Listening Post

Today's counterparts are more like Tim Burton. They know what's going on around them -- an atmosphere of self-created satire -- but they don't trash the source, they turn it into high art. Groups like the Cramps and the B-52s took the element of role-playing straight from the movies. These weren't bands; they were concepts. But their almost pretentious devotion to bad taste and sweet nostalgia was leavened with a sexy looseness and a fannish reverence bordering on homage. It took My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, though, to encapsulate the breadth of slop culture introduced over the last 40 years. It's said that they began as a group of friends attempting to film a movie with the title that ultimately became their band name. That would erase the seam between low-budget movies and trashy music, leaving the Kult free to find the lost art -- not always well hidden -- beneath the tacky exterior of sleaze. Always a label to spot a void in the reissue marketplace (and fill it), Rykodisc has smartly released three of the band's albums -- Sexplosion, 13 Above the Night and (my fave title) Hit and Run Holiday -- with bonus tracks and beautiful reproductions of the zany, leering album covers. Easy comparisons come close to fitting the bill -- but no cigar: More than the Cramps and B-52s, the Kult's precursors were obscure, everything-but-the kitsch-in-sync Wave mutants like Gruppo Sportivo and the Sic F***s (sic).

The Kult's vocals and vocal effects are surprisingly poppish at times; there are horny odes to spy music (including a long sample that sounds to be from the James Bond Thunderball soundtrack), sampling taken to scrambled-egg limits, funk and soul currents, slice-and-dice songspeak, baggy-panting Britpop, even the wet-with-echo, post-Liberace flamboyance of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It's dance music that's more pyschotronica than electronica. Titles like "Savage Sexteen" and "Sex on Wheels" show affection for teens-gone-wrong flicks and Russ Meyer's large-breasted body of work. When you try to make a so-bad-it's-good flick, you get Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Musically speaking, that would translate to the obvious rocksploitation of the Beastie Boys and Urge Overkill, who wink at us while spitting '60s and '70s cliches. That can be fun, especially in videos, but My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult proves you can make good music of bad movies. (JO)

CROONER REMEMBRANCE: It's one of those unheralded moments of musical definition. In 1954, Joe Williams joined the Count Basie Orchestra, and for seven years they reshaped jazz -- not explosively, not even markedly at first (the critics, as usual, lagged behind). The change was emotional and has sunk in over time: Williams' volcanic baritone and cosmic range fused the crooner and the belter, the balladeer and the bluesman, like no singer before him -- like none, I think, after him. You love Johnny Hartman's smoky voice? Williams is at once smoother and heartier; his lushness pours from a gospel-blues gutbucket and reshapes even the most worn jazz cliche. His voice released the hidden potential of big-band jazz, stretching not the form but the power, finding new emotional reaches. Simply put, no other singer could match, blow for blow, Basie's thundering dynamics the way Williams did.

His signature tunes with Basie include "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Alright, Okay, You Win," and "Teach Me Tonight." All can be found on Verve's beyond-essential Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings. Williams' later work, despite some pitfalls (notably the misguided jazz-rock Blue Note release Worth Waiting For, now mercifully out of print), should not be overlooked. Every Night: Live at Vine St. (Verve) offers a show from the '80s, highlighting Williams' charisma, panache and infinite powers of imaginative phrasing. And his 1993 reunion with the Count Basie Orchestra, documented on Live at Detroit Orchestra Hall (Telarc), shows he never really passed his prime. Williams died in Las Vegas last week. He was 80 and gigging up to the end. (RK)

Contributors: Roy Kasten, Jordan Oakes, Randall Roberts

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