Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told
Those who dare to seek parallels between the lanky, low-wattage Snoop Dogg and the corpulent, Southern-fried Eightball will be surprised to find that some do exist. Each, on their respective new CDs, reaches a creative emancipation of sorts, breaking free of regular routines to plunge forward into unchartered hip-hop hubris.
All said and done, Snoop Dogg's Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told is his most entertaining work since DoggyStyle (keeping in mind, of course, that Snoop has only three releases to his credit and that the last, The Doggfather, bit it). Da Game's first track, "Snoop World," lays out the liberated game plan for the entire album: Set to a flighty, xylophone-assisted beat, Snoop makes it known that he's hanging up his Death Row colors to roll with Master P and the rest of No Limit's Gulf Coast upper crust. His capitalistic bent (it's as if he's in a higher tax bracket or something) and, dare I say it, uplifting lyrics make him sound like a ghetto bon vivant, a pencil-thin, cocoa-dipped Hugh Hefner inviting the boys to come frolic in his version of the Playboy mansion.
But don't be fooled by the moneyed facade; in many ways, Snoop is still the prince of the project playas. And Master P's Beats by the Pound crew gives Snoop enough gristle to insulate his ghettoized wordplay, whether it revolves around party sound-offs ("Woof!") or silly love songs ("Show Me Love"). Da Game's middle portion wanes somewhat, with Snoop retreating into his nihilistic Dogg Pound spiel on "Ain't Nut'in Personal" and "Game of Life." But the final tracks return to the No Limit lap of luxury Snoop cozies up to in the beginning: The two-and-a-half-minute "Picture This" is a high-rolling, glitzy number, while "Hoes, Money & Clout" and "Get Bout It & Rowdy" are saucy soundtracks custom-made for low-riders and jeeps everywhere.
Overall, Snoop sounds like he's happy to be among the living on Da Game. And while Master P's circus of boundless affluence may be no match for jailed Death Row svengali Suge Knight's ominous street credibility, Snoop knows that with No Limit he might just escape alive -- and have a hell of a good time in the process.
Making its own play for the hedonist in all of us, Eightball's Lost deals in the lazy, down-home approachability indicative of Houston's rap hierarchy. With a rolling Southern drawl that's as thick as homemade barbecue sauce, the hefty, Memphis-born half of Suave House's most successful act thus far (Eightball & MJG) enhances the glide-ability of some smooth grooves with his flexible, urbane flow. Lost has more bounce than an episode of Baywatch, and a lot more color, to boot. By contrast, Eightball's raps can turn gritty and dark at times. "Put tha House on It" and "Drama in My Life" kick off the release with an authentic whiff of menace that is never undermined by cartoonish riffing. But Eightball's scowl loosens to a smirk on the naughty "My Homeboy's Girlfriend" and the wild-and-woolly "Pure Uncut," the latter with Master P and Mystikal guesting.
Like most multi-CD efforts (three discs, if you include a bonus Suave House sampler), Lost isn't without filler. Eightball's rapping to a snippet of "Wrapped Around Your Finger" on "My First Love" makes you wish they'd declare a moratorium on all Police samples. But a few clunkers aren't enough to stall the whole. Whether it's the down-and-dirty funk of "Backyard Mississippi" or the epic gangsta storytelling of "Time," Lost stays its course. (Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, ***; Lost, ***)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
I Saw the Light
Hal Ketchum's work has always been more about substance than flash, and I Saw the Light, his first release in three years, continues in that fashion. A reflection of a troubled recent past (a divorce, a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic) and a much happier present (a recent marriage, a move out of Nashville), I Saw the Light is a refreshing break from country's cookie-cutter mold.
Ketchum sings of despair and renewal with honesty and clarity, yet without resorting to cliche or overbearing sentiment. That he manages to invite strains of blues, folk and rock into the mix makes his music that much more appealing. From the infectious opener, "A Girl Like You," to the achingly beautiful, gospel-inflected "Too Many Memories" to the deceptively simple but remarkably powerful "You'll Never Hurt That Way Again," I Saw the Light is a soul-baring exercise of startling passion and resounding strength. On paper, it all sounds just a little too personal, but with that rich baritone and the songs' solid melodies, Ketchum -- along with session help from Nashville and Austin -- manages to coax country out of its doldrums with fine playing and a little emotional intrigue. (***)
-- Jim Caligiuri
Dance of the Soul
Ramsey Lewis hasn't made an album that could be recommended without reservation since We Meet Again, his 1989 duet with fellow pianist Billy Taylor. His last half-dozen releases have been dominated by mediocre funk, unspectacular smooth jazz and unexciting reworkings of songs he recorded years before. And while nothing he's done recently has been extraordinarily bad, nothing has come close to the classic Lewis of The In Crowd, Sun Goddess and Classic Encounter.
The new Dance of the Soul is decidedly different from the pianist's recent efforts. The material is more varied, the multilayered synthesizers are gone, and there is less that is smooth about the jazz therein. The result is Lewis's best effort in nine years. Part of the credit goes to Chicago pianist Ryan Cohan, whom Lewis recruited to write four of the songs. As a composer, Cohan is clearly a find. His light, tropically flavored "Dance of the Soul" features nicely constructed passages and an excellent use of dynamics. Also enhancing the already strong composition are solos by Lewis and his longtime guitarist Henry Johnson.
But Dance of the Soul's coup de grace is the dark "Cante Hondo (Deep Song)." Owing more to 19th-century romanticism than jazz, this seven-minute piece provides Lewis the perfect conduit for a near-epic performance. On the smoother jazz front, Lewis is more adventurous of late, lending a credible arrangement to Sting's "Fragile," while his own "Love's Serenade" is a pleasant throwback to his R&B-flavored romantic ditties of the '70s. In a few surprise moves, Lewis also dusts off the Fender Rhodes for a funk number, tackles a samba and even uses a gospel choir. Sometimes challenging and always accessible, Dance of the Soul is as artistically satisfying as it is commercially viable. (****)
-- Paul J. MacArthur
As the title of his latest "comeback" release indicates, the ticking of the clock is of great interest to Lionel Richie. The same might be said for those unfortunate enough to come across this CD -- the most common reaction to which is likely to be along the lines of: "How many ticks until this torture ends?"
An insipid mound of aural taffy (sweet, fluffy and full of air), Time induces more winces than desire as Richie pours on the bland, true-love proclamations. "Touch," "I Hear Your Voice" and "Forever" are almost parody-like in their titles, synth-heavy arrangements and tired lyrical content ("Oh you are the love supreme / You're the woman I've been waiting for / The answer to all my dreams"). The hackneyed songwriting presence of Top 40 schmaltztress Diane Warren on a few tracks speaks volumes here.
Lionel Richie's career conundrum has been a curious and disheartening one. While proving -- both on his own and with the Commodores -- that he's capable of producing quality music that crosses over genres ("Brick House," "All Night Long," "Easy," and yes, damn it, "Three Times a Lady"), it's as if the muse completely deserted him at the close of the Reagan era. It's no accident, then, that the only songs that work on Time -- the anti-gang "Zoomin' " and the slinky sexcapade "Stay" -- hark back to Richie's funkier, party-vibe roots, while the rest effortlessly degenerates into a gooey mess. Richie may have been aiming for the middle of the road, but this is the equivalent of a dead armadillo in the ditch. Don't waste your time on Time. (*)
-- Bob Ruggiero
The Last Dog and Pony Show
A key player in the influential '80s casualty HYsker DY and leader of the decidedly more grunge-pop trio Sugar, Bob Mould has generally used his solo work as a forum for brooding experimentation. That is, until now. Having already announced that his next tour will be his last with a full rock band, the former Austinite delivers the surprisingly upbeat The Last Dog and Pony Show. Call it a parting gift of sorts.
On this, his second album on his own since Sugar's breakup (and fourth overall), Mould blends acoustic textures and electronic effects with his signature distorted guitars. He's said that making this release was like hitting the "reset" button on a computer. But while it definitely is a look back, Dog and Pony Show also has the feeling of transition, as Mould figures out what to do next. Perhaps it's a series of jumping-off points, perhaps not. In any event, it's the cheeriest set of tunes he's written in years.
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Mould has mastered the art of juxtaposition: playing cheerful lyrics off minor-key melodies, and bitter words off sunny hooks. An unabashed breakup song, "Moving Trucks" rises above its bummed-out subject matter to turn unexpectedly life-affirming. The song begins sadly and quietly, its intensity building as Mould comes to the realization that maybe separation is a good thing. "No moving trucks to hold me down," Mould sings while slashing power chords work to convince him that he'll be okay. No more wallowing in misery; it's time to move on. On the hooky, mid-tempo "Skin Trade," Mould takes the disarming synthetic squeals buried in the body of the song, isolates them, loops them and distorts them to close out the song. Other sonic tricks include the frequent panning of guitars from the left to right channels, the industrial clanging on "First Drag of the Day," the rapping (yes, rapping) on "Megamanic."
Mould is no Beck, and by his own admission, "Megamanic" is pure nonsense. Still, you can't knock a guy for dabbling for the sake of it -- especially one who's been making music for 20 years and has managed to stay vital more often than not. (***)
-- David Simutis