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Joni Mitchell
Taming the Tiger
Reprise

It's another Joni Mitchell album, and here we go again with the hue and cry from the media about how Mitchell's genius is criminally ignored by the masses. Not to mention the interviews in which her disgruntlement with the Big Mac marketing of pop music and the dumbing-down of contemporary musical tastes is given heavy play. Not that the continuing canonization of Mitchell isn't one of the few worthy crusades left. After all, with albums such as Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon and Blue, she all but authored the female singer/songwriter handbook -- so much so that she deserves a cut of the take from Lilith Fair, not to mention a fat royalty check for the (far too) many Jewel albums gobbled up by Gen-Xers hungry for smarts, sensitivity and substance.

In reality, though, Mitchell closed that book over two decades ago, taking up her paints and brushes to pursue a course that's far more adventurous and artistic. If it has washed her up on the far banks of the mainstream, one must remember how van Gogh only sold one painting during his entire lifetime. And Mitchell knows that score. On her last disc, Turbulent Indigo, the self-portrait on the cover depicted Joni as Vincent, bandages wrapping her head where her ear had been sliced off. This time out, she may claim to be Taming the Tiger, but she has painted herself holding a cat with wise, all-seeing eyes in a garden splashed with color.

You could argue that ever since 1972's For the Roses, Mitchell has composed more like a painter than a musician, traveling like Picasso through phases and stages, constantly mixing musical pigments to explore different tones and shades that have taken her out of folk-rock and up onto a plane all her own. It's a credit to her deft touch that Taming the Tiger, a melodically fertile and airy work, has been fashioned from the simplest elements: her own guitars, keyboards and voice; the mellifluous and soaring saxophone of contemporary jazz giant Wayne Shorter; subtle splashes of what is jokingly called "peddle steel" by guitar wizard Greg Leisz; and occasional bass and drums. It's an approach that creates an almost hypnotic effect. Even her occasionally snide asides -- "Kiss my ass!", "Boring!" -- lose some of their bite in the captivating mix.

Not that one should quibble about such things. Tiger is a work not only to be heard but to be savored, one in which the medium is as important as the message, however witty her wordplay may be, however tart her observations on life happen to sound. This becomes brilliantly clear on "My Best to You." It's a simple, loving hymn that, in another's hands, might have been a folk-anthem sing-along; instead, Mitchell casts it as a small-scale fantasia of sentiment and harmonics. Long after those Jewel CDs find their way to the resale stores, Taming the Tiger will continue to purr, hiss and growl with timeless wisdom and musicality.

-- Rob Patterson

Magical Sol Brothas
Black n' Mild
Imani

Granted, it's a bit of a surprise when a Houston-based rap quartet decides to break from the city's stereotypical gangsta norm (schematic synthesizers, calculated drum beats, ghetto warfare verses, etc.). But the Magical Sol Brothas pull off a shocker with conviction and style on their masterful sophomore album, Black n' Mild.

Musically, the Brothas -- Da King, Terry Freebird, Mr. Boogie and Lil' Leg Ced -- are in a different place entirely. They're students of the late-'70s/early-'80s funk aesthetic. On the crisp dance number "Getcha Backs Off the Wall," they lean on a reverbed sample from Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." On "Maintain," they borrow the melody from Isaac Hayes's rendition of "The Look of Love," crossing it with icy guitar licks. The album's final track, "All the Way Live," has them tipping their Fubu caps to funk journeymen Lakeside. Hell, most of the songs on this blue-chip baby make you wanna slap on an old pair of roller skates and search out the nearest abandoned rink.

The Brothas aren't smoked-out rough-riders -- they're perennial party-beat fiends. "No gangs, just beats" is their mantra. As it happens, they're also skilled vocalists and witty lyricists. ("My rhymes are on time / Like some white folks.") Sure, they're also hot-blooded males, but they manage to stay vigorous without being gratuitous. After all, nice young men don't offend their mamas, who wish the boys well on the album's opening intro.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Robbie Fulks
Let's Kill Saturday Night
Geffen

Although Robbie Fulks is a man of many moods as an artist, he'd never really exposed his rocker side on record. So Let's Kill Saturday Night is his coming-out of sorts: It's his major-label debut and it rocks with a rowdiness that fits his acerbic personality.

Fulks's first two albums, recorded for Chicago insurgent-country label Bloodshot Records, showcased his handle on that genre to the tune of some of the finest C&W made in the last five years. Certainly, Let's Kill Saturday Night contains its share of twang -- what with the winning honky-tonk of "Can't Win for Losing You" and a seemingly long-lost response to the Louvin Brothers' "Satan Is Real" titled "God Isn't Real." But from Saturday Night's explosive title track to the guitar wail let loose on "Down in Her Arms," Fulks is aggressive and angry here in ways that country music just won't allow. There's also his unique capacity to detail the dark side of life with clarity and directness, as on the Appalachian-style ballad "Bethelridge" and the haunting hidden track, "Night Accident."

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