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Pop the Cork 

Jay-Z beyond reasonable doubt

Wednesday, Feb 9 2000
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JAY-Z Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella)

No pop icon can hope to stay on top forever, but Jay-Z’s making one hell of a run. Like Puffy at the height of his career, Jay-Z attracts attention from adoring pop fans and eager player-haters alike. But as Puffy rides his empire into the dust, Jay-Z has proved wise enough — and talented enough — to do more than just rhyme about cars and clothes. After decimating the pop charts with Vol. 2, J-Hova returns to the concrete on Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, and creates his most consistent and satisfying album since 1996’s Reasonable Doubt.

While he still mixes in the occasional pop hit — the infectious "Things That U Do," the insipid "Do It Again" — the bulk of Vol. 3 finds Jay-Z wrapped up in sweeping street narratives and outrageous displays of bravado. Uncorking a bottle of evocative poetry, he drops such dazzlers as "crazed and demonic/without blazin’ chronic/product of Reaganomics," and in "Things That U Do" admits, "I felt caged in but kept roamin’/prayed for the day of atonement/married to the streets, no date of annulment." Even at his most brazen — "Toting guns up to the Grammies/poppin’ bottles on the White House lawn" ("So Ghetto") — his moxie is irresistibly attractive, sinisterly charismatic.

Musically, too, Vol. 3 moves the crowd off the dance floors and into the back alleys. "It’s Hot" is a supreme study in minimalism made possible by Timbaland, who engineers a sparse beat of hand claps and the simplest of bass lines. Also striking is the lumbering, menacing "Snoopy Track" (featuring rapper Juvenile), a bizarre Frankensteinian mesh of Mantronixesque electro-distortion and the frenetic high hats of Mannie Fresh.

Vol. 3 is one of the few albums these days that capably bridges the ideological gap between the pop world and the underground, and Jay-Z displays effortless grace in flitting between realms. At least for the moment, he lives up to his own hype when he boasts on "S. Carter," "S dot Carter, you must rhyme harder/Competition is nada."

JACKIE McLEAN Nature Boy (Blue Note)

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He didn’t want to do it. Make an album of ballads, that is. Which goes to show that the older and stubborner a great musician gets, the more important it is that he occasionally seek sympathetic and objective guidance.

The guide Jackie McLean listened to here was executive producer Hitoshi Namekata, who knew McLean’s reputation for inflammatory bop, but also recognized that the 67-year-old alto saxist has expanded his range. And whether McLean was listening to Namekata or the little voice inside his head, he was tuned in when he picked drummer Billy Higgins (a staple with him in the ’60s), pianist Cedar Walton (a longtime top-ranker with whom he’s been sharing bandstands more often lately) and bassist David Williams (from the saxist’s trio) in place of the youthful bandmates he’s favored in recent years. Despite its time-tried foundation, Nature Boy is like hearing a new Jackie Mac.

You couldn’t ask for a fitter demonstration of classic jazz nuance. Higgins ticks bright cymbals while pushing a jungle groove with low toms that are felt more than heard; thrums the brushes, matching a piano solo with a note-for-note roll; generates headlong swing out of a mystic tension between airy high hat and Williams’ thumping bass. Walton comps with Ellingtonian spareness, and finds elegant tailorings for reckless improvisations. Williams’ big, dark sound backgrounds the other instruments in high definition — compared to the funkiness of old Blue Note recordings, this one’s almost too clean.

McLean marries energy to reflection. On "You Don’t Know What Love Is," his heart’s broken, believe it — his trademark bitter, bent tone serves him in emotional ways it’s rarely done before, then he charges into some blue bravado only to choke in an artless sob. The rippling harmonic discombobulations he pours out in "Nature Boy" complement Williams’ solo, which sounds like he’s swinging from a branch over a swimming hole. McLean’s harsh cry peels the urbane veneer off "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." And on "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," he not only warbles, he flutters.

McLean says most of this material is first takes. That’s the way he used to do it with Miles and Mingus, and with players this good, it’s still possible. If he finds the old tunes and the familiar company a little too nostalgic, he should ask himself: Could he have mined ballads this deeply at 19? Or 49? (Greg Burk)

THE GUNGA DIN Glitterati (Jetset)

If New York’s post-punk heroes Television had a combo organ and a chanteuse, they no doubt would have sounded like the Gunga Din. True to form, the band’s penchant for bare-bones arrangements, underpinned by a classically decadent sensuality, has made the group the current darlings of the New York rock underground. Respectively, "Hollywood" and "Brave New World" recall the sparse indie sound of Television’s "Friction" and the epic "Marquee Moon," with guitarist Bill Bronson’s searing leads playing Tom Verlaine, and Maria Zastrow’s organ taking the place of second guitarist Richard Lloyd.

But if Television lacked a strong singer, Siobhan Duffy completes the G.D. persona, delivering her Morrisonesqe rock poetry in the impersonal-but-seductive style of Nico. On tunes like "Let’s Play a Game," there’s more than a hint of raging restraint — a squeak of feedback, a crashing chord, not to mention Duffy’s nursery-rhyme line "You won’t get to heaven till the end of your pain." And by the end of "The Repentant Bedfellow," a Brecht/Doors-like cabaret piece with organ stabs and guitar lines over a drum cadence, Bronson and Zastrow finally cut loose.

The band’s pedigree — Bronson served as bassist with legendary noisemongers Swans and drummer Jim Sclavunos did stints with Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth and Bad Seeds — further explains an obsession with alienation and despair that might not be new but will apparently never go out of style. (Michael Lipton)

STORMandSTRESS Under Thunder and Fluorescent Light (Touch and Go)

Sturm und Drang was an 18th-century German literary movement characterized by rash action and exaggerated emotion. Sturm und Drang is tumult. StormandStress, who adapt their name from the phrase, are cute. That is, they’re cute in the manner of the many latter-day avant-gardists battling it out in the indie-music trenches, or in the manner of a smart-ass kid. They’re cute in that they answer the question that sustained the musical avant-garde throughout the 20th century: What happens when you make music meant to upset every expectation regarding how music is listened to and played? Their answer: You build an audience for it and play to that fan base, as with every other genre of music.

Bands like StormandStress take what was avant — free jazz, the aleatory music of John Cage, serialism — and turn it into a root, just as rock & roll musicians turned blues and folk into roots. As with rock & roll, the resulting music suffers from a lack of what we’ll call authenticity. Did Keith Richards feel what Robert Johnson felt, or was it all heroin and chicks? Do StormandStress think what Albert Ayler or John Cage thought, or are they just fans of their record covers?

Big questions. Small band. It’s a trio consisting of Ian Williams, the guitarist for Don Caballero, a group that made its name crafting precision instrumentals in a heavy-metal vein; bassist Erich Emm; and drummer Kevin Shea, who’s got some actual free-jazz cred. Jim O’Rourke, who is ubiquitous in avant-indie circles, produces. As vertigo rawk, the band’s sophomore album, Under Thunder and Fluorescent Light, is quite satisfying. With specks of guitar sputtering out, the drummer smokes in a quiet, idiosyncratic fashion. Sometimes Williams sings aimlessly, although you’ll wish he didn’t. (The almost soulful guest vocalist on the sixth track sounds nice, though.) Frankly, the slippery rhythms don’t add up to much. You just can’t dance to ’em, or, as a voice interjects on the album’s last track, "It’s like a porno, but nobody takes off their clothes . . . It’s like a book without words." You can, however, test your counting skills.

It’s difficult music by not-so-difficult people. In such cases I usually pick the path of least resistance. Perhaps you’ll feel differently. (By the way, the tracks have names like "The Sky’s the Ground, the Bombs Are Plants, and We’re the Sun, Love." I hope this is, in part, a big joke.) (Alec Hanley Bemis)

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS "Out of Control" video (Astralwerks)

Against a backdrop of an apocalyptic, sun-baked Mexico City, tattered posters of Ché looking on, two young revolutionaries — one a seeming reject from The Thin Red Line, the other a cross between Bianca Jagger and Jennifer Lopez (Rosario Dawson from Kids) — get ready to fight a riot-geared militia. The pair engage in some tongue hockey and sloppily drink from their bottle of Viva Cola. (Never has so much sweat looked so attractive.) In front of a line of salivating soldiers, she has yet more fun with her bottle, shaking it, vibrating it and all but bathing in the soda as she tries to distract them. Her partner then tosses a homemade Molotov cocktail into the crowd. And bam! "In the heat of the moment . . . Viva Cola . . . serve chilleo." That’s right, this is no battlefield, but a slick Mentos-like commercial for a fictitious soda brand; the real revolución is taking place outside, where rioters smash vending machines and the windows of TV stores through which the commercial can be seen. EZLN posters and a handkerchief-masked girl graffiti-ing "Give me some substance" appear in night vision.

You might think such a clever and eerie attack on the sick marriage of consumerism, crass advertising and politics could only come from the flame keepers of the screwed themselves, Rage Against the Machine. Yet even though they’ve made musical poster children out of heroes like Ché and Angela Davis, this product comes, surprisingly, from British electronic duo the Chemical Brothers. Music videos in the electronica category are normally nothing more than digitalized yawn-a-thons of substandard Japanimation, boring graphics and rave scenes where you can’t distinguish dancers from DJs, about as much fun as staring at your computer’s screen saver. So credit director Wiz, who’s among an unknown but promising company of other visionaries, including Michel Gondry (Daft Punk), Chris Cunningham (Aphex Twin) and Jonas Akerlund (whose foray into full frontal nudity for Prodigy’s "Smack My Bitch Up" had feminists fuming).

Too bad all this wizardry can be seen only on MTV’s all-techno show AMP at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. on Sundays. The Fendi-fur-wearin’ fools of Hype Williams’ creations get most of the airtime. (Siran Babayan)

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