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Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
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Negativland
Sex Dirt
(Seeland)

The East Bay audio collagists of Negativland rev up their DAT machines and samplers once again, this time to, er, penetrate America's twin obsessions with sex and cleanliness. Product ads, old hygiene and sex-ed films, and porno snippets comprise the spew, with the usual ongoing commentary from the Weatherman. Billed as "All Music!" the CD marks the sixth one culled from the band's "Over the Edge" series on KPFA.

Though the collective's cut-and-paste techniques are predictably entertaining, Negativland's bawdy subject matter seems a dumbing down to its audience. After all, Sex Dirt follows the two-disc Time Jones Exchange Project, an almost unbelievable megaspoof purporting to capture the downfall of the Soviet Union live. Here, the jokes seem occasionally overwrought, peppered with farts and burps and toilet flushes, recalling a tape recorder left running at a seventh-grader's slumber party. My guess, though, is that the bathroom humor is meant to address our cultural shyness toward -- and ignorance of -- our own bodily functions.

As far as music goes, there's not much here: A great parody of Bowie's "Modern Love," some unprecedented synth and piano banging, and the occasional product jingle backing the tracks; Sex Dirt is primarily an orgy of voices. After listening, you will never use a Hoover, a Bissell, or a spray bottle of 409 again without laughing, nor will you resist silently identifying "slippies," "sparkies," and "puffins" the next time you see male genitalia. And the collage facts-of-life lesson, featuring a poor child doomed to mislearn her anatomy, is priceless. Speaking of pricks, Casey Kasem, who successfully stalled Negativland's victory over the U2 mess, makes his annual appearance. It just wouldn't be sexy without the dirty little scoundrel.

-- Colin Berry

Tortoise
Millions Now Living Will Never Die
(Thrill Jockey)

When you read about the Grateful Dead, they sound like they might be a pretty good band, but then there's always the problem of the music. Groups such as Tortoise and Stereolab treat Neu! in the manner that the Dead treated Buddy Holly -- as a corpse in which to sew their dreams. The fun is watching these visions fight their way out through dissonance, group improv, and off-center rhythm. Weirdness often confesses a lack of soulfulness, and I recall overhearing my stoned roommate sing off-key to a poorly recorded live improvisation upon the chords of "Iko-Iko" by an amalgamation that always sounded like it was tuning up. One might tweak the Dixie Cups themselves for a lack of authenticity, but let's not forget that they were professionals, if young; a band that could only create its offhand insouciance in the studio and threw no bones about it.

Tortoise is comprised of former indie rockers gone dub, so its music doesn't sound much like the Dead, but I could see Lester Bangs hating this stuff for many similar reasons. It's ambient, smart, and identity-less. It takes its time. It's button-down. The music is lo-fi virtuosic, but in no way reveals the personality of its performers (it's lyric-less, too). Parts of it sound like Philip Glass, but you can't turn it off because the track is probably 20 minutes long and will change over time. Despite a general high-mindedness, Tortoise appears partial to farting noises.

And yet I suspect that the band may be on to a way out of the rock 'n' roll lethargy we are experiencing. Dub being a genre that encourages improv, its sense of wonder is organic, not forced. And the music is honest about its anonymity in a way that, say, trip hop isn't. There's no Tricky pretending to lurk in the background and wearing dresses in public. We live during a period where most of our celebrities appear forthrightly unpleasant for any number of reasons. We may cheer Hootie and Alanis, but we would not wish to drink with them. The less we know, the better.

-- D. Strauss

Capleton
Prophecy
(Def Jam)

At the outset of his career, Capleton was a talented dancehall lyricist known for slack guns-and-punanny songs like "Murderation," "Mr. Never Dead," and "Lotion Man." As the saying goes, he once was lost, but now he's found -- as in a path of consciousness and knowledge known as "culture" in reggae circles. Like his compatriot Buju Banton, Capleton has become a born-again Rastaman and a leader out to turn the tide of dancehall's sometimes disturbing ethical code.

Capleton's massive popularity in Jamaica led to a deal with Def Jam, making him the first reggae artist on the legendary American label. Still, Capleton is wary of the mainstream, a point he underscores on "Big Time," apparently written after a remixed version of "Tour" went gold: "Big Time sellouts a gwan/ Be careful who you let in pon yu plan/ Me a warn," he chants. Perhaps he's awaiting the typically fickle response to reggaemen "gone a foreign." (It was only a few years ago that Shabba Ranks was dissed at the Sunsplash festival by locals resentful of his international superstar status.)

Prophecy, a play on Capleton's nickname, "The Prophet," sets new standards for dancehall, both musically and thematically. Utilizing current reggae, hip hop, and African riddims, Capleton serves up a hearty cultural stew, with lots of biblical quotes thrown in for spiritual emphasis. Capleton presents himself as a fierce warrior for Jah on tracks like "Dis the Trinity," "Heathen Reign," and "Leave Babylon." Method Man from the ubiquitous Wu-Tang Clan guests on "Wings of the Morning," but the best groove is "Chant," with its Nyabinghi drum circle and the refrain, "Chant/ Burn dung Sodom and Gomorrah/ Dem nah know de meaning of de pain and de sorrow." Also facing the Prophet's wrath is the pope, in accordance with Rasta belief that he's the Antichrist ("Mek we burn dung Rome," Capleton sings on "Chalice"). Dear Abby, move over.

-- Eric K. Arnold

The Clarke Nova
... Finally
(What's Up? Music)

Those of us dwelling in the indie-rock ghetto recognize Bob Mould as big daddy of the howling, angst-ridden power combo. In the '90s, the tradition was taken to the top of the pops by Nirvana and company, until what'sisname ended his reign with quite a punctuation mark. Acts trying to pick up where he left off are usually derivative also-rans with no musical zoot to invigorate the standard three-chord ho-hum. Feedback, thrash, and damaged esophagi. Big deal.

Well, San Francisco's Clarke Nova hasn't yet staked out new territories of compositional idiosyncrasy, and they don't have a knack for insidious pop hooks clothed in guitar grunt, but give 'em time to develop their idiom. Provided vocalist Matt Jervis' chords don't develop nodes (the way he abuses them, it's a distinct possibility), the band could go far -- they've certainly got the guts and the juice. Though the songs are relatively simple and rely on some pretty standard-issue elements -- white-noise washes, amelodic guitar semisolos, bouncy Dave Grohl-like drumwork -- they're sure to blow the minds of many a Lower Haight denizen.

The Clarke Nova's debut CD, ... Finally, roars from the get-go with "Chocolate Bar," Jervis' lyrics prototypically mid-'90s -- ambiguous, frothingly angry, self-deprecating, apathetic, and energized all at once ("You treat me like you think I'm stupid/ But you love me 'cause you think I'm stupid/ What am I supposed to do"). "Ugly Hand" howls, but "Sweet Pea" sounds a little too MTV-ready for this cynic; one day these guys are going to have to shuck that "we're not from Seattle but we'd like to open for the big bands from there" sound. But in the meantime, the Clarke Nova will burn the occasional depression and apathy right out of you.

The Clarke Nova plays Sat, Jan. 20, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.
-- Josh Wilson

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