Cleanup Time

As promised a month ago, find below not just the usual P&J cleanup but many records I didn't then know existed even if I recognized their names. Since this category is always especially hospitable to Honorable Mentions, there are more than usual in the fine print. And P.S. The Dud of the Month was in type the week before the Grammies.

Fiona Apple
When the Pawn . . .
(Clean Slate/Epic)
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For any Upper West Side showbiz kid, musical comedy is mother's milk, more "natural" than the rude attack of rock or the polite confessional of folk. And having gone mega, Fiona was autonomous enough to want it that way. With crucial help from Jon Brion, she's got the Richard Rodgers/Kurt Weill part down, and will surely tackle the Dorothy Fields/Lorenz Hart part later. Meanwhile, confessional attacks like "A Mistake" and "Get Gone" will do. Webber & Sondheim, watch out. A MINUS

Baby Namboos
(Palm Pictures)
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The band Tricky's otherwise unpedigreed cousin threw together includes not only a well-connected stylist to handle the Martina stuff but a real drummer. So though this sounds like, gee, a Tricky record, it's more grooveful and also more playful, catering to the theoretical paying customers however private it must be. Even for us Tricky fans, these intimations of vitality are a relief. Note, however, that one of unk's three consecutive guest tracks provides the album's title and its peak. A walking hook is our Tricky. B PLUS

Black Box Recorder
England Made Me
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Terrorism behind him, Auteur auteur Luke Haines (plus a Jesus and Mary Chain guy, bet he had a lot of ideas) sets himself to limning the kind of g-i-r-l indie-poppers can't resist: rich, delicate, contained, and so neurotic that to expect her to give of herself would be meaningless. In her pretty little voice, Sarah Nixey convinces the world that rich English girls have every right to hate their rich English parents and covers the happy ragga-reggae "Up Town Top Ranking" and the morbid teen-chanson "Seasons of the Sun" as if they reflect the identical sensibility, which now they do. A MINUS

Continental Drifters
(Razor & Tie)
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The lyrics resolve on home truisms, earned and learned but predictable nonetheless, just like the alt-pop songforms and country-rock groove. So Concerned Citizens Against Teenpop should note that this consistently expert supergroup material has a secret weapon, and it's not the ex-dB, the ex-Bangle, or the ex–Dream Syndicator. It's the ex-Cowsill, little Susan, who before she was 10 knew Top 40 fame on some awful songs and one for the books: "Indian Lake," which said more about vacations than was dreamt of in Connie Francis's philosophy. These days Susan sings with a flat generosity whose ever so slightly sour and serrated relation to pitch renders to the truisms their portion of truth while never suggesting that she doesn't enjoy getting away. A MINUS

Hamell on Trial

Ed Hamell is a DIY folkie with a punky band who inhabits the sleazy corner where boonie bohemia meets pure low-life. Drugs can make that happen, as can marginal employment slipping toward petty crime. His pals Chooch and Joe Brush certainly don't read Hammett, maybe Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen for the warm weather. I bet Hamell reads them all—and that along with talk TV, they've influenced his narrative poesy. B PLUS

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Kaleidoscopic not as in psychedelic—this is pop funk straight up—but as in changeable, hard to get a bead on. Beyond male-identified, that is. The many moods of Kelis only begin with the hissy fit she's gone pop with (which, I should mention, is about as riot-grrrl as Gwen Stefani on a bad hair day). She stands by her man, reasons with her man, lies for her man, watches TV alongside her man, loads his gun, fucks him in the window, hopes he misses his damn plane. She thinks about ghetto boys and girls, she thinks about outer space, and mainly she thinks about her man. Why else would she get so mad at him? A MINUS

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
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In which a cartoonist and a soundtrack hack compose classic postmodern musical-comedy songs, so indiscriminate in their incorrectness that they keep sneaking up on you. Since Eric Cartman can outsing Saddam Hussein and Big Gay Al through a glory hole, only the full-chorus versions of "Mountain Town" can compete with "Kyle's Mom's a B**ch." But the all-around quality of the movie performances is brought into relief by the CD-only "interpretations," where only Joe C. and the Violent Femmes do the material justice; as a writer, Isaac Hayes doesn't get it, and Trey Parker has trouble finding certified gangsta rappers willing to utter the words "uncle fucka." In short, the original cast's greatest hits, undercut by the kind of stoned, wouldn't-it-be-funny-if? fizzles that make the show so dumb sometimes. A MINUS

Totally Hits
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Of course it cheats—every compilation cheats. Inferior Sugar Ray, Monica, and Madonna, ringer from the hapless Five, awful hit from the imitable Sarah McLachlan. But given its BMG-WEA limitations, this is premier radio fodder. It rescues Cher and LFO from their meaningless albums as it repackages ace Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox remixes, and from "No Scrubs" to "Bawitdaba" it establishes a flow that sets off "Smooth" and "Ray of Light" and the formerly execrable "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You" as the touchstones they are. The mood is hiply happy and humane—the exceptions, a would-be suicide and some heavy yearning, mean only to prove that this is the real world, troubling at times but always manageable. The stylistic signature is key/electric guitar as acoustic guitar, rippling its quiet riffs over the intricate rhythms of a body at peace with itself. As composition, I find it as convincing, if not as elegant or organic, as Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians or Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi. Note, however, that the only energy rushes come from Cher's Eurodisco and the show-topping Kid Rock, who's also the only true rapper here. It's a relief to know Arista needs him to put its lovely lies over the top. A MINUS

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