Taking Five 

A look at a handful of recent discs you might have missed

A look at a handful of recent discs you might have missed

Ass Ponys, Lohio (Checkered Past) On last year’s Some Stupid With a Flair Gun, it was robots coming through the corn, Scatman Crothers’ extra nipple, and the devil’s minions run amok. This time it’s an oracular blind girl, John Carradine in Kung Fu, and bugs singing louder than God. Chimerical? You bet, but such is life in the zonked-out universe of head Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver, who apart from the odd nod to the Holy Modal Rounders and Safe as Milk-era Beefheart, still sounds a lot like Pere Ubu’s equally quixotic David Thomas fronting The Band. And it would all be a bit much—over the top, even—if Cleaver’s Vonnegut-like takes on human foibles weren’t so funny and spot-on. And empathetic. Cleaver not only knows how it feels to be a loser or, as he puts it, a “pot-licked, limp-dicked butterfly”; his heart goes out to everyone who’s been there too.

Missy Elliott, Miss E...So Addictive (The Gold Mind Inc./Elektra) “I know some of y’all sick of songs you be hearin’ on the radio / So me and Timbaland gonna give you shit you never heard before,” Missy boasts to open her third and latest opus. Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But from the Next Power Generation grooves of “Dog in Heat” and updated synth-funk of “Old School Joint,” to the Bhangra beatz of “Get Ur Freak On” and trippy electro-hop of “Lick Shots,” the crazy rhythms she and co-creator Tim quilt together here are as fresh and kaleidoscopic as any out there. Elliott also raps less and sings more on this record, her sultry, natural-woman coos and commands no doubt keeping Mary J. Blige, the reigning queen of hip-hop soul, looking over her shoulder. The obligatory guests abound as well, but this is Missy and Tim’s affair, and despite the occasionally irksome between-song skits, it more than lives up to its title. It’s also the steamiest between-the-sheets record since D’Angelo’s Voodoo, something of a sampledelic cross between “Sexual Healing” and Dirty Mind. That, and it does a body good to see the Divine Miss E laying claim to sex goddess status for zaftig sisters everywhere.

Barbara Manning and the Go-Luckys!, You Should Know by Now (Innerstate) Depending on how you score it, this is either Manning’s fifth or sixth band since the mid-’80s, and her first since moving to Germany a couple years ago. It’s also her first album of nearly all original material since 1989’s solo Lately I Keep Scissors, one perfect gray blanket of a record that every rainy-day girl or boy could relate to. Manning has never been one to keep secrets, and here, among other things, she lets us in on everything from an episode of alfresco lovemaking to the myriad ways she’s learned that one and one don’t make two. But lest you take her musings for shoegazing singer-songwriter fare, this is a band record, with the transcontinental Go-Luckys! tossing off buzz-saw punk, Wire-inspired angularities, and autumn-hued Kiwi pop with equal, and decidedly DIY, aplomb. They even tackle a Tin Pan Alley rewrite, and “Goof on the Roof,” a tomboy take-off of The Drifters’ hit “Up on the Roof,” proves Manning can come up with Brill Building chestnuts of her own.

Various, Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard) Critics like to dicker over the relative merits of the 1928 sides Hurt cut for Paramount and those he made for Vanguard after his “rediscovery” in 1963, but theirs is a petty and, ultimately, pointless polemic. Truth is, every note Hurt played and sang, music as sprightly and lyrical as Howlin’ Wolf’s is declamatory and brood-ing, exudes the sly humor, wry insouciance, and irrepressible grace that defined Mississippi John. The best of what’s here—and much of it is good—comes from pickers and singers who understand as much, notably Steve and Justin Earle’s romp through “Candy Man” and the way Mark Selby plays the randy backdoor man on “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” Geoff Muldaur and daughters Jenni and Claire get into the spirit with the barnyard hokum of “Chicken,” while pros like Chris Smither, Taj Mahal, and Alvin Youngblood Hart sound like they’ve been doing Hurt’s songs their entire lives. On the down side, there’s Bill Morrissey’s borderline blackface on “Pay Day” and Beck’s phlegmatic pass at “Stagolee.” And it’s tempting to cavil about Victoria Williams’ creaky, naïf-like rendering of “Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down.” But when she squawks “No more sickness, no more sorrow,” she’s not mugging for the cheap seats so much as reciting a prayer she’s uttered each and every day she’s lived with MS.

Continental Drifters, Better Day (Razor & Tie) This Nawlins collective’s luminous Vermilion traded on hooks and pathos, but nearly half of this middling follow-up relies on AOR-ish rock riffs and lyric readymades like “I’m gonna pay my bills and stand where I stand / And maybe even start a little rock ’n’ roll band.” Fortunately, their trademark harmonies are still in full effect, and thanks to songs from Psycho Sisters Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson, the record’s better half more than justifies the Drifters’ rep as the best, if hardly best-known, roots-pop band in the land. Particularly winning is Peterson’s righteous kiss-off “Na Na” and her waltzing, accordion-flecked “That Much a Fool.” Cowsill, though, is clearly the “star” of this one, chipping in four gut-wrenching ballads, all sung in her chill-inducing, soul-on-ice alto. “I had heart and I had soul / If I wanted to, I could even make it snow,” she pines at one point, longing for better days. I don’t know about snow, but when on the Dusty Springfield-inspired “Peaceful Waking” she wails, “I can’t stand here and I can’t take this and I can’t make this alone,” her ravaged cry sure as hell brings the rain.

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