Pardon My French
(Matador Records)

Never has any band been more ill-served by its name than this quartet. Before hearing a note of this album, you naturally assume that you're dealing with a juvenile gimmick band with so little imagination it couldn't think of a better moniker than the most obvious four-letter word in the English language. How creative could its music be?

Well, more than you'd guess, based on the wild variations in texture and tone found on this album. Like their labelmates and musical brethren in Pavement, these guys are spread out geographically, with leader Timmy Prudhomme residing in New York and the rest of the band based in San Francisco. So, like Pavement, they don't have the kind of steady rehearsal time that allows a band to get tight. But, also like Pavement, they use this limitation to their advantage, playing with a spontaneous, almost jazzlike ease that suggests that they're only beginning to decode the songs as the tape runs. For instance, on the rollicking "Fuck Motel," they manage to work up a serious sweat without resorting to any tired grunge moves.

On "Thoroughfare," they take what could have been a filler instrumental and chop up the beat, throw in some baroque piano fills and overlay some incongruous soul-revue horns. It feels a little surreal, out of focus and oddly entrancing.

Ultimately, this music is about feeling over craft, and maybe because nothing sounds particularly laborious, even the aimless self-indulgences--and there are a few--are kinda intriguing. Only "For Lori," in which Prudhomme slips into a creepy baritone a little too reminiscent of Roger Waters on The Wall, immediately wears out its welcome.

The spirit, if not the soundscape, of this album, however, is best captured by the frivolous "Raggy Rag," an acoustic ragtime fragment bolstered by a solo on that vaunted rock instrument, the kazoo. It epitomizes Fuck's search for groovy sounds in the most unlikely places.

--Gilbert Garcia

MTV Unplugged
(Columbia Records)

He's smooth, seductive and a little eccentric. These adjectives could have been applied to Prince during his mid-'80s purple reign, and they fit Maxwell almost as snugly now.

Maxwell has not yet shown himself to be the restless sonic auteur that the vertically challenged Minnesotan is, but neither is he the simple soul-neoclassicist he's commonly branded as. True, he shares with Marvin Gaye both an elegant set of pipes and an ability to convey insecurity and fear in the middle of his most feverish falsetto come-ons. And, like Al Green, the most erotic concept in his world is matrimony. But some quirky, distinctly non-R&B stuff has apparently managed to sneak into Maxwell's record collection, and the two covers here make this otherwise superfluous holding-pattern of a CD a source of some revelation.

Taking on the unlikely "This Woman's Work" by Kate Bush ("She's the bomb, truly," he says by way of intro), Maxwell transforms the song from a show of female sympathy for a husband into a quiet display of male responsibility. It's an odd approach in theory that works in practice.

The other cover, a creamy take on Nine Inch Nails' ferocious "Closer," is unintentionally hilarious, but sort of irresistible at the same time, kind of like when Tori Amos dismembered Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Even Trent Reznor would probably crack a smile upon hearing the infamous line "I wanna fuck you like an animal" recast as the more inviting "I wanna love you like an animal." Hey, this soul man knows on which side his bread is buttered.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
Anokha: Talvin Singh Presents Soundz of the Asian Underground
(Quango/Island Records)

Various artists
Eastern Uprising: Dance Music
From the Asian Underground
(Columbia/Higher Ground Records)

For nearly 20 years, second- and third-generation Indian kids living in London have been pumping a weird dance music called bhangra. It took its name from one of the Indian subcontinent's most prolific crops, bhang (hemp), but bhangra was never dope in the dance world outside the Anglo-Indian 'hood.

That might be because telling the faux from the funk in bhangra's fun-for-fun's-sake hybrid of disco, reggae, techno and shout-along ragamuffin was harder than separating wheat from chaff in American alternadreck. Well, payback time has finally come, and a minination of post-bhangra beat scientists may be cashing some fat checks in the months to come. The music scene honcho Talvin Singh has compiled on Anokha is to standard-issue bhangra (or, for that matter, American alternadreck) what DJ Shadow is to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

Singh is a London-born, India-reared tabla prodigy whose professional pedigree includes string arrangements for Bjsrk's Debut, remixes for Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, and work with jazz-hop saxman Courtney Pine, and his main project for the last year or so has been a weekly London DJ event where the best Indian DJs refract (among other things) Indian film and classical music off (among other things) drum 'n' bass and trip-hop.

Its first note to the overground represents just fine. Singh gets prurient Phil Spector-style, employing two girlie divas, 17-year-old Amar and Bjsrkalike Leone, most notably on "Jean," a classic-pop lover's prayer disguised as dreamy drum 'n' bass, in which Amar screws up Pollyanna and pathos, suggesting "Be My Baby" as written by Spring Heeled Jack.

State of Bengal's "Flight IC408" loops a snake-charmer surf guitar while the Milky Bat Kid's "Accepting Trankuility" drops art-hop complex enough to make Tortoise smile (or sweat) with respect. That kind of cross-cultural style swiping--the way Indian film-score genius A.R. Rahman's 19th-century string arrangement "Mumbia Theme Tune" melts into Singh and Leone's cyber-sultry Brit-hop tune "Distant God," or how Indian percussion (tablas) and Western dance music (drum 'n' bass) function as kin on many of these tracks--suggests the start of a positive kind of postglobal muso-ethos we've all been jonesing for. Sorry there, Hill; it takes a breakbeat.

Anokha is smart, serious stuff, at times so distant from bhangra it almost comes off as a bit ashamed of its musical heritage. Which may be why the lighthearted Hindi house music on the, as of now, import-only Eastern Uprising: Dance Music From the Asian Underground works so nicely as Anokha's companion/foil. As poppy and, at times, deeply cheesy as classic bhangra, these house/techno/trip-hop tracks screw together the tantric and the trancey, at times with surprisingly nifty results. Cocoon inexplicably turns the sloppiest Portishead rip-off ever into shehnai-soaked drum 'n' bass while Black Star Liner refracts Sufi singers off sampler non sequiturs; both suggest semiarty aspirations. But corny Safri Goes to Bollywood (love that name!) and political toasters Asian Dub Foundation make the best art here by going to obscene lengths to create crafty, even kitschy, good times. No, it isn't exactly a postcolonial Chic of our dreams, but it's getting there.

--Jon Dolan


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