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The Specials
Today's Specials
(Virgin/Kuff)

You can't say the time isn't right for the triumphant return of the Specials, the English group that way back in the late Seventies combined punk's rant-and-roll dynamics with the slippery grooves of Jamaican ska. Close to fifteen years after the Specials broke up, their ska-punk fusion has been attracting muscleheads and frat daddys through an energetic but vapid spinoff called skacore, which supplants crafty melodies and sharp politics with hardcore dramatics and sexist-comedic tales perfect for the kind of louts the Specials railed against in their 1980 classic "Stereotype." Clearly, a reclamation is in order.

Sadly, there is nothing triumphant about Today's Specials, the flabby reunion disc that features four original Specials, none of whom is Jerry Dammers or Terry Hall (respectively, the songwriting brains and vocal soul behind the original Specials). Motivated for career revitalization by the success of their Brit-reggae contemporaries UB40, the redux Specials are following a similarly homogeneous path down a comeback trail dotted with half-baked covers and mushy adult pop. They've sucked all the blood and venom from Peter Tosh's "Maga Dog" and Toots Hibbert's "Pressure Drop," and in a pathetic move have mimicked the UBs by crooning through a Neil Diamond cover ("A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You") they're obviously hoping will be their "Red Red Wine." It won't, for like everything on Today's Specials, "A Little Bit" is a shameless but shameful bid for VH1 acceptance, bereft of reggae soul or ska bounce. Maybe the lunkheads of skacore aren't so bad after all.

-- John Floyd

Les Thugs
Strike
(Sub Pop)

Just because a culture's good at throwing rocks doesn't mean it will necessarily excel at playing rock. Considering that the French are, off and on, so talented at mass revolt, I'm surprised at how truly pitiful they've been at rock and roll. The nation that offered the world the Revolution(s), the Commune, May '68, and even last year's boffo transportation strike has given us pretty much Jacques shit in terms of popular music with any kind of postwar insurrection value. Les Thugs are l'exception. Hailing from the picture-perfect Loire Valley, they hash out noise that isn't like any postcard I've ever seen -- lovingly flawed, questioning, devoid of platitudes. Their fourth album, Strike, beats with a raspy punk heart.

While their second record included a found tape excerpt of a May '68er telling her bosses to fuck off, and this one's packaging sports a photo of demonstrators carrying a banner marked, as far as I can tell, "meilleur" (meaning "better"), Strike's haphazard English-as-a-second-language lyrics are devoted mostly to various forms of standstill: "Waiting" finds them doing just that, and "So Heavy" is so heavy the singer is "like stuck to the ground." The title cut's directive to strike is surprisingly slacker-friendly, somehow lazy and utopian at the same time. The word strike is whispered so seductively and so often -- I counted 42 times A that it's almost subliminal. The narrator won't get out of bed, doesn't want to fight. So even though he's probably not up for civil disobedience, at least he's not above a little old-fashioned hooky. (We've pretty much ruined the concept's romance in the U.S. by coining the horrid neologism "personal day," which doesn't have the same jailbreak appeal.) "The world is ugly," he moans, with all the angry optimism of a cobblestone in flight. "I'm gonna dream it nice."

-- Sarah Vowell

Tragically Hip
Trouble at the Henhouse
(Atlantic)

On this, their eagerly awaited sixth release, Canada's most popular rockers weigh in with an effort destined to enthrall half their cultish fans and embitter the rest. Gone is the bluesy stomp that propelled 1991's seminal Road Apples, replaced by a sound that is at once more diverse and diffuse.

In the decade since they came together, the members of the Ontario quintet have grown from randy youngsters to mature musicians. While still capable of producing scorchers ("700 Ft. Ceiling" and "Coconut Cream"), the juice on this record resides in its moodier moments. "Ahead by a Century," the first single, is a folksy strummer that sounds nearly unplugged. Gord Downie's always intense singing is reined in accordingly, and Johnny Faye's beefy percussion is reduced to a jaunty tinkle. A swirling Hammond organ animates "Gift Shop," as guitarist Paul Langlois forswears his trademark slash for gentle picking and a Byrdsy backing vocal. A deliciously sinister riff weaves around the muscular beat of "Butts Wigglin," while Downie mutters a typically evocative, if oblique, narrative. ("The sweet sound of patent approval/Coming down in a not quite fog" -- huh?)

Slower to ingratiate themselves are slow-burners such as "Sherpa" and "Flamenco," which showcase the Hip's recent jazzy ambitions. These songs are basically extended jams, loosely built around sketchy hooks. The hypnotic "Put It Off" is by far the most successful merger of the group's old and new sounds. Rob Baker's undulating guitar ducks and jukes, Gord Sinclair's mournful bass line throbs, and Downie gradually ups the intensity, easing from a gentle whisper to a full-throated yowl.

As with the Hip's last two offerings, Trouble debuted at number one in Canada, where it is likely to remain for weeks. The disc stands very little chance of cracking the U.S. charts; the band is reluctant to play the marketing game down here, whether it's making videos or making music that will fit easily into the programming slots of MTV and AOR radio. Maybe if the Hip were a bit more reducible, a bit less ambitious...

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