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Big Trouble in the Mystery House of Joy
The Fool
(The Fool Records)

For two years running, this New York quartet has played the H.O.R.D.E. tour, without so much as an indie label deal. Nice trick, huh? Wanna know how they do it? Well, it certainly doesn't hurt that singer/songwriter Ben Lewis is best buds with Blues Traveler and H.O.R.D.E. founder John Popper.

Fortunately, Fool proves worthy of the high-profile gig on this bracing debut. From the bluesy thump of "Little Red Rooster" to the jazz-tinged squiggling of "Spaceman," Big Trouble hops genres without losing the rootsy groove that anchors the band. "Black Molly" provides a showcase for guitarist Chad Sonenberg, whose lilting solos call to mind the syncopated runs of Santana. Coming in at two and a half minutes (half the length of the average Fool composition), "Bent" is the group's only conscious stab at a pop song, and the results are remarkably radio-friendly: fat hook, prettified vocal harmonies, and a chiming guitar that all but screams Duran Duran.

It would be overstating the case to call Fool a daringly original act. Let's face it, roots rock ranks as pretty strip-mined terrain at this point. But the foursome's finest efforts ("That Man Is Me," say, or "Brunhilda") do manage to invigorate the genre by infusing it with a gentle pop sensibility, while never sacrificing the percussive power of the bottom end. Credit the band also with a rather large set of balls. Dead set against signing an iffy label deal, the foursome has self-released Big Trouble. Copies can (and should) be obtained by calling 212-539-3665, or e-mailing the band at fool@REDDESIGN.COM.

-- STEVEN ALMOND

BEG, SCREAM & SHOUT!
VARIOUS ARTISTS
(RHINO)

EXTRAVAGANCE IN PACKAGING IS NO VICE, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE MEDIUM SO PERFECTLY CAPTURES THE MUSICAL MESSAGE. THIS SIX-CD COLLECTION ARRIVES IN A MOCKUP OF 45 SINGLES AND HOUSED IN ONE OF THOSE CARRYING CASES THAT WERE THE IN THINGS FOR LATE-SIXTIES SINGLES BUYERS. OF COURSE, IT'S WHAT'S IN THE GROOVES, OR THE DIGITAL BITSTREAM, THAT COUNTS, AND THE SELECTIONS ON BEG, SCREAM & SHOUT! ARE MASTERFULLY CHOSEN. UNLIKE RHINO'S EXCELLENT BUT SOMEWHAT PREDICTABLE R&B BOX, THIS SOUL COLLECTION STRIKES A BETTER BALANCE BETWEEN WELL-KNOWN HITS AND ARTISTS AND GREAT SIDES BY SECOND-TIER ACTS. THIS APPROACH ALLOWS FOR MORE SURPRISES OVER THE COURSE OF THE WHOPPING 144 TRACKS, ALMOST ALL OF WHICH ARE PRESENTED IN SINGLE-MIX MONO. TUNES HALF-REMEMBERED, TOO-LITTLE HEARD, AND NEVER HEARD AT ALL ARE HERE; TAKEN TOGETHER THEY COMPOSE AN INDELIBLE CROSS SECTION OF SOUL. EVEN THE MOST FAMILIAR TUNES ARE THROWN INTO RELIEF BY THE JUMBLE OF ERAS AND STYLES. WHETHER PRESENTING THE LEGENDS (JAMES, ARETHA, OTIS), UNJUSTLY FORGOTTEN STARS (JOE SIMON, TYRONE DAVIS), OR GREAT ONE- AND TWO-SHOT VOICES (BRENTON WOOD, THE SOUL BROTHERS SIX, THE FLIRTATIONS), THE SET ZOOMS ALONG ON SMART SELECTIONS.

A FEW GRAND DISCOVERIESo Otis Clay's "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)," which begins with the singer imploring, "Please, somebody take your hand and slap some sense in me"; C & the Shells' Jerry Williams-penned "You Are the Circus (I Am the Clown)"; and original versions of "Tainted Love" (Gloria Jones), "Mustang Sally" (by its author, Sir Mack Rice), "Piece of My Heart" (Erma Franklin), "He Was Really Sayin' Something" (the Velvelettes), and "Leaving Here" (Eddie Holland). This may be the most consistently revelatory reissue of the year. It's damn sure one of the most fun.

-- Rickey Wright

Max Levinson
Max Levinson
(N2K Encoded Music)

In a time when young classical musicians use either gimmicks or their looks to sell CDs, pianist Max Levinson relies on nothing more than good taste, intelligence, and talent to make his debut CD a smashing and deserved success. Instead of presenting a collection of showy trifles, Levinson programs works by Brahms (Variations on an Original Theme), Schumann (Papillons), Schoenberg (Six Little Pieces), and Kirchner (Five Pieces for Piano) that complement each other and create a coherent progression of ideas.

Levinson shows that "modern" music, as exemplified by Schoenberg (1911) and Kirchner (1987), was not simply found under a rock one morning early in this century; it developed naturally both as a tribute to and a reaction against the likes of Brahms and Schumann, who in turn were following Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But this recording is no mere history lesson -- Levinson's playing is vibrant, and his fingers untie Kirchner's tightest knots as easily as they caress Schumann's romantic soul. The clarity and depth of the recording itself are phenomenal. Elizabeth Ostrow produced it, and Phil Ramone, of all people, was the executive producer.

Levinson, who is 25, has won many international awards and is just completing a summer tour of major music festivals in Switzerland, New Mexico, and California. Not one to shy away from technology, he participated in an unusual "cybercast" (www.classicalinsites. com) from New York City's Steinway Hall this June. These performances, teamed with a breathtaking first album, confirm Max Levinson as a pianist of timeless talent. It won't be long until everyone who knows classical piano knows his name.

-- Raymond Tuttle

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