The Jesus Lizard
With Shot, the Jesus Lizard has made quite a leap--not only jumping ship from longtime indie Touch and Go to Capitol Records, but also taking one giant step forward as a rock 'n' roll band. God knows the Lizard has always used ammo crates of rhythm and volume to propel its dementia, but on the group's eighth and best LP, the Jesus Lizard finally incorporates melodies into its twisted vignettes. What's more, vocalist David Yow drops his trademark, indecipherable snarl on several tracks and actually sings. Melding the snarl of Johnny Lydon, the morbid melodrama of Nick Cave and the goofiness of Fred Schneider, Yow commands the microphone with swagger and charisma. Maybe now he'll stop flashing his dick in concert for attention.
Historically, the Jesus Lizard has been a Southern gothic-rock band with an equal hankering for psychobilly and metal. Yow's penchant for shock-wave noise rock and grotesque lyrics was first cultivated in Scratch Acid, an Austin, Texas-based sonic-assault squad formed in 1982 by Yow and Lizard bassist David Wm. Sims. Scratch Acid specialized in cyclones of cacophonic twang punctuated with Yow's atonal yodeling. After three recordings (not counting a greatest-hits compilation that came out in 1991), the band broke up in 1986.
Two years later, Yow, Sims and ex-Cargo Cult guitarist Duane Denison loaded up a truck and moved from Texas to Chicago. They soon fell in with perennial bad-boy producer Steve Albini, who blew the dust off his drum machine and engineered the Lizard's first EP, Pure, in 1989. Both Pure and its 1990 follow-up, Head, held mostly unlistenable clatter and grind, but showed glimpses of the muscular sound that would emerge later, once the band restrained its more anarchic, industrial urges.
It wasn't until 1992's Liar, though, that the Lizard began to produce a coherent LP of channeled aggro-energy and gallows humor. Parlaying critical praise into an alterna-rock, underground cachet, the quartet hooked up with Nirvana (Kurt Cobain was a big fan) in 1993 and released the single "Puss." That cut is still widely considered the band's best song, but several tracks on Shot also make convincing arguments for themselves.
"Thumper" and "Blue Shot," for instance, are supercharged killers packed with scathing guitar and jagged-rhythm accents. Yow's vocals still bleed like raw meat, but he isn't such a distraction anymore. Big-league producer Garth Richardson (Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers) has calmed Yow down just enough to let the singer integrate with the music, rather than ride roughshod over it.
The Jesus Lizard's rhythm section is brilliant as usual. Mac McNeill's drum work is mechanically precise and perfectly meshes with Sims' powerhouse bass. Denison, meanwhile, outdoes even his previous efforts. His occasional jazz/blues colorings are smart garnishes to the unadulterated metal blister he excels at heating up.
Lyrically, Shot is every bit as foreboding as previous Lizard albums, and Yow still suggests more than he tells. Child molestation, drug-fueled mayhem and sundry, sordid tales from the day's headlines are the grist for his creative mill. The singer is especially bleak and violent on "Thumbscrews," a sort of meaner, rougher update of the Dead Kennedys' renter-rights anthem "Let's Lynch the Landlord."
"My hands are really shaking," Yow yells over Denison's slide guitar gone psycho. "We're gonna ask the landlord/Why he's been such a cock/Then we will get the thumbscrews/And put him in his place/Leave a big fat hole/Where he used to keep his face."
Given that Yow is not actually a psychopath, one of his chief strengths as an artist is the ability to express potent but forbidden emotions in the assumed voice of a madman.
No word yet on whether Capitol Records inked a provision to the Lizard's contract that prohibits Yow from doing the "tight and shiny" onstage, but Shot clearly indicates the band hasn't sacrificed its creative vision for the major label--just focused it.
Schoolhouse Rock Rocks
The beauty of Schoolhouse Rock in its original Saturday-morning run (1973 to 1985) was that kids couldn't tell--and, frankly, didn't care--whether the catchy, three-minute animated jingles were meant to be commercials, cartoons or the edutainment they were. The result was that TV-soaked youth learned about grammar, history and math, without realizing it, between episodes of Scooby Doo and Fat Albert.
Somewhere along the line, though, the Brady Bunch generation became the alternative nation, and the innocence with which they absorbed those lessons was lost. In its place came media cynicism, sarcastic nostalgia and, now, the inevitable tribute album.
If you heard last year's Saturday Morning compilation, you already know the novelty of 1970s kid-pop done up with punk guitars and sneering vocals. What's the practical value, then, in recasting a conceptually complex song about the duodecimal system ("Little Twelvetoes") in Chavez's inscrutable noise rock? Though it's somewhat interesting to hear Pavement turn "No More Kings" into lo-fi garage rock or to listen to Moby take "Verb: That's What's Happening" into the jeweled realm of industrial techno, the performers who most successfully preserve Schoolhouse Rock's edutainment viability here are those who were the most cartoonish to begin with: Ween ("The Shot Heard 'Round the World"), Biz Markie ("The Energy Blues") and Daniel Johnston ("Unpack Your Adjectives").--Roni Sarig
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If you're wondering why the term "dub" pops up in discussions of popular music with increasing frequency these days, blame it on another fashionable piece of crit-speak: "postrock." That's the name for the current trend of pop music drifting away from the melody-driven, verse/chorus structure of rock toward a more linear, textural form that emphasizes studio craft over live musicianship and songwriting. Thus, we have techno, ambient, jungle, hip-hop and the growing instrumental art-rock movement.
And we have dub, the grandfather of them all. Dub began in the early '70s when reggae producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby reworked recorded tracks by cutting vocals, dropping instruments in and out of the mix and overlaying outside sounds until they'd created a totally new composition. Instead of a final work, a recording became the raw material from which many new songs could be made.
Today, dub music flourishes both by staying close to its reggae roots and by courting new flavors from hip-hop and techno. Planet Dub, a two-disc compilation sent from England's Planet Dog label, collects the work of 16 dub masters from the UK (where the movement is currently strongest), including 100th Monkey, Children of the Bong, Eat Static, and Alpha and Omega. The tracks here run the spectrum from deep roots to highly electronic, but what stands out is the flux and flow of sound; the heavy bass and the trippy beats. Dub and its progeny aren't set to dethrone pop rock anytime soon, but dub continues to offer a new construct for popular music.--Roni Sarig