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Rage Against the Machine
The Battle of Los Angeles
(Epic)

While it's not much of a surprise, the new Rage Against the Machine album rocks. It rocks hard and in so doing thrashes its competition (Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, etc.) without really breaking a sweat.

Amid such sorry musical surroundings, Rage reminds us of a time when alternative music was actually an alternative to something, when rock had the power to change minds. To be sure, The Battle of Los Angeles does not appreciably broaden the L.A. band's musical repertoire, but it does feature a new twist or two -- particularly guitarist Tom Morello's newfound appreciation for classic rock riffs. But overall, the 12 tracks here follow the same formula of sonic beatdowns and militant political ideology that has powered Rage's past two records.

On the first three songs, singer Zack de la Rocha comes out smoking, making up for over three years of musical downtime with a bevy of finger-pointing. "Testify" narrates urban decay from the other side of the fence, while the first single, "Guerrilla Radio," bitch-slaps a gift horse in the mouth by condemning the very medium that will bring it to the masses. "Voice of the Voiceless" returns Rage to the vortex of the Mumia Abu-Jamal controversy with nothing short of a battle cry: "My panther/My brother/We're at war until you're free." Abu-Jamal, a black journalist, is scheduled to be executed in Philadelphia for a 1980 murder he insists he did not commit, and both Rage and the Beastie Boys played a controversial benefit concert on his behalf last fall.

Elsewhere, Morello does some mind-bending of his own. He wrenches his guitar strings into incomprehensible putty, approximating turntable spins on "Born as Ghosts" and the ominously chiming "Mic Check." On the A-list metal/funk of "Maria," a torrent of pure noise moshes against a rapid-fire bass line, later rumbling into one discordant squall of a solo. Sirens howl from Morello's ax on "New Millennium Homes," a pure rocker that hearkens back to head-nodding Rage classics such as "Bulls on Parade."

The Battle for Los Angeles is humorless, preachy, and confrontational -- just the wake-up call that modern rock desperately needs. -- Jonathan Cohen

Foo Fighters
There Is Nothing Left to Lose
(Roswell/RCA)

In some ways, Dave Grohl made the right move. After the disintegration of Nirvana, the best band of the '90s, drummer Grohl retreated, said a few prayers for his departed friend, and emerged from his bedroom with a solo project that wasn't so much about coming to terms with death and the subsequent alienation of the survivors as it was about walking into the world alone. Four years and two albums later, Grohl's little Foo Fighters project has evolved into a full-time band complete with squabbles and shifting priorities.

Gone are the crash-and-burn structures that graced the 1995 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1997's The Colour and the Shape. Gone are Grohl's once-proudly-displayed punk roots. And gone are any pretensions that the Foo Fighters are in line for the best-other-band-of-the-'90s award. Their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, is a safe, albeit pleasurable, sojourn through the muddy world of alternapop. Grohl also lets his inner '70s demon loose, summoning the spirit of Peter Frampton ("Generator") and laying on thick 'n' heavy power guitar chords ("Stacked Actors"). He just rarely works anything new into the grooves. And this is no more evident than on the abundance of slower tempoed songs found on There Is Nothing Left to Lose. Grohl checks his onetime-Cobain-like wail at the door and adapts a softer, crooning style for many of these cuts.

Occasionally it pays off -- like on the soaring "Learn to Fly," which simply but ably plugs into the formula that generated a few modern rock radio hits last time around; more often, however, Grohl seems to be shedding his hardcore basis for the more wimpy and secure haven of the alternapop quick fix. The crusty spit-and-chew vent of such Foo Fighter tracks as "This Is a Call" and "I'll Stick Around" is all but replaced by Grohl's pop star trip here. But at least the Foo Fighters make an authentic and gritty pop group; even when Grohl gets all starry-eyed on "Aurora" or lovey-dovey on the closing "M.I.A.," there's enough edge to keep the Foos credible. Nevertheless, those looking for revelations or a revolution on There Is Nothing Left to Lose will be disappointed by its palpable but agreeable ordinariness. -- Michael Gallucci

Marcus Roberts
In Honor of Duke
(Columbia)

This may be Marcus Roberts's best album, but it's not the breakthrough effort he thinks it is. In the liner notes, Roberts wants to give the impression that he's being quite innovative here, but a lot of what's on this CD isn't new or unusual and hasn't been for decades. Of course, he, Wynton Marsalis, and the Lincoln Center clique want to claim that the people who anticipated their efforts (e.g., Bill Evans and some avant gardists from the '60s) aren't real jazzmen and don't count.

In Honor is Roberts's 12-section "celebration" of Duke Ellington. There are all sorts of influences on his music besides Ellington, though, including ragtime and stride pianists, Thelonius Monk, bop, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Erroll Garner, Afro Cuban, gospel, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, whose "Cousin Mary" chord progression is used on a portion of "Rickitick Tick." The influences of European romantic and impressionistic composers can be heard here, as well.

Roberts's group includes bassist Roland Guerin, drummer Jason Marsalis, and, on a couple of tracks, Latin percussionist Antonio Sanchez. Guerin's spare, powerful work owes something to the Wilbur Ware/Jimmy Garrison school, and Marsalis plays with a great deal of taste and musicality. To his credit, Roberts is a skilled and intelligent musician. He's got fine technique, a nice, light touch; he swings infectiously and can play melodically attractive lines. His solos have good continuity, and he blends his influences smoothly. But the astute reader will notice that none of his apparent influences emerged after, roughly, 1965.

Roberts makes a big deal of the fact that his bassist and drummer don't always function as accompanists, take long solos, and engage in interplay on an equal level with the pianist. But that's been done before by both Ellington and Bill Evans. Making a synthesis of styles that existed 35 or more years ago is not likely to push forward the boundaries of music. Roberts acknowledges some of his influences, but while he's combined them, he hasn't built on them. How can these conservative and reactionary musicians inaccurately called the Young Lions be so smug? They seemingly have no idea that great artists are innovative and add to the vocabulary of their form -- they're not people who put their energy into recreating what was done in their father's and grandfather's day. -- Harvey Pekar

Marcy Playground
Shapeshifter
(Capitol)

As the alt-rock revolution wriggles and wheezes during its final stage of decay, it's becoming harder and harder these days to distinguish the players. Is that Third Eye Blind or Matchbox 20? Korn or Limp Bizkit? Or is that Kid Rock? Contributing its second album to the Better-Than-Ezra-or-Marcy-Playground debate, the latter faceless trio paces forward with another collection of slight, harmless alternapop that doesn't have a whole lot to say, yet manages to lumber along anyway. It's the attack of the killer bores, and Shapeshifter, a tedious and bulky sophomore effort by a tedious and bulky band, dares you to care.

At least it's an improvement over that snoozer of a debut album it released a couple years ago. Despite the success of the bland "Sex and Candy," Marcy Playground was a slow work in progress. Leader John Wozniak's songs had absolutely nothing to distinguish the group from, say, Better Than Ezra's or Dishwalla's material. They still don't, but the mannered climb toward the tunes' peaks isn't nearly as labored on Shapeshifter. Given more creative freedom, Wozniak fashions his band's new album as a trip through sonic fields of wonder; there's yodeling, underwater echo, and even epic storytelling here, but it all blends into a mush of fuzzy guitars and detached vocals by the end.

And Wozniak's post-grunge guitar chops and melodramatic musings ("I've got some kind of disease/And there are no remedies," he sings on the Cobain-like opening "It's Saturday") seem a bit old-fashioned by today's standards. I'm pretty sure he got the memo that alt-rock is dead, but the way he mightily builds many of Shapeshifter's songs, you'd think he was the president of its fan club. Working within unconventional structures, Marcy Playground sounds stifled and confused; in playing it a bit more conservatively, it sounds merely outdated. The soft, probing "Wave Motion Gun" and subtly lush "Our Generation" try to break from this rote pattern, but clunky Gordon Lightfoot-esque/Bread-type balladry hardly does the trick (substituting the mid-'70s for the mid-'90s isn't a very estimable notion -- really). Neither does clinging to an idealism months away from becoming obsolete. -- Gallucci

Marcy Playground performs November 7 at Peabody's.

Melanie C
Northern Star
(Virgin)

Melanie C's first solo album doesn't tell you whether the artist formerly known as Sporty Spice can conquer the world on her own. But it proves that Liverpool babe Melanie Jayne Chisholm is versatile and determined, and wields enough commercial clout to pump sonic iron (albeit with the help of a gaggle of producers and mixers).

Where Geri Halliwell transformed herself from the former Ginger Spice to a latter-day Belinda Carlisle on her relentlessly pop solo outing Schizophonic, Mel C aims for a combination of Madonna and Joan Jett. Too bad she doesn't effect that blend within a single song, only from track to track. But then, she's still finding her voice, and since it's a small one, it shines best in smaller settings. "Go!", the masterblaster William Orbit production that launches the disc, is tough and jittery and gets the attention Mel C demands, and "Goin' Down" is a nasty, memorable single.

But "If That Were Me" is thin and goopy, and "Feel the Sun" sounds like an ideal backing track for a Florida vacation commercial. Maybe Melanie C (or, depending on the groove, Mel C) has bitten off more than she can chew; her ambition defeats her as often as it helps her. On the plus side, it gives her the courage to try out various styles, spanning the Beatles-influenced, Oasis-like "Suddenly Monday" (is this the great lost Katrina and the Waves hit?), the kittenish hip-hop of "Never Be the Same Again," and the edgy rock of the Rick Rubin-produced "Ga Ga." Her versatility keeps you guessing, if not engaged.

The down side is a sentimentality that capsizes tunes like the title track and such doormat pop as "Why," "I Turn to You," and the trendy, Latin-flavored "Closer." In the Spice Girls, Mel C was taut, driven, and flashy, lending credence to her Sporty Spice persona. But the predictable lyrics and scattershot music on her solo debut suggest her feminism goes no deeper than marketing, making for an album that occasionally shakes but rarely stirs. -- Carlo Wolff

Incubus
Make Yourself
(Epic)

Recipe for disaster: Incubus hails from California. Its guitars alternate between slinky space-age howl and razor-blade crunch. The bass thwacks, the drums reverberate, and the lyrics attack teenage angst and alienation. A turntable goes "wicca-wicca" in the background.

Oh, goodness gracious, the cliché potential.

The hip-hop/metal/alternative tag plagues Incubus, but thankfully, the shoe doesn't fit all that well. Its 1997 debut S.C.I.E.N.C.E. got all screamy and screwy and Korn-grade obnoxious, but Make Yourself reupholsters the couch, dusts off the bookshelf, and vacuums the rugs, reinventing the boys as . . . pretty-boy alternarockers. Uneasy tradeoff, yes. But do you really want another "Got the Life" retread?

Like most young bands, Incubus follows a formula. It starts with cool, expansive guitar modulations, brings the bass and drums in quietly, sprinkles that hip-hop scratching shit around, delivers the earnest lyrics, and, at the chorus, unloads the distortion. But the riffs here connect, channeling a sort of stoner-rock Kyuss vibe (to casually name-drop a much cooler metal-tinged California band).

The vocals provide another pleasant surprise. Lead singer Brandon Boyd actually sings, bucking the recent disturbing trend of drowning the crappy singer (hello, Fred Durst) in unrelenting waves of distortion and reverb. Boyd genuinely croons, making him more palatable but admittedly less interesting. He sounds a bit nervous, too. "Maybe it's me, but this line isn't going anywhere," he remarks on "Privilege," while "Nowhere Fast" receives its title from the observation "It seems as though I'm going nowhere really fucking fast." Yeah, you hope that's irony, bucko. -- Rob Harvilla

Incubus performs November 6 at the Agora Theatre.

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