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Aretha Franklin
A Rose Is Still a Rose
Arista

On initial inspection, A Rose Is Still a Rose seems like an aging legend's desperate attempt to work her way into the contemporary R&B mix by enlisting help from some of today's hottest, hippest producers. But if that were the case, you'd expect soul's most legendary diva to be subjected to those producers' typical, ego-driven slicing-and-dicing studio maneuvers. But listen closer, and it becomes obvious that it's Franklin who's running the show. Welcome to Soul Music 101, students: Pay attention and you just might learn something.

Talk about an education. With the exception of the funky, melodic title track, which bears the unmistakable stamp of its writer/producer, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, Aretha rarely lets down her guard. Saucy youngsters such as Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin willingly conform to Aretha's subtle formulas; cutting-edge beats are heaped against her throne. In terms of its feeling, Rose falls into the '80s mode of quiet-storm R&B, all streamlined gossamer wings and seamless sanguinity. Aretha lends charcoal shadings to "How Many Times" and "The Woman" (the latter of which she wrote and produced herself); those songs wow you with their tenderness.

In the end, former Babyface partner Daryl Simmons and Franklin's longtime collaborator Narada Michael Walden seem the best equipped to furnish appropriate backing for the queen. Regardless, Sean "Puffy" Combs interjects enough "yeahs" and "uh-huhs" on "Never Leave You Again," to never let you forget he's around. But who's really supplying the goods, Puff Daddy?

Uh-huh, lesson learned. (***)
-- Craig D. Lindsey

Propellerheads
DECKSANDDRUMSANDROCKANDROLL
DreamWorks

Tagged as the latest British technorganic hope to woo mainstream American acceptance, the Propellerheads intertwine turntables, live drums, bass and Hammond organ to mind-fuzzing effect. On this, their greatly anticipated debut, spy movie soundtracks, studio trickery, Blue Note jazz and funk, blaxploitation theme music and hip-hop converge as one nation under a groove. Picture the Beastie Boys playing Austin Powers's bachelor party and you've pretty much cornered the vibe.

The Heads' layering of live instrumentation atop samples supplies rock-style aggressiveness and warmth, which may endear them to more traditional rock and roll fans. Their strong point is their versatility; they dabble in several genres with input from special guests such as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, who rap on one track apiece. And since this resourceful pair understands the importance of a fine groove, these interludes sound at home among the up-tempo instrumentals, head-bobbing beats and orchestral loops. Seemingly dogged by the dreaded "destined for success" tag since their inception, the Propellerheads are coy enough to deflate that very idea on "History Repeating," its vocal delivered by Shirley Bassey, who sang the theme to the James Bond classic Goldfinger. "I've seen it before / It's just history repeating," Bassey coos, backed by a sharp bossa nova beat and a groovy organ attack.

But that's hardly the case here. Unfettered ambassadors of experimentation, the Propellerheads have finally made it aesthetically safe for electronica freaks and alt-rockers to hold hands. (****)

-- David Simutis

Perfect Night: Live in London
Lou Reed
Reprise Records

Lou Reed did not age gracefully -- he aged accidentally, clumsily, defiantly. The music he makes now bears little relationship to the sounds he made with the Velvet Underground; that stuff belonged to a young man trying to sound old, a smart kid letting you know just how clever he was, an R&B fetishist who hid his somnolent voice behind beautiful chaos. He has been middle-aged forever, worn out before he was ever broken in. For proof, one need look no further than 1982's The Blue Mask, made when he was just 40 -- it's an album full of rage and sadness, terror and understanding. He died on The Blue Mask, and he was reborn: By the time of Legendary Hearts in 1983 and New Sensations the following year, he locked into a solid, deep groove. And even if subsequent releases weren't irreproachable, they were full of profound, inevitable, grown-up rock and roll.

And so, we end up here, with Lou Reed's fifth live album as a solo artist -- and the one that seems to have the most ... heart. If it's no must-listen along the lines of 1974's louder-than-God Rock 'n' Roll Animal or 1978's shut-up-and-stand-up routine, Take No Prisoners, that's only because Perfect Night is not quite so epic and belligerent; Lou doesn't shove his ass in your face and tell you it smells like roses, offering one more bloated rendition of "Walk on the Wild Side." That cynic's dead, supplanted by the guy who now prefers his guitars acoustic instead of electric and his words understood instead of just spoken as though by rote. The music here is solid but a little fragile too, like a whisper in your ear.

Backed by his longtime bassist and vocalist Fernando Saunders, guitarist Mike Rathke and drummer Tony Smith, Reed conjures a weird VU vibe. Perfect Night is Reed's most Velvets-sounding release in decades, the deceptively simple music ebbing and flowing instead of twisting and turning. But don't confuse sounding like with re-creating. Now, you get the feeling Lou listens, too; where once he strung words together because they sounded good, now he sings them because they feel right.

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