He Got Game
Moment of Truth
If there is any value to the '80s revival, it's that Public Enemy and Gangstarr have returned to revitalize the sense of substance in rap. Frankly, these two ghetto brigades from the era of big hair, Spandex and Molly Ringwald couldn't have shown up at a better time. Hip-hop -- with its waning gangsta rap contingent and low-octane hip-poppers -- could use an infusion of old blood.
So it's a shame that Public Enemy's soundtrack contributions aren't featured more prominently in Spike Lee's basketball epic He Got Game. From what I could hear, only a few songs made it into the film, leaving a lot of great music by the wayside. But rather than concern themselves with what would and would not be used, Lee, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the rest of the PE crew (which includes formerly ousted "Minister of Information" Professor Griff) use the soundtrack premise to drop a legitimate album's worth of vigorous music and potent proclamations.
Yet as the album opens, it's easy to get the impression that -- with a new crop of producers on-board, along with the requisite Bomb Squad team of Hank and Keith Shocklee -- PE is catering to today's waning attention spans with souped-up '90s cliches. There's the Wu Tang Clan-ish opening track, "Resurrection," which features actual Wu Tanger Masta Killa. Hell, even Flav panders to the masses with the peculiarly Puffy "Shake Your Booty." But as the album rolls along, Chuck D's caustic, mesmerizing wordplay drags you back into the PE state of mind. On "Is Your God a Dog," D addresses the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, using basketball as an allegory, to burningly intense effect. In fact, the entire second half of He Got Game is devoted to PE sounding off against the soul-sapping celebrity of pro ball. Hearing that fearlessness again, you wonder why PE put a lid on it in the first place -- and why, for that matter, many of us lost touch.
Gangstarr's Guru and DJ Premier extol their own brand of fearless noncompromise on their fifth release, Moment of Truth, doing so with a cool sophistication. True, the duo may be less blunt in its approach than Public Enemy, but the honesty is unmistakable. Gangstarr's characteristically jazzy flow works like an operatic urban mission statement.
In his trademark monotone, Guru takes on greed ("Robbin Hood Theory"), power ("Work," "Royalty"), conspiracy ("Itz a Set Up") and even his own problems with the law ("JFK 2 LAX"), while Premier concocts the progressively cohesive beats that are his specialty. Meanwhile, guest stars such as Scarface, and K-Ci and JoJo provide substantial lyrical input. Through it all, Gangstarr delivers nothing but moments of truth. He Got Game (*** 1/2); Moment of Truth (****)
-- Craig D. Lindsey
For the past few years, Austin's guitar-driven rock and soul unit Storyville has been one of the state's most promising all-star aggregations. And with the release of Dog Years, the group impressively, if belatedly, jells into a genuine band, complete with a musical focus and a cohesive sound.
Though the blues bloodline of Storyville drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon -- Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble duo -- is perhaps the best known component of Storyville, that flexible foundation is really only the band's starting point. It's the soul-drenched singing of Malford Milligan and the guitar pyrotechnics of David Grissom and Dave Holt that give Storyville its signature sound. Milligan, already well established among Austin's reigning vocal royalty, seems to improve daily. Most recently, he's added a new sense of control to his encyclopedic command of the sweet soul idiom. As for Grissom and Holt, their previous stints with the Joe Ely Band explain their riproaring approach to Storyville.
With former Bonnie Raitt producer Stephen Bruton at the controls, Storyville struts its stuff to excellent effect on Dog Years, offering 11 wide-ranging but sonically unified original songs and a well-chosen Al Green cover. Most of the songs are delivered in a punchy, hard-grooving format powered by enlightened rhythm riffs and propulsive percussion. But several tracks -- the straight-ahead soul ballad "Who's Left Standing," co-written by Milligan and Burton, and "Lucky" -- wouldn't sound out of place on an early Ely album.
Although it's likely there will be better albums to come for Storyville, Dog Years may well be remembered as the one that transformed five very good musicians into one great band. (*** 1/2)
-- Michael Point
People Move On
The overall sensation of People Move On is that of freedom. From the sliding exultation of "Woman I Know" to the Righteous Brothers-inspired gospel pop of "Not Alone" to the sizzling Hendrix-style outro of "Autograph," former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler sounds like a man at peace with circumstance.
Granted, Butler's problems weren't as obvious as George Michael's protracted legal tiff with his label, nor did he inscribe "slave" on his cheek, a la Prince. But after severing ties with his last band in 1994 and playing sideman to a number of other bands (including the Verve), he has obviously tired of making other people's music. As People Move On's title suggests, he's ended his days of conscription. Working only with the musicians he trusts most (himself and drummer Makoto Sakamoto), Butler demonstrates the pop/ rock sweep that made him a critic's darling. Tunes like "You Light the Fire" weirdly evoke James Taylor; "Stay," the album's grand-scale centerpiece, seemingly incorporates Carole King motifs without so much as a smirk.
But in spite of all that's refreshing about People Move On, Butler's thin vocals don't pack the punch of his playing. Singular in its sweetness, his singing is roughly akin to Shaun Cassidy's. Still, don't mistake Butler's desire to go it (largely) alone for a case of deluded ego: His take on the Suede breakup has always been that of the hard-working guitarist fleeing the self-centered aesthetic of current leader Brett Anderson. As over-the-top as it is at times, People Move On is a simple personal statement, one that should earn Butler the respect he deserves -- for now, at least. (***)
-- Stephen Gershon
The Presidents of the United States of America
As Seattle's once-vital scene collapsed in on itself in the mid '90s, the Presidents of the United States of America found themselves at the crumbling epicenter. After only two releases -- both of which went multi-platinum -- the Presidents quickly succumbed to the inevitable.
To commemorate the band's demise, Pure Frosting offers the odds and ends of a brief career: B-sides, concert faves and other rarities. But as the CD's title suggests, the meat of the band's catalog is already out there: Take it or leave it. And, not surprisingly, Frosting exposes the Presidents for the frat-house rockers they always were, riding the crest of Nirvana withdrawal with gimmicky singles like "Peaches" and "Lump," the latter of which is reprised on this collection in all its not-so-tight live splendor.
But the novelty wears off quickly with "Tiki Lounge God," which strives unsuccessfully for the reticent, experimental cool of Cake with its goofy take on a Brady Bunch episode. Equally irritating is "Man (Opposable Thumb)," which boasts the sort of quirky topicality best left to the clever likes of They Might Be Giants. In the end, ill-conceived, last-ditch compilations like these make it that much easier to put the final nail in the coffin. Dead Presidents, indeed. (* 1/2)
-- Stephen Gershon
One might call the third release by Austin's Prescott Curlywolf Sorry Ma, Forgot to Produce the Album. This 20-song slab of raw, direct-to-tape garage rock is one of the finest Replacements albums never made. In contrast to the clever studio tricks and wide-screen sonic sheen of the band's one major-label outing, Six Ways to Sunday, Funanimal World is P-Wolf at its most basic -- and maybe its most effective.
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It's hard to tell as much at first glance, because Funanimal World blows past like a runaway train. Just when you get whipped in the face by the draft of one song, it seems another has already blown by. From the first thrashy notes of "Baldachino," which sounds like an outtake from the 'Mats' Pleased to Meet Me, the collection is unadulterated chaos, a genuine turn-it-up-and-pop-a-beer soundtrack that bristles with a teenage toughness and abandon (even if the guys are way past those years). It's the sound of a band's retrenchment after getting mired in the music industry morass.
Where bigger acts such as Wilco and Whiskeytown partake generously in later-period 'Mats, P-Wolf wisely references anarchic early classics like Stink. Sure, they're a bit tighter and perhaps wiser than the 'Mats were at the time, but maturity hardly seems to have diminished their spunk. So though there's nothing new and different about Funanimal World, it's still one whiskey-soaked barrel of monkeys. (*** 1/2)
-- Rob Patterson