PLAYLIST

Esquivel!
Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music
(Bar/None)

I'm more than a little doubtful about the staying power of the new cocktail movement; if you have one Love Jones record, you probably don't need another. But any trend that raises the profile of late Fifties/ early Sixties exotica is jake by me. Esquivel, who a Variety scribe, in a fit of lunacy, dubbed "the Mexican Duke Ellington," may not be Martin Denny (the acknowledged kingpin of the style), but Space-Age, a brief, inspired sampler, reveals just how bizarre and captivating his recordings are. This lowbrow genius starts with Muzak favorites such as "Sentimental Journey" and Esquivel's own nutty originals, then spices them up with zingy sound effects and background vocals so over the top that the results almost, but not quite, topple into self-parody. The combination works because the tone of these numbers is wonderfully sincere: Esquivel comes across like an off-kilter suburbanite on a spree, a man proud to be wearing a daffy grin and a lampshade on his head. His greatest moment is the glorious "Mucha Muchacha," in which male and female voices trade mock-lascivious variations on the title phrase while the orchestra conjures up visions of a thousand tiki rooms in the background. Brainiacs like John Zorn and the Residents may groove on this stuff, but it will appeal equally to your musically ignorant grandparents. And that's why it's so, um, nifty.--Michael Roberts

They Might Be Giants
John Henry
(Elektra)

At first I chalked up John Henry's immediate familiarity to that ultra-recognizable They Might Be Giants sound: the ferociously melodic song structures, the snappy, upbeat tempos and those nagging, stick-in-your-head hooks. Then I speculated that my uncanny intimacy with the tunes came as a result of my having heard some of them during the band's most recent tour--until I remembered that they'd seemed like old hat live, too. Why? Because, with a few notable exceptions, the ditties on this album seem no different from a lot of other numbers that have come off the Giants' assembly line. "Meet James Ensor" is perhaps the most unsurprising of the bunch; the number's accordion-strewn melody, firmly enunciated lyrics, java-fueled enthusiasm and electric guitar picking are extremely predictable. This is not to say, however, that the disc completely drowns in consistency. The recording marks the debut of a full-sized band put together by longtime group leaders John Flansburgh and John Linnell, and it contains an a cappella ballad ("O, Do Not Forsake Me") that's something of a departure for this instrument-happy act. As a result, the track is fresh in a way that a lot of John Henry is not.--Justin McLean

Green Jelly
333
(Zoo Entertainment/BMG Music)

No, this is not GWAR, but you can describe that band and Green Jelly in pretty much the same way: They're both novelty speed metal wrapped inside a stupid, campy, comic-book sensibility. And after 333's novelty has worn off (after about five seconds), all you're left with is the music--which ain't much. For their second album, the members of Green Jelly dredge up riffs from the hard-rock junkyard, combining a few bits of attitude from punk's bargain basement (where the Offspring shops) with the geeky sense of humor of a demented twelve-year-old. The stomach-churning results can be heard in songs such as "Orange Krunch" and "Carnage Rules"--stolen straight from Pantera's wastebasket--as well as "Fight," whose lyrics mainly repeat the title phrase over and over again. Compelling, no? Green Jelly: just another nail in the coffin of heavy metal.--Michael Behrenhausen

XC-NN
XC-NN
(550 Music/Epic)

In many ways, these three technologically minded noisemakers are just more boys with guitars--and I, for one, have heard plenty of those lately. Fortunately, Tim Bricheno, Neill Lambert and David Tomlinson prove willing and able to locate new life in old formulas. The hooks are plentiful, the riffing (supplemented by astutely manipulated samples and programming) is relentless, the vocals are passionate without falling victim to histrionics, and--this is the important part--the lyrics bristle with offhand wisdom and pitch-black humor. "Broadway," for example, is a caustic fable in five sections that concludes with a succinct critique of what passes for fodder on the Great White Way these days--hardly the subject matter found on your average grunge platter. But best of all is "Young, Stupid and White," a smashing slab of sound that lyrically knocks the rock ("This is stupid/This is the death of intelligence.../Please please please please stop") even as it musically celebrates it. A rock band that understands irony--can you believe it?--Roberts

 
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