With A Tribe Called Quest on the shelf, Q-Tip is on his own, more or less, yet he brings with him some important equipment: a readily identifiable musical style (jazzy, keyboard-heavy rhythms, beats that are more about precision than posturing), a unique voice (a rather light, nasal tenor) and a brain he's not afraid to exercise on regular occasions. In other words, he doesn't need to be reinvented -- but that fact doesn't prevent a handful of attempts to do so anyway. Such efforts, though, are as futile as they are counterproductive. When Q-Tip is being himself, Amplified works great, and when he's not, it doesn't.
The biggest gaffe here is "End of Time," which teams the main man with Korn, a group whose style has practically nothing in common with his: He raps the opening verse with a macho self-consciousness that's downright embarrassing, and when the track devolves into a yowl of whining guitars and megaphoned provocations, he simply disappears, as if he knows this is no place for him. The story's not quite as extreme on "N.T.," whose co-star, Busta Rhymes, actually has a history with Q-Tip. But without Tribe cohorts Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on hand to balance Busta's wildman act, the tune collapses amid fits of laughter that turn the whole thing into a joke -- whether it started out that way or not.
Fortunately, a truly solo Q-Tip turns out to be a mighty enjoyable thing. Lyrically, "Wait Up" is a standard-issue boast, but its resourceful blending of syncopated piano chords and humming industrial tones gives it a pleasantly dislocating feel. Elsewhere, "Do It" intermingles a Max Roach drum pattern with a benign bit of metal machine music ("Original to say the least, and you've impressed them all," Q-Tip says during it, and he's right); "Moving With U" layers an invitation to mambo horizontally over an unexpectedly memorable frog-croak groove; "Things U Do" swings with deceptive ease; and "All In" waves its funky bottom end for all the world to see.
The resulting sonics aren't as multifaceted as those created by Tribe, a combo that turns out to have been more of a collaboration than some observers may have thought. But they show Q-Tip to be fully capable of charting his own course. As he puts it on "Go Hard": "I spit it out with the general feeling/That once you ride with it, you keep on coming back." Amen to that. -- Michael Roberts
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Brooklyn-bred John Linnell is one half of perennial chess club/nosebleed favorites They Might Be Giants -- the nasal-sounding, accordion-and-sax-playing half, that is. And with his ongoing "Fifty State Songs" project (which began with 1994's State Songs EP, available through Giants partner in crime John Flansburgh's subscription-only Hello CD club), Linnell's focus is all over the map. Whether he's driving his house through the darkness to Idaho, catching us up on West Virginia's rhododendrons or waxing poetic about the Beaver State ("Oregon is bad/Stop it if you can"), the prolific Particle Man revisits some old haunts that fans haven't experienced since the Giants' hyper-creative glory days: the self-titled 1986 debut and its clever followup, Lincoln. Combining paper-roll cut Wurlitzer organs, fife and bugle corp arrangements, car alarms, polkas and Dustbusters, Linnell reanimates his absurd ear for uncommon melodies, jigsaw logic and art-school cleverness. Choosing to honor the country's least hip states -- Utah, Arkansas, South Carolina, and so forth -- seems less than accidental, as each distinct jurisdiction receives its due treatment, endearing, irreverent or otherwise. Whether the cultural meccas of New York and California receive a little chin music from Linnell in the future remains to be seen. For now, playful pokes at President Clinton's boyhood home of Arkansas -- the song refers to the less-than-watertight Battleship Arkansas, one designed in the very shape of the state that bears her name -- come complete with faux pomp and circumstance and work brilliantly. Otherwise, everyone already knows that "no one likes New Hampshire" and that Nevada leans toward the naughty side, including its historical penchant for testing atomic weapons. As educational as it is ridiculous (Idaho's "vast hydroelectric dams produce enough power to deep-fry each of her potatoes millions of times over"), State Songs is an unbeatable joyride for weary travelers, plus a fun, G-rated audio compendium to any American road atlas. If only Linnell could have found a way to include a Stuckey's pecan log. -- John La Briola
(Le Grand Magistery)
For my money, the sounds of the 21st century were best created about twenty years ago -- from the blips and bleeps of video games and the cold, sterile emanations of analog synthesizers. Unapologetically artificial, they connoted a promising future filled with jet packs, moon vacations and dinner in tablet form. In contrast, today's synth music is frequently too self-importantly dreary. But Parisian Gilles Weinzaepflen, who, fortunately, performs under the moniker Toog (much easier on the tongue), has managed to recapture those naive, pre-digital sounds while adding a dash of always-welcome ironic wit to the mix. His album 6633 -- just how THX 1138 is that? -- opens with a creeping and delicate number, "Le Jugement [259k aiff]," that sets the stage for the album's journey into a retro future. The brief song presents a sharp, almost angular rhythm riding atop a menagerie of noises that seem to breathe just beneath the song's surface. Like the album as a whole, it offers a sophisticated interplay of sounds and rhythms. Indeed, the album veers in experimental territory in this regard: On "X'tern [237K aiff]," for example, Toog happily shifts tempo mid-song to disrupt quiet theremin meditations with a loud gunshot or two. The multilayered melodic weave he creates here is not subtle, of course, but it is inventive. The same can be said for his odd lyrics. (Though he sings entirely in French, the American version comes with a translated lyric sheet.) On "L'amour Dentair [255K aiff]," Toog muses: "A visit to the dentist, a proof that love exists/When I kiss you, I don't want to feel your sickly tooth." Oh, those romantic French! And occasionally, as in "L'Ombre, la Nuit," 6633's electronic showcase allows for a traditional instrument to make an appearance -- in this case, a flute. Toog, however, makes the juxtaposition between a wind instrument and a computer timeless. -- Chris LaMorte