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Strange Cargo
Hinterland
(Discovery)
Torch Song
Toward the Unknown Region
(Discovery)
Caroline Lavelle
Spirit
(Discovery)

In the field of ambient music, where putting your face on the cover of an album is considered a faux pas of biblical proportions, Britisher William Orbit is extremely outgoing. Of course, he doesn't put his face on his album covers, either. But he's social enough to perform in varied musical settings, and he doesn't shy away from collaborating with artists like Lavelle, who are more willing than he to venture into standard musical categories. What's more, he can be something of a sonic maximalist when he puts his mind to it. On Hinterland, for instance, Orbit (who uses the pseudonym "Strange Cargo") willingly offers listeners musical elements many of his more austere contemporaries withhold--like an actual vocal hook on "She Cries Your Name." He's just as profligate on the Torch Song disc, a band project that also features Laurie Mayer and Rico Conning. Even "Gumbo Ya Ya," which initially seems like nothing more than a random collection of synthesized burbles, eventually offers up a recognizable melody. In short, both these recordings should satisfy ambient purists without alienating novices accustomed to music infused with a more tangible human presence. Lavelle certainly displays this last quality, but Orbit's subtle production keeps her at an emotional distance; on many of Spirit's tunes, she doesn't even open her mouth until a minute or so has gone by. "Dream of Picasso" sports a memorable chorus that comes within spitting distance of seeming upbeat, but elsewhere, ethereality seems to be Orbit and Lavelle's sole goal. They succeed for the most part, but in so doing, they sink into a state of redundancy that Orbit generally avoids when left to his own devices. Reaching out to embrace a larger world is usually a good idea, but sometimes it's better to circle it from a distance.--Michael Roberts

The Pharcyde
Labcabincalifornia
(Delicious Vinyl/Capitol)

The Pharcyde brought a fresh sound and a healthy dose of humor to West Coast rap with the group's 1992 debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. But the lightning-fast rhyming and playful, class-clown antics that made songs like "Ya Mama" such fun are sadly missing from Labcabincalifornia. Instead, the players counter with slower, R&B-influenced sounds and numerous tributes to marijuana. While songs like "Runnin'" are solid single material, most of the other tracks feature uninspired tales of drug use that are further convoluted by too-frequent sampling of department-store organs and annoying background chatter. Perhaps Lab is best heard in an aromatic haze; it certainly sounds as if it was recorded in one. But even herb might not help--because the Pharcyde's latest is more likely to induce a nap than a compulsion to get up and dance.--Joshua Green

The Charlatans UK
The Charlatans UK
(Beggars Banquet)

The several tunes that follow "Nine Acre Court," an instrumental that opens this CD with borrowed gospel and faux-Indian chanting, explore typical British-pop territory; on them, the Charlatans sound more like Oasis than Oasis does. However, the rest of the songs on The Charlatans UK fulfill the potential this band has always displayed. Tim Burgess's misunderstood lead vocals are as medicinal as ever, while Rob Collins has mastered a new and improved set of keyboards; his skillful manipulation of this equipment stands out in arrangements also marked by poetic guitar bursts that rise and fall at just the right moments. As for the lyrics, they're filled with obscure jests: Witness the almost Zeppelinesque "Toothache," in which Burgess sings, "I'm milkin' the miles/No milk don't melt in the back of my mouth/I'm a tramp and I love you." The mellower "Crashin' In" builds on this anomalous perspective with lines like "I can see you've got a solar report/Keeps you in and keeps you boring/I can hear you snoring." Then, at disc's end, these quirky musicians deliver a wobbly "Thank You" to all of you soul cats out there. Yeah, yeah, yeah.--Susan Dunlap

Ministry
Filth Pig
(Warner Bros.)

This one's a puzzler. As Ministry has grown more aggressive, I've grown more interested in its work--yet Filth Pig hasn't kept me coming back for more. The tempos are certainly part of the problem: In place of the gun-at-the-back-of-your-head screamers that filled terrific long-players such as Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs are dinosaur stomps like "Lava" and the title cut. Other numbers suffer from a severe lack of innovation. Whereas earlier Ministry offerings sounded like they could have been made by no one else, "Crumbs" and "Useless" (back-to-back excursions into the Sabbathy netherworld) are practically indistinguishable from the work of dozens of grunge merchants out there. I don't fault Al Jourgensen for wanting to upset what's become a well-established formula, but if a couple of decent metal songs ("Dead Guy" and "Brick Window") and a snotty cover of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" are the best he can manage, maybe he should crank that drum machine up to 140 bpm's and get back to work.--Roberts

 
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