Amy Rigby
(Koch International)

On 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife, Amy Rigby was pushing 40 and running for her life. Singing sweetly, with a stunning batch of country-inflected hooks at her command, she was desperate to confront love, day jobs, and rock-star dreams before the middle-aged humdrum of housecleaning and must-see TV swallowed her whole. But despite all the near-breakups and temp-worker neuroses, Rigby retained an endearing optimism; there were dishes to be done, sure, but she could borrow some notes from a George Jones record and make it into a song.

It's two years later, and to hell with optimism. Ol' Possum ain't doing the trick, and now Rigby has an ex-husband (former dB Will Rigby), a 10-year-old to raise, and a ream of glowing reviews for Housewife she can't eat. The resulting cynicism invades the fabric of her music: If Housewife was freewheeling, Middlescence is her Blood on the Tracks, a bitter -- but never self-righteous -- catalog of her frustrations with busted relationships and dishonesty. "I've learned a lot of things/ I'm through with learning," she cries harshly on "Ivory Tower," and proceeds to erect herself a castle from which she can fire cannonballs at anyone who dares to approach. All the while, the piano, drums, and guitar build, ending the song with a manic, angry rumble and bass thrusts that wouldn't be out of place on an early Elvis Costello record.

That skepticism about romance makes for a great confessional album, although it could easily have devolved into musical self-pity -- imagine "I Am a Rock" writ large. But while Rigby occasionally delves into territory that sounds more like purge than pop -- "The Summer of My Wasted Youth" is a history lesson without a moral -- she salvages Middlescence with a willingness to explore a wider range of styles. Hopscotching from Southern-rock balladeering ("20th Anniversary") to power pop ("Raising the Bar"), New Orleans piano jazz ("Calling Professor Longhair"), and the country-folk that made her semifamous, the disappointment in her lyrics feels universal and accessible instead of morose. Clever, too: On "Laboratory of Love" she employs a B-movie calypso sound to play the role of a mad scientist running a dating service. "I admit I feel the urge to touch you," she sings, then thinks better of it. "Probably a pre-programmed response."

It's not pity Rigby's asking for, just respect, and probably a word or two with whoever said that life begins at 40. But she does find a sliver of optimism on "Give the Drummer Some," where she hooks up with a middle-aged drummer who's good for the night, if not the rest of her life. The song's unlisted and buried at the end of the record; if Rigby does hold out hope for the future, she's too coy, scared, or burned to be open about it.

-- Mark Athitakis

Black Eyed Peas
Behind the Front

Recent hip hop is one of the best measures of the clock speed of cultural phenomena. This morning's naturalist temperament is overtaken by lunch hour's formalist cant; by happy hour the two have been blended into something that is not entirely organic nor artifice. For example, in late winter of last year, Lil' Kim's skank, high-fashion postures made hip hop seem like a division of Versace. By midspring, Missy Elliott had taken the music back to its block-party roots. Before fall, the two had mixed their contrasting sensibilities on "Not Tonight." Back in the day, even a rather familiar day like one in 1994, that kind of transition would have taken a year or two, not a few months.

Black Eyed Peas are the latest entry into these 400-megahertz cycles, even if the Los Angeles-based trio has been around since the Bush administration. Apl De Ap, Will I Am, and Taboo began as members of the dance troupe Tribal Nation. They formed the rap group Atban Clan, then finally -- under their current moniker -- signed to Ruthless in 1992. They finished recording in '94, but then got wait-listed while the label rode the gangsta success of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Finally, after three years in limbo, Black Eyed Peas won release from their contract and signed with Interscope. All of which is interesting to note: In 1992 the group would have looked like they were cashing in on Arrested Development's socially conscious laid-back grooves; in 1994, they would have followed in the jazzy footsteps of Digable Planets. Now, the trio has the precinct formerly known as alternative hip hop almost all to itself.

Typical of how much faster hip hop moves now, the authenticity issues that dogged AD -- and to a lesser extent the Planets -- were never raised. Black Eyed Peas were immediately welcomed into hip hop's mainstream and spent the summer on the Smoking Grooves tour opening for Cypress Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Gang Starr.

On Behind the Front the Peas come out swinging with "Fallin' Up." "We never fake grooves/ But jealous motherfuckers just seem to disapprove," Will proclaims. Taboo follows: "We don't use dollars to represent/ Just our innocence and tal-ent." It doesn't sound like it at first, but for the most part the Peas are a relaxed bunch. Their grooves have the elastic feel of an acoustic jazz-band with an occasional extra bounce. Their subject matter is fairly standard issue: "Clap Your Hands" and "Joints & Jam" are about music; "The Way U Make Me Feel" and "Love Won't Wait" are about relationship vagaries; light social commentary carries "AQue Dices?," "Be Free," and "Say Goodbye."

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