"Anthology of Infection, Volume Two" by Ego Plum; "Now You See Inside" by SR-71; "Useful Music" by The Josh Joplin Group. 

Now Hear This

Ego Plum, "Anthology Of Infection, Volume Two," (Ebola Music) — As the leader of his Ebola Music Orchestra, performance artist Ego Plum has created one of the most bizarre albums I've heard all year. Following the debut release of "Anthology of Infection, Volume One," installment No. 2 features instrumental works of abstract art for the ears — quite possibly classical music from hell.

While it is intriguing — even if some might find songs like "Daddy's Horsie" disturbing because of its overtone of pedophilia — this CD is more a curiosity than a classical work.

The "Jolly Man Theme" stands out as the album's most accessible track, but diversions like "Return Of Cannibal Chimp" are entertaining as well. While a little too "out there" for even me, Ego Plum and his Ebola Music Orchestra are a unique outfit and are truly adept at the skill of songwriting. The group is able to tell its stories using music, samples, mood and song titles as opposed to lyrics. Now if only I could attend one of their performance art shows to fully appreciate their inverted genius.

— Angelo DeFranzo

SR-71, "Now You See Inside," (RCA) — This Baltimore/D.C.-based quartet's first major-label release bursts with pop hooks, melody and irreverence. Granted, the guitar-bass-drums sound is not earth shattering in its originality, but ever-changing arrangements shake up the format to create a recording that's both tuneful and hard-edged. Clearly influenced by Queen and the Beatles' psychedelic period, SR-71 thankfully manages to sound contemporary without playing the retro-hip card. Most of the 11 tracks here benefit from late '60s acid-drenched studio tricks and the overdubs. The songs may deal lyrically with the typical problems of lousy relationships and loneliness, but these guys aren't down on themselves, and they manage to write some pretty smart and funny lines along the way. What's ahead for this band remains to be seen, and I suspect the live show is rawer than this CD. But the melodies and walk-the-line smarty-pants attitudes of "See Inside" make this effort a worthy one.

— Ames Arnold

The Josh Joplin Group, "Useful Music" (Artemis Records) — The first thing that hits you about Josh Joplin is his voice. Sounding like a cross between Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Joplin's reedy tone provides a compelling presence in and of itself. Fortunately, the songs Joplin has written command plenty of attention as well. Joplin lists folkies like Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan among his major influences, along with the pop music of the Smiths and the punk of the Clash and Minor Threat.

Joplin's at his best when he creates a well-balanced blend between these folk and rock influences. On first-rate songs like "Here I Am," "Matter" and "Camera One," the melodies have a decidedly arid Midwestern feel. But rather than use simple acoustic accompaniment, Joplin and his bandmates give the songs a rocking, sure-footed feel with plugged-in instrumental backing that is both lean and punchy.

"Phil Ochs," Joplin's tribute to the late folk singer, has a touch of elegance within its solo piano sound. The CD-closing alternate version of "I've Changed" boasts a lush, string-laden arrangement that works well. On that latter song, Joplin sings "I wanted perfection/From every song I've ever sung." "Useful Music" doesn't achieve that goal. But it's still an auspicious beginning for this Atlanta-based band.

— Alan Sculley


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