February 19, 2003

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Grooves

50 Cent
Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

The major-label dessert following a five-course meal of street bootlegs, Get Rich or Die Tryin' is what you hear booming from jeeps and even (in the case of "Wanksta") whimsically chiming from people's cellies: this is the album of the moment. A recent obnoxious piece in the Village Voice worshipped 50 Cent's manly man status, which tempts me to call this his coming-out party. But if "Back Down" is anything to go by, 50 wants it to be Ja Rule's: after a few verses of unveiled insults, the track closes with a lisping queen – 50 playacting a feminine side? – defending his "boo," Jeffery Atkins.

Capping on big names helped 50 achieve fame; pre-Aftermath Records, his "How to Rob (An Industry Nigga)" played the dozens on dozens of rap and R&B stars – it's essentially a male answer to Lil' Kim's "Dreams," trading Kim's sex-as-power for straight-up violence. Get Rich restricts the direct clowning to "cookie monster" Ja, though on the self-explanatory "High All the Time," 50 takes a break between tokes to challenge Jay-Z and Nas for New York supremacy. A new make of hip-pop icon – a Schwarzenegger action hero wearing Tupac's gun wounds – he's huger than big. But no matter how many times he says, "But you don't hear me though," he's no Biggie. And as a "P.I.M.P.," he lacks Snoop's seduction skills.

For now, 50's greatest asset is his rugged yet playful flow, melodic and always moving forward. Over 19 tracks his pop appeal requires an R&B hook just once, and it's provided by Nate Dogg. He models a variety of production styles – including the Southern, Mannie Fresh-like "Blood Hound," "Like My Style," and "Poor Lil Rich" – with charisma. Having raided the theme from Halloween on his Chronic sequel, Dre moves to a Suspiria steal on "Back Down." His gunshots-as-beats on "Heat" are better in theory than in execution, but "In da Club" is irresistible. And oh yeah, spoiled brat Eminem makes a few cameos, sounding more like a gnat on steroids than ever. If he's fly quick, someone grab a flyswatter. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Soulo
Man, the Manipulator (Plug Research)

The cover of this brief, quirky album from Los Angeles duo Shawn King and Nate Flanigan gives the listener a clue to what lies within. A reproduction of a piece created by Sam Durant (who just had a survey show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), the photo-collage shows the poolside patio of a modernist house where one man is helping another use a beer bong. Such juxtapositions of high and low, electronic and rock, glitch and hook, run throughout Man, the Manipulator, somehow managing to come together in a satisfying experience.

This sophomore effort from the two art-school dropouts has some awkward moments – when the ideas overwhelm the execution – but they tend to be over quickly. Most songs are less than four minutes, and any song longer than two minutes shifts styles at least once. "The Pursuit of Loneliness" starts out with a distant, distorted guitar loop beneath a sweet, whistling tune before it switches to a dubby, tin-can combo of bass drum and echoing bleeps. Not content with one change 2.5 minutes in, the song fades out only to return as a haunting acoustic-electric guitar melody with breathy vocals and a flute. This all happens in less than five minutes.

Soulo's success lies in their ability to make all of these snippets work together rather than sounding like a collection of spastic outtakes. Though they change styles almost obsessively, swinging back and forth between disparate influences like Tortoise and Boards of Canada, each song shows an equally compulsive attention to sonic detail. Occasionally a song will stick to one theme, like "Your Erroneous Zones," with its Eagles-flavored rock, but more often multiple agendas are the norm, as on "The Peter Principle," in which fuzzed guitars arch over squelching computer burps before a clarinet and banjo join the fray. Schizophrenic, perhaps, but perfect music from a city on the edge of a state that is slowly slipping into the ocean. (Peter Nicholson)

Mammals
Evolver (Humble Abode Music)

The apple may not have fallen far from the family tree for this supergroup of second- and third-generation folk music progeny, but it rolled a few clicks south of roots purism and picked up a fresh sense of humor along the way. Based in upstate New York, this youthful trio comprises Ruth Ungar (daughter of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason), Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (Pete's grandson and longtime performing partner), and Michael Merenda (of the alt-pop band Spouse). For the follow-up to their debut, Born Live, these fine singers and pickers – accomplished on banjo, guitar, and fiddle – slipped into a studio for the first time and delivered a 14-song hybrid that ranges from such traditional tunes as "Way Down the Old Plank Road," "The House Carpenter," "John Brown's Dream," and "Wandering Boy" through pop-tinged and old-timey originals to such surprises as a sweet minimalist version of the 1930s Tin Pan Alley nugget "Stairway to the Stars" and a cover of Richard Thompson's biker love song, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Friends and relations – including Ungar's parents and Arlo Guthrie's daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie – help bridge the generational and stylistic gap between Peter, Paul and Mary and Badly Drawn Boy, the most dramatic example being the album closer, "Industrial Park," in which "Grampa" Pete intones the charged words of William James, a Columbine High School student, and Dwight D. Eisenhower over the Mammals' mix of down-home banjo and high-tech studio atmospheric effects. The Mammals perform Feb. 26, Freight and Salvage Coffee House, Berk. (510) 548-1761; Feb. 27, 19 Broadway, Fairfax. (415) 459-1091. (Derk Richardson)

Zwan
Mary Star of the Sea (Martha's Music/Reprise/Warner Bros.)

Billy Corgan's happy. So why doesn't he pass those happy pills round, because we can sure use some bliss in this war 'n' terror-wracked cow town. You can hear it on Zwan's first single, "Honestly," as Corgan breathes, "I believe, I believe, I believe," before assuring us that, yes, he has found love, honesty, goodness, and even the goddess, Mary.

So why call Zwan anything other than Smashing Pumpkins – apart from any previous legal agreements that might have been struck with old band members? Why not just call them the Corganettes or the New Improved ELO? Accompanied by old bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin; A Perfect Circle's Paz Lenchantin; Papa M, Tortoise, and Slint's David Pajo; and Chavez's Matt Sweeney, Corgan's Zwan are just the Pumpkins by another name. Mary Star of the Sea puts an extra emphasis on an expansive rockin' sound, canopied by plenty of filigreed finger work and undergirded by chunky strata of a bottom-heavy rhythm section and layers of acoustic and electric guitars. Zwan definitely benefit from the contributions of Pajo and Sweeney, but I find it a bit depressing to see them quietly orbiting the clearly central singer like small planets around his moon.

But that's just my innate ill temper talking. It's difficult to deny the wide-screen joy of Mary, and Corgan sounds like he's ready to stake a claim on arenas once more. He telegraphs his intentions with "Baby Let's Rock!," which unifies glitter rock with happily bombastic guitars, before rebounding with the downright bouncy "Yeah!" Exclamation points are missing in the titles of the blown-out epic "Lyric" and the Southern-fried, Air-ified "Come with Me," but that doesn't prevent them from matching the aforementioned tracks, blow for blow, in the yippee-skippee department. As Dubya and his ilk rush toward conflict, Corgan has chosen to take shelter in a psychedelic mushroom cloud of sunshine, buttered toast, and clasped hands. (Kimberly Chun)