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Public Enemy
There's a Poison Goin' On . . .
(Atomic Pop)

Public Enemy deserves the benefit of the doubt. Even after a couple of bum records, there's still enough vitality to the group's career that a complete dismissal of each new work is both unfair and unjustified (unlike the situation for, say, the Stones or John Mellencamp, who no longer warrant this luxury). After all, this is hip-hop's greatest living treasure — a combo that within four years gave us three classic albums: the genre blueprint It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the in-some-ways-superior follow-up Fear of a Black Planet, and the decade-starter Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black.

The bulk of the '90s, however, Public Enemy has wasted on one messy, too-preachy album and a recharged but underwhelming soundtrack offering (for pal Spike Lee's He Got Game). The latest disc, There's a Poison Goin' On . . ., is PE's most ferocious slab of hip-hop since Apocalypse 91, but the story behind this album is liable to get more attention than the recording itself: Disgruntled and fed up with his longtime label's lax promotional efforts, frontman Chuck D threw some new cuts on the group's website that were downloadable via the MP3 format. The record company got pissed, so did Chuck, and before you could say "Cold Lampin' With Flavor," Public Enemy was without a home, and Chuck and the boyz became new-media heroes (not since Pearl Jam's integrity-fueled fight against Ticketmaster has an artist gone into battle against the machine with such conviction).

The end of the tale has Public Enemy signing with Atomic Pop, an Internet-only label, which distributed the CD through its site exclusively for several weeks before it was made available in stores (told you this was gonna get a lot of attention). The whole ordeal has fired up Chuck. The single, "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???," has more style and substance than the entire No Limit cadre combined, and the bulk of There's a Poison Goin' On . . . is a sharp and stinging diatribe against the music industry. There are the usual blasts of self-righteousness sprinkled throughout, but when Chuck D seethes his distaste for radio and rap playas, he sounds like a hip-hop messiah, ready once again for action. — Michael Gallucci

Beth Hart
Screamin' for My Supper
(Lava/143/Atlantic)

Earlier this year, Los Angeles singer/songwriter Beth Hart played Janis Joplin in the Cleveland Play House production of Love, Janis, a musical based on letters the '60s casualty wrote home. Quite appropriate, then, that her sophomore album, Screamin' for My Supper, is filled with the type of vocal histrionics on which Joplin based her career. But while the dead boozy broad had a charismatic and swaggering style to go with all the wailing, Hart offers little more than an obvious initial shriek.

Hart so aspires to Joplinesque levels that it's hard to get past the blatancy of it all. Songs take the usual done-me-wrong turns, and the music barely moves beyond '70s-soaked hard rock. Hart's muse summons her to follow the ordained path, but it's a trampled one, and one that has been covered more eloquently and efficiently before. Living her rock and roll fantasy on stage, Hart becomes a puppet to her gifts on Screamin' for My Supper and ends up pretty worn and torn by album's end.

Not that she and her bandmates don't try hard. You can practically hear the vessels popping in her head when she gets down and dirty on "Just a Little Hole" and "Stay." But it's all a bit hollow, like Janis never left Hart after she departed the theater stage, and the channeling is just taken for granted now. Too bad, because if Hart could ever rein in her voice to a less-unrestrained place and update her songwriting chops to at least reflect the '90s — even the early '90s — the suggestion of power she could be packing could be lethal.

But as it stands, Hart rolls over Screamin' for My Supper like a red hot mama about ready to tear up the town (just check out "Get Your Shit Together" for mucho proof). Even the occasional song that slips away from the pack — like the reflective "L.A. Song" — can't escape the shadow of Hart's obsessions. In the end, these blues, or at least her appropriation of them, are far from kozmic. — Gallucci

Superchunk
Come Pick Me Up
(Merge)

Nearly ten albums in and ten years on, Superchunk has still managed to avoid the kind of artistic dead-ends prone to be reached at such a juncture. Although its status as top-of-the-totem-pole indie rockers may be ill-fitting at this point, Superchunk remains one of the most widely loved and listened-to acts not inked to a corporate rock contract. The band's maturity has manifested itself in myriad ways, from the lower-key strains of 1993's Foolish to frontman Mac McCaughan's increasingly self-aware lyrics. Some would argue that Superchunk painted itself into an artistic corner long ago (nobody has ever denied that the band's songs all sound alike), but as 1997's Indoor Living and the new Come Pick Me Up demonstrate, this band still has plenty left to say, and plenty of energetic and creative ways to say it.

At least part of the credit has to go to producer and ex-Gastr Del Sol collaborator Jim O'Rourke, perhaps the least likely candidate to ever twiddle knobs on a Superchunk album. He has managed to inject any number of new ideas into the mix without revoking the band's extra catchy punk/pop charge cards. Strings? Check. A horn section? Of course — and staffed by Ken Vandermark and Shellac's Bob Weston, no less. A Beach Boys-style sing-along ("Tiny Bombs")? Why not? Lots of acoustic guitar? Absolutely.

Lest listeners fear McCaughan submits to the whims of Gastr-style avant-garde composition, a nice blaring of "Good Dreams" will set the ears at ease. This breakneck rocker sports one of Mac's catchiest melodies since "Hyper Enough," as he slips into falsetto for the high-voltage chorus: "Hold me all night/Give me good dreams." Lyrically, McCaughan treats familiar subjects (love, growing up) with sincerity. And of the more traditionally Superchunked songs, there are a number of standouts. "Pulled Muscle" scales a wall of power chords, makes good on an uncharacteristically restrained chorus, and releases some semblance of tension during a brief bridge. The 128-second "Low Branches" offers a nifty, woozy verse and a searing guitar solo, while the old-school "June Showers" unearths a delightful hook-filled, minor-key chorus.

A couple of the songs are too standard-issue Superchunk to pass muster, particularly "Hello Hawk" and the pleasant but redundant "Honey Bee." But overall, Come Pick Me Up serves up just the right mix of old thrills and new ideas. — Jonathan Cohen

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