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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.

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

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Liesa Goins
Rafer Guzman
Curt Hopkins
John Lewis

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