Reviews

EPMD
Back in Business
(Def Jam)

L.L. Cool J
Phenomenon
(Def Jam)

Most rappers drop one good album before they either run out of ideas or get overwhelmed by their own success. So it's instructive and curious to see the fall album releases dominated by hip-hop veterans like Salt N Pepa, L.L. Cool J, and EPMD (with Rakim's CD on the way). While the ladies speak to a large pop constituency, L.L. and EPMD are trying to maintain the laid-back insider hip-hop personae of their youth that resonate with the core rap audience. It's tough to keep the credibility of an easygoing teen when you're pushing 30, but both acts manage.

For EPMD, which stands for Erick (Sermon) and Parrish (Smith) Making Dollars, this is a comeback disc. From '88 to '92 EPMD released four records stronger on production values than solid rhymes. Following their acrimonious split in 1993, Sermon produced hits for several artists, including Keith Murray, Jodeci, and Heavy D; Smith did one recording as PMD (which flopped) and a handful of less noteworthy productions. The two have since reconciled, and on Back in Business it's as if the shop never closed. The production is stellar, with snippets of familiar songs (AWB's "Person to Person"; James Brown's "Think [About It]") synthesized into an aggressive, volatile mix. The rhymes, however, are still very much like teen-agers talking about the new film or their next action-adventure daydream ("Never Seen Before"; "Do It Again"). But the music is so strong that it's easy to ignore the words.

L.L. would never let you ignore his words. His rhymes detail the perspective of a pop-savvy entertainer: Almost since his first major single, "I Need a Beat," in 1984, he's built a multimedia career that now looks like a prototype for other rappers who are trying to expand their star power into careers as actors, designers, and writers. (L.L. stars in In the House, a network TV series; has had supporting roles in movies like Toys; penned an autobiography; and in the meantime released some of hip hop's all-time hits: "I Need Love," "Around the Way Girl," "Mama Said Knock You Out," and "Going Back to Cali.") An essential part of L.L.'s longevity is his consistency; only 1993's 14 Shots to the Dome made concessions to gangsta fashions -- and it bombed. On Phenomenon, the beats (mostly produced by the Track Masters) propel the songs at a powerful but less than in-your-face intensity. Lyrically, L.L. takes a few gambles mixing it up with guests like Busta Rhymes, Method Man, Redman, and the Lost Boyz, but the best cut is "Father," which describes his parents' abusive relationship and his coming to grips with it.

By comparison to L.L.'s, Smith and Sermon's world seems claustrophobic. EPMD's music seethes, but it offers no way out of the 'hood -- only a limited comfort zone that must be zealously defended. In contrast to EPMD's teen-age insecurity, L.L.'s music vibrates with an adolescent's voracious curiosity. If both the aging L.L. and the less than youthful EPMD are going to use the posture and the ideology of people half their age, at least L.L.'s approach allows greater room for flexibility and growth.

-- Martin Johnson

John Fahey & Cul de Sac
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones
(Thirsty Ear)

Sometimes the best-laid plans can't compete with the power of serendipity. At least that's what Cul de Sac leader Glenn Jones tries to get at in his liner notes to the aptly titled CD The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. The guitarist's lengthy essay explains how his disastrous collaboration with lifelong six-string hero John Fahey forever altered his outlook on music-making and "demon idolatry."

Jones founded Cul de Sac, an inventive, mostly instrumental band, as a vehicle for his idiosyncratic guitar-playing and Robin Amos' slew of atmospheric electronics. Over three records and five years, the group established themselves among critic types as one of the vanguard bands of "post-rock," that amorphous label that tries to make sense out of outfits like Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, and just about anyone on Chicago's Thrill Jockey label.

Fahey's an experimental folk musician who started flirting with quick finger-picking, obscure rural blues, and unusual open tunings in the late 1950s. His career faded in the late '80s when he began battling Epstein-Barr Syndrome, but he's reappeared recently with a hand-up from meds and the post-rock crowd.

Jones says he anticipated this recording session with the fantastic idealism of an adoring fan. He thought he'd be playing with "the hero of my imagination." Now, Cul de Sac's frontman realizes his expectations were too high and his illusion soured the air.

From the outset, everything went wrong. First, Fahey missed a flight, lost his medication, and bitched about the contract. Rehearsals quickly collapsed with bitterness on all sides. The elder guitarist rejected most of Jones' meticulously composed material, and almost scrapped the whole project, dismissing Cul de Sac as a "retro lounge act." Jones was completely dejected. Instead of bailing, he says he gave himself over to the music, the spontaneous way the album began to jell in the studio. The result is not a sweet and breezy listen.

Epiphany is a compelling, haunting, and almost genreless record that combines Fahey's experimental folk musings and some of those post-rock sounds -- sort of like Mississippi John Hurt meets Skinny Puppy, minus the Godzilla beats. Sort of. The opening dirge, "Tuff," introduces the eerie electro-acoustic soundscapes that pervade the entire disc. "The New Red Pony" sounds like evil technological monstrosities invading a placid backwater delta. "Our Puppet Selves" hums with deeply embedded, near-industrial electronics; its crafty arrangement rises above the aimless noodling of most explorations of this ilk. "Magic Mountain" evokes phantasmagoric sounds that vie with a steel-string guitar for the darkest tonal center.

The combo is quite convincing on those tense instrumental cuts. But when Fahey and Jones try a Beckett-like absurdist dialogue on the last two tunes ("More Nothing," "Nothing"), they come up with empty artifice -- an admirable attempt (perhaps) to bring out the frustrating recording process in words, but insubstantial nonetheless. Still, if the dadalike wordplay helped the duo submit to musical happenstance, it's best that they came up with nothing; epiphany surely lay in its wake.

-- Sam Prestianni

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