Sonic Refuges

Rock and roll could never hip hop like this and vice-versa et cetera, part 400something

Pick Hits

The New Danger

Musically, Mos Def has always been a little dull—so caught up in his own smarts he let verbal flow carry his albums. Here the defining flow is sonic—a shadowy, guitar-drenched tone poem of the streets. Songs transmute into raps as the album shifts from Black Jack Johnson blues-metal toward smoother beats that quote Hair and twice reference What's Going On in mix and mood as well as content before building to a soulish horn band, some catchy rock nonsense overdubbed entirely by Mos Def, a heart ballad he very nearly sings, and a party-ready requiem cum call to action. "My work is personal, I'm a workin' person/I put in work, I work with purpose," he reminds anyone who would reduce "hard work" to a right-wing slogan. But an equally telling lyric on an album whose secret hero is Bad Brains' Dr. Know is a silly one: "Black Jack Johnson NYC/R-O-C-K-I-N-G." A MINUS

Rokia Traoré

Most of the musicians are Malian, but on just two songs the dread Kronos Quartet establish the size, clarity, and justness of this young pretender's ambitions. Not merely because both tracks are strikingly beautiful—although Kronos recorded in Marin County with a separate producer, they fit right in on a collection whose delicate formalism seems deeply African despite its intermittent groove, and also specifically Malian (the lyrics are in Traoré's native Bamanan, a minority tongue). Overrated overreachers like Susana Baca and Milton Nascimento couldn't equal the lithe discretion that cloaks her sense of drama if they had the sense to try. The translations are welcome—this is a strong, modern woman. But before long that vulgar manifestation of the music's meaning is subsumed in sound. A MINUS

Kimya Dawson
Hidden Vagenda

Dawson's high little voice and whimsical imaginings camouflage a brave heart that gives her the courage to be silly—and enables her to confront psychological dysfunction more candidly than any mopeaholic or drama queen to come to my attention (which both types admittedly have a hard time getting). Her chin-up ditties don't connect every time, but her abandonment of home recording will win new listeners anyway. Pop quiz: Who do you think is the target of the do-what-I-do advice "They can't all be ballads Julian"? A MINUS

Jean Grae
This Week

"Oh, who's that? Oh, oh that's your girl, you're with her? She looks like everyone else in heah." The dis caps a spoken-not-rapped intro mini-skit, and the intonation is perfect: Jay-Z in cute braggart mode. Grae can rhyme, and if she had a male larynx and a production budget (plus a little luck and additional applications of promotional muscle), her hype men, chipmunk soul, minor-key piano hooks, and "I wanna rock a fella so bad" might stand underground on its head. But she doesn't have those things; she's an "insecure failure/Can barely maintain I wanna scream like Mahalia." Thus her triumph remains strictly aesthetic, and pretty strange, which in the long run can only increase her insecurity. She needs a message bad. B PLUS

Handsome Boy Modeling School
White People

Not the better class of white people, I'm afraid, although Paul and Dan manage to ground lounge-and-proud Chan Marshall, Julee Cruise, and Jamie Cullum more firmly than usual after feckless rocker Mike Patton gets away from them. Instead, what carries the album is, I swear, the skits—Guido Sarducci and Tim Meadows turn out to be as replayable as Posdnuos and Trugoy. Suitably, the very best of these, Meadows's "Knockers" ("Oh, wait one second, my illegitimate son is here"), climaxes the multipartite tour de force "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2," the sole occasion when the perfectly interesting rock tracks hip hop enough. The hip hop, fortunately, hip hops plenty. B PLUS

Freedy Johnston
The Way I Were

John Lennon gets to unveil a throwaway like "Oh Yoko" as the stroke it is. But can an unknown risk such a thing? Not if he craves respect. As it turns out, there are several such strokes among these demos, all preceding or circa 1989's overworked The Trouble Tree and 1992's fine-tuned Can You Fly. Johnston would never put the multi-tracked talkathon "Happy Birthday" or the folkie rave-up "Friend in the City" on a real album, but both achieve a fun his real albums avoid with no sacrifice in ambivalence or bite. And then there are great lost outtakes like "I Do, I Do," in which the excited suitor awaiting the delivery of his mail-order bride croons, "I'm the guy you're belonging to"—not, for instance, "I'm the guy you're longing for." Get somebody else to splice on the guitar-bass-drums and that would be a Can You Fly bonus track to remember. A MINUS

Travis Morrison

Predictably, Morrison's predictably intelligent solo debut puts personality where the Dismemberment Plan's synergy used to be. If the old ploy almost works, that's because he gets synergy out of sidemen and because the album's better half focuses on his circumstances rather than his feelings, which bog the songs down toward the end. Try "Born in '72," a detailed account of privilege's lineaments and limitations, and don't think you're too well-informed for the edutaining ditties about the penny, the nickel, the dime, and the quarter. B PLUS

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