By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
1. LES PAYNE PRODUCT
This high-concept dynamic duo--born of a much reviled alt-rock quartet called Crime Dog--occupies a musical space all its own: You could call it minimalist garage funk-pop. Behind their sense of the absurd and fashion unpredictability, though, guitarist James Karnes and drummer Chris Pomerenke are deft musicians who ably compensate for their lack of bandmates, with Pomerenke regularly using a spare hi-hat hand to plunk down chords on a portable organ. Their demented songcraft can be sampled on an endearing six-song EP released on Aviator Records in 1998. Look for them in an as-yet-untitled indie film scheduled to drop later this year.
As Urge Overkill was to the early '90s and Cheap Trick was to the late '70s, so is Haggis to the Valley's millennial cusp (they've even been known to cover Cheap Trick's "Surrender"). The brain child of guitarist/singer Brian Talenti, this quartet offers a reminder of the power that straightahead guitar-rock can still have when it's executed with skill, high spirits, and a fondness for self-parody. The best evidence comes from the band's excellent debut CD, What's Up Haircut?, but a rarer Christmas disc, The Short Leg, gives Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" the raucous Haggis treatment, and convinces you that it's a good song.
This hypnotically trancey rock trio's gigs are always major events, partly because the group's material is so intelligent and affecting, and partly because they only play two or three times a year. That's just the way leader Jamal Ruhe likes it. Consciously resistant of falling into the career traps that overwhelm most bands, Ruhe--a former member of the beloved One--brings that maverick spirit to all of his many musical endeavors. Currently, the talented Ruhe is also fronting Yearofthemule, and playing in Deckard and Niner (his long-awaited reteaming with his sister Shamsi, former vocalist of One). Sleepwalker's low profile was threatened last year by the understated excellence of the band's debut CD, The Man in the Moon. And we're all the better for it.
4. ZEN LUNATICS
One of the Valley's underrated treasures since their formation in 1991, the rootsy Lunatics have recently reemerged in peak form after a period of suffering through frustrating lineup changes. Behind their smart matching suits and skewed sense of humor, this band can deliver the musical goods, a "Maximum Pop" sound that transcends the limitations of the three-minute pop song. Band front man Terry Garvin: "We just play rock 'n' roll. And nobody seems to know exactly what that is anymore. But it's what we do."
1. TWO FLAVOR BLUES
Probably the hottest blues-based band to hit the local scene in the past year, Two Flavor Blues features the considerable musical legerdemain of leaders George Bowman and Scotty Spenner, two veterans on the Valley blues circuit. Their highly danceable sound straddles the worlds of classic Stax-inspired R&B grooves and traditional 12-bar blues.
2. LADY J AND BLUES RATIO
Equal parts blues, jazz and vintage soul, this band is led by the incomparable mother/daughter vocal combination of Lady J and Maxine Johnson. Their attack has the emotionally charged immediacy of blues with a healthy ratio of funkiness.
3. HANS OLSON
Phoenix's dean of acoustic blues, Hans plays raw, rustic blues with equal aplomb on guitar and harmonica. His gritty authenticity and reverence for the blues tradition is showcased on tracks like the loving tribute "Me and Brownie McGhee," from the 1995 album Kachina Blues.
4. SISTAH BLUE
A supergroup formed in 1995 by the Valley's preeminent female blues musicians, Sistah Blue has moved back to its hard-edged blues roots since original singer Lila Sherman returned to the fold last year after departing in 1997. Their no-nonsense approach can be heard on their recently released, self-titled debut CD, a strong, live-in-the-studio effort that was eagerly awaited by the group's legion of local enthusiasts.
1. COUSINS OF THE WIZE
Live-band hip-hop fronted by the commanding presence of MC and musical mastermind Pie Gomez, this band ably takes the lessons of innovators like the Roots and mixes real instruments with expert scratching into a high-voltage, seamless collage. As for the group's enigmatic name, Gomez explains: "The idea wasn't to call ourselves wise, but, rather, call ourselves the cousins. We wanted to say something where we weren't actually calling ourselves wisdom, yet wisdom was the end goal."
2. KNOW QWESTION
A two-man MC team trading rhymes over imaginative beats and esoteric samples, this crew has taken the best elements of East and West Coast traditions for a distinctive sound captured on the 1998 CD Eclipse. Cappuccino is the sober, philosophical captain of the ship, while Cash is the brash, uncompromising first mate, Flavor Flav to his partner's Chuck D. "We're making music," Cappuccino says, "not gangsta rap, not crime rap. But we share the same feelings with those people."
3. UNDERGROUND EMPIRE
A potent three-man MC collective, Underground Empire's profile is no longer quite so subterranean, thanks to its role as the host of Big Fish Pub's Wednesday hip-hop nights. The showcases have revealed them to be generous ambassadors of local hip-hop, while also spotlighting their own pre-millennial tag-team approach. The group formed when Philadelphia homeboy (and friend of Philly legend Schoolly D) Zabdullah came to stay in Arizona with his older brother, and met a Phoenix MC who went by the name of Mikal Life (a.k.a. MTL). They eventually hooked up with an MC named Bear and producer Joe Risk. They've just launched what they're calling a "seven-year plan" for world domination, complete with solo projects and greatest-hits collections. Don't bet against them pulling it off.