Short Cuts

Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos
(Atlantic)

The resume of guitarist Marc Ribot is chock full of impeccably hip credentials. Not MTV hip, but rather second-tier hip, a land where rock isn't simply on the cutting edge but has rounded the corner into avant-jazz and neoblues and droll theatricality. The people living on this street might be too cool for words, but they have exceptionally innovative ideas, along with the musicianship to pull everything off with aplomb.

Ribot has served as Tom Waits' guitarist, and from 1984 to 1989 he was a member of the Lounge Lizards, a group centered around saxophonist John Lurie that played sometimes-campy, sometimes-earnest pop-jazz originals and covered the work of jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk. Members of the Lounge Lizards have continued to cross paths, forming a loosely incestuous family that likes to tinker with musical expectations.

So if Ribot gets the idea to do an album of Cuban music, he should do it, and we should listen to it. Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos (The Prosthetic Cubans) is a tribute to Cuban guitarist and bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez, who died in 1972. With two exceptions, the songs here were either written or recorded by Rodriguez, and Ribot puts his distinctive stamp on the interpretations. There's a strong tendency toward understatement; the bass (played by Brad Jones) and percussion (by EJ Rodriguez and Robert J. Rodriguez) carry much of the load while Ribot's minimalist guitar saunters around the melody. At other times Ribot squawks and bends his notes, and organists John Medeski and Anthony Coleman beef up a few of the songs. At all times, though, the musicians convey the sensual joy of the music.

The one Ribot composition, "Postizo," is the weak link in an otherwise satisfying album. "No Me Llores Mas" features clanging percussion and intensely insinuating electric guitar work, as well as a pretty trumpet break. "Esclavo Triste" is dusky and slinky. The CD ends with "Choserito Plena," a festive song propelled by baritone sax and trumpet.

All in all, this album mixes downtown noise and space with fuller orchestrations. The results aren't revelatory, but they're inventive and smart while still making you smile and swing your hips.

-- Theresa Everline

Silkworm
Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then
(Matador)

Silkworm began playing its anguished indie-pop in 1987 and has never stopped, despite changing its home base, switching record labels three times, and logging countless miles on the road. The payoff has come in the form of respect rather than record sales: While the band has mixed with the likes of Steve Albini and Pavement, it remains virtually unknown. Nevertheless, Matador Records, the band's current label, has seen fit to release a trove of early Silkworm material recorded between 1990 and 1994. It's an erratic collection, ranging from hazy four-track recordings to sparkling studio cuts, but it does contain a handful of gems.

The band's bassist, Tim Midgett, culled 26 of the band's desolate pop songs for this two-disc retrospective, which bears the typically Silkwormian title Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then. Handsomely packaged with the original cover art from the band's 1992 debut, L'ajre, this compilation is a sentimental look at the band's recording history, though not in chronological order.

Formed in 1987 by guitarist Joel Phelps in Missoula, Montana, Silkworm moved to Seattle in 1990. With guitarist Andy Cohen, Midgett and a newly recruited drummer, Michael Dahlquist, the band recorded a string of albums on fleeting indie labels such as C/Z and El Recordo. Phelps left the band in 1994, and the remaining members signed to Matador in 1996.

Silkworm's musical heritage is evident on Even a Blind Chicken. The band fits easily into the postpunk canon of the late '70s and early '80s, with echoes of Wire, Gang of Four, and Pere Ubu. "No Revolution" is tough and energetic, marked by dissonant guitar lines and freeform vocals. The band's live version of "Slipstream," a single recorded in 1991, bristles with prickly guitar and scathing lyrics about intellectual snobbery: "A couple of great legs wasting away on all that German philosophy/You're caught up in that slipstream."

The seven songs that comprise L'ajre are the highlight of the collection. These earliest recordings reveal Silkworm at its most cohesive. On "Little Sister," Phelps sings in a pinched, warbling voice while Midgett's ultraclean bass drives the song with steady plunking. Cohen's guitar is capable of both metal-inflected crunch ("Three Beatings") and immaculate strumming ("Slow Burn"). A brutal rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" displays the band's razor-sharp powers of reduction.

Those who only recently discovered Silkworm will be interested to hear songs that trace the band's formative years. More than a curiosity, Even a Blind Chicken contains songs that stand up to the band's newer work. Matador did right by Silkworm, a band that's paid its dues.

-- Daniel Lovering

Shonen Knife
Happy Hour
(Big Deal)

With its new release, Happy Hour, Shonen Knife proves that, even after 14 years, its early-'80s-style, new wave-punk music sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when the band began. That's no small accomplishment for a group that specializes in songs about food and toys -- Barbie dolls, chocolate bars, jelly beans. Sometimes, though, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're listening to some punk version of children's music and that the members of Shonen Knife -- three Japanese women with handicapped English and a fascination with lollipops and shiny objects -- come off as kids themselves.

Naoko Yamano (guitar, vocals), Michie Nakatani (bass, vocals), and Atsuko Yamano (drums, vocals) play with the pace of the Ramones and the joyful, beach-party surrealism of the B-52's. Such comparisons end, however, with the lyrics. Imagine, for instance, Joey Ramone singing these words: "Banana chips for me!/Banana chips for you!/I can never get enough/Banana chips, it's true."

Now imagine those words enmeshed with totally kick-ass, Ramones-type music. One thing you can say about Happy Hour, the group's fourth major release in the United States, is that it shows development. To wit: more songs than before about food, fewer about toys, more about animals. Shonen Knife sings about its favorite foods in "Banana Chips," "Sushi Bar Song," "Hot Chocolate," "Gyoza" ("Spiced meat pork, wrapped in a small pancake/Steamed or fried, tastes so good") and the bubble-gum pop masterpiece "Cookie Day." With regard to animals, we have "His Pet," "Jackalope," and "Dolly."

It's also worth noting that the album ends with a version of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer."

Given all this the biggest surprise on Happy Hour is "People Traps," a song that, however obscurely, actually hits on something substantial, even dark: "Don't walk into people traps/A sly old man has set a trap/Any number of people traps in society.../You better keep your eyes wide open all the time/You've stepped into a danger zone/It's a very dirty trick."

This little bit of weight helps to keep the album from floating away altogether. It also suggests that, on some level, the lyrics are as cunning as the music. Then again, maybe these women simply like hot chocolate and, damn it, that's all they're trying to say.

-- Barry Lank

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