Punk, polka, and puke

New releases: Sonic Youth, Los Lobos, The The, and Mr. Spock

Made in USA
Sonic Youth
Rhino Records

Nice Ass
Free Kitten
Kill Rock Stars

In the end, there isn't much to get with Sonic Youth. It's noise signifying noise, the songs an almost accidental result of what happens when you put guitars, bass, drums, and vocals in the same studio. You can only call it an experiment for so long before you either get it right or the grant office calls asking for the money back, and Sonic Youth's clock tick-tick-ticks away toward sonic middle-age. Which is why the 1986 sound track to a never-released teen film is so damned interesting: it aspires to be nothing more than noise, and yet, coming in between Evol and Sister, it actually coheres in a way few Sonic Youth albums ever have.

Being forced to work within such short bursts (only a couple of songs are longer than three minutes, and most are under 2:30), they were forced to work tight, structured, less able to ramble like the jerk-off, self-impressed artists they were around the time of Death Valley '69. And so "Tuck N Dar" is a pop song inside-out, "Moon in the Bathroom" is moody in its restraint, and the rest of the album hints at the majestic Armageddon that would surface two years later on Daydream Nation.

And it's a damned sight more interesting than the SY side projects, each of which is proof that you can be underground or you can be a star, but you damned sure can't be both. Nice Ass is SY bassist-singer Kim Gordon's riot grrrl (and boy) fantasy, the kind of band that you'd imagine everybody in the East Village has on the weekend. This sloppy pastiche of punk and funk operates on the sort of wit that rhymes "split ends" with "Michael Jackson and his little friends" and the notion that liberation can be found in the line, "Well, it's gonna be a seven-inch, and I got a hard-on for it." Mostly, though, Gordon sings about bands she hates. One should never set one's expectations so low.

Papa's Dream
Los Lobos with Lalo Guerrero
Music for Little People

Their "La Bamba" never sounded so laconic, their "Wooly Bully" never sounded so appropriate, and Los Lobos never sounded so bored. Or maybe restrained is the apologist's word: as the sound track for this children's album (a surprisingly unimaginative story about a journey in a hot-air balloon narrated by Lalo Guerrero, considered the father of barrio music), Los Lobos are reduced to backup band, straight men to Guerrero's worldly-wise storyteller. And so they chime in with corridos on command, doing roots with reverence but without the passion that made, say, La Pistola y El Corazon so endearing.

If the function of an album such as this is to introduce kids to the traditional music of Mexico, it succeeds--sometimes quite wonderfully, as on the buoyant "La Mananita Alegre," with its chorus of children's voices underneath the violin and guitarron. It's not their worst album, mostly because it's not an album at all.

Legends of Accordion
Various artists
Rhino Records

Between "Weird Al" Yankovic and South Texas legend Steve Jordan, you can figure which tracks the folks at Rhino wanted and which Brave Combo frontman Carl Finch brought to the party; it's the record that can't decide if it's a novelty (Those Darn Accordions! doing "Perry Mason Theme") or a revelation (Andrew Cormier's 1964 "Creole Stomp"), so it splits the difference between the cheese (Lawrence Welk, Jo Ann Castle) and meat (Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jimenez, Angelo DiPippo) and what you're left with is a record that mocks the very thing it's supposed to take seriously. To include "Weird Al" recasting "La Bamba" as the torturous "Lasagna" is to undercut a track like Jordan's "Las Coronelas," which is as bizarre, unnerving, and as delightful as any music made with any instrument.

Golden Throats 3
Various artists
Rhino Records

Hanky Panky
The The
550 Music/Epic

What's the difference between Buddy Ebsen's take on "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Matt Johnson's "Your Cheatin' Heart"? About 30 years, and nothing more. All that separates the third installment of Rhino's celebrity singalongs (this one being a country-western affair) and Johnson's tribute to Hank Williams is the joke and the punchline. Whether it's John Davidson sweetening "Hey, Good Lookin'" with a Polident smile or Johnson's deconstruction of "There's a Tear in My Beer," there's a sense of irrelevance to it all--Williams' pain replaced with a wink and a smirk, passion reinterpreted by people who have none. And there's nothing funny about hearing Leonard Nimoy's take on Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" or Merv Griffin doing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." It is the stuff of nightmares.

Star Power!
Various artists
Pravda Records

Albums like these should contain stickers warning of nostalgia and irony and the sulfuric explosion that results when the two are combined in such heavy doses. Gimmick: Mostly unknown indie '90s bands cover mostly forgotten monster '70s hits (think of it as Sub Pop meets K-Tel). Not as fun as volume one (which featured Smashing Pumpkins and Mojo Nixon), not as essential as volume two (with the Fastbacks' "Rocket Man"), the third installment of Pravda's homage to the disposable decade attempts to breathe life and relevance into music discounted by the history books.

Bands like Southern Culture on the Skids ("Venus"), Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet ("Popcorn," inedible in any rendition), Fig Dish ("Kung-Fu Fightin'"), and Susan Voelz ("Ode to Billy Joe") approach this material as though the songs were good once, as though such material as "Half Breed" just needs to be shed of its excessive baggage to be properly appreciated. But these musicians, as with all artists so dependent upon context, can't seem to decide whether they are mocking the music, rescuing it, or merely above it all; Voelz' self-serious take on "Billy Joe" sits somewhere in the middle ground, where it sinks underneath all that violin and heavy moaning.

But Star Power! is no The Brady Bunch Movie with each frame coated in the soft fade of self-awareness. Vic Chesnutt's "The Night the Lights Went out in Georgia" is genuinely, affectingly haunting; Red Red Meat's "I'm Not in Love" comes out so straightfaced and sincere it rescues the original; Brown Betty's "Don't Give Up on Us" recalls Funland in a mood; Rex Daisy's "Welcome Back" affectionately mimics its precursor so well it splits the difference between parody and homage; and the A-Bones rockabilly raveup of "Rock the Boat" is downright inspired if ultimately dispensable. Best joke of all: Veruca Salt was to have contributed their version of "My Sharona" till management decided to have the last laugh and steer clear.

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