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DJ Spooky
Riddim Warfare
Outpost/Geffen

Remember the episode of Friends where Ross thinks he can make it as a musician?

The one where he dusts off the old keyboard he got as a teen, makes a bunch of nasty, incoherent sounds and labels the result avant-garde, only to have his homies scoff at every prerecorded note? Apparently, the show's writers have never attended a rave, where a guy like Ross would be considered a friggin' genius.

That's right, folks. Many of the random noises you hear every day, in one form or another, can be combined to make today's youth culture dance and swoon. And the DJs who come up with this stuff are worshiped for it. Just ask Paul D. Miller, better known as DJ Spooky. Ever since his first album, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, his skills as a turntablist, remixer and all-around master of electronica has afforded him quite the reputation. Esquire even dubbed him one of 1997's "100 Best People in the World."

On this, his second album, the Spookmeister makes enough of a sonic ruckus to turn DJ culture into a model argument for noise pollution -- and I mean that in a good way. First off, the Kid is a nut. Everything from computer blips to fax-machine tones to spaced-out synthesizer effects enter Spooky's mix, which often confounds but never alienates. The guy also has serious jungle fever: Drum-'n'-bass ditties like the full-throttle "Post-Human Sophistry" are powerful enough to make Goldie sweat.

Riddim Warfare also dabbles in other, more unlikely genres. A jazz outfit backs up Spooky on the snappy "Roman Planetaire"; Caribbean rhythms float amidst the usual futuristic riffs on "Theme of the Drunken Sailor." On the live "Quilombio Ex Optico," the Kid, along with arty guitarist Arto Lindsay and Brazilian undergrounders Nacao Zunbi, conjure up a chaotic, into-battle number that could've been used for the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan.

But it's the guest spots that ought to really make underground obsessives salivate. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore contributes guitar; Kool Keith shows up on a couple of the more spastic tracks. Ditto Sir Menelik, Wu-Tang Clan's Killah Priest and Organized Konfusion's Prince Poetry and Pharaoh Monch, the latter who parlays some Southern-fried charisma on "Rekonstruction."

"A lot of DJs speak with their hands, you know. It's time to expand," DJ Spooky says at one point. And, to a degree, that's true. Spooky is busy shaping freeform music into something both abstract and expressive. Because, after all, proclaims the disembodied voice at the start of the CD, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous." So while Riddim Warfare may not sound the least bit musical to the average listener, it's better to be sorry than safe.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

DJ Spooky performs Wednesday, November 11, at Fitzgerald's.

La Mafia
Euforia
Sony Discos

La Mafia has, over the past decade, established a winning formula that has left its shelves heavy with industry awards. In the process, it has become Houston's ambassador of Tejano, accumulating legions of fans on both sides of the border. That recipe for success has always consisted of sprightly, accordion-sprinkled cumbia and conjunto strains delivered with an unabashedly commercial pop sensibility. Fittingly enough, the lyrics are rife with the romantic longings and implications of lead vocalist/heartthrob Oscar De la Rosa.

So why tamper with success? La Mafia doesn't even entertain the question. For better or for worse, Euforia is more of the same. Its giddy, upbeat predictability is celebrated without apology on tracks such as "Ayer y Hoy," ("Yesterday and Today") "Ahora" ("Right Now") and the jumpy "Tal Vez Puedas Quererme" ("Maybe You Can Love Me"). Naturally, there's also the obligatory gorgeous ballad, in "Pase Lo Que Pase" ("Whatever Happens Will Happen").

Euforia is not about risks; it's about self-satisfaction. As such, the payoff for non-fans is bound to be limited -- sort of like biting into a Healthy Choice brownie. Still, it's hard to blame a Grammy-winning vehicle like La Mafia for playing it safe. Look what happened when they tampered with the recipe for Coke.

-- Bob Ruggiero

R.E.M.
Up
Warner Bros.

It seems like forever since R.E.M. emerged from Athens, Georgia, looking like art-school students who drove pick-up trucks to class (except for Michael Stipe, who probably rode his bike). What has it been now -- almost 20 years? How time flies when you're having no fun at all. That R.E.M. even exists now seems almost incomprehensible, especially when so many of their contemporaries have died on the roadside, abandoned by their fans like so many discarded beer cans tossed from the Replacements' tour van. They're symbols now and not much else -- vestiges of an era before being different meant being just like everyone else.

R.E.M. was an indie band for only one single, 17 long years ago, yet they birthed the movement known as "indie rock," even more so than the Replacements, HYsker DY and others. The term doesn't really mean music released without major-label ties; it has more to do with a sound -- one that's homemade, crafted in a bedroom, done when the rest of the world is off at work or sound asleep. It's music made solely for its creator; the audience is secondary to the process, though if you happen to identify with it, feel it in your bones, then welcome to the club.

Yet Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry were not so revolutionary as rock-crit history would portray them; they didn't change the world, not even when they went platinum with 1987's Document. Their earliest releases were Southern rock of a melancholy variety, the Byrds as played by young men raised on punk rock's promise. Chronic Town, Murmur and the masterful Reckoning were beautiful, lush but never opulent, beckoning even as Stipe mumbled his tenebrous poetry beneath Buck's learn-as-you-go guitar playing. R.E.M. turned pedestrian rock and roll into the stuff of art. Never before had anything so pretentious sounded so fragile, roughhewn. Their rock and roll was almost like folk music. It belonged on a front porch. Too bad it didn't stay there.

As soon as R.E.M. hit the arenas a decade ago, in support of Green, they felt the need to turn it up in order to make themselves heard in the back row. There were a few steps back toward home along the way (1992's Automatic for the People remains this decade's masterpiece, offering proof you can whisper and rock all at once). But 1994's Monster and 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi proved they had lingered too long in the sheds. The group's music, once so delicate and so approachable, began to crumble beneath all those Buck guitar solos and Stipe poses. Suddenly, it all felt like noise and affectation. They had become an R.E.M. tribute band.

So perhaps the abrupt departure of drummer Bill Berry last year is indeed the best thing that could have happened to R.E.M. Instead of just making one more al-bum to fulfill its $80-million deal with Warner Bros., R.E.M. was forced to reconsider its position, to face its future -- or its demise. And so Up, its 11th full-length release, becomes a true new adventure in hi-fi for a band of veterans. It's where they pick up and move on, where they pare down the sound so that it once again feels like something cut in the bedroom. As such, it's the most intimate outing by a superstar act since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.

On Up, Berry has been replaced, in only the most rudimentary sense of the word, by Buck's Tuatara band mate Barrett Martin and Beck's drummer Joey Waronker; also fleshing things out are ex-Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey and veteran indie-rock producer John Keane. But the sound they make is not a completely unfamiliar one. The songs are simply expanded and contracted in the right parts, keyboards murmur in the background until they sound like a heartbeat; imagine "Man in the Moon" merged with "Country Feedback" and the ground in between. It's the sound made when Southerners discover the world is theirs. When Stipe beckons you to "sing along" on "Diminished," finally he sounds like a man wanting you to join in.

Sometimes Up rocks: "Sad Professor" resembles a Who song, down to its fall-down-drunk imagery and windmill guitar chimes. Sometimes it literally howls: "Hope" mutates into an overwhelming drone at its climax, unleashing unsettling white noise until it's almost unbearable. Imagine standing behind an airplane when it takes off. It's a perfect song for Stipe's more-audible-than-normal lyrics (included in a lyric sheet for the first time): "I'm lost in the confusion," he sings, his timbre flat yet gorgeous. "And it doesn't seem to matter."

There is no way R.E.M. could have toured in support of Up. To perform material this intimate in an arena would be like dropping a pebble into the Grand Canyon. Even the disc's more uplifting moments are sad, quiet, unabashed: When Stipe sings, "I remember standing alone trying to forget you," on "You in the Air," one can almost hear his heart break. "At My Most Beautiful" perhaps offers Up's most revealing moment. It sounds as though it was lifted straight from Pet Sounds, right down to the pretty, doo-doo-doo-waaah harmonies, and the piano, timpani, bass and harmonica intro. "I found a way to make you smile," Stipe sings, as if through a smile. "At my most beautiful I'll count your eyelashes / Secretly."

It will likely be written that Up is R.E.M.'s most accessible effort to date. It has space enough to let anyone in, even if it's not so shiny and happy as some of its more recent forerunners. Those so inclined can dissect Stipe's lyrics and ponder his dissatisfaction with religion, his belief that spirituality is in here and not out there. The man almost begs such analysis now, putting his words out front for the first time -- no more burying his head in the sand. Never has R.E.M. made an album that begs to be listened to over and over. It's a reassuring release, proof that every now and then, a band doesn't grow old. It just grows up.

-- Robert Wilonsky

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
Island

Two-time Grammy nominee Polly Harvey is among a handful of artists who are consistently able to reinvent and redefine their sound without losing sight of themselves. A proverbial bluesman (sic) trapped in a female art-rocker's body, Harvey has been a groovy riot girl, a Steve Albini-produced post-grunge anomaly, a low-fi home fiddler and a gender-bending chanteuse. On Desire, her sixth release, Harvey plays the part of a dark, meditative songwriter who seems to have just now realized that she has more than one chance to tell her story. The result is a less hurried and more pensive approach than on past albums, a groovy, backwoods swamp opera that showcases Harvey's continued artistic growth.

Granted, this isn't exactly a surprising direction for Harvey: increased atmospherics and shorter, less direct compositions. But the way in which she twists her postmodern experiments into songs keeps things unconventional. Again she teams up with producer Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode), with whom she crafted 1995's To Bring You My Love. And she gets vocal assistance from dark princes Nick Cave and Tricky. But it's Harvey who provides the salient details, allowing the instrumentation to set the mood (most not-ably the mucky low-end of the bass guitar) while her amazing lungs pinpoint its direction.

But not all of Desire's pleasures are derived from Harvey's voice alone. When "My Perfect Leah," with its sparse, distorted synthetic rhythm and mechanical squeals, segues into the chiming guitars, live drums and gurgling bass of "A Perfect Day Elise," it's the sonic equivalent of opening the shades on a sunny day. Brilliant.

-- David Simutis

Better Than Ezra
How Does Your Garden Grow
Elektra

It's been more than four years since Better Than Ezra's major-label debut, Deluxe, sold more than a million copies and made the New Orleans band 1994's somewhat more convincing version of this year's Matchbox 20. Chart-topping alterna-popsters with a penchant for emotional, hooky songs, BTE was striking out into a less well-charted territory back then, slugging it out with Oasis, Pearl Jam and Hootie to find some kind of middle ground between pure pop, grunge and frat-rock, and for the most part was succeeding. Deluxe's 1996 follow-up, Friction, Baby, was essentially more of the same, albeit with edgier production.

While 1998 finds most of their former chart-topping brethren still stuck in Clinton's less lively first term, Better Than Ezra mixes it up on How Does Your Garden Grow, gracefully avoiding the third-album jinx. This time out, the band recorded with producer Malcolm Burn (Iggy Pop, Patti Smith) in their own Fudge Studios. Burn's influence can be heard in BTE's freshly layered, vaguely electronic sound, but it's the songwriting that makes this album by far the group's most adventurous work.

Working with a supportive producer, and in a studio without a clock ticking off big dollars, BTE simply jammed away with the tape running, switched instruments a la Talking Heads and ended up with an album that veers all over the place stylistically as it stays true to the band's melodic rock roots. The first single, "One More Mur-der," was assembled from an hour-and-a-half workout that found the band indulging in a haunting piano intro, funky bass lines and Kevin Griffin's pensive, Bono-esque vocals. By contrast, "At the Stars" could be from any of the band's previous albums -- minus the tasteful strings. That might sound like good news for fans looking for more of the same. But for those looking for the band to grow up, Garden is a gaggle of eccentric odds and ends waiting to be unearthed.

-- Seth Hurwitz

John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp
Columbia

One of the few mentionables in a long list of '80s holdovers, John Mellencamp has somehow managed to increase potency with age. At times, it seemed like the only thing keeping this headstrong Indiana anomaly going (aside from fried foods and nicotine, of course) was his sheer will to stay relevant. Bluntly put, Mellencamp has never been a natural. As late as 1983's Uh-Huh, his heartland hunk rock registered closer to John Cafferty than Bruce Springsteen in narrative depth. Still, that stubborn nature disguised as insolence back in his "Cougar" days has served him even better in later years.

Maybe it was the brush with death a few years past, or the simple process of aging (and the wisdom of hindsight that comes with it), but little Johnny has learned to be a man. And while he can still be an insufferable, overbearing hick on occasion, he's learned from his mistakes -- and through simple trial and error, he's learned how to be a decent songwriter. On, John Mellen-camp, his 15th album overall and his first for new label Columbia, he comes out swinging with some his most overtly political material since 1987's Lonesome Jubilee. But it's the less heavy-handed messages skewed toward more personal battles that hold the most weight.

"Well I look in the mirror, what the hell happened to me?" Mellencamp sings on "I'm Not Running Anymore," his voice grittier than ever. "Whatever I had has gone away / I'm not the kid I used to be." Granted, Mellencamp has addressed the dual issues of aging and mortality before, most prominently on Big Daddy and Human Wheels. But rarely has he attacked the subject with such a genuine urgency; it's as if just now he's reached some pivotal realization, and he's not sure if he likes what he sees ahead of him. Similarly, on "Your Life is Now," he slips perhaps a bit uncomfortably into the role of the concerned father intent on conveying all the beauty and tragedy of life to his offspring, sending them on their way prepared: "This is your time here to do what you will do / Your life is now."

Accompanied by the aching violin of Miriam Sturm and a chugging Stax-like chorus complete with a burping, synthesized horn section, "You're Time is Now" provides John Mellencamp's pointiest emotional peak. Too bad then, that it comes as early as track three. What's left is a meandering, vaguely metaphoric patchwork of fatalistic sloganeering and botched history lessons ("It All Comes True," "Eden Is Burning"), playful distractions of the flesh ("Miss Missy," "Break Me Off Some," "Summer of Love") and less convincing old-guy laments ("Where the World Began") -- all of it capped off by a somewhat half-hearted attempt at spiritual reconciliation ("Days of Farewell").

Inconsistent as it is, though, John Mellencamp mixes it up enough musically to counteract some of its thematic flaws, tossing in looping and sample effects, various Indian instruments, and keyboard embellishments with a playfulness that never distracts from the songs. The effect is that of a folky, acoustic framework with an electric current coursing through its foundation. While frustratingly erratic, John Mellencamp is an often compelling assessment of where the artist has been and where he's headed -- even if that means going in circles.

-- Hobart Rowland

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