First Come, First Served (Funky Ass)
If Prince Paul's dramatic new album had its own movie trailer, it might go something like this: "From the legendary producer of De La Soul and the Gravediggaz; from the experimental pioneer who created and perfected hip-hop's love affair with skits and the comedy sketches; from the true leader of the New School and the D.A.I.S.Y. Age comes hip-hop's first true hip-hopera, more dynamic than Star Wars and tighter than the Titanic -- written, produced, arranged, and scored by Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves." Believe the hype. Without picking up a mike, Paul beats the concept album rap by spinning his story through skits and production, each musical approach (funk and gospel to hardcore and pop) tailored to the narrative concerning an aspiring rapper's plunge into the underworld. Every cameo is perfectly cast (Everlast as crooked cop, Big Daddy Kane's pimp, Chris Rock's junkie), but as compelling as the acting and plot development may be, the music itself stands up as the real tale. Just as De La Soul's "More Than U Know" marks a genuine return to form, and Chubb Rock and Biz Markie tag-team for the best 1:07 of the year, the real keepers come from Sha and Breeze, a pair of talented newcomers sharing the spotlight as the album's primary actors/MC's. Both have skills to burn and both deserve a stage as generously and carefully crafted as A Prince Among Thieves, a genuine drama and a genuinely important release. Ironically, A Prince Among Thieves' least impressive cameo comes from Kool Keith, the shape-shifting, name-changing underground legend whose flair for the unpredictable, gross, and wacky has made him widely regarded as Paul's MC equivalent. If his gun-runner role sounds phoned in on A Prince Among Thieves, perhaps it's because he didn't want to be distracted from Dr. Doom, his latest and most imaginative alter-ego. Like Sex Style, Keith's last indie effort, First Come, First Served is bizarre, disturbing, and downright intriguing. For all of Keith's trademark shock-schtick and self-referential hyperbole, First Come finally crowns Keith as hip-hop's most thoroughly original and resourceful rhymer. From the faux-No Limit artwork on down, Dr. Doom brutally slays both the hip-hop biz ("Leave Me Alone") and sucker MC's ("No Chorus," "Bitch Gets No Love") and proves himself refreshingly unafraid to take prisoners and name names. Just like A Prince Among Thieves, nearly every moment of Dr. Doom is the sound of brilliance -- carefully honed, smartly packaged, and fully realized. If these aren't the two best hip-hop albums at year's end, it'll be quite a year.
(Both) 4 stars -- Andy Langer
Beaucoup Fish (V2)
Awash in an orgy of critical acclaim from virtually all sides, Underworld's third full-length is the sound of the band streamlining its more eclectic elements into a shimmering cohesive whole. That doesn't mean Beaucoup Fish is Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and Darren Emerson's best work. It's not. Rather, it's their most accessible. That's usually a sure sign of impending creative meltdown (with the attendant loss of original fan base), though in the case of Underworld it could just foreshadow a left turn into other sonic realms. Relying heavily (as always) on highly sequenced, repetitive beats and the occasional break, all of which is laid over with Hyde's druggy, street-poet lyrics, Beaucoup Fish stripmines the band's previous releases while managing to kick out some startlingly original new stuff. It all sounds like something you've heard before, but done better, faster, slicker. The funky house beat of "Shudder/King of Snake" could be any number of NYC house anthems kicked up to 240 bpm, while "Jumbo" recalls nothing so much as "Mmm Skyscraper," from the band's redefining dubnobasswithmyheadman. The restless, paranoiac bass of the album's closer -- "Moaner" -- is a jittering, spastic throwback to Underworld circa "Pearl's Girl" filtered through the lens of millennial bad trips. Alas, there's no global-party-blowout like Trainspotting's "Born Slippy," but Beaucoup Fish is nevertheless a work as subjective and pleasantly vulgar as it is freaky.
3 stars -- Marc Savlov
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE
Utopia Parkway (Atlantic/Scratchie)
Although this album is being hailed as a minor classic in some circles, only the hopelessly romantic mavens of pure pop should run out and buy it. The rest of the world can wait for Utopia Parkway to show up in the used bin (and believe me, it will). Which isn't to say Fountains of Wayne don't deliver some swell songs. Their romp through late Seventies/early Eighties teenage suburbia summons powder blue memories of Top 40 radio with the T-tops down. Whether it's the slow-dance anthem of "Prom Theme" or the melancholy, thick-beat electricity of "It Must Be Summer," songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood know their way around a heart-tugging hook. They also have a knack for penning wry, cutting lyrics seldom heard outside of country music. "Red Dragon Tattoo" finds our protagonist going under the needle while keeping enough of a cool head to say, "Will you stop pretending I've never been born/Now I look a little more like that guy from Korn." Nevertheless, the quartet's cerebral leaning sometimes dilutes their music's liberating potential. "Go, Hippie" and "Laser Show" struggle to rock out before ultimately failing to shed their air of academic civility. The slick, cloying production and over-reliance on cheesy keyboard riffs don't exactly add fuel to the fire, either. Utopia Parkway has its moments, but you won't want to stray too far from fast-forward.
2 1/2 stars-- Greg Beets
Raised Toward (Jagjaguwar)
This third full-length from Drunk is bleak, plodding stuff. Differentiating the Richmond, Virginia-based sextet from the rest of the sadcore market, however, is the band's careful, elaborate, collective songwriting. "Lilith, I" begins with early Cure-sounding pop before unraveling into an accordion and slide-guitar-driven ballad that slowly builds the layers and speed back up until the contrasting passages eventually meld together. In "Epiphany of Saint Thomas," violins punctuate and wail, drums pile up and spill over, guitars engage in a thoughtful point-counterpoint. Casio keyboards, Hammond organ, and harmonica create textures in a fashion similar to folk-leaning post-rock ensembles like Rex or Lullaby for the Working Class, but Drunk still manages to sound sparse and slow, and in that way Bedhead is a more apt comparison. Interspersed between lead Drunk guitarist/songwriter Rick Alverson's songs are a few well-placed tracks sung by other band members ("Equal Parts Both," "All Souls Day") and an instrumental ("A Notice to Range Users"), which is fortunate, because Alverson's strident, tinny voice, like chewing on a piece of aluminum foil, hits a nerve and makes your shoulders tense up. Somehow, the vocals never become too much, though; they befit the lovely cover of Leonard Cohen's "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," and eventually emerge as an integral element of this beautifully structured album rather than something to be tolerated.
3 stars -- Kim Mellen
Can You Still Feel? (Elektra)
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardener describes the "fictional dream" as a tacit agreement allowing a writer to create an alternate world which a reader will visit, if only fleetingly. With the literary sensibility his surname implies, Jason Falkner strikes a similar deal with his listeners -- the Pop Dream©. From the outset of his second solo album, the ex-Jellyfish/Grays member lures the starry-eyed fan into a seemingly autobiographical pop star world, beckoning, "Take a chance with me, and you will find you're only dreaming. Dream awhile and when you wake you'll find me gone." The theme of Can You Still Feel?'s melodic reverie is flight -- the impatient wait to get love and life off the ground, the breathlessness of take off, the inevitable crash landing. On cuts like "Revelation" (note Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich) the Jason genius is best felt when, like the painter's son that he is, Falkner captures the ineffable. If you've ever witnessed a sunrise from an airplane window, when the first red streaks slice a predawn, outerspace sky, and the horizon diffuses from black like a Rothko painting, then you know how it feels to dream along with Falkner. Magical. Ephemeral. Please, don't wake me.
4 stars -- Mindy LaBernz
THE LADYBUG TRANSISTOR
The Albemarle Sound (Merge)
Say what you will about siblings Jennifer and Jeffrey Rush Baron's striking musical resemblance to other pop-rock families, but TV's Partridge Family are no kinsmen. No, despite its appetite for tra-la-la Sixties AM radio, the Ladybug Transistor would lick the milk-moustache right off those Cassidys, and heck, the Cowsills, even. These rascally raconteurs of modern retro pop are more likely to twist stories from the lips of the Brothers Gibb or Wilson, everything being relative. Hey, everybody has their pet sounds, and it's clear what the Ladybug's are: The Albemarle Sound bubbles and trickles with a similar summertime symphony as that famous Beach Boy psurfedelic LP, but it's a summer sans the sands and surfboards, more lush and ripe and meadowy -- almost Another Green World meets The Village Green Preservation Society with an odd fetish for the "Theme From A Summer Place." It's not an unheard sound, at least not if you've heard Left Banke, Love, Keith Ayers, Van Dyke Parks, Doug Yule-era Velvets, "Sunday Afternoon" Faces, or for more contemporary triggers, Magnetic Fields, Apples in Stereo, and even His Name Is Alive. There's a certain spirit here, an ease, a midsummer's grace that this Lady hath made her station where others before her have tinkered and dabbled (albeit defined and mastered).
3 stars -- Kate X Messer
BEN FOLDS FIVE
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (Caroline)
Ben Folds' perpetually plaintive voice is at odds with his piano, which, like all good Baldwins, just wants to frolic with Kim Basinger. Folds isn't havingany, though. Reinhold Messner is more of the same old Folds, which is to say upbeat, melancholic pop songs suitable for housecleaning or light, romantic breakups. This isn't something you want blasting from the Rockford Fosgates as you cruise the strip. Granted, you've either already jumped on this Charlotte, N.C. trio's bandwagon or you're overwhelmed with the urge to fire missile salvos at the television every time they make one of their sporadic appearances on Dave or Conan. But how can you not grin at a pianist/songwriter who bases a song around a rambling Sunday morning voice mail message from his sleepyhead dad ("Your Most Valuable Possession") and isn't afraid to use a trembling series of "sha-la-las" as the chorus to a mournful pop song ("Magic") or even name this collection after a legendary Teutonic mountaineer? You can't, of course, or at least you shouldn't. The twerp's a confectionary genius sometimes, when he connects, as in the punchy, uptempo "Army" ("Well I thought about the army, Dad said, 'Son, you're fucking high'") or single #1, "Your Redneck Past." Despite those near rave-ups, Folds remains a young man with heart firmly affixed to sleeve, part whiney beer-brat, part solipsistic ham-sandwich, and part Billy Joel's long-lost sense of humor.
3 stars -- Marc Savlov
Inside the Horse's Head (Sideburn)
This Portland, Oregon alt.country quartet is a bit of a conundrum. They fire off good songs, lyrics rich with metaphors and compelling images, and soulful vocals that sometimes call to mind Neil Young, sometimes Dave Edmunds. They can play, alright, but the acoustic numbers ("Concussion Be Your Guide," "Up on Blocks") are more engaging and interesting than their rock numbers. It's frustrating to hear the sharp crack of a band and hope against hope that they'll at least pull out a couple of stops and let things rock, but these guys never quite do. Too bad they miss the target, because there's a strong roots-tinged band hiding in here somewhere. The acoustic tunes are certainly worthwhile, though, with some fairly world-weary lyrics and weatherbeaten vocals. "Steeple Chase" rides hard, with thick bottleneck guitar draped over the melody line and jagged rhythm guitar. Dear 44 Long: Next time, stock up on piss and vinegar, turn up the amps, holler the vocals a bit, get some meaner production, and quit trying to sound so damn nice. I know you guys have it in you.
2 stars -- Jerry Renshaw
Terminal (Devil In The Woods)
Dumptruck's leader, Seth Tiven, deserves some sort of award for perseverance. The longtime Austinite has gone to hell and back with lineup changes, lawsuits, dysfunctional record companies and other unpleasantness, yet he and his band continue to make quality music. Terminal, Dumptruck's first release in four years and second in eight, is full of Tiven's doleful and introspective lyrics mixed with solid guitar crunch and lilting melodies. The lead track, "Forever," starts things off with a blast of guitar that melds anger, loss, and regret with the tune's lyrics. "Still Been Had," meanwhile, is a slice of Crazy Horse-influenced Americana with swirling guitar and a depressing outlook. The two sides of the band's personality are given full treatment on "Tear It Down," as ferocious a guitar assault as the local group has ever recorded; "Turpentine" is as pensive as Tiven has ever been, a shimmering jewel of melancholy steel guitar and odd effects, augmented with pretty harmony vocals from Sara Hickman. Dumptruck is indeed a band these days, with George Duron on drums, bassist Jeff Farris, and guitarist Alan Durham assisting Tiven, but he's still called in a host of well-known friends to augment the band's sound. Besides Hickman, Ian McLagan, Charlie Sexton, Jimmy Ryan (ex-Blood Oranges), and original Dumptruck member Kirk Swan all make appearances, attaching bits to the band's sound and taking it places it's never been, while retaining the core of what they've always been about.
3 stars -- Jim Caligiuri
JUNE CARTER CASH
Press On (Risk/Small Hairy Dog)
June Carter Cash has always lived in the shadow of her husband Johnny Cash, but as a woman whose singing career began as a child performing with the Original Carter Family and spanned the Fifties and Sixties singing with her sisters and Mother Maybelle, she's a legend in her own right. The now nearly 70-year-old Carter Cash's first solo album is similarly subtle -- and simply gorgeous. Backing her is bluegrass guitar legend Norman Blake and ex-sons-in-law and country biggies Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell, among other friends and family, and of course, husband Johnny. Opener "Diamonds in the Rough" re-introduces the Carter Family classic and June's older, shakier voice, for which the title of this traditional spiritual is still an apt description. With this affecting nod to her roots as a departure point, the songs serve as a musical autobiography. "Ring of Fire," which was co-written by Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore, is delivered in a decidedly folkier manner than her husband's famous rendition. Achingly sad spirituals "Far Side Banks of Jordan" -- a duet with Johnny Cash -- and the closing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" are balanced with the upbeat, driving "Losin' You" and "I Used to Be Somebody," a tribute to old friends James Dean, Patsy Cline, and others. "Tiffany Anastasia Lowe" warns her actor granddaughter to stay away from Quentin Tarantino's set, and if Carter Cash's collapse into giggles is any indication, sounds spontaneously composed. Moments like this make Press On a back-porch, intimate work, at once witty, relaxed, emotional, and dignified -- an indispensible piece of country music history.
4 stars -- Kim Mellen
I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire)
At just 23, Mandy Barnett has already established direct lines to two of the most revered deities in Nashville's pantheon. After her dead-on portrayal of Patsy Cline in the musical smash Always ... Patsy Cline, Barnett hooked up with legendary producer Owen Bradley for this, her debut. Bradley passed away four songs into I've Got a Right to Cry, but his brother Harold Bradley completed the production with the same steady hand and golden ear. Barnett's brassy, breezy alto bears the "classic" stamp without sounding at all dated, and her command of the country-pop idiom mined by past Bradley proteges Cline, Brenda Lee, and Loretta Lynn is positively uncanny. I've Got a Right to Cry is a pleasure from start to finish, veering from the Opryisms of Porter Wagoner's "Trademark," lively Cajun two-step of "Falling, Falling, Falling," and twinkling music-box piano of "I'm Gonna Change Everything" to the snappy swing of "Who (Who Will It Be)" and "Ever True Evermore," and melancholy moonlit balladry of "Give Myself a Party," "Mistakes," and "Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings" as seamlessly as an exquisite Donna Karan gown. Besides marking Barnett's arrival as a major new talent, I've Got a Right to Cry reasserts what may be the oldest truism in the Nashville book: the circle will indeed remain unbroken.
3 1/2 stars -- Christopher Gray
Magnetic Heaven (EWE)
What with Keith Richards recording one of his songs with Elvis' sidemen and his co-written "A Soft Place to Fall" from The Horse Whisperer nominated for an Academy Award, Gwil Owen seem to have the best of both worlds. Three of the songs on his recent Magnetic Heaven are familiar via Toni Price ("Lonesome Wind," "Hey" and "Something"), with the Nashville-based singer-songwriter producing barroom crowd pleasers like "Pull the Plug on Me" as easily as he does pure-dee country tear-jerkers like "Tears Are My Business" (and, in true Nashville fashion, "business is good"). Like many accomplished composers, Owen's songwriting is stronger than his capable vocals, but "Soft Place" co-writer Allison Moorer lends wistful accompaniment on "Sunflower" and "Lonesome Wind," while coveted Music City vocalist Joy Lynn White joins him exuberantly on six other tracks. Not only do Owen's songs shine brightly, they are memorable in ways that makes them sound as fresh the 50th time as the first. Nashville takes a lot of heat for producing assembly-line songwriters and Owen neatly skirts that trap with bluesy sensibilities and occasional pop persuasion. Magnetic Heaven clocks in under 43 minutes, but that's 11 cuts written from the no-bullshit school of writing where verse-chorus-verse isn't a dirty phrase.
2 1/2 stars -- Margaret Moser
Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures)
"How the hell do we market this?" read the liner notes to Cowboy Rumba. "What part of the store does it go in? How do we get to radio?" Hey fellas, that's your problem, not mine. The title reveals the central conceit of the album -- mixing sad-sack cowboy ballads with Latin-Caribbean rhythms -- and that conceit is indulged immediately, as the opening growl of guitar chords gives way to a rollicking samba beat that gives way to, you got it, "Ghost Riders in the Sky." It's a strange hybrid, and jarring at times, but at least Sublette comes by it honestly: A product of border towns, he moved to New York to play country before falling hard for salsa. On Cowboy Rumba, he surrounds himself with some serious players -- Ramon Orlando, NG La Banda, Los Munequitos de Matanzas, and the ubiquitous Lloyd Maines -- and kicks up a cowboy party, Cuban style. The message is a mixed one: You'll find tear-in-the-beer heartache punctuated by crisp trumpet lines, lonely-heart lament underscored by jubilant piano guajeos, and you won't quite know whether to sit down and cry or get up and dance. At times the marriage sounds forced, but in the main it succeeds, making the leap from good concept to good album. Where to file it? Your problem, not mine.
3 stars -- Jay Hardwig
POI DOG PONDERING
Natural Thing (plate*tec*tonic)
Okay, so you haven't given more than a cursory listen to any of Poi Dog Pondering's post-Austin albums. Still, you're aware that founder and undisputed leader Frank Orrall has taken the act in an increasingly groove-oriented direction since his relocation to Chicago, right? Well, when this disc starts up with an extended, focusedly non-danceable New-Agey instrumental, you may begin to wonder just what sort of groove the new Poi is thinking of. As it moves on, though, Natural Thing finally begins to show signs of R&B in the mix, notably with the title tune, and the gospel-tinged "Come Together." Is this Dog a whole other animal from the one heard on the street corners of Austin in the Eighties? Well, yes and no. While there's some rump-shaking inspired here from time to time, it's less George Clinton than Culture Club. The major difference here is one of production. Where earlier efforts displayed a more innocent sound, like that of a band you'd encounter on a street corner, the lush soundscape here is very studied and hugely orchestrated. Natural Thing does have some listenable songs, and the able handiwork of the nine-member band (plus 14 "satellite" musicians) is admirable, but the thick, opaque veneer of slickness that's been slathered on to Poi's once simple, earthy songs makes this album come off, in the end, as just too unnatural.
2 stars -- Ken Lieck
Apocalypse Dudes (Man's Ruin)
Are you ready for the Golden Age of post-modern metal? Are you ready for some darkness? Turbonegro are, and they'd be more than happy to slide a wide load of it up your darkness. The best homo-erotic metal band since Judas Priest, this notorious Oslo, Norway sextet camp it up village style in their matching black-denim sailor outfits -- while dictator/vocalist Hank Von Helvete goes for the Alice Cooper ghoul/droog look -- but there's nothing pansy division about Turbonegro's ferocious assault. Actually, this Nineties version of Seventies metal owes as much to Black Flag as it does AC/DC, these self-proclaimed "Mighty Masters of Ass" dubbing their onslaught "Black Glam." Thing is, no glam rock band ever opened its domestic debut and fourth full-length overall with an ode to pizza. From there, the titles ride the Les Pauls, "Self Destructo Bust," "Get It On," and "Don't Say Motherfucker, Motherfucker" romping with cartoonish metal glee, until something's not quite right. "Rock Against Ass," "Rendezvous With Anus." Whoa! These are men's men, and that's no sock in those leather chaps! Take "Prince of the Rodeo": "Rhinestones, homo rock & roll, buns of steel -- Geronimo"! After cruising for da Ramones in "Back to Dungaree High," Turbonegro finally come out and ask all good men, "Are You Ready (For Some Darkness)." With the bulge these Apocalypse Dudes will leave you with, the answer is yes. Oh, God -- yes!
3 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Futureworld (Thrill Jockey)
It's amazing how much the future sounds like Germany in the Seventies. Suffocated by past Nazi horrors and the bleak Cold War present, the bitterly divided Deutsche placed their faith in industry, commerce, and technology, even going so far as entrusting machines to create their art. Some 25-odd years later, the Washington, D.C., post-metal trio Trans Am, cruising the Autobahn between Stuttgart and Freiburg, mistranslates their directions to Munich and stumbles across an abandoned, dilapidated industrial park. Inside they discover a veritable trove of artifacts left to history by the seminal Kraftwerk-Can-Neu triad. A couple of patch jobs on the wiring, and the bulky 808s and Roland analog keyboards spring to life almost of their own accord. Futureworld follows in rapid succession; the gloomy noisebaths of "Am Rhein," "Sad and Young," and "City in Flames" queuing up next to the austere disco programming of "Cocaine Computer" and "Positron." Even the well-known Teutonic taste for cheese is evident on "Runners Standing Still," as it echoes Men Without Hats' "Pop Goes the World" a bit too eerily. As Rammstein and Atari Teenage Riot move in to torch the place, Trans Am speeds away under cover of night, back to the bland security of the U.S.A., but not before declaring a whole trunkful of Schadenfreude at Ronald Reagan Airport's Customs counter.
3 stars -- Christopher Gray
ROSCOE MITCHELL AND THE NOTE FACTORY
Nine to Get Ready (ECM)
ROSCOE MITCHELL QUARTET
In Walked Buckner (Delmark)
As a founder of the AACM Movement and the epochal Art Ensemble of Chicago, composer and conceptualist Roscoe Mitchell rates as a modern jazz renaissance man. Mitchell believes improvisation and composition are parallel thought on musicians who lean too heavily on traditional soloing. A wide and particular palette of musical interests, coupled with a prodigious imagination, keeps several projects on his plate at any given time. The Quartet session, In Walked Buckner (with Jodie Christian, Reggie Workman and "Tootie" Heath), is primarily an open-spaced free jazz date of ethereal soundscapes. At times, such as on "Off Shore" and "Fly Over," the band gels, but Mitchell's reeds mostly dominate, giving the feel of a lecture rather than a conversation. Tellingly, on one of the set's best,"Opposite Sides," Mitchell duets with himself. The Note Factory session, Nine to Get Ready, is more ambitious and unique. The band, a nonet which features young stars Matthew Shipp, Craig Taborn, and William Parker, plumbs an orchestral depth. Reminiscent of the Art Ensemble's early interpretations of Monteverdi, or the first Liberation Jazz Orchestra recordings, these compositions ring out with sonorous voicings, gorgeous and moody; thought out, yet never losing their improvisational edge. While tunes such as "Leola" and the Lester Bowie tribute, "For Lester B" are memorable, there are no real standout tracks. Fascinating and unpredictable from beginning to end (it even wraps with a hard funk tune), Nine to Get Ready is an impressive work, and like Mitchell's long career, endlessly rewarding.
(In Walked Buckner) 3 1/2 stars
(Nine to Get Ready) 4 1/2 stars -- Jeff McCord