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Consumer Guide: Dub for Dummies

It started with Music Club's Augustus Pablo, and though I wasn't quite enlightened enough to go all the way with the King Tubby, Select Cuts From Blood & Fire clinched it. Twenty years after my first try, I just spent a few weeks actively enjoying dub. Pass the pipe.

AT THE DRIVE-IN: Relationship of Command (Grand Royal) What ever are they emoting about? Doesn't much matter. In one song I especially like, wordy low-life vignettes (pimps, polyester, paramedics; defected, excommunicated, subverted) are revved by simultaneous guitar chime and guitar noise that gives way to a sweet refrain of "Dancing on the corpse's ashes," which is subsumed in turn by a raucous chorus with a wishing well in it. Passion in El Paso is what all this comes down to, and fleshed out with comparable sonics and shaped into associatively elongated songforms, that's enough. In a bad time for young guitar bands, including many forgettable ones lumped under the trade name "emo," these ambitious yowlers are reason for hope. For four consecutive CDs they've developed, developed, developed. Not only do they believe, they can back it up. A MINUS

ERYKAH BADU: Mama's Gun (Motown) Ms.-Badu-to-you could have ridden her photogenic witchy-rootsy ambience/attitude down a flexigroove to iconicity. Instead she determined to rise up, doing for her songcraft what D'Angelo did for his funk. From "Here's my philosophy/We're living in a penitentiary" to "My eyes are green/Because I eat a lot of vegetables," she scores over and over on 14-tracks-in-72-minutes that miss maybe twice and only seem long-winded when she gives the flautist some. Maybe her sources are autobiographical, but she's here to inspire all black-identified women and the men who admire them. On "Cleva," she predicts you'll love her for her mind as her ninnies sag; on "Booty," she pulls more good stuff with her G.E.D. than you can with your Ph.D. And to prove how smart she is once and for all, she accentchuates her word power with structures, arrangements, hooks, the works. A

BIG YOUTH: Natty Universal Dread 1973-1979 (Blood and Fire import) Especially given the label's fondness for sonic byways, I admit that these three CDs of obscure-inna-Babylon Manley Buchanan filled me with gray-haired professional dread. Oh I-and-I of little faith. Youth remains an unimaginable original whatever his debt to U-Roy, whose (comparatively) suave presence on the two-part "Battle of the Giants" only highlights the younger toaster's innocence and joy. Rapping, chanting, preaching, sing-songing, ripping off War or Ike & Tina or the Last Poets, Youth never undercuts his race-conscious commitment to agape. Even invoking damnation's "Hotter Fire" he assumes no prophetic airs, and he details the poverty of "Riverton City" as if reciting a nursery rhyme--as if he's the little child who shall lead us. His mission is to render palatable a Rastafarianism he knows as the simple word of Jah. The rhythms are obviously essential. But only on the dubbier final disc do his revealed truths lose any charm. A MINUS

DAN BRYK: Lovers Leap (Scratchie) Four of the first five tracks on this fat Canadian's Fountains of Wayne-scouted, Smashing Pumpkins-financed U.S. debut are the gemlike acts of idiosyncratic genius pop nerds are forever discerning on the recordings of other pop nerds. After that, there's a Marcia Brady lookalike with Nicaraguan needlepoint on her bed, another girl whose breasts he felt once, and a bunch of the kind of craftsmanship nerds swear by and normal people forget before the next one's over. But the legendary computer programmer, the predatory piano player, the ex who doesn't mean a thing to him tonight, and all the chunky girls who slide their reassuring hands along his ample hips are four more proofs of just how exaggerated reports of song's demise remain. A MINUS

BUILT TO SPILL: Live (Warner Bros.) The holy purpose of Doug Martsch's songwriting is the riffs it feeds his guitar. Lyrics that poke into the tribulations and satisfactions of indie life may be worth excavating, may even convince us that for Martsch small-town life is an end in itself. In fact, however, he treasures low-overhead slackerdom for affording the physical time and spiritual space where musical epiphanies can flourish--for providing the raw material of its own transcendence. As much as Martsch's turbulent flow owes J Mascis, Neil Young is definitely the godfather--so that when Martsch launches a 20-minute "Cortez the Killer" you may forget what record you've got on until you realize how much louder Martsch's cannonading repetitions are. There's no folk-rock in him--and, for that pomo touch, plenty of computer. A MINUS

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND: I'm Going to Do What I Want to Do (Live at My Father's Place 1978) (Rhino Handmade) Title protestations to the contrary, Don Van Vliet promos like a good touring artist should, supporting a near-great album that 22 years later has left the catalog (for the nonce) as nine de facto bonus tracks reprise his illustrious underground career. Live on this November night, his music was slacker and more forceful than on the studio Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). His anointed helpers weren't improvisers, not hardly. But they were a fairly magic band. B PLUS

AUGUSTUS PABLO: The Great Pablo (Music Club) There was always as much homemade ska charm as space-bass version esoterica in Horace Swaby's primitive dub, which used a toy instrument to evoke a mysterious East that was big in Japan even though it never ventured far beyond his mind's Nile. More than Ocho's The Melodica King or Mango's Classic Rockers, this early-'70s mix-and-match strikes the right balance of tuneful and tricky, as serene as a six-year-old dabbling in the sand with his right hand as he holds tight to his mother's skirt with the left. A MINUS

SELECT CUTS FROM BLOOD & FIRE (Select Cuts import) Never a fan of reggae version sides or Mikey Dread 'tween-sets, left cold by the soundlabs of not just Björk but Linton Kwesi Johnson, unconverted to the gospel of Macro Dub Infection, and having expended too many hours on the title label's lovingly reconstituted arcana collections, I didn't trust my attraction to this master compilation. So to check for brain softening, I returned to Macro Dub Infection--and was soon cursing my own cowardice in never calling it out as the arid piece of Eurotheory it is. At its most abstract, this music is juicy. Only a fulltime herbhead wants to be set adrift on disc upon disc of bass 'n' sample. But even herbheads get off on the occasional swatch of tune--like the five-note guitar phrase that tops the catchy bassline of Glen Brown's "Lego the Herb Man Dub," or the "Yabby Yabby You" chant with horn and piano variations on Yabby You's "Conquering Lion." Enough of those and all the mirrored reverb and seismic throb and voices warning and announcing and grunting and muttering and expostulating make the right kind of sense--or nonsense. A MINUS

THE WACO BROTHERS: Electric Waco Chair (Bloodshot) Loving Sally Timms as I do, I take no pleasure in noting that the Wacos have supplanted the Mekons as Jon Langford's main squeeze. On their fifth and best album, a questionable vision of country music that dates back to Fear and Whiskey goes around and comes around as Langford and company realize that they've hung around long enough to turn into the desperate working stiffs their faux honky tonk imagines. "I took this job in the summer/Never saw the winter rollin' on," Langford spits out as the autumn of his years hits November, and soon Dino Schlabowske is a traveling salesman doing cold calls on a circle tour he's afraid will never end. Me, I hope business picks up, which seems a nicer way of requesting more records this bitter and bracing than wondering whether alternate career opportunities are really any better. A MINUS

WU-TANG CLAN: The W (Loud) Can't swear they've taken their moral vision much beyond "Handle your bid and kill no kids," although only rarely does it get worse and I like the bit where Yacub talk segues into doowop cliche as if it's all the same old song--which song then segues into tales of chattel slavery. But for all its rapped W-Unity, this is RZA's record almost as much as the so-hypnotic-it's-slept-on Ghost Dog. He serves up a bounty of song-centered musique trouvée and stomach-churning beats from anywhere--sleighbells and box-cutters and moans and explosions and drums and horns and huh? and violins and Esther Phillips coming in at the right wrong moment every goddamn time. Far from straining, he's gone sensei, achieving a craft in which the hand leads the mind. Anyway, that's how it sounds--which since this is music is what counts. A MINUS

NEIL YOUNG: Road Rock V 1 (Reprise) Only one of the six 1969-1978 oldies that dominate this contract-conscious holding action is on any previous live album--"Tonight's the Night," which admittedly had more get-up-and-go on Weld in 1990. The two new titles are a girl-group hoot too good for Silver and Gold and a bitter, climactic, Chrissie Hynde-enhanced "All Along the Watchtower." The Keith-Oldham-Dunn-Keltner band rocks different than Crazy Horse. Definitely not dead yet. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

JAY-Z: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (Roc-A-Fella) His arrogance is earned, but that doesn't make it interesting, especially since his whine isn't--the same habit of childish self-pity that generated cognitive dissonance when he was coming up on the snazziest swizzbeats in the kingdom is annoying pathology with knockoff protegees sending in productions by cellular. And wouldn't Memphis Bleek be more, I dunno, affecting contributing a few answering-machine cameos, from upstate maybe? Right, "Jigga"'s still got "skills." So does LL Cool J, whose more accomplished record means nothing to nobody. This is a major falloff, a lazy cash-in no matter who won't admit it. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • King Tubby, The Best of King Tubby: King Dub (Music Club): simple suffices, 1973-1977 ("Dub From the Roots," "Keep On Dubbing")
  • Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach): too classy for me, I figured, but she's nicer, funnier, and sexier than that--and too young for me isn't her fault ("Exclusively," "Love Rain")
  • Kevin Coyne, Room Full of Fools (Ruf import): rocking on the edge of everything for 30 years, and how many margin mavens know his name? ("I'm Wild," "More Than Enough")
  • Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American): the song alone ("Nobody," "Before My Time," "Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone]")
  • Thievery Corporation, The Mirror Conspiracy (ESL): processed chêvre avec nutmeg and a soupçon of Scotch bonnet ("Indra," "Treasures")
  • Red Star Belgrade, Telescope (Checkered Past): aptest alt-country band name yet devised ("Nixon Stamp," "After the Revolution")
  • Shelby Lynne, Epic Recordings (Lucky Dog): as a young comer, she sounds most herself swinging the classics ("Lonely Weekends," "Don't Mind if I Do")
  • Lifter Puller, Fiestas and Fiascos (Frenchkiss): postpunk E Street for fuckups clocking e-dollars ("Touch My Stuff," "Lie Down on Landsdowne")
  • Everclear, Songs From an American Movie: Vol. Two: Good Time for a Bad Attitude (Capitol): not as mad as he says he is ("The Good Witch of the North," "Rock Star")
  • Rachelle Ferrell, Individuality (Can I Be Me?) (Capitol): making up in musicianship (i.e., jazz) what she lacks in songwriting (i.e., pop) ("Will You Remember Me?" "Individuality [Can I Be Me?]")
  • Ja Rule, Rule 3:36 (Murder Inc./Def Jam): gravel-pop hip hop--the Mystikal trick ("It's Your Life," "Between You and Me")
  • Air, The Virgin Suicides (Astralwerks): already de facto soundtrack, they didn't need a real movie to distract them from meaning something ("Ghost Song," "Dirty Trip")
Choice Cuts:
  • Madd Anju, "Wah Dis Fada" (Planet Reggae 2000, VP)
  • Black Rob, "Whoa!" (Life Story, Bad Boy)
  • Bahamadia, "Commonwealth (Cheap Chicks)" (BB Queen, Goodvibe)
  • Paul Simon, "Darling Lorraine," "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" (You're the One, Warner Bros.)
  • Bad Religion, The New America (Atlantic)
  • Chicks on Speed, The Re-Releases of the Un-Releases (K)
  • Alex Chilton, Set (Bar/None)
  • D.I.T.C. (Tommy Boy)
  • Beth Hirsch, Early Days (K7)
  • Joan of Arc, The Gap (Jade Tree)
  • Lenny Kravitz, Greatest Hits (Virgin)
  • Marvelous 3, ReadySexGo (Hi-Fi/Elektra)
  • Shyne (Bad Boy)

Village Voice, Jan. 23, 2001

Dec. 26, 2000 Feb. 13, 2001