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Q-Burns Abstract Message
Feng Shui

Michael Donaldson, the DJ-songwriter known as Q-Burns Abstract Message, can't be terribly serious about practicing feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of arranging furniture to create maximum environmental harmony. Q-Burns lives and records and keeps a weekly DJ gig in Orlando, the home of Disney World and theme parks and restaurants where the servers wear stupid costumes. At those places everything is arranged to create maximum fun.

On Feng Shui, Q-Burns does create a sense of fun with his nifty melodies and foot-tapping rhythms. That makes Q-Burns a rarity in the electronica world, where the DJ booth now has the sanctity of an artist's studio and the nightclub purports to be a think tank for new strains of musical intellect. But Q-Burns' catchy, quirky compositions have earned him a substantial cult following both at home and abroad. (His early singles are available on the worthwhile compilation Oeuvre). On this album, his first full-length recording, Q-Burns comes closer than ever to providing straight-up pop music with colorful hooks, silly sound bites, and even honest-to-God verses and choruses.

In fact the 29-year-old, bespectacled Q-Burns recalls the synth-pop noodlers of the '80s. "Solar Car," with its tippy-tappy rhythm and plink-plonk melody, bears more than a passing similarity to Harold Faltermeyer's 1984 novelty hit "Axel F." But Q-Burns smartens up the ditty with intriguing drum breaks and layers of sound straight out of the '90s. The nervous energy and vaguely tropical stylings of "Talking Box" bring to mind Paul Hardcastle's old soundscape "Rainforest." And those who remember the short-lived British band Colourbox will grow nostalgic listening to "Kinda Picky," on which a female soul-singer belts out a ballad over a light-fingered keyboard ditty -- a trick that Yaz and the Pet Shop Boys have also employed to great effect.

There are also some real surprises here, most notably the guest vocals by Daniel Agust of the Icelandic band Gus Gus. Agust sings "Jennifer," a little-known pop tune by the otherwise inscrutable German art-rockers Faust, and employs his native tongue on an original song called "a.s.t.," a pretty yet disjointed ballad. Q-Burns himself steps up to the mic on the title song, where he lays down some scat-style vocal rhythms, and plays it straight on "Feel," a plainspoken love song ("I did not think you'd be so real/It's been so long, I've forgotten how to feel"). The instrumental "New Patterns" also stands out for its intriguing mix of East Indian inflections and Euro-disco.

What separates Q-Burns from his artier brethren -- the Roni Sizes and Goldies and LTJ Bukems of the DJ world -- are his old-fashioned song craft, lightheartedness, and lack of pretense. Feng Shui is certainly carefully arranged, but it feels comfortably thrown together, like a roomful of beanbag chairs. Q-Burns is one DJ whose booth might actually be fun to hang out in.

-- Rafer Guzman

Frank Zappa
Mystery Disc

With his penchant for staggering conceptual conceits and tireless experimentation, Frank Zappa was always, for better or worse, one of rock's quintessential album artists. It's fitting then that even a collection of studio scraps, outtakes, live tracks, and goofs from his furtive years in the '60s would hang together as well as Mystery Disc. Previously available only as a pair of bonus LPs in the Old Masters boxed-set series of the mid-'80s, the 35 tracks here are as weird, whacked, and wonderful as any of Zappa's painstakingly assembled major works (e.g., We're Only in It For the Money, Uncle Meat), yet free of any unifying thematic thread (save their orphan status).

The CD does offer some staggeringly rare work, from samples of Zappa's 1963 B-movie film score for Run Home Slow to some frenzied live stuff recorded not long after at the Village Inn (including, of all things, the soul standard "Steal Away"). Otherwise, you get doo-wop parodies, some suitably bent rehearsal tapes, studio leftovers, live peculiarities from the Mothers of Invention circa 1969, a batch of fascinating early collaborations with Don Van Vliet (including the priceless "Birth of Captain Beefheart"), and, of course, "Louie, Louie."

Though this is probably the last place the diehard Zappa faithful would turn to convince anyone of their idol's genius -- they'd probably steer you toward the dated early albums of the Mothers or the bombast and overkill of the You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore series -- Mystery Disc is a perfectly perverse snapshot of Zappa's screwball genius.

-- John Floyd

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John Floyd
Rafer Guzman

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