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Thieves Like Us

THE CHARLATANS UKUs and Us Only (MCA)

Over the last decade, the Charlatans have persevered like cursed bluesmen, facing down a host of horrors (desertion, jail time, death and financial disaster) while steadily improving their craft, growing from one-semihit wonders to improbable masters of their genre, a band capable of giving compelling, genuinely uplifting live performances free of cheap sentiment. The memory of singer Tim Burgess‘ eternal fist-in-the-air anorak shuffle lingers; this sonorous, triumphant album is the audio equivalent of that vision.

The Charlatans have always been more Boomer Rock than Britpop, closer to the similarly minded (and similarly underrated) Black Crowes than to, say, the Stone Roses, Blur or Pulp. They’re classic-rock stalkers whose sole American radio hit (”The Only One I Know“) is a direct lift from Deep Purple‘s ”Hush,“ who nicked wholesale Pink Floyd’s ”Fearless“ signature guitar line for 1995‘s ”Here Comes a Soul Saver“ . . . etc. The brazen graverobbing hasn’t stopped with Us and Us Only -- one song actually begins with the words ”You‘re my sweet black angel“ -- but it’s as if the band, through their relative longevity and hard knocks, have earned the right to do no more than rearrange rock‘s pre-existing constituent elements.

If the Charlatans’ thievery has remained shameless, the band themselves have become more cunning, and perhaps even blessed, finding new iterations of the same age-old chord progressions, lyrical concerns (love, loss, redemption, rededication) and instrumentation. These are songs that somehow outgrow their obvious indebtedness to the AOR songbook. So the album opens with the band confidently rolling a groove for over two and a half minutes before breaking into the tune proper (in which Burgess reasonably says, ”Oh! I wonder what you people do with your lives!“) and closes with a six-minute lazy epic that features a Mellotron-guided glide across a lovely bridge before falling, perfectly, into one of Neil Young‘s loping ”Old Man“ tempos. Between the bookends, an unusually passionate vocal from Burgess and another gorgeous Mellotron arrangement are breathtakingly combined on the stunning ”Senses“; a fantastic Page-ish guitar lick drops out of nowhere into ”The Blind Stagger“; and ”A House Is Not a Home“ is a simple, continuous crescendo. In short, the Charlatans have gained chops and are now writing songs, fully baked. Hurrah for the late b(l)oomers . . .

INSPECTAH DECKUncontrolled Substance (Loud)

RAEKWONImmobilarity (Sony)

The steel-grilled ruffians of the Wu-Tang Clan face an identity crisis. Since their debut five years back, the key to the Wu’s success has been the balance between the digital dissonance of producer Rza and the street-smart slanguistics of the various Wu rhymers. This chemistry has been upset lately, with Rza doing a minimum amount of work on solo albums by Clan members Method Man, Ol‘ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. Meth and ODB have survived the separation, largely on account of magnanimous charm (Meth) and a schizoid persona (ODB), but for Rae and Deck, danger remains. Like Al without Willie or Snoop without Dre, the Wu struggle to find themselves in a Rza-less reality.

Raekwon has the greater challenge -- his last effort was 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, widely regarded as the definitive Wu-Tang album. Fans of Raekwon‘s testy verbal style -- flashy rhyme bursts colored by ghetto-stoop wisdom -- won’t despair. On songs like ”F**k Them“ and ”Raw,“ Rae spits a seemingly endless array of verses, full of street-culture signifyin‘ and biting bravado. Yet Rae works exclusively with a squad of no-name producers who largely swing between two narrow musical poles: whiny strings and pensive piano chords, thin shadows of Rza’s dramatic nuances. Despite Rae‘s propulsive vocals, the production can’t keep up, almost slowing Immobilarity to the point of immobility.

In comparison, Inspectah Deck makes the most of his debut disc, Uncontrolled Substance, by producing many of his own songs and enlisting the help of Rza‘s more gifted proteges (True Master, 4th Disciple). Deck rolls thick in the smoky soul touch we’ve come to associate with the Wu, ranging from the impelling drum thunder on ”9th Chamber“ to the moody melodics of ”Elevation.“ Moreover, Deck‘s vivid portraits of rap noir -- ”Word on the Street“ and ”Femme Fatale“ -- are masterful works of lyrical minimalism, with simple phrases conveying the weight of whole paragraphs. While Rae makes a brave move to stand on his own two, Deck shows that staying true to the Wu aesthetic doesn’t mean having to hide behind the abbot‘s cloak. Like the ”Trouble Man“ alter ego he cops from Marvin Gaye, Deck makes his mark with a stylishly dark side unleashed through his twisted metaphors. (Oliver Wang)

CANDIRIAProcess of Self-Development (MIA)

Talk about an identity crisis: Candiria is the Sybil of the aggro world. These Brooklyn cats go for the next multilevel on the shape-shifting new album Process of Self-Development, a feat they pull off with mixed results. Though dubbed a jazz-metal fusion band, Candiria don’t hybridize disparate styles like the nu-skool so much as spontaneously morph into nonmetal entities entirely.

It was tempting to dismiss the sultry trumpets and hot tenor sax on ‘95’s Surrealistic Madness as simply trying too hard, and unfortunately Candiria still seem like dabblers on Process, attempting to be all things to all people. While freeform jazz interludes like ”Work in Progress“ stand on their own outside the context of the band‘s choppy metallic crunch, the horn players are guest musicians, not anyone in Candiria. The comprehensive list of name-brand blowers and legends on the insert is suspect, too -- are they saying, ”We’re not just hard-rock morons, we appreciate serious music like jazz, too“? They also make a big to-do about how no samples are used on the hip-hop track ”Method of Expression,“ but so what? The tune is boring. Too spastic for anything as humdrum as verse-chorus-verse structures, the songs‘ nonrepeating lyrics are divided into multiple chapters, but these are really just arbitrary pauses where Carley Coma can draw another lungful and continue his paranoid, apoplectic rants on everything from germ warfare (”Mathematics“), to political corruption (”Three Times Again“), to general malaise and putrefaction (”Temple of Sickness“). The lyric sheet is cryptic enough, while aurally it’s so much word salad, but Coma‘s warm, growly voice is music all by itself.

Candiria is unprolific by industry standards, creates unformattable songs, and has a lackadaisical approach to touring and an altogether too-protean aesthetic, all of which seems like self-sabotage. Yes, they are extreme, but it doesn’t translate into murderous pagan recidivism, ear-bleeding volume or even shock theater. Even so, this is some basically dope hardcore with accomplished jazz snippets to help lessen the riff-intensive monotony. That in itself is worthy. (Andrew Lentz)

Q-TipAmplified (Arista)

In transforming from beatnik to beefcake, Q-Tip‘s risking a path that’s doomed many an MC before him. Big Daddy Kane never recovered from his silk-and-satin days as the Prince of Darkness, and while the ladies adore Cool James, LL Cool J‘s ruffneck audience has shown little patience for his butter-soft rap ballads ever since his insipid ”I Need Love.“ But unlike Kane or LL, Q-Tip never sought to be larger than life as the leader of A Tribe Called Quest. A slick hepcat among vainglorious superstars, Tip generated (sex) appeal by being both meditative and accessible, offering the mind of a poet with the baby-faced charm of a high school crush. Now that he’s dumped his boho past for a future directed by Hype Williams, it‘s tempting to dismiss Q-Tip as another stargazing hopeful, but with Amplified his talents smooth the transition from everyman’s intellectual to thinking man‘s pop icon.

Have no illusions -- forlorn Tribe fans waiting for the return of the Abstract Poet are urged to abandon their hopes now. However, for a pop album, Amplified is a damn smart one, expertly efficient at only 12 songs long, and boasting much of the infectious energy shown on the hit single ”Vivrant Thing.“ Q-Tip and Ummah partner Jay Dee lace the album with floating bubbles of rhythm and melody that burst open in a stuttering shower of soapy funk. It’s far more mechanical than Tribe‘s organic vibe, but the Ummah still know how to milk a sample -- witness the honeyed guitar loop on ”Let’s Ride“ and the slamming key chords on ”Higher.“ As for Tip himself, his key rhyme sensibilities -- clever phrasings, a slippery, soothing flow -- are still in effect, though he‘s traded in his abstract poetics for simpler fare: braggadocio (”Wait Up“), party joints (”Breathe and Stop“), songs for your girl (”Things U Do“), etc. He’s also not above some duds -- ”Go Hard“ and the rock-rap mishmash ”End of Time“ (a collaboration with Korn) conform to all the worst hip-pop cliches of dull studio beats and lazy lyrics.

Moments like this make it difficult to wholeheartedly embrace Tip‘s rebirth, but as a solo debut, Amplified is more auspicious than uneven. Q-Tip’s new path of rhythm earns its share of both skepticism and admiration as he tries to find a groove in the post-Tribe era. (Oliver Wang)

DEBORAH HOLLANDBook of Survival (Gadfly)

In 1994, L.A. singer-songwriter Deborah Holland released a remarkable album called Freudian Slip with the help of Sting manager and music mogul Miles Copeland. The mainstream had already gotten a glimpse of Holland as the vocalist with Animal Logic, drummer Stewart Copeland‘s ill-fated attempt to create another Police with bassist Stanley Clarke. When Freudian Slip was released, it went nowhere fast, and the fact that the cover depicted a very pregnant Holland lounging around smoking a cigar met with resistance from the label, which was probably planning to take the femme fatale approach in trying to sell the album. But the record showcased Holland’s knack for composing a seemingly endless number of mesmerizing hooks.

Five years later, Holland is still writing terrific songs, though she‘s following a different stylistic path. If Freudian Slip was all about Holland the eclectic art-school graduate, surrounded by crunchy drums and translucent keyboards, Book of Survival introduces Holland the folksy songstress. The album’s spare instrumentation (her own acoustic guitar and piano alternately define the mood of each song) brings to mind Joni Mitchell‘s For the Roses era. Holland’s thickly textured voice implies the need for more-sophisticated soundscapes, and her gutsy delivery makes you think Copeland was right when he thought of her fronting a power-pop-rock combo. If anything, the record‘s unplugged vibe makes her sophisticated songwriting stand out. On ”Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher,“ she imagines these two most pathetic of world leaders having tea together and discovering that (surprise, surprise) they have a lot in common. ”Without You by My Side“ takes marital dispute as a starting point and transforms it into a declaration of love. The highest point is ”Kids With Guns,“ a piano-based gem with accents of slide guitar where Holland talks about the state of the world (and contemporary music) with warmth and wit.

The role of indie songwriter doesn’t suit Deborah Holland very well -- she‘s clearly destined for grander pop-glamour dreams. (Ernesto Lechner)


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