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A Portrait of Shelves

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You know, there just isn't enough ukulele music out there. With Tiny Tim's passing, the instrument's most notable poster boy no longer draws our attention to the wee guitar. I recall a dude named Carmaig deForest who played solo punk shows with nothing but the little four-stringer. And there's some outfit in LA called Uke Fink that writes clever rock ditties with the help of it. But what about experimental uke music? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Or at least that's what I thought until an unassuming firecracker of a CD out of Champaign, Illinois found its way to me. Hell, if John Cage could make music by plucking the pricks of a cactus, who's to say the ukulele can't steal the spotlight from guitars and keyboards now and then -- especially when it comes to batshit-crazy tunes like those dished out by Williwaw?

The tracks on A Portrait of Shelves are tough to identify by name, so please forgive me for sticking to the numbers. Track two, clocking in at fourteen minutes, runs the gamut from simple, unadulterated uke plucking to a chugging, indecipherably thick aural assault. When Williwaw gears up the effects and latches on to a catchy hook, look out, because this noise will not only piss off the neighbors -- it'll stir your soul a bit too.

While the first few balls-to-the-wall tracks strive to overwhelm you with strident uke gusto, some later cuts mellow, casting the instrument as a hypnotic rhythm maker. Track 6, for instance, with its hypnotically repetitive patterns that evolve so slowly you're almost lulled into sleep, could well be a Steve Reich composition. Yet, lest the listener grow too comfortable, Williwaw follows up that cut with a distorted rocker. As the fuzzy uke lead builds over a droning sea of distant howls, one wonders if Sonic Youth or Flipper might have contributed to this odd album.

The CD concludes with two long tracks, one of which could very well be a recording of werewolf whales, if there were such a thing. Its sonorous moans straddle ecstasy and agony so effectively that you don't know whether to be comforted or deeply troubled. Williwaw's entire CD is like that. I'm so stunned by the versatility, beauty and ugliness unleashed by this little chunk of aluminum that I took for granted that I don't know whether to love it or fear it. Perhaps that's just the way Williwaw -- and maybe even Tiny Tim -- would have it.

-- Rodney Gibbs
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