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Blood, Sweat & Tears
The Best of Blood, Sweat & Tears: What Goes Up!
(Legacy/Columbia)

First, the history. When New York City-based avant-rockers the Blues Project broke up in 1967, the band's guitarist, Steve Katz, hooked up with jazz drummer Bobby Colomby, and the pair set about welding jazzy big-band horns to pop melodies in a fashion then being explored by producer James Guercio with Top 40 vocal group the Buckinghams (check out the Bucks' 1967 hits "Don't You Care" and "Back in Love Again"). Katz and Colomby corralled Blues Project keyboardist Al Kooper, and the trio signed up a posse of horn players with spiffy resumes (including trumpet man Randy Brecker) -- voila! Blood, Sweat & Tears. The group released its debut album, Child Is Father to the Man (written and sung by Kooper), in early 1968, a startlingly listenable hybrid of rock, pop, jazz, gospel, blues, and R&B. No hit singles. Lots of rave writeups. Kooper split following "artistic differences" with Katz and Colomby, who recruited gruff-throated Canadian vet David Clayton-Thomas to replace him. BS&T promptly turned into the universe's most wildly successful prom band, churning out hit after hit of precisely played, passionless MOR swill ("You've Made Me So Very Happy," "Spinning Wheel," "God Bless the Child," a cover of Laura Nyro's "And When I Die," "Hi-De-Ho," and the unspeakably loathsome "Lucretia Mac Evil") while justifiably being pilloried by an appalled music press. They rode the Top 40 gravy train until 1972, when Clayton-Thomas quit to go solo; the band endured three faceless lead singers -- and a series of faceless albums -- before he rejoined in 1975. By then nobody cared.

Second, the music: 32 tracks spread over two CDs, most of it lifted from BS&T's chart-topping days with the blustery Clayton-Thomas. All the above-named hits pop up here, along with about a dozen same-era throwaways A almost everything either sappy or showboaty or both. Also included: four tracks from Child Is Father to the Man, notably Kooper's brilliant blues vamp "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" and his zippy, Mothers of Invention-like "House in the Country"; plus some between-Clayton-Thomas-stints drivel that Tower of Power sold to BS&T for a nickel. Advice: Blow off this package and buy Child Is Father to the Man.

-- Michael Yockel

Boss Hog
Boss Hog
(DGC)

Big Apple scuzz-blues quartet makes its major-label bow with an infuriating bomb of an album, wherein Jon Spencer squanders some tasty guitar riffs on his infinitely attractive girlfriend, Cristina Martinez, a talentless hack who has elevated the arts of God-awful singing and wretched poetry to new, unexplored heights. And if Lydia Lunch were a hot babe, she'd probably be on a big-shot label, too.

-- John Floyd

Choir of the Benedictine Nuns of Sainte Marie de Maumont
Cantate Domino
(Milan)

One of the strangest ideas to come from the end of this millennium is that one group's religious rites and prayers are another group's entertainment. Look at the Gyuto Monks of Tibet, who had a hit on Windham Hill (produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart) and toured the U.S. Look also at the recent success of the more reluctant monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, their Chant CD, and its many offshoots; "chilling to the chant" has become a cool thing to do among the Brie and microbrewery set. But you might ask what this trend signifies. Are people really getting in touch with their spiritual roots, or are they just having a nice cultural snooze, their prescriptions for Xanax having lapsed?

The French nuns on this new Milan CD are from the same Benedictine order as the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. For listeners who are serious about authentic Gregorian chant and sensitive to its true spiritual function, the sisters' disc is the better of the two, and it's also better recorded. Unlike most of its predecessors, Cantate Domino comes with English translations of the Latin chants, and the chants themselves have been carefully selected to tell a coherent allegorical story of the "marriage" between the "bride" (the soul) and the "bridegroom" (God). Although you can listen to this album as a succession of pretty and restful sounds, the nuns of Sainte Marie de Maumont are not performers. If you don't invest energy in hearing their prayers, will your deity invest energy in hearing yours? Will this Girl Chant be just another sister act to you?

-- Raymond Tuttle

Various Artists
Def Jam Music Group Inc. 10th Year Anniversary
(Def Jam)

Def Jam opened shop in the mid-Eighties to mine a booming rap market that the major labels were too blind to see. Ten years later the company is revered as one of rap's greatest labels and one of its most successful, with crossover hits by the likes of new-jack soulman Montell Jordan. Label cofounders Russell Simmons, who built an entertainment empire on the fat beats of hip-hop, and Rick Rubin, whose rock-based production style attracted numerous white fans, deserve much of the credit for taking rap from the urban underground into the corporate offices of the big-league labels. To commemorate its first decade, Def Jam has assembled 57 tracks for this four-disc collection, rap's first boxed set. The focus, naturally, is on the now-classic hip-hop icons introduced by the label: L.L. Cool J (rap's first sex symbol); the beer-swilling Beastie Boys; the politically charged Public Enemy; and the wily, story-telling jester Slick Rick. On tracks such as "I'm the Type of Guy," "Hold It Now, Hit It," "Rebel Without a Pause," and "Children's Story," we rediscover what made early hip-hop so irresistible.

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
(Ruffhouse/Columbia)

Dog's Eye View
Happy Nowhere
(Columbia)

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
(Columbia)

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.

One nice facet of this compilation is that the band provides liner notes that discuss the origins and evolution of each song. It is especially heartening to learn, for instance, that the beautiful ballad "All Right" was the Toadsters' favorite song from previous studio sessions, and that they regretted not having included the song on last year's Dulcinea. Its inclusion here is one more reason In Light Syrup succeeds. The record serves up enough quality music to make you forget you're listening to an assortment of leftovers.

-- Steven Almond

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