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Various Artists
In Tha Beginning...There Was Rap
(Priority Records)

Say what you will about rap -- it's sexist, it promotes violence, it gave Vanilla Ice his fifteen minutes of fame -- but it changed popular music as we know it. First heard in the late Seventies and early Eighties, rap and its close cousin, hip-hop, represented a totally new sound, completely different from the genres predominant at the time: New Wave, punk, AOR, and disco.

In Tha Beginning pays homage to the musical energy and inventiveness of the nascent rap scene that coalesced in the outer boroughs of New York City. The twelve cuts on this compilation are covers of those groundbreaking "old-school" songs performed by current masters of the medium, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Cypress Hill, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Coolio, among others. As might be expected, the results are hit-and-miss.

What's interesting is that within the last fifteen years or so there's been little change in rap's most basic ingredient: the mouth. "Rapper's Delight" (the Def Squad version of the Sugar Hill Gang classic) and "6 'N Tha Mornin'" (Master P's rendition of Ice-T's exercise in sexual obscenity) work well because of their stripped-down feel, which allows the lyrics to dominate. With so much controversy, violence, and studio gimmickry surrounding rap these days, it's easy to forget that lyrics will always be the music's driving force.

Of course some of the old songs should have been left alone. The Wu-Tang Clan's cover of Run-D.M.C.'s "Sucker M.C.'s" is just plain annoying, and the drum machines that were amusing in the original are overpowering here. Likewise Puffy Combs can't quite get a handle on L.L. Cool J's hedonistic "Big Ole Butt." Puffy's smooth vocal style is enjoyable on his own songs, but here he sounds lazy and lecherous.

As a side note, the less-than-famous Oakland rapper Too $hort deserves some credit for longevity. He's both covered (by Snoop Doggy Dogg, who undulates his way through "Freaky Tales") and coverer (on a competent reading of "I Need a Freak," an old gem by Sexual Harassment).

If nothing else In Tha Beginning is worth the price for nostalgia's sake. After all no matter who's on the mike, it's hard not to bob your head to the bumping bass and chant along with the "Rapper's Delight" rhyme "Hotel/Motel/Holiday Inn."

-- Liesa Goins

Leonard Cohen
More Best of Leonard Cohen

Given that he seems to pursue the austere and reclusive life of a Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen is unlikely to release an album of all-new songs anytime soon. His last, The Future, came out five years ago. And that's a damn shame, because the 63-year-old Canadian poet and songwriter possesses one of the most beguiling voices in popular music. He's like a creepy shaman whose basso profundo sermons are difficult to comprehend but impossible to ignore.

In lieu of a new set, Cohen (or perhaps his record company) has seen fit to release More Best of, a collection of tracks from his five most recent LPs, along with two new offerings. Of special note is the work drawn from I'm Your Man (1988). Casual Cohen fans will recognize this material from the cover versions done by various altrockers on the tribute album I'm Your Fan (1991), but there's nothing like the original. On the tragicomic "Tower of Song," for instance, only Cohen possesses the authority to grumble the line, "I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice." Equally alluring is "Take This Waltz," a romantic ballad with lyrics courtesy of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Its gentle blend of strings and percussion will leave younger listeners pining for lessons in ballroom dancing.

Brisk, live versions of two old favorites, "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah," are included, though hard-core Cohenites may bemoan the absence of the classic "Famous Blue Raincoat." As compensation, Cohen offers two new songs: "Never Any Good," a typically mordant ode to love, and "The Great Event," a riveting curiosity. At barely more than a minute, this latter track provides a chilling coda to the material as a whole. Its haunting, synthesized melody and computer-tweaked vocals give it an air of apocalyptic authority. "What a lovely night that would be, what a sigh of relief," declares Cohen, his voice transformed into a spooky, girlish monotone, "as the senile robins become bright red again, and the retired nightingales pick up their dusty tails and assert the majesty of creation!" And what a sigh of relief to have Cohen back in action.

-- Steve Almond

The London Suede
Sci-Fi Lullabyes

When taking a musical tour of London, Americans generally stay on the clean, well-lighted streets where they can find the Beatlesque pop of Oasis and the New-Wave energy of Blur. But London is full of dark, seedy, sticky corners as well, and they're the cruising grounds for Brett Anderson, the feminized, glamour-boy singer with the London Suede.

The band made its first and only splash in America in 1992 with "Animal Nitrate," an aggressive, steamy slice of glam-rock driven by Anderson's Cockney cat yowl and Bernard Butler's muscular guitar. Dog man star (1994) won the band no new converts, but it was truly a masterpiece: all Romantic balladry, high camp, and fashionable sleaze. ("Still Life" and "Heroine" are that album's standout tracks.) For Coming Up, released late in 1996, Anderson went back to nightclubs and coke parties for inspiration, resulting in tawdry little pop songs such as "Trash" and "Filmstar."

The London Suede's combination of Morrissey-esque melodrama and Seventies-style sexual slipperiness makes for a powerful alchemical mix (and a lot of naughty fun). But Sci-Fi Lullabies, a two-disc collection of B-sides, illuminates the band's gloomier side. Like the Smiths, the London Suede put some of its best material on the backs of singles, and some of these songs could have been hits on their own (especially the rave-up "Killing of a Flash Boy" and the slinky "My Dark Star"). Yet much of the material is brooding, morose, and even sinister -- not exactly radio fodder.

It's demanding stuff, and much of it is brilliant. "My Insatiable One," which Morrissey saw fit to cover, features one of Butler's more elegant guitar licks; "High Rising" is a terrific weeper, full of stirring strings and shivery flutes; "Together" is a delightfully evil vignette about a boy's attraction to a bit of rough trade.

These 27 tracks also afford a glimpse into the workings of Anderson's hopelessly dirty mind: He's always looking for a way to play the poet ("Think of the sea, my darling/As you murder me") or the decadent ("We're so disco we can't get on in this world any more") or the bottom dweller ("On a high wire, dressed in a leotard/There wobbles one hell of a retard"). Most Yanks would say: Don't go there. But Sci-Fi Lullabies is not for neophytes -- it's an extra reward for those who've already been lured back to Anderson's shabby hotel room.

-- Rafer Guzman

550 Music/Epic

Well, yeah, Jason Narducy writes and sings the songs -- and his plangent guitar playing fuels the overall sound -- for the Chicago foursome Verbow (rhymes with turbo). But producer and mentor Bob Mould's aural and attitudinal fingerprints appear all over Chronicles, the band's full-length debut. The gray sheets of dense guitar chords. The glimmers of acoustic guitar peeking through the mix. The sawed cello counterpoint (courtesy of long-time Narducy collaborator Alison Chesley). The relentlessly earnest world-view suffused with periodic bouts of self-pity ("The Distance Between Us," "Lethargy's Crown").

Mould casts a shadow over almost everything here: from the Sturm und Drang of the CD's opening track, "Fan Club" (wherein Narducy sticks a knife in the back of a fallen rock hero -- Morrissey?) right on up to the choruses on the album's closer, "Down the Gun." (Oddly, that last song's verses echo Nirvana.) Geez, the buzzing, poppy "The Chronicles of Agent Kidd" and similar-sounding "River Wish" -- ohmygod, those background vocals are sooooo Bob! -- could be lost tracks from Copper Blue, the 1992 debut by Mould's band Sugar; and the slow, reflective "Execution of a Jester" and like-minded "The Distance Between Us," both buoyed only by acoustic guitar, cello, and tambourine, would've fit comfortably on Mould's 1989 solo Workbook. Not necessarily bad things, mind you, but kind of pointless. File under: redundant listening.

-- Michael Yockel

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Liesa Goins
Rafer Guzman
Michael Yockel

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