Beastie Boys
Hello Nasty

How heated has fan anticipation been for the Beastie Boys' latest? It's been reported that at a recent record store robbery, a guy with a gun demanded not only cash but a copy of Hello Nasty.

Lucky him: Hello Nasty is a stunning return to the elastic, funky fun and word games of the more experimental Beastie outings Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head. Six-pack solid in all the right places, Nasty lacks the unevenness that marred its predecessor, 1994's Ill Communication. In short, the trio has trimmed the fat (or, err, phat). Gone are the minute-long punk-rock rants, and the playful instrumentals have been reduced to brief, palate-cleansing interludes. Taking their place are freaky-fried beats, space-age synthesizers, looped samples, goofball rapping and loads of scratching. More good news: The Beasties' snotty bravado is back in full force. ("My name's Mike D and I'm the ladies' choice.")

But what makes Hello Nasty such a welcome return to form is the way the band continues to deal in the fresh and unexpected while remaining aesthetically consistent. Backed by cheesy organ, a basic drum-machine beat and worldly percussive coloration on "Dr. Lee, PhD," dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry drops teasing non sequiturs about the "beastly brothers and beastly boys and their beastly toys." With its mix of cello, upright bass, brush strokes and acoustic guitar, "Don't Know" finds bassist Adam Yauch playing the folksinger. Even weirder is "Song for Junior," where the lads groove like Santana scoring a porn soundtrack. And therein lies the life of Nasty's party: The Beasties never lose their grip on the horny bottom end. (****)

-- David Simutis

Jeff Black
Birmingham Road
Arista Austin

You can tell a lot about a folksinger by the way he carries a tune. But in Jeff Black's case, the voice doesn't fit the man. Performing for a packed house at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, Black had all the presence of a sleep-deprived trucker assigned the task of conducting a symphony orchestra. Looking every inch the small-town Missouri gas station attendant he once was, a weary-looking Black barely moved during the whole set, occasionally turning to his band -- made up of members of No Depression spokes-band Wilco -- and shrugging his shoulders as the music continued at a patient, steady pace. It was easy to see why Black's first significant stint in front of an audience came in exchange for his services as a bouncer at a Kansas City-area blues club: Up there on-stage, the singer/songwriter was an awkwardly imposing presence -- the sort of guy you'd befriend just so he could fight your dirtiest battles.

Then he opened his mouth, and the beauty in the beast made itself known. Black is a commanding vocalist, a soul-soaked natural whose honesty grabs you by the throat. His delivery is aural molasses, as dense and deliberate as it is compellingly sweet. And it's that voice -- so heartbreakingly honest -- that makes you realize you had Jeff Black figured all wrong. He's a gentle giant; a literate sentimentality spills from his lips, softening the flaws of his Arista Austin debut, Birmingham Road.

With more highs than lows, Birmingham Road shows a talented songwriter who still has a little to learn about subtlety and restraint. Produced by Susan Rogers (David Byrne, Paul Westerberg) at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios outside Austin, the album's 12 tracks benefit from tasteful sonic touches and solid performances by the same Wilco crew (minus leader Jeff Tweedy) that supported Black at SXSW. Particularly moving is the interplay between the guitars and keyboards (mostly piano and organ), which lends poignancy to the ballads (the vivid childhood recollection of "Ghosts in the Graveyard"; the lament "Nebo Hill") and potency to the rockers (the hearty lesson in perseverance "That's Just About Right"; the Neil Youngian defense of common folk "Street").

Not that Birmingham Road ever really kicks out the jams. Black is something of a redneck Billy Joel. Listen closely; similarities between the two singers do exist -- especially their liberal use of vibrato to supply drama and emphasis. And like Joel, when Black rocks out, it never quite translates into letting go in the primal sense. But where the former fancies himself the charmer, the latter is a thinker. And it's in that cerebral arena that Black sometimes gets into trouble, wending his way through a verbal obstacle course. Birmingham Road's chief offender is "Noah's Ark," an insufferable acoustic weeper that finds Black mired in the sort of embarrassing Biblical metaphor best left hidden in a desk drawer. "If I ever get to heaven / I'll admit I doubt it some / I'll tell them everything that happened / And ask them why it took so long," goes the chorus. Alas, in the face of such an ungainly premise, such spiritual introspection rings hollow. Chalk it up to the creative overreach that comes with inexperience.

Still, you have to applaud Black's focused intentions -- and, of course, that voice. This genius in the rough isn't afraid to address fallibility. "We lose a lot, I guess, in the name of aspiration / Gravity is sure to pull a number of us down," he sings on "A Long Way to Go." Humility like that can take you far. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Master P
MP Da Last Don
No Limit

In the great Warhol tradition, it often seems any aspiring talent can find 15 minutes of fame on Master P's No Limit label. Not since Suge Knight's Death Row Records has a rap label taken its name so literally.

Not convinced? Go to your local record store and flip through the stacks of No Limit releases featuring the up-and-coming likes of Silkk The Shocker, C-Murder, Kane & Abel, rookie R&B quartet Sons of Funk and others. You can bet there will be more Gulf Coast offerings where those came from -- and that doesn't include the long-awaited No Limit album from Death Row outcast Snoop Doggy Dogg, which drops in August. But, as any No Limit associate will tell you, this is P's world; everyone else is stuck paying rent. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that No Limit's most trumpeted release of the year so far just happens to be his own.

MP Da Last Don's two-CD, 29-track ghetto fiesta has been billed as the Louisiana rapper's farewell album, a final teaser for fans before he hops into his Jeep and swerves off into the industry jungle to attend to label matters full-time. (Personally, I don't buy it; he's probably working on a "comeback" triple album as you're reading this.) Last year, P was all about those tired, synthesizer-strewn beats of his single "I'm Bout It, Bout It." How things have changed: Da Last Don is Master P's most tolerable outing to date. With the help of his No Limit cohorts (including Snoop Dogg, who sounds livelier than ever), and the frenzied, impulsive grooves of the "Beats by the Pound" production crew, Master P has made the hip-hop equivalent of a summer popcorn movie. Beats and rhymes whiz by so fast you'd be a fool to let your guard down -- even for a minute. A capitalist at heart, P revels in plush, extravagant verse while never losing sight of his urban roots. (Evidently he cherishes the ghetto even when conspiring to escape it.) Last Don's vibe can only be described as postmortem Tupac; tracks such as "The Ghetto's Got Me Trapped," "Mama Raised Me" and "Goodbye to My Homies" all sound like something Shakur could've easily sunk his teeth into.

Granted, Da Last Don's subject matter isn't all that fresh (P's incessant use of "nigga" puts the Mark Fuhrman tapes to shame), but Master P never lets his songs go too far into the formulaic doldrums. More than anyone, P knows there's nothing worse than a weak rapper extolling weak rhymes. Shrewd, sly and opportunistic, Da Last Don mirrors its maker. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Brooks & Dunn
If You See Her

Reba McEntire
If You See Him

Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn have sold more than 30 million records between them and won enough awards to fill several pages. Garth aside, they are the biggest acts in country music. Scary, isn't it?

In what passes for a stroke of genius in Nashville these days, they've taken to touring as co-headliners in an attempt to draw attention to a pair of aging acts in danger of being overtaken by the younger guns. Naturally, there was a need for a "showstopper," a song that would allow them to perform on-stage together. These two releases are tied together by that tune, a drippy duet of sorts, "If You See Him, If You See Her." What their respective labels are calling an "event" is really nothing but a shameless marketing stratagem.

Give Brooks & Dunn credit for If You See Her, if only for its occasional attempt at keeping it country (for example, the super-slick take on Gary Stewart's honky-tonk classic "Brand New Whiskey"). Otherwise, there's not much new or unexpected on this collection of radio-ready weepers ("I Can't Get Over You") and boot-scootin' boogie ("Way Gone"). Mildly entertaining but nothing extraordinary.

Reba, on the other hand, has abandoned any semblance of her country roots on If You See Him, apparently catering to the massive Celine Dion contingent with a variety of pop fluff accented with the occasional steel guitar and string section. Sure, her vocals are as powerful as ever, but her choice of material isn't varied or strong enough to keep the whole commercially calculated exercise from melting into a sugary mess. If You See Her (**); If You See Him (*)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Squinting Before the Dazzle

It's a great feeling when a band that has shown promise finally delivers the goods. On its third release, Squinting Before the Dazzle, Cincinnati's Throneberry exhibits the best qualities of a highly efficient indie-pop brain-trust without the awkward self-consciousness that marred the band's previous work. Here, they bounce between sad-eyed ballads with a hint of edginess and up-tempo, oughta-be-radio-hits. The pace is unhurried; the melodies drifting by -- pardon the cliche -- like a cool breeze on a summer's day.

Although layering the songs with intriguing ornamental tidbits, Throneberry continues to rely chiefly on a traditional twin-guitar approach and the occasional keyboards and watery vocal effects. His voice laden with nicotine and character, singer Jason Arbenz -- way out in front on some occasions -- still manages enough restraint to make us feel like we're eavesdropping.

Dazzle does have a few clumsy moments: In "Guerrilla Skies," the faux-"Strawberry Fields Forever" lilt and "let me take you there" lyric are a bit heavy-handedly worshipful of the Fab Four, and song titles such as "Shepherd Song" and "Down at the Foundry" sound like they belong on an early Genesis album. But within these missteps, Throneberry drops its guard, revealing its unwavering ambition to become a great pop band. Sadly, that ambition may well seal the band's fate as a cultish, Midwestern extension of the Big Star legacy. A shame. (***)

-- David Simutis


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