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The Busy Signals
Baby's First Beats
(Sugar Free)

Analog keyboard, guitar, and drum machine: $400.
Bedroom recording gear: $2000.
Recording your debut album all by yourself: not quite as priceless as you think.
Onetime Babes in Toyland roadie Howard W. Hamilton III is the Busy Signals. Other than backup vocals on a pair of tracks, he does it all himself. The blips and loops of samples, the turntable work, the dreamy pop passages, the warbly vocals, the tinny guitars and pumped-up beats -- all come courtesy of Hamilton. Which makes Baby's First Beats an impressive, if sometimes self-indulgent, debut. Like fellow Minneapolis musician Prince, Hamilton knows his way around a hook but sometimes settles for close enough. The flat, droning singing of "Constantly Awesome" should have been punched up to mesh with the bouncing beats and guitar melody. Instead the song ends in monotony. "Long Funnel" offers another promising opening, with a slow, driving guitar backed by an orchestral loop. But the song never really goes anywhere. There's too little variation in dynamic or structure.

Still, First Beats is an engaging listen. Hamilton builds his tracks simply, primarily with a straightforward guitar line, keyboards, and jazzy breakbeats. He uses samples liberally but never forces them into too prominent or too kitschy a position. His voice is somewhat thin. But then, he doesn't try to carry his tunes vocally. He lets his samples and instrumental fills do the work. The lazy wafting "Birds on High" combines simple slide guitar and electric piano bits with lush string samples. Hamilton, pressing the buttons on the sampler rather than letting a computer do it for him, stutters the sounds like a DJ scratching a record. He also has the good sense occasionally to cut out everything but the beat. The stoned groove of "Futon Hopper" is simple and psychedelic, with old-school keyboards bouncing up and down on the beat. Hamilton undersings even as he doubles his vocal tracks.

Beats is a great example of what a creative musician can do with lo-fi technology in the privacy of a cramped apartment. Still, it sometimes helps to squeeze another body into the room, if only for a little perspective. -- David Simutis

Sekou Sundiata
(Righteous Babe)

Poet and bandleader Sekou Sundiata is best known to younger fans through his acolytes, Ani DiFranco and Soul Coughing vocalist M. Doughty, both of whom studied verse with him at Manhattan's New School. Sundiata had originally planned to release Longstoryshort, his first record in more than a decade, on his own label, Mouth Almighty, an imprint of Mercury Records. But the disc was shelved when Seagram acquired Mercury last year. Enter DiFranco, who released the disc on her own Righteous Babe label. This is just as well. The idea of Sundiata releasing his incendiary spoken-word compositions on a major label subsidiary doesn't make much sense anyway. This is music that belongs far from the chowder-headed hucksters of mainstream music.

Longstoryshort is an uncanny combination of poetry, bebop, R&B, Afro-pop, and hip-hop. "Mandela" is a tribute to the South African prisoner-cum-president, which sets Sundiata's wry reflections against jaunty rhythms and a joyous melody. This composition, which features Marvin Sewell's weepy slide guitar and Mark Batson's frenzied keyboards, is about four times as funky as anything Paul Simon came up with on Graceland. "Droppin Revolution" is a slice of Sly Stone- style soul, featuring a thrilling vocal turn by Sandra St. Victor, of the Family Stand. Cutting against the rhetorical vogue of countless idiot bands (Did someone say Rage Against the Machine?), Sundiata intones: "People be dropping revolution/Like it was a pickup line/You wouldn't use that word/if you knew what it meant." The incandescent "Urban Music" opens with a gospel-tinged aria that gives way to a lush layering of sinuous guitar, keyboard fills, syncopated percussion, and Fred Cash's throbbing bass. Over this mélange Sundiata spins a long, meandering reminiscence of his youth in the '60s, at once celebrating the era's hopes and debunking its marketed image. The title track is a symphony of Latin funk, which pairs Sundiata's Spanglish ranting with Bobby Sanabria's conga and Sewell's languid Spanish guitar.

With Longstoryshort Sundiata joins Carl Hancock Rux in what has become a renaissance for spoken word. The genre is no longer the exclusive province of self-indulgent wordsmiths; these days it rocks, too. Gil Scott-Heron would be proud. -- Steve Almond

Methods of Mayhem
Methods of Mayhem

Though he was responsible for the cowbell, a crucial instrument in the Mötley Crüe canon -- and though he performed his drum solo while hanging upside down during one of their tours -- Tommy Lee and his mega-wanger had very little to do with the Crüe's success. Nikki Sixx was the true "genius" behind the band's classic odes to whiskey and strippers, while Mick Mars' crunchy guitar and Vince Neil's operatic pipes perfected their grimy glamrock sound and image. Yet the Crüe's last record, Generation Swine, sounded more like Celine Dion meets Bush. Bad boys? Try plain bad.

Burned out on the Crüe during its "Greatest Hits" tour and still giddy from the success of his brief porno career, Tommy Lee decided it was time to heed that inner voice telling him to record, um, a solo hip-hop/rock album. So he hooked up with rapper TiLo, formerly of the awful band (hed)pe, and the two began laying down tracks for Methods of Mayhem, a project that epitomizes bad charisma run amuck.

Lee stepped behind the mic on Generation Swine to warble "Brandon," a maudlin ballad about his son. It was at that point that a manager or close friend should have intervened by telling him, in a nice way, that pounding drums and banging blondes were his natural callings. But Lee's ego got the best of him, so he's now fashioned himself into a hip-hop dude. He recruited other wannabe black guys like Fred Durst and Kid Rock to yelp on his record, along with rappers such as Lil' Kim, Snoop Dogg, and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan. The result is one of the most ghastly records ever recorded -- a frantic, aggro-white-boy frat party of utmost ugliness. Lee rants about the media, who, he notes with typical eloquence, "make up shit." He's also pissed at the cops. On "Proposition Fuck You," he offers the following advice: "Tired of the boys in blue/Running up on your crew?/ You know what to do/Tell them, 'Fuck you!'" Lee also pontificates about racial disharmony and, more pointedly, advises his female fans to "rip off their clothes and expose [their] busts." Vanilla Ice is Mozart compared to this shit. -- Adam Bergman

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Adam Bergman
David Simutis