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Pulp
This Is Hardcore
(Island)

Jarvis Cocker's songs are much like Martin Amis's novels: The characters are distasteful, the situations sordid, the sex unsavory, and the humor cruel. It's an ugly picture of humankind stripped to the skivvies with its immorality dangling in the wind. Amis likes to hide his obvious titillation by this scene under a veil of proper English values, but Cocker, who fronts the synth-pop band Pulp, is tickled pink by it.

Cocker has been playing the detached debauchee for quite a few years now -- ever since 1979, in fact, when he formed what was then known as Arabacus Pulp as a teenager. Pulp's first introduction to America was an alluringly cheap disco song ("Do You Remember the First Time?") taken from the album His 'n' Hers (1994). "I don't care what you're doing/No, I don't care if you screw him," Cocker sang in an anguished voice. Different Class, released late in 1995, produced Pulp's first true smash hit in the United Kingdom, the working-class anthem "Common People." With his combination of pith and pathos, decadence and sentiment, the skinny 35-year-old Cocker has become one of the most popular singers in England. This Is Hardcore, Pulp's most recent effort, is filled with the standard overblown dramas and shameful episodes, and as usual it's Cocker's wicked humor that makes it all palatable. Only he could sing a love song that contains the lines, "You are like the last drink I never should have drunk/You are the body hidden in the trunk."

Pulp is basically a four-piece back-up band that plays romantic synth-rock while Cocker croons his sad songs, but This Is Hardcore reveals more musical experimentation than previous albums. "Help the Aged" tiptoes along like a public-service jingle as Cocker counsels, "Help the aged/One time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue." A cool xylophone introduces "The Dishes" while Cocker muses, "I'm not Jesus, though I have the same initials/I am the man who stays at home and does the dishes." He also stretches his normally limited vocal range, doing a delightful Bowie imitation on "Party Hard," purring into the microphone like Barry White on "Seductive Barry," and even rasping like Bob Dylan on "TV Movie."

The album's shining moment is the pornographic title track, which slithers along on a sampled horn riff like the theme from an old spy film. "Leave your makeup on/And I'll leave on the light," Cocker snarls. The song builds to an absolute crescendo of bad taste, with a tawdry string section swooning away behind Cocker's repugnant refrain, "And that goes in there/And that goes in there." It's a real piece of nastiness, but that's the essence of Pulp.

-- Rafer Guzman

Against All Authority
All Fall Down
(Hopeless)

This Miami-based quintet doesn't have a vocalist or bassist. Instead, as the liner notes to All Fall Down state, they have Danny Lore: "4 strings & a mouthful of fuck." And what a busy mouth it is. On Against All Authority's second full-length CD (the first was 1996's Destroy What Destroys You), Lore fires his venomous mouth with blinding speed and fury over seething punk power chords and deep ska grooves. Cranking out fifteen tracks in less than 30 minutes, Lore and his bandmates -- guitarist Joe Koontz, saxophonist Tim "Big Dawg" Coats, trumpeter Jeremy Kaiser, drummer Kris King -- launch the listener on a torrid trip through incest, murder, angst, anger, rebellion, and individualism.

From the opening title track, Against All Authority reminds you that the intensity of legendary Eighties Washington, D.C., hardcore/reggae pioneers Bad Brains burns deep in their soul. AAA replaces the reggae breaks of Bad Brains with funky, horn-accented ska while delivering their punk riffs and beats even faster and rougher than the D.C. outfit.

AAA's lyrics cover a broad range of topics -- from space probes to the dilemmas of life lived on the hustle -- but regardless of the subject matter, the messages are delivered with a wallop. On "12:00 a.m.," ska thumps crescendo as Lore snaps, "She doesn't know if she's gonna make it through the night/She don't care, she's sick 'n tired of this life/A car rolls up so she shakes her ass the best she can/5:00 a.m. in Goulds they found her stuffed in a garbage can." The word can explodes out of Lore's mouth accompanied by the sound of a screeching guitar and a rapid, rippling beat; then his voice grows angrier as he tears into the chorus: "Are you gonna play the roles society wrote for you?/Are you gonna play the roles?/Don't play the roles/Don't play the roles/Never play the roles."

That sums up the themes of All Fall Down -- never conform, keep an eye on the Man, and watch out for your friends. It's a homegrown ska-punk ride that would sound good no matter where it came from. (P.O. Box 7495, Van Nuys, CA 91409-7495)

-- Larry Boytano

Hieroglyphics
Third Eye Vision
(Hieroglyphics Imperium)

Aceyalone
The Book of Human Language
(Project Blowed Recordings)

When the definitive history of hip-hop is finally written, a group of contemporary artists -- a very loose consortium of vital preservationists known in rap lingo as the Underground -- will likely figure prominently. Among them: Oakland's Hieroglyphics and L.A.'s Aceyalone.

More than half of the former's nine-man crew has been through the music-biz mill. Del tha Funkee Homosapien was dropped by Elektra Records after his second album (1993's No Need for Alarm) flopped. His pal Casual recorded one LP for Jive (1994's Fear Itself) but was not invited to follow it up. The four-man group Souls of Mischief (A-Plus, Opio, Tajai, and Phesto Dee) recorded two albums for Jive (1993's '93 'til Infinity and 1995's No Man's Land) before they were axed. Back when they were in high school -- before any had made a record -- these rejected rappers formed the Hieroglyphics collective, and together they've staged a comeback that probably wouldn't have been possible individually. (It's worth noting, as Hieroglyphics must have done, that Wu-Tang Clan has followed a similar path.)

With Third Eye Vision, Hieroglyphics (Casual, Del, the four Souls of Mischief, plus Pop Love, Jaybiz, and Domino) proceed as if rap's mainstream crossover and subsequent dumbing-down never occurred, layering clever rhymes over dizzying beats. They come equipped. Del (he seems to have dropped "Tha Funkee Homosapien" from his name) proved himself a master of lingual flow on his overlooked 1991 debut I Wish My Brother George Was Here, and on Third Eye Vision he wastes no time re-establishing his uncanny rapping talents with some gleeful tempo changeups during the chorus of "The Who."

If the rest of the crew comes across as straining, it may be because none of them is possessed of such an unusual character. (Del, like Kool Keith of the Ultramagnetic MCs, seems to reside in the gray area between the gift of gab and the curse of mental illness.) Casual, for one, doesn't quite live up to his name -- his prose sounds labored. Phesto Dee makes for something of a novelty, rhyming slang-free with an SAT vocabulary. Opio similarly breaks with tradition in "Dumemethane" (as in "doin' my thang") when he does a whole verse of lines ending with "er," which he exaggerates rather than mispronounces New Yawk style. The others are virtually indistinguishable.

Yet they are easily distinguishable from the Mother Goose-style rappers who dominate the hip-hop airwaves, simply because the Hieroglyphics MCs have more to say, and strive to say it in as interesting a way as possible. Hieroglyphics' backing tracks too are infinitely more complex and absorbing than those of mainstream rap acts. While ostentatious hip-hop stars use music primarily as a springboard for egotistic fantasy, Hieroglyphics -- still heavily influenced by inventive new-school progenitors such as KRS-One and Ultramagnetic MCs -- demand a listener's engagement. Their skills -- trickster DJ cleverness and battle-rhyme mic prowess -- are formidable. The weakness of Third Eye Vision is that they speak only of those skills. Of course, that's the nature of the "classic" rap tradition the crew reveres. But on "Oakland Blackouts," when Del momentarily breaks from the bragging routine to rhyme "platypuses" with "data pushes," it's clear that Hieroglyphics is using a sledgehammer of imagination to pound a few wealthy ants. Third Eye Vision, for the most part, raises the question of where, besides back to the mid-Nineties, hip-hop should go next.

In contrast to Hieroglyphics, who enjoy a dedicated international following nurtured by the group's well-maintained Website (www.hieroglyphics.com), Aceyalone is based in a largely undiscovered wing of the Underground, one with roots in the spoken-word poetry scene. His highly original 1995 solo debut All Balls Don't Bounce on Capitol Records garnered praise in some national magazines, although not enough, apparently, to earn him a crack at a followup. Unfazed, on the triumphant The Book of Human Language he devotes his melodic verse to subjects far removed from the rap game. They are, in fact, so far removed that it's difficult to ascertain what Aceyalone is trying to say here. At the start he's on about "attempts to redefine your hip-hop guidelines," then in the middle he recites Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," and by the end he's concerned with a blurrily metaphoric "the hunter and the hunted." Aceyalone demonstrates the sort of creative courage and open-mindedness that Hieroglyphics lacks, but his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp.

But before, after, and during Aceyalone's periodic forays into poetic pretension (why do spoken-word artists always seem to think that repetition makes a deep line deeper?), his producer Mumbles upstages him. The latter's mixes toy with nuance and dissonance, galvanizing their subtle power in fiercely hypnotic beats. He understands that sampling a jazz piano break and looping it is not enough; and he comprehends the original compositions from which he draws. So while Aceyalone indulges himself on a diatribe such as "The Hunt," the track gains its real thrust from a measure of the Coltrane Quartet igniting an evening at the Village Vanguard. The inspired lyric whimsy of "The Grandfather Clock" is endowed with an even looser instrumental swing by Mumbles. And when Aceyalone is at his best, on the album-ending "Human Language," Mumbles is too. The producer's contribution to the song evokes nothing less than the smoky basement venues where East-leaning ensembles first began exploring the squonking frontier of meditative jazz. (Hieroglyphics Imperium, 8300 Golf Links Rd., Oakland, CA 94605; Project Blowed Recordings, 4343 Liemert Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90008.)

-- Adam Heimlich

Ani DiFranco
Little Plastic Castle
(Righteous Babe)

Ani DiFranco began as an outspoken, provocative, endlessly touring cult fave whose truly independent ways showed what "alternative" really meant, even if her songwriting had a tendency to be redundant. She turned into something rare: an excellent guitarist and an inventive singer-songwriter whose name is not preceded by the word country or traditionalist. She adamantly refuses, no matter how desperately courted, to become part of the corporate music world and releases all of her CDs on her own Righteous Babe label.

Her Not a Pretty Girl (1995) remains a perfect gem whose title track opens with the smartest lines about a woman's relationship to her appearance: "I am not a pretty girl/That is not what I do." But DiFranco's not limited to upright indignation. She has regularly expressed on her albums a poignant, nonsexualized tenderness, and she's a master of lyrics that fall somewhere between laughing and spitting. The combination of self-deprecation and disgust makes you smile, and it can be absolutely, cathartically satisfying.

A guitar player I know once described DiFranco's technique as "hardcore flatpicking," percussive and forceful, but her melodies often have a smooth groove. She heightened the sultry, danceable side on 1996's Dilate, and on her current release she alternates the grooves with an acoustic guitar assault. The title track of Little Plastic Castle features a funky backbeat punched through by horns. "Pixie" undulates with moody tape loops under gentle, get-over-it lyrics ("Maybe you don't like your job/Maybe you didn't get enough sleep/Well, nobody likes their job/... so just suck up and be nice").

Elsewhere, a great guitar-picking moment occurs on "Gravel," an old song improved here. That can't be said for the album as a whole. Almost everything on Little Plastic Castle has been done before -- and done better -- by DiFranco. Plus there are a couple of real missteps, including "Swan Dive," which boasts some interesting stuttering rhythms but goes on too long, and "Glass House," whose wah-wah guitar sounds frighteningly like a mediocre Eighties hit.

DiFranco's moods and methods can be fascinating. Despite some bright, head-turning moments, though, this album doesn't show her in top form. (P.O. Box 95, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY 14205)

-- Theresa Everline


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