of Jamaican artists such as Blackout and Scorpion and engineer Solgie Hamilton.

Hi Fi Killers' Johnny Horn and Kevin Lee Oakland first made a name for themselves with their devotion to '70s trash culture, throwing badass samples from cop-show themes together with soul and funk grooves. But now that even the Taco Bell Chihuahua is pissing all over that high concept, Hi Fi Killers have gone roots. On Jamaica, they attack reggae with all the fervor of the converted. For those who thought reggae had degenerated into indistinguishable paeans to pot, Jamaica offers an alternate vision.

"Like a Lion" comes on with an appropriate king-of-the-jungle swagger, thanks in part to an inspired performance from Blackout. The heavy beat of "I & I" gets the breathless Blackout treatment as well, and it's these two tracks, more than any others, that give Jamaica its militant flavor. They bind a record that ranges pretty freely from trippy instrumentals ("No Guts") to horn-laden soul anthems ("Tell Dem") to unapologetic, in-your-face hip hop ("Wrong Move Man").

For all the fun that's going on, though, it's hard to ignore the fact that Jamaica has a serious intent woven into the beats. Whether Horn and Oakland wanted to prove that reggae doesn't have to be insipid, whether they wanted to rescue the genre from New Age middle age and bring it back to the streets, or whether they just wanted to show that two guys with a tape machine hiding from the rain in the Pacific Northwest could be as crucial as any rude boy that ever was, the point's made.

Drummer Lowell "Sly" Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, for their part, have nothing to prove. As the rhythm section of choice for most of reggae's biggest acts in the '70s, the duo were as vital to the development of the music as the Stax rhythm section of Al Jackson and Donald "Duck" Dunn were to the development of soul. They've continued to play and produce together, both with the astounding Black Uhuru, and with famous clients such as Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, and Carly Simon, who've rented out the explosive Sly and Robbie dynamics to help put over otherwise tame material.

The addition of producer/DJ/all-around man of the moment Howie B amounts to piling on: It's almost unfair, like teaming Rodman with Jordan and Pippen.

Drum & Bass Strip to the Bone by Howie B opens with a cascade of white noise. Nothing too remarkable in that, except that the noise goes on and on and on, and then, just at precisely the right moment, not a nanosecond too soon or too late, it drops down about 20,000 feet into a bone-crushing funk groove. It's that uncanny, perfected sense of time that makes this record more than just a satisfying noodle session. There's an unmistakable aura of cool about it. Not the ephemeral novelty of hipness, but the eternal cool of William S. Burroughs or Miles Davis. The album does so with seeming effortlessness, and not without a good dose of humor (the cheesy space-pop touches on "Ballistic Squeeze"). It is as far from traditional reggae as, say, Seattle is from Jamaica. Hell, it isn't even a drum 'n' bass record, really. Don't be surprised if a whole new category has to be created just to contain the multitudes within this one brilliant album.

-- Brian Alcorn

Bottle Rockets
Leftovers
(Doolittle)

Like most good semipopular honky-tonk bands, Festus, Mo.'s Bottle Rockets are at their best when they're at their sloppiest. The finest moments on 1994's The Brooklyn Side were Brian Henneman's slurred potshots at hipsters like "Idiot's Lament" ("She likes Dinosaur Jr./ But she can't tell you why"), and "1000 Dollar Car," which cataloged the headaches of jalopy investments ("Might as well take your thousand dollars/ And set fire to it").

Even the sonic refinements of 1996's 24 Hours a Day couldn't completely erase the wry humor of a song like "Indianapolis." It's the only good song written about touring in recent memory; "On the Road Again" and "Wanted Dead or Alive" never got to the part about having to get your band's van towed by a guy who's proud of his arrest record for sexual assault.

The group's off-the-cuff approach all but ensures that an album of Bottle Rockets throwaways is a more appealing proposition than most bands' B-side compilations. Even less self-conscious than usual, Leftovers assembles a half-hour of tracks that stayed in the can after the recording of 24 Hours a Day. Tellingly, "Firebird" and "screw top red wine" are credited as instruments, and most of the songs are about drinking, though not always bad liquor: On "Coffee Monkey," Henneman's speedy guitar twang is a perfect match for his lyrical celebration of caffeination. And a sensitive side does appear on occasion. Cribbing its mood and part of its hook from Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," "Skip's Song" eulogizes a musician who fell victim to LSD and madness; Joe Flood's mandolin drives "Get Down River," Henneman's lament about the rural damage of a Mississippi River flood, where "it looks like the Gulf of Mexico down by the Texaco."

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