Various Artists
In tha Beginning ... There Was Rap

In tha Beginning ... There Was Rap might seem like a kooky, harmless premise, an opportunity to hear today's well-known rappers remake -- and pay tribute to -- the songs they enjoyed so much as kids. But to those die-hard fans who are still reeling over the breakup of Stetsasonic or the so-called "retirement" of Too Short, the disc might feel more like a screwdriver to the heart.

It's a shock for a number of reasons. First off, many fans seem to have the impression that rappers carry the same aura of silly vanity that many rock stars do. In truth, unless a rapper looks at his or her life with a Friars Club mentality (like Ice-T, for example), everyday reality really is a serious struggle, which is why it's rare that you hear them resort to novelty merely for novelty's sake. So hard-core rap fans' jaws may drop when they hear the Wu-Tang Clan's farcical rendition of Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" or Erick Sermon, Keith Murray and Redman getting giddy off of the Sugarhill Gang's seminal "Rapper's Delight." Frankly, it's enough to break your heart.

Second, if you're going to redo a classic song, redo it -- change the tempo, jazz up the backing tracks, liven up the vocals. The problem with the material on In tha Beginning... is that it's too predictable. Basically, the featured artists apply the original ingredients intact to their own verbal flow. Really, how can one revel in the devilish humor L.L. Cool J brought to his campy "Big Ole Butt" when Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs overlays his drab vocals on it? Or enjoy Ice-T's lucidly abrupt "6 'n tha Mornin' " when the New Orleans-based Master P stifles its West Coast immediacy with his million-dollar grunts. Again, it's enough to break your heart.

But hey, this is merely an opportunity for hip-hop royalty to let off a little steam. And In tha Beginning ... is their karaoke bar. (** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Peter Case
Full Service No Waiting

DJ Shadow
Preemptive Strike

Despite the fact that America has yet to fully -- and commercially -- comprehend the unwieldy beast that is electronica, the hype monster certainly has gorged itself on the most enigmatic characters of the genre. Tortured artists such as Moby, Tricky and Goldie have been christened subversive wunderkinds, while mainstream breakout acts Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers are now the rave equivalent of Top 40 teen idols.

Still, not everyone in the techno-ambient loop has been pigeonholed. Take Josh Davis -- a.k.a. DJ Shadow. At the beginning of last year, Shadow was responsible for arguably the best release of the cut-and-paste lot, Endtroducing.... Part beats-and-samples free-for-all, part terse cultural commentary, that disc was a hip-shaky exhibition of coolness and confidence without being automated. Shadow said everything he had to say without actually saying anything at all, which, in these convoluted, nonsensical times, was just this side of a godsend.

Now, DJ Shadow follows up that masterful debut with an archival ambush. Made up of previously released tunes dating from 1993 to last year, Preemptive Strike hearkens back to Davis's humble, bedroom-mix beginnings. It's a low-end frenzy through and through, from its botched drum-solo opening to the palpitating beats that underscore each track. Also present is the strong flavor of jazz, giving the collection the overwhelmingly mellow feel that so many of Shadow's contemporaries try their damnedest to avoid.

Strike largely follows the same crash-collective scheme of Shadow's last disc, though it's not as efficient and well-paced. A couple of tracks -- such as the 12-and-a-half-minute "In/Flux" -- overstay their welcome, while all four parts of his 1995 opus "What Does Your Soul Look Like?" are generally uneven. And sure, the 24-minute "megamix" bonus CD -- kookily dubbed "Camel Bobsled Race" -- might be a real bonus to diehard Shadow fans, but it's likely to seem needlessly excessive to the rest of us.

No, Preemptive Strike is not perfect. Still, it's intriguing as a rough draft of Shadow's pre-Endtroducing... evolution. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Bruce Cockburn
You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance

Most fans of Bruce Cockburn's studio releases over the last two decades associate the Canadian singer/songwriter with politically charged lyrics and spectacular guitar playing. But Cockburn is also a small-venue concert workhorse, and this EP-length sampling from his recently concluded yearlong Charity of Night tour amply demonstrates that he can generate serious musical heat as well as intellectual light.

"Call It Democracy," the disc's opener, hitches one of Cockburn's brainiest protest songs to a pounding, hard-rock approach. Only this Ottawa-born Christian anticapitalist could get a crowd on its feet with a lecture on the oppressive Third World policies of the International Monetary Fund. Cockburn then stretches out with a guitar/drum jam on "Stolen Land," a rant about the theft of native territories in the Western Hemisphere. Sounds depressing, but the live treatment is exhilarating.

Several numbers drawn from Charity of Night, Cockburn's latest studio effort, meet with more mixed results. While "Strange Waters" showcases Cockburn's raspy phrasing on a transcendent anthem addressed to his musical muse, "Birmingham Shadows," a drifty composition about instant friendship on the road, was a snoozer in the studio and drags down the EP to a somnolent finish.

As such, You Pay Your Money is more for serious Cockburn followers intent on collecting versions of such lesser-known compositions as "Stolen Land." Those wanting to sample Cockburn's musical genius for the first time would do better exploring his voluminous studio product, and saving the live exposure for the next time he's in town. (** 1/2)

-- Tim Fleck

Bacon Brothers

Californian Peter Case has traveled a long way from his early-'80s punk-pop days with the Plimsouls, and Full Service No Waiting, his sixth release as a solo artist, is his most deeply affecting work to date. With only spare, mostly acoustic instrumentation and a rasp of a voice, Case spins down-to-earth tales that reach deep into the soul of America.

Case has covered this territory before, but never with so much innate wisdom or so many stick-in-your-head melodies. On an update of "Mr. Bojangles" called "Green Blanket (Part 1)," he sings, "Out on the street it isn't so bad / Or all that it's cracked up to be / Some are half crazy others plain stupid / Some there just want to be free."

The sentiment summed up in that lyric, like much of Full Service, is as simple as it is poignant. From the raw, talking-blues "Crooked Mile" to the darkly atmospheric "Drunkard's Harmony" to the twangy country rock of "Beautiful Grind," Case covers a wide range of musical territory. He does so with a shrewd, heartfelt appreciation for America's storytelling roots -- evidence of how greatly his artistry has grown.

The Bacon Brothers -- yes, they are actor Kevin Bacon and his older brother, Michael -- are another story altogether. Forosoco is short for folk, rock, soul and country -- as in the types of music they try to combine in an attempt to come up with something original. But alas, the Bacons are only successful in their ability to be derivative.

Forosoco is full of slick folk rock with bits of C&W twang and blue-eyed soul attached. But with their silly rhyme schemes and pillowy harmonies, all the two come up with is a nostalgic hybrid of America and Loggins and Messina. In "Boys in Bars," the Bacon boys even stoop so low as to crave "those sweet old disco days," while on "Old Guitars" they feel inclined to mention all the folks who inspired them, including James Taylor and Jim Croce (they also manage somehow to misspell both Marvin Gaye and Patsy Cline's last names on the lyrics sheet).

Regardless, the Bacon Brothers are playing huge halls and appearing on late-night TV, while Peter Case, when he tours at all, plays tiny clubs in front of tiny audiences. There is no justice. (Full Service No Waiting, ***; Forosoco, **)

-- Jim Caligiuri

James Iha
Let It Come Down

Who would have thought that there's a sensitive singer/songwriter-type with a heart of creamed corn cowering in the shadow of Billy Corgan's tortured guitar-god genius? Certainly not your average Smashing Pumpkins fan.

Well, believe it. Pumpkins rhythm guitarist James Iha is one lovesick puppy on Let It Come Down, yapping at the heels of relationships past like a Chihuahua in heat. Let this serve as a warning: Iha's solo debut sounds nothing like the reheated glam-grunge histrionics one might have expected from Corgan's quiet, amenable bandmate. Then again, it's no storybook romance.

Plain and simple, Let It Come Down is a modest paean to the '70s-era Top 40 pop Iha grew up on. The early part of that decade was rife with artists who took the standard "I love you, you love me" scenario and transformed it into something more than the sum of its pickup lines. Take Elton John's "Your Song," for instance, or the Raspberries' "Go All the Way." Heck, even David Bowie's cornball tribute to his kid, "Kooks," managed to bring something fresh to the human relations equation. From the sound of it, Iha has heard them all, as Down unloads a crate-load of fizzy, feel-good vibes and sickly sweet sentiment onto its 11 tracks.

Things get off to a promising start with the one-two-three wet smooch of "Be Strong Now," "Sound of Love" and "Beauty." All are saved from their lovey-dovey lyrical content by perky, memorable hooks, simple, assertive 4/4 beats and Iha's unobtrusive vocals, which sound like a cross between Al Stewart and a pubescent Peter Brady. The synthetic strings are a nice touch, lending just the right twinge of melancholia to Iha's simple words of comfort and reassurance. From there on, though, Down descends into a saccharine whirlpool of lovelorn cliches and hookless repetition. It's power pop without the power -- the sort of syrupy self-indulgence Elton John might have succumbed to if he hadn't had Bernie Taupin to keep him in line.

Billy Corgan must have been all smirks when he heard this project. Perhaps he even let out a sigh of relief upon realizing that this mushy-hearted ear candy would pose little threat to the Smashing Pumpkins' future as a band. Indeed, rather than pounding the pavement to promote his new release, Iha is now in the studio with Corgan and bassist D'arcy working on the Pumpkins' upcoming release. What a pushover. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.


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