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All the rage

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Performing classical and contemporary compositions on a pair of violins, a viola, and a cello, San Francisco's Kronos Quartet has gone out of its way to dip its toes – and bows – into diverse waters. Talk about a repertoire: They do a song about Elvis. They work with guest vocalists occasionally but go solo most of the time. They perform works by composers that run the gamut from Jimi Hendrix to Dmitri Shostakovich to John Zorn to Philip Glass. In short, they lack that capital vice of the 20th-century musician, genre snobbery. To them, music is music.

Even so, the Quartet's new EP, All the Rage, comes as a surprise. It's a sixteen-minute piece combining the spoken word with tape-loop documentation of the other L.A. riots, the ones incited by California governor Pete Wilson's 1991 veto of a law banning discrimination against People Like Us. Composed by Bob Ostertag, with a libretto by Sara Miles read by Eric Gupton, the spoken-word half consists of a monologue about firsts: "The first time someone said 'queer,'" "The first time someone I knew was killed for it," "The first time I watched a friend die," "The first time I say 'I love you' to a man."

Here the Quartet uses its instruments to mirror the prosody and cadence of speech. Playing music in sympathy with voice heightens the drama, making an already graphic, staccato monologue more punchy and provocative. "Like Bruce in the hospital on his last birthday" - there's a sobering thought, one's last birthday – "31, in a wheelchair with a party hat and a useless I.V. drip. Jerry going blind and the insurance company tries to cancel his policy... Raul starving at home, Gregory in the back seat of a car, racing, racing towards his death."

The sampled riot sequences, on the other hand, with the Quartet fiddlin' away in the background, wear out their welcome pretty darned fast. "I sifted through the recording [of the riots] and isolated those sections that to my ear suggested music," Ostertag writes in the liner notes. May I suggest he upgrade to a better ear? This is at once beyond experimental and not experimental enough; it tries to expand the boundaries of "music" without a root in actual music.

But that's sour grapes, really. Add All the Rage to the expanding list of confrontational, serious queer music. Cover art is a second-rate piece by David Wojnarowicz; royalties go to AmFAR. Weirdly, the recording is underwritten by a grants from the ultra-conservative Reader's Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts, the jittery American funding body. Get it now before they figure out what they paid for.

Lounge lizards, unite!

When "alternative" label Sub Pop Records sent out an album of instrumentals and laid-back crooning straight out of a 1968 cocktail party with a recipe for a cocktail flambé on the album cover, grisly fascination compelled me to listen. Combustible Edison's I, Swinger adds shamefully little to the oeuvre of instrumental "background" music, but will score points with poseurs due to the five bandmembers' "kitschy" wardrobe (ice-blue party dress and matching earrings; brown pinstripe jacket, pink shirt, yellow polka-dot tie) and hopelessly arch stage names (Miss Lily Banquette; the Millionaire).

Sub P(r)opaganda tells us "this unique combo... cast a new and surprising light on the maligned concept of 'easy listening.'" Feh. The secret to successful instrumental pop is for it neither to recede into the background nor to dominate. You have to be at least subliminally aware of it, though it tends to cause a delayed reaction: It takes you a while to figure out if the music is either just right or just wrong. In Combustible Edison's case, you'll gag right away.

For a fuller instrumental pleasure, buy Canadian: Huevos Rancheros – from Calgary, of all places – rock out on their hard-to-find indie début, Endsville. Tons o' fun, with the best song names in the country ("Bar-B-Cutie," "Huevosaurus," "Math Dance, "The," "Cindy with an S"). Good soundtrack for giving the dog a bath or ironing the non-kitsch clothing that the recession has left you too poor to replace. For harder stuff, consider Joe Satriani's Time Machine. On this double CD, the good-natured, long-haired Amerikanski Überguitarist wails and rocks and even sings occasionally. What more could you want? Or stuff all three albums plus Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet's Savvy Show Stoppers into your CD changer, hit Random Play, and throw a party.