The Hi Fi Killers are a duo of DJ/instrumentalists from Seattle. Their 1997 debut, Loaded, and their 1998 followup Possession, combined hip-hop drum loops and turntable scratching with organic brass-section breakdowns and solos. The music strutted and bounced like the soundtrack to an old blaxploitation film. In fact, taking into account the Hi Fi Killers' amplified bombast and cut-to-the-chase composition style, their music better resembled the way those soundtracks are fondly remembered than they way they actually sounded: often plodding and overlong.
With Jamaica the pair (John Horn and Kevin Oakland) has again created music that is at once tributary and original. It's a dub reggae album, but no more so than it's a Hi Fi Killers album. Like Horn and Oakland's previous works, Jamaica begs the question of authenticity by nailing every atmospheric detail of a revered style. Their omnipresent hip-hop insouciance, meanwhile, keeps things squarely in the modern era.
Created on the island for which it's named, Jamaica is the first Killers album to feature vocals. It was coengineered by Shabba Ranks's engineer, Solgie Hamilton, and coproduced by "Papa Charlie" Morgan, whose local connections yielded guest performances by reggae vocalists Blackout, Scorpion, and Clinton "Basie" Fearon (late of Lee Perry's Upsetters). The three singers' showcase tracks alternate with Hi Fi Killers' dubs, which eschew the sub-bass throb of current dub fashion in favor of hypnotic, Seventies-style rhythms.
Even while backing gruff-voiced Blackout's chatting (on "Like a Lion" and "I&I Time"), Horn and Oakland opt for the rootsy style, thereby emphasizing the melody of the toaster's rhyme. On "Tell Dem" the reggae timeline is remixed in reverse, as Basie Fearon's Old Testament invocations ride the crests and waves of a digitally cut-and-pasted soundscape.
Although it's a pleasant listen throughout, Jamaica is even more noteworthy as evidence that DJs should be taken seriously as musicians. In making the leap from cross-cultural borrowing to studious immersion in another culture's music, Hi Fi Killers suggest that the endlessly mutable process of deejaying acts as a sort of post-linguistic Rosetta stone. Speak the language of beats and do your music-history homework, they seem to say, and you can go anywhere. (Loosegroove, 501 N. 36th St., Seattle, WA 98107)
-- Adam Heimlich
The Black Crowes
By Your Side
Rock-and-roll brother acts offer little job security. Under the despotic rule of Ray and Dave Davies, the Kinks maintained a merciless revolving-door policy, while the Van Halen brothers continue to impeach lead singers with amusing regularity. In keeping with this honored tradition Chris and Rich Robinson have transformed the Black Crowes into their own family franchise. The Robinsons aside, the only original remaining Crowe is drummer Steve Gorman, and you can bet he isn't sleeping very soundly these days. The poor guy probably has nightmares of being pink-slipped during a performance.
Countless bands have screwed up a good thing by underestimating the importance of musical chemistry. We can now add the Black Crowes to that dubious list. Judging from By Your Side, the brothers Robinson badly miscalculated when they fired guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt. In an attempt to recapture the magic of their 1990 debut, Shake Your Moneymaker, the Robinsons have seized almost total control of the band. Not only did they compose all the music, but Rich Robinson handles all the guitar chores. The results are uninspiring. By Your Side is the work of two control freaks undermined by their own ambitions.
In homage to their American folk influences, the Robinsons have written songs with titles such as "Go Tell the Congregation," "Virtue and Vice," and "Welcome to the Goodtimes," titles meant to conjure images of backwater churches and revival meetings. The problem is, there are no real ideas fueling these tunes. They're all imagery for imagery's sake. This overreliance on symbolism is apparent in the music as well. Tracks such as "Only a Fool," "Heavy," and "Go Faster" are appointed with soul-mama back-up vocals and wailing harmonicas. But the rootsy embellishments only emphasize the insipidness of the songs themselves.
That's too bad, because By Your Side is the Crowes' most energetic album in years. Chris Robinson sings more passionately than ever, and brother Rich performs heroically on guitar. But Marc Ford's endearingly sloppy guitar is sorely missed, as is Johnny Colt's funky bass.
Perhaps it's time the Robinsons branched out. Rumor is the Hanson brothers are looking for back-up musicians.
-- Bruce Britt
Different Stages Live
When I was in high school, there were two similarly garbed and coiffed camps who hung out in the smoking area: AC/DC fans and Rush fans. It was hard to tell them apart unless you listened in as one group discussed the relative merits of feathered roach clips and water bongs, and the other talked Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Monty Python sketches ... and clips versus bongs.
A similar divide greets this three-disc set. You'll either sit enthralled with headphones on (even though you've already got all of the studio versions) or run screaming from the heavy-thinking prog-rock jams. Different Stages includes all of Rush's FM favorites, lesser-known album tracks, and the entire 2112 suite, and it showcases the true chops of guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart, exalted heroes of amateur players and all but unknown outside their cult. Geddy Lee thumps his bass with admirable skill and hits the vast majority of his notes in his whiny vibrato. Discs one and two were recorded during the band's 1994 and 1997 tours, but the entire third disc of this set is from a 1978 London show, and it's interesting to see how far the band has progressed with the advances in playing and sound technology since then (though the younger Lee's voice is even whinier). The 1978 version of Rush is much cruder, but the trio's energy is abundant, and we can forgive them for some of the questionable-in-hindsight material ("By-Tor & The Snow Dog"? "Cygnus X-1"?). I'm sure I've got a dog-eared Tolkien paperback somewhere in the attic myself, probably right next to that feathered roach clip....
-- Bob Ruggiero