Short Cuts

Hopkins' lyrics are simple where they need to be, pulling along strong emotions. "The burden of the bird in your brain/Brings you back to the place/ Where you laid in the shade/Turning black," he sings in "Diva Antipathy." Yet sometimes the lines sound like Federico Garcia Lorca poems or the words to lullabies, vague and heavy. From "Amsterdam": "Don't see nothing in my eyes today/My mind is a thousand miles away/At Kuipersstraat/The thing I caught is you."

Through it all Hopkins seems to be saying that our lives are something more than commuting and TV news and back pain and politics. Athens by Night is like a mnemonic device for reminding us that our lives actually matter.

-- Curt Hopkins

Will Smith
Big Willie Style
(Columbia)

Like the adventure films in which he stars, the music of Will Smith is strictly good-time stuff. Big Willie Style, Smith's return to the rap business after several years (anyone remember his 1993 effort Code Red?), is full of big, yummy party beats and goofy wit. In a hip-hop world of increasing menace and violence, the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince has positioned himself as the ultimate crossover MC: a cuddly capitalist who's more interested in shopping for Pradas than shooting guns.

Smith and his producers, Poke and Tone, have certainly manufactured some irresistible rap confections. "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" appropriates the sass of Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer," while "Don't Say Nothin'" is a delightful exercise in high-grade narcissism, with Smith trumpeting his multimedia stardom (and reuniting with his former collaborator, Jeff "DJ Jazzy Jeff" Townes). But "Miami" is the most emblematic of this CD's sixteen tracks. Set to the loping rhythm of the Whispers' "And the Beat Goes On," the song sounds like a travel advertisement: half-naked bodies, celebrities, palm trees, Jet Skis, and nightclubs. There is no mention of riots, police brutality, inner cities, or racial strife. In Will Smith's world, these realities amount to nothing more than buzz-killers.

This is the ultimate problem with Big Willie Style: It doesn't just lack street credibility, it lacks any sort of credibility. From the promotional rap jingle "Men in Black" to the maudlin cover of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us" (dedicated to Smith's son), the disc amounts to one long musical infomercial for Smith. There's even a series of vignettes with the fictional Keith B-Real, a magazine editor with the audacity to call Smith "some big-time bourgie Hollywood sellout." For this and other offenses, B-Real gets smacked in the face by Smith's current squeeze, Jada Pinkett, and roughed up by Smith's bodyguards. Which proves that the truth doesn't have to hurt -- at least not when you're the fabulously wealthy and successful Will Smith.

-- Steven Almond

Backbone
Backbone
(Grateful Dead Records)

Backbone features Bill Kreutzmann, ex-drummer of the Grateful Dead, in a rhythm and blues trio with vocalist-guitarist Rick Barnett and bassist Edd Cook. Deadheads may be hoping for an adventurous turn reminiscent of the Dead's spirited musical explorations, but Backbone's retread R&B is devoid of density and emotion.

The CD starts on an especially weak note. "Preserve the Blues" sounds like a Robert Cray reject -- standard-issue stuff without emotional impact. It's a tribute to the power of the blues, but the song lacks any sign of the passion that makes the genre relevant. "Sittin' Here Thinkin'" and "Make Me Laugh" follow in similarly generic fashion.

The problem with Backbone is Barnett, the writer or cowriter of nine of the CD's eleven songs. Barnett is capable in his roles as guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, but completely undistinguished in all of them. His limited voice often falls flat, and his few attempts at reaching high-octave emotional peaks are strained and nasal. His songs are generally pedestrian, and his guitar solos reflect a typical bar-band weakness: too many notes with nothing to say.

The funky groove on "Breathe Deeply" and the jazzy "Nothing Different," however, seem imported from another band. The musicians finally listen to each other: Riffs, leads, and fills suddenly intertwine with effortless grace. Cook walks the fretboard unrestrained, Kreutzmann keeps the rhythm with the high-hat, and Barnett's solos actually sound inspired.

Unfortunately the inspiration dies quickly. Barnett's voice retains an Eric Clapton-type richness for the first verse of "Fly Away" but soon reverts to its weightless self -- with accompanying instrumentation to match -- for the remainder of the CD. When Barnett sings, "Will it be funky/Will it be soulful/Will you have something to say?" the listener is forced to answer with a resounding "no."

-- Larry Getlen

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