Music

I'd worry that all the divas honored with A's below are over 50 while several of their little sisters show up in Duds. Only (a) I've been dissing two of the former for decades and (b) some other little sisters are doing just fine without reference to the prerock repertoire—yet.

Pick Hit

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: The Album
Epic/Razor Sharp/Sony Music Soundtrax
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After years of expressing his spiritual aspirations in the language of cinematic pseudosymphony, RZA's own soundtrack proves pure r&b—less strung up than Curtis Mayfield's (and Johnny Pate's) Superfly, less underdeveloped than John Lurie's Get Shorty, and topping both in the essential soundtrack service of consistent background listenability. Ranging beyond the Wu to rope in Jeru and Kool G Rap, fine femme crooners and a dead ringer for Burning Spear, he deploys voices for texture and structure—verbal content, suitable enough when you tune in, is irrelevant. Hip-hop as mystery, beauty, pleasure—as idealized aural environment.
A MINUS

Pick Hit

Joni Mitchell
Both Sides Now
Reprise
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My favorite Joni story is that they tried to do a TV special on her and none of her old friends would pitch in. Even if it's a dumb rumor or a damned lie, it's a hell of a metaphor for someone who loves herself so much nobody else need bother, and yet another reason to scoff at her concept song cycle about the rise and fall of an affair.

But after decades of pretentious pronouncements on art, jazz, and her own magnificence, this very if briefly great singer-songwriter proves herself a major interpretive singer. Lucky to write two decent songs a decade now, she instead applies her smoked contralto to a knowledgeable selection of superb material by mostly second-echelon Tin Pan Alley craftsmen (and I do mean men). Splitting the difference between pop and jazz like the Chairman himself, she doesn't transform the melodies so much as texture them, and on a few highlights—on "Comes Love" and "You've Changed," on "When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals"—she bores so deep into the words you'd think she'd written them herself back when she had something to say. But no, that's "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now"—both of which, you can bet the mortgage, she makes sure belong.
A MINUS


Dee Dee Bridgewater
Live at Yoshi's
Verve
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After fruitlessly sampling whatever Bridgewater albums came my way for 25 years, I harbored few hopes that this one would escape decorum, delusions of grandeur, and/or commercial confusion just because it was live. But it does, and then it keeps on going. It's funny, it's sexy, it swings like crazy. Long workouts on "Slow Boat to China" and "Love for Sale" show off her fabled chops without dwelling on them. The many extended scats are worthy of Ella herself. Even the gaffe proves her heart is in the right place when she's out there working the crowd—James Brown's "Sex Machine." A MINUS

The Firesign Theatre
Boom Dot Bust
Rhino
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"Everybody has one or two great thoughts and mine was simple—we're all doomed," reveals Nixon soundalike Dr. Guillermo Infermo, who adds a second: "Just because you're surrounded by evil doesn't mean you can't make some money from it." On their dead-in-the-concept Y2K comeback, the grand masters of pothead sound-effect comedy flirted with both canards; here they make fun of them, which doesn't mean they're bullish on America or donating royalties to Earth First! Their signature studio-layered cross-referentiality evokes a time-warped Middle American town on the edge of a tornado preserve where Dumber eventually prevails over Dumb. Before that happy ending they address such excellent paranoid themes as online investment, superglue, and that old reliable, the weather. A MINUS

Hip Hop 101
Tommy Boy Black Label
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De La Soul's (really Maseo's) version of "real" and/or "underground" hip-hop, those bizarre virtual synonyms, eschews ascetic beats and fancy-ass scratching for an accessibility that recalls the ebullient old-school funk of Pumpkin and Hitman Howie Tee. About half the hooks are irresistible, the rest are at least hooks, and from metaphysics to dick grab, the rhymes honor black male expression in all its self-validating glory. A MINUS

Pink
Can't Take Me Home
LaFace
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Armed with a Day-Glo dye job and some ace Babyface subcontracts, a tough talker diddles teenpop's love button. In a world where the half-word "sh—" teeters on the edge of going too far, she and hers bet—correctly—that a simple "I'm pissed" will pack a wallop, and work from there. When she admits to the loss of her slurred "cherry" in the finale, you can only wonder how sexy she'll be when she shows pink for real. B PLUS

Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos
¡Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!)
Atlantic
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Less enchanting than the first one, in part because it's not a surprise and in part because the tunes are a touch duller and the playing is a touch broader. But the idea of subjecting presalsa to the affectionate indignities of a small, bent jazz ensemble remains muy divertido. And once you internalize the material—by Ribot's beloved Arsenio Rodriguez and several other Cubans, with Ribot's own "Las Lomas de New Jersey" and "Baile Baile Baile" holding their own—you'll love the vamp-ups, the is-that-a-jokes, the getting loud but not that loud. A MINUS 1

 
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