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Lou Bega
A Little Bit of Mambo

Mambo has always been a mongrelized genre -- a kind of catchall style that incorporates aspects of son, salsa, and danzón -- the primary goal of which is to get bodies onto the dance floor. But the label, elastic though it may be, has probably never been stretched quite as thin as it is by Lou Bega, the bandleader whose debut album has become an unexpected international smash. Bega himself is of half Ugandan and half Sicilian ancestry, which makes the band Latin only in the broadest sense. His band is composed almost entirely of Germans, a fact that sounds quite grim on paper. One would think -- in agreement with Beck's recent ad campaign -- that "Germans don't do mambo."

As it turns out, this assumption is not quite fair. A Little Bit of Mambo certainly isn't going to cause Tito Puente to lose any sleep, but the platter does serve its essential purpose: to keep the party hopping. From the opening strains of the smash "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…)" -- with its infectious horn section and sing-along chorus -- to the final salsafied thump of "Mambo Mambo," this is a gloriously energetic piece of fluff.

The sweetly goofy "Baby Keep Smiling" offers an unexpected dose of doo-wop, while "The Trumpet Part II" layers rich dashes of brass over a syncopated drum loop. "The Most Expensive Girl in the World" powers along on a rush of mindless Hammond organ before giving way, enchantingly, to a sinuous flute solo. "Icecream" boasts all the exuberant pop idiocy of a Hanson single.

As a bandleader, Bega plays it equal parts Cab Calloway and Ricky Ricardo. He has an unctuous, hollering, but not altogether unpleasant presence. He spends most of his time delivering hip-hop-style lyrics in a raspy baritone; the rest he spends performing limp Latin shtick. The purists, obviously, will be disgusted. This is not mambo so much as mambo marketed. Then again you'd be hard pressed to find a CD better suited for your next poolside bacchanal. -- Steve Almond

Iggy Pop
Avenue B
(Virgin Records)

For some people Iggy Pop is a threat, a dangerous iconoclast who is unpredictable and can't be controlled because he himself is blithely unaware of his next move. For others he's a savior, the Godfather of Punk, the walking, talking personification of rebellion and unrest. When Iggy says he wants to be your dog, he isn't just being coy or metaphorical. He damn well wants to be your dog -- collar, leash, and bowl included.

Iggy's seminal influence now stretches across an almost inconceivable three decades. The full-metal-jacket groin kick of the first two Stooges albums -- released in 1969 and 1970 -- set off a tumult that continues to resonate. To this day trashy punk urchins cite Iggy as the poster boy for their snotty personas. A lengthy recording hiatus ended for Iggy in 1973 with the release of the protopunk classic Raw Power. The album lived up to its title with sonic bone-saw guitars that slashed as Iggy shrieked out visceral gems like "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" and "Gimme Danger."

But it was the dark menace and icy cool surprise of 1977's The Idiot that teed up Iggy's subsequent volatile career. He smartly chose to jettison his Stooges caricature and expand his repertoire and range through his own artistic savvy as well as his association with David Bowie, whose influence colored The Idiot and its brilliant follow-up, Lust For Life. Iggy has since run the gamut from mature rocker to blissful screwup to Eurotrash dance maven to heavy-metal poseur to an amalgam of them all with little regard for prevailing musical fashion or commercial acceptance.

Avenue B, Iggy's latest release, comes at an uncharacteristically delicate time. His marriage has ended, he's reached his 50th birthday, and he finds himself in a complete reassessment mode. The result is a strange, thoughtful album that showcases Iggy's effective skills as a crooner. Although he has admitted to a steady diet of Frank Sinatra's confessional bel canto records during the Avenue B sessions, he has oddly distanced himself from intensely personal themes and issues. While he maintains that Avenue B is not autobiographical, no one records songs this personal and vulnerable -- and no one delivers them in such breathy context -- without revealing a little slice of his own life.

Most telling are the spoken-word interludes that play like the Ol' Blue Eyes classic "It Was a Very Good Year" run through the Iggy filter: Layers of attitude are grafted onto atmospheric Angelo Badalementi veneers. Iggy's worlds collide on the gently arranged, harshly themed "Nazi Girlfriend," in which he reinvents himself as the Chairman of the Bored -- his self-proclaimed title from 1979's New Values album -- with spectacularly bizarre results. Most of Avenue B follows this strange example, as Iggy morphs his raw lyrical concerns into his tilted spin on the cocktail nation, especially on the spooky "Miss Argentina" and the moody "Long Distance." Occasional appearances by jazzy group Medeski, Martin & Wood hint that something is wonderfully awry in Iggyland.

Although Avenue B rarely rises above a loungy whisper, one moment of sonic disparity occurs when Iggy sets the Wayback Machine for "Shakin' All Over," a long-time live staple given a sloppy new life here. The familiar chaos could be a sign that he's not ready to hang up his punk shoes, or it could be Iggy's farewell to unadulterated rock. Time will tell if Avenue B signals a new chapter in Iggy Pop's storied career or if this is merely a midlife reflection that will result in an even more virulent strain of Iggy in the new millennium. Either way, Iggy will present the scenario as if it had never happened before. -- Brian Baker

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Brian Baker