BURNING BRIDES 8/13, BOTTOM LOUNGE Making big loud rawk these days is too often just a matter of assembling cliches in an aesthetically pleasing way--like flower arranging, it's an "art," but, you know, whoopee. This Philadelphia trio's debut, Fall of the Plastic Empire, managed to add up to more than the sum of its parts, but that je ne sais quoi is missing from the follow-up, Leave No Ashes (V2). It sounds like 70s hard rock retrofitted to take hair metal and grunge into account, and I'm not totally buying it. Fortunately the record has enough truly great tracks ("Heart Full of Black," "Leave No Ashes," "Pleasure in the Pain") to make waiting out the filler worthwhile. POLYPHONIC SPREE 8/13 & 14, PARK WEST Much ink has been spilled over this megaband (or, more properly, large band and small choir)--as near as I can tell, they're supposed to be the Second Coming of something that's never been here before. Their new sophomore album, Together We're Heavy (Good/Hollywood), demonstrates that if you pile on the voices and instruments in just the right way, you can deliver plenty of apostolic fervor even if the closest you get to religion is singing about how groovy the sun is. This time around, the band seems to have its addiction to sugar-rush climaxes almost under control: the rises and falls are less predictable, so that each sprawling song feels like a well-designed (if extremely slow-moving) roller coaster. And I'm still a sucker for background singers who sound like theremins. THE FLESH 8/14, HIDEOUT On their second EP, Sweet Defeat (Gern Blandsten), these New Yorkers seem determined to tear down Giuliani's family-friendly facade and make their hometown safe again for alienated art students who want to shack up on the Lower East Side. This sinister, sexy punk is full of spastic staccato riffing and mechanical, uneasy dance beats, and "Cuts/Empty Temple Remix" sounds just a teeny bit like the Sisters of Mercy attempting hip-hop--if that's not dangerous, what is? MIKE PARK 8/14, FIRESIDE BOWL Park's indie and activist credentials are unimpeachable: he's head honcho of Asian Man Records, organizer of the 1999 Ska Against Racism tour, and founder of the Plea for Peace Foundation, which helps put together the annual Plea for Peace/Take Action Tour. It's his rep as a musician that needs work--the standout name on his resume is Skankin' Pickle. His first solo acoustic album, For the of Music (Sub City), sits squarely in the middle of the indie-rock road. If you're looking to be challenged musically, move along--the chord changes here are worn smooth from overuse. But if you'd like to spend some quality time with a man who'll show you all his school portraits and even a few baby pictures (in his liner notes) and sing earnestly about his family and his music and how racism has affected him and how he's hoping to find love and wants to make the world better but sometimes gets frustrated, well, make yourself comfortable. THOSE DARN ACCORDIONS 8/14, FITZGERALD's Blue Oyster Cult and Lynyrd Skynyrd never saw it coming: the front line of this San Francisco band consists of four accordionists, and on their sixth album, Lawnball (Globe), they prove that squeezeboxes can do just about anything guitars can do, at least in the realm of good-natured, unpretentious rock or country (or campy ersatz soul like "Dr. Luv"). The straight-up cover of "Frankenstein" and the even straighter-up medley "Whole Lotta Love/Black Dog" are both delightful, and I like the brutally honest lyrics of "My Friend Jim" ("What the hell happened to him to make him such a loser?"), but for me the most memorable song is the wickedly silly barroom sing-along "There's Another Dumbass on the Mountain" ("A chopper's on the way / They'll bring him down today / There's another dumbass on the mountain"). TUB RING 8/14, BOTTOM LOUNGE Zoo Hypothesis (Underground, Inc.) is the third full-length from these locals, and to my ears this is the first time they've gotten their Mr. Bungly frat-boy prog down cold. The bombastic synth intro to "Dog Doesn't Bite" falls away into a plinking percussion loop that explodes into chattering hardcore, and throughout the disc the quiet stretches are as tense and charged as the hairpin-turning hyperdrive gallops. These guys are still beating you over the head with their geekiness (or braininess, if you're feeling charitable), but they've struck a balance between channel surfing and melody, between smarmy sarcasm and genuine outrage. MASTODON 8/15, METRO This Atlanta quartet's forthcoming Leviathan (Relapse) is a monster and a half. Most of its ten songs were inspired by Moby-Dick ("Seabeast," "I Am Ahab"), which despite the humorless flogging it's received in generations of high school English classes is still a deep, lyrical, and even funny study of obsession and madness. Unlike, say, Laurie Anderson, whose interpretation of the novel was a tad too coy and neat for my tastes, Mastodon seems to have adopted Melville's maximalist approach--every dense, detailed layer is piled atop yet another dense, detailed layer, and the twin guitars lay down a thick lattice of interlocking riffs over some of the most fluid and powerful metal drumming I've ever heard. The band hasn't sacrificed a lick of the sharp melodic content and rich texture that made its previous full-length, Remission, such a revelation, and even the acoustic-guitar passages do only what they're supposed to--let a little sunlight and a wisp of fresh air into what would otherwise be an oppressive onslaught of howling craziness. Mastodon carries metal forward without abandoning any of its traditional pleasures--and just think, ten years from now you'll be able to tell all the wide-eyed 17-year-old pups that you saw these guys way back when they were opening for fucking Fear Factory. OLLABELLE 8/17 & 18, AUDITORIUM THEATRE Though the mix on Ollabelle's self-titled debut is just as lush, polished, and overcompressed as you'd expect from a record on Columbia, the group's gospel, blues, and Americana lose surprisingly little of their hair-raising eschatological power. Fronted by Amy Helm, daughter of the Band's Levon Helm, Ollabelle augments its folkie reverence with sparse, ingenious contemporary arrangements that put every tambourine clink, Wurlitzer gurgle, and slide-guitar swoop in exactly the right place. By and large the group does justice to traditional material ("Soul of a Man," "Jesus on the Mainline") and acquits itself equally well when there's a canonical original to measure up to--the Stones' "I Am Waiting," for instance, or the Carter Family's "The Storms Are on the Ocean." (Not so sure about their weirdly robotic "John the Revelator," though.) Purists won't like the slickness, but as NPR-friendly new traditionalists go, you could do a lot worse. Diana Krall headlines. JACOB FRED JAZZ ODYSSEY 8/19, HOTHOUSE This band from Tulsa, Oklahoma, started out back in 1994, and three years later I gave 'em both barrels in this column--with their shuck 'n' jive approach, they didn't seem to be able to tell the difference between "good humor" and "bad taste." (I believe my exact phrase was "look-I'm-phonky honky honking.") But on the new Walking With Giants (the band's first for jazz label Hyena) they've clearly arrived at a much better place, and I'm happy to strike my earlier comments from the record. Now a trio, the Odyssey plays straightforwardly and for the most part acoustically--though Reed Mathis does some pretty untraditional things on bass, delivering soaring, violinlike arco passages or kicking in an electronic effect that pops him up an octave or two. Brian Haas's sparkling, fluid piano runs cluster up and turn heavy and dark just when they need to, and Jason Smart's drumming is clean and impeccable. In fact, it's all so unpretentious that I almost long for a touch of their old hubris. Almost.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Hubbard.