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MARCH 6, 2000: 

* William Orbit PIECES IN A MODERN STYLE (Maverick)

William Orbit toiled in relative obscurity as a solo artist, techno remixer, and trance-pop producer under the pseudonyms Torch Song Trilogy and Bass-o-Matic before being hand-picked by Madonna for her Ray of Light album, which earned him a Grammy and a deal with the material girl's Maverick label. And now he's an in-demand producer -- the Don Was of the post-techno era -- who specializes in helping rock artists like Blur break into the electronica racket.

For his first post-Grammy solo effort, Orbit pulls a Wendy Carlos and puts together an album of "classical" music, or synthesized interpretations of various classical pieces. The ambient stylings of Pieces in a Modern Style place the disc somewhere in the realm of old-skool chillout. And Orbit deserves praise for selecting iconoclastic composers, including John Cage and Polish spiritualist Henrik-Mikolaj Górecki (not, incidentally, the blockbuster tearjerker Symphony No. 3). But the new-agey musical results are, well, new-agey. And, even worse, the glacial synthesizers Orbit deploys on Barber's Adagio for Strings -- which has been remixed into a dance hit in Europe -- and the Largo from Handel's Xerxes make both pieces sound like the incidental music from a porn flick. -- Patrick Bryant

*** Therapy? SUICIDE PACT -- YOU FIRST (ARK 21)

Losing their deal with A&M after a reasonably successful five-album relationship, Irish neo-punks Therapy? were one of the casualties of the Universal merger last year. Yet long before that, trouble was brewing for the band, who never quite recovered from the success of their biggest hit, '94's "Troublegum." Until now, that is. In the crash and burn of the wittily titled Suicide Pact -- You First, the quartet are back on track, rediscovering their original raw fervor without entirely ditching their melodic punch. Here, more than ever, Therapy? muster influences both old (Pistols, Buzzcocks) and older (Beefheart), and new (a nod to the Stray Cats that's especially evident in the gripping opening track, "He's Not That Kind of Girl"). In "Little Tongues First," the band's reworked industrial thrash comes off as little more than able noise, and though acutely catchy, "Jam Jar Jail" is reminiscent of the Cult's pointless repetitions. Far better is "Wall of Mouths," an artful update of punk stamina with typically effusive guitar work that doesn't scream formula. Like a new brand of candy, Suicide Pact is hardly original, but it's contagious nonetheless. -- Linda Laban

*1/2 Rollins Band GET SOME GO AGAIN (DreamWorks)

By the time Henry Rollins threw in the towel a couple of years ago on the longest-running incarnation of his Rollins Band, which by then had unraveled into blandly earnest jazz-rock fusion, even he had become bored with it. For a while, it seemed there might not be enough time left in his busy schedule of performance lectures, desktop publishing, TV voiceovers, big-screen cameos, and sophomoric scribbling to mount another reasonable attempt at rock and roll. He's often said he doesn't distinguish among these endeavors -- it's all just work, and if his music sounds workmanlike, well, there isn't exactly any shame in it, either. He approaches rock and roll with the same kind of pragmatic indifference with which one might set about mowing the lawn, and by the time it's over he's already got the raw material for another dorm-room coffee-table tome.

For his latest album, a self-described reversion to hard rock, the editor of David Lee Roth's memoirs backed himself with, apparently, the first band he stumbled across -- an anonymous LA blues-rock trio called Mother Jefferson -- and, well, you gets whats you pays for. Aside from the pedestrian tempos, and riffs as gray from overuse as the Marine-length growth at Hank's temples, there are a few simian silver linings. The band spark on a meaty cover of Thin Lizzy's "Are You Ready?" -- exactly the kind of dumbed-down fare Hank's been threatening to record for the past five years -- and catch fire on the original, convincingly Motörheaded number "You Let Yourself Down," which includes this immortal Rothian couplet: "Used to date porno, now you just rent/Do you really wonder where the good times went?" In fact, one wonders whether Diamond Dave hasn't completely captured Hammerin' Hank's imagination when, on a number called "Thinking Cap," Rollins declares he "just took off my thinking cap" because "it got filled up with too much crap." "You can dress up a pig, but it's still a pig, isn't it?" he adds, throwing in a few oinks, and laughing uproariously. Indeed it is. -- Carly Carioli

**1/2 Joe McPhee/Johnny McLellan duo GRAND MARQUIS (Boxholder)

This pairing of free-jazz saxophone veteran Joe McPhee and young Boston-area drummer Johnny McLellan results in some maddeningly elliptical improvisations. McPhee's tenor mixes a burly, vibrato-heavy tone with graceful phrasing, dynamic variety, and a perfect balance of power and sensitivity. McLellan has his own ideas about orchestrating the components of his trap set and rarely approaches anything straight on. His idiosyncratic phrasing, irregular accents, and skewed elaborations of ideas and tempos give him a original voice on the drum kit, and it all makes for an oddly balanced pairing. McPhee's ecstatic, convoluted lines, alternately moaning and roaring vocal inflections, and big tone often overwhelm McLellan, who seems content either to defer to his elder and act as backdrop or to follow independent or only tangentially related ideas of his own. The drummer's spare snare taps, hi-hat ticks, hollow tom-tom rumbles, and sudden cymbal splashes follow one after the other in succession, sometimes corresponding to McPhee's phrases, more often not. The tempos are uniformly slow, which allows McPhee to concentrate on shading his huge tone and crafted unified statements while McLellan pays careful attention to dynamics, tone color, and linear progression. But for much of the disc, the connection between the two is difficult to perceive. They sound like two strangers intent on their own tasks rather than two friends engaged in a close exchange of ideas and feelings. -- Ed Hazell

**1/2 Fu Manchu KING OF THE ROAD (Mammoth)

This Cali quartet's style has been called "van rock" since the band's inception in the mid '90s, and King of the Road is bound to reinforce that notion -- maybe, for better or worse, to the point of caricature. Fu Manchu apparently aren't too concerned: more than half the disc's song titles and lyrics (and practically every riff, thud, and phrase) tip the hat to Camaros, CBs, choppers, and Custom Vans. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- hell, Mammoth's not just Fu Manchu's label, it's their sound, man. It's the look of the film Dazed & Confused distilled through killer bong hits and bottomless kegs and carefully laid upon the well-preserved skeletons of Black Sabbath's 1970 debut and Deep Purple's Machine Head. Vintage gear (yeah, those are real Crybaby and Big Muff pedals, bro!) gives the 11-track set undeniable authenticity. But the real kicker is how the Fus subversively betray their appreciation of new wave with a version of Devo's "Freedom of Choice" only Cheech and Chong could love. -- Mark Woodlief

***1/2 Cevin Fisher UNDERGROUND 2000 (Maxi)

Fisher, a major presence in house music's DJ scene, displays his strengths to best advantage in this full-length session. He's less a turntable mix king -- for mix excitement one looks to Little Louie Vega, say, or David Morales -- than a super-smooth programmer. On this 12-track CD (eight originals, two of which come with added remixes), the music -- deep, gorgeous, diva-bright house, funky grins, and lots of salsa sexiness -- moves between high-stepping cuts without fuss or clash, just the joy of party people raising their hands in the air. As Fisher pumps from his signature "The Way We Used To" to "(You Got Me) Burnin' Up" (his 1999 club hit) to the gospelly "Music Saved My Life" and back to traxx style at "Mas Groove," his trinity of slithery beat, vocal psychedelia, and jet-engine sound effects sounds like ecstasy without turbulence, and it's rich, dark, and sweet enough to make the unreal and real fall in love with each other. Anthemic moment: the aptly titled "Raise Your Hands." -- Michael Freedberg

***1/2 AC/DC STIFF UPPER LIP (Elektra)

In a genre so dedicated to excess that Spinal Tap had an amp that went up to 11, this rugged Aussie outfit have built a career on the notion that less is more. That's why questions about whether AC/DC ought to be filed under heavy metal or hard-rock arise from time to time: the material on AC/DC's best albums -- Highway to Hell, Back in Black -- is constructed from basic blues guitar riffs, verse/chorus/verse/guitar solo song structures, lyrics about sex, drink, and rock and roll, and a money-back guarantee that when a song's called "Hell's Bells" you'll hear the words "hell's bells" repeated at least a dozen times. But it's what AC/DC leave out that makes the biggest difference: no fancy drum fills or bass lines that stray too far from the root notes; no gentle piano ballads (in fact, no piano at all); no subtly layered guitar arrangements -- just brothers Malcolm and Angus Young double-teaming those basic blues riffs until it's Angus's turn to solo (usually after the second chorus).

Stiff Upper Lip, the band's first proper full-length in five years and the 17th AC/DC album overall, features three-fifths of the Highway to Hell/Back in Black line-up: drummer Phil Rudd, who's back in the fold after a long sabbatical, and the indispensable Brothers Young. And with Robert John "Mutt" Lange off conquering the world with wife Shania Twain, the disc also marks the return of another Young gun, producer and older brother George Young, who was at the helm for the Bon Scott-era early albums High Voltage, Let There Be Rock, and Powerage. The result, though drier and not quite as polished as a Lange production (think "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"), delivers the goods with a dozen lean, mean, classic-sounding AC/DC nuggets, proving that despite the occasional imitator, AC/DC still do AC/DC better than anyone else. -- Matt Ashare

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