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MARCH 1, 1999: 

** Rob Swift


(Asphodel Records)

Soulful Fruit, Rob Swift's 1996 mixtape-turned-LP, was an unqualified gas -- talent on loan from God applied to rough-edged, misty-eyed soul records on loan from Pete Rock. And when they play live, Swift and his crew, the X-ecutioners, are merciless groove chasers, hotdogging the beat like Harlem Globetrotters.

But on his first solo studio album, Swift comes off like a well-intentioned music-theory professor and ends up sucking the air out of the room. The Ablist translates the pathos of New York underground rap to the turntables, with Swift demonstrating his methodical Technics techniques amid frowning flute loops and moody, concrete-canyon ambiance (think Mobb Deep). He backs a few generic tough-guy rappers, cuts up classical piano, and trades licks with a five-piece band on a plodding acid-jazz flashback called "All That Scratching Is Making Me Rich," until you're like, "Okay, okay, DJs are musicians -- can we go now?" It all gets ridiculous on "Turntablist Anthem": while a Vinia Mojica-type vocalist croons "Hey DJ, keep playin' that song, keep scratchin'," MC Gudtyme pays tribute to Swift's amazing backwards, between-the-legs DJ style and the "sluts on the side" who worship his skills. Sure, it's catchy, but does turntablism really need its own "King of the Surf Guitar?"

-- Alex Pappademas

*** Phillip Johnston Transparent Quartet


(Koch Jazz)

Johnston's claim to fame was the apparently quirky, lovable Microscopic Septet. He also has a flair for movie music, and this drummerless chamber group prove themselves capable of going every which way. Mostly, Johnston is interested in the variety of voicings he can get out of soprano sax, vibes, piano, and bass. "Memory" is a suite-like dreamscape that opens with cinematic disembodied vibes and a Bach-like descending piano line before eventually evolving into cooking, straight-time jazz. "Plantella Rock" is like a vintage West Coast jazz outing, with alto and baritone (pianist Joe Ruddick doubles) bopping in unison. There's also a Chopin mazurka with a touch of the kind of oom-pah cabaret piano that probably inspired Chopin in the first place, and one of Raymond Scott's toy-like pieces, "The Sleepwalker." Given his playful, old-timy tunefulness, you could call Scott the presiding spirit here. Although Ruddick's "The Club" is very NPR.

-- Jon Garelick

*** Nancy Wilson



Are there enough diehard Heart fans left to justify an acoustic solo album by one of the two frontwomen? Recorded at a tiny Los Angeles club, this informal set includes new songs, cover tunes, and only a couple of Heart oldies. It's less a commercial effort than a warm fuzzy for old Heart fans who absorbed the first two albums in high school.

To her credit, sister Nancy Wilson (the thinner, blonder one) sounds as if she'd never left that era, handling Simon & Garfunkel's "Kathy's Song" and Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" with the same winsome sensitivity that the best coffeehouse folksingers did in the '70s. Done in the same earnest style, Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" is more touching than one might expect. Only one track, "These Dreams," recalls Heart's brief stint as a streamlined '80s hit machine. It benefits from a lighter touch here, as does the older Heart hit "Even It Up" -- originally a sexual-equality anthem, now a pretty good come-hither song. Like every good Heart ballad, the mandolin-led "Half Moon" is basically Led Zep's "Battle of Evermore" with different words. Another new song, "Everything," has the kind of lyric no grown-up should try getting away with -- "My desire is to die where the ocean meets the fire" -- but even that sounds reassuring.

-- Brett Milano

**** Memphis Slim



Swinging blues and boogie don't get better than these 15 sides (with four alternate takes). And they've rarely sounded better either. This album continues Delmark's raid on the vaults of the United label, which did its work in Chicago's famed Universal Studios, which was Duke Ellington's favorite place to record. Every nuance of the band comes through -- especially the dynamics of the late Slim's booming, resonant voice (he was a smooth and powerful blues shouter along the lines of Big Joe Turner, but with more subtle control of his voice) and the timbre of the wailing saxophones.

These sessions, from '52 and '53, also capture then 22-year-old Matt "Guitar" Murphy, a budding genius whose sliding chords and jazzy scales keep the music distinctly uptown. He's especially hot on the guitar instrumental "Backbone Boogie," blazing over the romping beat. But it's Slim's show, and the grown-up tears of "Got To Find My Baby" as well as the cocky defiance of "Memphis Slim U.S.A." show a beautifully expressive range that was as big as this giant of man himself.

-- Ted Drozdowski

** Julian Lennon


(Fuel 2000/Universal Music)

Julian Lennon's never had an easy time of things -- his work will never, can never, be judged in a vacuum. He's John's kid, and what's more, he sounds eerily like him in a way that his little brother probably never will.

His first album in seven years doesn't recall the calculating pop of his earlier work, but neither does it hit very hard on first listen. A mix of orchestrated ballads and, yep, Beatles-esque pop, Photograph Smile lacks both the indie cred of Sean's debut and the glossy chart potential of Julian's earlier work. That said, it's earnest without being too preachy or embarrassing -- not an easy feat in an age when irony is often our deepest emotion -- and full of winning melodies. "How Many Times" is a great jangly pop song, despite the album's most overwrought lyrics, and "Cold" is pleasingly minor-key catchy. But the track people are going to notice is "I Don't Wanna Know," a song Julian said he intended as a kind of Beatles tribute. After the first four bars you're convinced someone's sneaked on Hard Day's Night. It's exactly the kind of song you're expecting Jude to write -- a John Lennon song.

-- Ben Auburn




Compiled by Dance Music Authority magazine, this offers 16 tracks of the girls-in-space disco style known as NRG. Many were made in Ontario (it was Torontoan NRG lovers who made Alanis Morissette a disco star), where the screaming diva glimmer of Mix Factory's "Take Me Away" and the I'll-take-you-theres that Marina fusses over in "Um-Lotty-Da" commonly achieve pop-radio status -- as in the US they do not. Even the US, however, heard La Bouche's slick "I Love To Love," a '98 remix of Hazell Dean's horny-wallflower hit "Searchin' (Gotta Find a Man)," and a hip-house remake of Taylor Dayne's "Tell It to My Heart." As for rocketsongs, always high in an NRG set, this CD features M.Gi.M's "Be Good to Me," Natalie Page's "This Is the Time," Osmania's "Face of a Stranger," and Rhythm Reaction's "You're Not Alone," spaceboy ecstasies that -- as the prophetic words of Mix Factory's diva puts it -- are "what paradise brings, yeah!"

-- Michael Freedberg

*** Diane Izzo


(Sugar Free)

A young Chicago songstress who recorded four-track tunes in the privacy of her own bedroom before Brad Wood took her into the studio with a backing band for this indie debut, Diane Izzo certainly shares some biographical details with Liz Phair. And, though her hair's darker, she shows some physical resemblance to Phair early on in One, thanks to the blunt tone and curvaceous melody of her vocals on the disc's second tune, "The Real One."

But it's not long before Izzo is flexing and stretching that voice up and down, digging for deeper notes almost out of her range in songs littered with fragments of ominous religious-tinged poetry ("Choking on the exodus and the revolution/You holy martyrs, its your first communion") in a manner that can't help bringing to mind the young Patti Smith doing her Dylan thing. Only Smith was always fighting the tug of a garage band who wanted to be rock-and-roll stars, whereas Izzo's prickly free verse settles comfortably against a backdrop of Eastern-inflected guitar rock that evokes some of the same hoodoo love vibes as PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love. Either way, Izzo's in good company.

-- Matt Ashare



(OM Records)

Om's 1997 Deep Concentration comp packed tracks by some of the country's rising young turntablists and underground MCs, and its follow-up is every bit as solid. The disc features talented sound collagists, MCs, and turntable wizards weaned on the teachings of Double D & Steinski, Marley Marl, Mantronix, and the Bomb Squad. The Beat Junkies' "They Don't Understand," Mixmaster Mike's "Schwartz via Aghaarta," Rob Swift's "Age of Television," and the Scratch Perverts' raw and live "Course of Action" are some of the best cut-and-scratch workouts you'll hear anywhere. For words and beats there are lyrical lessons from Siah & Yeshua Dapo Ed, Organized Konfusion (with DJ Spooky), the UK's Task Force, and Mass Influence. And postmodern dub dramas like Sole & JC's "What It Is," DJ Ming & FS's "Madhattan Bound," Part 2's "Wireless 2000," and Saga & Mei Lwun's "Slike DAT" contribute to this exceptional sampling of tracks from today's teeming hip-hop underground.

-- Brian Coleman

**1/2 Colin James



Note that II in the title -- press notes for James's sixth release boast that the Canadian blues-rocker anticipated the current swing craze with his first Little Big Band CD way back in 1993. Okay, so James is no more an opportunist than, say, Brian Setzer. But what makes the album sound fresh is James's expansive approach to the narrowly defined genre of jump blues. He's unearthed some obscure gems (Daddy Cleanhead's "Somethin's Goin' On in My Room," Memphis Slim's "I'm Lost Without You," Jimmy Wilson's "Jumpin' from Six to Six"), many by artists (Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, Jackie Wilson) whose connection to jump blues is tenuous at best. James's two originals, "Rocket to the Moon" and "Triple Shot," mesh effortlessly with the relics. Although James's vocals are earnest, his growling blues guitar fills give adrenalized updates to arrangements dominated by the close-harmony brass section. And the band prove stop-on-a-dime tight on such rhythmically tricky numbers as Charles's "Mary Ann" and Cab Calloway's "C'mon with the C'mon."

-- Gary Susman

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