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Method Man
Tical 2000: Judgement Day
(Polygram/Def Jam)

Five years ago, Wu-Tang Clan turned the hip-hop world on its ear. In the middle of the laid-back G-funk of the Dr. Dre era, the Wu proved that things were still hectic and hardcore on the East Side. The Clan is full of talent, but one cat stood apart from the rest. Method Man is back, with his version of the millennium.

From start to finish, Meth paints a grim picture of the future, although it's one he claims to enjoy. Tracks like "Perfect World," "Dangerous Grounds," and "Play IV Keeps" keep the head banging, but you'd still better stay on your toes. "Suspect Chin Music" is a warning to the thug wannabes who try to roll like Shaolin Killa Bees. Produced by Wu's RZA, the album makes you want to ask the same question Joker asked of Batman: Where does he get those wonderful toys? It's a shame RZA couldn't have worked on more tracks, but his absence is more than made up for by the production work of True Master on "Grid Iron Rap" and "Killin' Fields," and the green-eyed bandit, Erick Sermon, adds his retro funky flavor to "Step by Step" and "Big Dogs" (also featuring Redman).

Method has a host of guest appearances: Streetlife, Left Eye, D'Angelo, Mobb Deep, various members of the Wu-Tang; although some of the skits seem like pointless name-dropping (Donald Trump, Janet Jackson, Russell Simmons, Chris Rock). But the music is where it's at, and it doesn't get much better than the less-is-more "Spazzola" and "Elements," both produced by Inspectah Deck.

At 28 tracks (eleven skits, seventeen songs), Tical 2000: Judgement Day can be a lot to take in. He could have trimmed some of the filler and had a good lean album, but instead he chose overkill. On "Perfect World," Meth says he came to bring the pain much more, and he does, even if you have to fast-forward over a lot of it.

--Michael David

RZA
RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo
(Gee Street/V2)

On his best work, Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA slices into the heart of hip-hop with a precision that emphasizes both dominant bold beats and the slinky, minimalist rhythms lurking beneath them. It's there on Wu's Wu-Tang Forever and on Clansman Raekwon's 1995 solo outing, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Combining spare, spooky melodies and sonic street savvy, RZA's basement collages have become the most influential and imitated sound since Dr. Dre fired up The Chronic.

RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, RZA's first solo album (which actually isn't being promoted as such; his official debut, The Cure, is due sometime early next year), serves as a soundtrack in progress for his straight-to-video flick Bobby Digital. Wrapping a retro blaxploitation vibe around the tale of a street kid (RZA) who becomes a ghetto superhero (Bobby Digital), Bobby Digital is merely another expansion of the extended Wu family over which RZA presides. (He's even taken to being interviewed in his Bobby Digital persona, and insists that this isn't an RZA solo record but rather a Digital album.)

But listening to Bobby Digital, you'd have a hard time finding any sort of theme running through it. Sure, RZA and his rapping crew (which includes Wu members Method Man, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, and U-God) drop Digital's name in every other song, but trying to piece together a story out of this conceptually disparate set of hip-hop is futile. What does hold the album together are RZA's identifiable, eerie aural structures--the lone piano tinkering, the haunting samples, the staccato bass bombs--that are threaded throughout every song here. Not that individual tracks really matter. Everything sort of bleeds into one blurry view of the Bobby Digital urban jungle. Peeks around corners reveal a new chant here or a kung fu movie sample there, but in the end it all comes down to RZA's command of the barren soundscape he creates. It may not be as thrilling or as multitextured as the one he constructed for the double-CD opus Wu-Tang Forever, but it's every bit as complex.

But Bobby Digital's familiarity is also its biggest flaw. As prototypical and provoking as RZA's style is, it's starting to become too reliable and predictable. Also, he doesn't have the verbal skills of his fellow Clansmen, which often leaves him circling around his production dexterity without much vocal design. Still, the Wu-like canvas painted here can be dazzling. Just don't look for any meaning behind its sumptuous tones.

--Michael Gallucci

Fear of Pop
Volume One
(550 Music)

History teaches us to fear the side project. Usually it goes something like this: An established pop star takes time off from his/her established band and releases an album of unintelligible, unlistenable, and generally irrelevant music, generating record sales and fan interest so faint only dogs can hear the buzz. Then the dogs run off and drop something nasty in your shoes.

Ben Folds decided to ignore history, and this time he might actually get away with it. As the namesake and main creative component of the Ben Folds Five, he heaved a pop band with no guitar players into mainstream alternative rock. Impressive. And now, with his main gig between albums, Folds offers Fear of Pop, a mostly solo, mostly instrumental montage of pop gems, wistful lounge-inspired dreams, and arena-rock nightmares. A sketchy proposition, indeed. Still, Folds has the instrumental prowess and the wry sense of humor necessary to pull it off. Almost.

The highlights, in no particular order: "Kops" drops cool car chase effects and swearing cops and robbers behind a bed of blissed-out techno-funk, creating an audio landscape nearly as delectable as the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video. Meanwhile, "Avery M. Powers Memorial Beltway" glides merrily along, like the B-52's and the Beach Boys duking it out for dance party supremacy. Best of all is "I Paid My Money" (as in, "I paid my money and I'm gonna see all the movie"), which tosses in enough offbeat humor and funky bass breakdowns to appeal to overcaffeinated fans of Cake or They Might Be Giants.

Elsewhere, Folds goes way overboard trying to match that cleverness. Overzealous, screaming vocals sink the title track, and tunes like "Rubber Sled" and "Root to This" quickly spiral out of control with howling backup singers and massive, heavy metal guitar solos. The whole record oozes that side-project vibe--a little too distant, a little too indulgent, a little too bizarre.

Speaking of bizarre, would you believe William Shatner? He provides guest vocals on "In Love," delivering a spoken-word dissection of a failed relationship.

So that's Fear of Pop--a schizophrenic journey into the muse of Ben Folds. It's innovative enough to warrant a few listens, but in the end it's just a head-scratching footnote in the life history of the Ben Folds Five, an innovative pop band that goes down a little easier than William Shatner shouting "I Can't Commit." I paid my money, and now I wanna hear the whole band.

--Rob Harvilla

Unbelievable Truth
Almost Here
(Virgin)

Those Yorke brothers really have a genetic predisposition to melancholy. Elder brother Thom vents his depression(s) in Radiohead, and on Unbelievable Truth's debut album, it's younger sib Andy Yorke airing despair for all to share.

To the band's credit, Unbelievable Truth has made an album that stands on its own merits without obviously referencing the now vastly influential Radiohead. Yorke's voice definitely resembles his elder brother's on a host of Almost Here's eleven songs, but expectations to the contrary would be unrealistic. That said, Almost Here makes good on a less-is-more modus operandi, barely rising above rock volume and instead preferring to operate on the fringes of electric folk. Subtle piano, violin, and cello accompaniment adds as much to the album as the regular instruments do. This is a depressing record (imagery includes drowning, extreme fear, etc.), but an endearing one as well.

"Stone" is one of the album's finest tracks, making excellent use of slight dynamic shifts to convey Yorke's broken-hearted confessional. Indeed, Yorke's constant self-doubt would come off contrived if it weren't for the accompanying morose music. "Forget About Me" is the disc's biggest gut-wrencher, sporting lines such as "Traitors to the open-hearted/Consign me to my fate." Man!

The band's fuller songs bear the most overt Radiohead similarities. With its impassioned chorus and lyrics such as "Every move I make is phony/And every word I say is lies," "Settle Down" recalls a number of Radiohead B-sides. Opening track "Solved" wouldn't sound out of place at the end of OK Computer, floating into your sad heart with tear-stained chord changes and Yorke's solemn vocal delivery.

Unbelievable Truth realizes that if you're going to be depressing, be depressing with all your might. Fine job, mates, and pass me a Kleenex.

--Jonathan Cohen

Vic Chesnutt
The Salesman and Bernadette
(Capricorn)

My eleventh-grade English teacher would love Vic Chesnutt. That left-wing, goateed Ferlinghetti wannabe loved poetry--the more vague and esoteric the better. Chesnutt and his new album, his first for the legendary Georgia label Capricorn, would be right up the ol' beatnik's alley.

Chesnutt is a poet more than he is a songwriter, and far more than he is a singer. His lyrics--some confessional, some portraits of folks living lives of quiet Southern desperation, some just plain weird--are never short on imagination. Drawing heavily on the Beats as well as earlier American poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, Chesnutt tells tales of the average American with a not-so-average worried mind.

Musically, the wheelchair-bound Athens, Georgia, native is an acquired taste. His sleepy, unadorned voice is the very definition of "no commercial potential." Hooks? Good luck finding them.

Chesnutt recorded The Salesman and Bernadette with Lambchop. Great to see she got a new gig since Shari died. Seriously, though, Lambchop is a fourteen-piece band from Nashville that brings all manner of guitars, horns, keyboards, and percussion instruments to beef up the bare-metal sound that characterized his five previous albums. Those who've never heard Chesnutt will still regard Salesman as sparse. To those who are familiar with earlier works like Is the Actor Happy? and West of Rome, this new record will sound like Parliament/Funkadelic.

Oddly, the heavily arranged songs sound best. "Replenished" is inspired by the post-Sgt. Pepper work of the Beatles. The autobiographical tunes "Prick" and "Until the Led" are similarly catchy.

The other fourteen tracks are strictly for Chesnutt cult members. Should you join? You'll get no help from radio, unless the college band has picked up on this guy. But if sheer bloody poetry is your thing, you might buy what Salesman has to offer.

--Steve Byrne

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