Recordings

Sneaker Pimps
Becoming X
(Virgin)

Nostradamus' Centuries predicts a second wave to the British Invasion. Many sages mistakenly interpreted the Second Invasion to have come in the form of Boy George and the Haircut 100s (aye-yi-yi). Other prophets announced it again, most recently, with Oasis. An erroneous reading of the night sky? Portents bollixed? Now the arbiters tells us it's for real, in Britronica: Tricky, the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Irvine Welsh, Morcheeba, Moby, and, yes, the Sneaker Pimps. (If you haven't heard about them yet -- if they've been briefly eclipsed by the rising, and rather pathetic, Spice Girls -- just hang in there.) One figures that because rave culture (jungle, drum 'n' bass, trip hop, and trance) hasn't "impacted" the J.C. Mellencamp/Chevy S-10 consciousness of the suburban heartland in any real ($) way, the corporate hunt is on for something that "extends" upon techno, that makes it palatable for that vast untapped teen bedroom dance scene. Something not so cold, so damn electronic. "Liam, get out there and find me the hybrid!" (Everyone relevant to the Second Invasion shall be, or shall date someone, named Liam; so say the texts.)

The Sneaker Pimps were thus tapped. A trio with a name (lamentably) taken from the hepcat who scored vintage Adidas for the Beastie Boys, the Pimps are comprised of two guys from Manchester (one named Liam) who "do" the music and a gal (Kelli Dayton) from the burbs of Birmingham, who mouses out the vocals with all the squeaky vim of an irony-free Cyndi Lauper. And the requisite trip-hop beats are all there, the semi-eerie dance-friendly samples that drive -- surprise -- poppy, definable melodies. Unlike Tricky's latest, some of the songs on Becoming X are, for better or worse, catchy, with obvious beginnings, middles, and ends. And depending how you situate yourself, this is either a blessing or blasphemy. Unfortunately, the melodies often compete with corny bleeping gizmo sounds that remind me of my PC booting up Windows '95. And in the all-important act of hybridization/conquest, an actual guitar has been grafted onto these beats, either an occasional melodic picking or a storm of highly processed, unnecessary squawks, screeches, and growls. (Warmer? More human?) The real problem though, outside the lack of anything actually fresh going on here, is Dayton's vocals. She can't sing; her voice is a high-nasal novelty, incapable of emotional range. Luckily, the lyrics don't call for much interpretation, culled as they are from the very stale grunge/loser lexicon. "Crucify yourself," Dayton wails right from start, and I'm wondering if the prophecy hasn't been misread; if we aren't being invaded by a monster of our own creation -- say, the Alice in Chains of techno. (Buy Morcheeba.)

-- Curtis Bonney

New Edition
Home Again
(MCA)

Blackstreet
Another Level
(Interscope)

If R&B pop were a junk food, it would be a bag of chips. (Doesn't really matter what kind.) Besides offering flavors, textures, and colors the gods never intended, it's good only for empty calories. While there are healthier ways to snack, packaging, as the saying goes, is everything. And sometimes, packaging doubles for content. Take the recently reunited members of New Edition (Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe, Ralph Tresvant, Bobby Brown, and Johnny Gill), or New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley's outfit, Blackstreet. Their latest releases, Home Again and Another Level, respectively, prove that a record label can sell anything to an idle public.

Another Level, the less offensive of the two discs, looks and feels like the 19-track blast of radio-ready soul it claims to be, but has much in common with a jumbo bag of Doritos: Five out of those 19 are like the stale air at the top of the bag. Riley and company poured all of their energy into the album's best bite, "No Diggity." The tune's blend of countrified funk, hip-hop beats, and bluesy piano loops rates high on the rump-shaker scale. If the rest of the album had followed suit, Another Level could have easily wound up being a great record. But they couldn't leave well enough alone; along with a collection of relentlessly passe ballads and dance numbers, suspect remakes and retoolings abound. "(Money Can't) Buy Me Love," a Prozac-impaired cover of the Beatles classic, is joined by the El DeBarge hit "Time Will Reveal" re-conceived as the album's slick but forgettable pop gospel finale "The Lord Is Real -- Time Will Reveal."

Level isn't problematic because of discordant arrangements, but because Riley's recording talents reflect a sentiment in R&B pop that's lagging five years behind. But for Home Again, even Riley circa 1992 would be an improvement. A hodgepodge of musical styles, New Edition's release isn't an album, it's a who's who of pop magicians -- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Bad Boy's Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Jermaine Dupri. The boys are dragged back and forth along the brittle landscape of modern black music, slipping and stumbling through hip-hop grooves ("Oh Yeah, It Feels So Good"), puppy-love ballads ("Hear Me Out"), and R. Kelly-inspired pop ditties ("How Do You Like Your Love Served"). But that isn't too surprising. They have been and will likely continue to be a product. In close to 15 years, NE's contributions to pop music have been minimal, their success too dependent on the whims of their handlers (Jam and Lewis). Their look, sound, appeal, and moves have been torn and taped together like that picture of the lover who refuses to be forgotten. Though Ricky, Bobby, Mike, Ralph, Ronnie, and Johnny sing today about how good it feels to be reliving their past again, they -- like Blackstreet -- ought to be plotting a course to a mature, healthy future, free from junk foods.

-- Victor Haseman

Green Room
Live Trajectories
(Leo Lab)

You know you're in for a scary ride when a liner-note writer uses euphemisms like "mature," "intelligent," or (gasp!) "compelling" in a ploy to convince you of a band's awesomeness. So it goes on Live Trajectories, the sophomoric lunge toward improv magic by Scottish trio Green Room.

"Mature": Ten years ago, David Baird (bass), Chick Lyall (piano), and David Garrett (drums) wanted to restructure their jazz combo with an unconventional format. So they followed the path of many foiled wannabes toward the more easily manipulated realm of electronics. Garrett hot-wired a piano frame and a dulcimer, Lyall invested thousands of pounds in synthesizers, and Baird exchanged his standard four-string for a Chapman Stick, a lightweight guitar-bass hybrid that's all neck (no head, little body). Given the public indifference toward their growth into an X-Files house band (so ahead of their time as to predate the TV show), Green Room tooled away in a Glasgow garage for nearly a decade.

"Intelligent": This live recording is so clever, by the halfway point it's almost as if you're not listening to music at all. The spooky synthetic noodling blends so well into the background it almost disappears, or rather, you come to feel that it's always been there, like the posters in your room. Then, when the disc plays out, you snap to and realize the wallpaper's been acting up again.

"Compelling": Live Trajectories could drive you to shoot dope, drop hits, or gulp a handful of ludes before a whirlwind evening of stare-at-the-black-light.

Only adult listeners who have indulged (perhaps surreptitiously) in the smart songs of ELP, King Crimson, or Zappa's synclavier ventures will be able to handle the grand ambience of Green Room. OK, so maybe their orchestration of synthesized sounds is not quite magical. But if you're hot on the mature, intelligent use of electronics, you won't find a more compelling group in contemporary improv. At least not from Scotland, anyway.

-- Sam Prestianni

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