Short Cuts

The Pursuit of Happiness
The Wonderful World of...
(Iron Music Group)

Over the course of five albums, from 1988's bracingly smart Love Junk to the current, equally likable The Wonderful World of..., the Toronto-based Pursuit of Happiness has cranked out a welter of relentlessly brilliant hard-pop songs -- wry, witty, winsome young-adult novellas that brim with Velcro-like melodies and ringing, stinging power chords. Not that many people in the U.S. have noticed. Well okay, the band broke through briefly in 1989 with the winking "I'm an Adult Now," but since then, nothing. A real pity. And yet TPOH singer/songwriter/guitarist Moe Berg soldiers on.

Possessed of a sharp eye for the minutiae that define love, lust, and romance, Berg sprinkles his Wonderful World boy-girl sonic narratives with significant details: "You asked for my phone number/So you could not call me on purpose," he sings in his appealingly flat voice on the pounding, bitter breakup saga "The Truth," while on the hook-heavy "I Like You" -- the best song Todd Rundgren never wrote -- Berg, in signature barbed-compliment mode, avers, "You're shiny enough/To attract a few flies/But not so many/That I get in fistfights with big guys." That song, along with a handful of others here -- notably "I'm Just Happy to Be Here" and "What You Did to My Girl" -- feature a compressed poppy compression and sighing background vocals (the latter courtesy of long-time TPOH guitarist Kris Abbott), which buoy the proceedings without ever rendering them sticky-sweet. Hardly a false step throughout. (Iron Music Group, 17357 Tribune St., Granada Hills, CA 91344)

-- Michael Yockel

Robbie Fulks
South Mouth
(Bloodshot)

Upstart indie label Bloodshot Records refers to its twang-happy products as "insurgent country." And with a roster that has included boundary-bashing artists such as the Waco Brothers (the Clash meets honky-tonk), the Old 97's (punk/Beatles-pop/bluegrass), and Moonshine Willy (hillbilly gone butch), such an anarchic description seems apropos, not just a delicious marketing term. Chicago-based singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks is another in the Bloodshot stable, first found horsing around on his 1996 debut Country Love Songs. On that album Fulks, who looks more like a British football hooligan than a big-hatted hit-maker, not only embraced the classic sounds of postwar country music but updated them with a Nineties college-rock sensibility. The edgy "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" put overdose and depression in the driver's seat, while the ridiculous, frat-like sing-along "The Scrapple Song" bemoaned the quality of Keystone State edibles.

The new South Mouth follows suit with the swingin' "Fuck This Town," easily Fulk's -- and maybe even Bloodshot's -- most in-your-face song to date. It's one giant, cathartic kiss-off to the pop-minded country music machine that is Nashville. "This ain't country-western/It's just soft-rock feminist crap," spews Fulks in a nasal twang. "Can't get noticed/Can't get found/Can't get a cut/So fuck this town," goes the equally venomous chorus. Insurgent country? Definitely.

"Fuck" may be the definitive contempo anti-Nashville rant, but it seems like a bit of a blathering black sheep when compared to the core of South Mouth. Like Dwight Yoakam in his early years, Fulks is at his best when performing stripped-down, neotraditional country tunes, all roadhouse pianos, six-string and steel guitars, and steady backbeats. There're plenty of shuffles, swing tunes, and laments to make the beer go down easy: the brokenhearted "Heart, I Wish You Were Here," the Beatles-esque "I Push Right Over," and a stunning, high-lonesome murder ballad entitled "South Richmond Girl." And if you consider songs such as "Goodbye, Good-Lookin'" and "Busy Not Crying," both of which feature enough pep and clever lyrics to recall some of the (less disposable) stuff issued by the country mainstream, suddenly all this revolutionary talk sounds so silly. Color me a foolish optimist, but it's not that hard to imagine Fulks one day landing a hit or at least writing one for an artist with the appropriate studly stature and quasi-George Jones croon. And then you know what's really going to sound silly? That song he does about saying adios to Nashville. So much for insurgency. (Bloodshot Records, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613)

-- Neal Weiss

CRU
Da Dirty 30
(Violator)

In an era of wholesale melodic theft, it's refreshing to hear a hip-hop crew appropriate riffs as innovatively as CRU. About half of the 30 tracks on this audacious debut are built around samples, though you'd be hard-pressed to recognize more than a handful. "Just Another Case," for instance, is built around a tasty open jazz chord lifted from a more obscure passage in the Main Ingredient's "Everybody Plays the Fool." The baritone sax and bubbling bass line that propel "Pronto" are pinched from Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." Or consider "Up North": It showcases an interpolation of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" that exposes Coolio ("Gangsta's Paradise") as little more than a copycat rapper.

This New York City trio, proteges of the legendary KRS-One, prove equally adept at constructing their own song lines. "The Ebonic Plague" slinks along to a hypnotic piano loop, with guest MC Ras Kas laying down an epic flow promising doom to verbal pretenders: "We'll Joe Pesci-'em, no question." Primary songwriter Yogi is CRU's most insightful and smoothest rhymer. Over a chiming synth lick that calls to mind Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (remember the riff in "Theme from the Exorcist"?), he rasps out winning sobriquets such as "I know we got big hips/It makes us run fast though/I know I'm still a slave calling black women 'ho.'"

Elsewhere CRU's sense of enlightenment gives way to standard hip-hop misogyny. "Hoe 2 Society" -- which relates the interrogation and beating of an allegedly unfaithful girlfriend -- is supposed to be funny, I guess. But it comes off as nothing more than an audio aggravated assault. Generally speaking, in fact, CRU's Achilles' heel is humor. Its skits are pointless and often mean-spirited, a dull foil to the often sharp lyrics. That, however, is where CD technology proves so satisfying. Hit the program button, and Da Dirty 30's lesser tracks disappear.

-- Steven Almond

Cherry Poppin' Daddies
Zoot Suit Riot
(Mojo)

The problem with most of the contemporary swing played by tattooed knuckle-draggers trying to jump-start their aging bones off the punk rock merry-go-round is the Jukebox Syndrome. Afflicted by this illness, most new swing bands sound like the retro equivalent of a Top 40 band. Here comes the Louie Armstrong tune; here comes the Cab Calloway tune; here comes the Louis Jordan song. You might as well buy the originals.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is a ten-year-old ensemble out of the least-swinging town in the U.S.: Eugene, Oregon. The Cherry Poppin' Daddies, fronted by Steve Perry (no, not that one), possess a wide and deep knowledge of musical history and an absolute lack of respect for tradition. Like any real artist, Perry, the main songwriter and singer, doesn't hesitate to reanimate the body of tradition, taping Duke Ellington's head onto the body of David Lee Roth and then drawing real big boobies on it. Because the Daddies aren't traditionalists, one of their albums might include ska, straight jazz, big dumb rock, and carnival sounds mixed in with the swing. After the fantastic Ferociously Stoned, the wretched Rapid City Muscle Car, and the adequate Kids on the Street, the Daddies have cobbled together most of the swing songs from all three of those albums, added four new tracks, and released it as Zoot Suit Riot.

The album runs the gamut of styles in the swing vernacular, all of them laced with cartoonish humor ("Mr. White Keys"), 40-ouncer fury ("Dr. Bones"), or sex-clown buffoonery ("Pink Elephant"). Perry's lyrics are as contemporary as the original swingers' lyrics were when they first surfaced. "Drunk Daddy" has one of his many characters singing, "Kitchen smells like rotten garbage/Can't chew my food my face is sore/Momma didn't come home last evening/Neighbors say that she's a whore." "Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line" is a musical profile of an early-twentieth-century San Francisco tram operator and sixteen-time bigamist, who "Reaped a little more than he could sow/Of the pleasures the Mormons in Utah know/He could not restrain himself when he saw a nice caboose." The previously unreleased "When I Change Your Mind" promises the lady in question "Everything's gonna be nice and sweet/When I come sweep you off your feet/You won't think I'm such a creep/When I change your mind."

Added to the twelve originals are the fantastic Sammy Davis, Jr., song "Come Back to Me" (convincingly inhabited by Perry), plus perhaps the best song on the album, a swing arrangement of the old Oregon hardcore band E-13's "No Mercy for Swine."

Because of the band's Ricochet Rabbit-style personnel changes, it's hard to talk too much about the musicianship. Perry's vocal competence and range has improved over the years; bassist Dan Schmid provides the rubber floor for the band's more Carl Stalling-like moments; and trumpeter Dana Heitman coaxes both antic acrobatics and soulful nuance out of the powerful horn section.

The album is not without the musical equivalent of farts at a dinner party. The unremarkable "Brown Derby Jump" begs the question, "What the fuck?", "Here Comes the Snake" is about as sexy as a grown man wearing a diaper, and the title song is nowhere near as powerful as the Hispanic riots that inspired it. Still, all in all, Zoot Suit Riot is a rarity: a collection of songs with the power of the past and the relevance of the present, full of sex, life, and death.

-- Curt Hopkins

Juliana Hatfield
Please Do Not Disturb
(Bar None)

Boston power-chord fairy Juliana Hatfield hangs up her chirpy angst and red-tags the pixie dust on her new six-song EP, Please Do Not Disturb. Though she once wrapped her sugary melodies in layers of noise and attitude, railing smartly but cutely against irritants and infidels, she's now feeling her way through a change in direction. After the spasm of attention surrounding her last major-label release, 1995's Only Everything (Atlantic), Hatfield decided to stretch her legs a bit and step off the commercial fast track. Moving to indie Bar None, she has turned down the volume and the spotlight a notch so that she can indulge a need to fingerpaint for a while. Self-produced and casually recorded, this EP is a snapshot of an artist who's currently more into the journey than the destination.

Among the stronger tracks is the album-opening "Sellout" in which Hatfield cautions and complains about the process of trading one's soul for success. "It's not a sellout if nobody buys it," she contends, adding defiantly, "I can't be blamed if nobody likes it." Though that's debatable, "Get Off" makes it clear that if there's rejection coming, she'll be the one doing it. "When will you get off of me," she hisses, as layers of harmonies deftly spin into meandering guitar lines in a lead-footed waltz. And the Zeppelin-ish ballad "The Edge of Nowhere" works surprisingly well given the lightness of her voice, even though the vocal noodling here is a bit overdone.

The flaws of the EP can be summed up by Hatfield's own description on "Give Me Some of That": "Not attractive, but real." The cutting remarks of the past give way to depressing scenarios and malaise, and her phrasing is frequently stilted as she stretches to make the lyrics fit her new musical ambitions. And though she's using a fuller range of her voice than before, meeting the demands of the arrangements leaves her sounding a bit lethargic and whiny on cuts such as "As if Your Life Depended on It." Please Do Not Disturb may be a step back from the sharp songwriting and aggressive guitar work that fueled Hatfield's pop stardom, but her progression as a player and producer is confident and worth watching as her evolution continues.

-- Robin Myrick

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