Unfortunately the box also documents the label's late-Eighties/early-Nineties slump, following Rubin's exit to form the Def American label (now known simply as American A home of the Black Crowes, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Donovan) and Simmons's diversification into television, film, and fashion. In contrast to the tracks from the label's trailblazing years, the later cuts here suggest that Def Jam is now following trends rather than setting them: Onyx, a hardcore quartet from New York City, put an East Coast spin on the West Coast gangsta style; Method Man, already an established artist thanks to his work with the Wu-Tang Clan; Warren G., who cashed in on the smooth, bass-heavy sound of producer Dr. Dre; and R&B crossover kings Montell Jordan and Domino. Sure, these artists have had their moments, but there's little freshness in such hits as Jordan's "This Is How We Do It."

Amazingly, hip-hop has survived and grown bigger than anyone dreamed. As the Def Jam box confirms, though, the music has also been around long enough to make you yearn for a taste of the good old days.

-- Roni Sarig

Ben Arnold
Almost Speechless

Dog's Eye View
Happy Nowhere

Split the difference between Bob Dylan and Counting Crows and you'd end up with Ben Arnold. The eleven cuts on his major-label debut, Almost Speechless, range from examples of soulful songwriting to radio-ready hack work, with most leaning to the former. I'm not sure what radio programmers are calling this stuff, and that's probably a good sign. "Melodic rock"? Whatever, there's no question that Arnold knows his way around a hook. This album is full of tunes that you wind up humming in the shower, whether you mean to or not.

For a guy in his twenties, Arnold's voice is surprisingly supple and sophisticated, a gritty baritone capable of exquisite phrasing. In the wonderfully bitter "You," he kisses off an ex-lover in classic Dylan-esque fashion: "Did ya have another party?" he asks. "Was everybody happy?/Did they stay until dawn?/Do you wear a lot of makeup?/Does everybody wake up/With someone new in their arms?" Not content to prattle on about Generation X angst, Arnold gores the media in jaunty and sly style on "Meet the Press," and "Soar" takes a bluesy peek into the mind of proto-aviator Orville Wright.

For Almost Speechless, Arnold has assembled a fine backing band, one that weds his proclamations to solid instrumentation and a satisfying backbeat. Barrie Maguire's dulcimer transforms "Fine September" into a chiming lullaby, and Christopher Colucci's spiraling electric guitar kicks "Help Myself" into overdrive.

The debut from Dog's Eye View works the same spectrum as Arnold's disc, though they borrow considerably more from Counting Crows than from Dylan. (Peter Stuart, Dog's front man and songwriter, opened for the Crows for months.) Fact is, you could release "I Wish You Were Here," the lead-off track from Happy Nowhere, as the new Crows single and no one would bat an eyelash: same over-the-top vocal yelp, same slightly maudlin melody, and the same annoying flourishes of male hurt. Thankfully things pick up a bit from there. "Everything Falls Apart" bolts out of the gate with a galloping beat and finger-snapping cynicism, and "Small Wonders" -- a spotlight for Stuart's tremulous tenor -- slows the pace without getting goopy.

The countrified romp "The Prince's Favorite Son" and the scorching love-'em-and-lose-'em ditty "Cotton Mouth" both sport the kind of infectious riffs and musical verve that make each instantly likable. There are three or four other winners here, but since the album is nearly an hour long, you'll have to wade through plenty of Crow droppings to savor the good stuff.

-- Steven Almond

Toad the Wet Sprocket
In Light Syrup

Your basic "rarities" album is generally the musical equivalent of a New York City frankfurter: overpriced and composed of filler, the sort of impulse buy that looks good all dressed up in relish but winds up a source of profound regret. There is also an element of pretension in releasing a rarities package, which implies that the band in question is so very special that their cast-offs merit a place on the open market.

All that said, Toad the Wet Sprocket's new collection, In Light Syrup, is a pleasant exception to the rule. It's a nifty little album that manages to sound, all in all, like most of the Georgia quartet's other efforts; about half the disc's twelve tracks are wonderful, with the rest falling somewhere between nice enough and forgettable. The strongest cut by far is "Brother," an up-tempo anthem that highlights the band's knack for joyous melodies, soaring harmonies, and rootsy instrumentation. Glen Phillips's throaty tenor rises over scorching guitar licks and lush waves of Hammond organ.

"Hobbit on the Rocks" is one of Toad's purposefully arcane offerings, an enchanting ditty in which the intricate musical form -- a strummed mandolin and an orchestral bridge? A is wed to equally unlikely lyrics. "There's an old Virginian vibraphone and a man who thinks he's Al Capone in a cummerbund," Phillips sings, tongue firmly in cheek. Randy Guss's relentless drumbeats drive "So Alive," an ethereal rocker that makes clever use of a cricket chorus. "Are We Afraid" and "All in All" offer quiet counterpoints to the ruckus, speaking frankly of emotional risks without descending into mawkishness. Every song here would have fit comfortably on any of Toad's last three albums. Most of the other cuts, unfortunately, tend to blur together. They sound like, well, cast-offs -- not bad songs, really, just unrealized.

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