Finally (Interscope 90274)
In the thumping, rap-spiked chorus to "Can You Feel Me," Blackstreet gets right to the point with the chorus: "Gotta get with the people/Give the people what they want."
That's precisely what the group does on its third album, "Finally." Drawing from the dominant trends in hip-hop, Blackstreet and its producer/frontman, Teddy Riley, create an album that's as catchy as it is unoriginal.
Given how readily hip-hop and pop rely on recycled ideas at the moment, it's hard to blame Riley for going with the flow. Originality may have had benefits back in the day when Riley was formulating the sound we now know as new jack swing, but the prevailing attitude at the moment appears to be "any hook in a storm."
So Blackstreet leans on big, obvious samples on some songs and rides fashionably derivative rhythms -- particularly the percolating, percussive funk popularized by fellow Virginia Beach denizen Timbaland. Riley and his crew even plagiarize themselves, quoting from the keyboard hook to "Don't Leave Me" in "I'm Sorry."
Little of that lack of originality is likely to be held against them, if only because Blackstreet so consistently delivers the goods. From the itchy pulse of "Girlfriend/Boyfriend" to the simmering soul balladry of "Black & White" to the edgy vocal interplay in "Drama," there's something here for almost any fan of contemporary R&B.; There's even a bit of the blues in "Hustler's Prayer."
Besides, Riley may borrow some, but he's never guilty of Grand Theft Melody. True, "Can You Feel Me" may be obvious about what it owes to the Jacksons' oldie "Can You Feel It," but that's more a matter of tribute than melodic larceny.
In fact, the only truly objectionable use of samples comes with the remix of "Take Me There." Where the original (from the "Rugrats" soundtrack) had the sing-song charm of a nursery rhyme, this version is yoked to a sample from the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," a recycled groove that completely overwhelms the song.
Blackstreet seems to have a real Jackson jones on this album. In addition to the aforementioned samples, Riley duets with Janet Jackson on "Girlfriend/Boyfriend," a pairing that adds extra heat to the tune's battle-of-the-sexes lyrics.***
Central Reservation (Arista 19038)
So much has changed in the world of folk rock over the last decade that it's sometimes difficult to determine what distinguishes contemporary folkies from run-of-the-mill rockers. Take Beth Orton, for example. However much the songs on "Central Reservation" might hew to the shape and sensibility of folk music -- the reliance on acoustic guitar patterns, the plain-spoken singing, the sly, literate lyrics -- the album's sound is pure alt-rock. "Stolen Car," with its surging pulse and burnished, distortion-edged textures, could almost pass for an outtake from a Radiohead album, while "Couldn't Cause Me Harm" has the loping groove and cool, electronic luster of acid jazz. But no matter how the tunes are arranged, Orton's dusky, world-weary voice holds center stage, illuminating the lyrics so expertly that we can't help but empathize with her protagonists. ***
The Dirtchamber Sessions, Volume One (XL Recordings XLCD128)
After the punkish intensity of "Firestarter" caught the eye of MTV, the Prodigy were proudly proclaimed the rock-and-roll face of English electronica. But the group -- particularly musical mastermind Liam Howlett -- has deep roots in dance music, and it showcases that side of its sound on "The Dirtchamber Sessions, Volume One." This is a mix album, meaning that instead of original songs, what we get is a melange of samples, drum machine rhythms and excerpts from other people's recordings. On the surface, that may not sound like much, but in Howlett's hands, this scratch-and-mix approach is riveting, in part because he has such great (and diverse) taste, but mainly because he can draw connections most listeners would never imagine, moving easily from pop anarchists the KLF to house guru Frankie Bones to jazzman Herbie Hancock. ***
Traveling Miles (Blue Note 7243 8 54123)
Tribute albums tend to be fairly simple affairs, offering little more than well-meaning remakes of an artist's best-known recordings. Singer Cassandra Wilson's "Traveling Miles" is another matter entirely. A mixture of material either recorded or inspired by the late Miles Davis, the album has less to do with the Davis legacy than with the impact his work made on Wilson. That's not to say she ignores his catalog, as Wilson does vocalized versions of everything from "Seven Steps to Heaven" to "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" (the latter featuring "Bitches Brew" bassist Dave Holland). But the album's heart lies with the daring that Wilson learned from Davis, and it's her relentless originality that ultimately elevates this tribute to greatness of its own. ***1/2
Tucuma (Verve 314 559 863)
There's something wonderfully fluid about the music of Brazil that allows it to absorb all sorts of influences and still retain its distinctive flavor. Vinicius Cantuaria plays with an astonishing array of musicians on "Tucuma," making music with everybody from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to art rocker Laurie Anderson to alt-rocker Sean Lennon. But no matter who he has in the studio, Cantuaria keeps the music firmly grounded in the samba-schooled rhythms of tropicalia. Some of the songs, such as melancholy, drum-driv-en "Sanfona," draw from traditions deep within Brazilian music; others, like the angular, dissonant "Aviso ao Navegante" or the buzzing, electro-edged "Igarape," seem as futuristic as the architecture in Brasilia. But the warmth in Cantuaria's voice and the charm of his melodies render stylistic distinctions meaningless -- it's all equally ear-catching. ***
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 04/01/99