Short Cuts

Supersonic
Wall to Wall Moustache
(Sire)

"Welcome to the fucked-up chemical beats of Supersonic," announces this band's press kit, which means there's now more weight on the electronica bandwagon that was initially steered by the Chemical Brothers. Unlike that pioneering duo, however, Darren Pickles and Slapper Dave of Supersonic are a couple of twentysomethings who recently traded their guitars for turntables and scored a record deal after just two weeks of practicing together. They cite as influences Daft Punk and the Propellerheads: Those guys have been around for months.

Actually, Supersonic's major-label debut, Wall to Wall Moustache, is quite good: The beats are strong and the noises are nifty, which is about all one needs from club-oriented dance music. The true talent of Pickles and Slapper Dave is that they know the danger of letting a riff sit in a groove for too long. With one or two exceptions, the songs on this album move much too fast to wear out their welcome.

"Supercharger," the opening cut (and the band's original name, changed for copyright reasons), is certainly a blood-pumper: a crisp rhythm track, stuttering soul singers, plenty of yelling, and lots of menacing synthesizers. Pickles and Slapper Dave like to speed up and slow down their sound bites so that voices climb crazily, then go groaning into the lower registers. It's a nice trick, and one the duo uses to good effect on the house-style "Jim'll Fix It" and the downbeat "Boomer."

"Spacemaker Deluxe" and "Airport 77" concentrate less on beats and more on ear-tweaking effects such as jet engines, various bleeps 'n' blips, and layered voices. It's entertaining enough, but Wall to Wall Moustache has the same failing as most electronica albums: pacing. Halfway through this ten-song debut, the excitement wears off, and one's attention begins to wander. It doesn't help that the moodiest numbers ("Filters" and "Wall to Wall") appear at the end.

Supersonic -- and so many similar outfits -- beg the question: Is there any such thing as "bad" electronica? For all its supposed complexity, the music sometimes sounds suspiciously easy to manufacture. Still, this band's agile manipulation of found sounds and restless rhythms lifts it above the average knob-twirling outfit.

-- Rafer Guzman

David Holmes
Lets Get Killed
(1500/A&M)

From Range Rovers with yammering car alarms to bridge-and-tunnel drunks still celebrating the Yankees' 1996 World Series victory, there's no shortage of noise in the city that never sleeps. In fact a recent New York Daily News cover story identified noise as the number-one quality-of-life complaint for residents. Who'd want to hear more of it?

David Holmes would. The Belfast DJ spent ten days last summer immersing himself in the noise of New York City, seeking out sound bites from the overall urban cacophony. The result is the thirteen-track Lets Get Killed, which mixes voices and stories with ambient and dance-oriented music.

A Seventies groove definitely runs through the album: rock-funk guitar, space-age synths, and unctuous jazz riffs. The title track documents the brutal events surrounding one man's grudge, while "Gritty Shaker" juxtaposes an astrologer's comical ranting with a funky soul vamp. With cuts like these two, and the NC-17-rated rap "Head Rush on Lafayette," Holmes almost achieves greatness.

The album's best songs, however, are its instrumentals. Holmes has said he composes as though he were scoring a movie, which is evident from the cool xylophone on "Rodney Yates," a moody version of the James Bond theme titled "Radio 7," and the dub-style "The Parcus & Madder Show." These are the songs that come closest to evoking the rawness and dynamism that makes New York City famous.

Overall Lets Get Killed falls just short of true innovation. As club music these tracks are fine, but they're not breaking any creative ground: Holmes' basic formula is to slap interviews on top of somewhat interesting lounge-funk. It makes for pleasant listening, but it's nothing that would keep a city-dweller awake at night.

-- Liesa Goins

JC Hopkins
Athens by Night
(Shell/Stickshift)

There are records you come across every now and again that act as daydream catalysts. In other words you put on the music and, almost before you begin listening to it, your mind is shoved out into open thoughts like a boat into a stream. It's one of the best feelings you can have, and it's what you'll experience listening to JC Hopkins' debut, Athens by Night.

Hopkins is a fixture on San Francisco's music scene, and this record was made with the help of old friends like Barbara Manning and others from the legendary SF Seals. But if you've never heard Hopkins before, you're liable to feel as if you've landed on a new planet. It's a planet not much different from Earth, and yet Hopkins makes it feel alien and new again.

In that way Hopkins, who has been compared to Big Star and Tom Waits, sounds both fresh and familiar. His basic instruments are a guitar and his clear, midrange voice, though this album also includes piano, horns, and even a concertina. Some of the songs are lushly orchestrated wonders: The title song and "Diva Antipathy" feel like a lover's hand on your neck. Others songs, such as "Amsterdam" and "Lydia's Theme," sound like the kind of thing you might hear around a Hungarian Gypsy campfire.

Hopkins' lyrics are simple where they need to be, pulling along strong emotions. "The burden of the bird in your brain/Brings you back to the place/ Where you laid in the shade/Turning black," he sings in "Diva Antipathy." Yet sometimes the lines sound like Federico Garcia Lorca poems or the words to lullabies, vague and heavy. From "Amsterdam": "Don't see nothing in my eyes today/My mind is a thousand miles away/At Kuipersstraat/The thing I caught is you."

Through it all Hopkins seems to be saying that our lives are something more than commuting and TV news and back pain and politics. Athens by Night is like a mnemonic device for reminding us that our lives actually matter.

-- Curt Hopkins

Will Smith
Big Willie Style
(Columbia)

Like the adventure films in which he stars, the music of Will Smith is strictly good-time stuff. Big Willie Style, Smith's return to the rap business after several years (anyone remember his 1993 effort Code Red?), is full of big, yummy party beats and goofy wit. In a hip-hop world of increasing menace and violence, the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince has positioned himself as the ultimate crossover MC: a cuddly capitalist who's more interested in shopping for Pradas than shooting guns.

Smith and his producers, Poke and Tone, have certainly manufactured some irresistible rap confections. "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" appropriates the sass of Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer," while "Don't Say Nothin'" is a delightful exercise in high-grade narcissism, with Smith trumpeting his multimedia stardom (and reuniting with his former collaborator, Jeff "DJ Jazzy Jeff" Townes). But "Miami" is the most emblematic of this CD's sixteen tracks. Set to the loping rhythm of the Whispers' "And the Beat Goes On," the song sounds like a travel advertisement: half-naked bodies, celebrities, palm trees, Jet Skis, and nightclubs. There is no mention of riots, police brutality, inner cities, or racial strife. In Will Smith's world, these realities amount to nothing more than buzz-killers.

This is the ultimate problem with Big Willie Style: It doesn't just lack street credibility, it lacks any sort of credibility. From the promotional rap jingle "Men in Black" to the maudlin cover of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us" (dedicated to Smith's son), the disc amounts to one long musical infomercial for Smith. There's even a series of vignettes with the fictional Keith B-Real, a magazine editor with the audacity to call Smith "some big-time bourgie Hollywood sellout." For this and other offenses, B-Real gets smacked in the face by Smith's current squeeze, Jada Pinkett, and roughed up by Smith's bodyguards. Which proves that the truth doesn't have to hurt -- at least not when you're the fabulously wealthy and successful Will Smith.

-- Steven Almond

Backbone
Backbone
(Grateful Dead Records)

Backbone features Bill Kreutzmann, ex-drummer of the Grateful Dead, in a rhythm and blues trio with vocalist-guitarist Rick Barnett and bassist Edd Cook. Deadheads may be hoping for an adventurous turn reminiscent of the Dead's spirited musical explorations, but Backbone's retread R&B is devoid of density and emotion.

The CD starts on an especially weak note. "Preserve the Blues" sounds like a Robert Cray reject -- standard-issue stuff without emotional impact. It's a tribute to the power of the blues, but the song lacks any sign of the passion that makes the genre relevant. "Sittin' Here Thinkin'" and "Make Me Laugh" follow in similarly generic fashion.

The problem with Backbone is Barnett, the writer or cowriter of nine of the CD's eleven songs. Barnett is capable in his roles as guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, but completely undistinguished in all of them. His limited voice often falls flat, and his few attempts at reaching high-octave emotional peaks are strained and nasal. His songs are generally pedestrian, and his guitar solos reflect a typical bar-band weakness: too many notes with nothing to say.

The funky groove on "Breathe Deeply" and the jazzy "Nothing Different," however, seem imported from another band. The musicians finally listen to each other: Riffs, leads, and fills suddenly intertwine with effortless grace. Cook walks the fretboard unrestrained, Kreutzmann keeps the rhythm with the high-hat, and Barnett's solos actually sound inspired.

Unfortunately the inspiration dies quickly. Barnett's voice retains an Eric Clapton-type richness for the first verse of "Fly Away" but soon reverts to its weightless self -- with accompanying instrumentation to match -- for the remainder of the CD. When Barnett sings, "Will it be funky/Will it be soulful/Will you have something to say?" the listener is forced to answer with a resounding "no."

-- Larry Getlen

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