Because guitarist Bill Frisell is versed in everything from bluegrass to avant-jazz to world music and beyond, you never know what his next album will be all about. He stays true to form with Unspeakable. Following an American roots record (2002's The Willies) and a world-music project (last year's generally disappointing The Intercontinentals), the guitar ace rolls out a mostly exhilarating, tough-to-pin-down effort I'll call an abstract groove album.
He brought in long-time friend and collaborator Hal Willner, who's also the music supervisor for Saturday Night Live, to produce. This creative nexus raided the NBC archives for obscure records, and then built songs from the samples up. This is not sample-based music in the way we've come to understand it, though — you'll hear nothing familiar, nothing particularly discernable. Frisell/Willner went on to layer live rhythm tracks, horn sections (arranged by Sex Mob main man Steven Bernstein) and string trio parts (arranged by Frisell). Somehow, all of this did not become a complete cluster fuck. Frisell and Willner knew when to spread it on thick, when to let it breathe.
Over the last decade, the guitarist has moved away from performing solos broken into clear segments, choosing instead to integrate his idiosyncratic playing with the other sonic elements, peaking out with wailing single-note runs, chord licks, discordant smears, floating harmonics, squiggles, swerves and other ad hoc dissonances that make up Frisell's far-flung, inimitable style. This innovative approach is what makes his guitar playing at once extraordinary and somewhat frustrating. First, he breaks away from an ear-friendly paradigm — solos — which can leave the listener vaguely unsettled. Second, he's a remarkable soloist with a superb narrative sense; without these exquisitely constructed forays, long-time devotees can feel a little cheated. Put more bluntly: Sometimes you want to grab Bill by the neck and yell, "Just PLAY, motherfucker!"
Frisell's most satisfying guitar work appears on "White Fang," a riffy funk number where he digs into his entire bag. Elsewhere, he melts into a few spacey pieces built around ringing chord work, blasts out several high-energy rock/funk-based tunes and even delivers a piece or two that you'd probably call jazz. Amid all of this is a song that's just flat pretty: "Who Was That Girl?," a sunny instrumental take on '60s pop/R&B.
Helmed by lesser musicians, Unspeakable could've collapsed from its own ambitiousness, but Frisell and company have managed a slightly mitigated triumph. — ERIC SNIDER
Circa: Now! + 4
ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT
The legendary San Diego rock-with-horns sextet originally released this slab of very raw, very, very self-produced music back in '92, shortly before signing with Interscope Records for a rumored 2.5 zillion dollars. RFTC principal John "Speedo" Reis apparently took too long to deliver the major label a new disc, however (he was probably busy with more indie/ experimental-sounding side project Drive Like Jehu at the time), because Interscope snatched up Circa: Now! and re-released it the following year.
What's most interesting about this decade-later re-re-release isn't so much the four additional tunes (though they're worth the price of admission), but rather what it reminds us about both RFTC and alt-rock in general. Rocket have had their stylish-rogue shtick down for so long that it's easy to assume that they sprang fully formed from the brow of Speedo. They didn't. Circa: Now! is split fairly evenly between primordial takes on the ass-shaking pirate-punk to come, and something much closer to the breakthrough "alternative" of the day.
For every charged, suavely greasy "Hippy Dippy Do," there's a grungy "Short Lip Fuser," which sounds a lot like the best thing Tad never did. None of these songs are bad; in fact, most of them are great, and a few ("Sturdy Wrist" and "Glazed" in particular) are excellent. It's just both jarring and smile-inducing to hear the band working through something — like "Flight of the Hobo," one of the four previously unreleased tracks — that sounds so unlike they do now. It does sound like a bunch of other bands do now, though, which brings us to this record's other delight: You can hear stuff that went on to influence an unfathomable number of future bands while you're listening to the sound of Rocket from the Crypt coming into its own. (www.swamirecords.com) 1/2 — SCOTT HARRELL
This female-fronted L.A. quartet's sophomore full-length improves on the poppy New Wave generica of their debut. That said, however, Aimee Echo and company's efforts at finding a definitive sound for theSTART, as captured on Initiation, have yielded decidedly mixed results. Some of the disc's standouts split the difference between the jagged, dancey post-punk of edgy acts like Pretty Girls Make Graves and the less dangerous, more infectious fare of Scandinavian disco-wavers The Sounds ("Life is Sweet," "All or Nothing," the excellent hidden track); others exhibit grand mainstream alt-rock ambition ("The Conversation," potential hit "You, Me and a Knife"). Too often, though, the band finds itself lost somewhere in the middle, mired in an ambiguous morass of synth sheens, menacing guitars and conspicuously familiar hooks. Whole quarters of Initiation slide by anonymously, grabbing attention only via snippets of song forcibly recalling acts from Til Tuesday to No Doubt. There's plenty of potential here, particularly in Echo, a talented, experienced musician and ready-made star who's already got several obsessed-fan websites to her credit. But theSTART needs a sonic identity of its own before it'll transcend Initiation's engaging but too-often mediocre material. — SCOTT HARRELL
One Monkey Don't Stop No Show
THE GOODIE MOB
Back in the '90s when the Goodie Mob was gung-ho on seducing women with candlelit dinners at the Waffle House, the Atlanta-based squad had a reckless edge that set them apart from the rest of the hip-hop world. With their first collection of all-new tracks since 1999, the Mob is trying to show that they're still in the game. Unfortunately, One Monkey falls short of exceptional. Half of the tracks sound like the hip-hop that travels through the airwaves via corporate FM radio: manufactured, unoriginal and redundant. That's not to say there aren't a few outstanding songs here. "Play Your Flutes," which mixes mellow R&B with a heavy hip-hop flavor, shows the group can still produce a Dirty South classic. A catchy beat saves the otherwise bland "123 Goodie." With Cee-Lo gone and no Outkast cameos, the Mob now lacks the crazy, out-of-control attitude that gained them so much notoriety back when. 1/2 — WHITNEY MEERS