Louder Than Bombs

New York's underground hip-hop label Rawkus Records put various prop missiles and rocket launchers up on the stage of the Bowery Ballroom last Tuesday to celebrate the release of their new compilation, Soundbombing II. Hokey, but the five-minute explosions of talent that followed were real enough— quite a blast, actually.

RA the Rugged Man is a fat, bearded white guy from Suffolk who came out in a Rawkus sweatshirt, pulled that off to reveal a white shirt and tie (he looked like he'd stepped out of the Diamond District), pulled those off, plus his pants, to stand before us in nothing but white undies, showed us his flab, chest hair, and butt crack, grunted his way through "Stanley Kubrick" then did a forward somersault over a missile, landed on his neck, and walked off. Whew!

Shabaam Sahdeeq was too earnest, but then his pal Pharaohe Monch came on to collaborate on "WW III," then took over completely for one of Soundbombing II's high points: "Mayor," in which he's a cop who kills Giuliani. As on the album, that led right into Company Flow's equally politicized, gripping, loud, "Patriotism." The spirit of Public Enemy briefly returned to rap.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli traded epiphanies for a good long while, Mos Def with his viciously charismatic twinkle and strategic patois, Kweli's raps fast and fluent: "I'm original and you're like the King James version." Mad Skillz started an a cappella rap that sounded like a simple brag, a defense of himself to this antipop audience for having contributed to an Aaliyah remix. But every line was a variant on "one" ("I'm the reason that one of the twins don't look like you"), and as he kept it going he won us all over.

There was still time for Sadat X and Common to duo, the Brand Nubian longtimer a high wheedle and Common's hardcore romantic disquisitions ("our togetherness it felt like a bid") like a late-night r&b singer of unusual candor. Mos Def and Talib Kweli revisited their Black Star singles, in this audience the equivalent of "Freebird," then a jesterish MC named 8-Off freaked out for a spell, with RA returning to lend abnormal support. Very satisfying. — Eric Weisbard

Practical Magic

The question of the day was whether Tortoise, funky but withholding Chicagoans, would convincingly interpret the impassioned humanism of Tom Zé as they backed him at Irving Plaza. Certainly Tortoise knows from the experimental textures that made Zé the class clown of Tropicalismo. They do not, on the other hand, know from ingeniously pithy songs, and alpha amphibian John McEntire's "Defect 2: Curiosidade" remix on Postmodern Platos (a set of takes on Zé's Fabrication Defect) doesn't demonstrate particular insight. One needn't have worried, however; Tortoise studiously played the sidemen, constructing, with Zé regular Jarbas Mariz, perfect facsimiles of the massive hits repertoire.

Just as well, since Zé cum Zé bemuses a crowd expecting Tropicalia with little umbrellas. Opener Vinicius Cantuária's spellbinding assimilation of Downtown dissonance to Bahian melancholy helped ease the transition. And Zé has bottomless reserves of charm to pitch Iannis Xenakis­goes-to-Carnival. "In Africa I am a slave, in Brazil I am a slave, in Bahia. Here, I am the boss." Completely true: can he work a room! Zé gestures, he stops and restarts a number, he gargles. He puts his hands together. He recites headlines about interest rates. He teaches the crowd a melodic inversion of the nah-nah bit of "Hey Jude." He virtuosically alternates a mournful croon with a cartoon lunatic mutter on "Curiosidade," but after we giggle in delight, he reprimands: "This is a very sad song," about Nobel's invention of dynamite and its legacy— and his mutter is the shell shock of our century's horrors. Finally he dons a slicker and red hard hat, as does trusty Mariz, and the two knock out a samba on one another's heads.

Tom Zé may be the anthropophagic, concrète precursor to everything good in music since 1997, as has been averred, but he's also a residual figure, the consummate showman. The lights cut and from opposite sides of the stage the band percussively applies power grinders to a-go-go bells, sparking clouds of light across the void. Zé's gamut of gadgets and shtick is no more a deconstruction of pop banality than its apotheosis: the magic show. — David Krasnow

Extra Ordinary

Built To Spill are crunchy in two ways: they rock, but with a folksy charm. Master Builder Doug Martsch is celebrated for his robust and romantic guitar, but he also has a lovely voice, tender but emphatic as it unspools, almost conversationally, the lessons of his pathetically well-grounded life. It's a winning combination: in March the band's latest record, Keep It Like a Secret, topped the totally unscientific CMJ chart, and last week they filmed two nights at Irving Plaza for HBO.

Stepping just outside the glare, the band warmed up on Wednesday with two sold-out sets at Maxwell's, revisiting its catalog through Secret's elegant but limiting lens. New songs like "Carry the Zero" and "Sidewalk" are as engaging as those on the band's major label debut, Perfect From Now On, but Martsch doesn't work out their permutations in as much detail. The transcendent moments on Perfect and an earlier EP with Caustic Resin came from Martsch's extended, rhythmic explorations; on Secret, he's closer to the craggy hooks of Dinosaur Jr. and Archers of Loaf.

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