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JULY 19, 1999: 

*** Styles of Beyond 2000 FOLD (Hi-Ho/Mammoth)

Straight outta the San Fernando Valley, which they affectionately/sarcastically tag "the basement of the Los Angeles basin," Styles of Beyond don't presume to sell themselves or their area code as hard. But 2000 Fold -- their 1998 debut, originally issued by Bilawn Records, then picked up by the Dust Brothers' Hi-Ho -- still remains steeped in sense-of-place, right down to the way co-producer Vin Skully appropriates his nom de knob from the legendary Dodger Stadium shot caller. MCs Takbir and Ryu have a nonpareil feel for the syrupy texture of life in the smog-socked cradle of the porn industry and aren't embarrassed to use it.

On "Winnetka Exit," over a bass line comfortably lodged in minor-key first gear, Tak and Ryu string together freeway-culture snapshots: "Sippin' half a cup of decaf coffee with milk/Lookin' over the Valley like I'm walkin' on stilts." The song's about circling on fumes, needing a dime for the tollbooth; call it commuter funk. The production pulls instead of pushing -- shadowy sample scraps slide over soft-shoed, rim-shot-wrought beats. Hooks are rare but high-quality; "Survival Tactics" bubbles an Esquivellian siren's ululations through the grease of a Willie Bobo loop; "Muuvon" speed-chops a Chic guitar quote into muscle-relaxant percussion. There are some pseudo-topical UFO shout-outs, but nothing trumps a line like "I'm so fly, I take baths in malathion," which is hands down the best airborne-pesticide metaphor anyone's flipped since Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

-- Alex Pappademas

**1/2 Sleepyhead THE BRIGHTER SHORE (Sealed Fate)

On their new album, the East Village combo Sleepyhead propose that "nostalgia should become a criminal offense." If so, the knowing pop rock of The Brighter Shore would qualify as a high crime or at least a misdemeanor. You'd be hard-pressed to swing an independent counsel without hitting one of the abundant swipes at rock juvenilia from these Massachusetts expatriates -- spot the Who, "Blue Suede Shoes," "A Boy Named Sue," and frighteningly Cars-like synths among other petty thievery.

In their defense, I would suggest the band's retro-pop is not (as they sing) "pining for its lost innocence" but plundering the past for cheap thrills and giggles. Unlike Pavement, whose overeducated patter is mimicked by angular, slack-jawed music, Sleepyhead set their slanted and disenchanted lyrics against gooey, hand-clappy new-wave hooks. Dig the occasional tinny computer drums, sparse, early-'80s production values, and catchy koo-koo backing vocals from co-conspirator Rachel McNalley. And like any ironist worth his sneer, Chris O'Rourke's distinctive whisper croon scores some worthy couplets. "In a perfect world, things would be different/I'd have a different girl for each of my personalities/Flags would unfurl, and different nationalities" and "Just when my wounds healed/The Fifth Amendment was repealed" are two of my favorites.

-- Patrick Bryant

***1/2 Shaver ELECTRIC SHAVER (New West)

Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and his guitar-filleting son Eddy straddle rock and country music with arrogant, bad-ass confidence. As they should. They're offering one of the most potent combinations of lyric and instrumental muscle on the planet. And the beauty of it all is that despite the tanned-leather quality of Billy Joe's singing and the Jimmy-Page-meets-James-Burton swagger of Eddy's unremittingly brilliant and heavy playing, their songs are blatantly sentimental. The senior Shaver's always digging around in his heart for memories like the images of lost love and alcoholic excess that haunt "Thunderbird." And when he sings a line like "I'm a scarred-up old warrior who's paid all his dues," in the hopelessly devoted "Slave at the Feet of the Queen," it's not debatable. As for Eddy, he turns a mood blue with the whisper of a slide on steel strings, or chugs like a railroad engine on the ode to assholes "People and Their Problems" -- even quoting a little o' Zep's "Rock 'n' roll" at the song's tag. For wit, grit, and spirit, look no farther.

-- Ted Drozdowski

**1/2 Praga Khan TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SKIN (Antler Subway)

Here one of the core members of Belgian techno originals Lords of Acid takes the mike on his own again, backed by several LOA people, to smooth his way through 12 tracks that could pass for Eurodance pop. In fact, Khan sings almost like a romantic. Although his backing music makes use of some techno cool -- electronic melody, metallic but purring -- that makes LOA fly, the pervy presentation (by Nikki Van Lierop) that renders LOA songs so chilling is entirely missing. From "Breakfast in Vegas" and "Visions and Imaginations" to the probably definitive "Lonely" and "What's Wrong with Me," most of Khan's songs are sexy, light to the touch, dreamy; his singing almost croons. In "Far Beyond the Sun," his music and singing feel almost as wordless as music by the Orb. In "Isolation" and "Adult Entertainment," he toughens the beat and adopts some of the ironic sluttiness of an LOA song, but he never sounds as spiteful or disillusioned as Van Lierop. He just seems to be joshing -- the first move a lonely boy makes when he feels wrong with himself.

-- Michael Freedberg

**1/2 Manic Street Preachers THIS IS MY TRUTH TELL ME YOURS (Virgin)

The Manics' success in their native Britain is astounding. Really. This album, released there last fall, is their second in a row to sweep the Brit Awards (the UK Grammys). Even Nostradamus couldn't have predicted such a rosy future for the group at the beginning of the decade, when they first busted out of Wales as a leftist Guns N' Roses.

Like many anguished-but-aging hard-rockers, though, the Manics have softened over time. Beginning with their 1996 release, Everything Must Go, and continuing on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the band have toned down both the guitar assaults and the political overtones of their early work in favor of so many lilting, soul-searching ballads. Singer James Dean Bradfield, who assumed the spotlight when tortured guitarist Richey Edwards "disappeared" in 1995, has one hell of a voice, a rich tenor that carries the band even when the music plods, which too often is the case. The disc's biggest thrills, "Tsunami" and "You Stole the Sun from My Heart," are its only uptempo tracks. And when the Manics drag out the political manifestos of old ("If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next," a UK #1), they sound more like U2 than their idols the Clash. Still, everything here is heartfelt, and much of it is genuinely moving -- which is more than you can say for your average NME hype.

-- Sean Richardson

*** Kevin Burke IN CONCERT (Green Linnet)

With the Corrs and B*witched coming on like Spice leprechauns, and Riverdance filling auditoriums with lasers, the schism between trad and pop Celtic music has never been wider. Playing in the Bothy Band and Patrick Street, virtuoso Irish fiddler Burke has touted the homier verities for decades, relying on ancient airs and buoyant jigs to engage listeners without flash.

This gorgeous solo recital, his first such endeavor, was recorded in an Oregon coffeehouse, and its small scale provides a great view of Burke's ability to be both spirited and sentimental the old-fashioned way. "The Butterfly" is a slip jig that explains the program's aesthetic -- the fiddler futzes with tempo, milking nuance to create the unpredictable flittering of his subject. That kind of subtlety resounds on this disc. The gorgeous long tones of his ancient Jewish wedding tune allow for the mood to be both melancholy and joyous. And when pal Martin Hayes sits in on three tracks, momentum dominates melody. It's not easy to sculpt a fully compelling solo session, but Burke manages quite nicely.

-- Jim Macnie

** Duke Robillard NEW BLUES FOR MODERN MAN (Shanachie)

Twenty-five years after establishing himself as a modern-day monster of older blues-guitar styles, Duke Robillard is both displaying his known wares and reaching into new terrain on his Shanachie debut. The jabbing, razor-sharp lines on his original "Don't Fool with My Love" are a loving tribute to Johnny "Guitar" Watson's early Texas sides, and Duke and his two fine saxophone accompanists apply an easy, greasy, soul-drenched sheen to the extended instrumental "Big Bottom Blues." The pure-toned original leader of Roomful of Blues and later a Fabulous Thunderbird, Robillard is also blessed with an exuberant, warm voice, which is why it's so weird to hear him tackle Bob Dylan's extraordinarily dark "Love Sick," a dirge from Mr. Zimmerman's acclaimed 1997 release Time out of Mind (Columbia), or the border ballad "You're the Only One (Who Can Move Me That Way)." Robillard's skills can take him anywhere, including the suspenseful, rock-and-rolly peaks of "Love Sick," but even the blues material on this set is uneven, and as a result New Blues is not Duke's finest ride.

-- Bill Kisliuk

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