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June 27th, 2001 Robert Becraft, Zach Dundas, Tom Healy, Bill Smith | Sonic Reducer
 

Of Switchblades, Septets and Sylvia Plath

New records by Scared of Chaka, US Maple, Tim Jensen and Kara Schickele

     
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SCARED OF CHAKA: CROSSING WITH SWITCHBLADES (Hopeless)
Maddeningly catchy punk that is to Blink 182 as Stoli is to Hood River Vodka.

A record that says:

--Let's have eight cups of coffee apiece and play full-contact strip speed chess.

--Let's have eight cups of coffee apiece and intentionally crash our dirtbikes into brick walls.

--In 26 minutes and 31 seconds your neck is going to hurt and you'll be thinking so fast you won't be able to stop and grab ahold of the words termiting through your head like vicious little artificially intelligent alien haiku thoughtwaves programmed for YOUR PERSONAL DESTRUCTION AND MADNESS but hey them's the breaks.

--Scared of Chaka, the Albuquerque-bred and Portland-relocated band that's been taking a hammer and tongs to the concept of "pop punk" for years, has perfected the maniac-fast attack that has left so many greasy stages ablaze over the years.

--Yes, we know how to write the hell out of a punk song, and we are not afraid to go fast, not afraid of the spry attack that's been our bread, butter and blood sausage. Neither, however, are we afraid to be--say it, say it!--sophisticated. Take "Who's To Know," fifth up on Crossing With Switchblades: In most respects, a straightforward rocker with a vocal melody hybridized from about a thousand AM hits, but there's that crackling guitar lead, spiraling with the precision of a sitar, crisp as new concertina wire.

--Let's not get carried away, though, 'cause there are still the raves with sweet titles like "I'm Atomic, Baby" and "Shake It (Oh Yeah!)". (ZD)


US MAPLE: ACRE THRILLS
(Drag City)
Chicago's middle-aged masters of the weird come through with another bewildering gem.

US Maple consistently mocks the pretentious, arrogant showmanship and moody self-absorption of rock bands. The band--Chicagoan and chaotic, Midwestern and harrowing--assumes some of rock's most ludicrous traits while remaining a pack of excruciatingly normal men. You could call them wannabe rock stars, if they weren't so ugly and middle-aged.

With acre thrills, its fourth full-length to date and second on Drag City, the quartet remains mussed, internally squabbling, cawing and gnarly as ever. Although comparatively less fragmented than its predecessor Talker, the album is no less dissonant. Its songs build linearly at times but collapse eventually. Singer Al Johnson's highly personal, cryptic prose breaks any coherence created by repeated guitar riffs but never becomes plain hip argot, thanks to his rueful helplessness and alcoholism. He wheezes and rasps, accompanied by riffs that fall in weird, disheveled clusters--a muttering style that nonetheless contains sparks of saucy spunk and dry humor.

Some dismiss US Maple as a technically inept, tiresome wannabe-improv group. In reality, though, the songs are fully orchestrated, and while it might seem confusing for a band to write songs that sound improvised, the technique allows US Maple to question the validity of rock and roll by taking its most bombastic elements and inflating them until they pop. The result is an album that's packed with electrically swift solos and horribly outdated and misplaced exclamations such as "hey...yeah yeah...oh yeah," yet still manages to be fresh, new and invigorating. (RB)


TIM JENSEN: TIM JENSEN
(Tim Jensen 2001)
The Portland saxophonist sweats out an inventive debut.

Thankfully, more and more recordings are surfacing to document Portland's burgeoning jazz scene. Sax raconteur Tim Jensen's DIY debut is a toothsome showcase for his compositions and the playing of a group of area all-stars. Jensen mixes and matches his sonic palette to suit his tunes' needs, with ample time for horn men Rob Scheps, Paul Mazzio, Jeff Uusitalo and John Gross to sound off. Heroic pianist Randy Porter and drummer Gary Hobbs nail every track to the floor, with Phil Baker and Scott Steed splitting bass chores.

Jensen's elliptical, turned-on-their-head melodies display ample humor and move with loopy grace. The three opening septet numbers are the most daring of the disc, as Jensen alternately merges and fragments the horns into a fluxing musical kaleidoscope. "C-Section" is an inventive bit of musical slapstick, starting as a frantic inverted soul groove before disintegrating into a cacophony of bleating horns amid shouted of catch phrases ("The television set is watching me"). "Knot Now" brings it down a notch, with Porter's solo offering an intense deconstruction of the opening melody.

The remainder of the tracks are quintet workouts, with Jensen playing all manner of sax, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo. He's an unselfish player who shares the playing time with his charges. But unlike typical standard strutting, it's all about the tunes here; the soloists add their individual voices, but one gets the feeling that Jensen's compositions would shine in any hands. This is creative music that's not afraid to strut. (BS)


K.: NEW PROBLEMS
(Tiger Style)
Ida's Kara Schickele strikes out on her own, invoking Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren and, yes, Hugo Largo.

The first solo album by Kara Schickele, singer/songwriter/bassist for dynamic indie bands Ida and Beekeeper, warms to her immediately identifiable voice. With this initial (a pun? why not!) outing as K., Schickele assembles everything a good art-rock record needs: experimental harmony (some of it singularly weird), skillful arrangements and songwriting free of fashionable indie-rock irony. Airy production complements new problems' mix of strings, woodwinds, percussion, xylophone and squeaky-clean acoustic guitar.

The chiming calm of a brief instrumental, new problems' episodic introduction, ramps into "Not Here," a spare and ethereal gem of a song underpinned by piano. From there, Schickele displays a marked propensity for understated and unusual melody choices, reminiscent of '80s art rockers Hugo Largo at their best. There are also moments that recall Todd Rundgren and Joni Mitchell at their most sedative. The album does brood a bit: There's even a song with lyrics lifted from Sylvia Plath. Hey, it's not a dance record, all right?

On the other hand, "Got a Feelin'" charms with its joyously mild dissonance, Schickele's vocals swooping and lifting while Rose Thomson of the amazing avant-rock trio Babe the Blue Ox plays "sonic blindfold baritone guitar" and harmonizes. "Knoxville" sports the same kind of jangle and loping melody that made Edith Frost's Telescopic so gratifying. Finally, this album that will so please singer/songwriters and their fans comes with appropriately pleasant black-and-white cover photos, so you can relish that "Hey, look at the elegant construction of the new arty rock record I enjoy!" feeling. (TH)

 
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