The next time you curse that horrible racket your roommate considers music, thank your lucky stars you don't have the bedroom next to mine. One night I “inadvertently” roused a slumbering flatmate with the sound of Merzbow at wall-rattling volume; the next day he told me that what scared him most about awakening to the sonic snowstorm was an utter conviction that it came via an earthquake or some other apocalyptic catastrophe. A pretty fair assessment of Merzbow, I'd say.
Essentially the ongoing project of Tokyo denizen Masami Akita, Merzbow takes its name and inspiration from “Merzbau,” German dadaist Kurt Schwitters' term for his collage constructions. With occasional assistance by other noisicians, Masami uses metal junk, consumer-culture detritus, tape, mixers, feedback, and a myriad of effects (he shuns synths and samplers) to assemble dense, multilayered mosaics of pure scuzz. Having churned out a steady stream of uncompromising audio barrages since 1981 — often packaged in startling montage imagery — Masami is widely considered a leading progenitor of Japan's noise scene. He's certainly one of the most prolific artists, with releases by Merzbow and Masami's many side projects and collaborations literally numbering in the hundreds.
Which brings us to Hole, a German import and something like the fifth 1995 Merzbow release, counting singles and such. With the liner notes printed on four card-stock derrire portraits, the disc's three tracks — “Noisematrix,” “Krafft-Ebing Dick,” and “Krautrock #1” (recorded live in Deutschland) — pig-pile into one near-relentless hour of squalling sheets of static. If you're not in the mood, you'll hear it at its most basic: as brutally harsh noise. But there's an impressive amount of dynamics lurking here, with a broad range of incessantly mutating squeaks, shrieks, rumbles, and roars.
Though a terrifying monster in its own right, I swear there are moments of pure audio bliss buried in this Hole. Funny thing is, I just tried to play the disc again, and my CD player refused. Great, now even my appliances hate my music.
Merzbow plays Thurs, Sept. 14, at the Bottom of the Hill in S.F., call 621-4455; also, Fri, Sept. 15, at the Stork Club in Oakland, call (510) 444-6174.
— Mike Rowell
G. Love & Special Sauce
Coast to Coast Motel
Last year, G. Love & Special Sauce's never-ending tour in support of its self-titled debut brought the band to the Great American Music Hall no less than three times in roughly twice as many months. It seems Bay Area hipsters couldn't get enough of the trio's ultracool hip hop/blues hybrid that doesn't quite conform to either genre. The ladies come to be swooned by G.'s inimitable charm (girlfriends clued me in: It's the way he blows that harmonica and poutily slurs his lyrics); the guys dig G.'s tasty chops on the six-string, the tightly syncopated loose grooves, and, of course, all the women in the audience.
With his incongruous '50s-cum-'70s get-up — slick DA and sideburns, pressed and pleated dime-store duds, shiny patent leathers — G. Love recalls a modern Buddy Holly: kinda geeky, but sensitive and sexy at the same time. (Believe it or not, Holly was reputedly a stud pup, too.)
Coast to Coast Motel, the group's second effort, doesn't match the overt catchiness of songs like “Cold Beverages” or “Baby's Got Sauce” from the freshman release, but it's steeped in the feel-good blues vibe of the G. Love live experience. On this obvious road record, G.'s either moanin' about “Leavin' the City” or promisin' to be “Comin' Home” real soon. But it's always “Tomorrow Nite” that he's making his return. And the tomorrows seem to stretch on forever. Throughout the disc, he reassures his “you're so sweet/ you make me weak” true love “Nancy” not to worry 'cause he'll be home (sometime). “Bye Bye Baby” is perhaps the ultimate road-trip farewell. You know the line. The plaintive intro of the lonesome guitar and voice rolls into a Dixieland romp, complete with the tuba, trombone, and alto sax, sounding uncannily like the Heat Miser/Cold Miser tune from the old TV holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus. Yeah, it's a strange choice of groove for a blues adieu, but then, that's what makes G. Love such a special sauce.
— Sam Prestianni
See You on the Other Side
Four years ago, a circle of studio experimentalists calling themselves Mercury Rev released the wiggy debut album Yerself Is Steam, on which songs that kids might make up in the bathtub collided with the short-circuitry of electrical appliances tossed in the water. Critics took note of the group's heady manipulation of flutes and fuzz boxes; one New York Times contributor dubbed the group trailblazers of a new genre — “slacker rock.”
Unfortunately, the group's label, Rough Trade, collapsed, and the LP was suddenly impossible to find. Industry monolith Sony hurried to the rescue, rereleasing Steam, but the band's window of opportunity was already slamming shut. Mercury Rev's forgotten sophomore release (1993's Boces) is now as easy to come by in used-record bins as hubcaps at a junkyard. The outfit's latest may be destined for a similar fate. See You on the Other Side is mostly a muddle, characterized primarily by the absence of vocalist David Baker and the presence of a drippy newfound contentment (“Sudden Ray of Hope,” “Peaceful Night”) that undermines a once-spooky appeal.
Suzanne Thorp's flutes still flit through the compositions, and guitarist Grasshopper still creates jagged patterns he calls “shapes.” But without the balance of Baker's baritone warble, Jonathan Donahue's weightless singing gets lost amid the aural cosmos. Though the Rev's music continues to hint at Pink Floyd circa Ummagumma and Meddle, its own originality has faded. Some of the odds and ends are well-placed: “A Kiss From an Old Flame (A Trip to the Moon),” for example, is carved up by a musical saw. Other ornamentation includes French horn (“Racing the Tide”), muted trumpet (“Everlasting Arm”), and a few absurdly infectious “soul” segues. But by the time “Peaceful Night” lollygags its way through, it's apparent Mercury Rev isn't feeling frisky enough to challenge the stale slacker mantle.
— James Sullivan
Blessed may be his first American album, but Beenie Man is a veteran of the Jamaican dancehall scene, having been recording since the age of 9. A household name in Jamdown, he represents that upper echelon of DJs recognizable on a first-name basis — Shabba, Cutty, Buju, Ninja, et al. What sets him above the legions of dancehall artists is his talent for seamless patois verses and memorable lyrical hooks. Crazy cadences, wicked inflections, and social commentary pepper Beenie Man's songs, while producers Dave Kelly and Patrick Roberts provide plenty of bumping riddims for Beenie to ride.
Blessed is the reggae equivalent of a hardcore rap album. Although Beenie is certainly a lyrical O.G., he differs significantly from his gangsta rap counterparts: He eschews the shock value of gun talk and slackness, but his consciousness flows are no less potent. Beenie plays the role of a ghetto reporter with an eye on uplifting the masses. In “Stop Live Down Ina de Past” (released in Jamaica as “Memories”), he cautions that “Memories don't live like people do/ They always remember you/ Whether things are good or bad/ It's just memories that you had.” The song is really a plea for cultural pride: “I can't believe or understand/ Why some approach white man tradition/ Talk about dem a cowboy and indian/ Me an African and me a black man/A who pon de mic de fabulous Beenie Man.” Similar themes are found on songs like “Freedom,” “Heaven vs. Hell,” “Man Moving,” and the title track, which spotlights Beenie Man's Rastafarian beliefs.
Until very recently, there was a distinct cultural gap between the old school of reggae and the trendy new wave of dancehall. Now, young artists like Buju Banton, Capleton, and Beenie Man are bridging the divide: They examine societal problems, violence, and economic disparity just like old-time reggae artists, but relay the messages over state-of-the-art beats. On Blessed, Beenie Man puts forth the idea of a “World Dance,” one which brings people together as surely as it foments social change.
— Eric K. Arnold
“Falling in love with love/ Is falling for make-believe,” the old song goes, but the musical genius of Love, the seminal '60s psychedelic-pop band led by the enigmatic Arthur Lee, is proving too real to dismiss. With the two-CD Love Story anthology, Rhino Records has extravagantly expanded on the label's first-ever rock compilation, Best of Love, from 15 years back.
This release comes nary a year after Alias Records released a Love tribute album featuring the likes of Urge Overkill and Teenage Fanclub, and Mazzy Star covered Lee's “Five String Serenade” from his 1992 import (a song not included here). At the heart of the Love revival is a growing acknowledgement that the group was, if not “the breakthrough band of the '60s” (as Rhino's Phil Gallo states in bold type), then at least purveyors of a unique pop vision that powerfully channeled the energy of the early West Coast counterculture. Arthur Lee was an innovator in every sense of the word; in an early production job, he became the first person to hire Jimi Hendrix as a sideman.
Emerging in early 1965, Love was the first multiracial rock group of the psychedelic era, and soon became the darlings of the L.A. underground, influencing both the touring Rolling Stones and local hipster Jim Morrison with inventive sonic arrangements and original modes of dress. Love became the first rock outfit signed to Elektra, for which it recorded four albums in three years, including Forever Changes, ranked high in a mid-'80s critics' poll as one of the best rock records of all time. By 1968, though, fast living had taken a toll on his bandmates (and his audience), so Lee fired them and started anew. However, his creativity continued to shine despite an increasingly harder sound. Love Story compiles nearly all of the Elektra tracks (including Forever Changes in its entirety), highlights from some of Lee's later incarnations of Love, and comprehensive liner notes and photos (a Rhino specialty). A classy testament to a classic band.
— C. Kenyon Silvey