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G. Love and Special Sauce
Yeah, It's That Easy
OKeh/Epic

Ever since the Hooters blew their major-label wad in one commercialized fell swoop back in 1985, being dubbed Philadelphia's next Great White Hope has been nothing less than the kiss of death (R.I.P. Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers). The fact is, white artists remain a musical underclass in Philadelphia, commanding far less attention from outsiders than the sounds of its inner city, which have ranged from the history-making Philly soul of the '60s to present-day contributions from rough-hewn hip-hoppers the Roots and super-slick R&B chart hogs Boyz II Men.

But if any pale-faced Philly native appears equipped to reverse that trend, it's multifaceted hep cat Garrett Dutton, better known as G. Love. He may be a product of the city's posh Society Hill district, but judging by his recorded output, he'd have been just as happy living on the streets. G. Love is making all the right moves to bridge his hometown scene's racial chasm, and the dizzyingly mottled Yeah, It's That Easy is another significant section in that span of brotherhood.

The twentysomething G. Love is a veritable rap-happy Vegematic, and like any youngster, he's hard at work fashioning his own sense of self, musically and otherwise. Yeah, It's That Easy -- Love's third go-round in the studio with his nimble backup duo, Special Sauce -- sucks up choice bits of Love's most cherished moments in the history of jazz, soul, R&B and acoustic blues, and squeezes out a refreshingly oblivious, rhythmically demanding extract designed to melt color barriers. Call it jigsaw-puzzle folk music for a new, multiculturally acute generation.

Yeah, It's That Easy is front-loaded with stellar sounds. The lead-off "Stepping Stones" dodges effortlessly between authoritative spoken verses, harmony-drenched choruses and a winking, "neh-na-na" bridge that connotes '60s psychedelia. "I-76," a tribute to the much-maligned high-speed death-trap that connects Philadelphia to its western suburbs, is an old school, rap-lite throw-down that achieves the sort of definable sense of place that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were never quite able to pull off. "You Shall See" takes Love's recently acquired affection for Piedmont-style blues pickers to its logical premillennial conclusion, while the swaggering title track manages to sermonize about his town's various racial and economic quagmires without talking down to anyone.

There are times when Yeah, It's That Easy comes across a touch watered down in its attempt to cover all the stylistic bases, as on the rambling "Pull the Wool," in which Special Sauce's dodgy syncopation and G.'s lethargic rapping are in danger of nodding off into the droopy-eyed, too-cool abyss. But even the more clumsily executed material is drunk with the rush of discovery. Succeed or not, G. Love is willing to try just about anything. And lucky for us, failure isn't part of his budding ethnomusicological vocabulary. (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

Bobby Brown
Forever
MCA

Time hasn't been good to Bobby Brown. The man who used to make women moist with his well-chiseled chest and flat-top Gumby 'do now has to struggle to get whatever attention he can -- even if that involves getting drunk and pissing in the back seat of a police car. And playing cheerleader for wife Whitney Houston, it seems, has only reduced his profile further.

It's been five years since Brown's last release, and his new CD, Forever, might well have you wishing that he'd stayed quiet longer. Let's face it: Brown was never the most diverse of the contemporary R&B troubadours. But with the producers Babyface and Teddy Riley in his corner, Brown helped usher in a new trend in black music that combined the primal energy of hip-hop with the more refined passion of soul. On Forever, however, the singer is largely on his own, co-writing and co-producing most of the tracks. Somewhere in the process, he lost the spring in his strut. On "Feeling Inside," he makes like a disturbing cross between Jimmy Durante and Ike Turner, leering like a lowbrow philanderer on the prowl and reducing his playboy luster to little more than a pervert's scheming dullness.

Still more of Forever finds Brown wallowing in the sort of semi-sincerity that would make most lounge acts wince. Every other song seems to be dedicated to either his wife (who makes herself known in a room-clearing cameo on the introductory track) or his bevy of offspring. Thankfully, such vapidity is nowhere to be found on the three tracks written and produced by Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson, all of which display a sly slinkiness that recalls Brown's Don't Be Cruel days. But such sweat-drenched memories are the exception rather than the rule.

When Brown came to Houston earlier this year as a part of the dismal New Edition reunion tour, he took time out to perform a new song, purportedly from Forever. It was a spry, winning ditty hung on a sample of the Gap Band's "Outstanding," and its name escapes me. The tune also escaped the final cut of Forever, along with most everything else that makes Brown tick. (** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Link Wray
Shadowman
Hip-O

Who would have thought that some of the year's freshest and most honest rockabilly, blues and rock and roll would be heard from old guitar warriors Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison and Link Wray? Forget retirement, these guys can still play. Moore and Burlison, both of whom served Elvis Presley, project emphatic feeling on their respective releases (now out on the Sweetfish label), while a third living treasure, Wray, packs one hell of a punch on his latest effort.

Wray's rambunctious single "Rumble" sold over a million copies in the Eisenhower years and made a big impression on acolytes such as Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck. What's more, hordes of garage rockers and heavy-metal guys, whether they know it or not, salute Wray every time they cut loose on their cranked-to-the-max Stratocasters.

Shadowman, which documents a concert date in England, shows that the original Rumble Man, now pushing 70, can still loosen your cavities and make your head pound. Backed by a young, muscle-bound rhythm section, Wray launches a blitzkrieg of screaming riffs on "Geronimo," pours on the distortion in "Night Prowler" and speeds through "Timewarp/Brain Damage" like a cocky kid. The title cut is Wray's manifesto of guitar-generated suspense, every phrase lingering in the air like the smoke of a cigarette in a neon-lit back alley.

Wray, meanwhile, sings every so often in a tortured voice that owes something to early Elvis, which can be heard most obviously in his take on "Heartbreak Hotel." The one true slow number, a version of Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It," finds Wray strumming his guitar with shopworn vigor while reciting verse after verse as if gripped by the same spiritual malaise that befell Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Devil, have mercy. (*** 1/2)

-- Frank-John Hadley

Julia Fordham
East West
Virgin

Julia Fordham has made a career out of matching her church-choir soprano to airy folk music about life, love and all the stuff in between. East West, her fifth release, follows suit with typical serenity. Two songs, the title track and "Stay," stand out for their simple approach. Both were recorded as duets with producer Michael Brook, and his feathery guitar lines lend themselves perfectly to Fordham's soaring delicacies. East West's other eight tracks were cut with a live band, which gives the rest of the disc a bit more musical meat on which to chew.

And yet, all of Fordham's work seems to reflect a markedly similar tone, one that appeals repeatedly to the wounded romantic in all of us. For all its niceties, East West is, when taken in its entirety, a bit difficult to swallow. With its tempo locked at a moderate swing and lots of innocuous strumming throughout, it quickly becomes stale. As Fordham's voice soars upward, it's hard to keep your head from dropping downward. And given lyrics such as "She's lying in my place with the right to kiss my favorite face," it quickly becomes apparent that Fordham is losing her grip on the Sap-O-Meter. (** 1/2)

-- Carrie Bell

Wynton Marsalis
Jump Start and Jazz
Sony Classical

For most of us, ballet is like the restaurant where we have to wear a tie, order in a language we haven't spoken since high school and enjoy the food without knowing exactly what we ate. But for Wynton Marsalis, it's just a cool place to hang out between his other high-profile gigs.

Perhaps he was remembering Cocteau, Picasso and Satie's famous collaboration with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to stage the first "ballet of realism," one that featured typewriters, sirens and pistol shots as part of the score. Maybe not. But Jump Start and Jazz: Two Ballets by Wynton Marsalis is nearly as daring and experimental in its fusion of American and European musical idioms.

It's not surprising that Marsalis's favorite food is gumbo. Both "Jazz: 6 1/2 Syncopated Movements" and "Jump Start -- The Mastery of Melancholy" veer from moments of melancholic beauty to Ives-like strangeness, from marching-band tempos to blues to something recalling the scores of Ennio Morricone. "Jazz" begins with a light-hearted movement titled "Jubilo," but by the second movement, "Tick-Tock" (subtitled with a nod to Tchaikovsky as "Nightfalls on Toyland"), we're in the middle of a New Orleans funeral on LSD, and the last full movement, "Ragtime," is pure celebratory romp.

"Jump Start" is actually the jazzier of the two pieces, and the more fun. Composed for choreographer Twyla Tharp, "Jump Start" is less a suite than a series of pieces built around different dance rhythms. Recalling the dance music of the 1930s and 1940s, the first track, "Boogie Woogie Stomp," is exactly what its title says. And even when Marsalis looks for inspiration in an ancient Japanese musical genre, as he does in "Gagaku," it's not his musicologist's knowledge of non-Western music that impresses, but his willingness to loosen his tie, kick off his shoes and make whatever music sounds good. That's a language he's fluent in. (****)

-- Seth Hurwitz

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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