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Lenny Kravitz
5
(Virgin)

Poor, poor, pitiful Lenny Kravitz. He has spent the better part of the past ten years -- and five full-length albums -- carefully crafting an artistic persona that, upon close examination, amounts essentially to little more than a cartoon character: the supersensitive, superfunky, supersonic, superstudly superstar. To judge from his recent thirteen-track 5 -- "produced, written, performed, and arranged by Lenny Kravitz," the CD sleeve informs -- he seems blissfully oblivious of his innate ridiculousness. When he's not slouching his way through barely percolating midtempo mush ("I Belong to You") and barely alive slow-jam gruel ("Thinking of You," "If You Can't Say No"), he's mouthing half-inch-deep, connect-the-dots hippie slogans ("Live," "Take Time") that finally answer Nick Lowe's musical question "What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?" The let-love-rule, Lennycentric universe also brims with hollow self-empowerment declarations ("Fly Away") and soft-core wet dreams ("Black Velveteen"). It all adds up to an unintentional giggle.

For much of the album, Kravitz, who plays guitar, drums, bass, and various keyboards -- augmented by occasional outside assistance -- stitches together swatches of Seventies funk, constructing skeletal riffs but seldom actually composing a full-fledged, full-bodied song. Echoes of Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, James Brown, the Chi-Lites, Sly Stone, L.T.D., among others, filter through these half-tunes, but nothing sticks to a particular cut's ribs. On the mortifying "You're My Flavor," he apes Abbey Road rock without capturing its acute essence. More tellingly, on the swaggering space opera "Supersoulfighter," Kravitz inadvertently identifies his true muse, a rock lifer who has similarly fashioned a career out of, uh, appropriation: Steve Miller.

-- Michael Yockel

Ben Folds Five
Naked Baby Photos
(Caroline)

After smashing into the pop consciousness with the hit single "Brick," Ben Folds Five, Chapel Hill's favorite misnamed trio, is back with a not-quite-new disc. Naked Baby Photos, a collection of unreleased singles, live performances, and improvisations, is an exuberant if uneven compendium that should seal the band's title as the undisputed champs of Goof Rock. Witness "Satan Is My Master," a loungey number in which Folds tickles out a treacly piano melody while sweetly crooning his devotion to Lucifer. Or "For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fannie Packs," a studio improv that allows drummer Darren Jessie and bassist Robert Sledge to lay down a groove worthy of Rage Against the Machine while all three holler hilariously dorky non sequiturs.

Unfortunately, the live material on the album is a bit of a letdown. To denizens of the North Carolina club scene -- as well as to those lucky fans who caught them on last year's H.O.R.D.E. tour -- the Five is widely regarded as a killer live band, capable of jaw-dropping extended jams. Few of the performances here, however, vary significantly from recorded versions. "Julianne" has a deliciously snaky bossa nova intro, but soon reverts to its original cluttered tempo. "Song for the Dumped" opens with a hopeful, cacophonous burst, but it's essentially the same bitter anthem that emerged from the studio.

Much like the live stuff, the new recordings here are spotty. The peppy "Tom & Mary" is pleasing enough, and the ballad "Twin Falls" showcases Folds at his most affecting, allowing his thin tenor to rise above the tinkling of a lovely, melancholy melody. While these cuts make for pleasant listening -- Folds seems incapable of writing a melody that isn't at least infectious -- you can see why they should've never left the studio.

-- Steve Almond

Q-Burns Abstract Message
Oeuvre
(Astralwerks)

Q-Burns Abstract Message, a.k.a. Michael Donaldson, is Florida's very own ambassador to the United Nations of Electronic Dance Music. All seven of the early singles compiled for this EP release -- a prelude to Q-Burns's forthcoming debut full-lengther, expected this fall -- were recorded at Orlando's Eighth Dimension studio. His style doesn't exactly sound a world away from that of Brit labelmates Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, but something about the feel of his mixes does evoke top-down rides beneath canopies laden with Spanish-moss while a thunderstorm brews on the horizon.

Like most practitioners of digital funk, Q-Burns relies heavily on repetition, valuing a slow buildup of rhythmic energy more than the dramatic arc of a pop song. His drum machine tempos are upbeat, but they never lapse into the relentless thump of jungle. Melodically, he's subtle: Though Oeuvre can sound intense at high volumes, as background music it's suitably unobtrusive. All tracks but one ("Bugeyed Sunglasses," which contains spoken-word samples) are instrumentals; several clock in at more than seven minutes.

Though not as enamored of hip-hop as many of the artists on England's Mo' Wax or Ninja Tune labels (DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, the Herbaliser), Q-Burns is not only a studio sound sculptor; he's also a turntablist. The song title "Cue Burn" refers to needle wear on records that have undergone a lot of counterclockwise scratching. But cutting is just another wing in Q-Burns's house of mirrors; it seldom disrupts the song's momentum.

For the most part, the tracks on Oeuvre seem to start and end in the same mood, be it mystical ("Enter/Other"), whimsical ("Puff the Magic"), or detached ("Toast"). To follow along is to approach a slower, warmer consciousness. (Astralwerks, 104 W. 29th St., 4th fl., New York, NY 10001)

-- Adam Heimlich

Dwight Yoakam
A Long Way Home
(Reprise)

Don Walser
Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In
(Watermelon/Sire)

It's sacrilege to admit this in many circles, but I've always been suspect of Dwight Yoakam's supposed genius. It's not the fact that he has effortlessly crossed over into the rock mainstream while countless superior artists -- Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, and Iris DeMent, to name just three -- have to make do with meager sales and critical acclaim. It's not that his records adhere to any sort of cheap formula. Hell, the guy's tried everything from pseudoconcept albums to punk covers, from rockabilly to re-creations of the Bakersfield sound. Although he's never quite pulled any of them off, that kind of artistic stretching in itself is rare among major-label country artists. (Can you imagine George Strait even thinking about tearing into a bluegrass version of the Clash's "Train in Vain"?) And from his '86 debut to the new A Long Way Home, Yoakam has always had a white-hot band and straight-razor-sharp album production, thanks on both counts to his long-time guitarist/ bandleader and knob-twiddler Pete Anderson.

In fact, until recently I wasn't really sure why I couldn't throw my allegiance entirely into the Yoakam camp. I always figured it had something to do with the misogynist mean streak that runs through much of his writing, but anyone who's heard Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" knows male understanding isn't always easy to find in the annals of honky-tonk. After spending some time with A Long Way Home, though, I've figured it out: It's the voice, that pinched, forced, wholly unconvincing twang-and-drawl, which has about as much in common with great country singing as Barbra Streisand does with rip-it-up rock and roll. (Don't believe me? Go back to his 1988 duet with Buck Owens on "Streets of Bakersfield" and hear for yourself. Or for that matter, his first hit, a hapless cover of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man.")

Throughout this new set -- a typically bracing melange of vintage country's various strains -- Yoakam whines with lots of style and little substance, a pathetic squandering of Anderson's sharp work in the studio and behind the boards. And as for that mean streak, it reaches a hateful peak with "The Curse," which, sadly, fits Yoakam's in-song persona as well as those fancy leather pants he's wearing in the disc-tray photo.

Wanna hear a real country singer? Pick up Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, the second album by Don Walser. A sixtysomething honky-tonker from Texas, Walser has a voice that's nothing close to perfect but is perfectly suited for his own rocking originals (see the fiery "Hot Rod Mercury") and sentimental chestnuts ranging from Jimmie Rodgers's "In My Dear Old Southern Home" to Irving Berlin's "Marie." As on his very fine 1996 debut Texas Top Hand, the endlessly charming Walser is surrounded by some of the greatest country players on the planet, including ace guitarists Ray Benson and Scott Walls and piano master Floyd Domino.

But Walser isn't a stuffy traditionalist: On the lovely set-closer "Rose Marie" he collaborates with the avant-garde classical group Kronos Quartet. And if Yoakam showed his fine taste in history by pairing himself with Buck Owens, Walser has an even better ear for the future. What he and remarkable newcomer Mandy Barnett do with the Louvin Brothers' "Are You Teasing Me" is breathtakingly beautiful.

-- John Floyd

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