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DECEMBER 20, 1999: 

***1/2 LE TIGRE (Mr. Lady)

The young lady sounds unsure of herself. "We've talked about it in letters, and we've talked about it on the phone," she says, voice cracking as seagulls cackle in the background, in what's like a cross between a douche commercial and the intro to the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back." "But how you really feel about it, I don't know." You're thinking "it" is sex, of course, but what she really wants to know, as the primitive drum machines and the serrated guitars kick in, is "What's Your Take on Cassavetes?" Possible answers: "Misogynist! Genius!"

It's prime Kathleen Hanna, who since the demise of Bikini Kill has been finding new ways to wrap a gender-studies degree in pop naïveté. (Elsewhere, on Le Tigre, she also wants your take on who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong.) Her new outfit refines the Punky Brewsterish pastiche she began under the name Julie Ruin last year: '60s bubblegum meets pastel new wave, garage rock with a sampler, bedroom disco for anarchist slumber parties. Only this time, the pop packs as much punch as the platitudes. Turntable breaks on the opening "Deceptacon" punctuate the kind of action, drama, and '80s-Madonna kick that kids like Bis have been toying with. "Phanta" hijacks a Beatle-esque mellotron figure on the way to "Space Oddity" territory. And "My Metrocard" takes Rudy Giuliani to task for shutting down Hanna's beloved strip bars while reinventing the "Louie, Louie" riff as the world's sweetest basement hip-hop confection. Bikini who?

-- Carly Carioli


*** Dr. Dre CHRONIC 2001 (Aftermath/Interscope)

Dr. Dre's blockbuster The Chronic low-rode off the assembly line seven years ago, and if that fact makes you feel kinda old, just imagine how Dre feels. The lyrics of "Still D.R.E.," the first single off the new Chronic 2001, rejoin a '92-style Dre day already in progress (still rockin' khakis with a cuff and a crease, hatin' police, and makin' beats for the street), right down to the Snoop Dogg guest appearance. The copy of "Hotel California" on the floor in the inside-cover photo probably inspired the digitized acoustic-guitar plucks in "Still" and may have suggested this album's overall vibe: Dre spent the mid '90s checking out post-G-thang career paths, but he could never leave.

The Chronic's squirmy mini-Moogs, P-Funk chunks, and So-Cal biofeedback have given way to a black frost of somber piano and synth tones glacial enough for Detroit techno, as if Dre's mothership had dropped him off in one of the Future Sound of London's dead cities. The Dr. rhymes ruminatively, casting his boasts in terms of how much he has to lose, complaining that his friends don't know him anymore, and asking his enemies, "How much Tupac you got in you?" Halfway through, there's a widely discussed orgy scene where Dre takes Ecstasy (and ends up passing out after jerking off on a towel); eventually, he hands off to a veritable pimp convention of guest stars, with Xzibit, Eminem, and Hittman as the brightest lights on an album so somber even the gun-clap sound effects are silencer-equipped.

-- Alex Pappademas


*** High Llamas SNOWBUG (V2)

Snowbug is warmer and more substantial than you might expect from an outfit that called its last album Cold and Bouncy. Since their seminal Gideon Gaye, Sean O'Hagan's High Llamas have flaunted a quirky Beach Boys fetish that Brian Wilson cultists may appreciate but that has rendered much of the band's material too precious and stylized. Snowbug, however, sounds less like the bastard son of Pet Sounds and more like a touchy-feely cousin of Stereolab's 1997 album Dots and Loops (to which O'Hagan contributed instrumental arrangements). O'Hagan seems intent less on paying tribute to Brian Wilson's mad genius than on establishing his own voice as an obsessive pop savant. More than ever, he's trusting his own instincts, especially on the buoyant, catchy "Cookie Bay," where sophisticated vocal harmonies are supported by a strange brew of plucked banjos, backward cymbal crashes, and synthetic marimbas. The disc's reliance on the electro-organic sound of analog synths gives each song a similar retro-futurist feel, but it's one that belongs to O'Hagan, not to the past.

-- Jared White


*** Archer Prewitt WHITE SKY (Carrot Top)

Given how busy Archer Prewitt is -- he's toured with Sam Prekop, is a member of the Sea and Cake, and also writes and draws the comic Sof' Boy -- it's remarkable that he had the time or energy to bash out a quick pop album, much less put together the meticulously arranged White Sky. This, his second solo album, is a lush melodic offering very much in the Chicago tradition of Prekop, Jim O'Rourke, and Prewitt's previous band, the Coctails. Prewitt's songwriting is more direct than that of Prekop, who tends to favor meandering instrumental passages, and far less cloying than the vacuum-sealed precision of O'Rourke's Eureka. There's a sense of hopeful melancholy running through White Sky that's particularly affecting. Songs like "Raise on High" and "Final Season" feature slick but not saccharine string and horn lines that complement Prewitt's steady baritone. Elsewhere, the lounge-funky "Shake" and the more rockist "Motorcycles" pack a gentle punch. But it's the epic "Walking on the Farm" that gives White Sky its weight, with a rich and sophisticated melodicism that brings to mind a cross between Jimmy Page's more orchestral Lep Zep arrangements and the Burt Bacharach songbook.

-- Ben Auburn


*** The Cinematic Orchestra MOTION (Ninja Tune)

The latest offering from the Brit beatheads at Ninja Tune is a surprisingly subdued affair with acoustic bass vamps, horn arrangements, and serious sax blowing, all of which take precedence over the label's usual turntable trickery and pomo cut 'n' pasting. Despite the jazz feel, Motion is not another tired acid-jazz session but a curious electro-jazz hybrid that draws from both the spacy late-'60s-era fusion of cats like Donald Byrd and the moody film noir atmospheres and orchestrations of Lalo Schifrin. These influences are filtered through the production techniques of composer, producer, and mastermind J. Swinscoe, who combines the jazzy vamps and horn charts with angular Art Blakey-esque drum programming, sultry Nina Simone samples, and dubbed-out ambient textures. It's mood music that operates on many levels -- organic and electronic, improvised and arranged, background and foreground; yet it's all so seamlessly arranged that you hardly feel any tension.

-- Michael Endelman


***1/2 Kaouding Cissoko KORA REVOLUTION (Palm Pictures)

Listening to the recorded output of Senegalese star Baba Maal, you wouldn't know that Maal's kora man had Kora Revolution in him. But Kaouding Cissoko's solo debut shows off an impressive arranger and composer and a first-rate player. He recruits various relatives from his musical griot family, members of Maal's band (including Baaba himself on "Hero"), and bassist and arranger Ira Coleman. But what really fuels Cissoko's revolution is his openness to musical styles that complement his own Manding roots, including strains of jazz and Latin music, as well as the tough, sabar drumming of the Wolof and the percussion and flute music of northern Podor, Maal's home town. Cissoko stands up to the thunder of sabar drumming with lightning-fast kora work. He also delivers the delicate side of this 21-string harp. But grooves and flourishes are the hallmark of this fast-moving, idea-packed session.

-- Banning Eyre


** Toby Keith HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW? (DreamWorks)

Back in 1987 Kool Moe Dee, already a rap legend for his seminal work with the Treacherous 3, released the thunderous How Ya Like Me Now. Fueled by his long-running rivalry with L.L. Cool J, it was full of braggadocio and crackled with energy, and it had the musical muscle to back the boasts.

Toby Keith's title song has many of those same goals, though its story has an audience of one: a home-town girl who wouldn't date a guitar player but instead married a rich man and now wakes up, alone, to the guitar player's song on the clock radio. Having fallen slightly from commercial grace, Keith has reason to flex his muscles (notwithstanding his past as an oil worker and USFL football player). Alas, it's all for show. He has a voice that's easy to listen to, and he's had a hand in writing most of the songs he sings. But there's no edge to his performance, no hunger to be heard -- and no amount of rock flourishes will cover for that. Like most Nashville production today, this release is careful and sanitized. That gal back home can roll over and go back to sleep when Keith oughta be making her get up and cry.

-- Grant Alden


***1/2 Willie Alexander THE EAST MAIN STREET SUITE (Accurate)

Never mind that Willie Alexander's a Boston punk legend -- what's important is that he remains one of the more idiosyncratic, boundary-pushing musicians in town. His current style sits somewhere in among punk rock, avant jazz, Beat poetry, and trip-hop. And his songwriting's taken on some new depth: these tunes look unflinchingly at age and mortality, but they always sneak in a bit of hope. "Amber & Ebony" airs some late-career disillusionment without giving in to bleakness; "Who Killed Deanna" builds a liberating rocker out of a still-unsolved Somerville murder. "Josephine & Jono" and "Ocean's Condo" are both about Gloucester, and they share the feel of that town, bright on the surface, seamy underneath. For light relief there's "Bass Rocks," an improved remake of Willie's summer-fun single from the mid '80s.

With Alexander's piano and the saxes of Ken Field and Mark Chenevert taking the place of guitar, the Persistence of Memory Orchestra remain a fluid outfit. They can do a groove noir à la Morphine, but they also bring back the rocking abandon of Alexander's old Boom Boom Band ("Honeysuckle Rose" would have worked great back when he was opening for the Ramones). And while we're speaking of those days: "WA Anyway" opens with a verse that somebody had to write sooner or later: "I used to play the Rat in Kenmore Square, but I can't play the Rat `cause the Rat ain't there." The good news is that Alexander is still here.

-- Brett Milano


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