Minstrels All

R&b, megapop, indie-rock—I was busy with all three when along came a boomer birthday boy with the album of the year. My apologies for all the parallel entries I've missed. I'll get there, I promise.


BABYFACE
Face 2 Face(Arista)
Five years ago his best album exploited his superstar connections with cameos from Stevie, Mariah, Kenny G. Here he updates on a new label newly headed by his old partner with coproductions utilizing the Neptunes, Tim & Bob, Heavy D. Beat mechanics don't guarantee a thing, of course. But for all his platinum balladry, Kenny Edmonds has been funky on demand since the Deele, and the showcase tracks up front are as tricky as any to surface all year—just when you think you've balanced all five or six elements in your mind's ear, up pops number six or seven. He leaves the tricks behind eventually, if only so as not to alienate his normal market share, and after bottoming out briefly returns with enough ballads to make you stop humming "What If" until it goes platinum. A MINUS

BURNT SUGAR/THE ARKESTRA CHAMBER
Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1(Trugroid)
Like most major writers, Greg Tate—the young Ironman turned older-than-that-now Ionman—pursues music at his peril. When I've heard him play guitar in public, I've only wished he'd go finish his novel—or, better still, write more about music. So call this dimly mastered Black Rock Coalition spinoff living criticism. It's electric Miles with soul, "Maggot Brain" with a Ph.D., the Hendrix-Evans band of dreams, the underwater funk some hear in A.R. Kane. With due respect to badmuthashutyo guitarist Morgan Michael, Mandarinsprechen banshee guitarist Rene Akhan, and unstemmed crimson tide guitarist Kirk Douglass, the standout player is piano virtuoso Vijay Iyer, and let us now praise Human Switchboard and Freedy Johnston stalwart Jared Michael Nickerson, though Tate hisself wrote the basslines. But the ensemble is all, and the opus subsumes its parts. A MINUS

LARS FREDERIKSEN AND THE BASTARDS
(Hellcat)
You can too go home again. No ska, no progress, no wages of success. Just a bunch of Clash homages about the Rancid sidekick's misspent youth in Campbell, California, produced by Rancid frontman and fellow Campbellite Tim Armstrong. Starts off oi, speeds up, and never lacks tune except on the Holland-Dozier-Holland cover. Highlight: the Billy Bragg cover. Climax: "Vietnam." A MINUS

GIMME INDIE ROCK V. 1
(K-Tel)
If U.K. Virgin's Best Punk Album in the World . . . Ever! was the ultimate K-Tel joke, this must be the postultimate. Reducing an anti/post-commercial movement/tendency to 30 putatively/frequently catchy songs, it represents indie far more accurately than Michael Azerrad's severe rockism—boys and a few girls, Yanks and a few furriners, talents and a few geniuses, guitars and a few synths, ugly and pretty and both at once. Half the bands released good albums once and a few still do. Most of these are in print if anything strikes your fancy, though the track that takes you home may not lead you to the album that'll pay the rent. Traces of a world gone by. Intimations of the one we live in now. A MINUS

ALICIA KEYS
Songs in A Minor(J)
The minor in question is the keys-sweeping Keys, not yet 21, who earns the musty "classically trained" as if it was bequeathed her by Donny Hathaway. Enough song doctors show up in parentheses to make the realist in me wonder just exactly how finished the material she'd begun at 14 was when she signed her deal. But the same realist notes that Brian McKnight gets sole credit for one of the bores that threaten to sink the project midway through, just as Keys does for one of those that buoy it back up at the end. And the grace and grit with which the first half skirts gentility would merit the musty "auspicious debut" regardless. If only Donny Hathaway had been so unassuming. A MINUS

PERNICE BROTHERS
The World Won't End(Ashmont)
His title poised between wise promise and grim prediction, Joe Pernice chooses life because he can't stop the music, which last time conjured Hollies and this time channels Zombies—Odessey and Oracle, to be precise. Whiners with a knack for melody regularly make hay off admitting the girl was too good for them. Just buy my songs, they promise, and I'll prove I've learned my lesson, for now I can love. With thematic input from one of those girls, Pernice rests his stronger case on dulcet vocals bursting with emotion and melodies whose credulous surge inundates all references to suicide and such. I'm almost convinced he can love. But not quite. B PLUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER
Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions(Label M)
Ulmer's singing has always been Delta, but on the blues album of his life Vernon Reid hooks him up with Willie Dixon, and the three unmatched neoprimitivists make roughslick music together. Not all the best tracks are Dixon songs: Here's to old-time DJ Holmes Daylie's "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal," John Lee Hooker's whistled "Dimples," the eight-minute "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" turbocharging over the dull memory of the nine-minute "Walking Blues." And if Dixon ever heard anything like the harmolodics Ulmer lays on "Little Red Rooster" and "I Love the Life I Live," Pete Cosey was God. A MINUS

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