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Liz Phair
whitechocolatespaceegg
Matador/Capitol

Some might complain that marriage and motherhood have blunted Liz Phair's edge. Where she was once content to rant from her own, often bluntly personal vantage point, Phair tackles, on whitechocolatespaceegg, a broader range of characters and textures. Her first release, 1993's Exile in Guyville, was a song-by-song response to the sexism prevalent in the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street aimed at the boys'-club atmosphere of Chicago's indie music scene. With semi-autobiographical confessional lyrics that spoke frankly about the travails of a smart, sensitive woman, its minimalist musical approach and stark viewpoint were eye-opening in a pre-Alanis world. But the brazen attitude, and increasingly complex production and instrumentation of Guyville's follow-up, Whipsmart, largely failed to deliver on her debut's promise.

Four years later, Phair's anger has subsided, which has allowed her storytelling skills to blossom. That shift in perspective is most evident on "Uncle Alvarez," which deftly personalizes a yuppie's incessant phoniness, underscoring the various lies we tell ourselves and others. New textures and instrumentation are evident throughout spaceegg, with tablas, fretless bass, triangle and piano accenting Phair's chunky guitar riffs and catchy, understated choruses. The disc's prettiest, most accomplished track is its closer, "Girls' Room," on which Phair uses her patented vocal Lamaze technique to vary the volume of her singing to dizzying effect.

Further proof of Phair's thematic branching out comes on "Only Son," in which she adopts the persona of a son who disappoints his family, eventually leaving them behind completely. Lackadaisically straying behind the beat, Phair laments, "Good-bye, so long, I'm gone already." But as the song picks up steam, it becomes a celebration, chugging along like vintage Velvet Underground. All through spaceegg, Phair demonstrates her mastery of the "show, don't tell" narrative technique. And while her newfound sophistication might disappoint a few riot grrrl stragglers, it ought to impress those fans looking for real growth. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Rancid
Life Won't Wait
Epitaph

Maddeningly scatterbrained, brazenly presumptuous and dizzyingly eclectic, Life Won't Wait upgrades the Clash's Sandinista! for the '90s with a grating dose of harrowing, premillennial furor. On this, the third full-lengther from San Francisco's most hailed punk revisionists, the various tussles with authorities, scandals in the Royal Family, draft worries and Central American strife that drove that bloated 1981 epic are supplanted by the ravages of urban decay ("Leicester Square"), the realities of economic hegemony ("New Dress"), the lingering shadow of racism ("Life Won't Wait") and glimpses into Eastern Europe's post-Soviet malaise ("Warsaw").

But while Sandinista!'s three-LP excursion into self-righteous excess far outweighs Life Won't Wait's 22 tracks in sheer all-inclusiveness, Rancid's Tim Armstrong and his infrequent band mate collaborators can't hold a blowtorch to the songwriting team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in their prime. Rancid's dabblings in reggae, soul and ska -- while just as awkwardly white and grooveless as the Clash's like-minded forays into rap and dub -- lack the sophistication and melodic cohesion the Strummer/Jones partnership brought to the table. Wait's most shameless reggae knockoff, the title track, sounds displeasingly dull and dated, as if Rancid were transmitting from the far corners of some tropical sociopolitical time warp. "Division is a new world order," Armstrong crows with the aid of fellow Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen. "Come along and tell your sista and your brotha."

Any overtures toward old-school authenticity are long past due by the time Jamaican dance-hall god Buju Banton puts in his wasted toasting effort. In fairness, the band did fly to Kingston to record "Life Can't Wait." But the more honest product of those brief sessions is "Hoover Street," an incorrigible slice of junkie life that rocks harder than anything on Rancid's last -- and best -- release, ...And Out Come the Wolves. The tune makes effective use of the bullish Armstrong/Frederiksen harmonies (to eerily Clash-like effect) and the implausible tinkling of a xylophone.

Although there are several such highlights on Life Won't Wait -- perfect little pop numbers ripped to shreds and reassembled as snarling punk anthems -- there are almost as many wrong turns and rash stylistic oversights. ("Backslide" proves without a doubt that Stax soul horns, surf-guitar solos and heavy-metal licks are a dubious mix.) A portion of the blame can be laid at the combat-boot-clad dogs of Armstrong, who overcompensates for his lack of insight with a jarring surplus of attitude, as if any hints of subtlety might eradicate the band's well-informed lowlife image. In essence, Rancid want it three ways: They want us to admire their intelligence, fear their recklessness and, first and foremost, value their message. But exactly what they want us to take from that message is anyone's guess, seeing as its vehicle -- the music -- is mired in contradictions.

That's not to say the group needs to back away completely from the careless eccentric route and go the refined way of their Bay Area contemporaries in Green Day. But it might be easier to get at the crux of Rancid's true reality if they'd hone their approach and choose their causes a bit more discriminately. As it is now, the troops in the Armstrong army are carrying on like rebels without a clue. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

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

Black Eyed Peas
Behind the Front
Interscope

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), Apl.de.Ap 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
Spyboy
Eminent

Linda Ronstadt
We Ran
Elektra

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)

-- Rob Patterson

Nanci Griffith
Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful)
Elecktra

Sequels are common fare in the film industry -- and a lucky few are even more successful than their original counterparts. But musicians are rarely daring or talented enough (or both) to reprise a winning formula without the concept rapidly losing focus and becoming stale. Fortunately, Nanci Griffith possesses enough talent and guts to accomplish such a task, which is why Other Voices, Too amazes more often than it falls flat.

Returning to the concept of her Grammy-winning 1993 release, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Griffith has again recorded a collection of songs from other writers that have either inspired her or have helped shape the modern folk tradition. This time, she is accompanied by no less than 67 (!) guests from all generations and genres. The list includes Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, members of Hootie and the Blowfish, Toad the Wet Sprocket and even Buddy Holly's Crickets, all of whom ably assist her in interpreting songs from the likes of Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. Griffith also deserves credit for choosing tunes from lesser-known artists such as Texan Mickie Merkens (whose "Yarrington Town" is a particular standout), Tom Russell and Pat McLaughlin.

There are times on Other Rooms, Too when Griffith is more a spectator than a participant, allowing her guests to carry the songs while she lends background vocals and tackles a verse here and there. Problems arise only when too many different voices are caught up in the mix and the song itself is lost, as with Guy Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." But despite some rough patches, Griffith has managed another sincere, articulate tribute to the music she cherishes, one that is both a fun listen and a worthy history lesson. (*** 1/2)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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