Rock 'n' Rai

The best new "rock" record of the year so far is by a punk band turned pop band (if they were ever anything else, the cads). Runner-up belongs to a rai singer. The prognosis for the big beat—as opposed to all Jay E's little beats, say—remains guarded.

CLEM SNIDE The Ghost of Fashion (SpinArt)
The music is conceived songs first, an epidemic problem in current rock and roll, especially rock and roll as putative as this. And since Eef Barzelay adds the usual enigmatic tendencies to a voice worthy of an accountant in a Presbyterian choir (in Dubuque), its popular potential is limited. Nevertheless, the band now sounds both more rock and roll (faster tempos, straighter propulsion) and more chamber music (louder cello, weirder lap steel), and more is what Eef's somber tunes and noncommittal wit inspired hope for last time. Metaphorical materials include ice cubes, Jewish junkies, Elvis's twin, a driving test, and a Joan Jett of Arc who burns her bridges in front of her and her steak at the Sizzler. A MINUS

DESERT ROSES AND ARABIAN RHYTHMS (Mondo Melodia)
Not surprisingly, there's schlock here—English lyrics, worse horns, Trans-Global pomo, Amina Francophonie, and Sting, without whose Cheb Mami one-off this roundup of North African hitmakers wouldn't exist. There's also the signature tune from Natacha Atlas's best and only good album, the supplest Mami track I know, an unstoppable Rachid Taha bonus, the latest in Egyptian sha'bi or however you spell it, and other intense bits from a culture that's full of them, some attached to horns you can live both with and without. Rai rebels are so over. Rai professionals rool. B PLUS

KEEP IT ROLLIN': THE BLUES PIANO COLLECTION (Rounder)
After years of devoting entire albums to New Orleans pianists who have trouble sustaining one's interest two songs running, Rounder reduces a bunch of them to their essence on this 17-track selection. Mixing instrumentals and vocals, barrelhouse and gospel, it's a mishmash jelled by second-line lilt. James Booker towers as always, but the late primitive Booker T. Laury and the young virtuoso Davell Crawford clearly belong on the same record with him—as do, this time, Tuts Washington, Charles Brown, even Willie Tee and Eddie Bo. Woogie! A MINUS

KMD Bl-ck B-st-rds (Sub Verse)
The rare great lost album that justifies its legend, this was held back by Elektra in 1993, supposedly due to the lynching cartoon on the cover, although the fading sales of conscious hip-hop and the death by automobile of 20-year-old D.J. SubRoc couldn't have helped. Not quite great, maybe; slightly dated, even. But it moves more confidently than 1991's Mr. Hood, and confident movement freshens the St. Ides and Somalia references decisively. Right or wrong, the crew's two founding brothers are exhilarated by their belief that hip-hop can persuade the youth to watch out for cancer sticks and nibble plum pudenda, by their mastery of a sonic layering that assumes the Bomb Squad and has fun with it, by bass player B. Thompson. Of course, they're also exhilarated by each other, and that wasn't gonna last. But make a face at Elektra anyway. A MINUS

MF DOOM Operation: Doomsday! (Sub Verse)
KMD's reincarnated Zev Love X says his new handle starts with an abbreviation for Metal Face and is based on a Marvel villain who wants to rule the world for its own good. As concept, this could get tedious fast, but as a few skits it's one more scenic sonic on an album that reaches its high point when it samples not just the Scooby-Doo theme but Scoob himself, thus acknowledging that, as Scoob knows so well, some villains are just plain evil. Right, the album never comes into full focus. But it does flow, as music and as signifying. Message: this smart guy had some horrible setbacks and came out on the other side. A role model, you might say. B PLUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO INDONESIA (World Music Network import)
Being as Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation and all, I strove to meet the Smithsonian's endless documentary series halfway and made contact with some pop stuff—go you cats and kitties with your gambang kromong. But as a groove man schooled in Western scales, I gave up soon enough; 550 cultures are the stuff of ethnomusicology, not rock criticism. This 15-song minitour is more like it. Crass even by Rough Guide standards, its only criterion seems to be tune, which can mean the very greatest hit of longtime stars or absolutely surefire folk tunes—a lovely gamelan snippet, say. Shameless schlock and proud rock fusions are by no means frowned upon, so those with sensitive stomachs will have to wait for something more tasteful or eternal life, whichever comes first. For most of us, however, this will prove at least as edutaining as Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? A MINUS

ST. LUNATICS Free City (Universal)
How to top "Old MacDonald"? Hire nanny goats and moo cows as rhythm animals, all the while denying that you live on a farm. Why this misapprehension should concern guys who share a home base with Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, and Stagger Lee needn't concern us here. What matters, as we and they know, is that it permits an ear joke that sets off many others on one of the few crew records ever made that doesn't dishonor the headman's hit. In fact, with Nelly on more than half the tracks, I prefer this one. Having discovered how many Lexuses you can buy on good nature when the beats are right and the vocals friendly, they've scaled down the pro forma tough-guyisms of Country Grammar to some playa playing and brand names. True star: producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson, who'll nail any sound you can think of and more to the one, two, three, or four—and delight you every time. A MINUS

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