MIA way

Pub date July 31, 2007
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "This sucks."

Nope, we weren’t talking about Kelly Clarkson’s pandering public apology to Clive Davis — there’s an American idol to kowtow to. Or the minisnippet of the new Britney Spears single, "Get Back," all over YouTube, its title alluding oddly to a song by Paul "Latte Rock" McCartney’s old beat combo. Or Spears’s hoochie-widow getup for the tune’s video or her now widely reported dissolving personal boundaries, as she allegedly went pee-diddy with the bathroom door open, allegedly used designer fashion as an impromptu pooper scooper, and then allegedly absconded with enough borrowed photo-shoot finery to inspire the feel-good tab OK! to declare the pop star’s comeback moves totally "NOT OK!" in print. Get back? Why not get weirder and make like Cock ESP or Iggy Pop and start rolling around in glitter, broken glass, and mayo onstage?

Nay, sucking was the vibe as one MIA head nodded to the other, crunched in the aisles at Berkeley’s Amoeba Music, trading grime, and losing the buzz that had been building since fans started milling around the store the afternoon of July 28. MIA was in the house, but only a portion of the approximately 400 tanned, big-earringed, curly-headed baby Maya Arulpragasams, newsboy-capped dudes, arms-folded indie kids, and bobbing clubby-kins could see the Tamil Tiger spawn’s lavender cap bob in the distance — or even hear Arulpragasam’s politely low-volume raps skating over samples of the Clash’s "Straight to Hell" in Amoeba’s jazz room.

I’m straining to make out words, which are drowned out by the girl behind me, who’s complaining about the sound to a friend on her cell, and before you know it, four or five tunes and 15 minutes later, it’s all over, sent softly into the simmering Saturday sun with a toned-down little sing-along "Yah, yah, hey!" — a glance back to her first single, "Galang." Time for one of the most ethnically diverse audiences you can imagine in this, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world, to queue up to have MIA sign their 12-inch or CD single of "Boyz," her new frenetic diss-ode to boy soldiers, stylish swashbucklers, and wannabe warlords.

About 15 minutes later, the beauteous Arulpragasam slips quietly behind a table. Her unruly pageboy is streaked blond — a far cry from the bright blue wig sported in the promo pics for her forthcoming album, Kala (Interscope), the playful new wave counterpart to Gwen Stefani’s Scarface coke-ho look of late — and her enormous eyes are open way wide, ready to take in her people, though she still needs periodic "Let’s give it up for M-I-A!"s to keep her signing hand strong as the line snakes through the aisles.

How relevant is MIA two years after her acclaimed Arular (XL/Interscope) emerged with its highly combustible, overtly politicized fusion of hip-hop, baile funk, grime, electro, and dancehall, seemingly unstopped by visa issues and MTV’s censorship of her "Sunshowers" video thanks to its PLO reference?

While Spears and Clarkson threaten to transform pop into one of the most embarrassing exercises in public self-flagellation imaginable, artists like MIA issue genuinely imaginative responses to the daily news, beyond dropping trou and racing into the surf. We actually need her voice — as slammed as it gets for clunky flow — more than ever now. And we need it for the masses who showed up at Amoeba rather than reserved for the few who managed to jump on the Rickshaw Stop tickets early on. Props to the store and MIA for making this brief appearance possible and free, but isn’t Arulpragasam breaking beyond club-size confines?

Because MIA’s appearances have been so scaled down, you have to wonder about Kala, as I did when I learned that previews have been kept for the few who can hear it at the Interscope offices in New York City or Los Angeles: does it suck too? A quick cruise online yields a clattering and polyrhythmic, wittily clucky "Bird Flu," a driving "XR2," and her infectious collabo with Timbaland, "Come Around," as well as the not-bad "Hit That," now trimmed from the disc. So why the secrecy? I thought the point of this revolution was to make it available to the people. And they continue to get it out there, regardless of the gatekeepers. *


True West founding guitarist Russ Tolman ain’t bitter about the route his old Paisley Underground band took back in the day: breaking up and then re-forming without him, which is never a nice trick. He’s just happy the ’80s UC Davis combo can fire up its duel-guitar glory once again, fueled by the release of Hollywood Holiday Revisited (Atavistic). "I think some of the stuff is a little timeless," demurs Tolman, now the director of content programming at BitTorrent in San Francisco. "I’ve heard some people say, ‘Oh, is this a contemporary band?’ "

The reissue and the reunion took root last year when, Tolman says, "on a whim" they decided to play some shows. "The other guitarist, Richard [McGrath] — I thought he’d be the last guy who’d want to play with me again. He’s a great player, and I’m an OK player. But I think my role was to be the bee in his bonnet…. [Later] he said, ‘When Russ was out of the band, I was so glad that terrible guitarist was out, but then we sucked. All the chaos was gone.’ "


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