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 Perfectand 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.

Rather than elaborate on the new material, the band played it straight, and also tried stripping Perfect's majestic "Randy Described Eternity" to its bones. It didn't work: maybe because of the late hour, they just weren't tight enough to make shorter better. The simpler pop of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love came more easily. As the lineup expanded to include Caustic Resin's Brett Nelson, the music opened up. When the band rolled through a suitably expansive version of Perfect's "I Would Hurt a Fly," the fanboys roared with delight. Maybe no one told them it's a bad time to be a white guy with a guitar Josh Goldfein


Great Escape

Describing something as "escapist" is often a backhanded compliment: it implies a lightweight quality that ultimately can't be taken seriously. But the consistent universes created by Ladybug Transistor and Of Montreal— who played together at the Knitting Factory May 15— parallel grim daily realities. Georgia's Of Montreal goes farther: band leader Kevin Barnes has made up an entire world from what looks like the point of view of an eccentric child heavily damaged by '60s psychedelia. Unfortunately it's a benign, slightly cloying vision of the '60s, untouched by the dirty fingers of, say, the Seeds or the Red Crayola. From Barnes's painted-on mustache to his painfully flat singing, it all quickly wore thin. After yet another pseudonaive song like "Nickee Coco and the Invisible Tree" (complete with band member reading from homemade illustrated book), the impulse to tell them to cut the kiddie crap and turn up the fuzz was overwhelming.

Ladybug Transistor are more successful at translating their otherworldly songs to the stage— perhaps because they actually have songs, not shtick. Their latest album, The Albemarle Sound, borrows heavily from the intricate arrangements and harmonies of bands such as the Left Banke, but never steps over the line from reverence to rip-off. Dashing guitarist-trumpeter Gary Olson not only has a wonderful warm tone but actually sings on key— the vocal interplay between Olson, bassist Jennifer Baron, and keyboardist Sasha Bell (who could single-handedly launch Little House on the Prairie chic with her blond locks and gingham dress) was a source of constant delight. Ladybug Transistor's pastoral vignettes are escapism at its best— and as a way to leave New York behind, they beat a trip on the LIE. Elisabeth Vincentelli


Rockbeat

Poll Position Rock the Vote made a big noise upon its launch nearly a decade ago, using then-feared rapper Ice-T as a battering ram to propel America's youth to vote. But has it lost its way?

According to Rock & Rap Confidential, it has. The activist monthly ran a scathing editorial this past month, accusing the MTV generation's quasi-P.A.C. of Democratic Party ties that are too close for comfort— and perhaps too close to comply with IRS regulations governing political organizations.

"I think [Rock the Vote] was always conflicted between wanting to get kids registered to vote and functioning as an arm of the Democratic Party," says RRCeditor Dave Marsh, who wrote the piece. "[Former RTV head] Rikki Seidman told me we had to get together to encourage more kids to vote Democrat— and I said, 'Isn't that like encouraging them to be necrophiliacs?' "

Rock the Vote's current president, Seth Matlins, insists that the organization has no partisan bent, and that roughly two-thirds of the new voters it has registered in the past year have tabbed themselves as "independent." He also dismisses RRC's claim that former Polygram exec Eric Kronfeld remained on the board of directors even after being fired by the company for saying all black men are criminals.

"I took over here last June, and Kronfeld was already gone," says Matlins. "I was baffled by the sheer number of inaccuracies that I could have responded to, had anyone called for comment."

Marsh defends the veracity of the story as published and remains convinced that Rock the Vote won't bite the hand that feeds it— namely the Democratic Party. "It's not a matter of politics," he says. "The people who fund RTV have their economic interests at stake, so I see them getting ready, frankly, to pull down their pants and take it any way Al Gore wants to give it to them." And what of sticker-happy Tipper? "I can't see how anyone could see them as separate entities." David Sprague

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