Rather than accepting the traditional party line of rap music as an Eliza Doolittle in search of MC Higgins' finishing before entering the academy of black popular music, Clef repositions hip hop with a core attitude that underpins all black popular music, as well as as a partner on equal footing with R&B, gospel, jazz, and other gorgeous Afrodiasporic sounds. He accomplishes this by creating a messy sprawl of diverse genres, linked by a dusty sound and a clever running skit about Clef in court. In fact, this is one disc where the between-track skits are as powerful as the music they link. The primary narrative has Clef on trial, prosecuted by a buppie lawyer who only sees the caricature in black archetypes. It's a vital reminder about the return of virulent class conflict to the African-American community. Another tangential skit has a record company-type demanding a more gangster style in Clef's music, followed by an interview with an inarticulate gangsta rapper. Clef seems deeply aware that an essential part of all black American music is to give voice to the disenfranchised; the link to hip hop should be rather obvious.

The Carnival presents a wide variety of styles and guest stars, including the Neville Brothers, the I-Threes, and Celia Cruz -- all sounding like card-carrying members of the Refugee camp, rather than idle status-gropers. Rarely has such an aggressive advocacy of black multiculturalism found its way into the Billboard Top 30.

Still, the document runs a tad long. "We're Tryin' to Stay Alive," which features a savvy reworking of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," comes across as lighthearted relief when it arrives so late in the stages of the 76-minute disc. This long haul shows that Clef is clearly in love with the podium, but at least he has something to say. Due to recent deaths and adverse publicity, hip hop has spent the last few years defining what it is not. Clef's anthropology results in a much clearer, positive definition of hip hop as an ideology of resistance.

-- Martin Johnson

Little Darla Has a Treat for You, Vol. 7

Modern Day Paintings by Original Musical Artists

Taxonomically speaking, roughly three genera exist within the frustrating, narrow (-minded) family of indie rock, under what's now called alternative and above most subterranean punk. Two recent compilation albums from the Darla and Fingerpaint record labels feature species of indie pop, indie folk, and indie rawk, but only one album breathes life into the whole gasping lot.

The local-based Darla Records' Little Darla Has a Treat for You plays like a mix-tape from that friend of yours who you love for spending way too much time and money at the record store, while the New York label Fingerpaint's comp sounds more like one of those cheap promotional jobbies that the majors insist on pressing every six months or so to showcase their recent crop of radio-ready singles.

Make no mistake, the seventh volume of Little Darla is a promotional item, pieced together from Darla's and associated labels' record rosters and priced to move units at $6. But the record also serves a larger purpose: It's a barometer of current indie rock that proves there is hope within a genre stifled by folks who aren't willing to toy with the heartstrings of creativity.

Little Darla begins with a cut by Valerie Lemercier, a Parisian actress whose sultry voice sounds a hell of a lot like Brigitte Bardot singing a sweet Serge Gainsbourg number over a Herb Alpert horn section. Next, Orange Cake Mix's bedroom (shower) vocals meet disposable keyboards, in sort of a cheap, muted Magnetic Fields riff. Then it's the warm, lush pop of Ciao Bella, a promising Alameda band. The song selection might appear disparate, but all three cuts -- and indeed the rest of the 73-minute CD -- are refreshingly open to quality recording and instruments (quasi-harpsichord, heavy strings, phasers, cheesy organ, samplers, drum machines) that indie rockers used to just stare at with the cocked heads and blank expression of Hello Kitty.

The intent of Fingerpaint's Modern Day Paintings is murkier. "Lampshade," one of Beck's lovelorn laments, opens the compilation. Although Beck wants his vocal affectations to make this bluesy ode to slacker love sound sad or run-down, he just sounds drunk. From there, the Campfire Girls go guitar-heavy-altrock with the disturbingly insular "Perry Farrell Ate My Girlfriend." Later, Holiday Flyer flits in with a breezy indie pop number that bands like Cub and Holiday (no relation) forget about after long naps.

Darla's record still features the hallmark of indie rock: bursts of surprising sincerity (Ciao Bella) allowed by reflexive irony (Super Friendz; the Clears). But unlike Modern Day Paintings, as Little Darla shifts from lo-fi ambient (Tommorowland) to heavy psychedelia (Bevis Frond) it never sounds like the same old song.

-- Jeff Stark

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