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Counting Crows
Across a Wire: Live in New York
(Geffen)

Since the initial release of their wildly successful debut August and Everything After nearly five years ago, Counting Crows has managed only one other studio effort. But 1996's Recovering the Satellites justified the long wait, bringing a harder, more electric sound to singer Adam Duritz's evocative, highly personal songwriting. Now comes Across a Wire: Live in New York, a double-live set gleaned from performances on VH1's Storytellers and MTV's Live from the 10 Spot.

The 10 Spot set consists mostly of forgettable run-throughs of familiar songs, but some of the Storytellers tracks are dressed up in attractive new threads. A hypnotic riff anchors the stripped-down vocal-and-guitar version of "Round Here," and a low-key "Have You Seen Me Lately?" brings out Duritz's plaintive reflections on the high price of fame. Other performances, however, are ill-fitting, particularly a countrified take of the previously screaming "Angels of the Silences" and a melancholic rendering of "Rain King" that could send the perkiest cheerleader scrambling for Prozac.

But it's Duritz's vocal stylings that ultimately sap the power of most of the songs here, as he recites certain verses (a la Morrisons Van and Jim) more than sings them. Instead of blending his lyrics and melodies into the music, he forces them down the audience's throat. Evidently that's supposed to add to the drama and ambiance, but the result is overwrought and grating, nothing even the Crows' hard-core faithful need bother with as they wait for the band's next real recording venture.

-- Chris Duffy

John Forte
Poly Sci
(Ruffhouse)

There is a simultaneous attempt at a revolution and a sort of restoration taking place in hip-hop. The ascendancy of Sean "Puffy" Combs, and the commercial success and subsequent ubiquity of his musical style, has drawn a line in the sand; artists, despite their own visions, are seen to stand either for or against Puff Daddy. In his first solo LP, Poly Sci, Refugee Camp All Star John Forte has made it known where he stands. It's appropriate that Forte's work is titled Poly Sci: The dominance of R&B-style hip-hop (what De La Soul called "Rap and Bullshit") indicates the transformation of the people's mandate of the Hip-Hop Nation into a shady backroom deal that, instead of serving the public interest, offers empty promises and weak handshakes on election day.

Forte uses Poly Sci to promote a populism that attempts to return hip-hop to its most fundamental elements: life on the streets and fat beats. Forte does not betray the attitude of the MC as he proclaims his powers as a rhymer, lover, and leader of men, but the disc still gets off to a shaky start. "Hot," "They Got Me" (featuring Fat Joe and Destruct), "P. B. E.," "The Right One," and "We Got This" (featuring DMX) are fine, with steady, determined beats, but the lyrics are rote. Forte's determination to read the microcosm of street life in relation to macrocosmic sociopolitical circumstances, however, begins to shine through with his first single, "Ninety-Nine (Flash the Message)," which uses the vocal hook from Nena's Eighties pop hit "99 Luftballons."

On "Madina Passage" Forte sharpens the album's focus and fully articulates his vision. With its sly reference to the Middle Passage -- the transportation of abducted Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to enslavement in the West -- the song is a bottom-heavy journey through the bleak reality of modern inner-city life. "All You Gotta Do," meanwhile, serves notice to weak rappers that, in the end, brothers and sisters will be the judge of their work (as guest artist Jay-Z points out, "The streets are watching"). The final songs, "All F#cked Up," "Born to Win," and the title track, detail how dirty life can be for people striving in the urban underbellies of the United States.

For a freshman longplaying effort, Poly Sci offers a series of strong, well-developed statements by a rhymer who showed great promise in his appearance on Wyclef Jean's Carnival. Forte is deliberate, direct, and clear in his mission; his delivery further strengthens his beat-laden discourse on awareness, with catchy hooks that know samples to be what they are -- the use of a piece of someone else's music as a contribution to one's own, not so much karaoke backing for crossover piffle. This is the past aiding in the search for rap's future.

-- Charles Peterson

Charlie Feathers
Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69)
(Revenant)

He had a voice like a troubled angel, a piercing backwoods tenor that could turn even the most garden-variety honky-tonk lyric into something haunting and poetic, the hokiest rockabilly raveup into something otherworldly and weird. Sun Records guru Sam Phillips thought he could have been bigger than George Jones, and Phillips usually knew what he was talking about. Yet the long career of cantankerous Memphis rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers has been one of failure despite his having made some of the most beautiful and intense music in the city's history.

For years that music has been scattered among patchy compilations that forsook quality for completeness. Until now: The lavishly packaged, lovingly annotated Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954-69) is the first-ever collection to illustrate the full scope of Feathers's singular vision. Recently released by the Nashville-based Revenant label, the two-disc set rounds up issued recordings, unreleased demos, and alternate takes, pulling together all of his Memphis recordings for Flip (Sun's country-geared offshoot) and Meteor, as well as every single he cut for King, Kay, WalMay, and Holiday Inn. And from the weeping "Wedding Gown of White" and the stark and eerie solo demo "The Man in Love" to the rockabilly classics "One Hand Loose," "Tongue-Tied Jill," and "Bottle to the Baby," the set establishes Feathers as possibly the greatest cult figure -- and definitely one of the strangest -- that Fifties rock and roll ever produced.

Certainly he's among rockabilly's upper echelon. And for good reason. To hear Feathers tell it, he invented the swaggering blues/country hybrid on which much of Sun Records' fame is built. He taught a young Elvis Presley how to sing and play guitar, and it was he -- not Sam Phillips -- who came up with the idea of slapback, or tape-delayed reverb. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Given his penchant for hyperbole and self-importance, one never knows. This much, however, is true: Feathers was among the first white artists to record at Sun, and his early country sides from the mid-Fifties, while commercial flops, rank among the finest ever recorded at 706 Union Avenue. His straight rockabilly work, recorded after he jumped the Sun ship in 1956, didn't fare much better, although it defines the visceral, gutbucket power of the music as well as anything by Elvis or Carl Perkins.

And unlike Presley and Perkins, Feathers stuck with rockabilly throughout his career, recording in the Seventies and Eighties, often brilliantly, for any label that would have him. He remains the music's elder statesman and opinionated standard-bearer, although myriad health problems have kept him out of the studio and off the concert circuit for most of the Nineties. There's a slew of worthy later cuts that should have numbered among this set's 42 tracks, especially the just-nuts "Uh Huh Honey" and the gorgeous "Gone and Left Me Blues." Who knows? Maybe someday there'll be a volume two. Until then, Get With It is a marvelous tribute to an icon of the strange and the beautiful. (Revenant, P.O. Box 198732, Nashville, TN 37219-8732)

-- John Floyd

Mix Master Mike
Anti-Theft Device
(Asphodel)

This is the debut album from Mix Master Mike, a member of the Bay Area turntablist collective Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the Beastie Boys' choice for DJ on their 1998 tour. It's on the Asphodel label, which is owned by seasoned avant-garde instrumentalists Naut Humon and Mitzi Johnson. Asphodel staged a remarkable coming-out as patrons of the turntable arts with the release of last year's X-pressions, the first-ever studio project by New York's most revered DJ crew, the X-ecutioners. And with Anti-Theft Device, Humon and Johnson prove they're not just dabbling.

As befits the California DJ style, Mike's album is splashier and more dazzling, though less absorbing, than the New Yorkers'. The Mix Master scratches as fast as anyone save his fellow Skratch Pikl Q-Bert and, like him, favors a very wet, slippery needle sound. Unlike the X-ecutioners, who engage in the rhythmically disruptive practice of "beat juggling," Mike mostly scratches over steady drum loops. The instrumental backing tracks that serve as Mix Master Mike's band are danceable, even whimsical -- a tribute, no doubt, to the days of old-school hip-hop, when the vibe was always bright and the DJ was king. Mike peppers his album with scratched-up vocal samples not only from classic rap songs, but also from old sci-fi movies and TV shows, including Three's Company. He also shows an ability to craft more advanced, disorienting mixes: "Fur Coat," "Black Level Clearance," and the title track are particularly enveloping. (Asphodel, P.O. Box 51, Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113-0051)

-- Adam Heimlich

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