In the case of E and his two bandmates, the answer comes in the form of this hauntingly gorgeous debut, 44 minutes of musical bliss that combines hip-hop beats, soul-pop song lines, and fuzzbox production that calls to mind fellow hipsters Soul Coughing and Beck. (Not surprisingly, Michael Simpson, one half of the Dust Brothers recording team that's manned the boards for Beck and the Beastie Boys, shares producer credits with E.)

The disc's most ambitious songs present themselves as sonic collages composed of dreamy lyrics, chunky guitar, sweet riffs, looped samples, and loping drum beats. "Novacaine for the Soul" opens with the gentle tinkling of a Wurlitzer, before E lowers the boom with a crunching guitar solo. Bassist Tommy Walter opens "Susan's House" with a thick, thumping bass line; drummer Butch Norton adds a jazzy, syncopated rhythm; and E finally kicks in with a tripped-out urban travelogue that reads like top-drawer acid poetry. Then the song gets really weird. It stops on a dime, falls silent, and is reborn as a sweet Randy Newman-esque piano interlude. Gradually the drums and guitars start back up, this time with samples of kids cheering, canned sitcom laughter, and roaring power tools.

The title track, a dark lullaby fashioned from E's gentle keyboard fills and edgy tenor, is the trio's most revealing. "You're a beautiful freak," he sings, "and that is why I love you." Take heart, then, freaks: There is no shame in abnormality. With bands like the eels around advocating, the freak green room can be a pretty damn cool place to hang.

-- Steven Almond

Various Artists
Money B Presents Folk Music Vol. 1
(Bobby Beats)
Various Artists
Insomnia: The Erick Sermon Compilation Album

Commercial rap -- hate it with a passion? Two compilation albums strictly meant to make the underground head nod have recently made their way into the marketplace for your listening pleasure. Folk Music is the compilation brainchild of Digital Underground's Money B, who keeps things balanced on this set with a mix of new and familiar faces. While Digital and Money B give up two cool new tunes apiece, the bomb is dropped truly by the new faces. Detroit's No Coast rocks hard and does the Motor City justice on "U Justa," Clee & John Doe rip mikes on the ragga-flavored "Heartbreaker," and Vickia proclaims her unabashed love for the nasty on "Like to Freak Ya." Others getting down on this Bay Area family affair include T.M.F., Neighborhood Kingpinz, Kumpny, and Shay.

Erick Sermon, late of the duo EPMD, uses Insomnia to offer a peek into a fictional world "six billion feet beneath where the Def Squad dwells." Radio station WFDS (We're From the Dark Side), staffed here by real-life Boston air personality Cherry Martinez, dishes out the comic relief while guiding the listener on a journey through some seriously thick funk. Compatriots Redman, Keith Murray, and E-Double himself represent throughout, but as with the Money B set, it's the new acts that shine. Add the name Passion to the long list of bad females suddenly getting wreck; and duos Jamal & Calif and the Wixtons ensure this Def Squad Ball stays an unkempt affair, keeping things low and dirty on "Beez Like That (Sometimes)" and the stanky funk throwdown "Up Jump the Boogie," respectively.

-- Jesse Ballinger

The Heads
No Talking Just Head
No Byrne Just Dreck.
-- John Floyd

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