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L.L. Cool J
Phenomenon
Def Jam

If you haven't heard, James Todd Smith -- better known to the world as L.L. Cool J -- is a changed man now. This is the same guy who, ten years ago, would rip open his jogging jacket in a heartbeat to reveal his muscled chest to all the ladies. Now he has a wife and three kids, not to mention an autobiography, I Make My Own Rules, in which Smith reveals his dark and dirty secrets, among them his passion for porn and groupie booty.

Today, though, with the power of God on his side, Smith has apparently grown into a responsible adult. But while that may be the case for J.T. Smith, from the sound of Phenomenon, L.L. Cool J is still a cocksure, coochie-coveting member of rap royalty. On his fifth release, L.L. rambles with a rambunctious vigor that's reminiscent of his '80s glory days, even if now he's only out to tease. The obligatory Puff Daddyproduced title track finds him offering up thrusting, throbbing signs of hope to any girls out there still longing to lie by his side, its powerful beat (as in everything Puff Daddy produces) setting the tone. Another Puff Daddy track, "Hot, Hot, Hot," has the Daddy beating a Tom Tom Club sample to death behind L.L.'s pro-female babble, which only proves that the producer's Midas touch just might be wearing supermodel-thin.

Thankfully, much of Phenomenon doesn't fall victim to Puff-ication. In fact, it's producers Poke and Tone -- a.k.a. the Trackmasters -- who almost steal the rug out from under L.L.'s feet. The Trackmasters have recently produced notable songs for Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Will Smith, and here they parlay their expertise into three superb tracks, exhibiting an unchecked enthusiasm for beats and samples that rivals that shown by Hank and Eric Shocklee (the Bomb Squad) in their work with Public Enemy and Ice Cube. On "Candy," the Trackmasters balance out the freaknik ballast of the title track with a daydreamy love song; "Another Dollar" has the duo matching L.L.'s sexed-up swagger groove for groove; and on the big-message number "Father," George Michael's "Father Figure" is put to moving use as L.L. discloses his longtime desire for a paternal icon. Phenomenon may indeed prove to be L.L. Cool J's second coming, but if so, it's because the wizardry of a pair of behind-the-scenes geniuses has paved his way. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Delbert McClinton
One of the Fortunate Few
Rising Tide

It's been four very long years since Delbert McClinton released anything new. Sure, he's been touring almost constantly, putting in some 200 dates a year. And he's also appeared on a compilation or two, not to mention that his 1995 duet with Tanya Tucker, "Tell Me About It," earned a Grammy nomination. Still, it's always a kick when McClinton releases a new batch of his brand of Texas country soul.

That said, there's really nothing groundbreaking on One of the Fortunate Few. McClinton adds no new ingredients to his reliable formula. From the Southern-fried funk of "Old Weakness" to the back-porch acoustic guitar and harmonica setting of "Better Off with the Blues," it's just ten solid tracks of gritty blues and roadhouse rock -- Delbert style, of course.

One thing that does make One of the Fortunate Few distinctive, however, is its lineup of stellar musical guests. B.B. King adds his unmistakable guitar work to the delightfully upbeat "Leap of Faith," and Lyle Lovett and John Prine chime in on the tongue-in-cheek boogie, "Too Much Stuff." Elsewhere, there are appearances by Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Mavis Staples and Pam Tillis. Those cameos, along with the sturdy assistance of Gary Nicholson, McClinton's longtime collaborator and guitarist in his road band, help make One McClinton's strongest set ever, and one that is sure to delight his legion of fans. All they'll ask of Delbert, no doubt, is that he not stay away from the studio so long next time. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Various Artists
One -- Texas Electronica
Face

If One -- Texas Electronica is any proof, forgiveness will continue to be in short supply for anyone who persists in judging this state purely on the merits of people wearing cowboy hats who make music for other people wearing cowboy hats. According to this impressive new compilation of mostly Austin and Houston techno bands, underground electronica is alive and well in these parts.

One features the (in)famous as well as the unknown, running the gamut from dance to ambient while providing an effective, multitextured soundtrack to life as we know it in the waning years of the 20th century. Locals featured on One include Chris Anderson and Andrei Morant, a.k.a. the Matrix Crew, arguably the most successful rave promoters in Houston. Morant's "Carried" is eight minutes of pure beat, a minimalist exercise in dance music that builds steadily to a quiet climax. Among other highlights, D-Day Project's "Funk" is both complex and catchy, cycling from thick, pounding bass to ephemeral "strings" and tiny percussive noises. Quaquaversal's ".63 c12.05.95 t05:26" rides a sinister groove for, yes, five minutes, 26 seconds, while the group's spacy ".19 c10.17.95 t04:52," which moves from the velvet reaches of space to the dreamless sleep of an icy cryogenic pod, could be a soundtrack for Alien XII.

By most counts, One -- Texas is a strong sampling of a futuristic Texas, perfect fodder for fans of the utterly curious and electronica both. (***)

-- Seth Hurwitz

Bob Marley
Dreams of Freedom: Ambient
Translations of Bob Marley in Dub
Island

Dreams of Freedom is billed as a Bob Marley release, but it sure doesn't sound like one. Think of it, rather, as deboned Bob, with almost all of the real vocal meat of the long-dead Jamaican superstar removed. In fact, there's hardly enough traces of Marley DNA to clone him, even if producer Bill Laswell's specialty had been microbiology rather than techno-noodling.

For the most part, Dreams is yet another in a seemingly endless stream of misdemeanor rip-offs by Marley worshippers. Its electronically smeared reconstructions of his classic songs are strictly the feathers from the original tracks, floating on the surface of a thin aural gruel flavored with a bit of Senegalese percussion, here, and Japanese ambient artist Tetsu Inoue's electronic whooshes, there. Laswell has said that he just couldn't bring himself to use Marley's vocals, because "I didn't want to cut up Bob's voice. I thought of his vocal as poetry, a message not to be mutated just yet."

Too bad he didn't feel the same way about Marley's body of work as well. Island label flacks claim that under Laswell's touch, old Marley standards such as "Rebel Music," "Midnight Ravers" and "Waiting in Vain" are "virtually reborn." A partial-birth abortion is more like it. (1/2)

-- Tim Fleck

Lili Hayden
Lili
Atlantic

Lili Hayden is something of an anomaly. While most rebellious, classically trained instrumentalists might be content to merely wear a leather jacket on occasion, Hayden has lived the rocker's lifestyle, touring and recording with the likes of Janet Jackson, Tom Petty, Chaka Khan and Porno for Pyros.

On Lili, her debut CD, Hayden and band sound a little like Kate Bush fronting Fishbone. There are big guitars, heated, funky jams, Eastern melodies and Hayden's wild violin. With the extremely catchy "Take Somebody Home," Hayden proves she could be a viable pop star, while at the same time seeming to debunk supply-side economics -- which points to the only real annoyance of an otherwise likable disc: Its lyrical content generally falls into the Upton Sinclair school of social realism, boasting somewhat heavy-handed tales such as "Stranger," about a teen mother resorting to a job at a strip club to support her child, and "Mama," which details the pain of a woman caught in an abusive marriage.

While we're on the subject of serious intent, the Lili instrumental "Salome" certainly appears to reference the Richard Strauss opera. It spotlights not only Hayden's gorgeous playing in an evocative setting, but more than a little chutzpah. It's almost as if Hayden is making sure we know that even though she's gone commercial, she didn't have to.

Not that pop songs should be brain-dead, mind you. But the job Hayden sets out to accomplish is an awfully difficult one: to expand the thematic vocabulary of the four-minute, radio-ready pop song. And she doesn't always succeed gracefully. Even so, the playing is top-notch, the music rich and interesting and Hayden's voice lovely -- all of which makes a cringe-worthy line such as "Her faith is strong, her heart betrothed / Her song intones the myth of Job" ultimately forgivable. (***)

-- Seth Hurwitz

The Derailers
Reverb Deluxe
Watermelon/Sire

The long-delayed sophomore CD from the Derailers, Austin's prime purveyors of the Bakersfield sound, has finally arrived. Behind-the-scenes industry wrangling was responsible for holding up its release (it eventually ended up as the first product of the new Watermelon/Sire partnership), but none of that really has anything to do with the fact that Reverb Deluxe is as fine a sampling of pure-strain C&W as has been given to the public this year.

Obviously knowing a good thing when they hear it, bandleaders Tony Villenueva and Brian Hofeldt once again employed Dave Alvin in the producer's chair on Reverb Deluxe. Together, Alvin, Villenueva and Hofeldt expand the band's sound just enough to keep things fresh, while keeping their feet planted firmly in the roots-country tradition they've cultivated so effectively. "California Angel," with its Beach Boys-style surf-guitar breaks and sunny harmonies matched to a wailing pedal steel, is a tune that immediately sticks out as one of Reverb Deluxe's best, and at the same time most unusual, moments. It's just such seemingly incongruous combinations that provide the CD's many thrilling moments, from the Tex-Mex-flavored "You Don't Have to Go," with its playful accordion and Spanish lyrics, to "Tears in Your Eyes," a charming Everly Brothers simulation, all chiming acoustic guitars and perfectly matched vocals.

By contrast, tunes such as "Just One More Time" and "Lover's Lies" are straight out of the Buck Owens songbook. The Derailers are being touted as the future of country music. But the future be damned; they're making music that sounds great right now. (****)

-- Jim Caligiuri

The Derailers perform Wednesday, November 26, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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