"What becomes a legend most?" Melora Creager muses in "The Olde HeadBoard," the booty-shaking baroque 'n' roll track that opens Rasputina's sophomore album. If the Brooklyn "ladies' cello society" is to achieve iconic status, it's doing the most becoming thing already, draining the same vein it opened in 1996 with "Thanks for the Ether." Comprising three cellists decked out in Victorian corsets and lace and their pet drummer, Rasputina concocts such rich, nuanced chamber rock that it's a wonder boys ever bothered with that guitar nonsense at all.
Creager and cello-mates Julia Kent and Agniezska Rybska, abetted by skin-pounder/programmer Chris Vrenna, construct lush harmonies and intricate interweavings of sawed and moaning strings, veering from the pounding power chords and sampled stadium roar of "Leech Wife" to a narcotic string-plunking cover of the Lesley Gore hit "You Don't Own Me." Creager's girlish vibrato wafts trippingly over an elegant ballroom melody of the delicate "Rose K." As did the band's first CD, "Forest" includes a few surrealistic spoken-word numbers. In a childlike voice, Creager details grotesque exorcism treatments over mannered, courtly strings on "Christian Soldiers" and rambles distorted over jerky cello moans and programmed machine noises on "Dwarf Star." "Diamond Mind" is a Fran Drescher-voiced torrent of avarice.
The disc sags in the middle, weighed down by the bombastic "TrenchMouth" and maudlin ethereal trifles "Sign of the Zodiac" and "Herb Girls of Birkenau." Only Creager's blasi intonation saves "MayFly" from fluttering into Enya territory. But if there's a sophomore slump evident, it's a small one indeed. And after all, as Creager warbles in the title track, "The scene is not what it used to be/The scene is never what it used to be."
-->BY SETH MNOOKIN | Spiritualized. Paul Weller. Primal Scream. Supergrass.
Not exactly the first ingredients that come to mind when adding flavor to a steaming pot of psychedelic, Professor Longhair-style, voodoo gris-gris gumbo. So what're they doing on Dr. John's new effort, "Anutha Zone"? Is he making a growling plea for relevance?
Well, no. Maybe the good doctor just wanted to show the young Brits how they do it, N'awlins style. And on tracks aptly titled "Ki Ya Gris Gris," "I Like Ki Yoka" and "Sweet Home New Orleans," he does exactly that. "Anutha Zone" is a glorious, thick, funky, languid collection, showing once again that three decades after he confounded hippies and roots-freaks alike, there is only one Mac Rebannack.
From the brief but soulful, teasing "Zonata," the solo piano piece that starts the album, to the rolling bass, pedal-steel guitar, emphatic organ lines and sly, trademark growling delivery that run throughout the album, "Anutha Zone" is a delicious mixture of wink-wink humor, ass-shaking horn sections and Dr. John's peculiar brand of social commentary. Conjuring the voodoo gods, Dr. John sounds as strong and as committed to the murky, shudderingly soulful, slowed-down funk of New Orleans as ever. Praise Kiwa Kiya, indeed.
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SEVEN AND SEVEN | ELEKTRA/EASTWEST RECORDS
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BY ALEX PAPPADEMAS | In an era when Brandy and Monica's cuddly single "The Boy Is Mine" counts as a savage catfight, does an ornery soul like MC Lyte's still have a place in pop? In the best moments on her new album, "Seven and Seven" -- songs like "Too Fly" and "Want What I Got" -- Lyte cracks jokes, snaps skulls and laughs off the competition like it's 1989. You get the feeling that if she decided the boy were hers, there wouldn't even be a debate.
Guest producer Missy Elliott plays half-speed double-dutch with the drums, stretching junglist rhythms into long, funky exhalations, and Lyte's voice, a Brooklyn growl that remains as scratchy and vibrant as an old-school bass line, bobs and weaves through the spaces. But Lyte really needs somebody like Missy in her corner -- Elliott only contributes to four tracks, and the rest of "Seven and Seven" (save a couple memorably crude rhymes, like the one about the erotic potential of Twister) is catchy, but never compelling. It's an attempt at party-friendly jiggy-ness so forced it feels court-mandated.
Lyte can deliver a throwaway line like "How simple did it seem/to smudge my Maybelline?" with a calm confidence that makes Rakim sound like Don Knotts. But even she can't redeem reheated disco like "Party Goin' On" or the post-Puffy cheese slice "Put It on You." Her badass presence becomes a liability -- as she strains for another "Cold Rock a Party," you can hear all that power going to waste.
BY ANDREW HAMLIN | Distill down the murky, fuming spirits the Rolling Stones played with on "Exile on Main Street"; leave in the rooster-proud boogie-choogle guitar riffs; replace Charlie Watts' spritely and soulful percussion with Mike Dahlquist's sense of attacking cymbals and toms as though each beat was the last waking breath of a brokenhearted drunk falling asleep in a Dumpster; twist the bass guitar (courtesy head honcho Tim Midgett, who also plays "baritone and regular guitar") into a rubbery burble. That's the sound of Silkworm's latest record. Midgett sings ragged and artless in the accepted indie style, but an endearing half-resigned, half-yearning melancholy is all he needs to put the wry words across (and unlike "Exile," this paean to dissipation comes with a lyric sheet). In "Said It Too Late" a girl congratulates the singer on his soulfulness; "That's just the blues I heard from the English dudes," he confesses, though not to her. "Beyond Repair" touches a stained hand to the Beach Boys too, concluding with this homage/mission statement: "Love, sister, is just a kiss away/when it exists it just comes one day/Until then, sit on your hands and wait."
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CROWN OF JEWELS | REPRISE
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BY JOHN MILWARD | Randy Scruggs is one of the hidden masters of contemporary Nashville. The son of banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs, he cut his teeth playing guitar in his father's band before becoming a prominent session player and producer. Scruggs played on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's seminal 1972 collection, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a folksy round robin that introduced the rock community to such country, folk and bluegrass luminaries as Merle Travis, Doc Watson and Maybelle Carter. Scruggs himself produced 1989's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two," which expanded the pickin' party to include such contemporary voices as John Hiatt, Rosanne Cash and John Prine.
"Crown of Jewels" is Scruggs' first solo album, but with a guest list nearly as long as that of the "Circle" collections, it's a work that similarly argues that a gifted musician best shines in the company of equally talented peers. The result, however, is that the collection reflects Scruggs' tastes and talents as a producer more than it establishes his own artistic stamp. His collaboration with Mary Chapin Carpenter, "It's Only Love," softens Carpenter's typically frosty presentation, and if recruiting Travis Tritt to sing a sweetly rocking rendition of the old Pure Prairie League hit "Aime" seems like a rather transparent commercial ploy, the pairing of Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent to harmonize on the traditional "Wildwood Flower" is simply sublime.
The true riches in "Crown of Jewels" are found in the unassuming virtuosity of the players. The album opens with Scruggs and Vince Gill trading guitar lines on "A Soldier's Joy," and soars on "Travel On," a Southern-rock instrumental in which Scruggs' electric lead tangles with Lee Roy Parnell's slide guitar and Bruce Hornsby's piano. It ends with Scruggs playing a lovely solo guitar arrangement of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." Clearly, Scruggs is not one to make radical, groundbreaking music. Instead, he seeks new ground by finding new ways to make his traditionalist strings sing.
BY J. POET | Pianist Geri Allen is as familiar with funk and the blues as she is with free-flowing hard bop, and on "The Gathering" she gets a chance to showcase her diverse playing and compositional expertise. On "Light Matter," Allen, along with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White, explores a whole palette of textures, time signatures and colors, as if presenting a musical explanation of the way light travels through the universe, while the soothing synthesizer lullaby "Baby's Breath" showcases the subtle side of Allen's phrasing and control.
Allen's risumi includes work with Dewey Redman, Ornette Coleman and Me'shell N'degeocello. This set includes duos, trios and small band configurations, and features stellar players like ex-Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid, who brings a flamencolike flair to his work on "Ray," a meditation for piano, guitar and sparse percussion, and trombone player Robin Eubanks, featured on the title track, a piece that follows black music from West Africa to the bright lights of Broadway. Like Monk and Coltrane, Allen has a unique ability to use avant-garde ideas in a manner that makes them accessible, without robbing them of their power to impress and inspire.