Mysteries of Funk
Higher Ground/Columbia

It has been said that if there is one person we can thank (or, for some, punch in the eye) for that electronica phenomenon known to the kiddies as drum 'n' bass, the popular vote leans toward UK DJ Grooverider.

Sure, his name doesn't spring to mind with the same notoriety of techno superstars like The Chemical Brothers, but the man has been called "the Godfather of Drum 'n' Bass." Without him, we wouldn't have jungle-music mavens like Goldie (whom he helped bring into the drum 'n' bass fold by playing one of his records at a London club one night). And after years of making a name for house music, he finally makes a name for himself with his debut, Mysteries of Funk.

Mysteries of Funk is not so much a journey into syncopated funkdom as it is a techno-colored playhouse. Out-there sound effects wander amiably with heavy bass riffs, exotic instrumentals and various other rhythmic occurrences. But while most of his contemporaries go for that aggressive, in-your-eardrums tone in their digital compositions, Grooverider (or Groove, to his close, personal homies) is a laid-back mixer. From the sounds of things, Grooverider has his music clearly cemented in acid jazz. Melding bebop components with whatever noises he can conjure out of drum machines and synthesizers, Grooverider has a broad, enjoyable bounce in his music -- something he perfects along with engineer Matt "Optical" Quinn -- that doesn't teeter on self-indulgence. He peels away at all the scabbiness that has encrusted drum 'n' bass over the years and comes back with melodic, sensual jazz/jungle fusion.

But don't worry, kids -- the funk is still there. It can be found in the track respectfully titled "C Funk." You can also catch whiffs of it in the "Imagination" trilogy as well as the frumpy "Rainbows of Colour," which features some Bjork-like vocals from Roya Arab.

Mysteries of Funk may sound a little uneven in some areas (that out-of-tune electric piano chord he throws into "Cybernetic Jazz" sounds like it belongs in a late '80s porno film), but that's not enough to dismiss it as inferior work. Besides, Grooverider practically invented this damn genre; shouldn't he be able make a few new arrangements here and there if he wants to?

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Various Artists
Tammy Wynette ... Remembered
Asylum Records

When "First Lady of Country Music" Tammy Wynette died in her sleep earlier this year, the obituaries were mostly full of details about her turbulent personal life, with the more unimaginative scribes breathlessly pointing out that it often resembled a country song: dirt-poor beginnings, battles with depression, drugs and intestinal ailments, and five marriages (most famously to country legend George Jones).

Fewer took time to discuss her actual music or the very real impact that she had in the '60s and '70s (along with Loretta Lynn) on opening the doors for women country performers and encouraging them to address highly personal issues with their music.

This tribute album brings together a wide range of artists to interpret her most famous material, including Roseanne Cash ("D-I-V-O-R-C-E"), Melissa Etheridge ("Apartment #9"), Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Lorrie Morgan and even the aforementioned Jones. There's not a clunker in the bin save, unfortunately, for Elton John's (yes, you read right) wretched take on Wynette's signature number, "Stand By Your Man." And in fact, there are several wonderful surprises -- Sara Evans on "I Don't Wanna Play House," K.T. Oslin on "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad," and Wynonna's gospelly-dirty "Woman to Woman."

Much of the lyrics and all-too-topical material is just as strong today as it was more than a generation ago. But what this disc achieves best is what all too few "tribute" records actually do -- and that's to either fire the memories of older fans or stoke the curiosity of the uninitiated to investigate the source, in this case Wynette's own original versions (I know I'll be looking for some).

The last track on the CD is Tammy Wynette's own last recording, a duet of the Beach Boys' classic "In My Room" with head Boy Brian Wilson. And one can't help but draw a comparison between the two despite the difference in preferred musical genre. While the pressures of life and the industry at the height of their careers caused the delicate Wilson to crack and retreat for decades into a haze of LSD and psychoses (becoming something of a joke in the process), Wynette gathered all her strength and soldiered on through the real world when faced with the same situation. And that took guts -- something Tammy Wynette, and her music, had in abundance.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Duncan Sheik

When Duncan Sheik's 1996 pop masterpiece "Barely Breathing" crossed over several formats and spent a miraculous 55 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it was a bit of a surprise. Who would have thought the best pop song of the decade would have that kind of staying power with the masses? Sheik's eponymous debut was a solid freshman effort with some good songwriting and adventurous, if occasionally overdone, arrangements. A pensive album, some categorized it as art-pop as it usually sounded more like "She Runs Away" than "Barely Breathing."

Sheik brings back producer Rupert Hine on Humming, his second release which is more reflective and mature than his debut. Like fellow art-popper Eric Matthews, Sheik sometimes cares more about sonic pictures than pop hooks and standard pop structures. His concern for timbre sees him use some unusual instrumentation, including a bass clarinet, harmonium and bodhran. Not exactly your standard pop instruments, but Humming isn't a standard pop album. There are a couple of typical pop-alternative hits like "Bite Your Tongue," but they aren't representative of the album. Most of it is more ambitious.

The more adventurous songs draw from many styles, yet all have Sheik's unique touch to them. "Rubbed Out" has the layered sound of '70s art-rock minus the instrumental dirges, yet his falsetto is David Gates-like, and the electronic effects are reminiscent of Seal. Sheik's careful attention to nuance is apparent on "A Body Goes Down," a song filled with Indian influences, and "House Full of Riches," which builds from a small-scale piece to symphonic cascade. Sophomore efforts usually aren't this well-crafted.

Humming isn't without fault. Sheik's voice is usually good but sometimes seems strained. The string arrangements are occasionally overblown, and lyrically, though he is improving, he sometimes misses the mark, like on "That Says It All," where a great tribute to '60s rock icons with a good hook in the verse is marred by a weak chorus.

Artist maturity is an overrated concept. That an artist changes doesn't mean much if the new music isn't compelling. Though Sheik's Humming lacks a "Barely Breathing," it's an involving project that suggests he will be an important songwriter for a long time to come.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

Cowboy Mouth

Over the past seven years, Cowboy Mouth's three indie CDs have earned them a reputation as one of New Orleans's most eclectic aggregations. Even in a city that's famous for its musical eccentrics, the band stands out -- are they country or rock, folk or pop, Cajun or blues? And where does that funky rhythm guitar fit in? For those afflicted by the music biz's need to categorize, you could consider them a gang of singer/songwriters with an abiding love for roots music styles. but like many of the young roots rock bands currently plying their trade across the country, they're able to dip into almost any brand of musical arcana and give it their own unique, postmod kind of spin. The album kicks in with "Why Ya Wanna Do Me?" a bit of solid guitar riffomania that sounds mainstream enough, but from there on out the band bounces all over the map.

"Whatcha Gonna Do" could be a sensitive singer/songwriter ballad, except for the pounding beat and the trashy guitar; the belladonna groove of "I Want to Believe" sounds like Fox Mulder fronting the Sir Douglas Quintet; "Little Blue One," with its Latin tinge and mournful tune, echoes the early work of Roy Orbison, while "Out of My Way Back to You," "Turn Me On" and "Lovers and Friends" would all have any hard-core country crowd kicking up sawdust as they gyrated across a honky-tonk hardwood floor.

As you might expect from a group named after a Patti Smith/Sam Shepard play, the band's lyrics stray far afield from the usual pop and country concerns. The secular gospel of "Shotgun In My Soul" and the tongue-in-cheek evil of "Bad" ("I'm gonna be bad, and it's gonna be good") play plenty of unexpected tricks on the language, in the same way that their arrangements subvert the listener's musical expectations. Happily, these cheeky cowboys have the chops and the swing to pull rabbit after rabbit out of their collective musical hat, and despite their considerable swing, they maintain an in-your-face attitude that's refreshing in this era of pop navel gazing and faux romanticism.

-- j.poet

The Cardigans
Gran Turismo

Gran Turismo is an exercise in cold, dark Euro-gloss -- in a perfect world it would best be relegated to functioning as the soundtrack for a depressing, futuristic B-grade sci-fi movie. Be warned: Those familiar with The Cardigans only through the frightening sugar-pop high of "Lovefool" (from 1996's First Band On The Moon) will be taken aback by this sedate set of songs about lost love and emotional isolation.

Even the few musically spirited efforts on Gran Turismo are downers: the melancholy "Hanging Around" ("I'm hanging on to the same old song, I hang around for another round ... until something stops me") could be dangerous fare for the newly broken-hearted, and the sexy first single, "My Favourite Game," isn't much better -- "My heart is black and my body is blue," Persson declares, and "in the end it's always me, alone."

But the fact these Swedes have taken a darker path isn't necessarily a bad thing. Singer Nina Persson effectively coos above layers of chilly, electric blue retro production (she was the album's primary songwriter), and her strong-woman woes belie a fragile, betrayed romantic. The video arcade game growls ("Do You Believe"), icy atmospherics ("Explode") and trance-inducing melodies ("Erase/Rewind") here throw graceful, nicely choreographed punches. Backed up against the dross of "Lovefool," Gran Turismo has true moments of being troubled, complicated and, well, downright sultry.

-- Melissa Blazek


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