Imperial Teen

Published March 16, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

With that title, who could avoid leading with the bad news? The new Imperial Teen CD, their follow-up to '96's touted "Seasick," is like a carefully set table, with crystal glasses and the best china, but instead of food there's mostly just condiments. You find yourself filling up on chutney and pickle relish and trying to make tomato soup out of ketchup and hot water. Dried wakame starts to look like a vegetable, and bacon-bits start to look like meat. And for dessert: sugared ice cubes.

The good news is that when the album hits a pocket of substance, like on the tense, powerful "Birthday Girl" or the well-crafted "Lipstick," it's world-class stuff. As with "Seasick," Imperial Teen really are trying to communicate with you, and they really do care if you're listening. They know what it feels like when a melody hits home, or when a lyric draws blood. Thing is, they've always had a recessive element of style-vampery and drag theatrics -- by now the pop-cultural equivalents, respectively, of the tie-dye aesthetic and the vaudeville blackface act. Kitschy little instrumental and vocal turns keep popping up everywhere ("Yoo Hoo," "Alone in the Grass"), while singer Roddy Bottum's delivery is often so intentional and sing-songy that he seems, somehow, to be lip-syncing his own vocal track ("Crucible"). Bands today often can't help that kind of stuff any more than late-'60s psych-rock groups could help stomping on wah-wah pedals all the time, or Amos 'n' Andy could quit it with the aw-shuckses and laws-a-mercies. It's out of control; it has a life of its own. But it's also the ruination of "What Is Not to Love" as a serious album -- just as the lack of fripperousness and fun-fun-fun at its core disqualifies Imperial Teen from being a B-52s for the '90s. Moments of greatness; too much molasses.

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Damien Jurado

BY JOE HEIM | It's early in the year to be talking about the great records of 1999, but Damien Jurado's "Rehearsals for Departure," a mostly acoustic, thematically driven foray through acres of sorrow, heartbreak and despair, is about as close to brilliant as CDs get these days.

Jurado's songs are more than just sad, they're dangerously sad. Subversively, pervasively sad. Listen to him sing about a lover waving goodbye through the window of a Greyhound bus, or waiting by the phone "to hear it ring," in his lonesome, disembodied voice, and it's hard not to feel you've somehow become a character, or at least a wounded bystander, in his multiple stories of loss.

And yet Jurado manages, almost instinctively it seems, to avoid sentimentality or weepy conventions. His tales of dissolution, of better times gone bad, of wishing and regretting, of trudging forward, numb to everything, are not prefabricated heartwrenchers, but straightforward, magically phrased anecdotes of strained and shattered illusions. Even when things get lively, as on the gently rocking "Honey Baby," for instance, Jurado isn't about to let the upbeat tempo sway him from a sense that, this too, will soon be just a memory. He has seen the walls come crashing in before, so he's left only to ask, "Is this the first time, baby?/Is this the last time, well maybe?"

But with Jurado's deft touch, bleak is beautiful, and though spare, and unsparing, this is a beautiful recording. Produced by the Posies' Ken Stringfellow, Jurado's second full-length CD is full of simple, yet superbly crafted songs augmented by occasional unexpected flourishes such as soaring strings on "Love the Same" and a jumpy train of a harmonica on "Ohio."

"Nobody sees the tragedy/Except for me," Jurado sings on "Tragedy." It's a grandiose statement of something akin to self-pity, but offered amid his collection of magnificent tear-stained paeans to the ephemeral nature of relationships and haunting reminders that nothing lasts forever, it becomes a hard-to-refute assertion.

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Don Byron and Existential Dred

BY SETH MNOOKIN | I first met clarinetist Don Byron five years ago, when he was playing with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and a college jazz band. Byron had just released his album of klezmer music, "Plays Music of Micky Katz," and a nerdy Jewish trumpet player walked nervously up to Byron and shyly said something in Yiddish, and then told him how much he liked his album.

"That's super, kid. I can't tell you how happy that makes me." Then Byron rudely waved the kid away.

It didn't bother me when Don Byron acted like an asshole -- which, at least in his dealings with the press and public, is almost all the time -- as long as he was making good music. But on Byron's latest release, "Nu Blaxploitation" (recorded with the band Existential Dred), his abrasive, self-absorbed personality fights for space with the virtuoso musicality that marked his past work.

While the album does have its moments -- Byron is too impressive a musician not to at least shimmer on anything he appears on -- it is marked by the bandleader's self-obsessed, self-important bluster.

"Nu Blaxploitation" is a hip-hop/funk/spoken-word jazz album, and it is Byron's most political album to date. Which is not a bad thing: Part of the strength of Byron's recent themed work is the skill with which he blended his political messages with his music. Emotional, evocative, powerful, Byron's musical versatility seemed matched only by his endless creativity and imagination. But here, Byron's clarinet work does not carry the same weight when buried beneath politically charged, stream-of-consciousness drivel. ("Morning 98 (Blinky)" intones, "Loima, Loima ran from little Papa Doc/To find himself a piece of the rock/He was crushed under the pressure of hate/Shut down this historic fate.")

In the places where the music does stretch out a bit, Byron and his band are typically astonishing. "I'm Stuck" is a simmering, frenetic jam as tight and funky as anything Prince has ever done. On a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 was 9," Byron's blowing is both inspiring and comical; at one point, he embarks on a languid jam on the Turtles' "Happy Together." And "Schizo Jam," a 15-minute live track featuring Biz Markie, is almost worth the price of admission all on its own. Featuring wonderful blowing by Byron, trumpeter James Zollar and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, "Schizo" shows how much funked-up fun Byron and crew can have when they're not buried under the pretentious weight of their convictions. Even "Furman," an extended rant about the L.A. policeman made infamous by the O.J. Simpson case, is almost athletic at points; pianist Uri Caine's furious comping and Byron's frenetic solos practically sear themselves into your consciousness.

I've always felt that Byron's best work was made distinctly more powerful because of its political implications; unfortunateley, on "Nu Blaxploitation" the opposite is the case. Any success the album has is in spite of the politicized rantings; indeed, it is a testament to the strength of Byron's musical vision that this latest effort is so good in spots.

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Gidon Kremer

BY STACEY KORS | Gidon Kremer is unquestionably the most musically adventurous classical violinist around, with a far-reaching repertory that ranges from the Baroque masterworks of J.S. Bach to the avant-garde minimalism of John Adams and the seductive tangos of Astor Piazzolla. His latest unusual offering, "Le Cinema," is a tribute to movie music that features an interesting amalgam of works by international artists including Piazzolla, Rota, Shostakovich, Takemitsu and even Charlie Chaplin, from such little-known films as Glikman's "Ovod," Franciolini's "Amanti Senza Amore" and Zeldovich's "Sakat (Sunset)." Each track, Kremer explains in the liner notes, was chosen because the music "is convincing within the films in question and ... can be played on the violin."

It certainly can, as these lovely arrangements, masterfully performed by Kremer and pianist Oleg Maisenberg, attest. The one drawback is that the majestic cinematic scope of many of these works gets lost by reducing them to such bare-boned instrumentation. But it's important to place this CD in its proper context. Like Kremer's recent recordings "Impressions d'enfance," "From My Home" and "Out of Russia," "Le Cinema" is not so much a "concept album" as it is a heartfelt homage -- a love letter to film and the role it's played in Kremer's life since his childhood. It is the musical equivalent, you might say, of the 1989 movie "Cinema Paradiso." "Above all," says Kremer, "it is music that appeals to the emotions."

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The Wild Magnolias

BY CLEA SIMON | Taking to the streets during Carnival, New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indians make black pride a statement in rhythm, blues and brightly colored feathers. Developed a century ago as the African-American response to segregated Mardi Gras krewes, the neighborhood groups have become a training ground for local funk, an institutionalized marching jam that hits the streets (and annual Jazz Fest) in technicolor regalia.

Thanks largely to the commanding raspy baritone of Big Chief Theodore Emile "Bo" Dollis, the Wild Magnolias have emerged as the city's premiere musical tribe. On "Life Is a Carnival," Dollis leads his gang to triumph, finally matching the 1990 release "I'm Back ... at Carnival Time" (Rounder) with the right rough blend of hot R&B, Caribbean voodoo and street-tough parade sentiment.

The Indian tradition has long enlivened New Orleans pop: The chant "Iko, Iko" made the Dixie Cups famous even before the Neville Brothers added "Hey Pocky Way" to the musical lexicon. And the richness of this disc comes about partly because Dollis and company have folded the Crescent City's pop cream back into the mix. Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack contributes six of the 16 tracks, and Nevilles, Meters and other guests are in evidence as well. But unlike the disappointing 1996 album "1313 Hoodoo Street" (AIM), which also featured Rebennack, Allen Toussaint and Nevilles compositions, these names join in the playing this time: Rebennack's rollicking piano rolls barrelhouse-style under "Herc-Jolly-John" as Dollis trades verses with Cyril Neville and deep-throated blueswoman Marva Wright, among others. And as Meters drummer Russell Batiste's polyrhythms and Michael Ward's congas and bongos recall the city's Caribbean connections (particularly on the liquid "Battlefield"), it's a joyous homecoming.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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