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Master of the Game

KOOL KEITH Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Imagine a world where a rap album didn't come chock-full o' stereotypical skits, 187 "special guest" appearances -- 'cause the guy whose name is on the cover couldn't hold his own mama's attention for more than 15 minutes -- crossover-minded pop samples, the words bitches, ho's and fuck, all that laughing gas about keepin' it real, and none of that kozmik yas-yas about universal anything, either. Kool Keith just made that record.

Who? Born Keith Thornton, Kool Keith's career stretches back to the Ultramagnetic MCs, where his delivery of the line "Smack my bitch up" in "Give the Drummer Some" gave Prodigy the germ of a song and a certain amount of controversy. After recording three Ultramagnetic MCs albums for three different labels in six years (1988­93), Keith exploded into the pop consciousness as the psychosexual protagonist of Dr. Octagon's XXX-rated Dr. Octagonecologyst CD. Earlier this year, Keith's latest persona, Dr. Dooom, unleashed the First Come, First Served album, complete with a greazy, burger-in-your-face parody of the glitzy cover art that spells C-L-I-C-H-É these days. Yeah, he's a funny guy -- and so are all those stories about him blowing his advances on lap dances.

For this, his first album under the Kool Keith moniker, the South Bronx rapper drops the sex talk in favor of Old School braggadocio that spotlights his high-speed, staccato flow. Witness his blazing phrasing, dancing in, out and around the drum-machine breakdowns on "Master of the Game," or his equally swift, let-me-spell-it-out-for-you diss on "Maxi Curl." In keeping with the futuristic Afrolistics of the album's title -- although there's only a passing reference to his being the "Black Elvis" -- Keith sets his jet stream of unusual images and offbeat rhymes to some exceptionally minimalistic electronic funk, adding and subtracting layers of cheesy sci-fi sound effects (oceans of reverb, stereo panning, sonic blips, bleeps, squeaks and skronks, filtered voices and control-tower chatter) from one song to the next. The loop of the girl laughing that keeps undercutting the me-so-macho "Keith Turbo" is more atypical, but no less effective.

"I'm Seein' Robots" (in the form of gold-digging hootchies) and "The Girls Don't Like the Job" ('cause the boss man -- guess who? -- is a tyrant whose schemes include establishing a new NBA team, "the Baldwin Hills Spacemen") are weirder than Spock's beard, but Kool Keith cracks wisest on the industry beat-downs, "Release Date" and "Intro." No joke.

Union 13

"WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC Running With Scissors (Volcano)

Like a defiant accordionist ready to break out of the Palm Springs bar mitzvah circuit, "Weird Al" Yankovic first sauntered onto the scene in 1979 clad in Hawaiian shirts and Vans sneakers. Though he lacked Michael Jackson's chic dance moves, he would storm MTV like a Polish Ricky Martin. His unique career began with "My Bologna" and "Another One Rides the Bus," two hits first heard on Dr. Demento's radio show. Subsequent masterworks included the video to "Smells Like Nirvana"; the Kinks' "Lola," which he turned into "Yoda"; the Devoesque "Dare To Be Stupid"; "I Want a New Duck," his parody of Huey Lewis and the News' "I Want a New Drug"; and "Amish Paradise," his spoof of Coolio's overblown "Gangsta's Paradise."

On his new Running With Scissors, Yankovic's "It's All About the Pentiums," a takeoff on Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins," is among the funniest songs he's ever written. "Paying the bills" with his "mad programming skills," Yankovic boasts, "I'm down with Bill Gates/I call him Money for short/I phone him up at home/and make him do my tech support," and brags, "While your computer's crashin'/mine's multitaskin'/It does all my work without me even askin'/Got a flat-screen monitor 40 inches wide/I believe that yours says Etch-A-Sketch on the side." The surreal opus "Albuquerque" is about snorkels, glazed doughnuts, calligraphy and nothing in particular, while "The Weird Al Show Theme" encompasses Tater Tot farms, vats of sour cream and nasal-decongestant factories.

Though Nine Inch Nails' dark, erotic silliness is ripe for parody, Yankovic's "Germs" isn't pompous enough, while "The Saga Begins" is a straightforward ode to The Phantom Menace set to Don McLean's "American Pie" -- George Lucas liked it, proving it's overly kind and inoffensive. But even when Yankovic misses his mark, which he rarely does, he's still funnier than almost anyone else making records. (Adam Bregman)

 

UNION 13 Why Are We Destroying Ourselves? (Epitaph)

Since the title of Union 13's sophomore effort is posited in the form of a question, it seems fitting to ask just when exactly did punk rock become a superficial fashion statement, or a knee-jerk series of musical dogmas lacking passion or conviction? While that question may remain unanswered, Union 13 addresses it obliquely with Why Are We Destroying Ourselves?

 

Spraying out the bile in both English and español, singer Edward Escoto takes on not just the general state of adolescence ("Frustrated") but also the particular flavor of the East Los underclass, all hammered home with the classic twin-guitar, amphetamine-barre-chord snarl. The rhythm section is tight and pugnacious without being obtrusive. "If I Knew Then . . ." lulls with a beautiful curve ball of an acoustic-guitar intro, but there's no pseudo-sensitive singer-songwriter shit here, and the jackhammer comes back for another smack. The format throughout remains pure: tightly wound punk rock fury with plenty of ire and all the fat trimmed off. In other words, there are no long-winded solos of any kind, just riffs, verses and choruses, usually with the rest of the chavalos in the band barking out the refrain in unison.

While there's way more social awareness presented here than the usual beer-'n'-barf school of @narchy, it's presented in the more touching form of personal experience, as opposed to prefab political doctrine; the pressure of hypocritical religious conformity permeates "Faith," and a desperate, almost nihilistic sadness drives both the music and the lyrics to the title track. (Ralph Gorodetsky)

 

TNT Transistor (Spitfire)

Every once in a while, pop music can still make me feel the way I -- I mean my grandfather -- felt upon first getting smacked in the face by the Beatles. Giddy! Physical! Stupid! And good. So if I've gotta search out a veteran three-quarters-Norwegian eclecto-hard-rock band to repeat the sensation, I'm all over it.

You know what's toughest about TNT's trick? Sounding genuinely naive while delivering mature musical whammo. Tony Harnell's ability to huff helium, sing stuff like "I'm so lucky just to be/Where I am at any time" and make me believe it, the way he does on "Crashing Down," is rarer than plutonium 99, and that's almost enough. But this is a whole band. Ronni Le Tekro's guitar is always biting off these thick chunks of relentless rhythm, and he'll even toss in some crazed dissonances and effects just for fun. Bassist Morty Black doesn't care whether he has to play one note against eight chords or five weird notes against one E-major. And this kid drummer Frode Lamoy lifts the whole thing eye-high, bashing away with his high hat wide open as if he can't control himself.

A six-pack of your choice says you can't find another record in the last 20 years whose first half packs more melodic detonation than Transistor's. "Just Like God" tries to fool you into thinking it's techno, then dark funk, before pressing the pedal to the metal with a dragstrip chorus. "Wide Awake" is a smiling midtempo Cheap Trick ode to romance, minus the cynicism. The one song you'll play till you're sick of it is "No Such Thing," the kind of joyfully sad churner (nicely complemented by Le Tekro's babbling wah-wah solo) that could put Pat Benatar back on the map. "Crashing Down" is just a rush. The rest of the disc glides over commensurate peaks ("Because I Love You," "Into Pieces"), some somewhat flatter though still exceptional tracks, and a couple of pretty ballads ("Fantasia Española," "Under My Pillow") that you might or might not be in the mood for.

TNT's recent output suggests it's taken them 15 years to progress from good to incredible. 1996's fine Firefly and Live! (Shrapnel) would be worth its price for the Beach-Boys-go-headbanger masterpiece "Daisy Jane" alone. And Le Tekro's import-only 1998 solo CD Extra Strong String (Avalon) trumps ELO in atmosphere, humor and all-over-the-place imagination. It only remains to be seen if the masses will buy the goods. If they get a chance to hear it, the cash is in the till. Guaranteed. (Greg Burk)

VARIOUS ARTISTS More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (Birdman)

Skip Spence, an early member of the Jefferson Airplane and front man for Moby Grape, reportedly showed signs of mental instability even before he started doing serious drugs and showed up at a hotel with an ax (as in, not a guitar) looking for the Grape's drummer. Then he spent six months in Bellevue. From that moment until his recent death, he teetered on the brink of total dissolution, often homeless, never performing. He did record Oar in 1969. The songs were written during his stay in Bellevue, and sound like it. The harrowing disorganization of the lyrics and spare but chaotic arrangements render the music essentially elusive, rooted in private, terrible loneliness, despite moments of surprising humor and warmth.

Wisely, the artists on More Oar eschew the least explicable aspects of the original recording. Robert Plant delivers a wistfully restrained take on "Little Hands"; Tom Waits roars through "Books of Moses" like a man bent on self-immolation. Of the wackier efforts, San Francisco's late, lamented Ophelias fare best, capturing and sharing in the giddiness of "Lawrence of Euphoria."

 

Still, More Oar's ultimate impact is unsettling. Every lead vocalist is male (as were most on the 1990 Roky Erickson tribute, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye); it's almost as if intimations of insanity offer male rockers a more comfortable outlet for irony-free emotional expression. And even the best performances here feel filched, somehow, from a ruin. Oar was a fever-dream that never broke. More Oar is imaginative and robustly healthy, and while the songs hold up well, they remain artifacts, offering few clues about how to cast the spells Spence did with them. (Glen Hirshberg)


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