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By GINA VIVINETTO and ROBERT FRIEDMAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

And now for something completely different:

If these early releases are an indication of the kind of musical year 2002 will be, we're in luck. Sure, the bands are obscure, on teeny tiny labels, and completely out of Clear Channel's radar, but isn't that a nice change of pace?

What do we find in this grab bag o' goodies? Lo-Fi home recordings from a San Francisco married duo; delicious, inventive electronica from a Japanese genius; even yummy ambient music from a former Tampa rocker. This batch proves you don't have to be in Billboard or on TRL to make compelling music.

* * *

MATES OF STATE, OUR CONSTANT CONCERN (POLYVINYL) Our Constant Concern is the followup to the San Francisco act Mates of State's wonderfully fun 2000 debut My Solo Project, which landed on the New York Times' Best Of list that year.

Married duo Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, both in their mid-20s, abandoned careers as teacher and cancer researcher, respectively, to craft delightful minimalist ditties on an organ -- later keyboards -- and cheap drums. During live performances, the Mates are known to stare tenderly at each other, kind of like a lo-fi, indie rock Captain and Tennille.

Our Constant Concern sticks to the debut's formula of bouncy, buoyant, stripped-down tunes fueled by the Mates' enthusiastic harmonies. And we mean enthusiastic: They shout together, croon together, do the ol' call-and-response in perfect, askew synergy. This is the sound of young romance, folks. With intimate songs such as Hoarding It for Home and I Know, and I Said Forget It, the Mates capture sweet and goofy hipsters in love and in their prime. A-.

-- GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

* * *

CORNELIUS, POINT (MATADOR) Cornelius, as electronica buffs well know, is considered a master of sonic synthesis, if not a "Japanese genre slut" as one magazine recently called him. Born 33 years ago today in Tokyo, Keigo Oyamada -- he swiped his musical moniker from Planet of the Apes -- Cornelius has been wowing pop-noise aficionados with an intriguing, often delicious blend of sounds, sonic collages like his 1997 masterpiece Fantasma.

Point is a departure in that Cornelius has gone the atmospheric route, with several subtle, moody pieces that sound insular and personal. Cornelius took a year, secluded in the studio, to record Point, and it sounds so. But Point is paradoxical: Hear the birds chirping? The waves rolling onto shore? This is exploratory music, with nature as metaphor for self.

Yet Cornelius gets peppy on several tracks, including the Tropicalia-infused Brazil, the invigorating dance number Drop and the cleverly titled ode to pacifism I Hate Hate. A-.

-- G.V.

* * *

THE BIRDWATCHER, AFTERNOON TALES THE MORNING NEVER KNEW (THE ARENA ROCK RECORDING CO.) I was knee-deep into the excellent Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew before reaching for the information the act's record label sent along with the disc.

Imagine my surprise when I read that the Birdwatcher is actually one Dan Matz, former Tampa resident and member of the critically acclaimed New York art-rock ensemble Windsor for the Derby. The Birdwatcher is a side project for Matz, in which he makes dreamy, sparse music on acoustic guitar, writing shy, sullen confessionals that he sings in a fragile, hushed whisper. One tune, A Thousand Ants, details a little town called Gibsonton.

Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew features guest spots from members of fellow former Tampa residents Home, as well as alt-rock giants Jets to Brazil. A-.

-- G.V.

If comedy is your bag:

The Columbia/Legacy label recently re-released a series of comedy albums by the legendary 1960s comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre. The series includes Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once If You're Not Anywhere at All?, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus.

Let's get right to the obvious question: Are these records as hilarious (and absurd/profound) to an abstemious middle-aged man in 2002 as they were to an impressionable and stoned college kid 30 years ago?

Answer: Of course not. How could they be? The Zeitgeist has changed, and the listener has changed. And so many subsequent artists -- such as Garrison Keillor and those on Saturday Night Live and The National Lampoon Radio Hour -- have cribbed from Firesign Theatre that what once sounded startlingly original now sounds like part of a familiar idiom.

Still, this is funny stuff that holds up as more than an artifact. Who else gives you characters as vivid as Porgie Tirebiter, Tiny Dr. Tim and dogged (arf!), ruthless (where's Ruth?) Nick Danger, Third Eye? Who else was spoofing Turkish prison movies even before Midnight Express and Airplane!? Who else messes with listeners' minds with such a multilayered barrage of puns, sound effects, double entendres, stream-of-consciousness quasi-plots and insidious wisdom?

Thirty years ago, mixed in with your Hendrix and Zappa records, Firesign Theatre (Phil Proctor, David Ossman, Peter Bergman and Phil Austin in most incarnations) sounded as if they had been accidentally dropped here from another planet. Today, some of the group's influences -- Stan Freberg, Ernie Kovacs, the Marx Brothers -- are clearer. But that's pretty good company. And the bozos on this bus have only multiplied in the meantime. Firesign Theatre still sounds relevant, and today's crop of impressionable and stoned youngsters probably would enjoy them more than I'm allowed to anymore. A-

-- ROBERT FRIEDMAN, Times staff writer

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