February 12, 2003

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Grooves

Lou Reed
The Raven (Sire)

In the sweepstakes for the worst record ever made, there are quite a few contenders – Mahogany Rush's Live, Mel Brooks's "Hitler Rap," the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie soundtrack – and you can ask Will York about those Richard Harris records he holds so dear. The list is long, long, long and heavily populated with celebrity entries, oddly enough. Then there's the last 20 or so Lou Reed albums. Just the titles of Reed's most recent albums are unbearable: Magic and Loss, Songs for Drella, Set the Twilight Reeling – these are awful, awful names. But with The Raven, Reed has really thrown down the gauntlet.

First of all there's an overture, which is always a bad sign. Ornette Coleman plays on it, but that doesn't matter, because it sounds like that Horns of Dilemma bullshit from the '80s. Then there's Willem Dafoe reading "The Raven" in full, with "pastoral" music in the background. There's some scary-voiced lady singing a New Age version of "Perfect Day," and the "Broadway Song," in which Reed (or maybe another guest star, who knows) pretends he's a lounge singer, cracking wise and introducing his pianist, "Manfred Gooseberry." Manfred Gooseberry! What a hilarious name! That's as funny as getting off the train in Kookamunga!

It makes you wonder. Reed cannot possibly expect people to like this record, which is based on "POEtry," a musical cocreated by Robert Wilson. He has to be trying to release the worst possible record he can. There is no other explanation. He's done it before, hasn't he? And now you have to pay $60 if you want a copy of Metal Machine Music. I can't imagine The Raven is going to herald a new day in which rock music revolves around poetry reading and celebrity cameos. Still, there is no other explanation. I mean, why Willem Dafoe? I'll tell you why: because Dafoe is the only person alive with a more annoying New York accent than Reed.

Reed has combined the worst of his career with the worst of human experience and come up with a milestone. In these days of inadvertent, soul-eroded shittiness, of blind-poor quality, Reed has produced a sonic turd of historic dimensions with awareness, care, and an attention to detail that can only be applauded. The thing that proves my theory is that the song "Edgar Allen Poe," the second track on the album, is the best Lou Reed song since like 1972. It smokes. That song makes The Raven probably the weirdest record I have ever heard. Weird, god-awful, and unbearable beyond description. In other words, The Raven is a true achievement. But please, for the love of god, never, ever in a million years listen to it. (Mike McGuirk)

Dead Prez
Turn off the Radio: The Mixtape (Holla Black/Full Clip)

It can be hard to read the politics of Dead Prez. On one hand, the superserious New York City duo of Stic.man and M-1 shout the good shout at a time when others mumble with ambivalence. Their politics are pieced together from the choicest, most violent remains of glory-bound 1960s street protest, and what they lack in precise analyses or cogent suggestions, they make up for with revolutionary sex appeal. But the steely-eyed means to their admirable ends – as well as their us-versus-them moralizing – end up being pretty conservative, and you feel like you're getting bullied rather than educated.

A stopgap release while they hop labels, Turn off the Radio: The Mixtape offers a way out. The collection is arranged as a mock radio broadcast for WRBG (alternately "red, black and green" or "revolutionary but gangsta") and offers older material as well as several Dead Prez reworkings of recent radio hits. Some of the original songs are quite good, especially the dusty autobiography "Selling D.O.P.E." (also on the Slam soundtrack) and the pulsing "Turn off the Radio." But they're snappiest when signifyin', and their unique hijackings display a much-needed sense of wit and play lacking in previous efforts. On the RBG remix of "Hip-Hop," they sneak a quick interpolation of Khia's raunchy tease "My Neck, My Back": "My neck / My back / They put a noose on my neck and welts on my back." Aaliyah's gauzy "We Need a Resolution" becomes "We Need a Revolution," and they misread Black Rob's "(Like) Whoa" as "That's War." "B.I.G. Respect" jacks Notorious's "Juicy" beat and offers the portrait of an activist as a young man, and as earnest and angry as it is, you can't help smiling at the line "I never though the movement would make it this far!"

Ultimately Turn off the Radio's sense of humor makes Dead Prez seem human. More important, it makes their order-smashing politics feel more like noble hopes than purely reactionary invective. Pimpin' (the system) ain't easy. (Hua Hsu)

Rob Burger
Lost Photograph (Tzadik)

You're forgiven if you expected to hear the raspy voice of Tom Waits grovel its way into one tune or another on Lost Photograph, the solo debut by the Tin Hat Trio's Rob Burger. The jaunty inebriation of "Below Delancey" seems especially ripe for a seedy Waitsian waterfront fantasia. Over the resonant walking thump of Greg Cohen's acoustic bass and Kenny Wolleson's light-touch drums, one of Burger's myriad keyboards emulates a clarinet sound not unlike that favored by Waits on his recent Blood Money and Alice. Like Waits, who made an appearance on Tin Hat's Helium, Burger fancies vintage instruments. Judging by what he pulls out for a dozen original tracks, plus Kurt Weill's "Youkali" and the traditional "Aveenu Malkenu," his collection has swelled mightily since moving to New York from the Bay Area, where he played with Oranj Symphonette, Tipsy, Jim Campilongo, the Old Joe Clarks, and others. At one point or another, he plays such instruments as pump organ, prepared and toy piano, Chamberlin, Orchestron, Claviola, bass harmonica, Marxophone, Indian banjo, Casio, shortwave, and music boxes. Burger's compositions reflect a similar refusal to be pinned down. The pieces, with titles like "The Couch Episode," "Linguist from Latvia," "Arturo, the Aqua Boy," and "Ringling Kid," are relatively short but richly textured and emotionally vigorous, as Burger shoehorns bits of klezmer, honky-tonk, jazz, music hall, circus, parlor, and lounge to challenge both his virtuosity and listeners' preconceptions. He's up to the task, as are Cohen and Wollesen. (Derk Richardson)

Calla
Televise (Arena Rock Recording)

The beautiful dreamers of Calla make lullabies for hepster burnouts and college-age goths who like their coffee black, their clothes blacker, and their music slow-fi and drowsy. Listen to throbbing "Monument" and somnolent "Astral" on the New York trio's third album, Televise, and you start to suspect that the audience lies on the floor, assuming the prone Cat Power-listening position and lightly dozing, at Calla's live appearances. You begin to drift off until "Don't Hold Your Breath" picks up steam, the guitar line grows more piercing, the vocals hunker down in the mix, and just when you think the entire arrangement is set to lift off into a "Layla"-style epiphany of a guitar solo, the song slows to a sputter of low-key static. The latest in a line of N.Y. guitar bands that includes Television and Sonic Youth, Calla obviously have misgivings about falling into lockstep with their more dramatic kin: vocalist-guitarist Aurelio Valle, drummer-programmer Wayne Magruder, and bassist-keyboardist Sean Donovan prefer to short-circuit those tendencies in favor of something lovely, almost chilled-out, and simultaneously less stereotypical and less satisfying – streaming over airwaves somewhere near the Mogwai, Radiohead, and Low side of the dial. Calla perform Sat/15, Fillmore, S.F. (415) 346-6000 or (415) 421-TIXS. (Kimberly Chun)