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Mystikal
Ghetto Fabulous
No Limit/Jive

Silkk the Shocker
Made Man
No Limit/Priority

Did you just hear that clicking sound? That was the sound of Master P switching on the reel-to-reel machine again so he can record tracks for yet another No Limit album. Master P churns out albums the same way Nabisco churns out packs of Fig Newtons. And once in a while, one of those No Limit packs has the same fulfilling enjoyment, like the two new releases P is starting off the year with from his two most high-profile artists. (Besides himself, of course.)

With his perfectly braided dreadlocks and shell-shocked vigor, Mystikal is the Sean Penn of the No Limit cartel, an intimidating, flawed madman with the soul of a tortured artist. He's probably the most charismatic, intriguing creative presence Master P has got on his whole damn label. (In terms of flow, Mystikal does appear light-years ahead of his own boss.) On Ghetto Fabulous, his third album, Mystikal once again lets listeners in on the method of his madness, inviting anyone with a strong stomach, a willing mind and balls of steel to come and enjoy the carnage. Right from the first track, the here-we-come anthem, "Round Out the Tank," the man comes out blazing like Chuck Connors at the beginning of The Rifleman. Now, as for what Mystikal's talking about, that's anybody's guess. His oral collection of vein-popping rants and spastic sound effects nearly rivals the verbal acrobatics of Busta Rhymes, who appears on the track "Whatcha Want, Whatcha Need." The snippets you do catch show Mystikal to be one ballsy character. On "There He Go," he admits that "A job well done makes my dick go hard." (To borrow a line from comedian D.L. Hughley, Mystikal needs Jesus.) The incendiary "I'm On Fire" has the rapper popping in and out of his own pyrotechnical nightmare. And on "Respect My Mind," perhaps the best track, Mystikal vehemently riffs on those who try to diminish his creative power. ("Y'all bitches can't get down like me and the Pound can / We ain't gotta bring up Soundscan.") The beats are kept on the down low to accommodate Mystikal's manic, gruff style. But even when they're not, as on the hellafied, guitar-strumming "Keep It Hype," they provide a perfectly nervy backbeat for a perfectly nervy performer. Even when he treads on the familiar rap subjects such as songs about weed ("I Smell Smoke") or the love of a good mother ("Life Ain't Cool"), you can hear the velocity and electricity in his voice. Unlike other MCs, Mystikal sounds like he's actually on. "I'm two scoops from cuckoo," Mystikal says on one of the songs. Whatever he is, his speedy rap insanity is more than welcome.

If Mystikal lays down his point of view rapidly and belligerently, then Silkk the Shocker drops his stuff in an inert, out-of-the-way manner. With an exasperated, out-of-breath tone that often has him sounding like he's trying to catch up with the rest of the music (his big brother, Master P, often does the same damn thing), Silkk is passive to Mystikal's aggressive. It shows on his third album, Made Man. Mixing mobster mythology with inner-city loyalty, Silkk tries to parlay some proficient class and smoothness into the Southern gangsta-rap game. (Don't be discouraged, fans, the guy's still a thug.)

Despite the album's excessive length and occasional lapses into wrenched-out pathos (The Commodores-sampled "End of the Road" comes from the same histrionic ilk as that now-classic rap weepie, "Gangsta Lean"), the rest of the album has him coolly balancing himself between suave stud and ghetto goodfella. "All Because of You" has Silkk taking off on the immortal Slick Rick/Doug E. Fresh number "La Di Da Di" with some help from Mia X. "Ghetto Rain" has him interpreting the art of the hustle with big bro P. He also does a follow-up of his hit "It Ain't My Fault" with Mystikal. It's not just the No Limit camp that does guest shots. Non-No-Limit artist Mya shows up and smolders on "Somebody Like Me," while another outsider, Jay-Z, teams up with Silkk and P on the extravagant "You Know What We Bout." But while Made Man is touted as Silkk's show, you can't help but notice how good the Beats By The Pound production team has gotten at injecting energetic, potent beats and rhythms into No Limit releases. Silkk may be a made man, but it helps having a crew like Beats By The Pound backing him up.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Waco Brothers
WacoWorld
Bloodshot

At a time when such terms as "alternative country" and "country punk" have been bandied about so much as to become almost meaningless, the Chicago-based Waco Brothers nonetheless embody them as well as any contemporary act. And even if WacoWorld doesn't have quite as much oomph and sizzling energy as its previous releases, the title is nonetheless apropos for the way this band of latter-day outlaws and cowboys has fully defined its stylistic niche here.

The themes explored within are well represented by the postconstructivist cover, adapted from the poster art for the 1973 Michael Crichton film Westworld, where a computer-controlled Western theme park of the future goes haywire. Similarly, the songs on WacoWorld depict a booze-soaked realm rife with heartbreak, corruption, and old West-style violence and mayhem -- not a pretty place. The lyrics recast country music and Western movie themes for the premillennial era in a manner that one might not think of as poetic, yet as certainly literary if not downright cinematic. WacoWorld is, like Westworld, a place where order and reason have all but disappeared.

It's almost ironic that this depiction of the newest West comes from a band with its roots in British punk rock. Mutating out of the Mekons, who themselves mutated from politicized punk into countryish pub rock, the Wacos traffic in hard country and roots rhythms overlaid with tightfisted guitar work. Steel guitar and mandolin waft through the mix like a warm breeze off the prairie, but the musical weather in WacoWorld is primarily that of thunder, lightning and rain.

In the final tally, this isn't a record about how the proverbial West was won, but rather about how the mythical modern West has come undone. So even though WacoWorld may not be a pretty place, it is a realm where anyone who visits and comes out walking tall knows that the vagaries of modern life can never gun them down.

-- Rob Patterson

Paul Westerberg
Suicaine Gratifaction
Capitol

It's hard not to read into "I'm the best thing that never happened," the opening line of "Best Thing That Never Happened," when delivered by Paul Westerberg, the godfather of white-boy, Midwest rock who never achieved the stardom he deserved. Suicaine is a dark record from the basements of Westerberg's mind and house (where much of the basic tracks was recorded). He has said that he stopped fighting depression when he wrote his third solo record, and it shows.

Comfortable with the fact that he has grown up to be songwriter, not a rocker, Westerberg journeys to sad and horrifying places without remorse. Producer Don Was has helped other less-than-young artists (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones) turn their experiences into satisfying records without getting in the way. He does the same thing here, patiently letting Westerberg indulge in his Randy Newman/ Elvis Costello fantasies through a handful of piano-based and slower acoustic pieces while allowing him to give the louder numbers a good punch. Guests include Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Shawn Colvin and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but they don't add polish. Only Tench's keyboard work is even noticeable.

What is evident is that Westerberg trusts his instincts again. With the Replacements he operated intuitively, creating some of the best pure rock and roll of the past 20 years, but his two previous solo records wavered between half-assed rock and half-dead ballads. He overthought himself so much. Opening Suicaine with "It's a Wonderful Lie," Westerberg, accompanied by acoustic guitar and accordion, says he's past his prime. When the record segues into "Self-Defense," a piano and French horn number, it becomes apparent that this is going to be a small, quiet and personal record. Westerberg's voice has never sounded more fragile or intimate. His journey to the depths has allowed him to channel the beaten soul of "Bookmark," a song about a girl who never recovers from her father's walking out on the family. Sparse pedal steel and piano frame the words of a life ruined, a life "crushed like the petals of a flower."

-- David Simutis

Jimmy Eat World
Clarity
Capitol

Phoenix's Jimmy Eat World returns with its second record, and the actual, noneaten world is a better place for it. Clarity is powerful and catchy but complex and soaring as well. The rhythm section of Rick Burch (bass) and Zach Lind (drums) provides an intricate foundation that gives the coupled guitars of Jim Adkins and Tom Linton room to skate on top and dive into the thick mix when necessary. Grafting strings and keyboard textures to odd time signatures and the raw power of overdriven guitars makes the record a little cerebral to be sure, but not so much that the visceral pleasure of white boys making noise is lost. Creating fresh and vital rock from the basic tools is rare, and when Clarity hits the mark, as it frequently does, it's a transcendental experience.

The brightest of these moments is "Lucky Denver Mint," simply the best rock radio song in a long, long time. It's more restrained than most of Clarity, the guitars are less crunchy, the sentiment more wistful than angst-ridden. The slow burn of the verse -- with Burch, in counterpoint, hammering straight eighth notes on his bass and the chiming guitars increasing in intensity -- is built up layer by layer before the song erupts into the chorus. In a decent world Adkins's emotive, taunting melody, "You're not bigger than this, not better, why can't you learn?" would be booming out of cars in high school parking lots all spring long. The muted six-string caterwaul of "Your New Aesthetic" may give them a rush as they burn off nervous energy, but what makes these musicians rise above the noise merchants are the twisted guitars, song structures and sweetening instruments. The xylophone, synths and cello of "A Sunday" show that the quartet has many dimensions. Barely out of school themselves, the members of Jimmy Eat World still revel in the wall of guitars and punk tempos that testosterone and youth encourage. But they also understand the power of holding some things back.

-- David Simutis

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