Down on the Upside

Long before there was grunge, there was Led Zeppelin, who, from their sock-stuffed loins, spawned a small army of would-be arena rockers armed with twin lusts for grandiosity and the collected works of Aleister Crowley. Among them, of course, is Seattle's Soundgarden, who took Zep's chop-conscious opulence and applied it to both '90s-style malaise and Motsrhead-style intensity. Not that there's any great crime in vocalist Chris Cornell and company's, er, appropriation of certain Zep trademarks. The distinction between the amateurs and the professionals, it has often been accurately noted, lies in the latter's ability to steal from the best. Said maxim is particularly true in these postmodern, cut-and-paste times, when anyone who claims that any contemporary musical offering is “without precedent” is either a fool or a publicist.

Still, having become for-real arena rockers with 1994's Superunknown, the band has exhibited distinct progress, at least. Down on the Upside continues along that trajectory, though the difference this time is more in scope than style. A self-produced effort, Upside is, in essence, Superunknown compressed. There's nothing so overwrought as “Black Hole Sun” this time around, but the band does maintain its knack for tricky time changes and bigger-than-life riffmongering, and Cornell still effects his Jesus Christ pose, detailing persecutions real or imagined and dispensing spiritual platitudes (“So follow me into the desert, as desperate as you are,” he sings on “Burden in My Hand”). Which is fine, really, as the gloomily sweeping suites tend to be the most effective tracks, thanks in no small part to guitarist Kim Thayil.

A master at balancing texture and technique, Thayil colors “Zero Chance” with big, moody chords that nicely augment Cornell's introspective musings (obvious nods to “The Rain Song” notwithstanding), throwing in a delicate acoustic filigree on occasion as dynamic sweetener. Conversely, when the band launches into tear-it-up mode, as it does on the thrashy “Ty Cobb,” Thayil saves the song from rote rockism with his nimble-fingered mandolin picking.

Upside's downsides are few but prominent. “Applebite,” contributed by drummer Matt Cameron and built from a skeletal frame of eerie guitar and mumbled incantations, lopes about ominously in an ultimately vain search for a destination. The lumbering, smack-addled funk of “Tighter and Tighter,” meanwhile, is prototypical Soundgarden and, at six minutes plus, lingers a little too long on previously trodden ground. Overall, though, the blossoms are many and the fertilizer minimal, which is about all you can ask from any garden.

— Tim Kenneally

Cassandra Wilson
New Moon Daughter
(Blue Note)

Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson has to be the oddest diva ever to dominate the jazz charts. Though steeped in the blues roots of her upbringing and well-versed in traditional jazz, she brings a Joni Mitchell-inspired folk flavor to her music and is at home interpreting tunes by the Stylistics, Van Morrison, and Robert Johnson, all on the same album. Remarkably, these peculiar bedfellows complement one another via the sensual style and grace that have defined the artist's output for nearly two decades.

Working closely with Henry Threadgill's guitarist, Brandon Ross, on the follow-up to 1993's successful Blue Light 'Til Dawn, Wilson maps similarly eclectic terrain while simultaneously charting new directions. New Moon Daughter drops the feverish piano and horn arrangements of Wilson's M-Base days and replaces them with guitar-laden, acoustic balladry. In minimal but stunning arrangements, the contralto's earthy, lulling voice (which sounds like Sade's silk crossed with Joan Armatrading's deep resonance) takes center stage with no self-aggrandizing solos or histrionic asides. Wilson's vocals give extraordinary emotional breadth to covers of tunes by U2, Hank Williams, Son House, Neil Young, Billie Holiday — even the Monkees. You'll barely recognize “Last Train to Clarksville” with this multitiered syncopation.

But Wilson is not just a talented singer, she's a distinctive songwriter as well, with a range that moves from the ironically peppy “A Little Warm Death” to the bluesy poetry of “Find Him.” The best track, “Until,” employs the markedly non-jazz accompaniment of accordion, six-string, bass, and spare percussion. The song's soulfully melodic tone and impeccable lyrics embrace the “sweetness in life” while searching for a seemingly lost cause. Such passionate optimism is rare these days; then again, Wilson is out to redefine the jazz-vocal genre.

Cassandra Wilson performs Thursday, May 23, at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, S.F.; call 474-0365.

— Sam Prestianni

Ill Mannered Playas
(In-A-Minute Records)

Most San Francisco natives would get upset if you called the city “Frisco,” but Hunters Point natives Cougnut, C-Fresh, Rob V., and Stingy, better known as I.M.P., would probably get mad if you didn't. There is nothing pretentious about I.M.P., one of the Bay Area's original rap acts, who first made noise in 1989 with the underground sensation Scandalous. On Ill Mannered Playas, their comeback album, Cougnut and company remind us what the fuss was about. Unlike many of today's wannabes, I.M.P. didn't take to gangsta — or “reality rap,” as they might call it — because it was trendy. This crew earned its street stripes way back in the day, and the way they rap is the way they live their lives — raw and uncut. I.M.P. has had its share of ups and downs and legal troubles, including founding member Maxacious' death in 1990, but its strongest asset is the members' will to survive.

Right off the bat, longtime fans will notice the new-and-improved bomb-ass beats, perfect for “smobbing the back streets.” And C-Fresh has elevated his rapping skills, especially on “Shining Star,” his tribute to a candy-painted Impala. Of course, the backbone of I.M.P.'s ghetto flava is Cougnut's distinctive voice, which growls and rips through verses like a hungry pit bull on songs like “Public Execution,” “Last Breath,” and “Don't Get It Twisted.” One of the best Bay Area rap albums this year, Ill Mannered Playas might just let the rest of the country in on what has been one of Frisco's best-kept secrets.

— Eric K. Arnold

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Big Mama's Door

Fed up with sound-alike axemen who cop their licks directly from electrified scorchers such as Albert Collins or Buddy Guy, raw blues enthusiasts often turn to preamplified reissues for their down-home fix. Given the steady stream of deep-rooted compilations available from labels like Legacy, Yazoo, and Fantasy, it's easier to turn to Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, and Lightnin' Hopkins than to plow through the racks in hope of finding a distinctive keeper of the flame. True, you can't beat Hopkins for bare-bones authenticity, but youthful Bay Area bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart is about to skew the paradigm.

Drenched in the marshlands of the Mississippi Delta, yet resonant with a mighty, original voice, Hart's debut, Big Mama's Door packs more meat on the bone than any platter in Alligator's overhyped, house-rockin' hall of shufflers. Though thoroughly versed in the backwoods traditions, Hart doesn't adhere to one single school. He performs “Hillbilly Willie's Blues,” by 12-string Georgia strutter Blind Willie McTell, and “Pony Blues,” by granddaddy of the Delta idiom Charlie Patton, with reverence, soulfulness, and, most significantly, invention.

The multi-instrumentalist attacks “Hillbilly” on banjo, saving his 12-string chops for the solid original “Them Fair Weather Friends” and two classics, “Things 'Bout Comin' My Way” and the chugging “Gallows Pole,” which dusts Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's worthy Unledded rendition. Also a formidable presence on lap steel and the standard six-string, Hart recalls Taj Mahal in his gutsy country blues interpretations: staying true to the spirit of the originals but maintaining a modernist's conviction that the music is relevant today. Not surprisingly, a formidable Taj accompanies Hart on a few tracks, notably hard-picking pure smoke on the mandolin for a chunky “France Blues.” In the liner notes, Taj Mahal sets the record straight: “As the old folks would say, 'Boy got thunder in his hands!' “

Alvin Youngblood Hart plays Friday, May 24, at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F.; call 346-6000.

— Sam Prestianni

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