The Boston Phoenix
February 3 - 10, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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White Hassle & New Wet Kojak: Shticky Fingers

white hassle When Duke Ellington proclaimed, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," he had a particular rhythm in mind, one that even today would be immediately recognizable to most people as "jazz." Each of the two NYC-based bands -- White Hassle and New Wet Kojak -- who played upstairs at the Middle East a week ago Thursday has its own notion of what it means to "swing." And at several points in the evening, both White Hassle and New Wet Kojak swung a little. But to swing or not to swing really isn't of paramount concern to either band. Indeed, if you were looking for an Ellingtonian quip that captures a sense of where White Hassle and New Wet Kojak place their priorities, you could do much worse than "It don't mean shit if it ain't got a little shtick."

Fronted by Marcellus Hall of the band Railroad Jerk, White Hassle are a blues-rocking duo of just guitar, voice, and drums courtesy of Railroad Jerk's Dave Varenka. If Railroad Jerk are a Stonesy version of Pavement, then White Hassle are sort of a backwoods version of the just-for-fun cover band Stephen Malkmus has with members of Silkworm (in fact, White Hassle even did one extra cheesy cover -- Andy Kim's '70s nugget "Rock Me Gently"), or maybe a Blues Explosion with actual songs, or the Flat Duo Jets with a college education. Either way, White Hassle came across as Hall's chance to return to the Delta roots he never had, from the set's opening blast of harmonica noize to the closing jam that found him doing his best Magic Dick impersonation against a driving backbeat. In between, Hall strummed and picked at his rickety black Danelectro guitar (fleshed out on several tunes by the addition of a slide-guitarist who also doubled on bass) like a rural country boy, singing lines like "If the drinking don't kill me her memory will" and "If you miss this train there will another one right behind it," when chances are the only train he's ridden in the past decade is the subway.

New Wet Kojak, an offshoot of the Geffen-signed alterna-rockers Girls Against Boys, favor a somewhat more complex shtick than White Hassle's rural-blues thang. Fronted by Scott McCloud and featuring fellow GVSB dude Johnny Temple on bass, the five-piece band (with a sax player, drummer, and keyb/guitar utility man) seemed to be aiming for something along the lines of art-damaged post-punk lounge lizards -- sleazy yet cerebral, noisy yet cool, aloof yet somehow soulful. The results sounded like an American version of the Fall, particularly since McCloud's tendency to punctuate his non sequitur lines with "baby" roughly parallels Mark E. Smith's compulsive use of the syllable "ah." New Wet Kojak did latch on to an appealing groove every now and again -- particularly on "Thought You Was," from their homonymous 1995 Touch and Go CD. And McCloud put as much attitude as he could into lines like "When I rise I do not rise" and "Yeah everyone's in love because punk's not dead." But that didn't quite make up for the lack of actual songs -- or, for that matter, the general absence of swing.

-- Matt Ashare
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