Rhythm & Blues
Robert Palmer is one suave so-and-so. Ever since leaving the funky and cool Vinegar Joe in the early '70s and going the way of the solo artist, he has made a career out of reinventing himself on a regular basis. Like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Neil Young, Palmer has deconstructed and reconstructed his style on an almost album-by-album basis, from the Southern-fried funk of his solo debut, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, to the reggae-tinged Some People Can Do What They Like, to the techno-inflected Clues. Palmer has rarely remained static for long, but like the aforementioned masters of reinvention, he never seems like he's chasing the next big thing.
On his last few discs, Palmer has largely been in the same groove, forging an image as a pseudo-lounge crooner, not surprising given his exceedingly legitimate pop chops. For Rhythm & Blues, originally available only in Japan, Palmer seems to be smoothing out the wrinkles even more than on his previous outings, which is both good and bad. Certainly no one in modern pop is as glibly stylish as Palmer, but his best work has always surfaced when he added the slightest hint of an edge to his material. His past few albums have been polished and accomplished without question but not particularly adventurous or groundbreaking.
Rhythm & Blues follows in that pattern, although things are a little more interesting here than on other recent outings. The disc starts out nicely on the Ferryesque opener, "True Love," with a lot of inventive changes for bubbly synth-pop. The first stumble follows immediately with the flat and relatively lifeless "No Problem," which finds Palmer in less than stellar vocal form. He redeems himself by going out on a limb and covering Marvin Gaye's hugely popular "Let's Get It On." Few singers can get away with covering Gaye, but Palmer does an admirable job. The Asian-reggae flavor of "All the Will in the World" is a nice touch, and the restrained funk on "You're Not the Only One" is a welcome shift in the sonic landscape, as is the disc's closer, a lovely cover of Lowell George's "Twenty Million Things."
Ultimately Robert Palmer has shown that he can do the smooth-pop thing standing on his head without breaking a sweat. As good as he is, most of his diehard fans are hoping that Palmer will bust loose and really crank one album out of the park. Rhythm & Blues will have to suffice until he decides to do just that. -- Brian Baker
Fear of Fours
It seems like only yesterday that various pundits were speculating electronica would be the next big thing. Now, more than three years after Prodigy fueled such speculation with their popular "Firestarter" single and video, techno has yet to make any major sales impact, and with each passing day, the notion of a national electronica phenomenon emerging anytime soon seems more unlikely. With their nervous rhythms, crazy quilt arrangements, and slavish reliance on digital gimmickry, most electronica records sound like lab experiments gone horribly awry. Listeners who didn't know better would swear the stuff was created by software writers and sufferers of attention deficit disorder.
Given this dire state of affairs, it's always surprising when an electronica recording surfaces that is actually melodic and humanistic, but that's just what the British duo known as Lamb (programmer Andrew Barlow and vocalist Louise Rhodes) has created. Lamb's self-titled debut disc was a savory mélange of exquisite jazz melodies and beats so jittery, it gave the impression that mice were scampering from the stereo speakers. All in all Lamb was a hard act to follow, but Barlow and Rhodes have beaten the sophomore slump. Fear of Fours is a moody recording that strikes a balance between trip-hop, acid jazz, and drum 'n' bass. Soulful yet chillingly futuristic, Fear of Fours is the place where automation and humanity reconcile their differences.
The CD derives its title from Barlow's disdain for the 4/4 rhythms employed on most pop records. Focusing on his goal of shaking up the status quo, Barlow experiments with different rhythms on Fear of Fours, but it's his gift for composing memorable melodies that gives the album its heft. The bebop-inflected "B Line" actually swings, while "Here" finds Barlow and Rhodes successfully incorporating Latin rhythms. Most surprising is the album's preponderance of ballads. Tracks like "Softly" and "Bonfire" possess an incandescence that's rare in techno music.
On the downside Barlow and Rhodes' experimentalism sinks a good third of the album. Fortunately Fear of Fours doesn't sink beneath the weight of its own ambitiousness. With any luck this album will thrust Lamb into the techno aristocracy where it belongs. -- Bruce Britt
Carl Hancock Rux
Not since Gil Scott-Heron has a black American artist so skillfully intertwined poetry with rock idioms. Now comes Carl Hancock Rux. A fixture in the New York City spoken-word scene, Rux's thrilling debut will no doubt take the critics -- and let us hope the fans -- by storm.
From the jazzy thump of "Asphalt Yards" to the Hendrix-inspired guitar scorch of "Languid Libretto (I Can't Love You Better)" Rux Revue is an unrelenting revelation. The traditional knock on spoken-word artists is that they ignore the need for strong song structures, opting instead for verbal noodling that tends toward indulgence. Not so here. Rux's central concern is always the music -- melody and rhythm -- and he twists his resonant bass around the mix, often soaring into song to deliver his mellifluous rants.
Like Scott-Heron 20 years earlier, Rux takes aim at everything from inner-city drug addiction ("Gut Bucket Blues," "Blue Candy") to hip-hop exploitation ("No Black Male Show"). While he does occasionally succumb to didacticism ("Wasted Seed"), for the most part this is a joyous record, one the sober messages of which are folded into delectable beats. If the Latin funk of "Miguel" doesn't get your hips moving, you're either deaf or dead.
Rux's music is intricate, beautiful stuff, a long-overdue return to hip-hop's roots, which lie not only in jazz and R&B, but in poetry and invention. -- Steve Almond