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JANUARY 4, 1999: 

*1/2 Various Artists



Earlier this year, Priority released In tha Beginning. . . There Was Rap, an uninspired tribute to the early years of hip-hop featuring new-school MCs such as Redman, Keith Murray, and the Wu-Tang Clan taking on classic rap tracks. Feeding off the old-school revival, and its impressive back-catalogue, Priority brings us the N.W.A "Straight Outta Compton" 10th Anniversary Tribute -- a remake of the fierce album that introduced gangsta rap, or at least the media catch-phrase, to suburban voyeurs, Tipper Gore, and the hip-hop mainstream. Featuring a large sampling of second-generation, cut-rate gangsta rappers, the 10th Anniversary Tribute highlights a couple of memorable MCs who lend unique voices to these well-worn rhymes -- Snoop Dogg and newfound labelmate C-Murder on "Gangsta Gangsta," and the Nuyorican trio Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Cuban Link on "Quiet On Tha Set." Mainly, though, the project is a testament to the power of N.W.A's stripped-down beats (almost identical to the original tracks produced by Dr. Dre) and raw street stories that remain incisive and funny, though less shocking than they were during the Reagan/Bush years.

-- Michael Endelman

*** Tim Keegan & the Homer Lounge



If you've heard of Tim Keegan at all, its probably from his role on the last couple of Robyn Hitchcock albums. Keegan's been Hitchcock's guitar foil for a while now, and Robyn returns the favor by sitting in on this eight-song mini-album's last track, "Postcard from a Friend." The real attraction isn't guest stars but the singing and songwriting of the Homer Lounge's main man. Keegan has a pleasantly unassuming, perfectly English voice, timbrally somewhere between Hitchcock and Ian McCulloch but without the latter's overt portentousness. The songs he writes are equally low-key, jangly folk-rock with instantly winning melodies that sometimes mask the lyrics' subtle sense of humor. Even when Keegan gets big and loud, his overall message never has less than two edges. "[We've] Got Everything We Need," which could easily have gone the Oasis rock-anthem route, instead hooks a grunge guitar chorus to lines such as "I found someone who cares about me more than I do," while the album's deepest melodic surge is saved for a track called "Save Me From Happiness."

-- Mac Randall

**1/2 The Neon Judgement


(Chipie/KK America)

Twelve years ago, the Neon Judgement contributed two death-dances, "Chinese Black" and "Miss Brown," to the founding of Belgian techno. Today, Jean-Marie Aert's operation sounds less deadly melodic (almost joyful at times), but no less seductive. Though Dazsoo's 11 songs feature enough of the scratchy effects of acid house ("Up in Flames" and "Dis Go On," for example) to allow Aert's label to file the CD under electronica, the focus here, as with all Belgian techno, is on a combination of highly orchestrated echo and a down-deep, rapid-fire house beat. Aert's signature style is to create tension, in a dark, guitar-inflected track such as "Hdrom Temptation," between languorous orchestration and hurried beat, keeping the dancer off balance and in suspense. In "Jazzbox," "O.R.P.," and "Mirror," the CD's three best cuts, Aert's distant, echo-distorted vocals pierce the gloom, gently reproaching the dancer for not being able to make up his mind. Unhappily, Aert feels the need, in "Turki" and "What a Day," to ape the styles of Transglobal Underground and Daft Punk.

-- Michael Freedberg

**1/2 Pete Rock



With rap music these days aiming more for hyper-stimulation than relaxation, Pete Rock's solo debut Soul Survivor is a true rarity. Despite his limitations as an MC, Rock remains one of hip-hop's most consummate beat-makers, and Soul Survivor easily vies to be one of this year's most listenable rap releases. But like many other producer-based albums, Soul Survivor's reliance on cameos guarantees an uneven mix. Method Man ("Half Man/Half Amazin' ") and CL Smooth ("Da Two") take impressive turns at the mic, which isn't the case when Big Pun and Peter Gunz get their chance. And Rock's own monotone rhymes simply can't carry an entire album. But, from the stunning drum breaks on "#1 Soul Brother," to the lively Barry White reworking for "Rocksteady Pt. II," to the sultry, jazzy tones of "Mindblowin'," Rock proves that his production skills can stand on their own.

-- Oliver Wang

*** Nothing Painted Blue



Can you be too intelligent to play in a rock band? Vocalist/guitarist Franklin Bruno has certainly faced the question since the late '80s, when he and two friends at Southern California's Pomona College formed Nothing Painted Blue. While the group's angular, indie guitars and strong rhythmic sensibilities are ØPB's foundation, it's Bruno's lyrics that have always distinguished this band. On their sixth album, Bruno is characteristically literate and playful with language ("History stutters like it's got Tourette's/Ignoring the meaning of its epithets," from "Modern Again"). He sides with underdogs and outcasts in "2nd Class Citizen," and "Developer's Dream," late-bloomers in the fast-paced "Growth Spurt," and loners in the tender "Explorer Scout." His unassuming vocal delivery contrasts neatly with his subtle yet complex songwriting -- nimble, jangly and jerky except for the occasional introspective ballad. The Monte Carlo Method (the title may ring a Pavlovian bell for mathematicians and stats geeks) reaffirms ØPB's standing as one of the underground's smartest groups. Luckily, it's infectious and immediate enough that you don't need to be a PhD candidate to "get it."

-- Mark Woodlief

** Nick Heyward


(Creation/Big Deal)

Nick Heyward can croon sweetly enough to make the girls swoon, but he's smart enough to kick just hard enough to win some of the boys over too. The former leader of Haircut 100 employs melodramatic strings, bittersweet lyrics, and the occasional charged guitars on The Apple Bed, his sixth solo album. The lion's share of the songs rely on McCartneyesque pop devices, such as horn flourishes and airy backing vocals. Heyward relies heavily on plaintive love and breakup songs, but he adds grungier guitars to his pop arsenal on several of the disc's stronger tunes. Hell, "Reach Out," with its heavy bottom end and Mellancampish guitar riff, may be the closest the former new-wave sweater boy ever gets to arena rock.

-- Dave Brigham

*** Junior Delgado


(Big Cat)

Jamaican reggae "legends" may be a dime-bag a dozen, but Junior Delgado's got enough cred to rope in respected underground producers, who lift his remix album above most others in this often fruitless genre. Working with previously released Delgado tracks, guests such as the Jungle Brothers, Smith & Mighty, and the Specials' Jerry Dammers splice in beats, samples, and raps, leavening the reggae with electronic and organic doses. Each of the 13 tracks bounces off in a distinctive and almost always enlightening direction. Faithless's Maxi Jazz turns "She's Gonna Marry Me" into a pliable, meandering tune that isolates Delgado's unfathomably soulful voice, tosses in a fluid piano vamp, and pulls up the low end with a rubbery dub thump. In the politically charged "Sons of Slaves," British DJ Kid Loops skillfully underscores the singer's haunting growl with breakbeats that dramatize the vocal intonations. The big names come through as well: the Jungle Brothers infuse the gritty soul track "Buffalo Soldier" with elegant street harmonies and terse raps; and Dammers samples police sirens and dabbles in dub to evoke the necessary eerieness in "Armed Robbery."

-- Richard Martin

***1/2 Duncan Sheik



After a year when even Beck went singer-songwriter on us, male sensitivos are on the rise. And though it may not have gotten as much hyperbolic press as Elliott Smith's gorgeous sob story, Duncan Sheik's second album forwards a similarly ambitious blend of pop and folk. With a text that evaluates the "beautiful masking" crucial to today's facade-obsessed culture, Humming's ornate settings manage a kind of homey extravagance that suits the singer. It's one of those albums on which shimmering instrumental settings overwhelm lyrical vagaries -- like Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, and a few other cherished discs. The stately musical furnishings inevitably become the main focus. Even the "Varying Degrees of Con-Artistry," with its London Session Orchestra girth, manages a pensive glamour that sucks you in deeper with each new listen. Here's a thumbs-up for the guy who ponders the value of illusions while creating one of the most gorgeous of the year.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Dmitri Shostakovich



For nearly half a century, along with his symphonies, operas, and chamber music, Shostakovich was also writing soundtrack music for Soviet films. However brilliant his orchestration, however ambitious his musical architecture, many of his most "important" works are still a long drink of water. But most of the selections on this delightful album of excerpts from his film scores are only two or three minutes long. He used or invented popular tunes in his symphonies, but here his borrowings are even more deliciously tongue-in-cheek. The film Golden Mountain must be set in Vienna -- its Waltz is an infectious and admiring take-off on Strauss. The "Liberated Dresden" scene from Five Days -- Five Nights ends with an acidic orchestration of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

All of the Movie Madness the selections are taken from discs that contain more complete soundtracks -- worth exploring someday. But for now, I'm happy listening to these rousing, sentimental, and comic miniatures, vividly played by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Michail Jurowski, James Judd, and Leonid Grin, and sung exuberantly by Swetlana Katchur, Jelena Zaremba, and Wladimir Kazatchouk. This is Shostakovich at his most charming and understated. I haven't seen any of the movies, but I like guessing what the stories might be. In fact, since I like to create my own scenario for his longer works, the very fact that Shostakovich wrote so much film music reassures me. How could all that musical visualization of screen images not have influenced his concert music?

-- Lloyd Schwartz

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