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Wednesday, May 1 1996
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Girls Against Boys
House of GVSB
(Touch & Go)

Someone slipped a little Spanish fly into the rock critic water cooler, if the press clips for Girls Against Boys are any indication. You'd be hard-pressed to find a write-up that doesn't make reference to "sex machines," "orgasmatrons," and "groin-thrusting"; one Melody Maker scribe quit lying back and thinking of England to dub the band's black-velvet metal "the sexiest music to have sex to," as if a song like "In Like Flynn" should fall between "Let's Get It On" and "Up for the Down Stroke" on the thinking humper's mix tape. Road-test the band's fourth full-length release, House of GVSB, if you will, but the hype seems the kind of mass sexual hysteria traditionally limited to Catholic boarding schools and Menudo cults. Vaguely erotic maybe, but a mating call this ain't.

That said, the arousal is understandable at a time when schlemiels (Eddie Vedder), pretty boys (Steve Malkmus), and shag-happy louts (Oasis' Gallagher brothers) pass for alternarock sex symbols. Elegant bachelors Scott McCloud and crew strut like tomcats as cocksure and well-coiffed as Jon Spencer, promising the kind of sexual danger that doesn't lead to STDs or police reports. "I blow it all in one crazy shot," McCloud croons on "Click Click," as the double bass-lines of Eli Janney and Johnny Temple play pelvic tug of war. McCloud is definitely a man's man; there's none of the gender play or straight-boy drag of Tricky or the Chili Peppers, but lots of talk of succumbing -- to the ladies, to his obsessions, to the "vortex of sound." The last thing pop culture needs is more testosterone, but McCloud pulls off his "ooh baby"s sounding more post-PC than wolf-whistling reactionary.

In fact, everything about these Boys should seem passŽ, from their image to the fact that they're playing visceral hard rock at a time when their indie brethren are quickly turning toward the spacey realms of the avant-garde. But one listen to the cartoonishly aggro new Jesus Lizard record, Shot, and it's apparent how forward-thinking GVSB's music really is. The sound is big but skeletal -- muscular riffs, rhythmic bass lines, and almost funky drumming (Alexis Fleisig) that's perhaps the go-go ghost of the band's D.C. upbringing (they're now based in NYC). "Vera Cruz" may have drum machine beats, but they're more reminiscent of Gary Numan than Big Black; "Zodiac Love Team" plods along in a hypnotically drony trance. GVSB has more in common with so-called post-rockers like Ui than you might think: Both bands share a knack for cock-rocky riffs that build and shift with tension but no destination in sight. To paraphrase Bjsrk, it's sex without coming, but a little faking never hurts.

Girls Against Boys play Sat, May 4, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.
-- Sia Michel

The Splatter Trio
Hi-Fi Junk Note
(Rastascan)

In the liner notes for 1992's (Y)earbook compilation, producer and Splatter Trio drummer Gino Robair likens improvisational jazz recordings to "film[s] of a place where no one else may go." He alludes to skronk's inherent fleetingness, of the impossibility of re-creating the DNA that fuels a particular jam. Trouble is, skronk has always been the Bay Area group's oeuvre, along with clank and squonch and blablablort, musical curses played backward, and Robair standing, midset, to flail on the metallic detritus littering Hotel Utah's stage. Lucky for us, Hi-Fi Junk Note captures such a contradiction, highlighting an utterly arbitrary -- yet delightful -- cross-section of the Trio's music.

So cut into a slice, perhaps "Details2 (The McLaughlin Principle) Thai Horn Chair": It opens with a jagged, overtone-soaked grind and double-neck guitar-bassist Myles Boisen spinning tangled webs upon which Dave Barrett disgorges a variety of sax bugs, while Robair clanks like a lawn mower trimming a junkyard. Halfway through, Barrett's saxophonery dissolves into a David Ware-inspired blattfest; the final minute features a cacophony of harmonicas and kazoos, a sonic gridlock both funny and nightmarish. As for references, let's see ... Sun Ra, Coltrane, Ren & Stimpy, bad Mexican food, Jackson Pollock, Hubble telescope photos, Dead Kennedys, and Internet porn. Next?

Examining one cut on one disc from Splatter's nine-year history is a bit like experiencing a mosaic by scrutinizing single tiles or a computer graphic by one pixel. Not really effective, yet pull slowly away and Splatter's whole picture begins to emerge. An improv recording like Hi-Fi is "not the same as being there," Robair writes, "but it is, nonetheless, impressionable." And impressive as well.

The Splatter Trio plays a record release party Wed, May 8, at Beanbender's in Berkeley; call (510) 528-8440.

-- Colin Berry

Palace Music
Arise Therefore
(Drag City)

My line of work often leads me into the path of a particular type of yearning youth (no, I am not employed by a health clinic), the kind who insists upon the invocational powers of Palace Music's Will Oldham with a Koresh-like zeal usually reserved by soap opera fanatics and Grateful Dead fans. With the exception of that ditty about some yipping little doggie that Oldham lovingly ripped off from the Godz or Bongo Joe, however, Oldham's sot-besotted inner moonings never convinced me to embrace his suffering as anything concrete. Just because you're on a whinge, it doesn't mean you have the blues. His noodly half-tour of last year didn't help matters.

So Arise Therefore is a breakthrough for both of us, a Palace Music release that finally captures what all those beady-eyed liberal arts majors have described. It's a fine piece of work that should excite Caucasians everywhere, which is to say it should make a strong showing in many a critic's Top 10. Oldham has willed himself into comparisons with Leonard Cohen, and his meter is as measured and illuminatingly precise as that of that other notable Cohen conveyor, Nick Cave. But if Cohen straddles the fence between clownish faux-European ennui and bathetic faux-Catholic commitment, Cave stands in the dungheap of the former, while Oldham tumbles into the latter -- and into a pool of his own blood at that. It's the pure expressivity of his voice that makes the difference.

With Steve Albini behind the boards, the sound is not lo-fi so much as modest; the piano and organ of Gastr del Sol's Dave Grubbs adds as much to the feel of wrist-slitting Americana as the antiquated drum machine on several tracks hearkens back to Oldham's past (he, like many of us, would no doubt prefer to forget the shame of being as influenced by Ebn-Ozn as by Walt Whitman). As for the Leonard Cohen analogy, though, once Palace Music oozes into the semi-mainstream, the response will be more along the lines of what PJ Harvey has received. So beginnith the deluge.

-- D. Strauss

Zane Massey
Safe to Imagine
(Delmark Records)

Certain so-called Young Lions of Jazz and their albums seem to buzz with an amphetamine vibe, one pumped into them by sales-conscious record companies and image-conscious media. Saxophonist Zane Massey has yet to transcend either the obscurity or the cult-legend status of his late trumpeter father, Cal Massey, but he's on his way as a two-time leader for Chicago-based Delmark, which is known for releasing quality discs by regional, ascending, and otherwise little-known jazz artists.

For the time being, the absence of buzz is just one of the charms of the younger Massey's latest outing, and is manifest in the respectful selection of his song list. Safe to Imagine features three tunes by his dad, as well as four by the undersung members of his quartet -- pianist Denton Darien, bassist Hideliji Taninaka, and drummer Sadio M. Abdu Shahid -- and one by himself. The breadth of the material defies commercial categorization, ranging from the tropic holiday cha-cha of Cal's "Quiet Dawn" to the thoughtful Ornette Coleman-like architecture of Zane's "Telekinetics" to the breezy post-bop musing of Shahid's "Blues for Awliya."

Massey's expression through his instruments (soprano on one track, tenor on all others) is eminently friendly and accessible. Although he's slightly askew in the "Blues" format, his spirited looseness approaches the ease of conversation on Cal's "Lady Charlotte." The saxophonist's affection for his horns inspires him to explore their less familiar aspects, as in his echoing harmonics, overblowing, and unorthodox tonguing of the reed on Shahid's experimental "Myras' Maya." He's flexible in intonation without losing his identity, blowing airiness and serene vibrato into "Quiet Dawn" and a rib-tickling holy growl on Taninaka's gospelly "The Sun of Son."

Massey's colleagues get chances to shine both as players and as writers in their original contributions: Shahid's solo on "Myras' Maya," for instance, which shows an openness and restraint unusual in a drummer, even as he effectively deconstructs his trap set. The supportive interaction of the ensemble suggests it's together for something more than just fame and fortune, though those wouldn't be inappropriate rewards for this kind of original entertainment.

-- Jeff Kaliss

Salt
Auscultate
(Island)

It's a tribute to the durable originality of PJ Harvey that a trio of Swedes could ape her shamelessly and still cut a pretty fine record of their own. Salt's debut, Auscultate (the king's English for "listen"), is the product of a band born fully formed in the image of the 50 Ft. Queenie herself, the former Polly Jean Harvey.

Salt is more likely to become a radio staple, though, than its bony patron saint; Salt mostly steers clear of the drastic volume fluctuations that preclude PJ Harvey's own records from earning more airplay. Singer/guitarist Nina Ramsby sings athletically, like PJ Harvey, without shredding her own melodies, and her backers, the rhythmic tandem of drummer Jim Tegman and bassist Daniel Ewerman, are every bit as wiry and explosive as were Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughan of PJ Harvey's original band.

Parroting Polly Jean, Ramsby's lyrics trod a scorched-earth battleground -- that of Woman vs. Manliness. Her verses (like PJ Harvey's) often consist of a single violent image ("Punish me as a boy, I would not," for example), repeated four times for emphasis. Her choppy English works best on "Witty," which sounds like "witchy" -- an apt description of her sinister guitar riffs, which are of a piece with PJ Harvey's. "Obsession" roars with the same hyper-melodic intensity as Harvey's "Sheela-Na-Gig," and like PJ Harvey, Ramsby has the unusual ability to emasculate her listeners with a single lick of her eyeteeth. On the album-closing "Undressed," she recounts a nocturnal submission: "In this dream," she coos, "I force you to lay me down." She might as well be addressing her inspiration, which, by the way, is the mesmerizing British blues-rocker PJ Harvey.

Salt plays Sat, May 4, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.
-- James Sullivan

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