About the only thing missing on Carnival is an obvious crossover hit -- something along the lines of, say, the Fugees' "Killing Me Softly." Aside from that, though, Carnival has all the components of a unique hip-hop experience. In fact, it is more than a carnival; it's a circus, parade, World's Fair and freak show all rolled into one relentlessly entertaining package. (****)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Ark 21

For decades, Los Angeles has been a center of American punk rock and its descendant genres. And for much longer the city has been a focal point for Latino culture in the U.S. But while the pairing of the two to form a hybrid genre of "alternative norteno" would seem natural and inevitable, to date only Los Lobos has been able to earn a place in the rock world by bridging the distance that separates Sunset Strip from East L.A. It is, after all, a sprawling metropolis.

In the wake of California's recent Proposition 187 -- which threatens to further distance immigrant communities from mainstream culture -- two bands from opposite sides of the L.A. river have joined together in solidarity to explore what happens when you very consciously attempt to mix Hollywood-style hard rock (and occasional eclecticism) with the proud voices and musical styles of the barrio. And so we have a musical collaboration between two veteran Angeleno bands: Concrete Blonde and Los Illegals.

Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals is a good move for both groups. For Los Illegals, the CD provides national exposure the four-piece hasn't enjoyed since it released a major-label record in 1983. For Concrete Blonde -- which has comprised singer Johnette Napolitano and guitarist Jim Mankey for over a decade until they supposedly called it quits a few years back -- the disc is perhaps the first really good album the band has ever made. Whether on the update of the traditional "La Llorona," on the rocking cover of the Gypsy Kings' "Caminando" or on the punk speedster "Xich Vs. the Migra Zombies," rock elements (guitars that crunch and riff or scream in solos) constantly intermingle with Latin touches (flamenco guitar, rapid hand claps). Words shift freely between English and Spanish -- sung both by Napolitano and Los Illegals -- and cover subjects as timeless and tragic as Woody Guthrie's migrant lament "Deportee" or as timely and hilarious as the O.J.-inspired "Ode to Rosa Lopez," which features the lines, "You're the ultimate subversive, Rosa / Dressing down in your moth-eaten jumpsuit to make Marcia Clark look like the petty yuppie she is." Take that, Pete Wilson. (*** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

We've Been Had Again

Huffamoose's methods are so technically exacting that you could set your watch by them -- only they'd rather not advertise that fact. Thus, on its major-label debut We've Been Had Again, the Philadelphia quartet goes about the business of trying to convince listeners they're nothing more than a fun-loving rock band. As one might surmise, the charade fails more often than it works -- and even when it succeeds, we know better.

A bit like an office-dwelling recluse who wastes an entire Club Med vacation trying to convince himself and others that he can actually loosen up, Huffamoose overcompensates for its hipness deficiency with an awkward and exhausting display of too-cute cleverness. At best, the band concocts mildly memorable distractions, such as the spry, tightly wound hook-fests "Wait" and "Snapshot Family." At worst (as on the unbearably busy "Speeding Bullet"), they tend to indulge in the lamest sort of frat-rock fusion (hardly a surprise when you consider that two-thirds of the band has a heavy jazz background).

Mostly, though, the material on We've Been Had Again hovers somewhere between those extremes, in that antiseptic pocket of quirk-pop occupied by the likes of da da and Dishwalla, both of which sport names as dumb as Huffamoose's. If only the music were as tough to shake as that recurring image of a glue-sniffing Bullwinkle. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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