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MTV Celebrity Deathmatch: Round 1
MTV Celebrity Deathmatch: Round 2
(Sony Music Entertainment)

Anyone who believes that MTV's programming is currently in the crapper will get no argument from me. The network still shows music videos, but generally not at hours when anyone's conscious--and folks interested in seeing clips starring performers other than the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears (who eerily resembles a teenage version of JonBenet Ramsey) might as well stay asleep. Moreover, its prime-time lineup is larded with failed game shows, redundant "relationship" programs and a seemingly endless parade of Real World clones that stopped being interested seven or eight Bill Clinton scandals ago. But there's one exception to this rule: Celebrity Deathmatch, the perkiest tribute to wholesale carnage currently viewable on the small screen.

The creation of animator/director Eric Fogel, the show features clay likenesses of celebrities ripping, slashing and disemboweling each other for the pleasure of every American who helped make them famous. It's an appealing notion, but what makes it work is Fogel's relentlessly cheerful tone. In the universe overseen by commentators Johnny Gomez and Nick Diamond (supplemented by big-toothed interviewer Stacy Cornbread, referee Mills Lane and, in Round 2, a Play-Doh rendering of Stone Cold Steve Austin), butchery is something that is owed the public, and the stars are pleased to comply. Just as important, the competitor who deserves to wind up dead usually does. If Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio met in the ring, you'd be rooting for Leo to wind up in a body bag, right? Well, your wish is Fogel's command.

There are signs that Fogel's concept may be running out of steam: I enjoyed a recent confrontation between Mahatma Gandhi and Genghis Khan that's not included on these tapes, but I fear that contest and others like it mean that he's already running out of contemporary personalities whose slaughters we'd get a kick out of witnessing. For the length of these two videocassettes, though, the mayhem couldn't be more inviting. This is one bloodbath you'll enjoy soaking in.

--Michael Roberts

Papa Wemba
Molokai
(Real World)

Papa Wemba's fans have followed him from his late-Seventies days in the Kinshasa band Zaika Langa Langa to his frequent attempts through the Nineties to reach Westerners by enlisting electro-arrangements. But since part of the reason for these Parisian remakes of old Soukous favorites is to introduce Wemba to an interested dilettante like me, I have to carp about Patrick Bebey's synthesizers: They exhibit the unbecoming cuteness of Mannheim Steamroller. Also disappointing is the fact that only "Escave," an exciting Eighties classic that closes this collection, is translated. A first-person account of a slave's journey from an auction at the Tipo-Tipo market to a new world where his spirit is never irrevocably dispersed, the track exhibits Wemba's political and historical reach. Unfortunately, the keyboards dilute graceful guitar playing by Christian Pollini and Patrick Marie-Magdelaine, and while Papa sings his heart out to save the song, he shouldn't have to. Someone Wemba respects should advise him that a beautiful voice sounds even better when it doesn't have to overcome so much musical resistance.

--John Young

Sleater-Kinney
The Hot Rock
(Kill Rock Stars)

During an interview with Westword last year ("The Hype Report," October 15, 1998), Sleater-Kinney guitarist-vocalist Corin Tucker implied that the act's next album would represent a new direction for the trio. In actual execution, however, this transformation is subtle, not radical. Sleater-Kinney's sound is still built around the interactions of Tucker, guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss; aside from Seth Warren, who adds violin and viola to "Size of Our Love" and "Memorize Your Lines," and producer Roger Moutenot, whose slide guitar decorates "A Quarter to Three," they're the only folks on it. But because of an increased focus on medium tempos and tricky structures, The Hot Rock isn't as wildly exuberant as its predecessors, Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out. Rather, the CD leans toward maturity, a quality that generally spells doom for an underground disc. It's a tribute to the musicians, then, that it eventually succeeds on its own terms.

The players announce their intentions on song one: Although "Start Together" sounds (wonderfully) typical of the threesome, the Tucker-delivered couplet "If you want me, it's changing/If you want, everything's changing" wasn't chosen at random. Soon after, Brownstein, who usually cedes the spotlight to Tucker, makes her presence felt on mood pieces such as "Hot Rock," "Don't Talk Like" and the oddly morbid "The Size of Our Love," a hospital-room tale in which an apparently terminal condition proves to be no impediment to romance. Brownstein's no shrinking violet (in the bold "One Song for You," she declares, "If you want me in your bed/We'd better do it on the sly"), but she tends to sing more often than she caterwauls, thereby causing attention to shift to the intricacies of the arrangements and the often poetic nature of her lyrical haiku. Fortunately, she's smart enough to lighten the load on occasion: In "Get Up," she juxtaposes an image about dumping pieces of a body into the universe like a bucket of stars with the exclamation "Whoooh! Watch it go!"

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