The Notorious B.I.G.
Life After Death
(Bad Boy)

Though the Notorious B.I.G.'s debut offered a portrait of rich potential snuffed by despair, Life After Death fights such despair hard, from beginning to end. This epic of an album begins with a horrific death scene (a father repeatedly plugged in the back while holding his baby daughter), and the rest of the album tries to find a way to live past this point. The album- ending cut, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," begins with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm.

The late Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Small) was an artist committed to the fighters of what he repeatedly called "the struggle." When Wallace offers "The Ten Crack Commandments" in the middle of the album, he is simply giving advice for working the system, a system that thrives on dope slangin', from the streets to the tops of corporate high-rises. In "Notorious Thugs" he asks of such players outside the ghetto, "You tell me, who is worse?" In "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" he lays out his gangsta vision: "The green tempts me to make the rich the enemy ... make my faculty live happily ever after."

The five songs that close the album throw hands up against the divisive hysteria ripping the rap community apart. In particular, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" shouts out, "We're not talking 'bout no other rappers!" In fact, the album consciously features a community of musicians from both coasts and the Midwest.

After all, music is the lifeline the album celebrates. Life After Death offers panoramic sound with washes and blasts of keyboard and vocals jumping out of every inch of the canvas, all of this shifting over a dark, buoyant bottom. This wide-angle vision offers a big rounded musical world, both masculine and feminine. Though the album is often tainted by misogyny, the life-affirming grace of women informs cut after cut, from lyrical references to the Crystals to repeated samples of Diana Ross and guest vocals by, most notably, Angela Winbush, Lil' Kim, and Faith Evans. It is also worth noting that women often provide the conscience of the album, whether as the victims in "Somebody's Gotta Die" or the second verse of "Miss U," or as the voice of Biggie's own mother at the beginning of "Sky's the Limit."

The three stories that end the first disc affect the way a listener must hear the rest of the album. "Niggas Bleed" offers gritty violence against menacing strings and harpsichord, while "I Got a Story to Tell" repeats the same story twice, differently, although against the same light, acoustic guitar riffs -- once with heart-stopping suspense, then with ribald humor. These narratives showcase Wallace's rapid-fire imagery and facility of tone, which highlight every cut on the album. At the same time, they reveal the power of rap as storytelling and as therapy, as a means to understanding and as a way to give meaning to life.

-- Danny Alexander

Breaking the Ethers

Question: What do you get when you take members from several radio-friendly kinda-alternative bands and throw them into a studio together?

Answer: Music you will never hear on the radio, because (a) it's all instrumental and (b) it's far too original.

Tuatara is a new Seattle supergroup comprising Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), Justin Harwood (Luna), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and Skerik (Critters Buggin). Others who sit in on Breaking the Ethers include Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos). All seem to base their participation on a shared tenet: There are dozens of musical instruments in the world, so why confine yourself to the basic three?

Nowhere is that philosophy more clear than on the title cut, which employs instruments obscure even to the musically schooled. (Extra credit goes to anyone who can describe what a bullroarer is.) The track begins with an ominous hum like a horde of locusts, then slides into what could be an accompaniment to the mushroom-ritual scene in Altered States. And it's not the only tune with cinematic potential: "Saturday Night Church" would fit perfectly as the soundtrack to some really cool independent film.

Each of the album's eleven compositions gives a different instrument a chance to shine. "Smoke Rings" features marimbas -- both the standard variety and a more resonant bass kind; "The Desert Sky" is sitar-dominated; "Land of Apples" is sweetened by the crystal-glass shimmer of a harmonium; and "The Getaway" blends two assertive saxophones with quirky upright bass and a pair of electric guitars (one of the few instances where a nonacoustic instrument is used).

Breaking the Ethers manages to embrace world music without succumbing to the vapidness of the new-age genre. Every piece has personality, from the mystical "Eastern Star" to the Latin-flavored "Goodnight La Habana" to the dueling drums and congas of "Burning the Keys." One can only wish that the members of Tuatara were allowed this degree of creative freedom within their own respective bands.

-- Debbie Gilbert

Muddy Waters
(Def Jam Music Group)

The third longplayer from Reggie Noble -- a.k.a. Redman -- is his most fully realized. Redman, who for his rare combination of wit, magnetism, and other-worldly strangeness could be hip-hop's David Bowie, brings Muddy Waters his regal, self-effacing combination of humor and social commentary reminiscent of Slick Rick's best work. "I smoke with a lotta college students/Most of 'em wasn't graduatin' and they knew it," he kicks on "Whateva Man." The hilarious pseudo-blaxploitation romp "Soopaman Luva 3" includes an unexpected visit by the old EPMD flame Jane, and concludes abruptly with Red giving Parrish Smith "a two-piece with a biscuit." "Pick It Up," "Smoke Buddah," and "Do What You Feel" are typical of Erick Sermon's understated and underrated funk prowess on the boards. And having Keith Murray, K-Solo, and Method Man all doing cameos doesn't hurt the album any either.

Redman has set himself apart and carved a nice spot in the hip-hop market for two reasons: First, unlike most rap artists, he is a performer first, a recording artist second, and this is clearly evident on Muddy Waters. Second, he embodies what George Clinton once said: "Funk is whatever it needs to be, at the time that it is." Redman doesn't try to make it happen, he just lets it happen.

-- Jesse Ballinger

Gene Watson
The Good Ole Days
(Step One Records)

From 1975 to '85, Gene Watson was as successful on the country charts as almost any singer going, a particularly impressive feat since his singles were unabashed honky-tonk in the period when country-pop was giving way to country-rock. During his good old days, traditionalist Watson dropped just enough contemporary touches into his music to remain vital in increasingly untraditional times. Always an accomplished singer with an achingly earnest tenor, he outdid himself on his finest moment of all, 1977's "Farewell Party," where his voice soared with an anguish as exquisite as any in all of country music.

Watson hasn't been so lucky in the days of Garth and Brooks & Dunn, so perhaps in keeping with the title of his latest album, he has chosen to re-record a few of his earlier hits. The results are mixed. On "Love in the Hot Afternoon" and "I Don't Need a Thing at All," both Top 10 hits in the mid-Seventies, the original versions have been recreated so exactingly that the differences seem irrelevant. On the other hand, "Speak Softly (You're Talking to My Heart)," a 1982 hit, has been recast altogether. The hot pickin' and front-porch groove of the original have been traded for the big drums and barrelhouse piano of hot new country. These compromises, behind Watson's great voice, create a moment far superior to what typically passes for "hot" these days. One new cut, "The Man That Broke Your Heart," pulls off a similar trick: If Alan Jackson recorded the same song in the same rocking arrangement, he'd have himself another chart topper. Too bad then that Watson, at (just) 53 years of age, has about as much chance of cracking today's young country formats as Grandpa Jones.

But Watson doesn't need to relive past triumphs or update his sound to create great music. His voice and phrasing on a trio of fine Western swing numbers here are impeccable, diminished only by horn arrangements nearer to Doc Severinsen than Bob Wills. The steel-guitar-fueled "Getting Over You Again" is simply flawless honky-tonk and best of all, the desperate "Change Your Mind" has Watson begging Jesus to turn the heart of a departed lover in a performance that's nearly the equal of "Farewell Party." On these cuts Watson proves that what he sings in the title track is dead on: "The good ol' days are right now."

-- David Cantwell


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