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NuYorican Soul
NuYorican Soul
(Giant Step/Blue Thumb)

Never underestimate Puerto Rico. True, the island's treasured salsa has been eclipsed by Dominican merengue and other rhythms. But the sonic highway that brought so much great music from Puerto Rico to New York in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies has been well maintained by a new generation of NuYorican musicians. Two of the best are "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzales, the production team known as Masters at Work. They're more than just knee-deep in salsa and Latin jazz, but they also made their mark in the Nineties as producers of digitally oriented dance music (Gonzales's 1995 Bucketheads is a classic of fiery, intelligent, instrumental house music).

Yet nothing these guys has ever done prepares the listener for NuYorican Soul, a sweeping, gigantic concept album in which electronics are minimal and a stunning variety of East Coast urban sounds from the past quarter century are maximal. Disco diva Joycelyn Brown's gospel-powered "It's Alright, I Feel It!" sounds right at home with Eddie Palmieri's funky three-movement solo piano sonata "Taita Caneme" or "Jazzy Jeff's Theme," a hip-hop instrumental that could be the soundtrack for a Western movie. George Benson resolves his careerlong jazz/pop split personality by melding them together on "You Can Do It Baby" while the cover of Bob James's "Nautilus" has as much fire as all the hip-hop hits that have sampled it combined.

What makes it all flow together? Segues -- veteran DJs Vega and Gonzales make transitions that are sometimes shocking, sometimes subtle, but they always succeed in taking you from a song you hoped would last forever into one you didn't expect and are very glad to meet. Vibes -- three players whose virtuosity is less in the mallets than in picking where and what to play: Vince Montana, Tito Puente, and Roy Ayers. Strings -- a full string section is used less for sweetening than for flexing the bottom and accelerating the thrill ride, much like Philadelphia International's MFSB house band did. Hilton Ruiz -- the rhythms and flourishes of this Latin-jazz pianist are all over the album, plus he co-wrote "Maw Latin Blues" and "Gotta New Life." Passion -- Masters at Work bulldoze right over critics who dismiss dance music as mere froth. They know the importance of getting dressed up on Saturday night and having music that matches your mood and style.

-- Lee Ballinger

Aerosmith
Nine Lives
(Columbia)

When I admit I've changed my mind about Aerosmith -- I used to think they sucked; now I think they're a wonderful singles band -- people look like they feel sorry for me, and I'm not surprised. At this point, Aerosmith comes with so much baggage -- the overexposed AOR hits, Steven Tyler's preening schtick and Skeletor grimace, all those videos -- that it's hard to hear their strengths. But if you want to hear them, I tell people the first step is to play songs like "Janie's Got a Gun," "Cryin'," and even "Love in an Elevator" really, really loud, and then just give yourself up to the sound: the soaring, larger-than-life arrangements and unexpected embellishments (accordion?) and Joe Perry's rifle of a guitar.

Next, after you've felt the visceral punch of big, grand sound, I'd tell you that the only way to completely appreciate Aerosmith is to stop watching the video and actually listen to the words (and even this won't help you on songs as junior-high naughty as, say, "Rag Doll"). Something about an Alicia Silverstone narrative leaves even Aerosmith's best singles feeling small. But cranked on cheap car stereos, Tyler's yowl once again becomes pain and confusion on "What It Takes," and on the full-of-wonder "Amazing," everything comes together so perfectly that the result approaches glorious.

But even these tips won't work so well on Nine Lives. The hooks that Tyler and his song-doctors-on-retainer have come up with this time around are more familiar than fresh, and the lyrics are even more cliched than usual, which is saying something. The closest thing to an exception is "Kiss Your Past Good-bye." As close to "Amazing" as Nine Lives gets, it's a gesture, a big-guitar arm around the shoulder, a swelling anthem of liberating personal reinvention.

In fact, with titles like "Attitude Adjustment" and "Nine Lives," this album is trying to be one long ode to reinvention, a topic Aerosmith (back from the dead more than once now) certainly knows well. Of course, you'd have to listen to the words to know that, and you'd have to crank them up loud to really feel it. And even having done that, I don't think Nine Lives will produce even one single as strong as what Aerosmith has pulled from their three previous albums. Then again, after I hear these songs over and over, all summer long, don't be surprised if I change my mind.

-- David Cantwell

Ben Folds Five
Whatever and Ever Amen
(Sony/550)

A nice melody's not that rare a commodity in the life of a music lover. But it didn't take me more than two minutes to realize that there's something extraordinary about Ben Folds Five's new disc, Whatever and Ever Amen: an almost liquid sense of mood, as if the music were washing over me rather than pounding away at my eardrums.

Then it hit me: no guitar. No friggin' guitar. No wall of sound. No grind of death. No phallic whomp-whomp-a-grunge-boom. In its stead we get the thumping rhythm section of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse and the frisky piano riffs of Folds himself. Other than an occasional organ fill or string arrangement, that's it. Indeed, the joy of listening to Folds's infectious pop songs unfold in this stripped-down setting is the melodic purity that comes with ditching the electric guitar. This purity is nothing new to old fans, who embraced BFF's eponymous 1995 debut as a welcome respite from the onslaught of grunge. This dazzling sophomore effort makes another.

From the joyous opening strains of "One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces" to the melancholy tinkling of "Fair," the Chapel Hill trio keeps the pace varied and the approach fresh. "Brick," a breathtaking ballad that poetically chronicles the tolls of abortion, gives way to the stomping chords and hilarious ranting of "Song for the Dumped." Without reducing the proceedings to camp, Folds sounds positively show-tunish on "Steven's Last Night in Town," which features soaring harmonies (à la vintage Queen) and cameos by three members of the Klezmatics. Producer Andy Wallace (Nirvana) employs strings in sparing doses, using a cello and violins to flesh out the mournful minor-key closer "Evaporated." At the heart of the operation is Folds's own virtuoso tickling, which ranges from jazzy noodlings to sweeping arpeggios to boogie-woogie banging, with the occasional Gershwin riff thrown in for good measure.

By eschewing guitars, Folds also makes room for his own reedy tenor, an instrument whose quiet, quirky charms might otherwise be lost. Likewise, the band's decision to record the album in live takes allows them to capitalize on the spontaneity and honed chops that come only after years on the road.

-- Steven Almond

Various Artists
Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness
(Rykodisc)

The day I received this CD in the mail, I learned that Allen Ginsberg had died. I recalled that in a college oral interpretation course I'd once chosen to recite Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl" because it gave me a legitimate excuse to stand in front of the class and say dirty words.

That satisfying sense of rebellion is what has drawn young people to both rock and roll and Beat poetry for the last four decades, so it's not surprising that Beat icon Jack Kerouac tends to be revered among musicians. Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness, a 25-track tribute disc that effectively melds music with spoken word, features contributions from a number of music-industry giants. Though Ginsberg gives an expressive reading and several other Kerouac contemporaries show up, the reality is that you're going to buy this CD to hear the rock stars.

And most manage not to embarrass themselves. Patti Smith gives the Patti Smith treatment to "The Last Hotel," backed by Thurston Moore and Lenny Kaye. Eddie Vedder drones "Hymn" amid a whining guitar that circles like a pesky insect. Maggie Estep spews "Skid Row Wine" with punk venom, while John Cale reads "The Moon" with such reserve that it's almost buried under his somber, moving synthesizer score. Michael Stipe matter-of-factly reads "My Gang" and accompanies himself on organ with endearing ineptitude. Julianna Hatfield's perkiness, so grating in her music, is perfect here as she reads the storybook verse of "Silly Goofball Pomes." Other performers include Warren Zevon, Steven Tyler, Morphine, and Lee Ranaldo, who co-produced the album with Jim Sampras.

In concept, execution, and packaging, Kerouac is clearly a labor of love, a project that its honoree would have appreciated. It reminds us that poetry is actually a form of music, with rhythm and meter and tone. Truth is, this album makes pretty good background noise even if you aren't listening to the words. (Sorry, Jack).

-- Debbie Gilbert

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