--John Floyd

The Slackers
The Question

Many of the newer ska bands ignore the elegant horn lines, shuffling backbeats and rich sound found in the genre's Jamaican roots--but there are exceptions. Like Hepcat, New York's Slackers have not lost touch with the music's past. The songs that make up The Question display a studied authenticity: "No More Crying" includes an old-school saxophone solo, the title track is distinguished by a wholehearted attempt at classic harmony singing, and "Feed My Girl" makes a reference to "sufferation." It's no surprise, then, that the album is dedicated to Tommy McCook, founder of the Skatalites.

The Slackers aren't merely channeling ska bands of yore, however. Victor Ruggiero's rugged vocals have more in common with Dicky Barrett's than they do with any graduates of Treasure Isle or Studio One, and songs like the exuberant "Motor City" and the quirky, oddball "Mummy" nod to styles beyond ska; calypso and the sounds of Harlem and New Orleans receive their due as well. Still, the Slackers nail the playful, uplifting spirit that's marked ska since its inception. If that's The Question, my answer is "yes."

--Joshua Green

Cash Money
Halos of Smoke and Fire
(Touch and Go)

Read the liner notes for this sophomore offering by Chicago's favorite blooze-slop duo and you'll find a handy little disclaimer: "In an Effort to dissuade ever-present critical ears from making misguided comparisons to contemporary artists, CASH MONEY gratefully acknowledge and tip their hats to the works of Johnny Cash, Freddie King, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and Elvis Presley. Any other incidental or accidental hat-tipping is purely coincidental and thereby unintentional."

Roughly translated, that means "Quit comparing us to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion." But this observation, however misguided it may be, has at least some basis in fact. John Humphrey and Scott Giampino take great pleasure in respectfully disrespecting country and blues traditions, and like the Explosion, they don't use a bass player while fucking up songs with jerky chord changes, static-charged vocals and flinching beats. But whereas Spencer and his posse tend to revel in generic, stereotypical soul shtick, the Cash Money pair sound as if they actually listen to their influences now and then. On "El Toro" and "Flight of the Greyhound Bus," for example, Humphrey captures Jimmy Page's subtle hard-rock brilliance far better than Page has in recent years, and "Drowning Boat" is downright rootsy--in a sweaty, white-city-boy sort of way.

"Mask of Amontiago," an experimental violin/guitar jam that at its best resembles a poor man's Dirty Three and at its worst a shitty punk-rock folk jig, is a clinker, but the rest of the recording plays just fine. It may sound a lot like the work of Railroad Jerk, Bantam Rooster, the Delta 72 and the aforementioned Mr. Spencer, but that's not such a bad thing--no matter which way you tip your hat.

--Brad Jones

Lisa Germano

Germano is perfectly suited to 4AD's brand of elegant gloom. For more than eight years, the Midwestern singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has refined her intriguing habit of exploring both her own misery and her pathos for the second person. Unlike many of her contemporaries, though, Germano has avoided that annoying fingernails-on-the-chalkboard-of-naivete effect. Indeed, Slide, her fifth album, may be her most accessible recording to date--depending on one's definition of accessibility, that is.

On the disc, Germano largely dispenses with the searing guitars that propelled Happiness, and her vocal suspirations are much less aggressive and desperate than, for example, the emotional armageddon found on Geek the Girl. But while this makeover yields a more subtle recording, Slide isn't necessarily a feel-good set. The bpm meter barely reads a pulse, and the logy tempos push Germano's fine-grained whisper of a voice to the fore on tracks that find her veering between abstract lyricism and forthright autobiographical narrative. On "No Color Here," her optimism comes across as something salvaged, not solid ("All my mistakes woven in a rug/Black and blue and dusty/Is there a beauty there?"), and "Turning Into Betty" allows her to muse that sweet, simple Mom may have been right. Elsewhere, she hints that cynicism might work better as rhetorical strategy than guiding emotion. The heavy "Tomorrowing" is a far cry from standard-issue pop, but it still manages to avoid nihilistic dead ends.

Germano's use of what amounts to a group of studio musicians as accompanists doesn't prevent Slide from emerging as an intensely personal expression filled with layers of odd keyboards, effected guitars, reserved percussion, languid bass and seemingly found sounds. It must seem to her that she'll never live down the notoriety resulting from her stint as John Cougar's fiddle player. But a few more lush, powerful albums like Slide should do the trick.

--Thomas Peake

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