icu (K Records)

Give thanks for electronic punk music, for beat-based DIY party music made just for the hell of it. Be grateful for the beat, the rhythm, the pounding pounding pounding pounding that's coming from all corners of the earth these days and reigniting the passion of punk rock when the tired old bang-on-a-guitar-and-scream-cuss-words-into-the-mike version of it has moved into the realm of the fogey and been co-opted by the suburban middle class. Grab hands around the dinner table and offer a moment of silence to the goddamn silicon chip that's rewriting the rules of music creation. "Here's three chords, go start a punk band" is spent -- at least not the gospel be-all it used to be -- and no matter how many mathematic equations and deconstructed patterns guitar brainiacs concoct, one simple truth remains: The most fascinating new music being made these days has at its forefront beat, not guitar. Sure, there are infinite exceptions, but damn if I don't get more fire in my belly from the beat and the sampler than from the guitar and the bass.

And we should be thankful for this. Right before you sip your cabernet and chew on a chunk of turkey, you should also offer tithes for icu (pronounced eee-coo) and their remarkable debut record, Chotto Matte A MOMENT!, the record that's possessing this pen right now, seemingly against my will.

Mix a stand-up bass, a sampler, some scratching, an analog organ and a general beat-based frenzy that simultaneously recalls Pharoah Sanders, Coldcut and Roni Size, and you've got a whopping good time. And on paper you've got the recipe for just about every dumb electronica record out there. icu is a different animal altogether, one that grandma and grandbaby can groove to simultaneously, one that's less a rhythmic meteor shower than a clever melodic creation that combines the structure of a rock song with the linear drive of techno, one that uses on every song a stand-up bass, fer chrissakes.

Skeptics loyal to the analog sounds that human hands create -- a soft piano, a strummed guitar, a blown trumpet -- have my respectful sympathies: There is something vastly different about using samplers and software to create music, something a tad alien to the pleadings of the heart. It'd be tough to make me cry and my heart swell while listening to icu, and the silicon chip seems to be a threshold beyond which human emotion has a hard time penetrating. You can tell the difference between a weeping violin and a sample of the same, it's true. But, really, that's apples and oranges. You'd be hard-pressed to shake your rump to Shostakovich, and the energy that icu pushes into your body has nothing to do with the energy that Dylan creates. All you gotta do is pop on "Yopparai" (A Drunkard Who Fell from Heaven) and you'll get the essence of icu's energy. It's one that's so self-propelling and packed with pressure that it could heat a little village on a cold winter's night. Just plug in, then rub your hands in front of the speakers.

And honestly, it's hard to not like a CD that comes in such a pretty jewel case. Unlike most CD cases with translucent plastic and paper artwork inside, Chotto Matte A MOMENT! has an opaque baby-blue cover with nothing but that blue on it. You see it on the shelf, and you just have to buy it.

-- Randall Roberts

Invocations: Sacred Music from World Traditions (Music of the World)

Since gospel kicked the blues out of church, Americans have come to see sacred music as square and staid. Hassan Hakmoun's opening number on this record is a sure antidote to that attitude: He comes thumping his sintir, a North African lute with a bass tone, as if he's trying to beat the devil out of it. Actually he's using it to praise the saints descended from the Prophet Mohammed, with the help of an unnamed percussionist whose instrument sounds like a horse busting ass down the roads of Morocco.

That's the way it goes with Invocations. It includes two solemn Native American songs, an mbira duet and a Zen Buddhist meditation on the circle of life in the form of a falling leaf (composed on the shakuhachi, the stately Japanese bamboo flute, which inspires my prayer: God, please turn every hippy college kid's didgeridoo into a shakuhachi tonight). The rest of the record is so ferocious it could skyrocket God's popularity in this caffeine culture of ours. Even when we talk about spiritual "energy" it has a touchy-feely connotation that bespeaks lidded eyes, but the worshipers on this record deal with the kind of energy that whips necks (the Sufi dervish dance "Hud Hud," by Iranian master Jalal Zolfonun) and raises the dead (a Nigerian village percussion ensemble busting out beats at a funeral, which is to say a reincarnation ceremony).

The power source has many different names here; everybody from the Yoruba god of the crossroads (from New York City by way of Cuba) to the Virgin La Mamacha del Carmen (from a town in Andean Peru) to Lord Rama (in his mood of mediator) is invoked. Are they all the same thing? Who knows? This much is for sure: It -- they -- sure can call a tune. Who cares if it's the opiate of the masses, when it gets us this high?

-- Chris King

Johnny Farmer (Fat Possum)

Johnny Farmer is the kind of man you would never expect to record an album. In fact, I'm not even sure he ever saw it coming himself. Farmer's relationship with the blues is a personal one -- music is used for pure entertainment or as an instrument of emotional release. And, accordingly, the performances on Wrong Doers are humble. This is not to say that they are sedate, however. What Farmer may lack in showmanship and bravado, he makes up for with the intensity of his playing.

Farmer is a member of the old guard and picks his own version of traditional Delta blues. Like Muddy Waters, Farmer doesn't always keep perfect time (on some tracks, you can even hear him tapping his foot along to the off-beat). But that very fact is part of Wrong Doers' appeal. You never sense that Farmer is performing for anyone but himself. The album was recorded in a studio, but the production stays out of Farmer's way. I imagine him sitting in a chair, hunched over his guitar, politely ignoring everyone else.

Wrong Doers Respect Me is a spare album, and though Johnny plays alone, every single tune crackles with an electricity that seems to spark between his fingers and the strings, accentuated by howls, whispers and laments. Nowhere is that more apparent than on "Hush Hush Hush Hush," which ignites with Farmer's every pluck and wail. If he was backed by a full band on "Seven Up," a jittery country-blues number, it would most certainly induce stomping on the hardwood floors of a small-town juke joint. Though Wrong Doers lacks the rock & roll polish of current local blues artists like T-Model Ford or Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, it's still one of the best new blues albums of the past few years.

-- Anna Giuliani