Various Artists
America Is Dying Slowly
(Red Hot/Eastwest)

After releasing seven successful AIDS benefit compilations that focus on genres ranging from dance and jazz to indie rock and country, the Red Hot Organization has put out its first hip-hop record: America Is Dying Slowly (note the acronym). But with African Americans accounting for 60 percent of the country's AIDS cases, and AIDS now the number-one cause of death for Americans 25 to 44, you'd think an album like this would have happened sooner. Apparently, though, it took the AIDS-related death last year of rapper Eazy-E to awaken the hip-hop community to the problem.

While many of America Is Dying Slowly's tracks do not mention AIDS at all, it's surprising how many do. Unlike past non-rap Red Hot projects, which were more about raising funds than awareness, the conversational quality of rap allows it to address the issues directly without sounding awkward or preachy. While making us dance and laugh, Domino tells us to "Sport That Raincoat" and Biz Markie, Chubb Rock, and Prince Paul offer the collaborative warning "No Rubber, No Backstage Pass." But the messages sent are not always on the mark: There are bits of the usual conspiracy theories (in care of Mobb Deep) and entirely too much finger pointing at "nasty ho's" (Sadat X, Fat Joe, and Diamond D.) and "no-good ho's" (Spice 1, Celly Cel, and Ant Banks).

But the compilation also delivers sensitivity and subtlety from some of the more unlikely places. Wu-Tang Clan's title track, for instance, limps along with a simple two-chord piano loop that makes for some of the most melancholic hip-hop ever created. And adding to the various viewpoints offered here, Eightball and MJG offer "Listen to Me Now," with a rap that comes from the virus's perspective. Appropriate; AIDS, after all, has long been the most ruthless and indiscriminate gangsta in town.

-- Roni Sarig

Legs and Arms

About all I ask of a band is a songwriter with a knack for melody and a good enough rhythm section to shake my skinny, nonrhythmic ass. The rest is, like, gravy, you know? Which makes this fetching debut the musical equivalent of a chicken fried steak -- tasty as hell and slathered in gravy.

Take the title track, a delectable slab of pop funk that sports a bubbling beat, plenty of Robin Moxey's wah-wah guitar, and the powerhouse alto of chanteuse Inara George, who may or may not be referring to her own self as she sings about a woman with "bare urges/And tiny legs and arms/Honey want and wax peaches/Are cooking behind her tongue." Yowza!

As with any band that aspires to funk it up, Lode wisely puts the production emphasis on the beat, goosing anthems such as "Mary Jane" and the irresistible "Put Down" with palpitating polyrhythms. Most of the songs on the record, thankfully, are anchored around Gabe Cowan's deft bass lines, not surprising given that Cowan is Lode's primary tunesmith. Unlike the great unwashed mass of chick-fronted rockers, this bottom-heavy approach allows George to flex her considerable vocal muscle. On ballads such as "Driftwood" and "Pieces," her mellifluous voice soars atop the mix, stretching phrases and jumping registers in a manner that merits comparison to Rickie Lee Jones. The disc's unrivaled sleeper is "Dating Game," a sly take on the existential woes of two meat-market veterans. The song is an effortless melding of the band's blues and jazz leanings, with Moxey's wiry guitar serving as a delightful foil to George's slinky vocals.

The final tally is a smashing 40 minutes of music that's over before you know it. In an era of records larded with filler, Arms and Legs is one of those few likely to leave listeners clamoring for more.

-- Steven Almond

Tim O'Brien
Red on Blonde
(Sugar Hill)

Recording an entire album of Bob Dylan songs -- didn't the Hollies try this once?

A veteran of Hot Rize and a solo artist in his own right, O'Brien points out that bluegrass artists (himself included) have recorded Dylan's songs. So what? Back when they were a new outfit, UB40 threw in a fine cover of "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today." It was a cool idea: Randy Newman done reggae. But you wouldn't have wanted to hear a whole album of it.

Only the true Dylan stalwart -- or the true masochist -- will last to the halfway point, a rendition of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" for vocal and hambone. When the jaunty banjo-and-fiddle drive of the first cut ("Seen-yore, Seen-yore/Canya tell me where we're headin'/Linkin Cow-knee Road or Armageddin?") fades, Red on Blonde sets in to stinking worse than a possum carcass on the asphalt of Highway 61.

-- Tom Finkel

Soul Coughing
Irresistible Bliss
(Slash/Warner Bros.)

For a group that exudes so much intelligence and sophistication, the New York foursome Soul Coughing makes incredibly intuitive music. They get pinned for their downtown neo-beat poetry schtick, but even the group's acid-tongued lyricist M. Doughty will tell you it's really all about the vibe, not the verse. The band's true leaders are the guys bringing up the rear: Sebastian Steinberg's loping upright bass and Yuval Gabay's precision drums, which form a live hip-hop/jazz-rock base. They make the band's second album Irresistible Bliss even sharper and more rhythmically confident than their 1994 debut Ruby Vroom. Soul Coughing's operating principle seems to be an inversion of George Clinton's old maxim: Free your ass and your mind will follow.

As on Ruby, Doughty's increasingly dynamic vocals and Mark De Gli Antoni's increasingly focused keyboard sampling form the icing on Bliss's groove-filled cake. But like the bass and drums, voice and sampler work on the subconscious: Neither conveys concrete meaning so much as they regurgitate data. Like a television set that plays down the hall as you drift off to sleep, Soul Coughing transmits repeated and recontextualized cliches ("recommended by four out of five," "it's a self-fulfilling prophecy") as if they were information-age mantras, and fuses them with the sound of squalling elephants, squeaky doors, and Raymond Scott's cartoon jazz to form a blanket of pop-cultural white noise. If Irresistible Bliss is less referentially hip-hop and more song-oriented than last time, it's just as enthusiastically geometric -- not to mention funky. Or to invert Clinton again: Who says a rock band can't play funk?

-- Roni Sarig

Vernon Reid
Mistaken Identity
(550 Music/Epic)

It's no surprise that the Sony Music juggernaut is letting this baby die a quick and silent death; after all, Mistaken Identity is far too imaginative and uncategorizable to market like a Cheez Doodle. Although Reid is known primarily for his work with Living Colour, a band that was never quite as good as it should have been, he also contributed to a series of breathtakingly innovative jazz-funk throwdowns produced by the criminally overlooked group Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society. (The adventurous among you should immediately seek out 1982's Mandance and 1983's Barbecue Dog, both issued by Antilles.) Identity occasionally calls these efforts to mind, at least in terms of its bravery, but it also demonstrates Reid's unquenchable thirst for the new and exciting.

Take, for instance, "You Say He's Just a Psychic Friend": The free-flowing track intermingles Reid's elastic guitar, a persuasive rap courtesy of Chubb Rock, an offhand clarinet squiggle by key contributor Don Byron, and a potpourri of spoken-word samples that come out of nowhere but somehow make perfect sense. Coproducers Prince Paul (of De La Soul fame) and Teo Macero (a veteran jazzbo noted for his many productions for Miles Davis, including the brilliant On the Corner) find a creative middle ground that few would have thought existed. The soundscape they establish is expansive yet coherent. Reid, meanwhile, proves via "Lightnin'," "My Last Nerve," and the rest that there's virtually nothing he can't do with a guitar. He may never again be given this much freedom to go anywhere musically and do anything -- not by a major label, anyhow -- so just praise the heavens that he didn't let this opportunity pass him by.

-- Michael Roberts

Neil Young With Crazy Horse
Broken Arrow

Last time out with Crazy Horse, on '94's Sleeps With Angels, Neil Young only sang about a "Piece of Crap." This time, he's released one. Leaden, plodding, and long way beyond its 47 minutes, Broken Arrow is where the shine fades from Young's critical crown. (A surprise, by the way, to no one familiar with 1987's Life, another Young-Crazy Horse sleepwalker.)

-- John Floyd


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