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DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

**1/2 Whale



Give a listen to a Swedish band who -- at last! -- don't always sound 110 percent British or American. The five musicians of Whale play themselves, mostly, as Euro as they wanna be -- which means vocals by Cia Soro that fly as softly as those of Abba's Anni-Frida and Agnetha, and accompaniments that draw from angst-laden, Europop sources: actressy rock ("Crying at Airports"), Enigma ("Roadkill"), Belgian techno ("Four Big Speakers"), Abba ("Go Where You're Feeling Free"), and even space-metal ("Losing Control"). The funky drums and the quickened new-jill rhythms of most of these songs add to the little-girlish effects Soro projects. Whale's rhythmic foibles and vocal flutters work magic, except for when strains of Brit-pop irony and American sarcasm lead them away from the open-ended dreaminess and live-it-up noisiness of their darkly joyous music.

-- Michael Freedberg

**1/2 Sankai


(Sankai Music)

Sankai's second release is a five-song EP that shows the band experimenting with some new grooves. Two years ago the Boston outfit delivered an impressive album of soukous material. Although their sound remains grounded in Afro-pop, they've begun to incorporate elements of reggae, mbaqanga, and even blues rock. "Nzila" blends a Congolese rumba with the South African township style popularized in the US by Paul Simon; two Jimi Hendrix tunes -- "Little Wing" and "Hey Joe" -- are reinterpreted as reggae numbers. The covers come off as curious genre-bending experiments, evidence that this band have yet to reach their musical destination. But they also reflect one of Sankai's strengths: their non-formulaic approach to African-based music.

-- Alan Waters

***1/2 P.M. Dawn


(Gee Street)

P.M. Dawn are hip-hop by cultural association -- they're black, they're proud, J.C./The Eternal used to program all his beats, and rapper/singer Prince Be was once pushed off stage by K.R.S. One. But their old-school training was always part of a well-rounded liberal-arts curriculum that included everything from the Beatles to the Beats and continues to serve this cunningly dynamic Jersey City duo remarkably well. Less interested in sampling Lennon and McCartney than in strolling down an Abbey Road of their own creation -- a longer and windier road that passes by Al Green's church and Smokey Robinson's Motown -- they've progressively eschewed the formal trappings of hip-hop, like two soulful Siddharthas on the path to pop enlightenment. What's left -- trad crafted songs made from acoustic and electric guitars, piano, bass, drums, vocal harmonies, and the occasional synth -- brings to mind vintage Prince, less sex-obsessed but just as sexy. It's where De La Soul might have journeyed if any of them could sing like the Purple One, or what Beck's Mutations could sound like if soul music were more than just another pseudo-ironic costume in his second-hand closet.

-- Matt Ashare

***1/2 Pandelis Karayorgis Trio



Pianist Karayorgis, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Randy Peterson negotiate 10 free-time meditations in slow-to-medium tempos, and the results are just about perfect. Combine the tensile strength of Lennie Tristano's single-note lines with the free rhythmic interplay of the old Paul Bley trios and there you have it. "Free" doesn't mean "no groove," and 4/4 is never entirely out of the picture. The trio's idea of syncopation extends to "weak"-beat accents, implied-beat accents, the broad sustain of McBride's bass (he mixes abstract patterns with deep, deep walking), and Peterson's ability to swing on an open hi-hat splash or the mix of kick-drum thumps with a deceptively casual roll off his snare. It's a conversational pulse that throbs behind the beat, deathlessly hip. The economical tunes average five minutes, including pieces by Eric Dolphy ("Miss Ann"), Ken McIntyre ("Lautir"), and Ellington ("Frustration"), as well as a strong handful of originals by Karayorgis and one by McBride.

-- Jon Garelick

*1/2 Heltah Skeltah


(Duck Down/Priority)

For all its .44-packing pretensions, Heltah Skeltah's Magnum Force strikes more like a .22. This sophomore effort by the Brooklyn duo Ruck and Rock falls into a growing category of hip-hop albums that are perfectly decent but never great. Although Ruck and Rock are blessed with two of the more distinctive voices and flows in the rap world, the album is conceptually monotonous and the production uninspired. The best moments come during the short, between-song skits, as in the drug-seller parody "2 Keys" or the hilarious "Call Tyrone," which follows up on Erykah Badu's notorious song of the same name from the man's point of view. Unfortunately, those fleeting displays of wit don't carry over to the songs. From a half-hearted remake of Main Source's "Lookin' at the Front Door" to any of the numerous braggadocio tracks -- "I Ain't Havin' That," "Gunz 'N Onez" -- Magnum Force offers nothing you haven't heard done better before.

-- Oliver Wang

**1/2 Ednaswap



Here is Ednaswap's bid to be remembered as something more than the band who recorded three versions of "Torn" before Natalie Imbruglia struck gold with it. Produced by the LA quintet's guitarist/composer Scott Cutler, the CD is a treasure trove (or at least a costume-jewelry box) of radio-friendly pop hooks anchored in melodies and harmonies that can only be described as Beatlesque. (That's groovy, Summer-of-Love-era Beatlesque -- dig those descending-chord la-la-las on "Safety Net," or that mystical, George Harrison-ish "Without Within.") The group's chief asset, however, is the supple voice of Harvard grad Anne Preven, which is expressive enough to transcend her often vapid, navel-gazing lyrics. She's versatile, capable of a variety of textures that almost makes her sound like a different singer on each song. (She could be the Indigo Girls, with Emily Saliers's honeyed overtones, Amy Ray's throaty rumble, and both singers' dogged earnestness.) But her tart sharpness gives Ednaswap a mature sound that can't be dismissed as a carbon copy of anyone else.

-- Gary Susman

*1/2 Dru Hill


(Island Black Music)

In their press kit, this rough-looking quartet claim that their 1996 debut was a mega-platinum smash because it left behind predecessors like Boyz II Men and Jodeci with the hard, raw freshness of "alternative R&B." But despite copping their look and new album title straight from rap's notorious Wu-Tang Clan and opening the disc with a few doomy, vaguely Wu-ish numbers -- "This Is What We Do" even features a winning guest rap from Method Man -- Dru eventually take refuge in a long string of sing-song jams that reduce the idea of tender romance to bland sappiness, just the way the old boyz did. You might be able to distinguish Babyface's throwaway from Diane Warren's requisite contribution if you try, but why bother? Despite the crew's strained vocals, Enter the Dru is about surrendering to prefabricated sentimentality. If that's "dangerous," it's in a far more insidious way than their tattoos and facial piercings pretend.

-- Franklin Soults

***1/2 Drew Gress and Jagged Sky


(Soul Note)

Bassist Drew Gress, a veteran of bands as diverse as the Fred Hersch trio and Tim Berne's Paraphrase, makes an impressive debut as a leader here. He gets the best his quartet Jagged Sky (with alto-saxophonist Dave Binney, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Kenny Wolleson) by shuffling compositions and arrangements to allow for the bass occasionally to be the lead voice and alto sax to take on a supporting role, by setting up grooves and deconstructing them. The group responds with thoughtful soloing. The natural flow of tunes like "Becoming Unraveled" and "Dolomite" sound effortless. But music this sophisticated and organic is hard work. Binney has never sounded so good in a recorded session. His burnished tone is set off by Monder's rich harmonies and tone color. Wolleson, an especially melodic drummer, enlivens whatever is going on in the music, whether it's free pulse or swing. And Gress is a sneak -- he fits so perfectly into so many situations that he's easy to take for granted.

-- Ed Hazell

*** Baaba Maal


(Palm Pictures/Island)

Among the first releases on former Island chief Chris Blackwell's new Palm Pictures label, Nomad Soul features the stunning vocal talents of Senegalese star Baaba Maal backed by the crack West African ensemble Daande Leñol, and a variety of production approaches, including an adventurous turn from Howie B., Brian Eno, and trumpet rogue Jon Hassell on the cyber-Africana of "Lam Lam." Maal's voice, a sturdy if gymnastic tenor with unearthly phrasing, ranges freely over piquant kora filigrees, layers of polyrhythmic djembe and drum-kit grooves, and interlocking guitar figures. Pan-African pop with a nod to modern dance-music sonics, Nomad embraces washy synth patches and hip-hop grooves ("Guelel"), slick R&B stylings ("Douwayra"), and Brazilian percussion work ("Yiriyayo"), without sacrificing Maal's distinctive singing and earnest social commentary.

-- James Rotondi

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