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APRIL 19, 1999: 

**1/2 Van Morrison

BACK ON TOP

(Pointblank)

The thing about Van Morrison is that it ain't what he says but the way that he says it, like the dozen or so repetitions of the phrase "on a golden autumn day" on this new disc's closer, Van never doing it quite the same twice, landing on the long vowels with urgency, then resignation, but always with the faith that his ample incantatory powers will transform the mundane words into something soulful and deep. It often works. Good thing, too, because lyrics have long ceased to be one of his strong points, having settled into a kind of dour plain-speak (the happiest-sounding song here, "Precious Time," has the lines "She's so beautiful but she's going to die some day/Everything in life just passes away") dotted with awkwardly integrated references to heavy cultural signposts -- this time out it's the Philosopher's Stone, Chet Baker, and William Blake. And the thing about Morrison's studio albums, at least those of the last two decades, is that they tend to be so damn tasteful, with the singer only rarely breaking out from the rather delicate arrangements. Back on Top is no exception, and you wait in vain for the kind of transcendent peaks he still achieves on his live albums. He comes close when he hits that "autumn day" groove, but for the rest it's offhandedly soulful, standard Van.

-- Richard C. Walls


** Underworld

BEAUCOUP FISH

(JBO/V2)

Iggy Pop wasn't the only genre that enjoyed a fleeting resurgence in the wake of the 1996 film Trainspotting -- the "Lust for Life"-anchored soundtrack also gave a momentary boost to the British rave music of Underworld's "Born Slippy." Iggy is Iggy -- a known quantity. But Underworld are a different story. Originally a late-'80s English synth-pop outfit, Underworld mutated into an advert-agency/beat chemistry collective (featuring programmers Karl Hyde and Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson) just in time to capitalize on generation ecstasy's need for anonymous all-night aerobicizable workout grooves in 1993. The cold architecture of Beaucoup Fish, the trio's third full-length as electronicists, is no fresher-sounding than synth-pop was by '88, what with Cassius now bringing disco heat back to the dance floor and Fatboy Slim's big beats signaling a return to familiar rock/pop formalities. But it is a virtuoso display of programming chops that segues effortlessly between the moody ambiance of "Push Downstairs" and the slippery drum 'n' bass of "Something like Mama," the Teutonic pulse of "King of Snake" and the soothing chill-out of "Winjer," with enough spoken-word verse sprinkled throughout to make them all feel like real songs, and one tune, "Bruce Lee," that's almost short, quirky, and catchy enough to work on the radio or, maybe, just another soundtrack.

-- Matt Ashare


** Trans Am

FUTUREWORLD

(Thrill Jockey)

The instrumental trio Trans Am spent their first three albums demonstrating the plausibility of one band's playing both Led Zeppelin riff rock and Kraftwerkian synth-pop. With that thesis established, the DC-based group don't seem to know what to do on the new Futureworld. So they add some saxophone, trumpet, and heavily processed vocals to their now standard mix of hard-driving bass lines, pounding drums, and power chords on the one hand and analog synth bleeps and drum machines on the other. None of these ingredients has much impact, apart from bringing some new texture to the songs.

In the past, moreover, Trans Am have been happy to alternate between electronic tracks and rock tunes in a manner that suggested there wasn't much difference between the two. This time they're more intent on fusing the rock and electronic elements, which makes for a less interesting mix. In fact, with the novelty gone, you begin to notice that there isn't a whole lot holding the songs together, so that what once seemed like a clever device begins to sound predictable and played-out.

-- Ben Auburn


*1/2 Muzzle

ACTUAL SIZE

(Reprise)

Like the wave of better-known, major-label alterna-rock bands who've come before them (the Verve Pipe, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Dishwalla, to name three), Muzzle make slickly polished mainstream pop that's as boring as it is agreeable. Although not nearly as cloying as any of the above-mentioned outfits, Muzzle share the same frustrating quality of having some good ideas that, save for a striking standout track or two ("Second Time Around," "Broken Tooth"), don't go anywhere. With the exception of the fizzy Gin Blossoms-esque jaunt "Drop the Needle," even the hired-gun New England rhythm section of drummer Mike Levesque (Talking to Animals, Tracy Bonham) and bassist Pete Donnelly (Figgs) can't push singer-guitarists Ryan Maxwell and Wesley Nelson past a predictable mid-tempo stride. "Obvious" is a particularly apt song title. And it's not a good sign that the vocals of Maxwell and Nelson are virtually impossible to distinguish. Boasting lots of big guitars and multi-tracked harmonies that are as devoid of personality as most of this material, Actual Size makes a convincing case that more can indeed be less.

-- Jonathan Perry


*

MA$E PRESENTS HARLEM WORLD: THE MOVEMENT

(All Out/So So Def)

Does Ma$e drive a Mercedes? He probably does now. So the former Mason Betha takes his fancy car back home to Harlem, picks up a few friends, and takes them all to the studio to spend some major-label dollars. The result may prove to be as profitable as Harlem World, the Bad Boy debut by Ma$e that gives this crew their name. But this Movement's mostly a failure. For starters, it doesn't sound as if Ma$e had spent much time looking for the perfect beats -- he more or less just plugs his posse into found rhythm tracks with a passion normally reserved for plugging in night lights. And the posse manifest an equal degree of enthusiasm as they forge their individual personalities. There's Blinky Blink the hype man; Huddy Combs, the flashy one; Moe, the bundle of nerves; and Curly, the mean one. No, wait, wasn't Moe the mean one? Only twin sister Baby Sta$e provides a welcome relief from the testosterone overload. Next time, if there ever is one, Ma$e might serve his world better with more tracks like the scintillating, DeBarge-hooked "I Really Like It," which takes hits from the '80s -- yeah!, yeah! -- and makes 'em sound so crazy -- yeah! yeah!

-- Kevin John


*** Joe Henry

FUSE

(Mammoth)

Joe Henry is best known to scene makers as Madonna's brother-in-law -- which shouldn't be held against him. He's a quirky, world-weary singer and a songwriter with a flair for appealingly disjointed lyrics and powerful if slightly dissonant melodies. Fuse boasts a stellar line-up of hired hands including Daniel Lanois, Jakob Dylan, and Wallflowers Rami Jaffee and Greg Richling, all of whom add their own expert atmospheric touches to his rueful pop miniatures. Henry is a compelling vocalist, sounding at times a bit like Phil Collins on belladonna -- the presentation may be smooth, but there's an unsettling edge to his voice that gives his soulful crooning a sinful taint. There are bits of the blues, '60s spy-movie soundtracks, hip-hoppy modern rock, jazzy trumpet noodling, classy Tin Pan Alley piano, and even jovial late-night lounge music here. But Henry puts a stamp on each genre excursion that brings to mind a mutant marriage of Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Waits.

-- J. Poet


**1/2 Celeda

THIS IS IT

(Twisted)

It's a good thing that, like Sylvester 25 years ago, Celeda made the "ultimate and courageous decision to live as a transvestite," as the CD's publicity states. Because it'll get her plenty of media attention, maybe even sell the CD. But as a singer she just doesn't cut it. Her narrow-ranging, wooden vocals lack the distinctiveness of other dance-floor divas': the grace of Joi Cardwell, the fire of Sabrina Johnston, Loleatta Holloway's scream, the muscle of Martha Wash. And they certainly don't have the choirboy sublimity of Sylvester. At her best, in the gospel shout "Try Again," she sounds joyously hard and husky, but exactly like classic gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates. The good news is that though the routine quality of her singing puts the CD's fate entirely in her producers' hands, that's hardly a problem when DJs like E-Smoove, Cevin Fisher, Mike Dunn, the Heavy Hitters, and Danny Tenaglia are on hand to boom the likes of "Burnin' Up," "Happy," "I'm Grateful," "Messin' with My Mind," and, most deep and dominant of all, the anthemic "Be Yourself."

-- Michael Freedberg


*** Branford Marsalis Quartet

REQUIEM

(Columbia)

At about four and a half minutes into Marsalis's new album, the leader (on tenor saxophone) and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts break into a squall of bicycling, thundering passion -- Marsalis all scorching, rhythmic deep-tenor rasp, Watts matching his phrases volley for volley. If John Coltrane and Elvin Jones come to mind, so be it. Marsalis isn't about inventing a new vocabulary (despite his jazz-pop Buckshot LeFonque) but about working the modern tradition. On Requiem he invests himself in every word of that modern vocabulary, constantly playing with rhythmic patterns, inflections, accents, the shined or burred surface of every note and phrase. Long-time collaborators Watts and Kenny Kirkland are key here, and newcomer Eric Reavis has no trouble fitting in (Kirkland died before the album's completion). Highlights aside from the opener ("Doctone," named for Kirkland) include an astute Keith Jarrett tribute ("Lykief") and a piano-less trio ("Elysium") that conjures Sonny Rollins's playful best.

-- Jon Garelick



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