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Various Artists
The Best of KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas
(Time Bomb)

It's common knowledge, at least in Southern California, that the Los Angeles-based alternative radio station KROQ has had some hand in determining the majority of musical trends in the '90s. A spin on FM-106.7 virtually guarantees hundreds of stations will follow suit -- and you thought WENZ was influential. KROQ almost single-handedly started the damn ska revival and is responsible for an annual radio Christmas show, now an event in what seems like every major market except for Cleveland.

So with all of this heritage, the idea of releasing a "best of" from Christmases past sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, the disc's biggest guns aren't captured at their best, and the one-hit wonders sound like just that. Part of the blame can be attributed to the bootleg quality of the recordings. Whatever the case, this "almost acoustic" disc is almost moderately interesting. Fittingly, Blink 182's mini-hit "Dammit" starts the album, epitomizing the typical KROQ/Southern California sound. Its throwaway, transitory nature offers the kind of youthful exuberance that has pop value, but more than likely won't be a genre-defining anthem. This pretty much describes the majority of the tracks, which possess a premature K-Tel feel: Smash Mouth sings a loose "Walking on the Sun," Cake goes through the motions with the quirky "The Distance," and Everclear turns in a toned-down version of its hook-laden "I Will Buy You a New Life." Linear performances by Hole ("Doll Parts"), Garbage ("Stupid Girl"), and Live ("I Alone") seem to defeat the live, almost acoustic motif.

The few highlights include a subdued, pre-Okay Computer Radiohead presenting "Fake Plastic Trees" in a new, gentle light and Bush's "Everything Zen" -- even though it's plagued by a rough beginning, singer Gavin Rossdale rebounds nicely with a little improvisation and slicing guitar work. The album is ultimately a disappointment, however, because the radio station that has been so instrumental in crafting the trends of the decade chooses to revel in its past glories instead of pointing toward the future. -- John Benson

2Pac and Outlawz
Still I Rise
(Interscope)

The Notorious B.I.G.
Born Again
(Bad Boy)

It's appropriate that 2Pac (Tupac Shakur) and the Notorious B.I.G. (Chris Wallace) each have posthumous albums with titles with religious overtones. The two rappers, who both died of bullet wounds just as they were hitting their respective primes, left legacies that have taken on mythical proportions (Shakur died in 1996 and Wallace in 1997). In Shakur's case, Still I Rise is hardly the first material to see the light of day after his murder. Initially, a collection of his songs appeared under the moniker Makavelli, and a greatest hits album was released last year. That's not even mentioning the numerous albums and bootlegs that have borne his name since his death.

Still I Rise, a collection of 15 previously unreleased tracks assembled by his mother, Afeni Shakur, comes out more on the "Dear Mama" tip than the gangsta side, but it still finds Shakur embracing the contradictory tendencies for which he's known. In slow-groove songs such as the title track, "Baby Don't Cry (Keep Ya Head Up)," and "Secretz of War," Shakur meditates on his life and where the violence has led him. In "Letter to the President," "Black Jesus," and the sparse (read: unfinished) "Homeboyz," he sounds more confrontational. Surprisingly, Still I Rise, for the most part, stands up to Shakur's best work, 1995's Me Against the World.

Born Again, which opens with Wallace reflecting on his life and the likelihood of an early end, is really a Sean "Puffy" Combs album in disguise. In fact, an ad for Combs's Forever, which has suffered from slow sales, is inserted in the disc, and Combs's trademarks (guest rappers and pop samples) are all over this disc. "Notorious B.I.G.," the most blatant example of Combs's handiwork, features a cheesy sample of Duran Duran's "Notorious." In fact, the best track, "Would You Die for Me," features guest raps from Combs -- which again makes you think that he's got self-interest on his mind by producing this record. Collaborations with Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes ("Dangerous MCs"), Eminem ("Dead Wrong"), and Too Short ("Big Booty Hoes") don't just sound rough -- they're built around Wallace's studio leftovers -- but they also trade in sexist and homophobic themes that are both offensive and played out. Born Again might ostensibly be a tribute to Wallace, but the shoddy nature of this production really does a disservice to the late rapper. -- Jeff Niesel

Various Artists
Music From the Motion Picture Magnolia
(Reprise)

When a couple hundred artists were cut during the corporate shuffle/merger of PolyGram and Universal a year ago, no one's fate was as bittersweet as Aimee Mann's. Before the media grabbed hold of the "Decade of the Woman" cop-out, the ex-'Til Tuesday singer crafted a personal and understated work with 1993's Whatever, a triumph of the modern singer-songwriter (male or female). Earlier this year she completed her third solo album, which went unreleased after she found herself musically homeless. In effect, she became the poster girl and martyr for all the fallen artists.

She has since signed to a new label, which will soon release that formerly unwanted record. In the meantime, however, several of its songs have turned up on the soundtrack to Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling follow-up to Boogie Nights. Mann is given nine spots on the album (including a lackluster cover of Three Dog Night's "One") and creates a mood that straddles the line somewhere between wide-eyed maturity and heightened wonderment. It's a modern torn-romantic set piece of both depth and aptitude. While the cheeky addition of two Supertramp songs (Anderson's "Sister Christian" goof for Magnolia?) weigh heavily on the album's final moments, the first half-plus of Magnolia is Mann's quiet, subtle revenge.

Anderson has said that Magnolia was inspired by Mann's work -- in particular, demos he had heard of some of the songs that ended up in his movie. And like Robert Altman's bipolar use of film and song in the '70s, Anderson -- with help from Mann, of course -- has constructed a thoroughly contemporary take on the relationships. It's a haunting work, even if it isn't quite up to Whatever's scarred confessions. Mann sounds neither defeated nor elated by the situations around her; she merely sounds like she's dealing with their reality. And it's that strength, the survival at the core of these songs, that elevates them. Magnolia's most striking track, "Save Me," is an SOS from someone who doesn't sound all that convinced that she actually wants to be rescued. There's a happy paradox in the misery -- one for which Mann sounds extremely grateful. -- Michael Gallucci

Porter Ricks/Techno Animal
Symbiotics
(Force Inc. Records)

In Book I of John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, the omniscient speaker describes the netherworld with such eloquence that it's easy to wonder about the author's sympathy for the Prince of Darkness. Milton describes hell as "A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round/As One great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible/Serv'd only to discover sights of woe." Hell has rarely been rendered so wonderfully since. Until, that is, the release of Symbiotics, an album for which Porter Ricks and Techno Animal have captured the sonic essence of evil unrivaled in its beauty or emotion.

Porter Ricks (Thomas Koner and Andy Mellweg) and Techno Animal (Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick), are both well known for throwing down subterranean bass elements and eerie sound effects in the effort to conjure frightful cinematic imagery and push the limits of conceptualizing club-friendly music. Symbiotics sees them exchanging raw, unfinished tracks and sound fragments for a reconstruction proj-ect that outscores their previous singular endeavors on Germany's dance imprint, Force Inc. And they've succeeded beyond what anyone might have imagined.

Locked within the Porter Ricks-initiated "Polytoxic 1" is the corrupted soul of a funk top 40 hit -- a fantastic walking bassline succumbs to the caustic snares of screeching fingernails and pointed static flams. Groove-prone Techno Animal comes right back on "Hydrozoid" and "Bio-morphium" with ravished hip-hop breaks weighted down to 90 bpm by horrific atmospherics, the likes of which could exist only in the visible darkness of a Miltonic den of iniquity. From this harrowing chasm arises "Phosphoric" and "Monosphate" to unleash a pandemonium of fierce beats and bass thrusts insurmountable in their deep and billowing demonic beauty. Like Paradise Lost, Symbiotics is not a devilish manifesto; nor should Techno Animal or Porter Ricks be considered inherently evil. But like Milton, they've unlocked the absolute brilliance of humanity's darkest spiritual plane in musical form, offering up a slate of dance tracks unparalleled in their rendering of something malevolent that they're captivating. -- Heath K. Hignight

Elliott Sharp: Tectonics
Errata
(Knitting Factory Records)

A major figure in New York's downtown scene for years, Elliott Sharp has experimented relentlessly with electronics over the course of his career. He's more recently started using computers and invented instruments, the most well-known of which is the guitarbass. He's a multi-instrumentalist who also plays percussion and saxophone -- but don't let any of that intimidate you. Sharp's work is pretty accessible. His innovative efforts have concentrated on producing unusual textures and timbres, but he employs familiar devices too: infectious rhythms, steady tempos. His works, for all their newness in some areas, are lucidly constructed, logically paced, and full of interesting dynamic and textural contrasts.

On this multilayered disc, Sharp plays all of the instruments. He's got a huge palette from which to choose, given the electronic equipment at his disposal. But Sharp isn't just experimenting. He's making music and is selective about what he puts into it. In fact, his orchestration, if it can be called that, is pretty lean, and he builds his pieces gradually, creating ambiences rather than jumping abruptly from one thing to another. Some of these tracks have a hypnotic quality, something like Indian music. There's also a free jazz influence here. If you haven't heard Sharp's work, you should. He's created his own style, and although he continues to refine it, his achievements to date have already had considerable impact and will continue to do so for some time. -- Harvey Pekar

Sullivan Brothers
At Last
(self-released)

For decades Lawrence "Buddy" Sullivan has been among the top tenor saxophonists in Northeast Ohio. He might've become more popular, but music was only one of his careers. He started playing with territory bands in 1941, but, after his stint in the service during WWII, graduated from the University of Toledo and became a CPA. Settling in the Cleveland area, he's been an accountant by day and a musician by night until just recently, when he retired from accounting. Fortunately, he still plays gigs around town.

Buddy's brother, John Sullivan, also played tenor in local bands and the service. Later, he worked his way through Creighton University as a musician, but gave up playing professionally when he became an M.D., first in Des Moines, Iowa, then in Sarasota, Florida. The Sullivans have a long-overdue musical reunion on this disc, cut when John Sullivan first visited Buddy Sullivan some months ago. They're accompanied by some first-rate musicians, including pianist Dan Maier, who freelanced in New York for several years and was a member of Blood, Sweat and Tears; bassist Dave Morgan, also a gifted composer/arranger; and top-notch veteran drummer Bob McKee.

The format here is informal, and the program consists of jazz standards, all of which are fine vehicles for improvisation. The Sullivans have somewhat similar styles, which basically come from Lester Young, and they improvise straight ahead, infectiously swinging solos and play lyrically on ballads. John Sullivan has a somewhat fuller tone and occasionally uses rasped notes. Buddy Sullivan's a smoother, more melodic soloist who also plays more notes. Maier provides some of the album's highlights with his fleet, substantive solos and accompanies the tenor men sensitively. The solo and rhythm section work of Morgan is also intelligent and musical. McKee keeps things swinging without being intrusive. This disc is so good, it makes you hope the Sullivans get together for volume two. -- Harvey Pekar

Birth
Birth
(self-released)

Rob Mazurek and the assorted Chicago Underground projects are useful points of comparison for the Cleveland-based Birth. Like Chicago Underground, which finds its blueprint in the collusion of live jazz and electronica, Birth's sound is a fusion of drum and bass and avant-garde music. Both groups also like to mix their media by segueing between total live jazz and total electronic passages -- but the similarities just about end there. While the Underground cultivates a more abstract, icier sound -- classic Ornette free jazz-meets-the bleep-bloop introspective electronica of Tortoise -- the scrappy power trio, Birth, revels in raw, visceral, and unabashedly pugilist music. Unafraid to traffic in earthier sounds -- in this case, a heavy dose of the funk -- Birth has produced the kind of R&B/free jazz offering you might expect from a Julius Hemphill record. Though with this, its debut CD, Birth offers up a similar sound with the occasional modern touch.

The sound often hinges on Jeremy Bleich's steady bass lines, a persistent electronic thud that gives the music a feel somewhere between Miles Davis's dark '70s funk and a '90s garage band. Stacked against the sound of Joe Tomino's electronica-influenced, skittering kit, it's a great foundation for the forceful saxophone of Joshua Smith. The drum and bass influence seems to begin and end with Tomino. Nevertheless, his drum sound is never less than organic to the music, and it leaves him open to interplay with Bleich or Smith. A great example comes a few minutes into the opening tune, "Subliminal Ink," where Tomino breaks off the timekeeping duty and tears through a passage with Smith, leaving Bleich free to counterpoint at will.

The band also claims a stylistic kinship with the New York musicians who orbit the Knitting Factory, and nowhere does Birth bear this out more than on "2 Pho." Midway through, the trio alternates punk noise outbursts with noir-soaked sax wails -- it's a gesture straight outta Naked City. Birth doesn't quite sound convincing with some of their more overt electronic moments. (See the digital smears and electronic bagpipe nightmare that open "Six More Minutes.") Nevertheless, this is atomic stuff leavened with a sense of humor (check out the "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" quote Smith drops in "Dan Dockrill" or the risible compu-squeaks on "Cows") and well worth exploring. -- Aaron Steinberg

Birth performs on December 30 at the Diamondback Brewery.

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