Sharps & Flats

Reviews of new releases by Eminem, the Gourds and the Los Angeles Free Music Society, plus a Del-Fi Records compilation.

Topics: Music,

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Eminem “The Slim Shady LP”

Aftermath | Interscope

By Brett Anderson | By his own account, Marshall Mathers (aka Slim Shady, aka Eminem), doesnt even exist. His so-called life is a story that has a beginning (“I was born during an earthquake”) but no end, just a big middle section about a white kid raised in a black neighborhood by a mom who he claims did more drugs than him. In real life Eminem is a phenomenon. Hes been embraced by gangsta rap kingmaker Dr. Dre, denounced by Billboard and featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Still, he raps, “Im not a real person/Im a ghost wrapped in a beat.”

Its all fairly dark stuff coming from a rapper whose breakout release, “The Slim Shady LP,” is, if you had to pick one word to describe it, funny. In the end, that discord is what makes Eminems music breathe. Forget for a moment his rhyme skills and see him as a blond Richard Pryor. His music takes balls — the genital kind (“I cant figure out which Spice Girl I wanna impregnate”), the bouncing kind (a lot of his beats sound like theyre attached to rubber bands) and the kind that let you do or say things other people wont (dreaming about slitting his dads throat). On “Guilty Conscience,” one of the records three Dre collaborations, Eminem even has the guts to tell his mentor to get real, asking his audience, “You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped [TV host] Dee Barnes?”

But, as you may have heard, “The Slim Shady LP” is not entirely a joke fest. Eminems most notable skills — his feel for narrative, his verbal dexterity, his stress-relieving nasal whine — tend to obscure his confusion about the difference between cutting close to the bone and murder. On the one hand, the rappers willingness to lay his own emotions bare is striking; both “If I Had” and “Rock Bottom” are chilling, first-person tales of inner-city strife on par with Ice Cubes “Dead Homiez.” On the other hand, the tone of “Its My Fault,” an account of a woman who eats a lot of mushrooms and ends up dead, is disturbingly jovial.

The gender of the victims in Eminems songs is predictable, but calling him a misogynist isnt enough; “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” is a sick story featuring Eminem, his daughter and his daughters mothers dead body, but it comes from the pen of a guy whos clearly learned through life (and, lets be honest, music) that violence is how people respond to feeling scared and angry. Hip-hop, for better and for worse, is about violence as well as race, and with “The Slim Shady LP,” Eminem proves that theres plenty a white kid can say about both.

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The Gourds “Ghosts of Hallelujah”

Allegro Music

By Meredith Ochs | If you read Postcard, the alternative-country Internet discussion group, on the right day, you might walk away with the impression that the Gourds are the second coming of Christ, or at least the late Uncle Tupelo. Participants in online chat groups often describe their favorite bands with the zealous admiration of a fanzine writer. But the fact that the Gourds’ two newest members left far more established alt-country groups to join the ragtag Austin quintet (former Tupelo/Wilco multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston had been playing with Freakwater; drummer Keith Langford was in the Damnations TX) indicates that these guys are really onto something.

The Gourds’ latest, “Ghosts of Hallelujah,” certainly lives up to the band’s buzz. It’s even better than the two previous unbounded excursions into slackerbilly that landed them a brief stint with Sire. Rather than smooth out their rough edges on “Ghosts,” the Gourds raise ragged-but-right to a high art with added instrumentation and melodies that stick to your ribs like okra. The group benefits immensely from the addition of one-man string band Johnston, whose laid-back fiddle, Dobro, banjo and mandolin playing winds around the rootsy guitar crunch and one-octave accordion of Claude Bernard. Obliquely borrowing bits of country, honky-tonk, Delta blues, Cajun and Tex-Mex, the Gourds revisit the creative search and spirit of early roots rockers like the Band much more so than Wilco, which is frequently tagged as the Levon Helm and company of the ’90s. Where Wilco openly nod to specific classic albums, the Gourds’ songs can be traced further back to loose front-porch jams. As a result, “Ghosts” draws you in with the directness of rural music, but moves at the speed of rock.

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Various Artists “Delphonic Sounds Today!”

Del-Fi Records

By Seth Mnookin | “Luci Baines” begins with a distorted drum machine snare beat; at first blush, it sounds like it could be the beginning to the latest Beck single. After a measure or two, a shimmering tremolo guitar floats onto the scene, followed by an earnest, schoolboy falsetto reaching through light layers of distortion. Bells follow, as do triangles, glockenspiels and “stylophones.” Then that same lazy, slightly reverbed snare beat kicks in again, anchoring the tune as the offhand guitar lead meanders in the background.

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“Luci Baines” was first recorded in 1964 by Arthur Lee’s garage group the American Four. L.A. garage folk-rockers the Jigsaw Seen re-recorded the version described above this year. The song was written as an ode to LBJ’s chubby priss of a daughter: “She can do the monkey ’cause she looks so good/She can do the dog because she knows her stuff … You know you look so floozy when you do the watusi/I call her Luci Baines.”

Lyrical genius it’s not. But for combining the aching, teen-anthem aesthetic with pointed weirdness, “Luci Baines” is first-rate. Thirty-five years later, the newly revitalized song remains a delight. It is the zenith of this Del-Fi Records compilation, which comprises 20 songs recorded by an assortment of current fringe rockers like the Mello Cad, Wiskey Biscuit and Nan Vernon paying tribute to the best of the ’60s guitar/surf/pre-punk wonders.

Del-Fi Records was, at its peak, home to a wonderful amalgam of primitive rock ‘n’ roll, vintage surf and twang, prime-time sleaze and dream teens. The label is best known as being home to the Bobby Fuller Four (“I Fought the Law”) and Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”).

Like the 1994 “If I Were a Carpenter” compilation, which set a collection of the most innovative indie artists loose to interpret pop music that was at once bubbly, freakish and utterly compelling, “Delphonic Sounds Today!” comes up with inspired couplings. The Negro Problem, who approach Motown soul through the lens of Kraftwerk, have a wonderful dance-hall reworking of Fuller’s “The Magic Touch.” Man … or Astro-Man? — Atlanta’s best surf-alien rockers — serve up a rip-roaring, hallucinatory rendition of Yo Yo Hashi’s “Yo Yo’s Pad.”

“Delphonic Sounds Today!” is hitting the scene a couple of years too late to truly take commercial advantage of the waning bachelor-pad, space-age, surf revival scene. And, in a way, that’s unfortunate. The compilation is more fun than a dozen Jan and Dean re-issues, weirder than a roomful of Esquivel and more relevant than all of last year’s movie soundtracks put together.

Before his mysterious death, Bobby Fuller sang that he was, to quote him a little out of context, “Never to Be Forgotten.” It would be a shame if a few more folks didn’t heed the example of the “Today” bands and fulfill his prophecy.

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Los Angeles Free Music Society “Unboxed”

(Lightbulb)

By Josh Kun | The gaggle of hobbyist freaks and audio loons known as the Los Angeles Free Music Society have been grinding out ear-bending sound oddities since the mid ’70s. For years, the collective’s music was mostly a cultist’s affair, sold primarily through mail order and performed sporadically at live neo-happenings. An exquisite 10-CD retrospective released in 1996 promised to deliver the crew from obscurity, but its $250 price tag alienated curious newbies.

Enter “Unboxed,” a magnificent single-disc distillation of the box set’s finest moments — with some extra sideshows thrown in — that should have a better chance of cementing the Society’s place in the history of West Coast outness. These varied, often demented Southern California takes on sound collage and weirdo noise-composition could appease both the sternest avant-gardists and the most bugged-out genre-hoppers. As a result, “Unboxed” comes off like a dizzying tour of the pre-punk fringes: Beefheart and Zappa bizarro rock spliced into a tape cut-up of sea chanteys and zombie film scores played as prankster Spike Jones goofs on the gamelan.

The Society’s members all disobey musical zoning laws with geeky charm and creative vision (you hear prophecies of turntablism and post-rock mathematics all over the place). The world they created had enough room for guys like Rick Potts to sugar-sweetly sing about tissue blockage on “Blathering Hemispheres,” for bands like Smegma to dabble in free jazz squalls on “Difference” and for others like the Doo-Dooettes to create a whole song by bouncing different size balls and capturing the noise of a steamer exhaling in the background.

That Le Forte Four’s sloppy accidental masterpiece “Japanese Super Heroes” (it’s a singalong) was recorded at a surprise party makes perfect sense: The Society valued, and still does, both chance and serious noodling. At least this time around more of us are getting an invitation to attend.

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