October 23, 2002

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Grooves

Rhett Miller
The Instigator (Elektra)

From the cookie-cutter alt-country of 1994's Hitchhike to Rhome to the first-rate rock of last year's Satellite Rides, the Old 97's have struggled to avoid typecasting throughout their nearly 10-year career. Still, even longtime listeners familiar with those Dallas cowboys' every stylistic twist and turn couldn't have foreseen the transformation that singer-guitarist Rhett Miller has undergone on his second solo outing. With a cutie-pie cover shot and a disc chock full of adult-contempo plasticity, The Instigator unfortunately comes off as little more than a way to make him over, Ryan Adams-style, into pop rock's latest pinup boy.

If The Instigator is Miller's attempt to finally and fully escape the counter-country trappings of his past, it's interesting that he's chosen to simply step into another ready-made mold. While artists such as Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne have made similar declarations of independence in recent years, they were careful that their no-Nashville departures were genre-bending blends of pop, rock, and torchy balladry that avoided further pigeonholing. Here, however, Miller churns out poppy, lite rock by the numbers: recorded with über-producer Jon Brion (The Wallflowers, Fiona Apple), the album is full of the kind of disappointingly nondescript singles ("Hover," the Counting Crows-cribbed "Four-Eyed Girl") that get wedged between Matchbox Twenty and Duncan Sheik videos on VH1.

Most troubling is that Miller has dumbed down his lyrics to the point of sappy, Sarah McLachlan-style stupidity. Settling for such lazy one-liners as "I was hollow then, 'til you filled me in," he fails to showcase the impossibly clever turns of phrase that made his Old 97's songwriting so impressive. Despite the relentless mediocrity, he probably considers the album a success; after all, The Instigator's slick, mainstream approach is already gaining him the recognition outside of No Depression circles that he's always sought. Too bad he was willing to typecast himself to get it. Rhett Miller performs with Dashboard Confessional and Hot Rod Circuit Wed/30, Galleria Design Center, S.F. (415) 490-5800, www.virtuous.com. (Jimmy Draper)

Murs and Slug
Felt (Rhymesayers)

For indie hip-hop's reluctant sex symbols Murs and Slug, the play, or at least the illusion of mirth, is the thing on Felt. An EP-length collection recorded to sell during the duo's recent U.S. tour, Felt includes such songs as "Suzanne Vega" (on which they paraphrase choruses from the folk-rock singer's "Luka" and "Tom's Diner") and "Rick James," an exercise in underground-style pimpology, and its subtitle is A Tribute to Christina Ricci – the album begins with a "Christina Intro" and ends with a "Ricci Outro."

The duo toy with your assumptions: One cautionary tale, "Another Knight," finds Murs and Slug celebrating the virtues of a loose woman ("Pretty little summer dress / Fabric is torn") while admitting their potential conquest of the lady in question is, in the end, just another night for both. Even the EP's title, Felt, has two meanings: It's a type of fabric and a reflection of Murs and Slug's sensitivity toward emotional and physical relationships.

Murs and Slug's jam session is supported by beats from the Grouch, who lends several straightforward tracks full of sampled loops and keyboard fills, and the occasional scratch interpolation by Minneapolis DJ Mr. Dibbs. Yet in spite of this talented cast's efforts, Felt is unpolished and spontaneous, with the pair's idiosyncrasies – Slug's introspection and Murs's charisma and sharp-tongued rejoinders – its most remarkable trait.

Still, the compositions, of which "Another Knight" is probably the best, are interesting in the context of the duo's careers. As a member of Atmosphere, Slug has mined his own relationships on Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs and God Loves Ugly with increasing success, while Murs, a member of the underground rap crew Living Legends, has built a solid, if slightly less celebrated, reputation for eviscerating MCs on solo albums such as Murs Rules the World and Good Music. In spite of the potential fireworks these two are capable of generating together, not to mention the small fortune a better-promoted collaboration would generate, Felt is a defiantly underground recording, released with no attendant publicity and made for their fans' enjoyment. "Maybe you're a critic, trying to say this ain't bomb / So what, it doesn't matter," Murs raps on "Hot Bars." "This is my verse and I'm talking to my listeners." (Mosi Reeves)

Stereotyp
My Sound (G-Stone)

Electronic artists often use albums as excuses to try out every style they've ever toyed with. While the results can be intriguing, and provide a depth not often found on DJ-oriented 12-inches, the ideas tend to get spread thinly. Vienna's Stefan Moerth, a.k.a. Stereotyp, avoids this pratfall by focusing on his love of dub and dancehall and comes up with an accomplished debut that is one of the best this year from the hyperproductive German and Austrian scene.

My Sound cuts straight to the chase with three tracks graced by the rough silk growl of Tikiman. Though each cut has a different tempo, Tikiman's sensual voice provides a human anchor for sounds floating deep in outer space. Like most practitioners of dub, Moerth has a strong taste for audio science fiction and works his electronics hard to coax sounds from beyond that are certain to test the range of your stereo. From the depth charge bass of "Jahman" to the airy organ echoes on "Fling Style," each element is pushed to its limits. Though loops are used, continuous mutations avoid the repetition that plagues fellow Austrians Kruder and Dorfmeister.

While the presence of guest vocalists like Tikiman, Sugar B, and MC Trigger lends the album an accessibly organic hue, the singing is My Sound's downfall when Moerth strays too far from Jamaica and toys with R&B. The quavering insincerity of Cesar on "Don't Funk with Me" and the painfully overwrought confession of Hubert Tubbs on "Tell Me" would doom a lesser album. In the end My Sound is brilliant – if you can program your CD player to skip a few tracks. (Peter Nicholson)

Blaze
Spiritually Speaking (Slip 'n Slide)

Do you remember house? Kevin Hedge, one half of the New Jersey-bred house outfit Blaze, poses this question on a track on Spiritually Speaking, which recently came out with zero press hoopla on the London-based Slip 'n Slide label. Though Hedge and partner Josh Milan swear this isn't an angry song, I'm not buying it. "I remember house before it was called house," Hedge begins in a sped-up voice. "I remember when house grew from the roots of house. I remember when people knew the lyrics to house / I remember when house was about love." Hedge's sentiments aptly echo those of the house purists, who remain glued to the ancient precepts of what the music is supposed to be – never mind that it is older than most of today's clubgoers.

House music could never – should never – stay the same. And despite Blaze's devoted classicism, this album proves that the duo, who began producing house in the mid '80s, know exactly where their version of house is headed: to an exquisitely lush, slow-down-and-listen space. House, in the conventional sense, plays a minimal role on Spiritually Speaking, which is more akin to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On or Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack than a typical house producer's collection of tracks. Instantly addictive melodies, old-style funk and disco orchestration, and tender, higher-spirit R&B vocals make this a true listener's album, which brings us back to the original definition of house – that it evolved from a serious black music past, not from the odious commercialism personified by the trance-prog-house millionaires. Blaze will make you remember. (Amanda Nowinski)