He Got Game
Like Michael Jordan when he gave up shagging baseballs in the hot Alabama sun in favor of reclaiming his NBA crown, Public Enemy is attempting the most unlikely of comebacks. And while it's too soon to say if the outfit retains the moves it once displayed in concert (the group headlines this year's Smokin' Grooves tour, which hits Red Rocks on August 9), He Got Game, the soundtrack to Spike Lee's latest joint, inspires more Jordan comparisons: On the disc, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X and Professor Griff, supplemented on numerous tracks by the original Bomb Squad, seem a bit rusty, but they still offer occasional flashes of brilliance. Collaborations with KRS-ONE ("Unstoppable") and the Wu-Tang Clan's Masta Killa ("Resurrection") allow PE to bridge the glorious past and a present marked by "the lack of rhymes/meaningless punchlines/that battle for your mind like Israel and Palestine." Moreover, the basketball theme that dominates Lee's film provides the performers with an ideal opportunity to unleash their trademark lyrical beats of fury. In "Politics of the Sneaker Pimps," Chuck D riffs on the exploitative nature of "corporate hands in foreign lands" and "high school coaches/getting dollars with kickbacks in scholarships/behind all dem politics," and he displays compassion for those kids who see jump shots as the best way to avoid getting "jumped and shot." Elsewhere, "Super Agent" likens sports agents to slave traders who hustle athletes up to the auction block only to abandon them when they're no longer able to earn their keep. The biggest surprise, however, is the title track, an improbable pairing of urban philosopher/trickster raps and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" (complete with Stephen Stills on guitar) that turns into a spirited blues-gospel jam. The album is not a slam dunk, due in large part to the shortage of backdrops that match the terrordome soundscapes of the past, but in an era when it's all too easy to portray athletes in a negative light, give these guys credit for iluminating the underlying causes behind the culture of greed in both sports and rap. Whereas many hoopsters and hip-hoppers don't seem to care about anything other than collecting Benjamins, the men of Public Enemy still know what's really important.
Nizeh Uzel & the Istanbul Music Board Orchestra
Mevlana: Music of the Whirling Dervishes
Mevlana serves as a primer for the Turkish religious music that grew out of the transcendental explorations of Jala al-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet. Rumi, later known as Mevlana, believed that dance, music and love were tools for achieving spiritual union with Allah, and he attempted to combine each of these elements via plaintive compositions and a circular dance known properly as the dhikr; participants in it are known as whirling dervishes. Uzel and his Istanbul-based band pay tribute to this devotional ceremony--which developed separately from mosque-based strains such as the muezzin call to prayer--using traditional devices, including the kudum (a small double drum), the rebab (a two-stringed Oriental violin) and the ney (a rim-blown reed flute that adds the wailing tones characteristic of Asian and Islamic music). The results, especially on extended tracks such as "Hicaz Ayini III. Selam" and "Isfahan Ayini III. Selam," are mournful and introspective, with the interplay of the instruments and the warbling of the vocalists conjuring up a trancelike effect. Despite its somber tone, Mevlana is religious music for dancing that contains infinitely more energy than the Christian hymns and liturgies of the Western world.
Donna the Buffalo
Rockin' in the Weary Land
At any of a thousand outdoor music festivals this year, bands like Donna the Buffalo can be found on the main stage, and audiences enjoying the cold beer, the sunshine and the smell of charcoal-broiled food in the afternoon air at such events may well judge their music to be amazing. Without the additional stimuli, however, ordinary music can sound pretty darned ordinary--and that helps explain why Rockin' falls flat. Part modern bluegrass, part Bruce Cockburn, Donna rides the rails all over the folk-music map without ever really knowing where to get off. The players try zydeco with "Tides of Time" and "Mr. King," and although singer and accordion player Tara Nevins makes a good effort, she sounds too sweet and reserved to pull off anything resembling the megawatt dance energy of the real thing. They try blue-eyed soul in "Funky Side," which is the best tune on the record even if it isn't very funky. They even try reggae on "It Will Be Right," but the results are about as exciting as standing in line outside a Porta-John at one of those outdoor music festivals where Donna the Buffalo might actually sound inspired. Guess you need to be there.
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A Rose Is Still a Rose
Franklin must've been in a swell mood when she recorded this run of generally eh tunes--and, yes, I'm being sarcastic. Even on the album's two singles, Lauryn Hill's title tune and Dallas Austin's funky get-lost number "I'll Dip," she seems to grow distracted just when the listener hopes she'll bear down. Later, at the CD's end, she takes seven-plus minutes to explain "The Woman" to us--but if there's a point beyond the sad, sexy feel of her performance, I don't get it. Franklin's feel, in fact, is the only thing that enables the recording to gather a little personality. She has the sensitivity to discover the pea of a song through the many layers of high-tech production laid down by "hot" producers such as Austin, Sean "Puffy" Combs and Narada Michael Walden. On "Every L'il Bit Hurts," the Germaine Dupri Complex comes close to providing Franklin with a worthy companion, but elsewhere she has to go it alone. She's the only rose in the bouquet.