In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy (Hip-O)
The idea that the bombast of heavy metal is ideal for transfer to the big band format isn't half bad. Hell, it's not even a new idea: Joe Piscopo's Sinatra-sings-rock bit included a snippet of "Smoke on the Water," while "Stairway to Heaven" has gotten dozens of "lite" treatments -- both tongue-in-cheek and dead serious. The execution works well here, too; the arrangements are big and bossy, and the song selections from a quarter century of metal hits (Metallica, Ozzy, Van Halen, Judas Priest), show a great deal of variety and potential for self-mockery. Unfortunately, what's wrong with this album can be summed up in two words: Pat Boone. Where his vocals should be over the top, they're sadly over the hill, and far from hiding his limitations in the mix, Boone practically drowns out the whole orchestra. This musical sandwich would have been mighty tasty with a little less white bread.
2.0 Stars -- Ken Lieck
Sound of Lies (American)
What fan of the Jayhawks didn't get a little nervous when Mark Olson split? The same fan that realized during the Jayhawks' SXSW set that Gary Louris wrote all the band's best stuff: "Scattered Down Like Rain," "Waiting for the Sun," "Blue," and "Two Hearts." But can he shoulder the burden alone? Yes and no. There are three quality grabbers on Sound of Lies: the crunchy single with catchy harmonies, "Think About It," the driving Midwestern rhythm in "Big Star," and the deftly arranged, emotionally taxing "The Man Who Loved Life." The rest of the album falls somewhere between palatable and unremarkable in that there are few melodies that emerge enough to grab and hold your attention. You'll spend the last six tracks waiting for something else to jump out, but it doesn't happen. The overall result is that Sound of Lies ends up being more of a well-produced, low-key, soothing album with a couple of highlights than a definitive, signpost type of effort. The former is perfectly acceptable, but really, how many chances to you get to make the latter?
2.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
Woo-hoo! sings Blur with joyous abandon on "Song No. 2." Woo-hoo! indeed, but is the rest of the album as much fun? Oh yes. Blur, the group's fifth album, finds the energetic quartet duking it out with lightweight champs Oasis, unveiling a punchy brand of muscular Brit-pop that dances around raucous, Kinks-like garage-pop ("Movin' On," "M.O.R."), tender, Beatles-like harmonies ("Beetlebum," "Look Inside America"), punky quirk ("Chinese Bombs"), soulful balladry ("Country Sad Ballad Man"), obligatory space-rock trip-hop ("Theme from Retro," "I'm Just Killer for Your Love"), and a raise-yer-mug singalong ("On Your Own"). It's usually tough for a band to be this all over the place musically, but Blur's cocky swagger whisks them through the usual scrutiny because they present such a humorous, self-assured demeanor throughout. Listening to Blur is a bit like having your mischievous nephews freshly expelled from boarding school arrive on your doorstep and announce they're staying for the summer -- and so is their band! It's gonna be a long hot summer, and Blur just might be the cool thing. Woo-hoo!
3.0 Stars -- Margaret Moser
SKY CRIES MARY
Moonbathing on Sleeping Leaves (Warner Bros.)
In college, my roommate was a witch. Skinny little guy with a small group of followers. My roommates and I would troop off to class in the morning just as James was coming home from last night's rituals and spells. He cast a spell for me once, a heavy one, in his room full of crystals and incense, and it worked. That's Seattle's Sky Cries Mary, crystals, incense, and capable of working magic, but you must believe in order for the spell to work. Anisa and Roderick Romero are a formidable pair of witches, writhing in their siren song while the band whips up a hot cauldron of bubbling space rock: Moog, mellotron, "alien craft landing," Farfisa, wurlitzer piano, "massive layers," cello, 50-piece orchestra, "flute hollogram," slide guitar, "todos morimos solos," Moog Taurus bass pedals, "swirling fuzzy-flange bass," doumbek, tabla, "Queen's peasant soldier rhythm section," "sampledelica," "bass mutation generator," "space echoe," and "kitchen sink." Something like Blue Oyster Cult meets Dead Can Dance -- psychedelic hippie dance music for the millennium. But you must believe. James, whip me up another spell, there's a seduction brewing...
3.5 Stars -- Raoul Hernandez
The Moray Eels Eat the Space Needle (Zero Hour)
Long Island's Space Needle has a serious split personality disorder, but what do you expect from a band whose start-up goal was a fusion of Brian Eno's Another Green World and Journey's Frontiers? Even with the recent addition of Varnaline's Anders Parker, Space Needle just can't seem to make up their mind about whether they want to be cacophonous feedback pushers or subtle purveyors of sweet melody. The first track revels in mellow pleasantries for the first three minutes before exploding into bombast that befits the title "Where the Fuck's My Wallet?" From there, the versatile trio bends itself toward free-form progressive rock as though they were turning the house inside out. This 13-minute piece will probably weed out many of the group's more casual listeners, which is too bad since the album's true highlights are yet to come. "Never Lonely Alone" and "Love Left Us Strangers" are both outstanding bits of stripped-down songcraft, combining slow, driving melodies with pained pop harmonics to tug at your sentimentality in a subdued, unorthodox manner. Confused? Then feast your eyes on the forever-wispy cover art by Yes-man Roger Dean. What's next, another Nagel cover?
3.0 Stars -- Greg Beets
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks)
The most anticipated follow-up in the history of electronica? Well, yeah, pretty much. And why not? Last year's crossover smash "Setting Sun" earmarked these two Brits as the anointed saviors of the form and fashion, combining subsonic beats with screaming, scheming, looped-all-to-fuck-and-back guitars and Oasis' Noel Gallagher's (the snotty one) vocals. For a while there, it was all too much -- Prodigy v. ChemBros, the Future of Music, et al. It's a massive relief, then, to find out that all the hoopla was no Dusty in-joke. Dig Your Own Hole is the bomb that Exit Planet Dust and its various remix CD-maxis struggled to be but never quite achieved. Rowlands and Simons have mined their collectively shorted synapses for the finest funky, tripped-out smorgasbord of beats, loops, and out-and-out scattergun samplings to cross the Big Blue since the first Massive Attack EP. But wait, there's more: unassailable street cred in the form of guest vox from the originator, Kool Herc, the sublime Beth Orton, and longtime collaborator, Steve Dub. Did I mention Mercury Rev also put in an appearance on the aptly named "The Private Psychedelic Reel?" Thought not. Morphing from the thunderous, pounding collage of "Block Rockin' Beats" to droning dreamtime shutdowns like "It Doesn't Matter," the ChemBros sophomore effort is anything but stale, as some had predicted. Instead, Dig Your Own Hole is the sound of furious collision -- art, commerce, Airwalk icons, and big, phat, sticky beats. Pure butter.
4.0 Stars -- Marc Savlov
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
Life After Death (Bad Boy)
On the last track of the Notorious B.I.G.'s new album, Big unleashes what is, sadly, hip-hop's most ironic rhyme ever: "I spit phrases that will thrill you/you're nobody 'til somebody kills you." Both halves of the equation are true enough, and yet the real chill (sick thrill?) of "You're Nobody ('til Somebody Kills You)" comes from the chorus' rejoinder: "I don't want to die/God, tell me why." Life After Death, a deserving but slightly overstuffed double album, is all about that paradox -- Biggie's quest for death and concurrent thirst for life. Three weeks before this album's release, an as-yet unknown gunman apparently decided Biggie could no longer have it both ways. Truth be told, however, Life After Death is best accepted on face value, as the soundtrack to a true-crime drama, the kind of three-dimensional theater where on "What Beef?" Biggie moans "Beef is what you need two gats to go to sleep/beef is when your moms ain't safe up in the streets." And while lyrical runs like that highlight a Biggie Smalls far more insightful that the low-life crack dealer that scored '93's Ready To Die, Life After Death is also fuller, funkier, sultrier, and scarier than its predecessor -- thanks in part to supporting actors like Bad Boy CEO Puffy Combs, RZA, R. Kelly, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Either that roster of talent lit a fire under Biggie's ass or he unconsciously saved his best for last. Best of all, Biggie never lets Life After Death read like a suicide note. If anything, it's a surprisingly even-handed 24-track self-obituary. He's somebody now, alright.
3.5 Stars-- Andy Langer
Broadway & 52nd (Blue Note)
Few genres have made cozier bedfellows than jazz and hip-hop, and the union reached an apex of sorts when Us 3 appeared on the scene. London deejay Geoff Wilkinson and arranger Mel Simpson, armed with the combination to the vast and important vaults at Blue Note, took a Herbie Hancock blues riff, punched it up with live musicians, samples, and raps, and made "Cantaloop," a deliriously catchy song from what went on to become the biggest selling album in Blue Note's 50-plus year history. Four years and one ugly protracted legal battle later, Wilkinson is back, sans Simpson, with two new rappers, Shabaam Shadeeq and KCB (from Jazzhole), in tow. Broadway & 52nd sticks close to the original recipe, yet brews a concoction a bit darker and sparser in tone. Nothing leaps from this set like "Cantaloop," but there's plenty to savor here. Hard swinging backbeats drive propulsive rhythms, while the side musicians and rappers play understated and savvy. A couple of songs fall flat or venture a chorus too far, but those are minor quibbles. Us 3's smart and heady broth of rap, soul, swing, funk, and beat poetry, interspersed throughout the samples of some of the world's greatest musicians, is a hat trick that transcends gimmickry. The concept might ultimately prove limiting, but when a fresh rap busts a move over a blistering long forgotten Grant Green guitar line, you just want Us 3 to play on and on.
3.5 Stars -- Jeff McCord
KIRK LIGHTSEY TRIO
Goodbye Mr. Evans (Evidence)
With the jazz world currently awash with brilliant piano players, we all too often see major labels stumbling all over themselves to sign and record the newest young phenom. As a result, far too many mature and more established players remain under-recorded. Case in point is Kirk Lightsey. As a mainstay of the Eighties supergroup, the Leaders, and a veteran of countless bands led by the likes of Dexter Gordon and Dave Murray to name but two, Lightsey proved long ago that he was a world-class musician who could run with the big boys. At 60, he's not yet an elder statesman like his Detroit homies Hank Jones, Tommy Flannagen, and Barry Harris, but he certainly shares their propensity for melodic eloquence and exquisite taste. Right from the git-go, on Jimmy Heath's laid-back opener, "A New Blue," there's a certain palatable complexity and relaxed maturity about Lightsey's playing that really hits home. There's no paucity of zestful rhythmic fireworks either as bassist Tibor Elekes and Leaders' drummer Famoudou Don Moye stretch out with the pianist on a spirited medley of "Freedom Jazz Dance/Pinocchio/Temptation/Giant Steps." "Habiba" is the only Lightsey original, a mid-tempo exercise in sterling interplay that simmers to a near boil. The title track, Phil Woods' near classic, is a contemplative tribute to Bill Evans, which Lightsey uses to close the set while thoughtfully expanding his visions across the aural canvas he has so masterfully created here.
4.5 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg