The Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks 6180)
There's a reason the Chemical Brothers have the music industry abuzz -- nobody makes dance records that rock as hard as theirs do. "Dig Your Own Hole," the duo's second album, may kick off with the sampled announcement that the Chemicals are "back with another one of those block rockin' beats," but it isn't just the rhythm that makes this music jump. Like the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's old production crew, the Chemicals recognize that texture is the key to controlling musical momentum. So "Dig Your Own Hole" is full of brash, ear-catching sounds, from the shrieking klaxons and braying trumpets of "Setting Sun" to the squawking synths and sizzling cymbal of "Don't Stop the Rock." Of course, the music isn't all edge, since the Chemicals are careful about how they use those crunchy bits, swirling them into the mix like toasted rice into milk chocolate. But there's enough bite that the best tracks -- "Setting Sun," the pulsing "Block Rockin' Beats," and the giddily percussive "Get Up On It Like This" -- come on like mini-amusement parks, offering so many sonic thrills that you can't help but want to ride the groove again.
Elegantly Wasted (Mercury 314 534 531)
The funny thing about the new INXS album isn't that it sounds like an old INXS album; it's that the old INXS sound would still seem so fresh. Even though there's barely a new idea anywhere on "Elegantly Wasted," the album's 11 songs are still wonderfully entertaining, offering a near-irresistible mix of dance-music savvy and rock and roll attitude. The title tune is a case-in-point, generating a lean, James Brown-ish groove for the verse, then inflating it to arena-rock size for the chorus. There's a touch of Stones-style aggression (particularly in Michael Hutchence's vocal) in "Don't Lose Your Head," and throbbing, bass-driven TTC urgency to "Girl on Fire" that gives the tune the drive of a turbo-charged V-8. Grabbing that energy seems to be the key, though, as the album's slower songs seldom shine so brightly. "Searching" may boast a sinuous pulse and soulful backing vocals, but the song only simmers when it ought to sizzle; likewise, while the lazy pace and mock-ominous synths that adorn "Build Bridges" go a long way to help establish the song's mood, they don't do much to help hold the listener's attention (the midsong shift from loud to soft helps, however). Fortunately, such moments are fairly rare, meaning that few of the album's tracks genuinely do seem "Wasted."
Happy Town (Lava 82991)
That Jill Sobule knows how to tell a story has been obvious since "I Kissed a Girl" put her on the map. What "Happy Town" shows us is just how smart her stories are. It isn't just that she knows the right answers; what makes "Bitter" such an effective lesson in avoiding envy is that Sobule lets us look through the green eyes of jealousy before showing how such bitterness leaves people shriveled and mean. Nor does she shy away from difficult truths, deftly skewering the selfishness of single life in "I'm Free," and owning up to romance's dirty little secret in "Love Is Never Equal." And she's a whiz at conveying character, as the artful portrait of a right-to-lifer in "Soldiers of Christ" makes plain. But as good as her words are, it's the music that makes the album work. The loping, Latin rhythms of "When My Ship Comes In" establish its jaunty mood long before the lyrics kick in, while the title tune's shift from cheesy, low-key organ to bright, power-pop guitar make it easy to understand the difference between the dull old world and life in that new, prozac-ed "Happy Town." A wonderfully smart, tuneful and incisive album.
Music Evolution (Columbia 67584)
Record companies and radio stations like to put music into pigeonholes, keeping styles separate in order to make them easier to market. Branford Marsalis, on the other hand, likes to mix things up, drawing freely from any musical form he finds interesting. Hence Buckshot LeFonque, a group devoted to the idea of making pigeonholes a thing of the past. It isn't just that "Music Evolution" finds Marsalis and crew doing everything from hip-hop to hard rock; as one song proudly points out, they make sure to do each their way. So "James Brown" does more than cop a few licks from the Godfather of Soul -- it moves from retrofunk to sample-and-scratch while leaving more than enough room for Marsalis' tenor to trade solos with alto man David Sanborn. Even better is "Jungle Groove," in which drummer Rocky Bryant plays breakbeats live on his kit while Marsalis and the boys blow bebop. Factor in a few pop ballads like the lovely, Stevie Wonder-ish "Better Than I Am" (beautifully sung by keyboardist Frank McComb), and "Music Evolution" truly does seem like a higher form of entertainment.
Pub Date: 4/17/97