Creature Double Feature

Frankenstein meets the Wizard of Oz in an abandoned shoe store— who wins? Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo took their grudge match to a sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom Friday night to settle the score.

Jad is the mad scientist. Half Japanese, the band he started 25 years ago with his brother David, builds little monsters of indie rock from loose limbs and lightning. Closer to Kansas, Yo La Tengo take the opposite approach, trapping songs in the wild so they can pull them apart slowly. Yo La work hard, but often it seems like a piece is missing: one song lacks a heart, another a brain, and a little courage now and then wouldn't hurt.

On their new record together, Strange but True, they come out even, maybe because they never get in the same ring. Jad sings lyrics David wrote in the form of pseudotabloid stories, while Yo La Tengo toss off shards of songs to set a tone: aggro on "Texas Man Abducted by Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride," country for "Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President."

In person, it was no contest. With his goofy charisma and poignant meter, Jad is an irresistible front man, singing and playing guitar unencumbered by "technique." The band stuck to his material, including two of the three new songs about monkeys, a perennial Fair Brothers theme. After trying several variations on the lineup, they settled on a two-drummer combo (Georgia + Ira, with James dependably on bass) that lit up "Charmed Life" and "U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums" like Roman candles.

The obligatory covers drew from a common fakebook. "I'm Straight" acknowledged that, like Jad, Jonathan Richman also spent the '70s making faux-naive folk art out of the Velvets and Chuck Berry. Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" won the loudest cheers of the night: is outsider art the last punk? (True naïf Johnston, who has collaborated with both, is an obvious touchstone; the band played his "Casper the Friendly Ghost" on WFMU a week earlier.) But the best was yet to come: a bracing encore of "Rebel Rebel," starring Tara Key of opener Antietam on guitar. Which just proves that an authentic pop moment can be bigger than the best ideas of any one scene, even if it's a dinosaur. On Monster Island, no one beats Godzilla.

Josh Goldfein


On Target

A few years ago, I compared Andrew Hill's canon to Myst, the hide 'n' seek CD-ROM that simultaneously confounds and compels each time the mouse is clicked. With landscapes steadily mutating, traps become inevitable. But they're edifying, too— spending time in one of the virtual culs-de-sac helps you grasp the maze's infernal logic. The 61-year-old Hill, whose rep as Blue Note's most engaging egghead will forever be intact, recently fashioned a new book for a new band. But judging by a couple of the pianist's shows at the Jazz Standard last week, the Myst analogy still holds: the center of his tunes is a moving target.

Complexity is assumed in jazz— even a simple blues offers enough tangential elements to make the music intricate. Hill the moody structuralist takes this point as a matter of pride. One of the more beguiling pieces from Thursday night's show was in 15/8, a time signature that, when combined with the kind of harmonic depth the composer typically offers, needs to be addressed with loads of finesse to be persuasive. The horn line of Marty Ehrlich, Jay Collins, and Ron Horton danced the dance of the dedicated, but the music never gained the focus it demanded. Even with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Billy Drummond linked in thought and deed, the action was wayward, with the leader's sometimes abstruse comping effectively muddying the waters.

But the packed house at Friday's first set caught a glimpse of the mastery that earned Hill his credentials in the mid '60s. The Chicago-born leader used to fib about being a Caribbean native, and at one point the ensemble— billed as an update of his classic Point of Departureband— toyed with a dazzling samba that flaunted its ersatz eccentricity. Rhythm sections are crucial to Hill's music: Drummond and Colley were expert in bringing both discipline and pliability to the tunes, especially during an extended lament that contained the kind of blatant swing cadences Hill doesn't usually prescribe for his groups. Framed by the effervescent logic of the groove, the pianist's quavers took on a poetic cogency. And when Ehrlich joined in to ratchet up the action (drawing the biggest applause of the night), it became clear: one of jazz's most approachable avant-gardists had regained a big chunk of his vitality. — Jim Macnie


No Guts, No Glory

Dance music in a club setting functions on a visceral level, quite literally: disco, techno, even trance all get a groove going when pumped straight into the nexus of nerves at the solar plexus, the body's center of kinetic energy. This is why "party" begins with "PA."

Last Saturday's Basic Channel/Chain Reaction party (the kind that you don't find out the location of until a couple of hours before the event; it materialized in low-ceilinged digs in Dumbo) sported a superb set of woofers that was all but wasted on live performances from Pole and Scion. These acts, like the others affiliated with the fastidious Berlin label Chain Reaction (Basic Channel is its now defunct parent organization), regard club mix as centrifuge— starting with deep house­techno repetitions, titrating out any vestige of melody, and dropping the beats and bass out from underfoot. The remnant: a powerful pulse pinned to its rotating perimeter. When this works— as it does dizzyingly well on releases by Porter Ricks (two people), Various Artists (one person), and Vainqueur (another one person, Rene Löwe, who's also half of Scion)— it spins you right round like a record, baby. So much for the low-end theory.

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