Rotation

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.

Once you get past Mainstream's more direct references, the earlier influences begin to emerge. Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, Delaney and Bonnie, the Byrds, the Band -- aspects of these and other Golden Smog soul mates are gracefully assimilated into the group's comfortable retro-folk sound. It has the loosely wrapped feel of a side project, to be sure, but the surprising thing about Mainstream is the strength of its songs. Only a few of the 14 tracks have the picked-over quality of rejects from other projects, and the playing is remarkably crisp throughout.

With the Jayhawks disbanded and Soul Asylum struggling commercially, it's anyone's guess where this sideline experiment could lead. Will Golden Smog evaporate into the chilly Midwestern air or settle into the expanding roots-rock landscape? Hard to say, but Down by the Old Mainstream sure makes you want to linger awhile on its banks to see what washes up. -- Hobart Rowland

Rolling Stones
Stripped
Virgin

Stripped arrives in the wake of the recent Beatles' disinterring to remind us, once again, who were the contenders and who were the pretenders. The Stones' Lord Byron-meets-John Lee Hooker-at-the-crossroads shtick was always more appealing than the Beatles' straight-faced professions of adolescent and universal love, and Stripped shows why. This not-really-unplugged collection mines everything that was good and true about the Stones. In fact, most of the Stripped versions sound better than the originals. While there are no Dylanesque reworkings of melody and tempo, the muted instrumentation is sinewy and almost swings, an achievement to which other elderly rockers should aspire. "Street Fighting Man," for instance, churns with a renewed bravura, and you can almost imagine Louie Armstrong fronting the classic sing-alongs "Let It Bleed" and "Dead Flowers." The inclusion of the 30-year-old "Spider and the Fly" is a nice touch, too, especially the updating of the line "she looked about 30" to "she looked about 50." (Yeah, why not?)

There are drawbacks: always enhancing the Stones' aura of faux mystery was the indecipherability of their lyrics. On Stripped, however, the spaciness of the sound and Jagger's crisp enunciation make the words clear -- painfully so in some instances. And lo and behold, there's a lyric sheet inside the jacket, for chrissakes. We are sorry to report that, henceforth, any listening of the still-wonderful "Sweet Virginia," that consummate going-down-the-road-and-you-can-kiss-my-ass lament, will be slightly marred by the knowledge that it contains the line, "Yes, I've got the desert in my toenail." One more thing: this is an "interactive" disc, meaning you can pop it into your CD-ROM drive and witness Mick and the rest of the fiftyish cadavers gallivanting on-stage in a full two dimensions. -- Jim Simmon

Goldie
Timeless
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Timeless indeed, but also precisely of the moment. This mixed-race London DJ/graffiti artist has accomplished something exceedingly rare with his debut: like Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and maybe a handful of others, Timeless firmly plants itself in the ageless category by, quite ironically, capturing this very moment in music and, by extension, society. Timeless signifies its importance in part with words, but it does so much more through its profoundly impressionistic music: a sonic and emotional climate completely at peace with the past and in line with the future. Hard-bop, soul, hip-hop, techno, house, acid jazz, trip-hop and now, with Goldie's keen deliverance, jungle.

A sort of urban techno made from breathtakingly hyper break beats and dub bass lines, the jungle sound unites American and British dance music with the cheerful abandon of a block-party rave in a rundown dance hall. But Timeless is more than that: it brings the music out of the hall and into the popular consciousness with beats so fast that they spray sound and so dense that they threaten to implode into one eternal pulse. And the soulful vocals of Diane Charlemagne and Lorna Harris belt and wail like Marvin Gaye at his most vital. Framed by two gorgeously melancholic epics -- the title suite (containing Goldie's hit "Inner City Life") and "Sea of Tears" (featuring live jazz musicians) -- and sprinkled with thrilling industrial grinds and sweet jazz-soul trips, Timeless' subtle all-inclusiveness beckons us to celebrate the past as it remains steeped in the present. -- Roni Sarig

Sunflower
Round Trip
Lovespell Records

Round Trip, the second indie release from Austin's Sunflower, is tainted with the same sour feeling of unfulfilled promise that drags down many jam-happy groups these days. An impressive force on-stage, Sunflower nonetheless can't seem to apply its considerable energy to writing memorable songs -- that is, songs with tight melodies and hooks that achieve their desired emotional effect without an in-person vibe and visuals. Instead, Round Trip locks into a gimmicky repetitiveness that makes Sunflower sound hopelessly out of it, Peter Frampton talk box and all. Do yourself -- and the group -- a favor and see Sunflower in person before all else. That shouldn't be difficult, seeing as the band's been hanging out in Houston so much lately that its members should have earned their personalized urinals at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge by now. -- Hobart Rowland

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