PLAYLIST

Spell
Mississippi
(Island)

For those of you who think Westword can't be objective about this Denver-based band, let's start with a few negatives about Spell's major-label debut. First of all, the title leaves a lot to be desired. It's not all that funny ("Spell Mississippi"--get it?), and it implies that the trio may have been spawned by Tupelo's rock scene. Also, "4B," one of the three songs here with a 1994 copyright, is only okay; the radio-friendly track starts off too slowly before building up a respectable head of steam. Finally, including bassist Chanin Floyd's wordless vocal hook from the exceptionally catchy "Superstar" on the CD's lyric sheet is a little silly, even if it really does sound like "A E YA EE YAEER YA EEYA." Other than that, Mississippi is as good as you figured it would be. Spell has been honing terrific numbers such as "Dixie," "Mom" and "More" for years now, and the band's presentation here reflects a minimum of gussying-up. The sound achieved by the group (with help from engineer Kirby Orrick) is rough, straightforward and perfectly appropriate, allowing the tunes' insistent hooks and the instrumentalists' exuberant playing to shine through. Knee-jerk reviewers and radio programmers may dismiss Spell as just another grunge act, but that hardly matters. More important is that Floyd, drummer Garrett Shavlik and guitarist Tim Beckman write great songs and perform them with passion. They could use a little work in the album-name-picking department, though.--Michael Roberts

John Cale
Seducing Down the Door: A Collection 1970-1990
(Rhino)

You have to be an idiot masquerading as an intellectual (or an intellectual with a taste for slumming) to truly appreciate the music of writer/singer/instrumentalist John Cale. Fortunately, that description covers most of us who watched our youthfulness disappear during the twenty years chronicled here. As co-founder of the Velvet Underground and producer of Patti Smith's 1975 classic Horses, Cale will forever be known as a godfather of punk, a man who subconsciously (and quite elegantly) bestowed blessed status upon the neo-Gothic movement. That's a good epitaph, but like flattery to a narcissist, it hardly begins to say enough about this two-disc set's 38 tunes. The highlights from Cale's early Seventies efforts include material from the 1971 Church of Anthrax sessions (especially the previously unreleased "Dixieland and Dixie") and three tunes from 1973's Paris 1919, a masterpiece that found the artist at the height of his fey, pretentious charm. Just as impressive are samples from Cale's darker period; particularly notable is his rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel," which transforms the Elvis Presley classic into erotic background music tailored for the masturbatory fantasies of the politely maladjusted. Musically, things don't get much better than that--and on the collection's second disc, they don't. Still, fans of Cale's surreal sonic ventures with Brian Eno, as well as his droll and witty latter-day collaborations with Lou Reed, will be pleased to find this work is generously represented. And even though many of Cale's late-period compositions sound like existential musical comedy, it's impressive how he manages to simultaneously channel the muses of Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren without losing touch with his signature sound. In all, this is a grand (and unusual) compilation that argues for Cale's inclusion on the roster of the most virtuosic and innovative musical voices of our time.--Linda Gruno

Maleem Mahmoud Ghania With Pharoah Sanders
The Trance of Seven Colors
(Axiom/Island)

On paper, this looked like a bad idea: The combination of the pure, ethnic music of Morocco-born Ghania and the hot-shit sax of Coltrane collaborator Sanders seemed likely to diminish both of the musical approaches showcased here. Then again, producer Bill Laswell has pulled off this kind of unexpected fusion before, and damn it if he hasn't done it again. Ghania and his enormous troupe of players produce long, rhythmic drones--they're thought to have healing powers--using three of the planet's most basic instruments: guimbris (basslike devices sporting strings wound from goat intestines), krkabaks (steel clappers) and their own ecstatic voices. Because this style of music, as moving as it is, lacks a dominant melodic element, Sanders's saxophone does not push out the beats and shouts of Ghania and his associates; rather, it skates atop a roiling percussive bed, shrieking with a joy and spirituality that does honor to the material's sources. The result is not for the timid: "Hamdouchi," a nine-minute-plus wailing, pounding orgy of sound, will have your average Kenny G follower racing for the Thorazine in record time. But anyone willing to walk on the wild side won't find much else out there any wilder than this.--Roberts

 
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