Favorite
Cibo Matto
Stereotype A
(Warner Bros.)

When they burst onto the scene in 1996, Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori were written off by some as just another sampling band, too lacking in creativity to write their own hooks. Besides which, they are also women, and the dumb old rock adage is that women can't operate studio equipment. After the release of Viva! La Woman, however, Cibo Matto seemed none the worse for wear.

The duo continue to encounter the same stereotyping. Despite Time magazine's 1998 naming of Cibo Matto as a top-ten hip-hop act, the pair defies simple explanation, and does more to confuse its audience on Stereotype A. If this is hip-hop, it is so mutated as to require a new name. Stereotype A is more soul, less hip-hop, and more heavy metal than sampling. Throw in some R&B and a dash of bossa nova, and an image begins to materialize.

Stereotype A opens with "Working for Vacation," with the feel of a mid-'80s electro tune souped up for the '90s, which flows effortlessly into a new version of "Spoon." The strongest effort on the album comes next: "Flowers" features an insatiable, Brazilian-inspired rhythm and feel that smacks of instant crossover success, equaled only by "Stone." But after the fifth cut, "Moonchild," the work begins to slide downhill.

The album dips dangerously close to cheesy at times, and even the tracks that are nothing but fun, such as "Sci-Fi Wasabi" (about New York's bike messengers), seem contrived, or at least too generic. With rap inspired by the finale of Revenge of the Nerds II and soul inspired by Top 40 radio, it's as if Cibo Matto forgot what it was doing. "Blue Train" drags the bottom of the barrel with a recreation of good ol' fashioned heavy metal.

Not that Stereotype A is bad, if listened to with the correct sense of humor (the problem is figuring out when to laugh), but proving or disproving various fans' and critics' contentions does have a price. Stereotype A isn't as silly as Viva! La Woman and its ode to chicken. The lyrical matter is often weighty, ruminating along the lines of love lost, pain, and betrayal. But in comparison to what's come before (and one must include the Butter album they recorded with Sean Lennon, who is now an official member of Cibo Matto), Stereotype A is much less inspired. They were more creative when sampling, not less.

--David Powers

Blackstreet
Finally
(Lil' Man/Interscope)

Teddy Riley is a master of R&B hybrids. His funky twists of thick rhythm bases and electro-fueled beats shaped the foundation of the new-jack swing movement a decade ago. Blackstreet, his '90s variation on that theme, scored a few years ago with "No Diggity," a powerhouse jam that's become one of the decade's most durable hits. The quartet's latest album, Finally, when it sticks to the neo-new-jack formula (which, unfortunately, is not as often as it should), is as good a case as any for the prearranged marriage of R&B and hip-hop.

Riley knows how to work a groove. The ins and outs of "Girlfriend/Boyfriend" (which features Janet Jackson in a heavy-breathing featured role) skirt along Timbaland-style stop-push-start beats, a funky throwdown that pays tribute to the evolution of '90s R&B. Riley even teases with a few drum 'n' bass drifts on Finally. None of the jams stick the way "No Diggity" did, but the courting of modern sounds (even if they are just stretching out the old ones) nudges Blackstreet on its way.

But too often Riley and crew drown in the bane of end-of-the-century R&B: the onerous slow-jam that aims to make bedroom Casanovas out of every B-boy and chart player with a record contract. Finally crushes its lissome momentum several times by slowing things down "for the ladies." The loverman shtick only goes as far as its beats wanna carry it--and with its single-minded, tiresome objective, not even supreme producer Riley can make anything of it. Minor exception: "In a Rush," with Stevie Wonder's beatific harmonica injecting a little spirit into the customary wedding song.

Riley does, however, make elastic magic out of Finally's most sparkling tracks. "Girlfriend/Boyfriend"'s robotic rhythm manages to throb with a very human pulse at its center. And the frisky remix of "Take Me There," with its marvelous groundwork sampled from the Jackson Five's chewy pop nugget "I Want You Back," is made for tops-down, bass-boomin' cruising summer airplay. Riley is an old-school naturalist operating in a modern world at the top of his game. On Finally, Blackstreet more often than not carries out his vision with a lurking, intrinsic skill that works best when it doesn't sink under its lazy, pillow-fluffing weight.

--Michael Gallucci

Beulah
When Your Heartstrings Break
(Sugar Free)

California quintet Beulah has ties to the Elephant 6 collective that has spawned the psychedelic kids of the Olivia Tremor Control and the slightly less trippy but no less erratic freaks of Neutral Milk Hotel. Which means that Beulah's second album, When Your Heartstrings Break, is loaded with the precious daisy pop favored by that multi-instrument, multi-textured, and multi-membered musicians' unit. And if Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper are the launching grounds of a thousand fragmented song ideas and conceptual sound sculptures, then Beulah is clearly in front of the Brian Wilson brigade.

And leading the charge means adapting the Elephant 6 creed of including at least a couple dozen guest musicians on the album--performing such brain- and energy-taxing chores as managing the strings and horns, as well as offering oohing and aahing backing vocals that sound as if they've just floated in from another era. Beulah isn't interested in jamming as many shreds of musical debris and symphonic flotsam into their music as their contemporaries. This is pretty straight pop stuff, as if the Pet Sounds and Beach Boys that they're familiar with are the singles that made it onto their AM radios in the '60s.

Of course, these are young kids and not aging geeks worshiping at the altar of Wilson. So things are taken for granted, and one or two times, aural excess gets the best of them. The arrangements on When Your Heartstrings Break can be as perplexing and as vitalizing as anything done by Wilson's '90s disciples; there's harmonic structure in the music and some grand ideas bubbling in the mind of leader Miles Kurosky. Most importantly, they rarely lose the melody. Some of Beulah's songs never break out of their initially inviting concepts, but when they give their cross-generational pop a kaleidoscopic spin on the sunny "Ballad of the Lonely Argonaut" or open their eager-to-please hearts on "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart," When Your Heartstrings Break sounds like a blast of summer ringing in your ears.

--Gallucci

Jamiroquai
Synkronized
(Work/Sony)

Jamiroquai frontman Jason Kay sets the tone for his group's new album with the first line of its first single, "Canned Heat": "You know this boogie is for real."

Even the most stoic listener will be inclined to agree with Kay after an airing of Synkronized, the long-awaited follow-up to the English band's 1997 breakthrough Travelling Without Moving. How do you top a record that sold more than seven million copies? If you're Kay, you build a studio in your country estate and adopt the philosophy that more of everything is better.

Every element of Jamiroquai's now-signature sound is tweaked to maximum levels here. The rhythm section of drummer Derrick McKenzie and new bassist Nick Fyffe wiggles the bottom end away from the funky underpinnings of Travelling and toward a much slicker disco boogie. The electronic elements that became more noticeable on the last record are in full force on Synkronized, giving the bass a little more oomph when needed or filling the crannies just right. String arrangements appear frequently.

For his part, Kay belts it out Stevie-style, with the kind of manic energy that marked Travelling's title track. Sure, he knows the boogie is for real, but he's going to make damn sure that you do, too. Like all great soul-styled frontmen, Kay is a man perpetually on the move, be it in search of the heavenly groove that lives on "Planet Home" or the good times blighted by a "Black Capricorn Day." When he does stop to take stock, he ruminates about familiar topics (love and the power of the groove). But like Wonder and Sly Stone--the artists to whom he is most frequently compared--Kay writes lyrics that are appealing in their universal directives on how to make a brighter day.

The music on Synkronized is all about moving the masses and the asses. "Supersonic," already slated to be remixed by the Prodigy's Liam Howlett, is a tranced-out journey through distended bass lines, didjeridoo blasts, electronic drums, and Kay's mantra-like repetition of the title. The instrumental "Destitute Illusion" abandons the come-hithers of "Didjital Vibrations," Travelling's lone instrumental, in favor of a hard, fusiony sound made for the club circuit. Even the ballads, like "Butterfly" and "Falling," have stronger melodies than usual, most certainly with an eye on duplicating the radio success of Travelling's smash single "Virtual Insanity."

Synkronized's studio polish shines brightly, and the album might not dazzle fans of the group's more organic first two records. While nifty, "Where Do We Go From Here?" and "Soul Education" are the kind of songs Kay and his cohorts can write in their sleep. Nevertheless, it's tough to find fault with Jamiroquai's intentions on reaching a larger audience. Odds are that Synkronized will have you grooving well into a new century.

--Jonathan Cohen

Men at Large
Love, Struggle & Progress
(Rival)

Men at Large are your sixty-minute men. They can love you ("Satisfaction guaranteed/You'll be telling all your friends about me") and then lay it out on CD, the new Love, Struggle & Progress, for another 59 minutes.

Love, Struggle is a record as hefty as the Men themselves--Cleveland's Dave Tolliver and Chicago's Edgar "Gemini" Porter, who both appear to shop at big-and-tall stores. The Men are at their best when their smooth R&B balances plaintive pleas with pop beats and hip-hop attitude. "Keepin' It Hot" and "Where Did We Go Wrong?" manage to swagger down the block as well as shuffle to the door, flowers of apology in hand.

If the record has a theme, it's that I've been a fool and I need you back. (One number rhymes the "ID" of caller ID with "me.") Nothing wrong with that--the sentiment is a pop music warhorse--but by the end of Love, Struggle & Progress, you're begging for her to let the dummy in the house or tell him in no uncertain terms that it's over (and quit calling my mother!).

The I-need-you-I-miss-you tracks are also the laziest musically. The songs often coast on heavily repeated melodies, drowsy instrumentation, and Tolliver's vocally acrobatic but ultimately tiresome "ooheehyeah"s.

The most heartfelt number laments not love lost but brothers who have fallen prey to the streets. "Every time I pick up the phone, something's wrong/Tell me when does it end/Tell me how I'm supposed to live/When I don't know how to feel." Now that's real emotion. But at almost an hour, there just wasn't enough of it to keep Love, Struggle & Progress from wearing down.

--David Martin

The Cowslingers
Americana-A-Go-Go
(Shake It)

The Cowslingers feel fine and dandy about leaving their women with an outstanding debt at the liquor store and an ashtray overflowing with cig butts. A noisy collision of Bakersfield country, sneering rockabilly, and Smokey and the Bandit, the Cowslingers' Americana-A-Go-Go makes a NASCAR event look as refined as a polo match.

When times get tough, singer Greg Miller offers these solutions: 1) skip to Mexico, 2) down a few shots or whatever pills are handy, and 3) "Hey, somebody has to win the lottery."

Miller's voice--he sings almost everything in a key that's probably one below his natural register--matches his band's playing handsomely. While Miller bellows, sometimes through a veil of distortion, Bobby Latina plays with a style reminiscent of Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam's great guitarist and producer.

The Cowslingers avoid sounding too much like a Yankee version of Dash Rip Rock or the Rev. Horton Heat with a handful of acoustic-centered tracks, like the fiddle-enhanced "Stoned, Drunk, and Trippin'" and "Satan's Hand," and furious instrumentals. The rest is made for driving. In an old Thunderbird. With the top down. And a copper's cherries flashing behind.

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