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JULY 13, 1998: 

** The New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble

GET THIS!

(Moon Ska)

When ska first reared its head in early-'60s Jamaica, it was defined by the sound of American soul and jazz mixing with Caribbean rhythms. The New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble harks back to that era on Get This!, which brings together instrumental originals and ska-style reworkings of classic tunes by Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, and Aretha Franklin.

The New Yorkers' jazz leanings are manifest in the arrangements: most of the tunes open with the entire Ensemble playing the "head," followed by solo excursions by individual members of the group. Not that this is anything new in ska -- ska originators the Skatalites, for example, have been improvising since the '60s, as has Jamaican veteran guitarist Ernest Ranglin. This group, whose line-up features current (though not founding) members of the Toasters and the Skatalites, don't come close to matching the swinging big-band complexity of the Skatalites or the engaging improvisations of a virtuoso like Ranglin. Still, Get This works fine as a fun, danceable reminder of what ska was all about back in its early days.

-- Michael Endelman


**** Social Distortion

LIVE AT THE ROXY

(Time Bomb)

The meat-and-potatoes punk of Social Distortion is never less fun for all its familiarity, and on this live set both the fun and the passion prove indispensable. After all, they pretty much invented this kind of supercharged punkabilly, and they've perfected their delivery over nearly 20 years of playing out (earliest songs here date from 1981): the unison wall of guitars, the happy, relentless two-beat stomp, the scraped-string exclamations, the countrified hooks. Frontguy Mike Ness's bad-boy persona is a pose that rings true, as does the gravity of his born-to-lose tales of social alienation and love gone wrong. Consider this 17-song set (recorded in Hollywood last April) the perfect one-disc portable Social D. It's Ness the vocalist who's the revelation here: the mix keeps his voice -- and his words -- right up front with the guitars, and he pushes his swaggering pipes for maximum emotional heft without losing the pitch. Ness might trade in despair and alienation, but the catharsis -- from his first great song, "Another State of Mind," to signature covers like "Under My Thumb" and "Ring of Fire" -- is a punk tonic.

-- Jon Garelick


** Queen Latifah

ORDER IN THE COURT

(Flavor Unit/Motown)

Latifah has yet to make another album as hot and forceful as her debut, All Hail the Queen, which came out nine years ago. Order in the Court does begin promisingly, with the Queen barking out a steady, tricky flow that suggests she's been listening to Ghost Face Killer, on the super-tough "Bananas." After that, though, the album sinks into a series of ineffectual crossover attempts -- the pop hooks in the choruses have more oomph than Latifah's raps. She's all but abandoned the reggaefied edge and sassy verbosity of her early work, and it's not enough of a consolation that the new stuff goes down smoothly.

But the real problem with Order is creeping Puffy syndrome. Track after track is simply some old hit gussied up with some new words and maybe a little rap. There's really no excuse for changing a few words in "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and calling it "Paper," and though Latifah's a perfectly competent singer, she's not the Lauryn Hill she wants to be. She knows how to ride a sample if it's kept under control -- check out the way she bounces around the Malcolm McLaren beat of "Brownsville." But by immersing herself in the cozy glide of pop, she ignores the kind of muscular material that's her forte.

-- Douglas Wolk


*1/2 Natalie Merchant

OPHELIA

(Elektra)

Unlike her solo debut, Tigerlily, whose music was sparse to the point of enervation, Ophelia surrounds Merchant's doleful contralto with plush but restrained settings. Basses throb tastefully, keyboards and strings lend a lambent spice to the atmosphere. It's a pleasant sound but keyed very low. "Thick As Thieves," with an arrangement centered on Daniel Lanois's pastel guitar keening, subverts its doomy intent with an excess of politeness. Merchant's lyrics, which range from teeth-achingly banal to offhandedly obscure, only add to the album's lugubrious pace.

I can usually listen to almost anything, whether it's meant to cleave the skull or soothe the nerves; yet halfway through and confronted with yet another gauzy, soft-focused song, I couldn't help yawning so ferociously that tears came to my eyes. The disc's coda -- an instrumental reprise of the title cut devised by Gavin Bryars, an English composer who specializes in a sort of wintry positivism -- is a tony version of all that's preceded, which can best be summed up as easy listening for depressives.

-- Richard C. Walls


*** Marah

LET'S CUT THE CRAP AND HOOK UP LATER ON TONIGHT

(Black Dog)

You'd never know it from the twangy, rustic hues of their music or singer David Bielanko's achy-breaky drawl, but Marah (named after a river in the Book of Exodus) are from South Philly. Guess it makes sense -- Springsteen's from the swamps of Jersey, after all. And there are certainly a few nods to vintage Bruce's verse-spewin', harmonica-blowin' heartland trip here, as well as gestures toward some of the Boss's extended family of like-minded troubadours: Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, a less-laid back J.J. Cale, and a bar band covering variations on the Stones' "Country Honk." On their confident debut from Mississippi alterna-country band Blue Mountain's Black Dog label, Marah also toss in some unconventional, not entirely successful touches. An exuberant burst of Beatle-esque Magical Mystery horns opens "Fever," and dulcimers, xylophone, and bagpipes crash this country-rock party of loose talk, shambling grooves, and good-timy thrills. I could do without Philly sports announcer Harry Kalas's cameo intro to "Rain Delay," yet another baseball-as-metaphor-for-life number, but mostly things get off on the right foot.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Joe Ely

TWISTIN' IN THE WIND

(MCA Nashville)

The latest from Texas rambler Joe Ely displays plenty of his pithy high-plains poetry and hard country sound, with more of an electric edge than on 1996's well-regarded Letter to Laredo. A former Flatlander (Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock were the other two), Ely offers earnest, matter-of-fact vocals, earthy observations, and straight-ahead rhythms that are the very essence of the style industry types now call Americana. A descending slide guitar and thumping bass drum lay the stark foundation for the secular sermon "Roll Again"; the rocking laborer's lament "You're Working for the Man" brings to mind the best of Springsteen's early work. Ely places his lazy-mouthed vocals in a simple setting spiced up with a smorgasbord of border sounds: Spanish-style acoustic guitar dramatizes several cuts, there's a little accordion here and a little slide guitar there, and an old-fashioned twin guitar shootout even turns up on one number. He also has fun with the lilting Tejano novelties "If I Could Teach My Chihuahua To Sing" and "Nacho Mama." Twistin' in the Wind isn't as deep as Ely can go, but it's a strong dose of his flinty blend of mindfulness and muscle.

-- Bill Kisliuk


*** Janis Joplin with Big Brother & the Holding Company

LIVE AT WINTERLAND '68

(Columbia Legacy)

You'd be right to be skeptical of Columbia's newest round of vault cleaning. But it would be foolish not to hear Live at Winterland '68 as roaring testimony to Joplin and her band at the height of their powers. Whereas Cheap Thrills was largely a studio album tricked up to create the illusion of a concert recording, this CD yields 75 minutes from two genuinely live concerts. Joplin rushes the vocal on "Down on Me," and her rendition of "Ball and Chain" is better on Cheap Thrills, but her very tentativeness and her daredevil spirit of experimentation on this 1968 recording is fascinating. Never the most subtle of blues belters, the Joplin who shows up on Winterland is refreshingly free of the mannerisms that became legend on her later studio albums. And her backing band? Sloppy, yes, but Sam Andrew's psychedelic guitar noodlings still communicate urgency and whimsy, the sound quality is pleasantly clear for the time and place, and the extensive liner notes all make this an essential collection for fans of '60s rock.

-- Norman Weinstein



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