Recordings

AC/DC
Ballbreaker
(AC/DC)

AC/DC albums are about as interchangeable as Heinz Ketchup bottles on your grocer's shelf, but you'd notice a quality-control problem right away if Heinz started making its condiment with the smelliest, most bruised tomatoes instock. And AC/DC screecher Brian Johnson has become onebad, battered tomato who's been left out in the sunfar too long. Johnson was once able toshriek like amighty pterodactyl, buthis tiredvocal exhortations now sound about as menacing asGonzo the Muppet clearing his throat.

Producer Rick Rubin didn't do Johnson any favors by spotlighting his shredded larynx way up in the mix without the benefit of effects or overdubs. Every time Angus Young and the boys build up considerable steam, as they do in "The Furor" and "Hard As a Rock," it all comes grinding to a halt when Johnson launches into his Marge Simpson-with-laryngitis impersonation. At least Johnson's predecessor Bon Scott had the good sense to die before he got this bad. AC/DC should quit now, this very minute, before the band jeopardizes its place in the heavy-metal pantheon and Butthead finally opts to change his tee shirt.--Serene Dominic

AC/DC is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, February 14, at America West Arena, with the Poor. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

Mystery Machine
10 Speed
(Nettwerk)

The promotional package for this second album from Vancouver, British Columbia's Mystery Machine claims the band "...does the dissonant, heavy, guitar/pop thing, butunlike other bands does it well." Usually, that sort of banal PR rhetoric means it's feeding time at the zoo for rock critics.

Not this time.
Mystery Machine does indeed do the dissonant, heavy, guitar/pop thing (àla Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.) better than a lot of "other bands" (including, as of late, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.). That's one of the sweeter things about rock 'n' roll--just when your heroes start to make music that's about as exciting as the dust on your CD collection, some snot-nosed punks come along to reclaim the baton. Witness Mystery Machine.

10 Speed is actually a traditional recording--in a progressive/alternative kind of way. The setup is familiar: Two guitarists noodle their way through distortionland with navigational support from a competent bassist and drummer. Every once in a while, there's a whiplash tempo change that pays homage to the band's punk roots, and the guitars periodically get heavy enough that you know someone in the band owns a few Black Sabbath albums. Sometimes, the distortion pedals get kicked off, the music gets prettier and one of the guitarists yelps cryptic lyrics.

Yawning yet? You shouldn't be. What elevates Mystery Machine above the music industry's factory floor is basic but rare: It means it. This music hits you in the gut because that's where it comes from. The guitar playing is superb, both in its emulation of guitar gods past and in the judicious restraint the band applies to aping them.

Yes, Sonic Youth is an obvious influence. But where Thurston Moore and Company have a habit of launching you into the feedback cosmos for an eternity before reeling you back in to whatever melody they were trying to sell you in the first place, Mystery Machine gets you back to the hook in somewhat less time than it takes the effects of a strong-lunged bong hit to dissipate.

Dinosaur Jr. fans also will recognize at least the outline of their favorite saurian here, with one crucial difference--Mystery Machine's singer can actually sing. Jr.'s JMascis deserves most of the praise slung his way, but no one in her right mind would call him a talented vocalist. In fact, let's be honest--he's pretty damn nasal. So while Machine's vocalist--who curiously goes uncredited in the liner notes--may be no Pavarotti, at least he won't have you reaching for the Sudafed.--Jon Kinzler

Mystery Machine is scheduled to perform on Sunday, February 18, at the Mason Jar, with Salt. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Mekons/Kathy Acker
Pussy, King of the Pirates
(Quarterstick/Touch&Go)

It's a match made in avant-pop heaven: Kathy Acker, the '90s' lesbian answer to William S. Burroughs, joins forces with eclectic, punk-rock diehards the Mekons in a lit/punk pairing that easily eclipses the Burroughs/Kurt Cobain collaboration of 1993.

Pussy, King of the Pirates was directly inspired by Acker's recent novel of the same name, and the recording obviously makes more sense after reading the book. However, it also stands alone, since the Mekons do an exceptional job of conjuring the dark intensity of Acker's work--a brutal foray into spiritual oblivion, where horror and obscenity live side by side with childhood fantasy and high adventure.

Excerpted readings by Acker introduce each of Pussy's seven songs, which echo the writer's disjointed, collage style by mixing samples from pirate radio ("Ange's Song As She Crawled Through London"), dub reggae ("The Song of the Dogs"), lesbian pirate shanties ("Ostracism's Song to Pussycat"), industrial noise ("Intro the Strange") and even disco/synth/pop ("Antigone Speaking of Herself").

Acker brings out the Mekons' savage female side--with lead vocalist Jon Langford taking a back seat to Sally Timms' singing and Susie Honeyman's shrill fiddle--while the Mekons bring Acker's words into a new sensory realm without compromising the power of her naked prose.--Roni Sarig

 
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