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Spice Girls

So what do you want to hear? That the Spice Girls suck? That they're nothing but shills pandering to 12-year-old girls and brain-dead listeners to Top 40? Sure, I could say that about the Spice Girls, but at this point, bashing them seems senseless. The fact is, the new Spiceworld, their sophomore CD, is pretty damn listenable.

Like most commercial pop-music manifestations, Baby, Scary, Ginger, Sporty and Posh are a collective guilty pleasure; five million American units sold prove that it's so. And what makes the Spice Girls' latest release such fun is the sheer simplicity of it. They've already proven that they can cut it vocally -- especially Sporty Spice, whose singing is the most soulful of all -- and at a time when most uppity girl groups want to be En Vogue, this quintet prefers to ape the Supremes.

The modest charms of Spiceworld are briefly overshadowed by two grating songs: the spasmodically tuneless "The Lady Is a Vamp," on which the Girls attempt to be the Andrews Sisters, and "Move Over," an elongated version of their Pepsi jingle. Still, with their unequivocally British sense of style and cute sophistication, gummy pop confections such as "Stop" and "Too Much" more than tip the scales in the Spice Girls' favor.

Anyone expecting a maelstrom of artistic evolution from these women ought to relax a little; it's only music, for chrissakes. And the Spice Girls and their handlers deserve bonus points for showing a little common sense. After all, if this were seven years ago, they might have taken their precious time releasing Spiceworld, while the group's hype was irreversibly extinguished. You go, girls! (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Paul Simon
Songs from the Capeman
Warner Bros.

It's easy to understand why Paul Simon would be attracted to the story of Salvador Agron, who in 1959 stabbed to death two innocents caught in a New York City gang war. Agron, then a 16-year-old who was a member of a Puerto Rican gang called the Vampires, was sentenced to die for his actions, even though he was a juvenile. When he was caught, Agron -- referred to in the press as "the Capeman" because he was draped in a black cape with red lining at the time of the murders -- exhibited no remorse. But no matter: A group of wealthy patrons convinced New York's governor to overturn the death penalty. Agron instead served 20 years in prison, where he was "rehumanized," as he called it, turning to poetry instead of violence. When he died in 1986, worn out at 43, Agron was nothing more than a forgotten symbol.

Simon was a teenager at the time of the murders, and he recalls reading about the story and watching it nightly on television. Yet he wasn't necessarily drawn to Agron's plight -- merely to the fact that the boy was a slicked-back teenager, a "rock and roll hoodlum," as Simon refers to him in his new CD's liner notes. Simon saw in Agron something he'd never become but always wanted to be -- someone dangerous. And so Songs from the Capeman, a sampler of tunes contained in the musical that Simon and co-writer Derek Walcott will debut on Broadway next month, is less about Agron than it is about Simon's wish-fulfillment. Now, 38 years later, Simon finally gets to become Agron, a poor Puerto Rican from the barrio who's "running with a gang" and saying fuck a lot.

There was a time when Simon could tell a story with a few words and a simple, beautiful melody; think only of "The Boxer" and its opening words about a poor boy whose "story's seldom told," or the heartbreaking instant in "America" when he sings, "Kathy, I'm lost." But The Capeman plays more like a parody of West Side Story. It's soulless, overwrought, laugh-out-loud funny, a musical mess and a lyrical joke.

In attempting to fuse Puerto Rican strains with the street-corner doo-wop of his youth, Simon has created a sterile soundtrack of the 1950s. His mean streets sound like Sesame Street; he's betrayed by whitewashed melodies and flat-footed rhythms, by a memory of a time that never really existed. Songs such as "Adios Hermanos," "Born in Puerto Rico" and "Sunday Afternoon" are the musical equivalent of particleboard made to look like real wood; they're thin and intangible, the results of a man who can't make his own music and must now fake others'.

Even worse, Simon simply can't play it tough. He pronounces fuckin' -- as in, "Now it was time for some fuckin' law and order" -- almost as though he's never heard the word, much less used it in a sentence. Simon tries to portray himself as "just some spic they grabbed off the sidewalk," but there's no getting past the short, bald pop star singing those words in that familiar, pretty high voice. Once a masterful storyteller, Simon has become a lousy performer who on occasion sings like William Shatner acts.

Funny thing is, Simon treats Agron as the victim -- as a good guy dealt a bad hand, a murderer with a heart of gold. It's comforting to know that Agron likely would have hated this musical more than anyone else. (*)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Roni Size & Reprazent
New Forms
Talking Loud/Mercury

Although it's been a little more than two years since drum and bass started its run as the new "next big thing," only in the last few months has any music surfaced that truly substantiates that claim. The genre then known primarily as "jungle" had been a staple of British nightclubs for years when, in late 1995, Goldie grabbed American media attention. Despite his charisma (and block-rocking body), Goldie's sound was, for the most part, one-dimensional: chattering drum beats mixed with smooth-jazz synthesizer washes and classically trained female vocals. The sound was a delightful novelty, but offered scant evidence of an emerging genre.

A few years before and concurrent with jungle's emergence, the musical sophistication of Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack established trip-hop as something more than a Beth Gibbons moan, a Martine Topley-Bird wail or a subdued Nellee Hooper beat. The savoir-faire of those groups elevated the fragmented pieces from pleasant ideas to elements of a style. More recently, acts on a similar mission for drum and bass have arrived in droves. Some of the best recordings include both of Spring Heel Jack's releases, 68 Million Shades and Busy Curious Thirsty, and Alex Reece's So Far. But easily the best yet is Roni Size & Reprazent's New Forms.

Size is from Bristol, England, home of the aforementioned trip-hoppers, and he brings a comparable musical savvy to the unabashedly ambitious New Forms. Spread over two discs, the effort is proudly arty in songs such as "Destination." That cut's dense, well-articulated layers and pedestrian -- as opposed to Indy car -- beats per minute make it better suited for home stereo than for the dance floor. Rather than rely solely on texture or the clever use of samples, Size's music creates dazzling, catchy rhythms -- often with acoustic bass lines -- then fucks with them; it's the DJ experience fully articulated for the CD player.

Size prefers to use terms such as "universal" rather than "pop" in reference to his music. He backs it up by forging strong bonds with other related styles: "Brown Paper Bag" locks into a walking jazz beat; "Railing" uses dancehall-style toasts; and the title track features low-key scat-rapping from Philadelphia-based hip-hopper Bahamadia. The CD's best track, "Watching Windows," easily reads as a tribute to Nellee Hooper. With his unique brand of jungle, Size plunges into the mainstream without letting it wash away his most uncommon characteristics. It's integration without assimilation. (****)

-- Martin Johnson

Tito and Tarantula

Tito and Tarantula's blustery showcase at the 1997 South by Southwest music conference had critics and record-label flacks alike buzzing in more ways than one. First, there was the obvious: El Paso native Tito Larriva is a formidable frontman, and his roles in Robert Rodriguez's south-of-the-border shoot-'em-ups Desperado and From Dusk 'til Dawn make his an even more potent rock and roll persona. Second, Tarantula, his hearty backing ensemble, packs one hell of a sting, punching holes in audiences with its technical skill and pronounced passion for Larriva's darkly mystifying, Latin-tinged blues-rock compositions. What's more, the group does so while sitting down on stage.

With Larriva's various film-score credits and membership in such noteworthy Los Angeles acts as the Plugz and the Cruzados, not to mention Tarantula's combined experience with everyone from Don Henley to Devo, T&T is an outfit that's been around, a bunch as well coached in the ways of the music industry as any band out there. It was just that combination of age and seasoning, said one writer after the band's Austin show, that was apt to be lethal for the group, and I had to agree: While deserving, Tito and Tarantula are simply too old and stubborn to land a major-label deal.

Indeed, Larriva's world-weary machismo informs every foreboding inch of Tarantism, Tito and Tarantula's debut CD on the L.A.-based Cockroach Records, a new independent label that wisely snatched up the band. "In the sixties I was young / And I lost my mind on acid / In the seventies I was pitiful / And lost nothing but disco / In the eighties I was dying / From white lines up my nose / In the nineties I'm crazy / And nobody really knows," sings Larriva in his grainy vocal scowl as he waxes confessional on the disc's riveting centerpiece, "Jupiter." Dragged kicking and screaming through "Slippin' and Slidin'" by the taut slide guitar of Peter Atanasoff, Larriva howls like a pained Bon Scott, "I shot a man in the street / Clipped his wings like a dove." And on "Smiling Karen," he continues his vicious streak, hissing "I'm not your hero / I'm not your daddy neither" with numbing matter-of-factness.

But near the end of Tarantism, after bombarding us with Larriva's relentlessly tough stance and the band's equally harsh sonic accompaniment, Tarantula and their leader suddenly lighten the weight on their shoulders. "The mother of them all took my hate / Then sent me on my way," Larriva sings in a near-whisper on the tender, mandolin-kissed ballad "Flying in My Sleep." Larriva's emotional U-turn reaches an embarrassing impasse on the disc's most melodically memorable track, "Sweet Cycle," where he mutters, "Let my arms be a tree / Let my eyes be a bee," concluding with a bit more grace, "Well, who am I to complain / About a bit of earthly pain."

More than half the tracks on Tarantism were co-produced by Robert Rodriguez; the production, combined with Larriva's detailed narrative touch, just about fulfills the CD's intended cinematic sweep. The only thing needed to complete Tito and Taranatula's creepy, yet somehow life-affirming, equation is the group's compelling visual presence. That being the case, one can only hope any T&T tour includes a show in Houston. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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