Milktrain to Paydirt
You can't describe Truman's Water as just another punk band--not when the closest thing to an influence you can scratch out of cuts like "Unitraction Bath" is Captain Beefheart. Most of these songs include a modicum of structure (even the ones that dissolve into rippling waves of feedback for five minutes at a time), but what makes them so intriguing is the way the Branstetter brothers, Kirk and Kevin, make the compositions seem as if they're going to fly apart at any moment. There's genuine mayhem at play whether the tempos move at rave-up speed (e.g., assorted passages of "Mechanical Days Safety System") or slow to an intriguing crawl (on, for instance, "Concussed"). Moreover, the spontaneous arrangements and unexpected instrumental sections demand attention. The words don't--only stray phrases rise to the top of the mix--but that hardly matters: This is a sonic excursion, not an excuse for lyrical nihilism of the sort seemingly being practiced by every college dropout with access to the writings of Albert Camus. The primitive production values and the Branstetters' insistence upon following their respective muses into wonderfully cryptic places will scare off the dilettantes, but anyone who understands that "art" and "punk" need not be mutually exclusive should enjoy hitting Paydirt.--Michael Roberts
"But Seriously..."--The American Comedy Box 1915-1994
Any bid to construct a compilation tracing the basic evolution of comedy over an eighty-year span is a kamikaze mission. After all, no one is going to agree on a list of performers who must be included or which examples of their work are truly representative of their art. It's no surprise, then, that this four-CD set falters on a basic conceptual level; the package simply attempts to cover too much ground in too little time. But The American Comedy Box is lousy for another, deeper reason: Too much of it just isn't funny. Instead of laughter, it prompts one to wonder who the hell picked this stuff. Disc one begins with pioneering comedy pieces originally cut on wax cylinders and 78 rpm vinyl, but the sound quality is so poor that the jokes are almost impossible to understand. Then again, many of the radio and movie bits that follow will have you wishing they were more difficult to decipher. The worst moments come from white comedians delivering embarrassing examples of blackface vaudeville, but even W.C. Fields's famous "Temperance Lecture" falls flat; gags built on alcohol abuse don't seem all that humorous anymore. If it wasn't for Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, the first platter would be a complete wash. The second CD, dedicated to political humor and one-liners, is equally weak: The Russkie punchlines delivered by Mort Sahl and Bob Hope are trite and outdated, the Lenny Bruce selection is one of his lamest, and the material spoken by Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers (with Moms Mabley, they're the only female comics here) is tepid at best. The same description applies to volume three, which focuses on storytellers and sketches ("Sister Mary Elephant," a dumb vignette by Cheech and Chong, wasn't amusing in the Seventies, when the majority of those in the audience were pot-toking idiots; now it's abrasive enough to inspire thoughts of homicide). And the full portraits of standups that fill the fourth disc are not exactly timeless. "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," George Carlin's silly stab at censorship, is the prize of the bunch, but it will mean more to twelve-year-olds who are easily titillated by profanities than to anyone else at this stage of the game. As for the rest of the set, you'll probably find yourself wondering what was supposed to be so damn funny about this cheesy stuff in the first place.--Linda Gruno
Aphrokubist Improvisations Vol. 9
This is as smooth as the acid-jazz/hip-hop pairing gets, in part because the principals here--Black Edgar Kenyatta, Professor Borris Karnaz and Ayman Rastabebish--are musicians first and conversationalists second. Kenyatta, particularly, is adept at producing sounds on his various saxophones that subvert improvisational glory to groove, but without dumbing down the music to Neanderthal levels; for proof, check "Bathsheba Blue," an instrumental in which a flock of horns flutter intriguingly atop a percussion backdrop that's both danceable and spry. The words work, too, in a Digable Planets sort of way--meaning that they don't add up to much, but they're occasionally diverting anyhow. The liner notes come complete with a mini-dictionary, dubbed the "Boohaabian Lexikon of Symbols, Koncepts and Meanings," that defines terms of the players' own invention, but you needn't feel compelled to memorize it: Knowing that "phophus" (defined as "a woman") is made up of the separate terms "pho" ("she") and "phus" ("the feminine embodiment of splendid pulchritudinous symmetry") is unlikely to contribute anything concrete to your listening experience. That's because Aphrokubist Improvisations works best as a cool, swinging mood piece. And throughout, the mood is good.--Roberts
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