3 Da Hard Way

Except for a retrospective Best of (Thizz), Pittsburg's own Mob Figaz spent 2005 in divide-and-conquer mode. Particularly hot were Rydah J. Klyde – who dropped two duo discs (El Pueblo Children with Freako and Bang Fo Bread with Johnny Cash as Money Gang) and a solo What's Really Thizzin? (all on Thizz) – and Jacka, whose solo debut, The Jack Artist (Artist), generated a huge buzz in the early part of the year. The present disc, teaming Jacka and fellow Figa Husalah with tough-talkin' Sac Town female rapper Marvaless, is one of the tightest side-projects in hip-hop history. If this were a full-time trio, they'd be a hardcore Fugees. It doesn't hurt that most of the tracks are produced by Rob-Lo, who provides ample evidence of why people speak of him in the hushed tones reserved for Rick Rock or E-A-Ski. He cooks up tracks in every style, yet everything he does is his own.

With all eyes on Klyde and Jacka, picking Husalah as your favorite Mob Figa is a bit like claiming George as your favorite Beatle, but I'm convinced that, like George, whose interest in India added unexpected depth to the band's psychedelia, Husalah is the Mob's special ingredient, bringing a sublime ridiculousness to every track. Witness "Shower Posse," a faux-dancehall gem that Husalah handles in a patois of Jamaican slang and invented nonsense, or "Moblife," where he phones in some vocals from the freeway. This willingness to go the extra creative mile is what distinguishes the Mob from every other thugged-out crew out there. (Garrett Caples)

Beneath Waves

Karl Blau's new album, Beneath Waves, begins with the lyric "A long time coming, this return," and, indeed, this is a recording we've been waiting for from Olympia's K Records for some time. If the playing-with-friends K aesthetic has seemed a little stale for the last few years, Blau reminds us why it worked in the first place with this consistently excellent, homespun album. The arrangements and performances feel loose, but in a way that perfectly serves Blau's pop-shaman compositions. Beneath Waves is a prime slice of bedroom Brian Wilson, the type of album that will remind you why you started buying records in the first place.

Hailing from Anacortes, Wash., just a stone's throw from Phil Elverum (the man behind the Microphones and Mt. Eerie), Blau has long been a fixture in the Northwest, appearing on countless records and running Kelp!, a mail-order series of handmade recordings. So, though Beneath Waves may be Blau's debut full-length for K, he's hardly a newbie, and it shows in his confident compositions. Take the album's opener, "Crashing Waves," a seven-minute pop symphony that swings, lilts, and conjures a magical tribute to the sea. Blau layers cooing vocals and instruments with the same inspiring abandon that marks Elverum's best work, but, as on orchestral-pop classics like Pet Sounds and In the Aeroplane over the Sea, what ultimately captivates the listener is that the songwriting matches, and even demands, the bombastic production. There are tracks here that don't match the opener's heights ("Into the Nada" and its embarrassing white-boy rhythm), but in general "Crashing Waves" acts as an overture for a satisfyingly whole long-player. K has a major album in Beneath Waves, so here's hoping it can make sure that those who should discover Blau will. (Max Goldberg) KARL BLAU Tues/31 Hotel Utah Saloon, SF $7 (415) 546-6300

Comfort of Strangers

Remember when the music press heralded Beth Orton as the pioneer of some sort of ambient, electro-folk renaissance? Such hyperbolic predictions are setups for inevitable letdown, but it was easy to root for the British siren. Her 1997 debut, Trailer Park, was such a stunning, deceptively simple success – a beguiling blend of acoustic guitar and electronic textures – that it was hard to believe no one had perfected the formula earlier. Unfortunately, the follow-ups were exercises in diminished returns: Aside from its strangely propulsive single, "Stolen Car," 1999's Central Reservation was a beautiful bore, while 2002's drab Daybreaker found her drifting even further toward forgettable, lite-FM ethereality. That she enlisted the vile Ryan Adams on the latter didn't do her any favors.

Unfortunately, Comfort of Strangers doesn't reverse the trend. Produced by multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke, who's worked with acts such as Wilco and Stereolab, the album teems with all the prettified folk-pop you'd expect from Orton. But predictability needn't be as monotonous and flat as these songs, which, save the chugging "Shopping Trolley," could barely qualify as stylish elevator music – they certainly would've benefited from a fraction of the joie de noise that O'Rourke undoubtedly learned during his tenure in Sonic Youth. Hell, they would've benefited from anything new. Because, while Orton once joyously sang, "I want to shout about it, but I keep quiet about it," it's getting increasingly difficult not to wish she'd just shut up about it. (Jimmy Draper)

BETH ORTON March 25 Fillmore, SF Call for price (415) 421-TIXS