Short Cuts

Roni Size and Reprazent

Mainstream America got its first real taste of electronica from Prodigy, the British group that took a rather obscure form of electronic dance music and made it accessible by adding familiar rap/punk vocals (and a familiar rap/punk image). The result was this past summer's surprise hit single "Firestarter." The next underground sound to break big in the U.S. may be the DJ-oriented format called jungle (or drum 'n' bass), and the man to make it happen may be Roni Size.

Then again, that's what they said last year about Goldie, who, like Size, is a black British DJ with several years of record-spinning on his resume. Goldie's debut, Timeless (1995), wowed the critics, but its chilly, spacy sound failed to excite the American market. Size has apparently been named the next torchbearer of jungle, or drum 'n' bass, or whatever.

By any name jungle is a limited genre: sped-up beats, sampled riffs, computer-generated noises. But Size and his posse, Reprazent (a group of DJs and vocalists), have added some more "traditional" elements to the mix: vocals, funk rhythms, and something akin to hooks. On Size's double-CD debut, jungle sounds less like an abstract musical experiment and more like what most of us can recognize as songs.

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Disc one opens with "Railing," an aggressive rhythm loop made memorable by a hard-hitting rap from MC Dynamite. The title track, "New Forms," features rhymes by Bahamadia, a quick-tongued female rapper from Philadelphia. The appealing voice of Onallee turns "Watching Windows" into a funky soul number and "Share the Fall" into a silky soul number. Both expressive and subtle, Onallee seems to be Size's secret weapon.

Disc two concentrates slightly more on rhythms, as evidenced by a mostly instrumental version of "Share the Fall." Size experiments here and there with aural textures: the gritty sound of shoes on pavement, a woman's gasp, a queasy bass line. Yet words, phrases, and even choruses abound, making tracks such as "Down," "Change My Life," and "Jazz" actually hummable.

The organic elements of Newforms, such as the warm upright bass on "Brown Paper Bag," are what make Size's tracks more enjoyable than the cool compositions of his peers (Goldie, for instance, or L.T.J Bukem). Contrary to the current hype, jungle is not a completely new type of music; it has plainly audible roots in African-American idioms such as dub, soul, and rap. Newforms succeeds mostly because it incorporates old forms of music -- though in very new ways, indeed.

-- Rafer Guzman

Various Artists
Anthology of American Folk Music
(Smithsonian Folkways)

Originally released in 1952 and out of print for many years, the Anthology of American Folk Music has been cited as a prized talisman by cultural luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Elvis Costello. An eccentric compilation of music pulled together by Harry Smith -- a cantankerous crank (or "visionary," if you prefer) with a helluva record collection -- it ranks alongside Alan Lomax's famous field recordings as an essential representation of indigenous American music.

Unlike Lomax, who lugged recording equipment through streets, fields, and even prisons to gather material, Smith simply raided his own collection and arranged it to his liking. As a result the Anthology plays like a bizarre mixed tape from America's previous life.

These 84 songs -- blues, folk, gospel, and hillbilly tunes recorded in the late Twenties and early Thirties -- were culled from Smith's library of previously issued 78s and then released as a set of six LPs. Because Smith structured the material stylistically and thematically, the Anthology actually benefits from being reissued on a single compact disc. Without the interruptions of having to flip records, a listener can make better sense of his presentation.

What emerges is a vision of Uncle Sam doing a sad, numb shuffle with a jar of corn liquor in one hand, a loaded revolver in the other, and a dangerous grin on his face. Though the atomic bomb and the Cold War are but a gleam in his eye, he's haunted by the Depression-era voices of performers such as Dock Boggs, Furry Lewis, the Carter Family, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like witnesses to a crime, they testify to the poverty, exploitation, and desperation faced by many Americans.

For instance Jefferson's "Prison Cell Blues" and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" use crippled chords, bent notes, and aching vocals to transcend the grind of everyday life. Compiling dozens of equally compelling but lesser-known tunes, the Anthology gives shape to the period's molecular agitation and invisible debris, articulating the difficulties of maintaining one's dignity in a mean ol' world. For us it's a world made a little bit better by Harry Smith's sonic alchemy.

-- John Lewis  

Imani Coppola

Not since the emergence of Neneh Cherry a decade ago has an artist so cannily integrated jazz, hip-hop, and pop. Imani Coppola, though still of tender years, bears the stamp of a talented innovator. The eleven cuts on her lush debut are an amalgam of hip-hop beats, pop melodies, and sly, even lascivious, rhymes. Unlike the current crop of chick-hoppers (Missy Elliot, Li'l Kim, Foxy Brown), Coppola makes limited use of samples and admirably abstains from trying to market her ghetto savvy. Instead, on cuts such as "I'm a Tree" and "Karma and the Blizzard," Coppola waxes metaphysical over bubbling song lines, sounding every bit the precocious college sophomore she is.

The sultry sway of "Piece" allows Coppola to luxuriate in soul stylings, while "Forget Myself" showcases her considerable talent as a violinist (like Cherry, she's the daughter of musicians). Strings resurface in far grander style on the operatic "Soon (I Like It)," its ornate melody spackled with exuberant percussion. It's enough to make any closet Queen fan giggle with glee.

There are moments of excess on Chupacabra, as might be expected from any artist aiming this high. "Legend of a Cowgirl" is a quasi-feminist anthem that describes sexual liberation using a Western metaphor. It's too silly to take seriously, especially because it sounds awfully similar to Kool Moe Dee's irritating, old-school rap "Wild Wild West."

But the lapses are few and the joys are many here. To those lamenting the sudden (and unexplained) disappearance of the divine Ms. Cherry, this sexy, soulful album should be a godsend.

-- Steven Almond

Maria Fatal
Pasiones, Torturas y Otros Misterios

One of the many bands knocking down the musical barriers between Hispanic and Anglo cultures is Maria Fatal ("Fatal Mary"), which records for San Francisco's Aztlan imprint. Adding Spanish lyrics to American rock might cause gringo listeners to worry about missing the gist of the songs, but Maria Fatal transcends translation with its music, an eclectic mix of circuit-breaker-tripping feedback, folkie melodies, and bouncing ska beats. After all, Pearl Jam is totally unintelligible, too, but that doesn't stop millions from loving that band's songs (or hating them, for that matter).

The Los Angeles-based Maria Fatal consists of three Ramirez brothers -- Fernando (vocals), Ernesto (guitar), and Gabriel (drums) -- backed by "honorary brother" Cesar Hernandez on keyboards. On the band's self-titled debut album, released in 1995, it tried to strike a balance between addressing political concerns and playing kick-ass rock and roll. On this, its followup, Maria Fatal settles into a more sexy, dreamy sound. "Antes Que" exhorts the listener "Pegar mi rostro a tu seno/Tierno, suave, perfecto" ("Press my face against your breasts/Tender, smooth, perfect"). It's not all mush, though. On "Silicón," Fernando declares, "No me beses/Con tus labios plasticos/Ni me entreques/Tu sexo de silicón" ("Don't kiss me with your plastic lips/Don't leave your silicon sex open for me").

Musically, the group often recalls the L.A. band X, with its combination of punk rock fury and roots-rock authenticity. But Maria Fatal also recalls L.A.'s goth-rock scene with hypnotic, gloomy numbers such as "Sadico Oscuro" ("Sadistic Dark") and "Estoy Mutando" ("I'm Mutating"). These nodding tracks are not exactly the band's finer moments.

The best song on the album also happens to be the most traditional. "Poetas con Fusil" ("Poets With Guns") is built around the simple, quavering notes of a single guitar, much like a Mexican folk song. Unfortunately its intense emotion is all but washed away by the overly polished production. In rock en espanol, producers often equate "professional" with "slick," probably in an effort to ensure that the music world doesn't take them for amateurs. Perhaps when the genre finally gets its critical and commercial due, they'll be more willing to let the raw material speak for itself.

-- Curt Hopkins

G. Love & Special Sauce
Yeah, It's That Easy

The female gender has recently been glutting the market with scorned-by-my-lover pop songs: Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco, Jewel, Lisa Loeb, et al. But the bluesy, Boston-based rapper G. Love is the new champion of the man-left-behind. It's not the most original stuff, but at least G. Love (backed by his band of parking-lot palookas, Special Sauce) has a refreshing sense of humor, unlike many of his angry female counterparts.

Lyrically, G. Love's third release offers both adolescent emotion and sophisticated wit. On "You Shall See," he promises, "You'll go crazy, but I don't mind/You're gonna wish you never left my side." Conversely, on the album's hip-swinging single, "Stepping Stone," he cracks, "In every bar they know your drink, what should I think?/I turned around to look, and you gave some dude a wink." In true male fashion, he easily switches his attention from his broken heart to sports: Right after "Stepping Stone" comes "I-76," a hearty shout out to the Philadelphia '76ers.  

Less successful, however, are G. Love's sociopolitical statements. The title track deals with race relations, while "Lay Down the Law" addresses drug addiction. These songs sound overly polished, lacking the energy and soul of "Stepping Stone." G. Love is much better when laying down the funk and talking jive with his buddies, as he did so well on "Shooting Hoops" and "Cold Beverage," from his 1994 self-titled debut.

Still, this album is great fun, an inventive mix of rock, rap, funk, Latin percussion, and even skating-rink organ. The lovelorn G. Love has apparently discovered that the best way to get out of a deep funk is to get into one.

-- Liesa Goins

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