Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
(Ark 21)

For decades Los Angeles has been a center of American punk rock and its descendent genres. And for much longer the city has been a focal point for Latin culture in the United States. But while the pairing of the two would seem a natural, to date only Los Lobos have been able to earn a place in the rock world by bridging the distance that separates East L.A. from Sunset Strip. It is, after all, a sprawling metropolis.

In the fallout from California's Proposition 187 -- which threatens to further distance immigrant communities from mainstream culture -- two bands from opposite sides of L.A. have joined together in solidarity to explore what happens when you very consciously attempt to mix Hollywood-style hard rock (and occasional eclecticism) with the proud voices and musical styles of the barrio. And so we have a musical collaboration between two veteran Angeleno bands: Concrete Blonde and Los Illegals.

Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals is a good move for both groups. For Los Illegals, the CD provides national exposure the four-piece hasn't enjoyed since it released a major-label record in 1983. For Concrete Blonde -- which consisted of singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano and guitarist Jim Mankey for more than a decade until they thought they had called it quits a few years back -- the disc is perhaps the first consistently good album the band has ever made. Whether on the update of the traditional "La Llorona" or the rocking cover of the Gypsy Kings' "Caminando" or the punk speedster "Xich vs. the Migra Zombies," rock elements (guitars that crunch and riff or scream in solos) constantly intermingle with Latin touches (flamenco guitar, rapid handclaps). Words shift freely between English and Spanish -- sung by both Napolitano and Los Illegals -- and cover subjects as timeless and tragic as Woody Guthrie's migrant lament "Deportee" or as timely and hilarious as the O.J.-inspired "Ode to Rosa Lopez," which features the lines, "You're the ultimate subversive, Rosa/Dressing down in your moth-eaten jumpsuit to make Marcia Clark look like the petty yuppie she is." Take that, Pete Wilson.

-- Roni Sarig

Robyn Hitchcock
Uncorrected Personality Traits: The Robyn Hitchcock Collection
(Rhino Records)

Always be suspicious of retrospectives, like Bob Dylan's Biograph and Prince's The Hits, that aren't sequenced in chronological order. That usually indicates an artist whose best work is somewhere in the middle and whose later work proves too anticlimactic to provide a satisfactory set-closer. In the case of Robyn Hitchcock, whose lyrical potpourri of fish imagery, insect-egg hatching, first-thing-that-pops-in-your-head rhymes, and vegetable matter is a career constant, linear progression is probably a moot point.

While the man himself approved the song selection and included amusing anecdotes on each, works like "Bass" and "Queen Elvis II" seem slight compared to missing classics like "Brenda's Iron Sledge" and "Leppo and the Jooves." You're better off revisiting Black Snake Diamond Role, Groovy Decay, or even the live Gotta Let This Hen Out! in their entirety, albums that capture the extent of Hitchcock's obsessions at a given moment, than sampling this sprawling harvest from nine albums. Far from winning him any new converts, this collection doesn't even make a compelling case for his cult status.

-- Serene Dominic

Various Artists
Lesbian Favorites: Women Like Us
(Rhino)

There's nothing in the closet about this theme compilation. And bravo to that. Unlike so many projects aimed at passing in the dominant hetero market, Lesbian Favorites scorns the concept of subtlety. In addition to the name, the CD booklet is filled with flirty and informative art and essays.

The album's eighteen tracks are just as sassy -- and sensual. Jill Sobule's delightful anthem "I Kissed a Girl" with its thrumming guitar and poppy keyboard fills gives way to Ani DiFranco's defiant, hard-strumming "In and Out," a fantastic example of DiFranco's daring style. Gretchen Phillips's endlessly amusing "Swimming" begins as a throaty, sensual homage, builds to a full-throttle love chant, and closes with a hilarious spoken word. ("I find it sort of almost endlessly fascinating," Phillips notes dryly. "You could say I'm compelled beyond belief.")

Bad girl Sandra Bernhard weighs in with a thoroughly danceable version of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Ahh, Sandra; sassy, sassy Sandra. She can't resist editorializing over the song, of course, nor altering the lyrics to suit her gender of choice. Though you might not be fired up to buy a whole album of music by Wendy and Lisa or Taylor Dane, their songs ("Strung Out" and "I'll Be Your Shelter," respectively) sound positively fresh on this compilation. Other standouts include Jane Siberry's "Temple" and Two Nice Girls' wry, countrified tale of hetero backsliding, "I Spent My Last $10 (On Birth Control and Beer)."

There is a lightheartedness to this record; it manages to convey the interdependency of song, dance, storytelling, heartache, passion, camaraderie, and, let's not forget, sex. A wonderful collection for women who like women, and for people who like terrific songs.

-- Camille Dungy

Everclear
So Much for the Afterglow
(Capitol)

Art Alexakis is a walking tangle of contradictions, a driven (some say overdriven) ex-drug addict prone to getting snared by life's extremes -- black and white, good and bad, happy and sad, living and dead. As passionate and unsparing as he is in his opinions, though, he has never been afraid to play the pragmatist when it counted, even if that involved selling out. In other words, he's the perfect Nineties frontman -- and the relentless, Nirvanatized heavy rock of his West Coast power trio Everclear is his perfect foil.

Success can do a number on a band's reputation, and in Everclear's case all it took was one glorious single for the backlash to come riding up Alexakis's ass. That song -- from 1995's Sparkle and Fade -- was "Santa Monica," a liberating fusillade of teeth-rattling volume, pop smarts, and sheer willpower backed by a chant-along chorus that stood the test of repetition. The tune was a heady tonic for radio's postgrunge blahs, and predictably, what was left of Everclear's underground credibility was flushed down the crapper with it. It didn't help that Alexakis played, more vocally than most, the part of the street-smart entrepreneur with an eye on the bottom line.

On So Much for the Afterglow Alexakis struggles -- and fails -- to come to terms with his newly acquired good fortune. And while Everclear deserves credit for cannily advertising its predicament (one that has become distressingly common in the fickle alt-rock marketplace), the most enticing thing about this followup is, alas, its title. Melodies skate by without a hint of authority, and power chords pummel but fail to deliver a decisive blow; as one midtempo charge from drummer Greg Eklund segues into another, the effect is almost anesthetizing.

Alexakis tries to air out his pop sensibilities (prefab Beach Boys harmonizing ushers in the release's first track, but mostly his efforts come up contrived (e.g., the awkward string accompaniment on "Amphetamine" and "Like a California King"). Like some lonely beatnik millionaire trying in vain to smother his material ambitions with halfhearted melancholy and last-minute regrets, he bumps his shins on one bad rags-to-riches cliche after another. "He'd sell his soul/To make the monster dance," he sings over a signature marching-band rhythm peppered with horns. "They can't hurt you unless you let them." Sure.

Truth is, Everclear followed its own advice to the letter. They came, they conquered, they basked, however briefly. Now they want to take it all back. Too late. These days, the fade is as inevitable as the sparkle.

-- Hobart Rowland

Coolio
My Soul
(Tommy Boy)

40 Thevz
Honor Amongst Thevz
(Mercury)

Jesus had his apostles, King Arthur his Knights of the Round Table, Sinatra his Rat Pack. Throughout history, whenever iconoclasts have surfaced in search of their true calling (though I hardly think Sinatra ever thought of it on that cosmic a scale; he was happy singing songs and shagging starlets), they've looked to the support of a small caravan of loyal backers. Hip-hop is no exception. Virtually every hot rapper has a crew of sycophants who want to share in (and ride the coattails of) their leader's success. Problem is, when these acolytes spin off into their own projects, the results usually blow.

Enter Coolio and his trusty sidekicks 40 Thevz. Coolio's been battling a bit of a street-cred backlash since the release of his 1995 sophomore smash Gangsta's Paradise, and with the new My Soul he lashes out at his detractors. The disc may not be as note-perfect a commercial enterprise as Paradise, but it still bristles with irrepressible Coolio intelligence, empathy, and pep. The CD's best moments are its funkiest. Those include "2 Minutes and 21 Seconds of Funk" (in which Coolio barks, "My name ain't Rick James/But I'll burn your ass with fire"), "Throwdown 2000," "Let's Do It" (both as hysterical as they are propulsive), and "One Mo'," which cribs brilliantly from the Roger Troutman school of groove. As long as Coolio keeps exhibiting vibrancy and class of the sort that dominates My Soul (what other rapper would sample Pachelbel's Canon in D?), bad-mouthing him will continue to be as trivial an exercise as sticking up for Hammer.

As for Honor Amongst Thevz, it's all slink and slide, with Coolio's back-up posse reveling in a retro-rhythmic charm all its own. "Tennis Shoe Pimpin'" and "Let My Mind Be Free" have 40 Thevz dishing out an updated version of Sugar Hill Gang-era roller-disco rap and funk. There are a few rough patches, especially when the bloated, if somewhat ironic, message track "Thank God the Children" threatens to spoil the party mood. But overall, Honor proves that talent can be contagious from leader to followers.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

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