MLK Fever

Bill O'Reilly, we salute you, now please give us all our frankincense and myrrh back

Pick Hit

THE WRENS
The Meadowlands
(Absolutely Kosher)

I keep waiting for the moment when I need to put this away for a while, and it keeps not coming. Instead, four years of takes and tweaks build and cohere—pealing and shifting, wafting and pounding, sinking into babble and soaring into, to choose my very favorite, the bright intro, garbled vocal, and guardedly exultant chorus of "This Boy Is Exhausted." The theme is failure, take it or leave it—not just failure to get rich and famous, which does rankle, but failure to love. But their labors imbue both aging-alt whines with excitement and dignity. Anybody who can create a record like this deserves more than 13 thou a year. And anybody capable of "13 Months in Six Minutes" deserves another shot at a woman too good to take for granted. A

Pick Hit

MISSY ELLIOTT
This Is Not a Test!
(Elektra)

I've got the Martin Luther King fever," she declares injudiciously, only soon she's burning up, delivering the old-school album she claimed last time. Beats-first like Run-D.M.C. if Jam Master Jay had been hooked up like Timbaland, it's clinched by Elliott's innocent belief in her mission, which boils down to world conquest. For hooks she calls in more platinum guests than the entire genre supported in 1990 and cites aphorisms that embody history if you know your Salt-N-Pepa and embody fresh if you don't. Like MLK, she preaches—against crack dealers and all their unholy bling-bling. And when she reaches out to her people, she grabs the sisters first. A


KID KOALA
Some of My Best Friends Are DJs
(Ninja Tune import)

More postmodern comedy from the boulevard of broken beats. Bits include ska with a game leg, scratches with postnasal drip, translations from the marsupial, hi-fi jokes salvaged from hi-fi records, a robot doing the cha-cha-cha, and a drunk trumpet stumbling through the saddest and bravest "Basin Street Blues" ever to make you laugh out loud. B PLUS

LUDACRIS
Chicken-N-Beer
(Def Jam South)

Bill O'Reilly, we salute you—for most of this record, you've inspired your favorite rapper to make good on his rationalizations. For once he's ribald rather than obscene, subversive rather than gratuitous, especially when he's attacking you and yours on "Blow It Out Your Ass" and "Fuck You" (official titles: "Blow It Out" and "Screwed Up"). "Splash Waterfalls" examines the intimate links between fucking and making love; "Pussy-Poppin' "(official title: "P-Poppin' ") is worthy of Dyke and the Blazers. But on track 13 (superstitious? me?), here comes the X-rated misogyny of "Hoes in My Room," which Ludacris palms off on O'Reilly and I blame on hired dick Snoop Dogg. This disrupts the three-way that follows, after which Luda's losers shoot people for four minutes. Not in real life, of course. B PLUS

MR. LIF
Sleepyheads
(Thought Wizard)

Unreleased and hard to find," 1995- 2002—and as such, choppy. But also, undie or not, catchy. With his neat timbre and big fat dreads, Lif specializes in black science, but that doesn't mean he rhymes as consistently as, to cite one freestyle target, Jay-Z. "I burn off your flesh like David Koresh" wicked, "I'm getting physical like fitness" not, "Niggers want their frankincense and myrrh back" complex, "These type of facts I don't tend to shun/So I press into the universe to defend the sun" unnatural. As if in compensation, his beats hook and hold—try the banjo and guitar that anchor the old Grand Royal 12-inch. A MINUS

MURS
. . . The End of the Beginning
(Definitive Jux)

Born 1978, which means L.A.'s Living Legends kingpin released his first single at 15 and is already an old pro on his first major-minor album. Like so many undie hip-hoppers, especially black ones, Murs sells common sense where the big boys deal mythology. He avoids beef until his best friend comes under the gun, has trouble making the rent and trouble holding onto a buck, and comes up with advice for the little brother he knows isn't him: "Keep it gangsta in your CD changer not your residence." A commanding rapper who can separate the simple beats from the dull ones, he peaks when he calls in the auxiliaries. Humpty Hump and Shock G help out on a Risky Business rewrite. And Aesop Rock joins an exasperated praise song for their favorite drug: serotonin uptake inhibitors. A MINUS

THE SHINS
Chutes Too Narrow
(Sub Pop)

A gifted melodist with an arranger's knack for psychedelicizing simple structures and a folkie's fondness for acoustic strum, James Mercer is a pop formalist like Elephant Six's Robert Schneider and Spoon's Britt Daniel. Although he comes on oversensitive at times, he's no obscurantist and no stupe. When he references Sir Thomas More it's so you remember that utopia seemed an option back "before murder was cool." And yes, when he brings in the steel guitar he's getting ready to leave Albuquerque for Portland—and leave his girl behind. A MINUS

GARY STEWART
Best of the HighTone Years
(HighTone)

Few artists in any genre have seemed more tortured, dissolute, or full of beans than our era's greatest honky tonker. Already in his thirties when he put out a passel of striking if loosely principled LPs for RCA between 1975 and 1981, he dried out before re-emerging with the '88-'90-'93 albums HighTone's purists expertly reshuffle. Although the self-written songs here are less succinct than "Drinkin' Thing" ("to keep from thinkin' things") or "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," they do justice to his desperate abandon; delivered in a growlier version of his star-time vibrato, "They ought to make a brand new whiskey/And give it a woman's name/A man needs somethin' to hold on/When her goodbye hits him like a hurricane" captures every aspect of his worldview except the part where he cheats first. Settled in south Florida, Stewart released no more albums until 2003's Live at Billy Bob's Texas, which is currently hard to come by. Last spring his wife died, and last month he shot himself in the neck, so he could die too. At 59, the man who sang "There's nothing cheap about a cheap affair" had been married 43 years. Not only shouldn't he be forgotten, he should be understood. A MINUS

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