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UB40
The Best of UB40, Volumes 1 and 2
Virgin

As Britain's largely white ambassadors of dub, UB40 have always been crippled, to an extent, by their color. At first, the band used it as a motivator -- a stumbling block that its leaders felt obligated to overcome -- and the resulting struggle made early UB40 reggae bristle with exertion. Lately though, the group has shifted its stance from mildly political and highly attitudinal to blandly hit hungry. Don't expect The Best of UB40, Volumes 1 and 2 to provide any explanations for this transformation (though it's likely that platinum plus sales had something to do with it). Nope, on this pair of ten-song CDs you'll find only the music -- and some rather skimpy liner notes.

At most, The Best of UB40 provides a character study of an intensely close eight-man unit intent on making reggae palatable to the masses. In that, the band succeeded -- and then some. A product of the culturally diverse English city of Birmingham, UB40 began 18 years ago with earnest, socially conscious intent, its founders naming the band after an infamous British unemployment form. Those protest-laden origins can be witnessed in the spare, pulsing beat of the seminal UB40 single, "King" -- which is inexplicably left off this collection. In its place, Volume 1 includes the equally telling British social commentaries "Food for Thought" and "One in Ten," a pair of early '80s efforts that made not even the slightest ripple in America. The rest of the first disc relies on material from the band's 1983 U.S. breakthrough Labour of Love, a listener-friendly collection of reggae-ized covers, through 1988's UB40. The CD finishes -- or more aptly fizzles -- with "Breakfast in Bed," a listless duet with Chrissie Hynde from UB40 that more or less secured the band's stateside commercial clout, as well as its slide into banality.

It's likely those who admired UB40's meatier, pre-Labour of Love message aren't holding their breath waiting on an apology for such '90s trifles as "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" and "Can't Help Falling in Love." Those songs are included, quite unapologetically, with plenty of other lightweight hits on Volume 2. Who knows? Maybe it's more a sign of age than riches that UB40 has joined collaborator/pal Hynde in falling short of the promise of their past. In any event, the nice thing about The Best of UB40 is that it's spread chronologically over two individual discs, which means fans of the more relevant early stuff don't have to waste their money on Volume 2. -- Hobart Rowland

The Pharcyde
Labcabincalifornia
Delicious Vinyl/Capitol

People who love hip-hop but are weary of the rigid way in which rappers define themselves would do well to sample the Pharcyde's expanding universe. This foursome hails from the gangsta-rap mecca of South Central Los Angeles, but its musical vision veers closer to the world-fed vibe of East Coasters De La Soul.

On their 1992 debut, Bizarre Ride II, the Pharcyde flaunted a flair and personality -- both smart and whimsical -- rare these days in rhyme. And while a growing number of Pharcyde fans spent three years anticipating a follow-up, Imani, Tre, Romye and Fatlip moved from their Pharcyde Manor in South Central to a suburban L.A. home/studio they dubbed the Lab Cabin. The long-awaited Labcabincalifornia reflects the group's new environment with a product more polished and mature, but also much less uproarious, than before.

The group apparently labored meticulously in Lab Cabin, cleaning and tightening the Pharcyde sound. But in upscaling things, the group has sanitized the energy and enthusiasm that was so abundant on Bizarre Ride II. Weaker tracks glide along on subdued, disciplined jazz-soul samples, and the rapping is often technically strong but aimless and uninteresting. Even a promising cut such as "Splattitorium" is unhinged by stoned mumbling and lazy piano tinkles. Perhaps the Pharcyde guys grew too much too soon. Here's hoping that next time around they'll remember how to be kids again. -- Roni Sarig

Riverdales
Riverdales
Lookout

Former Green Day labelmates the Riverdales are faced with a dilemma: do they continue recycling the same weary licks under the guise of punk-revival authenticity, or do they come clean and acknowledge their middling chops? Keep in mind, all good things eventually come to an end -- even the Ramones. So if they're smart, the Riverdales will ride the Rocket to Russia until the needle's on "E." After all, fun is fun. -- Hobart Rowland

Golden Smog
Down by the Old Mainstream
Rykodisc

The list of strangers on the cover is likely to raise doubts at first. By name, Golden Smog's roster is virtually unrecognizable. But sit back, relax, slip this CD under the laser and let the familiar fragments drift over you; there's no mistaking the sound of old friends. You'll hear the rich harmonizing of the Jayhawks, a little Wilco-ish nonchalance, a mellowed, less epic Soul Asylum. Golden Smog is all of those bands -- crucial parts of them, anyhow. Behind the tossed-off pseudonyms are Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, former Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and the lesser-knowns Noah Levy (the Honeydogs) and Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run). Down by the Old Mainstream is Golden Smog's first -- save for a 1992 EP of covers -- introduction to the masses, with a tour to follow in the spring.

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