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DECEMBER 13, 1999: 

** Velvet Crush FREE EXPRESSION (Bobsled)

We haven't heard much from power-pop outfit Velvet Crush lately, and that's unfortunate for fans who like to hear the tradition of Byrdsian jangle and Big Star's blue-eyed soul carried on. On their fourth album in almost 10 years, Crush primaries Ric Menck and Paul Chastain gathered some musical friends in their Los Angeles living room (they bid adieu to both Providence and guitarist Jeffrey Underhill a few years back). The result is a fun romp that swaps the ebullience of their earlier work for a more worldly but less exciting wisdom.

That said, there is a party going on here. Opener "Kill Me Now" starts with an energetic "Come on!/Whoo!" and is one of a handful of tracks with glorious, seasoned harmonies. Matthew Sweet, with whom the boys regularly play, joins the fun and also helps produce. Although Sweet's own albums have a grittier rock edge than the Crush's, his melodic sensibility has always fallen right in line with theirs. The band's interest in country twang (via Sweetheart of the Rodeo) resurfaces on "Gentle Breeze" and "Heaven Knows," which feature pedal-steel master Greg Leisz. But with uncomfortably familiar songs like "Melody #1" ("Ruby Tuesday," anyone?) and "Things Get Better" (try "Blackbird" instead), Free Expression amounts to Velvet Crush's most mature but least inspired disc.

-- Lydia Vanderloo


*** Unwound A SINGLE HISTORY (Kill Rock Stars)

By January 1998, Unwound had released six consistently brash, unyielding records brimming with merits -- all before any of the trio's members had turned 30. Despite their youth (and in part because of side projects), there's been a two-year lull from this once-prolific outfit. So to fill the gap, they've rounded up seven years' worth of tracks from indie compilations and their own seven-inches.

This is the type of collection that is generally aimed at hardcore fans, because in indie rock a single, for example, isn't necessarily hit-single material. But A Single History boils Unwound down to their essence, and that makes it the next-best-thing to a new slate. The 17 songs here reflect the band's oeuvre, with a focus on grinding, heavily rhythmic punk tunes with dour titles ("Miserific Condition," a harsh, near-speed-metal rant, or the more tuneful, Sonic Youth-y "Negated") and a mild case of the experimental blues (the atonal horn-and-dub excursion "Census"). There's also a dark cover of the Minutemen's "Plight" and a lot of gloom-and-doom punk made palatable by the band's ace musicianship and intuitiveness. There's even a sample-and-squall diversion of Vesuvian proportions that clocks in at more than 10 minutes, with a title that encapsulates Unwound's musical and (most likely) existential philosophy: "The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is a Train."

-- Richard Martin


*** Pete Townshend LIVE: A BENEFIT FOR MARYVILLE ACADEMY (Platinum Entertainment)

To open this two-disc set, Pete Townshend finally gets around to covering Canned Heat's minimalist masterpiece "On the Road Again," a song ideally suited to his reedy voice and restless disposition. Along with a rambunctious reading of the old Who chestnut "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," it's a highlight on an album that otherwise offers few revelations and little in the way of a substantive reworking of familiar material.

Then again, that's really not the point of this concert, which was recorded live at the Chicago House of Blues during a charity benefit for Maryville Academy, an Illinois-based care facility for abused children. So it's entirely appropriate for Townshend to deliver a comforting set of faithfully rendered classics like "Let My Love Open the Door" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." The concert finds Pete in good (if mellower) voice and on good (if mellower) electric and acoustic guitar. For the kids, there's a superfluous but demographically enhancing appearance by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who joins Townshend for "Magic Bus" and "Heart To Hang Onto." And for a good cause, even I can take Eddie living out his Roger Daltrey fantasies for a few minutes.

-- Jonathan Perry


*** Left Nut EVERYTHING IT TAKES TO BE AN ASSHOLE (One Way)

Lots of Boston bands around 1990 were looking to get signed or famous. But as far as anyone could tell, Left Nut really did it for the nookie, not to mention the cheap drafts. Which usually meant they were too busy getting blasted to get the details right -- how many bands would spend valuable studio time recording a pair of covers (Devo's "Mongoloid" and BTO's "Takin' Care of Business") that they haven't even learned, much less rehearsed?

This nine-song disc is the second Left Nut collection that One Way has released this year. Since each runs only 20 minutes, they probably should have been combined into one solid retrospective. But the band were less reined-in during the sessions collected here, so it's truer to the chaos of their live shows. Songs are built around obscure in-jokes ("Bread on the Fridge"), or the need for a good party ("Five-Day Weekend"). Along with the aforementioned covers, it includes their one true Boston classic: the title song, in which singer Norman Jabar comes up with some inventive ways to call himself a jerk ("A slap-happy dipshit, a picture-perfect dildo"). The band got into hot water more than once by dedicating this song to bands they were opening for. Dildos also figure into "Sex Toys," a song whose pick-up lines are about as clumsy as the ones that people heard at the Rat when these guys played.

-- Brett Milano


*** June of 44 IN THE FISHTANK VOL. 6 (Quarterstick/Konkurrent)

June of 44 made a leap forward with last year's Four Great Points, a charming, melodic masterstroke that nailed a happy medium between singer/guitarist Jeff Mueller's epic storytelling and the band's tightly wound angular rock rhythms. After four full-lengths and one EP in four years (where they usually favored Slint's jarring dynamics), it was the Chicago-based quartet's first truly original statement.

This year's cohesive jazz-rock Anahata (Quarterstick) continued the move away from studio self-indulgence to healthy self-editing, and that helped prepare the band for the unusual opportunity documented on this disc. An invitation by the Dutch label Konkurrent to participate in its Fishtank series gives artists two full days in the studio to hammer out 20 to 30 minutes of music, a process that often yields indulgent recordings. J44 resisted that temptation, however, and they deliver some of their most refined tracks to date. On "Generate," the album's only non-instrumental, Mueller sings with hypnotic repetition, "Clear your mind/Simplify/Lose control," and the band follow suit, abandoning the rhythmic complexity of their early albums for the heady grooves that punctuated Four Great Points. Many of the songs rely on simple refrains, whether it's the languid guitar riff of "Henry's Revenge" or Fred Erskine's funk-fried bass on the tranquil "Degenerate." Combine these lows with the visceral punch of "Modern Hereditary Dance Steps" and "Pregenerate" and Vol. 6 packs a vital show of intuition and restraint that this series often lacks.

-- James Goncalves


***1/2 Cheb Mami MELI MELI (Mondo Melodia)

Algeria's Cheb Mami has emerged as the reigning master of pop rai. Even if he can never match the burly, gravitational forcefulness of Khaled, the style's best-known singer, Mami shows with this album that he has the most varied stylistic vocabulary on the contemporary scene. His arrangements feature his lithe voice as it flutters and soars, never losing focus and clarity. And his forays into hip-hop, reggae, new flamenco, and even Afro-Celtic music are not gratuitous.

In "Parisien du Nord" he uses dark melodies and a hip-hop feel to address his core audience, young second-generation North Africans living in France. Rai's overriding theme -- the pain of "unfortunate love" -- is prevalent here. But in "Bledi" ("My Country") Mami adapts a Mexican folk melody and propulsive flamenco rhythms to comment tenderly on the ravaging effects of civil war in his homeland. Rai's signature sound is a kind of Arabic world funk, and the title track is as catchy an example of that as you'll find. But it's the surprises -- like Mami mixing it up with a Scottish bagpipe on "Azwaw 2" -- that make this release so memorable.

-- Banning Eyre


**** BEASTIE BOYS ANTHOLOGY: THE SOUNDS OF SCIENCE (Grand Royal/Capitol)

One of the best parts of this two-CD, 42-track collection can be found deep inside the 77-page glossy-paged liner-notes booklet, where everybody's favorite rapping Jewish zen master, Adam Yauch, wrestles with the Beastie Boys' prankster past in a little mini essay about the song "Fight for Your Right." Strategically placed opposite a priceless vintage photo of Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D in belligerent party mode, each proudly wielding a can or bottle of Bud, the document in question is Yauch's disarmingly honest attempt to account for a legacy he's understandably not too comfortable with. "We decided to include this song because it sucks," he jokingly begins before going on to explain that the Boys' big rap-metal breakthrough started off as a "goof" but turned into a case of life imitating artlessness as the Beasties "became just what it was that we'd set out to make fun of." The moral of the story: "All of the sexist macho jerks in the world are just pretending cause they're caught in a rut, and maybe, at some point in the future, when the planets line up in a certain way, they'll snap out of it."

The Beasties, as the career-spanning Sounds of Science details, snapped out of it. More important, they pulled off the attitude adjustment without losing their artistic edge or cultural relevance. If anything, they've improved with maturity, something rare enough in rock and rarer still in rap. Sounds of Science loosely yet effectively documents the Beasties' evolution from snotty Bud-drinking punks to responsible world citizens with a social agenda, an ultra-hip boutique label, and a penchant for plugging directly into pop zeitgeists (from metal-rap to Dust Bros. retro-funk to, most recently, back-to-basics turntablism) that rivals '70s Bowie. It all tastes good, even if it wasn't always in good taste. And it's all represented here in a near perfect balance: plenty of hip-hop hits ("Sabotage," "Intergalactic") plus a few nuggets of hardcore ("Beastie Boys," "Time for Livin' "); funk-infused spiritual outreach ("Bodhisattva Vow") and amusing little in-jokes ("Country Mike's Theme," a hilarious live cover of "Benny and the Jets" with a woozy Biz Markie on the mike); most of the crucial tracks from major Beastie releases as well as the non-album tracks that matter, like Fatboy Slim's much improved remix of "Body Movin' " and the single version of "Jimmy James" (the one with the Hendrix samples intact). Who would have ever guessed that the "Fight for Your Right" boys had all of that in them?

-- Matt Ashare


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