Producer/bassist Bill Laswell is a major talent, but his conceptual skills are spotty: For every intriguing album he's put together under the Material banner, there's another one that never lived up to expectations. So it comes as a wonderful surprise that Hallucination Engine stands as Laswell's best, most consistent offering. "Words of Advice," featuring William S. Burroughs (who's spreading himself a bit thin these days), is the only suspect track on a disc that includes offerings from an incredibly eclectic supporting cast. Wayne Shorter, Bootsy Collins, Nicky Skopelitis and Sly Dunbar, among many others, make contributions whose naturalness is positively breathtaking. From Shorter's exquisite work on "Black Light" to an anti-redundant cover of the Weather Report track "Cucumber Slumber," Laswell's latest blends jazz, funk and who knows what else into a genre-jumping rush. Tastes good, and it's good for you.--Michael Roberts
Four Calendar Cafe
On their first album since leaving the 4AD imprint, the Cocteau Twins have reached a lofty plateau--and now they're stuck there. While vocalist Elizabeth Fraser caresses songs such as "Pur," "Oil of Angels" and the single "Evangeline" with enchanted, heartfelt passion, her signature warbling lacks the kinetic energy of previous releases. Similarly, the layered production by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde provides fans with the same gorgeous blanket of sound that they know and love, but it doesn't continue the progress the Twins have been making over the past eleven years. You'll find no bold new direction here: Rather, Four Calendar Cafe offers highly polished musical gems performed in a rut of complacency. It doesn't disappoint, but neither does it triumph. Expect the expected.--Justin McLean
Rickie Lee Jones
Traffic From Paradise
With each new release, this shape-shifting artist shows us another side of her talents. She's ranged from the white-trash urban chic of her 1978 debut to the oh-so-California cool of her "jazz album," 1991's Pop Pop, and the only constant during that time has been her insistence on making music that's fresh and different no matter what her diverse audience wants to hear. Tunes featured on this new venture are primarily Jones originals or collaborations with writers such as Leo Kottke, John Leftwich or Sal Bernardi. "Beat Angels," penned with the latter, provokes Jones's best subterranean cooing, while "Rebel Rebel"--the sole cover tune--features tasty appearances by Syd Straw and Brian Setzer, and a Jones performance that pulls a sensual, woman-to-woman statement from David Bowie's classic glam-rock tune. This is not the work of the Duchess of Coolsville: It's a presentation by a woman on her own, happily defining who she now wants to be.--Linda Gruno
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With their monolithic guitars and long hair, this Seattle-based foursome usually gets filed away under "grunge" with all the other squawkers from the Pacific Northwest. But Far Gone, the Battery's third Sub Pop release, is hardly your typical grunge album: The ballsy riffs of "Split in Two" and the title track (provided by vocalist/guitarist Ron Nine and ex-Mother Love Bone guitarist Kevin Whitworth) lean more toward the dirty blues-rock of the Rolling Stones than Nirvana. In addition, Nine's swirling, at times languid, vocals bear little resemblance to the anguished bellows of Eddie Vedder. At times, slow burners such as "Searching for Rose" come dangerously close to aping what's come to be known as the Seattle sound, but on the whole Love Battery manages to rise above their self-conscious contemporaries--flannel shirts and all.--Brad Jones
Velvet Cactus Society
26 (8) Songs
No question about it: This is weird material. Velvet Cactus Society--which consists of a guy named Dave, who plays a lot of instruments and sings, and a guy named Kyle, who plays a lot of instruments and talks--is not so much a musical group as a sounding board, a forum for bizarre observations and twisted statements that you can occasionally hum along to. "Can I Borrow Your Baby?", for instance, places a bouncy backing track side by side with the babblings of a cheerfully psychotic protagonist trying to convince a young mother to lend him her pride and joy. Sure it's sick, but it succeeds because it's unapologetically daft, and because these artists love what they're doing so much that they added eighteen songs to what initially was planned as an eight-track EP (my copy of the CD has the current title stamped on a piece of paper that's been glued to the original cover). Thank goodness Dave and Kyle got this out of their systems.--Roberts