The music would have been damned good too; none of that Monkees camp. Following the requisite series of indie 7-inchers and EPs, UFOFU finally stepped out on last year's self-titled full-length. If the eternal conundrum of '90s pop-punk is its inability to move beyond rudimentary chord progressions and lyrical juvenilia, then consider UFOFU a compelling step toward resolving the enigma--or at least an object lesson on how to combine smarts and energy without sounding stilted. The band blithely employs jazzy chords and polyrhythms, but you'd hardly notice them among the sugar-coated melodies of such songs as "People to the Air" and "Flying."

Frontman Joe Butcher's lyrics tend toward stream-of-consciousness acid-babble, but it works as lowbrow scat-words chosen more for their rhythmic value than for any narrative agenda. Still, such devices are ultimately bound by the band's primary concern, the pop song, and UFOFU's least interesting moments ("The Thing of It Is," "A Letter") arrive when the band's melodic conception fails it. Mostly, though, the record provides odd, hooky numbers as atypical as the players responsible for them.

Sadly, the whole sitcom thing went to hell when the band split last November. Then again, with Butcher now playing in Radish (the man always did have a great sense of humor), with bassist-vocalist Brandon Curtis having joined Captain Audio, and with little Ben not so little anymore and working the drum slot in Tripping Daisy (best move that band has made in years), you've got spin-off possibilities galore. Provided you can find someone to play Tim DeLaughter. Is Pauly Shore available?

--Keven McAlester

Ugly Mus-tard
Nominated for: Industrial/Dance
Though always a dark reservoir of the id, you never know what exactly to expect from Ugly Mus-tard. Evil clowns. Jabbering pontiffs. Hall of Mirrors. Or just your basic everyday death, dismemberment, and devils. Ugly Mus-tard is one of the few bands in town that can't simply be heard, can't merely be seen. Ugly Mus-tard has to be experienced. For the most part, the band is merely a shade of misspent youth, a fun game of Halloween with loud guitars and louder drums. But at its best, Mus-tard goes beyond the bass-heavy crunch of hardcore and carnival sideshow antics and creates music--and images--that can truly haunt.

On the latest eponymous release, for example, if you can get beyond the bone-jarring and mind numbing-roar that comes with the territory, Ugly Mus-tard juts into startling reposes of cello and violin ("Bitter") and piano ("Blue"). With MVP Mike Daane engineering, you know that Ugly Mus-tard will sound technically good, but you never can quite wrap your mind around the fact that Ugly Mus-tard can sound downright beautiful. A sick trick, indeed.

--S.K.J.

Keli Vaughan
Nominated for: Folk/Acoustic
I live three doors down from Keli Vaughan, the skinny, blonde, intimidatingly poised singer-songwriter who's made regular, modest, but incendiary appearances at Cafe Society, Cafe Brazil, and The Dark Room. She also shares her solo vocals and electric guitar generously with friends; I heard a private mini-set in the studio apartment beneath me that got my neighbor in trouble with the landlady because it dragged on so long and loud. Vaughan's voice ricochets between mean and sweet, loud and soft, very often in the same breath. Her self-released, six-song EP The Quiet Earth was recorded while she hung out in Liverpool during an extended European exile that included opening for Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch (she now admits she didn't know who he was).

These spare, prickly tunes are folk only in the way Billy Bragg's early Back to the Basics compilation is folk: You could perform it sitting on a stool, but there's no way you could stay planted belting this kind of tuneful, sawed-off street wisdom (hers is minus the cockney Marxism, needless to say). Right now Vaughan pays her bills as a massage therapist while she collaborates with local musicians like former Tablet member Paul Williams. She's well aware she could jump on the Lisa Loeb-Jewel caravan if only she soft-pedaled the influence of Exene Cervenka, Nina Hagen, and Chrissie Hynde in her music. But the Lilith Fair tent has proven itself big enough to shelter ballsy dames and sob sisters alike, if they have a way with a lyric. And Vaughan's CD is virtually genderless in its treatment of cruelty and yearning. Keli Vaughan lives in a musical era sympathetic to female unclassifiability, and she should take appropriate advantage.

--J.F.

Watusi
Nominated for: Reggae
Hmmm...Watusi, a 16-year-veteran group, never appears in the pages of this newspaper except at Music Awards time, when it's up for best Reggae band (an award this band won last year in a landslide). Maybe it's because we're all a bunch of lily-white stiffs around here, or perhaps it's just hard to find fault--as we so love to do in these pages--with such a joyous band that's whole existence revolves around creating upbeat tunes that spread the message of "One Love." Watusi's latest release, Cool Runner, is a bubbling rush of feel-good (one-) world music that makes even soulless music critics want to pass the dutchie on the left-hand side. With a generous sprinkling of cool-jazz alto sax and Latin drums, Watusi isn't going to have you seeing visions of Bob Marley, but that's OK.

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