Ol' Dirty Bastard
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

They call him the Bastard because there's “no father to his style” of rapping. Return to the 36 Chambers is certainly original: No one else would even want to sound like him. Equally influenced by kung-fu and blaxploitation flicks, Blowfly, Richard Pryor and old schoolers like Melle Mel and the Sugarhill Gang, Ol' Dirty represents the latest Shaolin (Staten Island, that is) artist from the Wu-Tang clique — he's also the strangest rap artist you'll hear on a major label this year. If this release were a movie, it'd be called something like The Sick & Twisted Five Deadly Venoms Meet the Mack.

But while ODB may be a bit of an oddball, there's nothing wrong with the harder-than-hardcore production by RZA, whose beats glue the scattershot together. If you can get past ODB's bugged-out personality, his off-color sense of humor and his Rick Starr-like warblings (he massacres “Over the Rainbow” and does a blue version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”), this is one hell of a hip-hop album. ODB is not Method Man, but there is a method to his madness: “I pull the strings like Jimi Hendrix/ Rhyme off beats like back in the days of Eddie Kendricks/ I kicks truth to the youth/ I say, 'Hey, youth, here's the truth'/ Better start wearing bulletproof/ Arm yourself with a shield/ Before you get trapped up/ Just like the children of the cornfield.”

Return doesn't touch the Wu-Tang Clan debut or the equally brilliant Method Man solo joint, though there are enough cameos by Clan regulars like the Genius, Killah Priest and Raekwon to make it worth the coin. The best cuts include “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Hippa to the Hoppa,” “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Raw Hide,” which features a cameo from Meth Tical himself. All of the posse cuts are dope as hell, but while ODB's biggest strength is his unorthodox style, it's also his greatest weakness. At times, his lunatic ravings recall a quote from This Is Spinal Tap: “There's a fine line between clever and stupid.” Still, anyone into the Wu-Tang or weirdness in general should check Ol' Dirty out.

— Eric K. Arnold

The Muffs
Blonder and Blonder

The Muffs make vacant music for euphoria's sake. Blonder and Blonder ain't exactly the Rock of Ages, and it certainly isn't meant as some sort of rock laureate's response to Dylan's similarly titled masterwork. It's more like 34 minutes jacked up well past the median, a female-fronted frenzy conveyed with a modicum of dexterity and an avalanche of sass. Trio leader Kim Shattuck sings with a penchant for simple melodic statements and larynx-shredding punctuation marks. Buzzcock-y bands are at her beck and call (on “Sad Tomorrow,” she flirts with the Jam's “Boy About Town”), but they're never flagrantly violated. With the mathematical possibilities of new three-chord guitar anthems dwindling fast, Blonder and Blonder is something of a novelty: a nod to a hoary format that doesn't strip the thing entirely of its beastly hide.

Every song on Blonder, produced by Rob (Dookie) Cavallo, affirms the power of pop. “Red Eyed Troll” is a shitkicking accusation with a gleeful hook — “I don't need your attitude” — as sharp as a shiv. “Ethyl My Love” comes closest to a Mudhoney-like wallow on the sonic dark side, but even that song features a distinctly pretty verse before the bridge. As Shattuck conducts an investigation of a death wish (“End It All”), her rhythm section — bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald — slow the proceedings down suitably, if only from a gallop to a canter. But she's the one cracking the whip: On the album's closer, “Just a Game,” a lovely acoustic number with Shattuck's sister guesting in on a duet, the head Muff asserts that even the boys in her band are just another accessory.

— James Sullivan
The Muffs play Tues, May 2, with Veruca Salt and Figdish at the Fillmore in S.F.; call (510) 762-BASS.

Railroad Jerk
One Track Mind

It's been said that Railroad Jerk's name is the best description of its sound, an off-kilter collision of Robert Johnson and Captain Beefheart. But though the NYC quartet's herky-jerky take on roots music is twisted enough to be labeled “classick rock” in the One Track Mind liner notes, the CD still evokes a bluesy desperation. Like Railroad Jerk's blues trope, though, that sentiment has been stripped down to its essence and updated. The darkness of songs like “What Did You Expect” is eerily familiar, but any trains Railroad Jerk hears a-comin' are probably downtown subways. The results are powerful all the same. Like Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion, Railroad Jerk takes the genre apart before it puts it back together, and the resultant mutation is true enough to the spirit of the original that it's oddly reverent. Crossroads can be every bit as haunting in NYC.

“I'm hi-fi and I'm lowbrow,” sings Marcellus Hall at the beginning of “Gun Problem,” but such indie-rock cool is soon subsumed by rock-and-roll frustration: “I'm history but you know I'll make it somehow.” That struggle — against a sense of insignificance so overwhelming it can seem predetermined — is a main theme of the album. “The Ballad of Railroad Jerk” tells the story of the band's rise to (some) success as a voice repeats, “They said it wouldn't work.” But the songs chugs along until Hall tells us about his record advance. Then there's “Forty Minutes,” a brooding but somewhat sardonic meditation on impending death. With less than an hour left to his name, the narrator starts to say his good-byes. It sounds like a classic blues lament, and it's striking to hear such world-weariness from someone so young. But then, just as the protagonist is preparing to meet his maker, he asks the ultimate punk-rock question: “Who will the world revolve around now?” Talk about a one-track mind.

— Robert Levine
Railroad Jerk plays Wed, April 26, at Bottom of the Hill in S.F.; call 626-4455.

Illusion of Safety
From Nothing to Less

Emitting seriously enigmatic signals from Illinois(e) since 1983, Illusion of Safety is essentially an open-membership experimental collective revolving around one Dan Burke. IOS has amassed a sprawling body of work over the years, ranging from aggro to ambient to alien — their “selected discography” ticks off 47 releases and comp contributions since 1986. This, the eighth IOS CD, documents two rehearsals and eight live performances by Burke and partner Thymme Jones in 1993. “NO SAMPLING OR SEQUENCING” crows the press release; what the duo do play is prepared autoharps, scraped metal, wine goblets and forks, walkie-talkies, shortwave radios, rubber masks, personal vibrators — stuff like that.

Best abandon any preconceived notions of what a CD “should” sound like before venturing into this little forest of decom-positions, cuz as you've probably guessed, it provides over an hour of superscrewy sounds. Track one kicks off with a loud buzzing drone, which segues into audience noises (e.g., shuffling, coughing, laughing). From there on in, we're treated to distant banging and clanging, rhythmic pulses, quiet hums, loud crashes, unidentifiable electronics, footsteps, odd rolling noises, seven minutes of near-total silence and moments reminiscent of a busy day at the swingset factory. Equal parts old-school industrial screech 'n' scrape and a more modern ambient-noise aesthetic, Nothing isn't as compelling a listening experience as much of IOS' subtler studio work. Still, it serves up some cryptic tonal montages you won't hear every day. Well, at least not on CD.

— Mike Rowell
Illusion of Safety plays Sun, April 30, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.

Don Byron
Music for Six Musicians

Music for Six Musicians, the third release by Bronx-born composer/clarinetist Don Byron, stuns us again with Byron's incredible chops, deep feeling and soaring imagination. Though Tuskegee Experiments, his debut, throws Ellington and Schumann into the mix, and Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz pays tribute to the renowned klezmer artist, this Music is all Byron's own, with the exception of “La Estrellita” by Manuel Ponce. Byron combines poetry, politics, humor and music in a way seldom seen since Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um. You'll see it less in the opening words of lyricist Sadiq than in the cryptically evocative song titles: “Uh-Oh, Chango!/White History Month,” “SEX/WORK (Clarence/Anita),” “Crowd Heights.” Musically, a wild, cacophonous freedom is set against simple, thrilling lyricism. Everything from bebop to hard bop to free form is held together by well-conceived structures and blazing playing by the titular sextet — Byron, pianist Edsel Gomez, percussionist Ben Wittman, conga player Jerry Gonzalez, cornetist Graham Haynes and bassist Kenny Davis. As soon as you think you have a handle on Byron, he breaks free with a Protean shift to, say, Latin rhythms, carnival marches, a North African mood or a quote from Charlie Parker. Grounded in virtuosity, this eclecticism is mesmerizing.

— Ira Steingroot
Don Byron Quintet plays Wed-Sun, April 26-30, at Yoshi's Nitespot in Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.

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