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AUGUST 23, 1999: 

*** Tricky JUXTAPOSE (Island)

Tricky's never made an "easy" album. More venturesome than the average popster, he knows that covert communiqués will better serve his status as an insurgent. Regardless, pop has always arisen from the Brit b-boy's clever experiments -- his anxiety-drenched melanges are both canny and catchy.

The trip-hop avatar's pithy new Juxtapose finds him looking outside the charmed circle that has previously helped him create his hermetic sound. Here he's down with Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs, and with Dame Grease, the producer who helped DMX turn anger into art. As Juxtapose's 10 addictive tracks swirl by, Tricky and crew make a case for the vanguard's having a more savvy pop sense than it gets credit for. It's an achievement that comes down to design. Repetition, dissonance, haze -- Tricky's architectural sense shows insights into just how gripping computer-generated smoke and mirror moves can be. No one else has cast claustrophobia in such an appealing way.

"Hot like a Sauna" is a good example. Three vocalists (Street Dog and Kioka Williams share the mike) vie for position. A "horn" line echoes in the air. Four or five discrete pulses zip around one another. When the track ends, you're humming the chorus. But there is no chorus. Simultaneously radical and cogent? That's tricky enough for me.

-- Jim Macnie

*** Townes Van Zandt A FAR CRY FROM DEAD (Arista Austin)

It's evident from the title here that, two and a half years after his death, at age 52, Townes Van Zandt's cult status is being stoked. But in his case that's deserved -- even while he lived, Van Zandt was something of an apparition, a character of mythological proportion. Born into a Texas oil fortune, he chose a path of drinking and drifting that fostered his ability to write country-folk ballads of piercing emotional clarity without ever lapsing into lurid sentimentality. Like the subjects in his songs, Van Zandt was complex, neither hero nor villain.

Although he released 15 albums on (mostly) small labels, the demos that formed the basis of A Far Cry were recorded at a neighbor's house over the 10-year period preceding the singer's death. Consisting mostly of Van Zandt chestnuts like "Rex's Blues" and "Pancho and Lefty" (along with two previously unreleased songs), the vocal and guitar tracks Townes left behind are embellished here by Nashville studio musicians who rarely overstep their bounds, creating a sparse landscape around him. The few missteps -- too much reverb, and an errant guitar solo on "Sanitarium Blues" -- still don't overwhelm Van Zandt's well-weathered vocals, which have aged to match his tales and are as haunting as a voice from the other side.

-- Meredith Ochs

***1/2 Salif Keita PAPA (Metro Blue)

Nothing comes easily for Mali's moody superstar. Keita's take on a rock album has been talked about and fussed over for more than three years, spanning recording sessions in Bamako, Paris, and New York, various remixes, and a change of record companies. The end result features simpler, blunter rhythms than have been common in Keita's past work but the same careful songwriting, arranging, and visceral delivery that have marked his best efforts. Keita has the vocal power to fill out these layered, muscular grooves, especially on "Bolon," a dark, rocking song of mourning, and the soulful ballad "Abede."

Vernon Reid co-produced the album, but his guitar voice is apparent only occasionally, even less than the kora voice of guest instrumentalist Toumani Diabate. What emerges most strongly is Keita's own grand, shapeshifting musical conception. These durable songs mark a new chapter in one of the most varied repertoires of any African artist. Keita has proved he can make a rock album, but don't expect him to do it again.

-- Banning Eyre

*** QUANNUM SPECTRUM (Quannum Projects)

De La Soul tempered the crabapple content of 1991's sprawling De La Soul Is Dead with interludes aplenty: episodic skits that dramatized playground brawls, inane game shows, and (most crucially) the patter of the DJs on a fictional urban-contemporary station, call letters WRMS. The conceit let De La spitball clueless black-radio "personalities" while acknowledging radio itself as an inescapable city-life soundtrack.

Eight years later, the newly commissioned Quannum Projects collective (who, as the Solesides Crew, debuted in 1995 with a college-radio highlight tape, Radio Sole) drop a disc hosted by "Mack B-Dog," an actual jock captured live on the sleep-deprivation shift. For DJ Shadow, Latyrx, Blackalicious, and the rest of Quannum's house mavericks, Mack's drawl signifies how far left of the dial we are. Quannum Spectrum's playlist has a deceptive rootsiness -- cuts like "Concentration," teaming the Quannum stable with Jurassic 5, feel totally trad in spirit. But Sugar Hill Gang's Big Bank Hank would swear off White Castle to crack this wise and flow this fluidly. And at the end of the broadcast day, Spectrum is less about roots-rap sole searching and more about saving soul music itself, handing R&B's debased fundamentals back to the non-hacks. Joyo Velarde's "People like Me" is as supple as peak Brand New Heavies (thank you, N'Dea), and Lyrics Born (this disc's jumpout star) maximizes his funky bellow on "I Changed My Mind," weaving between the buttons, flaunting pipes as gritty as an old Chess single.

-- Alex Pappademas

*** Mr. Wright STARTIME SIDEREAL SOUNDS (Le Grand Magistery)

Kevin Wright -- or Mr. Wright, to his fans -- is nothing if not astute. The Brit singer/songwriter waits until the end of his debut to break out "Strange Feeling," which that seesaws between two staccato chords while he recites a dreary realist narrative worthy of a Ken Loach film. Before arriving at this shadowy crossroads, Wright and accompanying musicians wobble through arrangements like drunks trying to walk a straight line. They manage not to fall over -- in fact, "Paraphernalia" is a better Roxy Music approximation than anything from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, all lush and accented with oblique female backing vocals. And "You're a Queen" is a glam slam, with keening synths ricocheting around a midtempo stomp.

Wright doesn't get bogged down in Bowie land -- he pushes off to explore other aesthetics, from sensitive, strummy folk rock ("Life Is Elsewhere") to lightheaded bossa nova/lounge ("The Balloon Race"). And he twists his words and melodies playfully, transforming sentimentality into a menagerie of morbid thoughts, estranged feelings, and sad tales of love gone stale.

-- Richard Martin

*** Magnet SHARK BAIT (PC Music)

Singer/songwriter Mark Goodman has a knack for attracting a rotating stable of top-shelf alterna-rock rockers old and new (well, newer), and in that sense the name of his band is apt. What we have here, then, is either the best Cracker album since The Golden Age or a nifty souvenir from a partially reunited Camper Van Beethoven. This time around, Goodman -- who lured ex-Velvets drummer Moe Tucker out of semi-retirement a couple years back for Magnet's debut, Don't Be a Penguin -- has enlisted the guitar/keyboard/production efforts of Cracker/Camper frontman David Lowery, Sparklehorse sideman/Camper alum Jonathan Segel, and Johnny Hickman and Bob Rupe (Cracker's guitarist and bassist, respectively). Also aboard is House of Freaks/Gutterball guitarist Bryan Harvey and a house party of next-door neighbors, psychiatrists, one-time Hanson (yeah, that Hanson) engineers, and Tucker, who plays a cameo role here, appearing on two tracks.

And herein lies the quandary of this kind of "supersession" approach. On the one hand, Shark Bait's a cleverly cool disc of sly pop references that range from the raggedly Cracker-like chug of "Drag" to the cold shoulder VU-by-way-of-Luna-isms of "Over You" to the Steve Wynn-esque rhyme whines of "Esque." On the other, Magnet sound mostly like, well, somebody else.

-- Jonathan Perry

*** Kevin Coyne SUGAR CANDY TAXI (Ruf)

British singer/songwriter Kevin Coyne is a strange one. As influenced by the rough-and-tumble sounds of Mississippi blues as by his job as a counselor to London drug addicts, he arrived in the '70s with a cawing birdcall voice and a collection of songs about madness, guilt, and despair. His signature tune was the chilling asylum classic "House on the Hill," cut when the then unknown guitarist Andy Summers was in his employ.

Thirty-six albums into his career, Coyne has seen his own ghosts -- dealing with alcoholism and his slide from cult hero to outright obscurity over the decades -- and emerged gray-haired but bright-eyed. Sugar Candy Taxi is a gas, straddling folk, rock, pop, free jazz, and nursery rhymes. Even when he's complaining in "Porcupine People" about the pricks that make life a bitch, there's something human, kindly, and content in his cackle. Except, perhaps, in "Almost Dying," which his Ozzy-ish vocal and matching guitar riff turn into a dwarf Black Sabbath rant. Full of vigor and playful imagination, this is a comeback from the land of Nevermore.

-- Ted Drozdowski

*** Johnnie Bassett & the Blues Insurgents PARTY MY BLUES AWAY (Cannonball Records)

Johnnie Bassett has been a pillar of the deep, deep Detroit blues scene more or less since the Eisenhower Administration. But all those juke-joint years haven't beat the man down. Instead, the 63-year-old self-taught guitarist and singer is in fine fettle, surrounded by a finger-popping band kicking out straight-ahead shuffles and lowdown blues for dancing. Over the years, Bassett has been a sideman on dozens of Fortune and Chess singles and has played with heroes from jazzy vocalist Dinah Washington to boogie mumbler John Lee Hooker.

All that experience shows in subtle ways on Party My Blues Away, as it has on his other recent outings as a leader. His singing is pliable and rich with personality, a little froggy but not so much so that he can't pull it off when he takes a chance. His guitar playing is funky and versatile, and Bassett cites guitarists' guitarists like Billy Butler and T-Bone Walker as influences. Young keyboard stud Chris Codish wrote many of the tunes, and the Blues Insurgents know both how to play and how to stay out of the way.

-- Bill Kisliuk

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