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NOVEMBER 24, 1997: 

**1/2 The Slackers

RED LIGHT

(Hellcat)

NYC's Slackers supply tight, sophisticated ensemble playing that yields a unified mix of R&B, rocksteady, pop, reggae, and jazz influences, with a lot of credit going to the deft horn section. The disc features everything from an obligatory tribute to the old school ("Cooking with Tommy," for the Skatalites' Tommy McCook) and bawdy tales of indiscretions ("Married Girl" and the title track) to urban stealth ("Soldier," an eerie description of a cop) and finger-lickin' soul ("Fried Chicken/Mary Mary"), as well as a little tenderness in the heartfelt "I Still Love You." But it's all held together by a skulky presence, a kind of noir ethos that makes the disc more interesting than the frenetic thrash of ska-punk and gives the songs a smoothness lacking in most modern-day (third wave? fourth?) ska.

-- Mark Woodlief


*** Subrosa

NEVER BET THE DEVIL YOUR HEAD

(Sony 550 Music)

Guitarist Travis Tooke and drummer Jack Griego were the only survivors when a van carrying For Squirrels, a fledgling Florida foursome, overturned in 1995, killing their lead singer, bassist, and road manager. Tooke and Griego carried on as For Squirrels for a tour to support the band's debut, Example, with Andy Lord on bass and Tooke handling vocals. But it was painfully evident that bright promise had turned to grim survival, and you could hear it in the searing rage of Tooke's voice when he sang the group's hit "Mighty K.C."

The rage has abated in Never Bet the Devil Your Head's dark songs about grasping for what's just out of reach and what's too close at hand. Nihilism and death still loom in tracks like "Pretend," where the band use the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics of the Pixies and Nirvana. Yet Subrosa avoid the neo-grunge-clone routine and don't come across as heavy-handed, thanks to sharp songs that slice -- sometimes jaggedly, sometimes cleanly -- to the bone.

-- Jonathan Perry


* Spice Girls

SPICEWORLD

(Virgin)

The Spice Girls have left their colorful mark on a new collection of hits-to-be that insist -- no, demand -- not to be taken seriously, at least not on any of the levels of "meaningfulness" that usually preoccupy serious fans of pop music. Actually, as Page Three gals who elbowed their way onto the front page -- they are, after all, the royalty of Spice World, an empire that dwarfs the ever-shrinking British Empire -- Scary, Baby, Ginger, Posh, and Sporty have dared the powers that be to write them off as a joke.

I'm not taking the bait, at least not this time. Because as a follow-up to the multi-million-dollar manifesto Spice, the immaculately conceived Spiceworld represents the perfection of a new world economic order, one in which the marketing campaign is the product -- a system in which there is no line separating the advertisement from what is being advertised. Thus "Spice Up Your Life," Spiceworld's (un)pleasantly (aerobi)sizable opening track, with its insipid recitations of nursery-school semi-rhymes ("Colours of the world/Spice up your life/Every boy and girl/Spice up your life") effervescently encouraging the consumption of more Spice. And though the disco strings of "Move Over" may be sampled from some '70s hit, the song's significant appropriation is its Pepsi-inspired mantra sloganeering -- "Generation next/Generation next." Same goes for the amusing big-band finale, "The Lady Is a Vamp," which any make-up-counter connoisseur will recognize as a Chanel reference disguised as a Sinatra tribute. No, the big new British sound isn't jungle. It's jingle.

-- Matt Ashare


*** Patty Larkin

PERISHABLE FRUIT

(High Street)

The jacket announces that the album was "plucked, thumped, and sampled on stringed instruments," which generally means acoustic instruments accompanied by people tapping on the sides of acoustic instruments for rhythm. When Larkin departs from that recipe, as on the sharp, folkie-techno "Wolf at the Door" or the sunny, swaying "Pablo Neruda," it's fairly rewarding. Elsewhere, not having drums really pays off in helping the singer step toward the sparse simplicity and emotional directness of people like Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson -- a welcome change from the relative slickness of her last album. The best songs -- the dreamy, Jane Siberry-ish "Coming Up for Air" (featuring Siberry herself on a guest vocal) and, my favorite, the closing "Red Accordion" -- are the simplest and most unadorned. Also featured are background vocals by the Story's Jennifer Kimball and standout electric-guitar work by Marc Shulman, not to mention at least three different melody lines that would make excellent '70s Classic Rock Riffs.

-- Peter Travis


*1/2 Master P

GHETTO D

(No Limit/Priority)

Most pop commentators were amazed that this gangsta rap album came out of nowhere to top the charts its very first week of release. That only proves the hardcore faithful are on a different wavelength. They've watched Master P organize his own record company, direct and produce several homemade movies, and release a small slew of underground CDs in preparation for this breakthrough, an album that delivers the goods for 19 full-bore tracks with no spoken-word skits, special remixes, or other bullshit filler. For cognoscenti, its sales figures are proof that the word-of-mouth hip-hop underground will always honor hard work and integrity with eager devotion.

Regular pop fans, on the other hand, might notice only the album's awful raps. Whether enumerating the principles of drug dealing to young hommies or soft-pedaling the same hommies' inevitable murder ("I know you're in a better place"), Master P's sentiments are interminably loutish, his rhymes are prosaic, and his vocal style is blandly generic when it isn't blatantly derivative (Tupac, for one, is grave-robbed). Lesson: never underestimate the ignorance of inside enthusiasts.

-- Franklin Soults


*** KMFDM

MEGALOMANIAC

(WAX TRAX)

Germany's KMFDM began their uneven career as an industrial band; since then they've gradually modified their sound from hard noise to the glam of gothic. Although they've frequently wandered way off course (plenty of shapeless CDs in the KMFDM catalogue) thanks to their knack of overplaying both the heavy foot and the quirky humor, there's none of that here -- just darkly repetitious mood beats, spooky distortions, and even some touches of pop-song melody.

On the misleadingly titled "Anarchy," for example, they sound almost as sweet as radio pop; on the CD's title track, the noise sweeps forward, grandly, as ceremonious as Enigma and as cute as Pet Shop Boys. Still, the bitter boom-and-zoom laughter that's always been their specialty gets plenty of room to spank you. The sonic density of tracks like "Down and Out," "Waste," "Stray Bullet," and "Leid und Elend" packs plenty of muscle power, heavy as a weightlifter, from first note to last. But none of it, thanks to those spooky voice distortions, feels the least bit leaden.

-- Michael Freedberg


** John McLaughlin

THE HEART OF THINGS

(Verve)

One look at the personnel credits and you know you're in trouble. Note particularly the presence of keyboardist Jim Beard, who's adept at lousing up nearly every CD he appears on with annoyingly gauche chord stabs using the cheesiest synth sounds known to Yamaha's R&D department. This album is, sadly, no exception. Adding to the contempo-jazz aroma is McLaughlin's own guitar work, much of which is played through a MIDI hook-up that makes his ax sound as if it were submerged under 20 feet of water. Worse, though his sense of invention and hair-raising velocity is intact, the fire of old is conspicuously absent. In fact, despite Gary Thomas's jumpy sax, Dennis Chambers's Billy Cobham-esque drumming, and some interesting compositions, the whole album is flat and unaffecting. And the direct quote from Mahavishnu's classic "The Dance of Maya" during "Mr. D.C." only underlines what's missing.

-- Mac Randall


**1/2

BENTLEY RHYTHM ACE

(Astralwerks)

If funky, happy techno can be sold on personality alone, then Bentley Rhythm Ace have the charts wrapped up. Here's the recipe: put Mike Stokes, an unemployed electrician, and Richard March, formerly the bass player for Pop Will Eat Itself, into a tricked-out psychedelic VW bus, add samplers and a big pack of old disco records, a seriously campy costume wardrobe, and stir. Out come sniggly guitar grooves, thumping bass, a few nods to hip-hop culture, and a lot of undulating house beats. The Bentleys are silly all the time: the digitized joyride of "Ragtopskodacarchase" and the retro-cool parody of "Who Put the Bom in the Bom Diddleye Bom" sneak up and make you giggle. With their penchant for outrageousness, polyvinyl clothing, and rump-shaking slicked-up funk, BRA may not be innovative, but they are a lot of fun -- especially at massive volume.

-- Chris Tweney


**1/2 Anson Funderburgh & Sam Myers

THAT'S WHAT THEY WANT

(Black Top)

If you found the blues sitting in a plain brown paper bag, it would sound like this. That's a compliment. This is no-frills, working-man's blues sung (or, more precisely, hollered) by Dallas harpman Myers and backed -- sometimes fronted -- by his young guitar-slinging sidekick, Funderburgh. This CD marks their 10 years collaborating, and if anything they're more economical than ever. Myers delivers his punch lines like a junkyard dog; Funderburgh plays the tricky rabbit, running agile circles of straight-ahead stingy guitar around him. They're best when they're joking, covering something like Delbert McClinton's "Monkey Around" or the anti-feminist "I Don't Want You Cutting Off Your Hair." Or when Funderburgh's laying the licks down thick, as he does on his own "Mudslide."

-- Ted Drozdowski



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