-- Hobart Rowland

Rancid performs Saturday, August 8, at the AstroArena as part of the Vans Warped Tour.

Black Eyed Peas
Behind the Front

On "Fallin' Up," the first track on Black Eyed Peas' debut album, Behind the Front, the band members lament, "I see you try to dis our function by statin' that we can't rap / Is it because we don't wear Hilfiger or baseball caps?"

Indeed, as a trio of dudes who resemble Parisian cafe vagabonds more than hip-hoppers, Black Eyed Peas demur from the harsher aspects of the rap conceit to hip us on their idea of proper aesthetics. Simply put, the suave cats who make up Black Eyed Peas -- Will.I.Am (who also produced the album), and Taboo -- are pacifist boho party boys, the sort of house band one might hire to entertain an Afrocentric art and culture expo. Doing away with all hard-guy ghetto overtones, they focus on what they know best: street-tested hip-hop.

Occasionally backed by a four-piece band, Black Eyed Peas bring back the funky, eclectic, hip-hop/bebop mesh last heard in the early '90s from the likes of Digable Planets. On Behind the Front's best track, "Joints and Jam," the positively charged electric-organ loops seem to come alive, inspiring an insurmountable house-party groove. "Movement," meanwhile, lives up to its title, its beats gorging on your solar plexus while various instruments bounce around the mix like Slinkies. The Peas even attempt a little Latin sauciness on "Karma."

Sure, the uplifting strategy implemented on Behind the Front might seem a wee bit wimpy at times. But in the end, it's all about the music, and in that arena the Peas can spar with the best of 'em. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Black Eyed Peas perform at the AstroArena Thursday, August 6, as part of the Smokin' Grooves Tour.

Emmylou Harris

Linda Ronstadt
We Ran

Here we are in the late 1990s, and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt are releasing albums that find both singers in top form, just like they were doing some 25 years ago. As that great sage Yogi Berra once commented, "It's like dejà vu all over again."

Well, not exactly. Where Harris once combined a fervent sense of neo-traditionalism with a progressive country consciousness, her 1995 album Wrecking Ball, produced by Daniel Lanois, is one of the few recent releases that actually lives up to the overused term (to the point of meaninglessness) "alternative country." Spyboy is the live document of the tour that followed, named after the band that backed Harris -- roots guitar genius Buddy Miller and the jazzy African-American rhythm section of bassist Daryl Johnson and drummer Brady Blade.

Conversely, Ronstadt's We Ran is a return to the '70s after excursions into classic pop and traditional Mexican music. The blueprint is much the same as in her heyday: well-chosen songs by top-flight songwriters, and tasteful and smart country-pop arrangements featuring some of Los Angeles's best musicians. If it weren't so long since she'd been an all but de facto radio presence, you'd probably be hearing something from We Ran on the airwaves already.

Even if Spyboy is the more intriguing effort of the two, the interesting congruity here is how both iconic singers prove the validity and strength of their differing approaches. What Harris displays on Spyboy with stunning results is the malleability of her musical vision. Having already explored a range of country permutations, she reinvented herself masterfully on Wrecking Ball, its modern, airy and often ethereal sound giving new wings to her bittersweet singing. Now Spyboy demonstrates just how well that approach also suits classic material from her early recording days -- tracks like Gram Parsons's "Wheels," Rodney Crowell's "Ain't Living Long" and her tribute to Parsons, "Boulder to Birmingham."

The superb musicianship gives this live collection a rich professionalism one hears all too rarely on the concert stage, yet without forsaking the unique energy that only comes from playing for an audience. The progressive directions here clinch Harris's status as one of America's premier roots innovators. And even if Spyboy might disarm some purists, it's an admirable and significant testament to her visionary artistry.

We Ran plays it safer. But hearing Ronstadt do again what she does best -- take a country-music consciousness into mainstream pop rock without a hint of compromise -- is indeed gratifying. As she did on her classic '70s recordings, Ronstadt gleans material from great writers -- John Hiatt ("When We Ran" and "Icy Blue Heart"), Bob Dylan ("Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") and Bruce Springsteen ("If I Should Fall Behind") -- and delivers it with her inimitable sense of soul. Her trademark vocals are clear, rich and expressive.

Ronstadt's takes on the Crescent City classic "Ruler of My Heart" and the Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman chestnut "Cry 'Til My Tears Run Dry" are two of We Ran's best moments, seductive performances that suggest a full R&B album might be an avenue for Ronstadt to explore in the future. Yet she also continues to paint country tunes with an appealingly broad palette on "The Heartbreak Kind" and "Dreams of the San Joaquin." And the sensually heartbroken whisper of her singing on "I Go to Pieces" is the sort of vocal tour de force that even the younger Ronstadt never quite achieved in her most popular work. (Spyboy, ****; We Ran, *** 1/2)

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