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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads
Reprise

In the past, I've never much cared for Nick Cave. It always seemed to me that he was reaching just a bit too hard for some shapelessly ominous black cloud of gothic pretense, and grasping only the shapeless pretense part. Murder Ballads, though, is such a focused blast of mythic angst that I can't help but change my tune.

"Murder Ballads" is truthful advertising: ten narrative stories in rhythmic verse recounting murder after grisly murder in Cave's best Ancient Mariner warble. Sonically, the disc is produced with such an intimate sound -- alternately moody and huge -- that you can't hear the vocals without conjuring up a vision of the vocalist, and he's always wearing a black cape, stepping off a horse on some dusky moor, looking for a room at the inn and unraveling his terrible tale like some lost soul from a Peter Cushing movie.

Even when the vocalist isn't Cave, but instead is Kylie Minogue, Polly Jean Harvey or Shane MacGowan, all of whom perform duets here, it's a convincing act -- a realized piece of fiction whose murder theme gives it current impact. Just try listening to "Song of Joy" without thinking of O.J. and Nicole. Mass murder, private murders, unsolved murders and punished murders all get due coverage, and Cave doesn't pull his graphic punches. Bullets enter brains, bowels spill on floors and characters treat each other in such a fashion that if I were to repeat certain lyrics here, I'd have the FCC on my ass.

Cave closes the CD with Bob Dylan's relatively upbeat "Death is Not the End." It's a generous offering after a long day's journey into night, but my bet is that Cave tacked it on as a joke. After listening to the first nine tracks of Murder Ballads, it's likely Dylan himself would recant his sentiment. -- Brad Tyer

Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire
Epic

Rage Against the Machine -- a name that says everything. Rage, after all, is the band's most ubiquitous and successfully conveyed emotion. It seethes through Tim Bob's thundering bass and Brad Wilk's pounding drums; it's in Tom Morello's machine-gun guitars and in Zack de la Rocha's screams and sputtered raps. The vitriol spewed on Evil Empire, RATM's long-awaited follow-up to its 1993 debut, owes much to Chuck D.'s polemic fury and rapid-fire urgency, though, as always, the band rages without hip-hop machinery in favor of the heavy-duty power tools of rock. But whether RATM's approach amounts to revolutionary rap, protest metal or a combination of the two, the group's command of sonic rage is what matters. It makes Evil Empire a powerful assault in any musical language.

What's said -- not what's played -- is Evil Empire's biggest problem. At times, RATM vents its widespread indignation sharply ("Vietnow," "Without a Face"), but more often the rage is expressed rather clumsily. To avoid sounding like the empty rants of confused post-pubescent rebellion, sentiments this angry should be aimed at something more specific than an entire race or nation or government. If RATM's raw musical muscle were grinding over a focused message, Lord knows how potent it could be. -- Roni Sarig

Iggy Pop
Naughty Little Doggie
Virgin

If you know a 13-year-old boy whose parents you want to drive crazy, give the kid Iggy Pop's Naughty Little Doggie. It's not enough that Iggy's Stooges were years ahead of their time, playing that havoc rock and roll that we now call punk. Now he has managed to live long enough to be a multi-generational bad influence. The weight of the world is in Iggy's voice when he sings "Me, I went straight, and serious too / There wasn't much else that I could do" on "Look Away." But mostly, Naughty Little Doggie is loud, confrontational, three-chord songs about sex. After a few high-volume weeks of sending his parents down the road to the madhouse, the average adolescent who falls under Naughty Little Doggie's spell might well start a garage band and drive the whole neighborhood nuts. So be a pal; go ahead, give the kid this CD. His parents will get over it -- maybe. -- Jim Sherman

Terry Ellis
Southern Gal
EastWest

As a member of En Vogue, Terry Ellis was one of the few bright spots on an R&B landscape hopelessly glutted with formulaic schmaltz. A creation of songwriters/ producers Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster, En Vogue was as prefabricated as the next guys and gals, but once the package came together, boy, did it kick some derriere.

Looking to quadruple the singers' output (as well as their profits), McElroy and Foster have now separated En Vogue into four solo acts -- a liquidation that could only be a cause for celebration, given the prospect of four different follow-ups to En Vogue's 1992 classic Funky Divas.

Unfortunately, Ellis' Southern Gal -- the first of the quartet's lone shots -- doesn't live up to En Vogue's legacy. Though it starts promisingly enough with "She's a Lady," a Southern-fried, violin-streaked sisterhood anthem, Southern Gal quickly descends into the slow-tempo slush and sappy cliche that make the songs indistinguishable from one another and from the countless other R&B ballads littering urban radio.

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