First Rays of the New Rising Sun
South Saturn Delta
(both MCA/Experience Hendrix)

Apparently, reports of Jimi Hendrix's demise have been greatly exaggerated, as this is at least the third time his catalog has been remastered for CD and something like his thousandth posthumous release. This time it's for Jimi's surviving family members' new label, whose motto is “No overdubbing, no studio trickery” – and be thankful, 'cause Frankensteinian cutting, overdubbing and general catalog desecration continued as recently as 1995's Voodoo Soup. Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer even claims that this is the first time the original masters have been used for CD (and the sound is pristine).

First Rays of the New Rising Sun is a new formatting of tracks and a closer approximation of what Jimi had in mind for his double-LP sequel to Electric Ladyland. These tracks find him exploring the urban frontiers of funk and jazz while utilizing enigmatic, more complex rhythms. The songs and the productions had become more intricate and more dense, with slabs of layered guitars and sundry percussion. First Rays is a superb offering and a brilliant final testament.

South Saturn Delta is one of those obligatory “loose ends” collections, and its loose concept has something to do with demonstrating Jimi's creative process. This attempt to be all-encompassing career-wise makes for a frustrating, disordered direction. Why not put together an all-Band of Gypsys (studio) disc, an all-demo set, etc., separate yet chronological? Maybe Experience Hendrix is working from some huge master plan . . . Since Jimi's live improvs are worthy of his “rock Coltrane” tag, I'm salivating like a mad dog thinking about all the upcoming great live stuff.

You do get Stegosaurus thud on the original metal riff, “Midnight”; jazz with horns on the title-cut experiment; producer Chas Chandler's original pop mix of “All Along the Watchtower”; funk on “Power of Soul” and “Message to the Universe”; and the ultrarare work-tape version of “Sweet Angel.” And the disc includes two absolutely essential cuts: the mercurial, heartfelt improvisation “Pali Gap,” and a John Lee Hooker-style solo blues, “Midnight Lightning,” with Jimi's liquid, circuitous riffs coming in a rare finger-picking performance. So us ordinary schmoes gotta buy it anyway. What you gonna do? (Scott Morrow)

Reality (A&M)

A handful of the best hip-hop records to be produced in the '90s includes TLC's Crazysexycool, D'Angelo's Brown Sugar, Mary J. Blige's My Life and Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Hip-hop, as should be clear by now, is not limited to rap – it's an aesthetic, a culture. Hip-hop is not an MC; it's a paradigm.

Bearing that in mind, Smooth can't be dissed for the ambitious scope of her third album, Reality. In a departure from her rhyme-dominant previous releases, the L.A.-based artist sings throughout the entire set; before the record industry secured a grasp on the concept of female MCs, A&R departments put out several rap albums heavy on the vocals (e.g., Queen Latifah's Nature of a Sista and Yo-Yo's Black Pearl), so Smooth's intimations have precedent. Reality is undoubtedly a hip-hop record.

But is it a phat hip-hop record? That all depends on the flavor you savor. When Smooth does discharge some rhyming couplets (as on “Loving You” and “Don't Sleep”), she's characteristically simplistic; however, at double-platinum, so is Ma$e. There are also moments when outside participation on Reality seems a bit coerced. Smooth's brother, her erstwhile producer Chris Stokes, tweaks the majority of the album, while her Perspective label's CEOs Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis contribute two tracks (“It's On,” “Willing To Fight”). Once zero-credibility “rapper” and Smooth labelmate Shaquille O'Neal gets hold of the microphone for the “Strawberries” remix, one expects to hear plaintive trumpet waft in from A&M co-founder Herb Alpert.

Reality is a hip-hop alternative record from an artist whose idea of “alternative” is Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrissette. Jangling guitars draped over harmonized vocals make “Anything I Like” as radio-ready as the smooth (ahem) R&B grooves of “Strawberries” and “Loving You.” When Smooth can match her ambitions with consistent quality (“It's On” and “I'm in Love” straight-up flunk), then she'll have an album. (Miles Marshall Lewis)

Bloody Minded . . . The Best of Cock Sparrer (Dr. Strange)

Arguably the greatest and certainly one of the least well-known Oi! bands in the U.K., Cock Sparrer formed in London's East End in 1974, doing Small Faces covers, but didn't release their first single, “Running Riot,” until 1977. Malcolm McLaren took a liking to them when the Sex Pistols were still playing strip clubs, but Cock Sparrer blew him off. Despite writing catchy punk anthems that were nearly as good as those of their contemporaries the Sex Pistols and the Clash, Cock Sparrer were never a huge hit outside Britain's Oi! scene. Perhaps it was their bad attitudes, or that they looked like a bunch of meat packers, that kept them off the covers of British music rags. Instead, they attracted a sizable gang of football hooligans to their shows, which would earn them a spot on most of the great Oi! compilations.

Bloody Minded . . . The Best of Cock Sparrer includes most of the band's finest numbers, but half the record is made up of recently recorded live versions of their old hits rather than the original singles. Cock Sparrer sound exactly the same as they always have, and “Take 'Em All,” their anti-record-company rant, and “Where Are They Now?,” one of their typically disillusioned, fuck-the-lot-of-'em tunes, hold up fine; so does their classic “Running Riot,” with its memorable chorus “I can't stand the peace and quiet/All I want is a running riot.” “Sunday Stripper” is one of the greatest striptease tunes ever written, and while this version is excellent, the original recording is perfect. The new stuff is mighty catchy too, though it's amazing that these middle-age men are still writing songs about beating up some poor fool in a pub, as they have with “A.U.”

Younger bands that imitate this music usually sound awful, especially American kids trying to sing with Cockney accents. So check out the real deal here; unless you're lucky enough to find a copy of Cock Sparrer Live and Loud, this best-of record will do you just fine. (Adam Bregman)

In the Aeroplane Over the
Sea (Merge)

In what's sure to become a new hipster allusion, Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum bellows, “I love you, Jesus Chryyyst!” toward the start of his second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And even with nothing in his delivery to suggest anything other than pure religious devotion, it'd be easy to assume that Mangum couldn't possibly be making this statement from any point other than one of irony. Hey, it's supposed to be a given, considering the indie purebred (read: anti-mainstream, postmodern-cynical) context in which the man operates. His records are on the decidedly un-major, Superchunk-owned Merge label; he's part of the hip, insular Elephant 6 crowd; and when his band played Spaceland a couple of years back, one member wore the most ironic garb possible – a cardboard Burger King crown.

Despite all this, it's not hard to strip away the peripherals and let Mangum's music float on its own hearty strengths, both here and on 1995's graceful On Avery Island. Mangum's strong voice, dream-consciousness lyrics and guitar strumming are always mixed high enough to be Neutral Milk Hotel's runaway focus, putting him – despite the presence of three other bandmates and various other members of their rotating “recording collective” – squarely in the emotive singer-songwriter category, which he handles with aplomb and honesty. When Mangum's not soloing with Beatlesque melodic flair, he's assembling mini-orchestral Pied Piper marches, on which he flaunts his ever-increasing fondness for unlikely instruments such as “zanzithophone” and uilleann pipes, and he allows his players the free reign of fun self-expression and enthusiasm, even if their singing-saw skills are a bit rusty.

When Mangum sings of finding solace, and longing, and the discovery of self and others, it occasionally leans toward word salad – but his lyrics are disjointed like our hazy memories of childhood. And if those aren't irony-free, then what is? (Mara Schwartz)

LA Weekly