Guitar bands, mostly—some oldish and some quite new, but none completely new, if you know what I mean. Making the old new is what guitar bands do these days. Some of them really get the spirit—or is it do the trick?

Painting It Red (Ark 21)

Just a few years ago Paul Heaton impressed with his empathy for his elders. Two albums later the song that turns on gray hairs seems to be about him. He's not close to losing his gift and may never be; pros like him have a right to their ups and downs, and after the soggy Quench, his music man Paul Rotheray has aired it out some. I dare the callowest Blur fan to resist the three-note piano-then-guitar-then-bass rhythm figure that anchors "10,000 Feet," sure to be a single with B sides before this 19-cut there, 17-cut here release finishes its U.K. run. But Blur are younger than the Beautiful South, always will be, and now they're on Anglophilia's slippery slope themselves. Americans are so insensitive. B PLUS

The Best of (Virgin)

Not Kinks, just Small Faces; not miniaturists, just small. Reduced to a tuneful 18-song essence that watches too much television, their mildness seems diverting and their Englishness definitive. Damon Albarn's accent—at once Cockney and civilised, with the laddish music-hall "Parklife" for instructive contrast (and a shot of life)—evokes the classless nowhere their genially opportunistic concept of pop aspires and succumbs to. They're alienated, sure—this is the modern world they sing about. But they're never depressed—melancholy is all. Change the world? All they care about changing is their sales strategy. A MINUS

The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)

Big deal. The triple-threat guitarist-songwriter-frontman has been hawking four-on-the-floor country-rock since he came up with Emmylou, and as for the two AIDS songs, where's he been? Except the music has a lightness unmatched on the reissued Life Is Messy and Diamonds and Dirt, or the long-gone Ain't Living Long Like This either. And though there've been hundreds of quasi-autobios like "Telephone Road," their wizardry is in the details: "Skiing in a bar ditch behind a moped/Thirteen stitches on the corner of a sardine can." And coming from a place where once he believed "California gay boys deserve just what they get," AIDS is news to him. The one about his hardworking daddy beating on his long-suffering mama, on the other hand, he's been living with for 50 years. A MINUS

Neighborhoods (Atlantic)

Though the 59-year-old jazzman sired Nas and references the "embryonic state of the hip hop," for him that was "young children's music." And please, he's no "griot." Dara mines a more class- and nation-specific cultural mode: Afrocentric local color in the manner of PBS and Black History Month (release date: February 20). But where 1998's In the World proceeded directly to limbo on the rough-hewn cobblestones of its noble intentions, here he gets somewhere. More direct rhythmically, more considerate melodically, discerningly observed and recalled until it gets all poetic on our ass, this is at least as educational as Maya Angelou, and much more fun. One thing, though. Dara's warm trumpet tone is compared to Roy Eldridge's. You think maybe he could learn to sing with Little Jazz's nonchalant authority? We wish. B PLUS

The Very Best of Big Daddy Kane (Rhino)

The Volvo-driving rhymer who wrote "Pickin' Boogers" for Biz Markie and "Skeezer" for Roxanne Shanté kept his own image as immaculate as his yellow suit, and for this historical record he plays up the conscious race man—the conscious race man with hooks. No "Pimpin' Ain't Easy," thank the Gods—that bit of street wisdom is reduced to an "I was just kiddin' " for Spinderella, who had reason to wonder. Not much mack daddy either, which isn't to say "Cause I Can Do It Right" and "I Get the Job Done" won't inspire hubbies to get it on home. As steely and articulate as Marley Marl's beats, he makes even "It's Hard Being the Kane" sound like butter. But hard it is—note the live "Wrath of Kane," where intakes of breath turn him into his own human beatbox. A MINUS


The Artist Formerly Known as S.M. has blown his chance, because if ever an album cried out to be called Eponymous Solo Debut, Stephen Malkmus is that album. Exactly the unpredictable effort you'd expect, it utilizes a new bunch of Portland buddies to render the old noises into background music as it explores such themes as Yul Brynner's makeover and piracy on the coast of Montenegro. Either he kicks off from the latter to create gangsta alt, or he bites the bullet and turns into an incisive musical observer of manners and mores. Another possibility, I admit it: He shrivels into irrelevancy. A MINUS

Mass Romantic (Mint import)

Even understood to indicate "rock" played by commercially theoretical alt-indie guitar bands, "pop" has become a term so elastic it assures only the desire to be tuneful or at least songful. There are wimp pop bands and punk pop bands, bedroom pop bands and studio pop bands, sour pop bands and sugary pop bands, metallic pop bands and folkish pop bands, pop bands that gleam like platinum and pop bands that mulch like autumn leaves. Even the boring ones, which doesn't just mean the tuneless ones, can claim their own "sound." But this Vancouver "supergroup" (Zumpano fans are reeling) have content, personality, and attitude (and tunes). Without powering into the radio-ready amplitude of, oh, Tsar, they have a grand old time faking artificiality: "Telstar" organ and "Carrie-Anne" falsettos, glam Briticisms and Neil Diamond chords, Katrina Leskanich tributes and faux fops tossing off lyrics like "Heavens to Betsy/Come on let's see/What could be worse than/The wheel of history?" All brought off with switched-on brio, sardonic multireferentiality, and jubilant momentum. Get inside that sound and it's a blast. A MINUS

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