Slick Rick
Behind Bars
(Def Jam)

Rick James
Bustin' Out: The Best of Rick James

With the Snoop Doggy Dogg trial looming and accused multiple murderer O.J. Simpson presently getting more press than he ever did for packing a pigskin, it's no surprise that jailbirds everywhere have begun to realize that incarceration has become a career move. Exhibit A is Slick Rick, currently in stir for attempted murder (he fired a shot at his cousin but hit a bystander in the ankle instead). Rick's a veteran rapper, but a minor one: The material on 1991's The Ruler's Back, for example, consists mainly of sometimes diverting sexual innuendo delivered over loping, soft-core beats. Tracks like "A Love That's True (Part 1)" from Behind Bars, partially recorded during a period in 1993 when Rick was on work release (he subsequently was imprisoned again), continue this tradition without adding anything to it, resulting in an offering that's listenable but decidedly retro. The exception is the disc's title track, an effort to get mileage out of Rick's current status that features lame lines such as "In the slammer, but I'm innocent/Law played witty/Wasn't having any pity." Tough it's not. Apparently, Slick Rick is better at acting like a gangsta than sounding like one. James was luckier: He'd already recorded his most memorable monster grooves before landing in lockup for a variety of charges relating to his holding of a woman forced against her will to serve as a sex slave. Needless to say, these actions (which--can you believe it?--aren't even mentioned in this two-CD set's liner notes) certainly add a new dimension to lascivious party funk such as "Super Freak," "U Bring the Freak Out" and "She Blew My Mind (69 Times)." The same is true for "Down By Law," the oh-so-appropriately titled "Bustin' Out (On Funk)" and other ditties mainly recorded between 1978 and 1985. The tracks were enjoyable before; now they're as creepy as anything on the Blue Velvet soundtrack. Who says the Big House can't change a person?--Michael Roberts

John McCutcheon
Between the Eclipse

They don't call this guy the Bruce Springsteen of folk for nothing: The unsentimental eye for detail evident in songs like "Old Coat" and "Same Small Town" compare favorably to the Boss's ballsiest Jersey Shore balladry, while the bouncy New Orleans-style brass flourishes that adorn most of the tunes here allow McCutcheon to stake out his own musical turf. But by the time the sappy "Woman Like You" rolls around, the references to eight-hour days and forty-hour weeks start sounding as tired as the people whose lives are measured in such increments. Equally unsettling is McCutcheon's vocal vacillation between a mannered Irish lilt and a grittier rock-and-roll growl, sometimes in the same song. While the redemptive themes of the affecting "She" and "S'posed to Do" (two of Eclipse's finer cuts) ultimately fail to deliver McCutcheon from the shadow of bigger-name working-class poets, however, you get the feeling that his meat-and-potatoes sensibilities are little offended.--John Jesitus

Gilberto Gil
(Atlantic/Warner Bros. Brasil)

The most elusive song collection of the year quickly establishes this Bahian singer's vocal warmth and the flow of his tunes, then leaves you wondering how he does the things he does. One thing's certain: Acoustic tops the whole Unplugged series, even if the title begs to be let in. Of course, Nirvana, Neil Young and Rod Stewart all made more classic albums than Gil, but they peeled away their challenging electric music predictably, as if their noise merely concealed a nakedness of soul and pain. Gil displays far more: Stripped of the reggae, pop and lite-jazz arrangements on his many U.S. releases, his singing is freed from pigeonholes. Meanwhile, his guitar leads the percussion, flute and mandolin into weightlessness, causing the shifts from ballads to dance tunes to seem both sudden and imperceptible. If only his English was up to, say, Jon Secada's: The cover of Stevie Wonder's mediocre "The Secret Life of Plants" suffers from his cue-card singing. Also, flutist Lucas Santana should have been allowed to warm up a saxophone now and then. But since he probably would have ventured into the schmaltz from which Acoustic is thankfully free, it's probably just as well that he wasn't.--John Young

Veruca Salt
American Thighs
(Minty Fresh)

You've got to feel a little sorry for these four Chicagoans, who (in spite of the label affiliation noted above) have already been engulfed by waves of publicity generated by the Geffen hit machine. The reason? This is a decent enough band, but it's one that could have benefited from some extra time in the farm leagues, where the players could have focused on developing an original style. Plenty of folks, including yours truly, have noticed a striking resemblance between the hit single "Seether" and the sound associated with the Breeders; listeners to material such as "Get Back," "All Hail Me, "Spiderman '79" and the rest will likely think of Throwing Muses, Belly and Sonic Youth, too. These are good influences to have, and there's a chance that Veruca Salt will use them to produce more distinctive material in the future. But they'll have to do it with the whole world watching. Good luck, guys.--Roberts


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