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December 3, 2004

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Having a hard time figuring out what to get that special lesbian, gay man, bisexual, transgender, or questioning person on your holiday list? Why not give music by a member of the queer community?

Openly queer Michael Stipe is one-third of the groundbreaking modern rock band R.E.M. , whose album Around the Sun (Warner Brothers) was recently released. Stipe and company have struggled to capitalize on the artistic achievements and merits of the back-to-back masterworks Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994), and Around the Sun doesn't do much for the cause. A seriously low-key effort, there are a few minor bursts of energy, such as on the synth-beats of "Electron Blue" and the tasteful funk of "The Outsider," although it took three listens for Q-Tip's rap on that track not to sound like an afterthought. "Make It All Okay" feels like a musical response to religious fundamentalists, with the line "Well Jesus loves me fine/And your words fall flat this time," and "Final Straw" is one of R.E.M.'s most political statements, a restrained rage against the Bush/Cheney administration. Stipe sounds the most invested on "Wanderlust," and when he sings, "I want it to be brilliant/I want it to be sweet," it is momentarily brilliant and sweet. Sadly, too much sameness threatens to sink the whole affair, not making it "The Worst Joke Ever," as the song says, but far from the best that R.E.M. has to offer.

Reyna Larson made a name for herself as the front person for the band Mabel Mabel, and there were many people who were disappointed when the band called it quits a couple of years ago. As leader of the band, Larson was the most visible and recognizable component, which ought to make her transition into being a solo artist a smooth one. The bucking bronco on the cover of Some Folks Need a Name (Clayhead) and the inside photo of Larson in a cowboy hat are an indication of what is inside, a collection of insurgent country-colored tunes, complete with a lap steel guitar, mandolin, dobro, and banjo, among other instruments. Larson fills these songs (most of which are originals) with her powerful alto growl, making them as comfortable a fit as a pair of snug but well-worn Wranglers. Standouts include the tearjerkers "Say My Name" and "Squeezebox," the bluesy stomp of "54321," the sexy strut of "Me Slowly," the infectious swing of "Streets of New Orleans," and the gospel plea of "Good Lord Above."

While I certainly respected what Garrin Benfield did on his first two full-length discs, I wasn't completely sold. That has all changed with his amazing third album Where Joy Kills Sorrow (Zack Songs). Not that Benfield's previous albums were inaccessible, but his new release has a freshness and originality that makes it a whole different listening experience. A Beatles influence can be felt strongly throughout--on "Answers" and "What You Wanted To Hear," for instance--which works in Benfield's favor. "Unwind" is a jazz-tinged number that shows the influence that Boz Scaggs has had on Benfield, while the beautiful "Ugly" should be required listening for bickering couples.

As a member of Roy, openly gay musician Brian Cook sang about wanting to marry his boyfriend, but not being able to, on the song "Never Getting Married." Cook and his boyfriend have since married, and Cook has moved on to another band. That band, scream-o-noise purveyors These Arms Are Snakes , have released the complex Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home (Jade Tree), which is sure to be as off-putting to some as it is appealing to others. (These Arms Are Snakes perform in Houston on December 13 at Mary Jane's Fat Cat.)

Continuing in the jazzy vein of their last few albums, Irish lesbian duo Zrazy (Maria Walsh and Carole Nelson), who accompany themselves on flute, sax, and other instruments, have returned with the verdant Dream On (Alfi). Also backed by a quintet, Zrazy's songs have a dreamy and seductive quality, embodied in songs such as "I Know When You Are Near," "Rain," and "Keep It Real," and the nine-minute "Drive."

Spanning a 12-year period, the songs on Purpose of Love: A Tim DiPasqua Songbook--Volume 1 ( qualify this disc as the perfect purchase for the cabaret/show-tune lover in your midst. Familiar names and voices from the cabaret realm, including Brian Lane Green, Scott Coulter, Baby Jane Dexter, and Tom Andersen wrap themselves in Tim DiPasqua 's songs, written between 1987 and 1999, that are at turns humorous ("My Favorite Note," "You Make Me Nuts"), dramatic ("Beach in the Blinding Sun," "Somewhere Between," "As It's Meant to Be," "It Shouldn't Have Happened") and just plain queer ("Big Hairy Man").

The words lesbian and singer/songwriter just sound right together. Steff Mahan, the lesbian singer/songwriter, embodies that pairing on her new album, 42.50 ( More Nashville (where she is based) than insurgent, Mahan's songs sound as if they were intended for sing-alongs on cross-country trips. From stories of traveling on a budget (the title track) to tales of escape ("Leavin' Money") to songs about the things we get used to ("Rock in My Shoe") to having a good chuckle in spite of everything ("Laughin'"), Mahan's songs have a universal appeal.

A definite shift has occurred in the music and style of The Atari Star. The band's first two full-length albums were practically dazzling in their beauty, made even more so considering the band members' punk rock roots. On Prayer + Pretend (Johann's Face), the trio, which includes gay front man Marc Ruvolo and drummer Davey Houle, re-embraces its hard-rocking origins and burns through a series of blistering tunes, including "Always If Only," "Night Striped Assassins," "The Assimilationist," and "Mosquito Heart Serenade." If you need further proof, The Atari Star even does a cover of Shellac's "Copper." Still, traces of The Atari Star of old can be heard on the album's six-and-a-quarter-minute centerpiece, "Asphalt Everest," which includes a lovely trumpet part by Jamal Ayoub.

As with The Atari Star, an audible stylistic shift has also occurred with June Panic. The born-again queer that we first came in contact with on 2002's Baby's Breadth is still rocking his unique brand of experimental music on Hope You Fail Better (Secretly Canadian).

Experimentation is also the forte of gay poet and songwriter Jim e Sparkle Pants on his new self-titled CD ( Love, sexuality, and celebration of the body abound in songs such as “F**k Me Lovingly,” “I Love My Armpits,” “Circumcision,” “Sweet Warm Lover,” and “Easy Through the Years.”

Gay Bay Area singer/songwriter John Ashfield won me over with his tasty Harmony Bunny disc a few years ago. In his latest incarnation, as a member of The Bobbleheads, he has even included some of his previously released tunes on Automatic Fun, such as “Crush,” “I Don’t Know,” and “Why Not Smile” (a song about Joni Mitchell). The remaining songs are bright and sunny power pop tunes that have the ability to light up a room or even an entire day.

“Hyperdelic acid house innovators” Psychic TV, led by transgender artist and performer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (a founding member of industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle) have created a trippy musical tribute to the late Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones) on the double disc set Godstar: Thee Director’s Cut by Psychic TV (Voiceprint). Separated into “Reel One” and “Reel Two” discs, sure to leave the listener reeling, the set includes numerous Psychic TV originals (emphasis on originality), as well as covers of songs by the Stones, the Beach Boys, and Serge Gainsbourg.

Outsmart Magazine

Greg Shapiro