The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

No one says the members of R.E.M. should keep strumming those twelve-strings until they wind up on the oldies circuit: Experimentation is to be applauded. But Up is hardly a bold step in a new direction. Monotonous and one-dimensional, the album strands the players in their own navels--and they seem too filled with ennui to bother trying to escape.

DJ Spooky
Riddim Warfare
(Outpost)

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, received critical huzzahs for 1996's Endtroducing..., a far-reaching instrumental hip-hop collage that expanded the use of turntables and mixing decks as compositional tools. Certain tastemakers in the hip-hop community looked upon the project with suspicion, complaining that Shadow was trying to improve a genre that was wonderful the way it was. But Paul D. Miller, who goes by DJ Spooky, hasn't been scared off by this backward thinking (which, in the case of Shadow, a Caucasian, had a racial component). With Riddim Warfare, he has made a full-bodied extravaganza that picks up where Endtroducing... left off--and while the album doesn't skimp on theory, Spooky's willingness to pull others into his orbit makes the piece more accessible than Shadow's challenging opus.

Miller completes this neat trick with a little help from several rappers, who provide a sense of shape and symmetry that Spooky's free-flowing soundscapes might otherwise lack. The guests are a fine lot, and the DJ pushes them to the limit: Kool Keith more or less maintains his sanity on "Object Unknown" and "Riddim Warfare," Prince Poetry and Pharoah Monch of Organized Konfusion spark "Rekonstruction," Killah Priest lends an eerie buzz to "Degree Zero," and Japanese artist Moriko Mori adds to the exotic atmosphere that suffuses the concluding "Twilight Fugue." Spooky is an ideal host on these occasions, making room for vocal contributors amid the beeps, blips and beats swirling around them. But when he's in the spotlight, his graciousness is replaced with bravado. The three-part "Dialectical Transformation" moves from space noises to waves of doomy synthesizer and guitar drone contributed by none other than Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, "Post-Human Sophistry" pits a semi-operatic voice against apocalyptic tones, and "Theme of the Drunken Sailor" invites acid jazz and dub to the same party.

Most albums show listeners their knickers during the first spin, but not Riddim Warfare. The CD's design is so dense that it requires repeated explorations to unearth all of its treasures. But digging into it is a pleasure.

Metallica
Garage Inc.
(Elektra)

A compilation consisting entirely of other people's songs, Garage Inc. may be seen as an acknowledgment that the last couple of Metallica albums suffered from a severe lack of respectable tunes, and perhaps it is. But it also serves as a reminder that these speed-metal popularizers are, first and foremost, a rock band, with everything that definition implies.

Disc two here pulls together previously released covers cut between 1984 and 1995, and with the exception of Queen ("Stone Cold Crazy") and Killing Joke ("The Wait"), the outfits Metallica honors make perfect sense considering their sound: the Misfits, the Anti-Nowhere League and Motsrhead. But the first CD, laid down mere weeks ago, is another matter entirely. The band sounds as muscular as it did in its nascent stages during fierce variations of Discharge's "Free Speech for the Dumb" and "The More I See," Black Sabbath's "Sabbra Cadabra," the Misfits' "Die, Die My Darling," a Mercyful Fate medley and "It's Electric," by Diamond Head. In addition, they find a way to make Nick Cave's "Loverman" Metallica-ready; Hetfield grumbles, "I am what I am what I am what I am" like a hard-rock Popeye. But what's even more startling than the presence here of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" is the musicians' decision to play it pretty much straight. No kidding: Hetfield, who's quoted in the extensive liner notes as saying that he wishes he'd written the number, is so respectful of the man who sings about trucks built "like a rock" that he seems to be imitating him half the time.

Couple "Turn the Page" with an acoustic take of (really) Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" and you'll be able to guess why Metallica is still prospering while so many of its Eighties peers have gone the way of the eight-track tape. Deep down, these four aren't revolutionaries but committed conservatives who just happen to like it loud and proud. And they're not going anywhere.

P.J. Harvey
Is This Desire?
(Island)

Harvey is a rarity--a raw-boned performer who actually benefits from a bit of slickness. Her first album, 1992's Dry, and Rid of Me, a Steve Albini-helmed successor from the following year, were harrowing, emotional journeys into the land of punk blues and rock trauma. But 1995's To Bring You My Love, partially produced by sometime Depeche Mode cohort Flood, was even worthier. It gave Harvey the opportunity to use a broader palette, and she knew precisely what to do with it.

Flood is back on the team for Is This Desire?, but the new recording features fewer dance rhythms than did its predecessor. On this occasion, Harvey and gifted instrumentalists such as Captain Beefheart veteran Eric Drew Feldman, Tom Waits associate Joe Gore, Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds and longtime sidemen John Parish and Rob Ellis stake out a middle ground between her edgiest instincts and the requirements of radio, and the location turns out to be a very good one indeed. The first two songs establish the parameters: "Angelene," a somber but gorgeous tale about a woman of easy virtue ("Love for money is my sin/Any man calls, I'll let him in") leads directly into "The Sky Lit Up," a chugging gloss on the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for My Man" that builds until Harvey is practically shrieking. Her sense of dynamics elsewhere is just as provocative. "The Wind" is a sinister duet between a singing Harvey and a whispering one, "My Beautiful Leah" allows the vocalist to plunge to the bottom of her range, and "Catherine" quietly makes the most out of an ominous scenario ("Catherine De Barra, you've murdered my thinking/I gave you my heart/You left the thing stinking").

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