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Short Cuts

Japanese noise band hits town; indie-rock expatriate hits back.

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Tzomvorgha

Ruins

(Ipecac/Magaibutsu)

Progressive rock has reached a weird critical apex when the Mars Volta grace hip fashion spreads. That band, an admittedly strange mix of Radiohead, Fugazi, Yes, and Fates Warning, enjoys attention based on looks and connections first (it's fronted by the former afros in At The Drive-In) and sound second. The Ruins, I can almost assure you, are not very good-looking.

The Ruins have been plying an unclassifiable form of prog rock, mainly in their homeland of Japan, since 1985. They are a bass/drums duo that often manages to sound like 10 players instead, and that, combined with schizo time changes and shiny production, sets the Ruins apart from younger apprentices like Lightning Bolt.

Tzomvorgha is the Ruins' 17th (that's right, count 'em again, 17th) full-length release. No matter what flavor of bombast you prefer, you can take comfort in the assurance that the Ruins will get to it in a matter of seconds. If you hear an influence more than once, it might be Yes (albeit a confrontationally loud reading of Yes), the Minutemen, crossover thrash-metal, or likeminded buddies the Boredoms. The vocals, when they bother to have vocals, jump from operatic screams to the voice of a hyper, talking small animal or dwarf variety or in the case of "Wanzhemvergg," a curious (and male) interpretation of a diva.

This album sounds like it's smiling, and its playful genre-hopping frees Tzomvorgha from the confines of its poker-faced avant-garde noise community. After all, the Japanese have never taken their musical experimentation so seriously as to take the fun out of it. To prove this point, Tzomvorgha closes with both a reverse Black Sabbath medley and a two-minute Mahavishnu Orchestra medley. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: B+

The Ruins will perform at the Hi-Tone CafÇ Tuesday, July 15th, with Adios Gringos and the Uninvited. This will be one of only six U.S. dates on their current tour.

Liz Phair

Liz Phair

(Capitol)

Okay, first things first: Despite all the furor that would have you believe that Liz Phair is a disaster on a par with, oh, Lauryn Hill Unplugged, Phair has already had her gargantuan disappointment. It was called Whip-Smart, and her fans gave her a pass for it because, like her debut masterpiece, Exile in Guyville, that sophomore slump was recorded for indie Matador and fit into the same aesthetic template.

So the outrage over Phair's first record in five years isn't just over its quality but over the fact that it's a "sellout," a major-label record that intentionally and purposefully rejects the strictures of indiedom and that has Phair palling around with professional song doctors (most notably, Avril Lavigne production team the Matrix).

I was pretty put off at first myself, mostly because Liz Phair sounds so different from Phair's other records, with more conventional song structures, more generalized lyrics, and a less personal sound.

But it seems odd that anyone should take particular exception to this direction. Exile in Guyville itself was a love/hate letter to indie rock, and there was no reason to expect that Phair would still be trying to please that crowd in her mid-30s. She seems more comfortable in the role Liz Phair places her: as Sheryl Crow's gal-pal and Avril Lavigne's cool aunt.

So once I got past the sonic differences, my biggest disappoint wasn't that Liz Phair isn't more like Exile in Guyville, that it isn't confessional/confrontational, but that it isn't more like 1998's Whitechocolatespaceegg.

The outrageously underrated Whitechocolatespaceegg (its title a reference to Phair's then new-born son) boasts crystalline songwriting with a healthy focus on the lives of others, and I miss that record's artistic ambitions, the richness of its cast of characters. But if that record was a product of a life change --Liz Phair as married mom --then Liz Phair is an artistic reintroduction determined by yet another life change: It's a return to single life presaged by Whitechocolatespaceegg's brutal divorce song "Go On Ahead."

Liz Phair's best song, and most atypical, is an acknowledgement that grounds the sex-positive dating songs that surround it: On "Little Digger," Phair's son finds her in bed with a man who isn't daddy, setting up a tough, questioning chorus. This crucial fact of life established, the rest of Liz Phair, the best of it anyway, goes on to claim a life for its author, and whaddya know, Phair has plenty of wisdom to impart to Avril and more than a few tricks that Sheryl could learn from too.

"Extraordinary" and "Love/Hate Transmission" are audience songs, rejecting expectations, paradoxically embracing the freedom Phair gets from her chart-pop bid. But the sex songs, unsurprisingly, are the best. The faux-generic should-be single "Rock Me" (over the actually generic real lead single "Why Can't I") has had more than a few shots taken at it, its tale of a fuck-and-run relationship with a sweet, dumb, video-game-playing twentysomething a metaphor for Phair's musical courtship of the mall-pop crowd, except that it's such a knowing metaphor ("Your record collection don't exist/You don't even know who 'Liz Phair' is," she enthuses). "Favorite" is a silly/astute metaphor -- lover as comfy undergarment -- that works so well Shakira's probably already mapping out her cover version. "My Bionic Eyes" could make Phair the smartest, toughest sex goddess in Clear Channel heavy-rotation. And the "H.W.C." ("hot white cum") isn't "dirrty" so much as real, a sexed-up goof (the title refrain chanted over girl-group handclaps and a harmonica hook) more Sex and the City than Xtina and Britney. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: B+

Run to Ruin

Nina Nastasia

(Touch and Go)

Nina Nastasia has a great voice -- strong, evocative, dusky, and sultry. So what? There's an army of gifted female singers with tremendous voices and little to no songwriting skills -- from Edith Frost to Neko Case to Norah Jones -- and some of them are becoming increasingly difficult to tell apart.

If her physical voice is typically atypical, Nastasia's writing sets her apart. On her dirgelike third album, Run to Ruin, she displays a unique gift for evoking specific situations in few words. On "You, Her & Me," Nastasia describes a drug-hazed road trip to the beach, during which a friend -- the "her" in the title -- overdoses: "Stay in the conversation while she's in the rear seat/Maybe she's not listening to us/The thoughts in her hands are distracting enough." Then, begrudgingly, "I walk to a pay phone, call for an ambulance, hate her like nobody knows."

When story is less emphasized, the songs suffer. In "On Teasing," a woman drowns, but Nastasia's pretentious approach pushes toward melodrama even as it robs the event of meaning: "'Be you coddled or cocky, I'll have you for eats!' cries the great sea, and drags her below by her feet."

In all of these songs, something gets lost as Nastasia translates the words into music. Perhaps her particular poetry is better suited to a chapbook than an album. --Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

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