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Music Reviews

Randy's Buttons

April 19, 1995

Wolfgang Press

Wolfgang PressThe Wolfgang Press, Funky Little Demons (4AD 1995) -- The Wolfgang Press, the longest-signed band on 4AD Records, has been recording since 1983. On Funky Little Demons, the threesome (Michael Allen, Mark Cox, and Andrew Gray) scales back on the brooding, dark-carnival ambiance of their earlier records, and expands into a more melodic and easy-flowing presence. As a result, Funky Little Demons has a rhythm and flow that carries it past the usual ambient-trance swirl.

Somewhere between singer Allen's gruff, deadpan baritone and the music's taut, textured abrasions, the Wolfgang Press have created their own signature sound. While the band has previously been noted for its moody tendencies, Funky Little Demons escapes them. In fact, cuts like "Derrick the Confessor" and "New Glass" have a distinctly approachable, pop-oriented sound.

While shifting from an intense avant-funk to a more accessible, syncopated soul sound, the band has also become more relaxed and open. The band admits that a turning point was De La Soul's iconoclastic classic, Three Feet High and Rising. As Allen reflects, "It seemed such a joyous record. There was a freshness and ease about the way it was made that inspired us to look at ourselves and reassess our working process. It wasn't so much a change in sound as in approach, a getting back to the enjoyment of making music."

My primary knock with ambient dance music is that the vocals are usually indecipherable. Cast as "dream vocals," the words are buried and layered, and can't be discerned at any volume. This defeats the whole purpose of songwriting; why waste time writing lyrics that are so deeply obscured that no one can understand them?

Fortunately, Funky Little Demons doesn't fall into this trap. While the disc has a techno, ambient feel (with overtones of electronic dance material), the lyrics are understandable (and even printed in the liner notes).

Funky Little Demons works as an album, not a collection of singles. While it's hard to pinpoint individual tracks that stand out, the overall feel is moody, moving, and danceable. As the dance music threatens to fracture into further camps (such as ambient, jungle, breakbeat, and worldbeat), the Wolfgang Press is helping to restore a much-needed sense of coherency. Find Funky Little Demons and get out of your techno dancing shoes.

Sonic YouthSonic Youth, Soundtrack to "Made in USA" (Rhino 1995) - Sonic Youth, a fiercely independent rock band from New York City, recorded the soundtrack to Made in USA in 1986. The album was never released, and the band remastered it in 1994 for this limited pressing. The result is a textured, ambient instrumental disc that grows on you with repeated listening.

The film, produced by Ken Friedman and starring Christopher Penn, began as a dark, somewhat politically pointed road movie. By its final cut, the film was a story about disenfranchised youths on a crime spree to find freedom. While the film made some inroads in Europe, it quickly hit the video bin in the United States.

At the time Sonic Youth recorded the sound track, they were a virtually unknown rock band. Thus, the allure of working on a big-time Hollywood film appealed to them. Says band member Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals), "We watched the film a few times and set up a rehearsal/demo situation at the now legendary (and defunct) Spinhead Studios in the San Fernando Valley. We found ourselves conducting spindly, twisting rhythms and quiet rushes of noise and melody. We also blasted out some straight-ahead Mack truck rock riffs. Anything to fit the film's mood."

Thurston's appraisal is fair. The 23 songs on this 42-minute disc often have a weird, multi-textural rock feel. While some songs are straight ahead rockers (such as "Tuck 'n Dar"), many others are short, moody instrumentals, including the standout cut on the disc, a surf-rock tribute called "Rim Thrusters".

Thurston continues, "The band (also consisting of Kim Gordon on bass, Lee Renaldo on guitars, and Steve Shelley on drums) had fun doing it...I recently found the video at a video closeout store and watched it and was kind of bummed when I saw how much of the music was cut from the final edit. I guess our vibe was too weird and edgy. But that's what we liked about the earlier versions of the film, so to each his own, I guess. The music on the soundtrack is interesting in that it's an odd compromise between New York City avant-gardsters and Hollywood hitmen. Roll camera."

Roll camera, indeed. Made in USA is the kind of sound track Bowie and Eno would have made if they had continued to develop in their late 70s Heroes mold. While there's a few hummable melodies on the disc, the overall effort is worthy. And a great, moody listen.

Santa MonicaDavid Bowie, Santa Monica '72 (Griffin Music 1995) -- Griffin Music, a little label with big ambitions, has landed the U.S. rights to issue Santa Monica '72, a live show recorded by David Bowie at the end of his Ziggy Stardust tour. Bowie fans won't want to miss this digitally remastered recording, which features material from Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane.

In case you've forgotten, Bowie's band from the early 70s (featuring Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick "Wooody" Woodmansey on drums, and Mike Garson on keyboards) set the standard for years to come. With gripping glam guitarwork and some of Bowie's best songs, the albums from this period laid the foundation for Bowie's enduring fame.

Santa Monica '72 was recorded on October 20, 1972 for FM radio broadcast, and has since become one of the most popular bootleg recordings of all time. Much controversy has followed this release, as several record companies have previously tried (unsuccessfully) to gain the rights to its commercial release.

Enter Griffin Music, which has an ambitious schedule of re-issues (including a large bit of the rare Hawkwind catalog). Complete with rare photos and excellent packaging, Santa Monica '72 is a must-own for fans and collectors alike.

In addition to essential tracks such as "Space Oddity," John, I'm Only Dancing," and "Jean Genie," Santa Monica '72 also includes a driving, relentless cover of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting For My Man" that's as good as any version of this classic that's ever been recorded.

If you've wondered what happened to Bowie (other than the fact that time took it's proverbial cigarette), you won't find the answer here. But if you're looking to complete your Bowie collection, get Santa Monica '72.

-- Randy Krbechek

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