T-Model Ford
You Better Keep Still
(Fat Possum)

On his 1997 debut album, Pee-Wee Get My Gun, North Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford defined his ragged, psychotic artistry with the aptly titled "I'm Insane," a true story in which the seventysomething nut-job proudly boasts of "thumpin'" the asses of everyone from his drummer, Spam, to his philandering girlfriend, Stella. All this over Spam's walloping groove and T-Model's own distortion-splattered guitar. It was blues as savage, shock-value entertainment, played with the ferocity of the most intense kings of Mississippi and loud enough to attract the denizens of the punk-rock underground.

On the new You Better Keep Still, Ford and Spam serve up the same fiery brand of psycho blues, from the droning primal stomp of "To the Left, to the Right" and "Here Comes Papa" to the percussive clatter of the surrealist "If I Had Wings (Part One)." Like the work of his Fat Possum labelmate R.L. Burnside, Ford's songs are built on familiar blues riffs and licks. But the duo's attack is so brutal that they become a different monster entirely, and if nothing on Still matches the maniacal "I'm Insane," it's a weird album nonetheless.

Ford howls and groans throughout, his guitar sputtering and splanking atop Spam's minimalist drumming. Ford's solo take on "Look What All You Got" is about as close as he's ever come to a ballad, and the ultra-slink groove that propels "We Don't Understand" offers a raw approximation of Southern soul in its funkiest state. "Pop Pop Pop," though, is the most stunning track. Remixed by the tech-wiz team of Jim Waters and Scott Benzel, the song takes T-Model's music into the electronic blues domain occupied of late by Burnside, whose 1998 disc Come On In boasted a similarly synthesized variation of his own idiosyncratic blues. Purists will most likely loathe the studio gimmickry and the thick, hip-hop beat that drives it, but "Pop Pop Pop" retains the savagery of T-Model Ford's vision while expanding the terrain on which he and Spam like to romp. Isn't that what great blues albums are all about?

-- John Floyd

Cibo Matto
Stereotype A
(Warner Bros.)

Cibo Matto's first record, 1996's Viva! La Woman, was full of funny, chunky tunes about food. (Their name is Italian for "food madness.") The duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda sang in heavily Japanese-accented English about their love of sugar, salt, white pepper ice cream, MSG, and chicken. Cute, huh? Beneath the obvious kitsch appeal (which helped hook the band up with Beck and Butthole Surfers tours) lay a record worthy of attention.

A second helping of food songs, however, would have sunk the band's hipster rating or ghettoized them forever. Fortunately CM's self-produced sophomore disc drops most of the goofy cuisine references and replaces them with freewheeling non sequiturs pasted to intergalactic funk, pop funk, and some extra funk -- just to be safe.

The band is pretty much a quintet now -- including Honda's boyfriend, Sean Lennon, on bass -- and Stereotype A relies less on found samples and more on live instrumentation, which they sample and loop into riffs that hopscotch genres and time periods. Brazilian rhythms are cross-pollinated with '70s wah-wah guitars, sitars spiral over beatboxing, hip-hop meets Moog-prog rock, jazz horns collaborate with Casio beats, heavy-metal crunch gets in there, and Hatori lilts like Bjsrk in a '60s girl group. They haven't abandoned food all together, only now it's used to help extend a metaphor. On "Spoon," Hatori claims that the "sugar cubes will melt no more" because the heat of a relationship has gone out.

And there are other relationship songs. Of these, "Speechless" -- which opens with Hatori doing a quick torch singer impersonation before it dissolves into shuffling, downtown jazz drums and horns -- is the most fully realized. The low end gives Hatori room to sing-rap a kiss-off to a lover who screws around: "You want quantity/I want quality." (If only all breakups came with a soundtrack so urgently danceable.)

The maturer Cibo Matto's songs have some heft, but the pair hasn't lost their sense of playfulness. "Sci-Fi Wasabi" name-checks Obi Wan Kenobi over a burbling bass and plinking keyboards and drops the boast, "I'm Miho Hatori, straight outta purgatory." Delicious.

-- David Simutis

Celebrity Skin

Can we just call Courtney Love a gold-digging skank and move on? In this insipid follow-up to the intermittently un-insipid Live Through This, the Widow Love shifts between two emotional gears: self-pity and loathsome ennui. Wow.

We've all heard the title track by this time, and it's about the catchiest thing you'll find on this dreary outing. "Malibu," the second single, is a noisy dirge with all the charm of asphalt. The slower stuff here ("Dying," "Northern Star") is tranquilizing. What it comes down to, folks, is that grunge is pretty much played out. Loud angst just ain't where it's at anymore. Thank God.

Courtney, babe, do us all a favor and find yourself a new fella -- Busta Rhymes, maybe? -- and a new sound to go along with your new hooters. We won't think any less of you. In fact, we couldn't think any less of you.

-- Steve Almond

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
John Floyd
David Simutis