Playlist

Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire
(Epic)

Why are so many left-wingers humorless? Sure, there are terrible things happening on this little globe of ours--war, torture, rape, racism, discrimination, deforestation--and anyone willing to batter against such obstacles deserves props. But I humbly submit that the harangue is seldom the best way to musically address these issues. Constantly harping about the problems all around us not only repels those fence-sitters who might be induced to help solve them given a more subtle approach; its one-dimensionality also makes it easier for opponents to dismiss the meat of what might be a very cogent argument. Which brings us to Machine leader Zack de la Rocha, who's so in love with the sound of his own voice that he doesn't stop to consider his own redundancy. From a sonic perspective, Evil Empire isn't what you'd call a notable advance over previous Rage works: The style remains metallic punk-funk-rap with the laughs blanched out. Still, the majority of tunes here, including "Snakecharmer" and "Tire Me," feature heavy, purposeful riffing, grabby quasi-melodies and playing impressive enough to seize one's attention and hold on tight. Listen to the words that de la Rocha delivers in his bracing Beasties whine, however, and before long you'll be wishing that your mind could drift. He's capable of some good lines--check "These people ain't seen a brown-skin man/Since their grandparents bought one," from "Down Rodeo"--but one rant against state-sanctioned fascism, social calamity and general injustice soon blends into another. By the disc's conclusion, de la Rocha seems almost indistinguishable from those self-proclaimed truth-tellers who stand on street corners yelling at passersby--too bellicose to bother engaging. Empire has its powerful moments, but it would be a lot better if de la Rocha got laid a little more often.

--Michael Roberts

Hi-STANDARD
Growing Up
(Fat Wreck Chords)

If you've always found the Goo Goo Dolls a bit too cerebral, Hi-STANDARD could be the band for you. Granted, this Japanese trio's command of the English language currently approximates that of the Scorpions' Klaus Meine circa 1973. But the players' frenetic fretwork reveals that they've put the guitar gymnastics favored by other dinosaur rockers such as Tom Scholz and Brian May to better use. My favorite cuts here include kamikaze covers of Russ Ballard's "Since You've Been Gone" and the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night." As for Hi-STANDARD's original compositions, they're instantly forgettable--but that's all the more reason to play them again. Very loudly.--John Jesitus

Various Artists
MTV Buzz Bin: Volume 1
(Mammoth)

Of the twelve acts featured on this disc, three (Cracker, White Zombie, Danzig) deserve MTV stardom; three others (Radiohead, US3, Filter) don't, but they're represented here by okay one-shots; and six (Stone Temple Pilots, Dave Matthews Band, the Cranberries, Gin Blossoms, Bush, Blind Melon) range from lame to actively annoying, which pretty much hits the usual MTV percentages right on the head.--Roberts

Various Artists
The Roots of Rap: Classic Recordings From the 1920's and 30's
(Yazoo)

From a marketing standpoint, Roots of Rap won't win any prizes; it's unlikely that teens headed to the mall to pick up a copy of the new Method Man will snap this up instead. But musicologically speaking, the disc is quite instructive--and although the central point may seem somewhat scholarly, it's illustrated by some terrific music. Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down," the album's opening track, is identifiably a blues composition, but the singer's cadence, use of rhyme and preternaturally gruff delivery suggest Ol' Dirty Bastard transplanted to the era of the Teapot Dome scandal. Just as persuasive is "Jive Man Blues," in which Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon's threats ("Look out brother/Don't try to get slack/I'd like to get something from you/And I won't give it back") suggest Yo-Yo in an especially saucy mood. Later, Frank Hutchinson's "Back in My Home Town" frames a tale of bootlegging and rockpile-pounding that's as direct a forerunner of the jailhouse laments offered up by today's gangstas as anything you're apt to find in the annals of recorded music. Other tunes here, such as Rev. Edward W. Clayborn's "Let That Liar Alone" and "How Can You Have the Blues?" by Kansas City Kitty & Georgia Tom, are less obviously related to the hip-hop nation, but a closer listen reveals vernacular and subject matter with which Ice Cube would be familiar. No doubt the guardians of taste in the first half of the century regarded these ditties as threats to public decorum and family values, just as their blue-blooded brethren view rap as an evil that should be snuffed out like an overstuffed blunt. And that's as good a reason for listening as any I know.

--Roberts

 
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