Short Cuts

Fortunately the chief executive producer of this compilation is Russell Simmons (of Run-DMC fame), and he's cherry-picked some of the finest hip-hop on the planet. Many of the twenty tracks on How to Be a Player lean toward funk and R&B, with occasional (and bracing) forays into gangsta mayhem. Foxy Brown's "Big Bad Mamma" bumps along to a bass riff that sounds cribbed from Rick James, even if it isn't. (Eerily enough, James appears on the very next track, offering a thumped-out reprise of his classic "Hard to Get.") The draw on Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Young Casanovas" is a hypnotic keyboard wash that drizzles like lazy rain behind a verbal flow -- courtesy of Mace and Kam -- that's both mellifluous and blustery. "Down Wit Us" features the crisp and raspy phrasing of Redman. The song's heavier East Coast flavor is leavened by a delightfully squiggly jazz sample courtesy of sax man Lionel Parker.

On an album of all-star cuts, Master P's "How to Be a Playa" stands above the rest. Built tautly around a single guitar riff, the song pits musical simplicity against lyrical exuberance, as MCs Silk the Shocker and Fiend spit staccato lines over a massively syncopated drum track. Even the spoken word stuff on this disc -- traditionally a dumping ground for bum poetry -- succeeds, thanks to Max Julien's sharper-than-your-average-playa insights.

-- Steven Almond

The Moog Cookbook
Ye Olde Space Bande
(Restless)

If you were a kid in the Seventies, chances are good that when you put a top rock album on your birthday list, your clueless parents instead bought you something resembling the new Moog Cookbook CD. Funky, goofy, and completely tongue-in-cheek, Ye Olde Space Bande is the second offering of covers from L.A. synthophiles Roger Manning (Jellyfish, Imperial Drag) and Brian Kehew. Cloaked in the thrift-store space cadet personas of Meco Eno and Uli Nomi, the duo used the Moog and other vintage synthesizers to parody altrock hits the first time around on their self-titled debut. Now they've trained their sights on mega-Seventies arena-rock standards, deflating the era's biggest, most pompous hams and slathering their hits with extra-cheesy arrangements.

Bands such as the Beastie Boys and Stereolab may have introduced vintage synth sounds to a new generation, but the Moog Cookbook takes these instruments to their most unnatural extremes, spitting back chunks of classic rock in gurgling, cartwheeling little symphonies of excess. Guitar-driven anthems such as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin 'Bout Love," and Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" are twisted into freakish funk odysseys and cartoonish themes. The Moog Cookbook's take on Boston's "More Than a Feeling" explores the ultimate nightmare of Yanni joining Depeche Mode, while their skewering of Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" completely neuters the cock-rock mystique with a rubbery thumping backbeat and a deadpan melody that at times sounds like it's being played on a touch-tone phone. And Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" is laugh-out-loud demented. Imagine a flatulating bass line, Jimmy Page on kazoo, and Robert Plant as a balloon steadily losing air, and you're about halfway there.

While it isn't quite as drop-dead hilarious as its predecessor, Ye Olde Space Bande remains essential listening for anyone with a taste for oddity and the ability to chuckle at rock history and its more bloated icons.

-- Robin Myrick

Various Artists
Yellow Pills, Volume 4
(Big Deal)

Ah, guys in service to the innate potency of the hook, in thrall to the divinity of the melody. Although power pop has lain low for much of the past ten years, never fully expiring, it is now experiencing a minirenaissance via L.A.'s Poptopia scene. About time. The fanzine Yellow Pills has been documenting/championing the sound -- that ineffable sonic ground where reverberating guitar chords intersect with crisp vocals, dead-on production, and (mostly) love-stuff lyrics -- since 1990, named for a song by famed late-Seventies power popsters 20/20.

Four years ago YP launched a companion CD series to showcase the genre's torchbearers and spear-carriers. Just-released Volume 4 features worthy entries from salty vets the Plimsouls, the Loud Family, ex-Bongo frontman Richard Barone, Smithereens's guitarist Jim Babjak (in the guise of Buzzed Meg), Chris Von Sneidern, and Material Issue, plus zesty stuff by the lesser-known -- but no less terrific -- Wanderlust, Four O'Clock Balloon, John McMullan, the Nines, Love Nut, and DM3. Not forgetting the crafty Jason Falkner. Clunker alert: Andrew ("Lonely Boy") Gold engages in an ill-advised evocation of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, while Anton Barbeau indulges in some tinny, connect-the-dots synth pop. Deservedly dedicated to the memory of Material Issue guitarist/singer/strategist and power-pop avatar Jim Ellison, who committed suicide last year. (Big Deal, P.O. Box 2072 Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009-9998)

-- Michael Yockel

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