July 10, 2002




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Anna Waronker
Anna by Anna Waronker (Five Foot Two)

Taken a look at 2002's déjà vu-inducing release schedule lately? With everyone from the Breeders and Weezer to Guided by Voices and Juliana Hatfield releasing albums this summer, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking nothing's changed since alt-rock's mid-'90s heyday. And, really, aside from the inevitable band breakups and the fact that most major labels no longer consider such acts profitable, what has changed? Not much musically, at least, judging by those postgrunge heavyweights' latest discs.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Consistency is often code for stagnating sameness, but at its best, it can indicate an artist's dedication to dissect and perfect her craft. And few alumni of last decade's alt-rock renaissance embody this work ethic like Anna Waronker: In 1995 the former that dog. frontperson scored her biggest buzz bin-size success with "He's Kissing Christian," and she's been improving on that song's pristine power-pop formula with intoxicating results ever since (1997's "Never Say Never"; Josie and the Pussycats' greatest Go-Go's pogo, "I Wish You Well").

It's unsurprising, then, that Waronker's solo debut is no artistic departure from the skull-sticking hooks and harmonies that made that dog. so endearing. What is surprising about Anna by Anna Waronker, however, is that it's so much better – almost impossibly so – than anything she's previously done. A treasure trove of would-be, should-be hits that alternate between rockin', new-wave numbers and heartbroken ballads, the album, shimmering summer-pop perfection, proves that Waronker is one of the alt-rock era's most talented voices. (Jimmy Draper)

DJ Spooky
Optometry (Thirsty Ear)

"Check the vibe as a kind of involution of the here and now. Check the vibe as jazz for the gene-splice generation.... Afro-Eurasian eclipse meets nu-bop in the streets of the remixed city." Sigh. These words are a sample of DJ Spooky's amazingly self-congratulatory liner notes to Optometry. He bombards the reader with a verbal carpet-bombing assault of hip name-dropping, invoking everyone from Guy Debord to Kraftwerk to Erik Satie to John Cage (!) to Walter Benjamin to Charlie Parker to ... wait, I'm running out of space.

So what does it all sound like? you ask. I am tempted to respond, Does it even matter? We're already told of the cultural significance of the music – it's all about "source codes" and "flipping the script" and stuff – and we know several handy new genre tags we can use when talking about it ("laptop jazz," "nu-bop," "cybernetic jazz"). Plus, we know it has an all-star lineup, strategically covering as many demographic bases as possible: free jazz (pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, saxophonist-trumpeter Joe McPhee), hip-hop (Anti-Pop Consortium MC High Priest), jam-band funk-jazz (Medeski, Martin, and Wood's Billy Martin), and the academic-classical avant-garde (local matriarch Pauline Oliveros). It has to be great!

So let's see, the disc opens with a skeletal hip hop-jazz-funk workout that is promising enough, but from there it's downhill. The second track has a "smooth jazz" feel that would put it right at home as background music on the Weather Channel; track four is built around a ponderous rap-monologue that begins pedantically with the line "I got two turntables and Coltrane." I'd describe the rest of it, but the combination of glazed-eye boredom and blood-boiling anger that results from such a talented cast of musicians turning in such a high-minded, allegedly "new," and yet ultimately flat set of jazz-tinged instrumental hip-hop prevents me from doing so.

The idea of electronic music, hip-hip, and jazz coming together has been around for a while, and it's still not a lost cause – refer to the more inspired moments on Shipp's Nu Bop for an example by some of these same players. But it is going to take more than pretentious essays, predictable jazz-all star cameos, a little token rapping, and a few wiggity-wack turntable scratches layered over the top for this path to lead anywhere. Come on, guys. (Will York)

I Am the World Trade Center
Tight Connection (Kindercore)

It is possible to lump the unfortunately named I Am the World Trade Center (yes, they named themselves before Sept. 11) in with the recent crop of electro nostalgia acts inasmuch as they set their '80s indie rock aesthetic loose on computers rather than guitars. But unlike the retro-Depeche punk of the Faint or the cold, classic Detroit electro of Adult., IATWTC's sophomore effort is influenced by a more cheerful part of the '80s: the Summer of Love.

Tight Connection opens with "The Postcard" and "Believe in Me," whose squelchy prototechno intro and uplifting synth chords are reminiscent of seminal acid house-era club dubs. By the fourth track – a sweet folktronic reworking of the Stone Roses' "Shoot You Down" – indie fans should be experiencing a full-on flashback to the psychedelic indie dance scene of Manchester, England, circa 1989.

Moving on, vocalist Amy Dykes takes turns playing various pop personae of the era, including a happier Bernard Sumner from New Order ("Pretty Baby"), a more shrill Tim Booth from James ("Hold on to My Lines"), and a shallower-voiced Debbie Harry (on their cover of Blondie's "Call Me"). Her actual vocal talent doesn't stretch that far – more than anything she sounds like a young girl singing along to the radio, but isn't that what pop is all about anyway? The ingenuous feeling is helped along by the rather provincial techno boom-clacks, swirling metallic guitar sounds, and Casio tones that beatsmith Dan Geller creates on his laptop.

Critics have said the band sound too much like they're making karaoke, but if you're listening to I Am the World Trade Center, you're not searching for evidence of their technical prowess (or lack thereof). Trainspotting, chin-scratching IDM or post-rock this is not. What this duo – who hail from Brooklyn by way of Atlanta, Ga. – are best at is capturing an adolescent sort of hopefulness: the high of a first crush, the rush of an ecstasy wave, the thrill of playing live for the first time. (Vivian Host)

Cato Salsa Experience

A Good Tip for a Good Time (Emperor Norton)

Why would a band from Norway call themselves the Cato Salsa Experience? The name alone promises music at its most innocuous; the album title, A Good Tip for a Good Time, confirms it. There are other telltale signs too, like "Tanquaray" [sic], which, rather than exploring the pleasures of the alcoholic beverage, finds bassist Francis Moon singing, "I like to scream, baby / Without you I'm blue," and the inexplicably named "Albert Bones Electric Meal."

Still, there's lots of fun to be had on A Good Tip for a Good Time, from lead guitarist Cato Salsa's killer guitar solo on "M.F." to "Time to Freak Out" 's raucous, hip-grinding action. On "Listen to Me Daddy'o" the quartet screams out "Hey!" as if they were running through an outtake from Scooby-Doo, revving up for a display of garage rock as explosive as any generated by their American brethren. Even the album's weaker tracks, such as "Got Soul if You Want It" and "High Heeled Leather Boots" are worked over with enthusiasm. Throughout, Cato Salsa Experience play relentlessly while singing appropriately monosyllabic lyrics, yielding an experience fueled by amplified chords and masculine giddiness.

A Good Tip is something of a guilty pleasure, but one ultimately validated by the band's sincerity. When Moon sings lyrics like "I like to dress up in drag / I like the feeling of being bad" with conviction on "So, the Circus Is Back in Town," for three minutes he makes you want to believe him. Cato Salsa Experience play Tues/16, Slim's, S.F. (415) 255-0333. (Mosi Reeves)