The 3 Way (Sire)
One of the joys of '99's front half has been this unfortunately neglected gem of a '60s-pop-style album. Sure, the stuff is superficially retro -- with those go-go beats, foppish vocals and loads of economical guitar riffs, the East Coastbased Lilys have obviously been burning the midnight oil lately, studying the field manuals of the British Invasion's foot soldiers (general strategy from the Kinks, marching orders from the Zombies, etc.). But listen again -- this is more than the typical Poptopian pastiche of the usual turtlenecked '60s suspects. There's an unusually large number of melodic and instrumental hooks present in The 3 Way's 36 minutes; the two seven-minute, decidedly un-epic tunes, "Socs Hop" and "Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah's Slave)," approach a "Stars on 45" level of melodies-per-song.
Despite its compositional complexity, The 3 Way remains remarkably hummable and unintimidating, helped along by wonderful counterharmonies, some vigorously plucked banjo, a few bossa nova breaks, an uptempo Motown bridge on "Leo Ryan," a guitar riff on "The Spirits Merchant" that could be a George Harrison White Album outtake, and another trick lifted from a '60s-pop songbook (this time an American one): Left Bankestyle orchestration shadowing and coloring in the tunes' empty spaces.
It's all quite charming -- except for Lilys leader Kurt Heasley's lyrics, which recapitulate '90s Amerindie rock composers' unwillingness or inability to write a coherent, graceful lyric. So "And One (On One)" might be about doing lines till dawn, "The Lost Victory" about Nazi war criminals in Brazil and "The Spirits Merchant" about the local liquor store, but then again, maybe not. The lyrics often aren't particularly artful in and of themselves, so it's hard to pinpoint a method to all of Heasley's oblique madness. The Invasion is long over, Kurt -- there's no need to write in code anymore.
The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam)
"Tell us a story, Uncle Donnie, tell us a story!" Okay, kids, once upon a time there was a master storyteller -- his mama called him "Ricky Walters" -- born to a poor, humble Jamaican family in Wimbledon, England. After emigrating to the Bronx at age 12, he first came to fame under the name MC Ricky D, whose flair for comedy elevated Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew's 1985 double-sided smash "The Show" and the story-song "La Di Da Di" into the rarefied air of Old Skool classics. (The latter was covered by Snoop Dogg on his 1994 Doggystyle.)
By 1988, he was calling himself Slick Rick, and his first solo album -- The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, featuring the blackly comedic "Children's Story" (covered by Tricky under his Nearly God persona in 1996) -- shifted 1.8 million units and became another future classic. Meanwhile, down at the intersection of Life and Art, Rick was involved in a shooting incident that put him behind bars from 1990 to '96. He cut two quick albums' worth of material before he went in, but mostly no one cared.
"Then what happened, Uncle Donnie, then what happened?" Well, kids, Slick Rick just came back with a brand-new album, The Art of Storytelling. Like most rap records these days, it's littered with skippable skits and a long guest list (Big Boi from Outkast, Nas, Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, Jermaine Dupri and Snoop Dogg, among others), but it's really a showcase for Slick Rick's laid-back delivery, wacky rhymes, outrageous humor and man-of-a-thousand-voices (black/white, male/female, gay/straight, U.S./U.K.) ventriloquial skills. Despite the title, the only actual stories here are the rapping-slave-in-ancient-Egypt fantasy ("Who Rotten 'Em"), the it-was-all-a-nightmare scenario ("Kill Niggaz"), the twin tales of sexual temptation ("2 Way Street") and seduction ("Why Why Why"), and the XXX-rated "Adults Only," which sports the following inspirational couplet: "Ain't no way to put it subtle/When I want the butthole." The rest stretches from simple '70s nostalgia ("Memories") to eleventy-seven different kinds of braggadocio, whether it's the self-styled "black Clark Gable" boasting of his ability to "make construction workers start actin' kinda feminine" ("Street Talkin'") or threatening to "drop a pile of semen on 'em" ("Unified"). At a time when most veteran rappers can't get anything but arrested, this album sold 98,000 copies its first week out. The End.
"Wow! That Uncle Donnie is really weird." (Don Waller)
Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch)
There's always been something fussy about Bill Frisell's guitar playing. Accomplished and versatile, he slides effortlessly and intuitively between techniques and styles. But he also tends to linger over notes or miniature riffs, buffing them until they're burnished and warm and maybe just a little off-putting, like an 1800s dining table you don't quite dare touch in an antique shop. He has an impeccable ear, though, and his work catches the light.