The K-Otix
Da 4th Level
Newstyle Records

"Causin' Kaos" kicks off a tough collection of tracks from the Houston-based hip-hop crew -- tracks that deviate from narrative-driven song structures and gravitate instead toward the nether regions of sophisticated freestyle. "R U Fraud's" title and running sample line -- "wack MCs and wannabes" -- exemplify K-Otix's intolerance for commercial rap and cash-motivated rappers: "Using styles as fads / it makes me mad / Cause ya thought ya had skills / When ya bought your Timberlands."

K-Otix ride a recent hip-hop trend in which the gangster-rap boast convention is purified of "bitches, hos and gats" and redirected toward virtuosic vocal performance. Lyrics remain highly self-referential, but they signal a shift from the narrator's threshold for brutality to the artist's ability to execute spontaneous rhymes -- not the gun, but the "ambiance is dangerous."

The ambiance of Da 4th Level is as current as it is dangerous. K-Otix demonstrate with commanding finesse a sharp awareness of the styles and flavors feeding energy into '90s hip-hop. Among the EP's dopest tracks is "Press Ya Luck," taking its title from Jeru the Damaja's "Come Clean," off a presently unreleased album. Such is the meaning of up-to-date in 1994 hip-hop.

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Considering that fellow Houston acts Tymz Two and Odd Squad currently have contracts with Polygram and Rap-a-Lot respectively, it's curious that K-Otix continue to function independently. But given the group's strong propensity for stylish cuts and delicious grooves, K-Otix's interim between indie status and national notoriety ought to be brief.

--Bryan Patrick

Course of Empire
Zoo Entertainment

If the word coming down I-45 hasn't been hyperbolized beyond recognition, Course of Empire is the shit in Dallas, and it's not hard to hear why. COE's hypno-thrash hybrid has a polished, seductive feel with just enough notches carved into its razor-edged sound to roughen its way out of glam territory.

Unfortunately, Initiation -- the band's second release, and its first on a major label -- doesn't get much better than the

ark-side anthem lead track, "Hiss," and by the time you get to the art rock trilogy of "Minion," "Initiation" and "The Chihuahuaphile" that closes the album, you're fantasizing about cornering the band and teaching them a lesson or two about the evils of overindulgence. There are ideas working here that should have been exhausted in half the time, and the eight-minute somber wig-out of "Minions" is strictly for stoners. But in COE's favor, the disk's got a huge drum sound and a careening atmospheric metal guitar sheen that's satisfying just as noise. If you can spare the hour to tag along, it's not a half-bad trip.

-- Brad Tyer

Course of Empire opens for Prong Thursday, April 14 at Numbers.

Jimmy LaFave
Highway Trance
Bohemia Beat Records

Like LaFave's 1992 Austin Skyline debut, recorded live in an assortment of Austin dives, the new Highway Trance opens with a Jerry Lee Lewis-ish rocker. This time around it's a LaFave original, "Shakin" in Your Hips," that sets the album's tone: gorgeous, gravel-voiced ballads interspersed with roadhouse rock-and-roll refuelings. If we want to stay with the begged-for road metaphor (Austin Skyline featured "Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues," and Highway Trance spotlights "Route 66 Revisited"), we could fairly say that LaFave favors the scenic route -- Trance is a 70-minute ride through the Austin songwriter's reinvented road mythology.

As for album-to-album progression, LaFave has switched drummers, moved into the studio and for the most part forgone cover tunes on his follow-up. Thematically, though, there's not much difference between the two. LaFave's highway is still lined with women good and bad, and they put him in a sentimental mood that's usually leavened with a ballsy burst of road fever. The voice is well suited to both moods, cracking into a barely controlled falsetto when he begs her -- whoever she is this time -- to come back, and growling through the bluesy rockers like a man who's been chased out of more than a few motel rooms. The band is pure pro, leaving plenty of legroom in its loose-limbed romps and refusing to get bogged down in the ballads' more saccharine moments.

If there's a problem (and there's always a problem, isn't there?), it's that LaFave remains merely a good songwriter, while his band and his voice beg for the Dylan-ish material he seems bent on. "Austin after midnight / The whole city starts to move / Austin after midnight / Won't you get into the groove," for instance, stretches

or insight but ends up sounding more like a bid for the Austin Chronicle's Song of the Year honors.

"Austin After Midnight" is a rare low point, though. For the most part, Highway Trance is more satisfying than that, if not quite as mystic as it wants to be. If you've been following LaFave's rising star, there's plenty of reason here to keep your eyes peeled.

-- Brad Tyer

Jimmy LaFave celebrates the release of Highway Trance Friday, April 15 at the Satellite Lounge.

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