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Of Mice, Men, and Minimalism

This week: Indie heroes, the Brazilian boss, and rumbly techno

Modest Mouse
The Moon & Antarctica (Epic)

This is not emo, this is not punk, this is not alterna-pop, this is the sound of twentysomethings who have grown up on, been defined by, and are still digesting all of the above, trying now to create something new out of their familiar surroundings. The result is some of the most exciting, intriguing, frustrating, and, yes, curiously if not immediately familiar music being laid to record. Following up 1997's blistering The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse revisits the touchstone trademarks that have defined them (angular guitars, off-kilter melodies delivered in a stilted punk rhythm, vocals alternating between quivering rage and smart-ass sincerity that may or may not be mocking); opener "3rd Planet" is what could be called classic Modest Mouse, a rough-around-the-edges singsong pop addiction building into a jerky, pulsing chorus. A spaghetti western on meth, "Dark Center of the Universe" uses blurry scratching to reach its start-stop rhythm, offering up layers of singer/guitarist Isaac Brock chanting until his voice breaks at fever pitch ("everyone's life ends but no one ever completes it/dry or wet ice they both melt and you're equally cheated"), fury spilling all over the place, before settling into a drifter's lullaby and back again.

The ear-grabbingly funky "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" is territory they've explored before (see Building Nothing Out of Something's "All-Nite Diner" and Lonesome's "Lounge (Closing Time)"), cocksure brattiness punctuated by Brock's lonesome guitar wail, his trademark lisp sounding positively menacing on doubletracked vocal twin identities that growl and coo about the favorite topics of God and the devil, heaven and hell on Earth. There are simultaneous nods to techno loopery and field recording antiquity, as in "The Cold Part" and the line "I don't know, but I've been told, you'll never die and you'll never grow old."

Not quite otherworldly, not quite grounded, neither a glimpse into the curious future nor a retread of the past, Modest Mouse is a sonic portrait of the Pacific Northwest, right here right now.

—Shelly Ridenour

Joao Gilberto
Joao Voz e Violao (Verve)

Joao Gilberto has always sung at the edge of a sigh, as though he didn't care whether anyone beyond kissing distance could hear him. The effect has weakened millions of knees since the late '50s, when Gilberto and his subtle, syncopated sound set off the bossa nova revolution in Brazil and introduced a sophisticated new form of make-out music to a ready-to-tingle world. With his usual exquisite timing, the reclusive 69-year-old legend has reemerged with his first album in 10 years, just as listeners in North America are starting to rediscover classic Brazilian sounds. With his usual exquisite economy and taste, he has returned alone—just him, his acoustic guitar, and thou.

As with recent informal acoustic sessions by North American legends Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, the format alone is enough to spark interest, though a sympathetic producer and a choice selection of songs always help. For Joao Voz e Violao, legend-in-his-own-right Caetano Veloso set up the mics and stayed out of the way, letting Gilberto lean in close—and thereby draw listeners closer. For his material, Gilberto returns to "Desafinado" and "Chega de Saudade," the Antonio Carlos Jobim-penned classics that launched his career, as well as comfortable old favorites such as Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona's lovely "Eclipse" and the sprightly vintage samba "Nao Vou pra Casa." He even takes on Veloso's "Coraćao Vagabundo," written and recorded in 1967 when the producer was a young Gilberto acolyte. Given Gilberto's stealthy swing and the way his slightly weathered croon caresses the melody, only fully blooming on a handful of low notes, the memory of Veloso's own version doesn't stands a chance.

At just over 30 minutes, Joao Voz e Violao is short, but exceedingly sweet. Gilberto certainly doesn't need 70 minutes to prove that his rhythmic verve and sotto voice singing charms are as powerful as ever; they may be even more so when stripped to their barest essentials. And if the running time doesn't fit your romantic timetable, just put the player on repeat.

—Lee Gardner

3 (Matador)

Stefan Betke, the artist known to fans of minimalist techno music as Pole, offers listeners very little aural information to digest and even less of his personality in his third Matador outing, aptly titled 3. Betke uses a relatively simple formula (cut and paste, "glitch kids" style techno as applied to dub reggae) to deliver a mere shadow of what may have once been music.

In short, Pole's "music" sounds kind of like a poolside reggae party heard from the bottom of the pool. Really, all one can decipher is a fuzzy, rumbling bass sound and an occasional computer generated rhythm track throughout the eight pieces on the album. And the bass sound is more of a visceral rumble than an audible tonal message. The result is an entrancing and often puzzling ghost of a sound: ambiance stripped beneath its most basic essence.

I don't think 3 would be appreciated by anyone except for those that have a high tolerance for theoretical experimentation taken to the nth degree. The album offers very little except sonic wallpaper. And the pale, repetitive designs lose focus as they repeat into oblivion.

In the guise of Pole, Betke presents a mantra for the comatose which is the sound equivalent of "white on white" designs. Pole's 3 represents nothing, has no tension or climaxes, and goes nowhere. I love it.

—John Sewell

August 3, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 31
© 2000 Metro Pulse