Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Forever

Anyone who doubts that the Wu-Tang Clan has effectively made the transition from band to corporate entity is hereby advised to scope the notes included with this package (two CDs, natch); in addition to a roster of 900-numbers personalized for each member and an offer of fifty free hours of service from America Online, the liner includes a mini-catalogue advertising the "Wu-Wear" clothing line of shirts and caps. (Irony fans will want to place their orders while listening to disc two's "Intro," which sports the phrase "This ain't no fashion show/This is hip-hop.") Oh, yeah, there's music here as well, and a lot of it is pretty damn good: These guys are too skilled to fall completely flat in the beats department. But Wu-Tang Forever also carries with it the scent of product--which is something to be expected, given how thin producer RZA has been stretched over the years. He's the man behind the ominous, haunted-house loops, bottomless grooves and menacing rhythms that constitute the act's thumbprint, but after manning the boards for a slew of solo albums by Wu rappers like GZA/The Genius, he's running short on surprises. Although the majority of these 27 numbers sound fine when excerpted from the whole, an end-to-end listen will leave you hungry for a little variety. (Ramones albums suffer from the same flaw, but they're usually around thirty minutes long; Wu-Tang Forever goes on for more than two hours.) Fortunately, the rappers provide changes of pace: Ol' Dirty Bastard, who's changed his name to Osirus for reasons that are too complicated to go into unless you've got a week's vacation you need to use, is at his most lascivious on cuts like "Maria," while the single "Triumph" finds the entire crew, including Method Man, Ghostface Killah, U-God and Raekwon, trading rhymes with aplomb. But these platters also contain plenty of bogus rationalizing (like the warning not to use guns against your own people that precedes "Little Ghetto Boys," a glamorized tale of using guns against your own people) and moments of casual misogyny (such as the line "Don't want it if it ain't no slut, bitch," from "Dog Shit") of the sort that many of us have learned to ignore over the years. In other words, Wu-Tang Forever is, for better or worse, exactly what you would expect from these guys. They've created a virtual pop assembly line, and they'll keep the same products rolling off it until the public demands something new. And the public has been mighty quiet lately.

--Michael Roberts \

Little Texas
Little Texas
(Warner Bros.)

This band should change its name to Little New Jersey in honor of the state that produced the group's primary country-music influence--Bon Jovi. And make no mistake: Little Texas's music has much more to do with this Garden State phenom than it does with Waylon and Willie. The liner-note photos offer the first hints about the true character of this schmaltzy piece of formula: In them, the six bandmates, sullen and serious in leather pants and hunky, day-old beards, bear the glossy look of male models schooled in Eighties rock fashion. One member even displays the time-tested give-me-your-wallet hand gesture, which has been turned into a cliche by so many pop-metal types--and that's appropriate, since the billfold is obviously the target for which this band of imposters is aiming. If you think lite-rock commercial jingles are a thing of beauty, buy this record immediately. After all, each song has been constructed with the market in mind. (You can practically hear these guys' calculations: "Say, let me count this one off in my Springsteen voice," or "Let's make this one a sappy FM ballad, but with a fiddle!") In short, Little Texas is utterly soulless. The fact that these gents have pawned themselves off as a country act should be more than enough to inspire any real C&W artist, from George Jones to Denver Joe, to reach for the bottle.

--Marty Jones

Future Bible Heroes
Memories of Love
(Slow River/Rykodisc)

When last we heard from Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt, he was heading up the 6ths, a brilliant showcase for indie vocalists such as Superchunk's Mac McCaughan that demonstrated a synth-pop mastery of the very first order. Though less sweeping than Merritt's previous project, Future Bible Heroes is equally adept at transporting bubblegum pop to new heights--or, since this is the morose Merritt we're talking about, new depths. On Memories, Merritt is one third of a killer trio that also includes Christopher Ewen, formerly of Figures on a Beach, and longtime Fields associate Claudia Gonson, who sings on about half the disc's tracks (Merritt handles the others). Together the three encapsulate Merritt's sadly bitter, sardonic and frequently hilarious musings in a sugarcoating sweet enough to give the members of ABBA a toothache. Also noteworthy is the presence of nicely executed dramatic artifice courtesy of Ewen that at times recalls the work of Erasure's Vince Clarke. But where Clarke's partner, vocalist Andy Bell, tends to go over the top, Gonson offers airy understatement. It's hard to resist the sticky, lingering melodies of "You're So Beautiful" and "Hopeless," during which she sings lines like "All our dreams are dying of overdoses/All our plans are lying in ten-car road wrecks" with the devil-may-care attitude of a Breck girl. Merritt's delivery is much more deadpan, but it works to perfection on the title track and on "Blond Adonis," a number that finds him deftly balancing lust and contempt for a big-screen heartthrob ("I can't sing/But I can do some things that leave you breathless/Take me home and leave the light on/You'll see why I'm famous"). Memories of Love proves that electro-pop confection is always more satisfying when it's fortified with something more substantial than lyrical fluff.

--Chris LaMorte


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