Soundsystem (Capricorn 314 546 645)
"Come original, you got to come original/All entertainers, come original," sings 311's Nick Hexum on the song "Come Original." Despite the awkward grammar, there's no mistaking Hexum's meaning -- there's no value to be had in trend-chasing or imitation. If you want your work to matter, you need to do something distinctive.
To their credit, the members of 311 have done just that with "Soundsystem." Even as other bands are cashing in on the rap/rock fusion that 311 helped pioneer, the band's new album moves beyond the obvious variations to deliver something unique and different.
"Come Original," for instance, does just that, mixing a lilting, dancehall vocal with hip-hop rhythms and crunchy guitar for the A-section, then shifting to a more aggressive pulse based on slap-bass and turntable scratching for the rap-style B-section. That alone is more musical variety than most bands manage, but 311 shifts gears yet again on the song's bridge, laying down an angular metal riff that seems to soar over the pulsing bass and drums.
Thanks to the lyric, "Come Original" may be the most obvious example of 311's unique and eclectic approach, but it's hardly an isolated example. From the easy, Caribbean-inflected flow of "Strong All Along" to the punchy, muscular groove of "Large In the Margin," 311 offers a wide array of stylistic ideas here. But even when the sources are obvious, what the band does with its influences is neither pat nor predictable.
Indeed, if there's any common thread to these songs, it's the way the group balances rhythmic fluidity with textural intensity. In other words, no matter how much 311 wants to punish your speakers, the band never wants to interrupt your groove. So even though there's a fair amount of guitar shred in songs such as "Freeze Time" or "Can't Fade Me," 311 never detours into straight-out thrash, preferring instead to keep the music at a nice, funky simmer.
Wanting to "come original" doesn't mean the band doesn't occasionally pay overt tribute at points. Even though "Life's Not a Race" uses no congas or timbales, it's hard to mistake the influence Santana exerts over the track, from Tim Mahoney's sweetly searing lead (very much in the Carlos Santana vein) to the "Black Magic Woman"-style breakdown at the song's end.
But even when 311 wears its sources on its sleeve, the band never seems to be slavishly imitating the artists it admires. These guys would rather "come original," and that's the best reason to make their "Soundsystem" a regular feature on your sound system. HHH1/2
Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer
Short Trip Home (Sony Classical 60864)
Let's be honest -- nobody thinks of bluegrass as the cultural equivalent of chamber music. Chamber music, after all, is serious stuff, all furrowed brows and complicated bow-work; bluegrass, by contrast, is jes' folks music, all pickin' and grinnin' and off-hand virtuosity. But as violinist Joshua Bell and bassist Edgar Meyer (with the help of mandolinists Sam Bush and Mike Marshall) demonstrate on "Short Trip Home," there's no reason to let such cultural stereotyping get in the way of making smart, entertaining music. Think of it as a sort of "Berkshire Mountain Breakdown," as composer Meyer -- the man responsible for 1997's acclaimed "Appalachia Waltz" -- splits the difference between Aaron Copland and Flatt & Scruggs. From the raucous sawing of "Hang Hang" to the lithe, Celtic phrases of "BT," this is American music at its finest. ***
The Best of Yaz (Reprise 47503)
Back in the early '80s, when Yaz made its debut with the album "Upstairs at Eric's," the duo initially seemed just a curious spin-off from Depeche Mode. That was where Vince Clarke got his start, concocting the lion's share of hooks for the effervescent "Just Can't Get Enough." But Clarke's aesthetic was deemed too pop for the rest of D.M., so he set out on his own, hooking up with the dusky-voiced soul singer Alison Moyet. Between the crisp coolness of Clarke's synths and the emotional heat of Moyet's vocals, the duo really did seem to find the ghost in the machine, and tracks such as "Only You," "Don't Go" and "Situation" have maintained enough impact to make the collection "The Best of Yaz" seem almost overdue. ***
Sola (RMM 02824023)
Even though she started out working in the electronically-charged world of Latin hip-hop, India has managed to become quite the salsa traditionalist -- so much so, in fact, that "Sola" almost seems a throwback to the brassy charm of '70s salsa. It helps that Isidro Infante's arrangements manage the trick of maximizing the music's instrumental punch without ever seeming to crowd the singing. But what really pushes this album into overdrive is India herself, who moves with breathtaking ease from an almost conversational croon to the sort of full-voice power an opera star would envy. So she delivers the title tune with heartwarming understatement, rattles the windows with "Hielo," and builds dramatically through the likes of "Lo Siento Mi Amor." ***
"The Legend of 1900"
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Sony Classical 67672)
If George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong and Erich Korngold had somehow gotten together and collaborated on a soundtrack, perhaps we might have gotten something as delicious as the score Ennio Morricone created for "The Legend of 1900." A gifted mimic, Morricone mixes bits of ragtime, jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop to give the music a suitably vintage feel (the Gershwin gloss in the main theme is worth the price of the CD). But as much as those elements add color to the music, the meat is Morricone's themes, which -- as with his work for "The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly," "Once Upon a Time in America" and "The Mission" -- are melodically rich and emotionally resonant. Add in cameos by singer Roger Waters and guitarist Edward Van Halen, and this becomes a must-hear album. ***1/2
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent