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Sublime
Second Hand Smoke
Gasoline Alley/MCA

So what if Sublime's idea of a good time involved getting high, looting, driving drunk and -- in the case of deceased lead singer/songwriter Brad Nowell -- ultimately overdosing on heroin? Beneath the tattoos, beer stains and adolescent posturing is (or, more appropriately, was) some genuine talent. Eschewing the trend toward corporation-fabricated ska, this Long Beach, California, trio was the real item, swerving outside the lines with their slovenly punk mentality in a head-on collision of reggae, ska, hip-hop and hard core.

Second Hand Smoke, the second Sublime CD released in the wake of Nowell's death, is a mixed bag of tricks that chronicles Sublime's trajectory from the coiners of dispensable keg-party jingles such as "Chick on My Tip" to being something considerably more substantial, though no less irreverent. While Smoke gathers steam with the very '80s "New Realization" and the ballsy white-boy grind of "Get Out!" (which suggests the great pop band that Sublime might have been), "What's Really Goin' Wrong" dissolves into cheap, maxed-out Hendrix mayhem and "Trenchtown Rock" delivers uninspired Bob Marley. "Doin' Time," meanwhile, hints enticingly at a dub-inflected future that Sublime will never know. Such is the hodgepodge of good and bad that is the band's legacy.

If Sublime had continued to record without incident, this uneven collection of outtakes and remakes would probably have been relegated to the curiosity shelf. But given the success of Sublime, the debut that hit the stores following Nowell's death in the summer of 1996, the remaining members of the band probably thought that every casual listener would find this anticlimactic patchwork fascinating. In reality, Second Hand Smoke works better as a form of closure for the more serious fan. (** 1/2)

-- Stephen Gershon

Rhett Akins
What Livin's All About
Decca

There's been a lot of talk in music circles about the slump that commercial country music is in these days. One of the many problems is that it's become increasingly difficult to tell one male vocalist from another. With a voice that lacks any defining characteristics, Rhett Akins is one who falls into that faceless, sound-alike category. That some continue to confuse him with Trace Adkins pretty much says it all.

What Livin's All About is typical of what's coming out of Nashville these days. The music is well played, of course. After all, the same studio musicians who appear on just about every commercial release made in Music City put in appearances on this one as well. But the songs do nothing to distinguish Akins from the rest of the hat-act pack. They speak in weary cliches ("Ain't That Just Like a Woman," "I'm Finding Out (the Hard Way)") and never stray from tired formulas.

Akins's voice is supple and by no means offensive, and tunes such as "Better Than It Used to Be" and "She's Got Everything Money Can't Buy" do have a certain amount of Southern charm. But overall, What Livin's All About still falls into the same old lifeless rut. (** 1/2)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Timbaland and Magoo
Welcome to Our World
Blackground/Atlantic

If this is their world, then Timbaland and Magoo must be living like Hugh Hefner did in the 1960s -- or at least thinking like hormonally jacked 14-year-olds. Timbaland (who produced Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot's critically lauded Supa Dupa Fly) and Magoo inhabit a world that revolves around sex: slow sex, fast sex, anonymous sex, kinky sex ... lots of kinky sex.

Welcome to Our World sets the mood with rubbery beats, warms the body with soulful background vocals, utilizes slow, sultry old-school R&B samples as aphrodisiacs and makes all the right vocal moves with guests Aaliyah, Missy Elliot and Ginuwine. More important, its bedroom technique doesn't come across as crotch-grabbing and posing -- it's more Isaac Hayes than Bobby Brown.

By and large, though, World is a success because of the way all of its little nuances add up to a seamless hip-hop package. With only an occasional sample that's recognizable (the Knight Rider theme song, for example), the disc is a throwback to the days when hip-hop was about creating something new rather than reworking proven formulas. Beats stutter and bounce off of one another without losing that cool, head-bobbing effect. They're straddled by a looped guitar riff here, a self-congratulatory lyric from Timbaland there.

What results owes its origins to a beaming self-confidence and an overwhelming sense of craft that never fails to put everything in its proper place, so that the music and the mood expand they way they should -- organically. (****)

-- David Simutis

Various Artists
Jackie Brown: Music from the Miramax Motion Picture
Maverick/A Band Apart

Regardless of how much you love or loathe Quentin Tarantino's directing, acting and/or musings on what passes for a Big Mac in other countries, you've got to hand it to the guy -- he assembles one hell of a soundtrack. Utilizing mostly obscure and long-forgotten tracks (supposedly hand-picked from his own record collection), Tarantino exhibits an impressive knack for choosing music that perfectly complements and, to an extent, comments on his movie's various characters, settings and moods. Perhaps only Martin Scorsese is Tarantino's equal in permanently altering perceptions by forcing you to visualize the film sequence in which a particular song was used. Just try thinking about the innocuous '70s hit "Stuck in the Middle with You" these days without cringing at the memory of the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs.

The soundtrack to Tarantino's latest effort, Jackie Brown, continues this tradition, mirroring both the film and its director's leanings toward '70s soul. Bobby Womack's strident "Across 110th Street," which bookends the movie, nicely reflects the title character's desire to break out of her restrictive circumstances while avoiding a jail sentence. Bloodstone's smooth doo-wop stylings on "Natural High" coax us to feel every bit of the sweet, respectful yearning that Robert Forster's bail bondsman feels for Pam Grier's Brown. (Grier herself makes a surprise appearance on the CD with "Long Time Woman," which she cut well over 20 years ago.) Jackie Brown's coolest track is arguably the Brothers Johnson's shimmering, hallucinatory tour-de-force "Strawberry Letter 23" -- in all of its uncut, five-minute glory -- which is used during a particularly tense sequence in the film to devastating effect.

Like even the best soundtracks, Jackie Brown does suffer from the occasional throwaway, including the all-too-predictable oldies radio standard "Midnight Confessions" and an unnecessarily jarring contribution from '90s porno-rap chanteuse Foxy Brown. Other tracks from Bill Withers, Minnie Riperton, Johnny Cash and the Vampire Sound, Inc. help round out the CD, but make less of an impact.

In any case, definitely see the film before listening to the CD, if only to put the music into its proper cinematic context. And as for the brief snippets of film dialogue that Tarantino includes, hearing Robert De Niro hacking away after a couple of deep bong hits is in itself worth the price of the disc. Either De Niro is an incredible method actor (most likely), or it must have been some strong shit. (****)

-- Bob Ruggiero

Babyface
MTV Unplugged NYC 1997
Epic

Am I alone in wanting to declare a moratorium on this whole MTV Unplugged thing? Something that was once considered an inventive and creative break from the norm has officially become ... the norm. It's gotten to the point where an artist isn't considered a whole entity until he or she has gone acoustic for a cable audience -- and documented the experience on CD.

Apparently, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds has caught the bug. A production mastermind and burgeoning movie-and-TV mogul, Babyface hardly seems like MTV Unplugged material. With his sensitive pop/R&B stylings, it seems he'd be more at home on, say, VH1's Storytellers. Nevertheless, here he is, commanding the show like it's one endless medley. More orchestrally elaborate than organically impromptu, the show addresses songs written and performed by Babyface ("Whip Appeal"), as well as those he penned for others to perform ("Change the World," "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)") -- all of it presented in a suitably slick and predictably melodramatic manner.

It's toward the end of the Unplugged performance that the tightly wound emotional histrionics begin to unravel. Babyface performs an embarrassingly elongated version of "The Day (That You Gave Me a Son)" as if he's singing from atop a glittering rose petal.

And when Stevie Wonder comes by to sit in on the last two songs, Babyface happily slips into the role of the eager-to-impress pupil to Wonder's well-heeled pop professor. Alas, in the end, the mentor outshines the protege, proving just how useless such a foray into canned banality is for an artist such as Babyface. (**)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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