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FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

** The Neville Brothers

VALENCE STREET

(Columbia)

You know something's gone wrong when the best song on a Neville Brothers album is "If I Had a Hammer." The Peter, Paul and Mary chestnut gets a thorough reworking in the vein of the two Dylan covers on their best album, Yellow Moon -- the band percolate for six minutes amid swampy slide guitars, Cyril's testifying, and Aaron's soaring falsetto. But the brothers' quality control breaks down on the rest of the disc.

Seven ballads on a 12-song album is too many, especially when a couple are flat-out weak and others are oddly arranged -- notably Cyril's "Utterly Beloved," done as late-'70s leisure-suit soul. Their collaboration with Wyclef Jean, "Mona Lisa," is pointlessly repeated from Jean's year-old Carnival album, and its light trip-hop groove doesn't fit here. Charles's token jazz instrumental is placed too early in the disc. And Art's deep voice is a mismatch for Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day," which should have gone to Aaron. Only three of the remaining tracks qualify as vintage Nevilles: "Give Me a Reason" is a solid if typical Aaron ballad, and "Over Africa" and Art's Meters-style "Real Funk" both feature the New Orleans second-line rhythms sorely missing from the rest of the disc. But even these songs feel like previews of solo projects rather than integral parts of a unified statement. And nothing here comes close to reaching the peaks of their live shows.

-- Brett Milano


*** The Jimmy Rogers All-Stars

BLUES BLUES BLUES

(Atlantic)

Most major-label blues albums these days feature guest appearances by rock stars or hot young up-and-comers. And most all of them suck. Consider B.B. King's boring Deuces Wild or Jonny Lang's horrifying duet with Buddy Guy on Heavy Love.

So here's a nice surprise and a fitting tribute to the Chicago blues linchpin Jimmy Rogers, perhaps the most underrated genius of the idiom. Rogers, who died last year, just as this album was being completed, authored dozens of classics (including "Sweet Home Chicago"), and he taught Muddy Waters the tricks of mastering electric guitar. He still sounds terrific here, his voice outdistancing partners like Eric Clapton and Jeff Healy, even fellow blues legend Lowell Fulson, in character and strength. His playing's perfect as a hot night over cold beers at the Windy City's famed Checkerboard Lounge. The surprise is that guests from Jimmy Page to Mick Jagger (singing better than he has on any Stones album in years) -- as well as respected bluesmen Carey Bell and Kim Wilson (both on harmonica) Johnnie Johnson (piano), Ted Harvey (drums), and Jimmy D. Lane (Rogers's hotshot guitarist son) -- all play by Rogers's basic blues rules. And they all sound so good. The only clam is Robert Plant's vocal ad-libs over "Gonna Shoot You Right Down," which trip into campy Zeppelin-isms mighty quick.

-- Ted Drozdowski


*** The Hope Blister

. . . SMILE'S OK

(4AD/Mammoth)

The Hope Blister pick up where This Mortal Coil -- a project that featured a rotating roster of 4AD stalwarts (Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Wolfgang Press) and like-minded colleagues performing esoteric covers -- left off in 1991 with Blood. With 4AD guru Ivo Watts-Russell once again at the helm, the Hope Blister maintain a somewhat traditional band line-up (string quartet, sax player, rhythm section) and tackle material by Brian Eno, John Cale, Heidi Berry, and Tall Dwarves' leader Chris Knox. Vocalist Louise Rutkowski lends her disquietingly detached voice to generally austere chamber arrangements, singing with more character than presence. It's an approach that works best on selections that were originally marked by overwrought or mannered vocals, such as the Cranes' "Sweet Unknown," and David Sylvian's "Let the Happiness In." The Hope Blister lack the stylistic variety of This Mortal Coil's all-star karaoke. But . . . smile's ok offers plenty of soothing sounds for souls who think navy blue and forest green are bright colors, and for fans of vintage 4AD fare.

-- Kurt B. Reighley


***

SB1: A SKIBOARDING JOURNEY

(Overall Entertainment/Rhino)

The title of Blink 182's contribution to this "extreme sports"-themed comp says it all: "Enthused." A collection of previously released punk rock and hip-hop, SB1: A Skiboarding Journey doesn't exactly carve fresh powder. But like the gung-ho sportsmen featured in the between-songs sound bites (sample dialogue: "Stratton Mountain, where snowboarding was born," spoken with unironic reverence), everyone involved with the project sounds totally stoked.

The weirdest thing about this CD, aside from the image of Master P riding a chair lift, is "Set It," an improbably good B-side from G-funk woulda-been Kurupt. There's also a Hieroglyphics posse cut ("The Who," from their not-exactly-overwhelming comeback album, 3rd Eye Vision), the Beatnuts' sharp, criminal-minded "Do You Believe," and NOFX's affectionately misanthropic "Liza." Even when the disc finds a common thread between rap and rock, it's still a study in contrasts: Mo' Thugs' "Mighty Mighty Warrior" suggests Christian soldiers trying to ward off Judgment Day by rhyming faster than the speed of sound; Sublime's almost-hip-hop "Superstar Punami" suggests the kind of groupie-nailing anthems Brad Nowell would have written had he lived to reap Sublime's rewards. Still, SB1 seems far more worthwhile than the sport it's meant to commemorate, a crackpot hybrid of skiing and snowboarding apparently invented to give "aggressive" in-line skaters someone to laugh at.

-- Alex Pappademas


*** P.J. Olsson

(Red Ink)

Acerbic but romantic, hostile but vulnerable, brainy but brutish, hi-tech but folky, P.J. Olsson delivers the kind of literate, ironic songwriting we've come to expect from the urbane-songsmith crowd. But his debut album's sterling production also exhibits loop-based post-hip-hop motifs, heartland rock-guitar gestures, and weirdo, Latin Playboys-esque lo-fi moments. The revivalist spirit of "Pray I Don't Die" suggests a grounding in ol'-timy music; the acoustic intrigue "Plastic Soul" pays homage to Zeppelin III and the kind of three-part harmonies Kings X played with so effortlessly. But left turns abound: tinny drumming, sudden shifts into Crosby Stills & Nash soft-focus harmony, gritty Dylanesque delivery, gutbucket funk flayed with Nick Drake hushes. Defiantly musical, stylistically in touch, and admirably smart, Olsson's debut is among the finest examples of the new millennial pop: he's a swarthier Beck with a sweeter voice and a flask of classic rock in his pocket.

-- James Rotondi


**1/2 Leon Russell

FACE IN THE CROWD

(Sagestone)

Although it's good to see legendary mad-hatter Leon Russell emerge once again like a hungry grizzly awakening from hibernation, what does he have to offer, at this late date, beyond the authority of his years? Playing as if the last three decades never happened, he offers up his familiar bayou witch-doctor/bluesman shtick ("Betty Ann" is a slight harmonic variation on the Russell classic "Delta Lady," and there's even a song here called "Dr. Love," which somehow took two people to write, even though you can guess the lyrics), only with the toll of years apparent in every crack and contour of his raspy drawl. Listening to his new disc is a comfortable yet creepy experience akin to putting on an old Halloween costume.

Still, there's no denying Russell's chops. His New Orleans-style piano playing, for which he's justly famous, remains as sprightly as ever, and so do his lesser-known guitar skills. His Albert King-influenced leads are subtle and stinging. Plus, in such jazz-inflected originals as "This Heart of Mine" and "Blue Eyes & a Black Heart," he offers a tantalizing hint of his next project, a collection of standards that's likely to rival Willie Nelson's covers in interpretive idiosyncrasy. The old mountebank has a few tricks left up his sleeve.

-- Gary Susman


** Keith Murray

IT'S A BEAUTIFUL THING

(Jive)

Keith Murray delivers no gang-banging tall tales, minimal bitch bashing, and only one high-caliber gat attack -- a brief farce about all those shoot-'em-up "Interludes" on other hardcore rap albums. Nevertheless, it's as close to a pure shot of thug life as most hip-hop headz could possibly need, aside from whatever they think they want. Not only are Murray's biggest pleasures riding with his crew, getting "High As Hell" and working himself up to "Slap Somebody," but the form and context of these pursuits unwittingly frame how "street" they really are.

For starters, his modest flow is constricted by his major ignorance. Years ago Spin magazine praised the Long Island rapper's skill at "deconstruction," but when he thinks that being "homophobic" is something to boast about, or when he describes a judge's closing a case with the pronouncement "This court is now in session," his polysyllabic rhymes clunk like the malapropisms of the "Keith B. Real" clown on the last Will Smith album. And when Murray starts dropping references to his impending three-year sentence for second-degree assault -- which obviously rushed the making of this third solo album -- his material quickly disintegrates (like so many other felons') from bad-ass boasts to frightened, confused pleas for compassion.

I do love the way arch-enemies L.L. Cool J and Canibus guest-star on two fine back-to-back tracks. "Radio" really does have some skunky-funky-illest-funk flow. And producer Eric Sermon provides his usual simple, solid groove throughout. But in the end, it's all shut down with the real-life consequences of one genuinely "Bad Day."

-- Franklin Soults


**1/2 Chuck E. Weiss

EXTREMELY COOL

(Slow River/Rykodisc)

This is just Weiss's second album, the first one being an obscurity released 18 years ago, and though the guy's connected -- he was immortalized by Rickie Lee Jones's "Chuck E.'s in Love" back in '79 and is a long-time pal of Tom Waits, who produced and co-wrote and appears on two tracks here -- the question isn't so much what took so long (his choice) as it is why now? Possibly because Weiss is a natural-born archivist, and some aspects of his obsessions have come into vogue recently. So much so that the disc's title cut, which might have sounded freshly quaint 15 years ago, plays like yet another hepcat '40s-revival move.

But Chuck E.'s for real, and his range goes from Bubber Miley-era Duke to Cajun to retro-rock to nasty-sounding blues. The best bits, or the strangest anyway, are the incantatory nonsense songs like "Pygmy Fund" and "Do You Know What I Idi Amin," the latter with Waits and with the goofiness quotient hitting the delirium level. Unlike Waits's stuff, though, Weiss's doesn't stick to the ribs. It's not so much extremely cool as extremely off-the-cuff (same difference?), fun but rarely inspired.

-- Richard C. Walls



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