Music Reviews

“Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars,” Fatboy Slim (Astralwerks) 8 stars

The electronic dance purists no doubt have already dismissed Fatboy Norman Cook and his ‘Rockafeller Skank’ success, since as boring purists they are required to boringly cling to the boring notion that anyone who becomes remotely popular is a sham. So let ’em sit around twiddling with the clickety-clack tracks of their pure (though obscenely boring) electronic claptrap. Meanwhile, Cook knows there’s no point in trying to get skanky again, so he smartly filters his dizzying garage-sale sonic mixing through a heavy-duty dose of funk and soul this time. First-rate weirdo Macy Gray sings on two songs, stealing the show with the stunning slow-burn groove of ‘Demons,’ which comes on like nothing so much as a modern reinvention of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man.’ And sure, usual-suspect Bootsy Collins is on hand, but there isn’t much need: Cook is such a natural at this stuff that he manages to take a goofy snippet of Jim Morrison warbling and make it funky. Not surprisingly, the least successful moments here come when Cook falls back on his old pump-up-the-volume big beat. He’s been there and done that, and on most of this disc, he’s well on to something even better.

‘Whoa, Nelly!’ Nelly Furtado (Dreamworks) 3 stars

Generally speaking, it isn’t very wise to believe rock crits when they try to describe new artists as some combination of established artists.(Perhaps the most notorious example of this occurred when a whole gaggle of writers took to using the phrase ‘a cross between Bob Dylan and the Clash’ to describe the crushingly banal ’80s rock band the Alarm. Yikes – can you say ‘race ya to the used CD shop?’) But you can believe ’em this time – really – when they say that newcomer Nelly Furtado kinda sounds like Macy Gray meets Gwen Stefani with a little Fiona Apple tossed in. The tragedy, of course, is that these dimwits actually believe that combo would make for a fine listening experience, rather than the spacey, pedestrian and cloying (yes, in that order) slab of plastic that this disc really is. No, it’s not entirely dreadful, as the trippy single ‘Hey, Man!’ and a bit of bossa nova work just fine as fun, frothy pop. But a more skeptical wretch might come up with an equally apt description for this disc – oh, say, ‘Mariah Carey gets hold of a few middling trip-hop beats.’ And then he’d probably race right off to that used CD store.

‘Bootleg Detroit,’ Morphine (Rykodisc) 7 stars

The thing about Morphine was that their unusual instrumentation – no guitar, just a two-string bass and a sax backed by drums – pretty much locked them into one sound over the course of their career. But it just happened to be the sexiest sound that anyone had come up with since, uh, Al Green’s prime, at least – a primordial, noirish rumbling that lunged right down into your loins and more often than not left you just as dazed and exhausted as the real thing. All of which is to say that, usually, there’d be no point in an official release of a fan’s bootleg of a ’94 concert for a defunct, one-trick-pony band … if it weren’t for that unforgettable sound. And on a less salacious note, there’s this: Some proceeds benefit a music education fund set up to honor the band’s late frontman, Mark Sandman.

‘Bridging The Gap,’ Black Eyed Peas (Interscope) 7 stars

‘The Platform,’ Dilated Peoples (Capitol) 8 stars

One of the best developments in music over the past year or two has been the decision by young hip-hop heads to steal the funk back from the gangsta rappers and brain-dead playas of the world. With guest shots by Wyclef, De La Soul, Mos Def and (the ubiquitous) Macy Gray, the sophomore effort ‘Bridging The Gap’ is clearly a coming-out party for Black Eyed Peas, and they don’t squander it. They still sound like the second cousins of Q-Tip and his Tribe Called Quest, but this time out they add some of their own bone-rattling bottom to the mix, and come up with a more substantial sound as a result. Even better is ‘The Platform’ from Dilated Peoples, a sharply produced disc that comes off as lean and hard-hitting as old West Coast hardcore, and seems likely to create just as much movement on the dancefloor. The difference, of course, is that the Peoples aren’t into gratuitous violence. Neither are they, nor the Peas, into much righteous preaching, a fact that has perplexed some idealistic observers. But don’t sweat the lack of a message; given the recent lack of no-nonsense, violence-free hip-hop, the mere presence of these groups says plenty.


(Our guide to the essential, sometimes overlooked components of a wisely stocked CD collection.)

In the beginning, Los Lobos was the second half of the equation in one of rock’s quirky little ironies: Who would have ever thunk that the best two bands in the history of Americana roots rock – music that we generally associate with white guys from Texas and thereabouts – would consist of a crew of Canadians (mostly), in the case of the Band, and a bunch of Latinos from East L.A., as is the case with Los Lobos. But just when everyone thought they’d settled in to that comfortable, albeit modest, niche in rock history, Los Lobos went out and smashed that old saw about American lives never having second acts – reinventing themselves as funky, practically arty experimentalists, and snaring a much wider audience at the same time. That musical journey, which is really shaping up to be one of the great rock stories of the past two decades, is charted on Rhino’s outstanding new four-disc boxed set, ‘El Cancionero/Mas y Mas A History Of The Band From East L.A.’ It opens with rare cuts from the band’s earliest days playing Latin American folksongs, and then moves into the band’s roots heyday with swaggering blues rockers like ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and bittersweet shuffles like ‘Will The Wolf Survive?’ – and, oh yeah, their smash cover of ‘La Bamba.’ But with ’92’s ‘Kiko,’ Los Lobos stopped coloring within the lines, and in the process joined the ranks of the best bands of any genre. By turns spooky, mournful and life-affirming, the band’s music now drags roots music – and its occasionally uptight fans – into unexplored corners of some sonic hall of mirrors. And in the process the band has not only kept the roots folks in the fold, but they’ve added indie hipsters and even some Deadheads, who now can be seen at concerts trying to do that noodle dance thing to the occasional Mexican polka. Completists will be thrilled to learn that this set also includes songs from Cesar Rosas’ solo work, plus the side projects Los Super Seven and the Latin Playboys. And what better time to take an extended look back at the band’s earliest studio work: The Hollywood label has just reissued their ultra-rare first record, ‘Just Another Band From East L.A.’ An entire disc’s worth of the folksongs that open the boxed set, it rings with the emotional warmth that has been this band’s hallmark throughout its adventurous career.


The latest Microphones disc, ‘It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water’ (K Records), starts off just like a million other pleasant though not spectacular indie discs, all low-fi acoustic strumming and heartfelt, wistful warbling. But then the coda of that first song comes crashing in, fierce drum rolls and majestic fuzz-tone guitars rattling all that garbage you’ve got stacked on your speakers and rousting your roomie from that mid-afternoon nap. And so it goes throughout this adventurous and intriguing, if not always totally successful, disc … On a far, far less original note, the cynical careerist hacks in Good Charlotte ape Blink 182 in a desperate and obvious grasp for the brass ring. On their self-titled new disc (Daylight/Epic), they claim to represent the geeks and freaks of the world, but their music is as generic, conformist and predictable as the bands always favored by the insufferable ‘in crowd’ … Folks who have been feeding a serious Cuban music jones since they snagged that Buena Vista Social Club disc should check out ‘Mardi Gras Mambo: Cubanismo In New Orleans’ (Hannibal). As the title indicates, this disc captures a joyous and natural collaboration between the Havana all-star combo Cubanismo and a crew of Crescent City soul veterans. Bring yer dancing shoes … Fans of the stripped-down, echo-laden reggae remix music called dub have been crowing about renowned oddball Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry a lot in recent years. For those unable to shell out the big bucks for his boxed set from a few years back, the Hip-O label has compiled a single-disc ‘Ultimate Collection’ package. It includes some rich dub mixing, but also some straight-up Perry production work on wondrous tracks like the Wailers’ ‘Small Axe’ and Junior Murvin’s ‘Police ‘ Thieves’ … Just as brilliant, though not name-checked nearly as often in indie-rock circles, was the late dub producer King Tubby. He and others spool out heady remixes of songs by the likes of Burning Spear on the Heartbeat label’s ‘The Black Foundation In Dub’ … The next stop for mainstream reggae aficionados who have worked through Marley and Tosh is often Jimmy Cliff, whose ‘Ultimate Collection’ (Hip-O) rounds up his songs from the landmark ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack, including the transcendent ‘Many Rivers To Cross,’ plus some stellar earlier work and some decent more modern stuff … Reggae, ska and rock-steady pioneer Roland Alphonso gets his due on ‘Something Special: Ska Hot Shots’ (Heartbeat), a wily and danceable collection fueled by Alphonso’s R’B-flavored saxophone runs … Tara Jane O’Neil specializes in unsettling juxtapositions on ‘Peregrine’ (Quarterstick) – this subdued indie folk is pretty though angular, warm but still quite distant. It’s a thoughtful disc, though one that could have been improved by some occasional changes in tempo and mood … Indigenous gets a lot of attention for being comprised of Native American musicians, but their latest disc, ‘Circle’ (Pachyderm), stands on its own. There isn’t anything earth-shattering here, but the solid, bluesy rock sound will please Allman Brothers fans … Four additions to Universal Music’s ’20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection’ focus on seminal figures in soul music. Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin won their greatest fame working together in the Temptations, but each issued a series of solo discs in the ’70s. The late Ruffin had some success with songs reminiscent of the Temps’ classic-soul period, but Kendricks’ disc gets the nod, with his sweet falsetto riding above some earthy, Curtis Mayfield-inspired funk. Also: Jerry ‘The Iceman’ Butler is a Chicago politician these days, but he was a master of controlled passion in the late ’60s, blending Chicago brawn with the smooth Philly soul of Gamble and Huff on hits like ‘Only The Strong Survive.’ And while The Dells often trafficked in old-school harmonizing and strings-heavy ballads, they could maneuver pop licks, as in ‘Oh What A Day,’ and just plain turn it out, as on the muscular ‘There Is’ … Riot grrrls and Lilith fans alike should give a nod to Joan Armatrading, traces of whose sound can be heard in the music of Tracy Chapman and Ani Difranco. Armatrading, the focus of a Universal ‘Millennium Collection’ disc, had a brief hike up the pop charts with the giddy ‘Drop The Pilot,’ but she’s best known for smart and bittersweet folk like ‘Down To Zero’ … The late Charles Earland was another one of those jazz masters working beneath the mainstream media’s radar. Earland played a mean jazz organ, and the wise folks at 32 Jazz have collected a disc’s worth of that smoky, late-night vibe on ‘The Almighty Burner’ … Robert Nighthawk’s ‘Live On Maxwell Street 1964’ (Bullseye) is nothing short of a major event in blues circles, capturing the elusive and underappreciated Delta pioneer playing some tough and raucous blues at Chicago’s renowned open-air street market … Roosevelt Sykes had a sound that will get you to put down that paper you’re reading and pay attention – his muscular, urban piano blues and his lion-hearted vocals practically define ‘closing time’ blues. ‘Raining In My Heart’ (Delmark) collects the glorious music he made for the United label in the ’50s … With Frank Sinatra gone, our one true remaining pop vocal master is Tony Bennett. Columbia/Legacy’s one disc ‘The Ultimate Tony Bennett’ is a fine primer for newcomers, moving from his trademark ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’ all the way through his wonderful recent tributes to Sinatra and Ellington … My grandparents weren’t ever exactly musically hip, so the presence of Don Williams records in their mostly dreadful collection kept steering me clear of the guy for years. Sheesh, talk about stupid grandkids – the Hip-O label’s sublime two-disc ‘Don Williams Anthology’ shows the old country gentleman to be kind of a cross between George Jones and Gordon Lightfoot – and yeah, that’s a compliment, cheese … For new traditionalists, it doesn’t get any better than Dwight Yoakam. His new ‘Tomorrow’s Sounds Today’ (Reprise) doesn’t quite match up to his early ’90s stunners ‘If There Was A Way’ and ‘This Time,’ but it’s plenty great in an offhand sort of way – and it wraps up with a pair of duets with Yoakam’s personal reclamation project, Bakersfield hero Buck Owens.