Snoop Doggy Dogg
Dr. Dre Presents ... The Aftermath
The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
In the wake of Tupac Shakur's death, these three albums have little chance of being heard objectively. Certainly the conventional wisdom about each lacks insight and seems predetermined: Snoop Dogg's album is a disappointment because his music does not reflect enough of a shift from violent content; Tupac's posthumous release under the alias Makaveli is no more than shameless opportunism by Death Row; and Dr. Dre's new multiartist compilation -- an attempt to distance his career from hardcore rap -- is heralded as triumphant proof of gangsta's demise.
While all of these albums are musically unsatisfying, at least Snoop's and Tupac's have great moments, and their problems have little to do with the inadequacy of gangsta. Their troubles have everything to do with the loss of solidarity between three artists who seemed at a creative peak by the time Shakur's All Eyez on Me was released last spring.
Tha Doggfather seems the closest to Eyez, a 21-cut party tape of an album, matching "California Love" with Snoop's vision of a "Doggyland" where "everything is free/And there ain't no HIV/And niggaz don't kill one another." Still, despite capable musical assistance from producers Dat Nigga Daz and DJ Pooh, and great vocals by the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson, Snoop Dogg's disc lacks the ebullience of his previous work with Dr. Dre. Simply put, Dre's sprawling soundscapes lay the perfect foundation for Snoop's open-ended rhyme style. That said, Tha Doggfather finds solid if limited intensity in its minimalist funk grooves and makes an admirable plea for a party that can build unity from the bottom up.
Next to Snoop's lift-as-you-climb vision, the sentiments in Dre's "Been There Done That" seem hollow. His introduction of twelve new talents on Aftermath, along with the reintroduction of King T and a pro unity rap by the bicoastal Group Therapy (which includes Cypress Hill's B-Real, Nas, KRS-1, and RBX), feels like a lethargic, directionless imitation of his previous work on Death Row. No one really stands out here, and as a relatively lame dis of the coastal rivalry, the Group Therapy cut is less unifying than condescending.
Slapped together or not, Tupac's interrupted work in progress says more -- musically, lyrically, and spiritually -- than both of these other releases. Nearly as busy as Tupac's first two albums, the sound is muddier than those, but it still runs a wild gamut from the chimes tolling eerie gangsta solitude on "Hail Mary" to the spaghetti-Western guitar on "Me and My Girlfriend." At the same time, the album is about a spiritual connection between outlaw men and women on the streets and behind bars. Tupac never forgets he is a soldier in a cultural war, a war that is fueling a larger political struggle. Unfortunately, the sense of betrayal that leads him to choose East Coast rapper Nas as the album's central enemy serves as a tangle of brush obscuring the massive scope of vision Tupac always brought to his music.
But then, he wasn't finished. And as frustrating as they are, these releases suggest that Snoop and Dre aren't either.
-- Danny Alexander
After Murder Park
(Hut U.S.A./Vernon Yard)
Amid the cacophony of competing voices out there on the bleak popscape -- Tricky's post-rock this, Jon Spencer's deconstructed-blues that -- Auteurs' singer/songwriter/guitarist Luke Haines's just might be the one most attuned to the nihilistic tenor of these on-the-cusp-of-the-millennium times. Over the course of three albums, he has fashioned a body of work that sketches out a gradual human entropy, his mildly astringent songs intimating individual dissolutions rather than delineating precise declines and falls. Those not trudging the road to ruin already, Haines suggests, will get there eventually: "Taking out the garbage at the Columbia Hotel/Nobody got a ticket out of cripple town," he sing-talks in his slight rasp at the outset of the rattling "Tombstone."
Despite the band's cinematically inclined name, their songs here -- creepy, deliberate ballads dusted with strings ("The Child Brides," "Married to a Lazy Lover," "Fear of Flying"); bare-wires, midtempo rockers ("Buddha," "Land Lovers," "Everything You Say Will Destroy You"); and hybrids thereof (notably "New Brat in Town" and the deceptively lilting "Unsolved Child Murder") -- conjure up literary values, all highly allusive rather than imagistic, particularly the woolly "Dead Sea Navigators," the perfect last-call anthem for noble losers everywhere. Those requiring a reference point should think late-Sixties/early-Seventies Kinks, sans Ray Davies's distinct undercoating of romanticism. Not for everyone, not even for most, but possibly the most engaging downer you're likely to hear.
-- Michael Yockel.
She's too young to buy beer, but American violinist Leila Josefowicz has performed with the world's finest orchestras, and with Solo she has made her second recording for a major classical label. Actually, her case is not as extraordinary as it sounds; younger violinists have made an even bigger splash. (Classical consumers, after all, love child prodigies.) At least Philips Classics had the good taste not to market Josefowicz as near-kiddie porn, a temptation that other classical record companies have not resisted with their young performers, both male and female.
Solo violin recitals on-stage and on disc are uncommon because they require unusual degrees of concentration from performers and audiences; the artists are at their most naked and vulnerable. Josefowicz, however, passes her test with flying colors. Technically speaking, she knows her way around a violin, and she interprets the selections on this disc with a maturity that belies her age -- where the music allows her to. Bela Bartok's challenging Sonata, completed in 1944 (a year before his death), rethinks Bach's works in this genre in terms of ethnic music from Eastern Europe and twentieth-century compositional movements. Belgian composer Eugene YsaØe, himself a violin virtuoso around the turn of the century, wrote six sonatas for solo violin that require as much intelligence as strength and manual dexterity. Josefowicz performs two of them here as convincingly as anyone else has done in recent decades, irrespective of age.
But do you think long guitar solos can be dumb? Classical music has their equivalent in empty-headed pieces that function only to display technique. Solo contains one of the worst: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst's transcription of Schubert's Erlksnig. In the original, Schubert asks a vocalist to depict a sick child, his concerned father, and Death, who finally claims the child. Ernst turns Schubert's masterpiece into a circus act by asking the violinist to play all three roles while simulating the original piano accompaniment. Josefowicz pulls this grotesque stuff off -- just -- but in the end, you wonder why she bothered devoting her talents to it.
-- Raymond Tuttle
Presidents of the United States of America
In this bracing followup to their double-platinum debut, the Presidents of the United States of America waste no time setting out their modus operandi: "This is the show," Chris Ballew chants in "Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen," the opening cut. "We are the band/Sometimes it just takes you by the hand." Not exactly rocket science, but then again, I don't want rock music to be rocket science. I want it to be fun, exuberant, catchy. The Presidents are all these things. Indeed, the monster success of their self-titled first record -- the hit single "Lump" was played constantly on MTV -- has done nothing to dampen the joys offered by this Seattle trio.
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The fourteen songs collected on II are every bit as bizarre and hummable as the initial batch. Whether the topic is Mount St. Helens ("Volcano") or the misadventures of Bobby Brady in Hawaii ("Tiki God"), the grooves come fast and furious. Despite the band's stripped instrumentation (Chris Ballew plays a two-string bass, Dave Dederer a three-string guitar), the sound they produce, when combined with Jason Finn's ecstatic drumming, is deliciously rich. The key, of course, is Ballew's melodies, his basic chord progressions goosed by a breakneck pace but always free of filler. Add to this his melodic knack, a chunky beat, and a playful sense of the absurd and you've got the whole package.
With tongue firmly in cheek, the band does essay a few more orchestral numbers -- the insect-obsessed "Bug City," for instance, as well as the delightfully hyperactive "Froggie," which features the added fretwork of Morphine frontman Mark Sandman. Mostly, though, it's just ready, steady, rock.
Those sods who crave "message" rock will undoubtedly saddle this disc with the label "novelty." (They did last time.) What that means, near as I can figure, is the band is having fun. So will you.
-- Steven Almond