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OUTKAST, SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW (ARISTA) As the followup to their critically acclaimed 2000 smash Stankonia, rap duo Outkast's fifth album already was slated for some serious hype. Then when news leaked that the album would contain two discs, one each by Outkast principals Big Boi and Andre 3000, breakup rumors propelled Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to "most anticipated release of the year" status.
But all that talk and keyboard typing about the duo splitting really don't matter, because their latest release proves that together, or apart, Big Boi and Andre 3000 are two of pop music's most important mavericks.
Big Boi's effort, Speakerboxxx, is, as expected, the more rap-oriented of the two discs. But it is far less conventional than many pundits had anticipated in the wake of Andre's absence.
On Speakerboxxx, Big Boi surrounds his rapid-fire rhymes, which blend streetwise boasting and hipster humor, with inventive waves of organic and electric dissonance and melody. Break beats serpentine through bass slams while punchy horns make occasional old-school salutations. Big Boi brings in the requisite rhyme-slinging guest stars, and most earn their supper, especially Cee-Lo, who is perhaps Outkast's greatest rival as top rap-funk-soul maven.
Andre, however, doesn't have much use for guest rappers, or rap in general, for that matter, on The Love Below. He sings most of his tunes (Grammy-winning songstress Norah Jones makes a cameo), but keeps it loose throughout, recording an album that sounds like something Prince might have done had he traded some of his immense musical talent for a sense of humor. The Love Below is an eclectic buffet of everything from lounge crooning to drum and bass (Andre's twist on Coltrane's My Favorite Things will infuriate jazz purists more than the Bad Plus but it works nonetheless). But it's not without singles. On Hey Ya! Andre delivers perhaps the most infectious hit since Missy Elliott's Work It, concocting a catchy summer tune for the fall that answers the question: What kind of tunes would Paul McCartney have written if his early musical influences included George Clinton instead of Little Richard? A
- WADE TATANGELO, Times correspondent
WILLIE NELSON, YESTERDAY'S WINE (RCA NASHVILLE/BMG HERITAGE) When Willie enthusiasts (those who go deeper than his late 1970s/early 1980s pop crossover hits) consider Nelson's greatest albums, his mid-'70s releases Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages and Redheaded Stranger are usually the first to come to mind.
Equally strong one could argue, though, is Yesterday's Wine - a half-hour concept album that, as stated in the liner notes, chronicles (loosely) one man's life from cradle to grave in a moving and distinctly spiritual way.
Yesterday's Wine, first released in 1971, was reissued on CD in 1997 by the now-defunct Justice imprint. Now, after once again being allowed to go out of print, RCA gives it new life.
Yesterday's Wine, all Nelson originals (some salvaged from previous releases), is one of the singer/songwriter's most overtly Christian efforts, but it never is preachy. A lot of refreshing questioning goes on, even some rebellion in the form of boozing and dope smoking. In short, it's a gospel album only the iconoclastic Willie could concoct.
It's amazing this album never found a wide audience. The title track later became a chart-topper for George Jones and Merle Haggard, and it also includes the definitive version of Family Bible and the outlaw template Me and Paul. Its singles are catchier than the more popular Phases and Stages or Redheaded Stranger, and it's more consistent than Shotgun Willie.
Yesterday's Wine is a legitimate classic that should elate anybody who has ever been eased by Nelson's singular brand of country soul. A
THE FOLK YEARS (TIME LIFE MUSIC) Folkies have cause for celebration with the release of Time Life's The Folk Years, a sprawling eight-disc boxed set of folk music gems. Its thematic organization makes it easy to locate your favorites.
Ponder existence on discs 1 and 2, subtitled "Blowin' In the Wind." Among the catalog: the Kingston Trio's Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Judy Collins' lithe take on Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now and Otis Redding's slow-burning (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.
Check out rock critic Greil Marcus' essay in the accompanying liner notes (which, thanks to Time Life's, um, completeness, is more like a tome at more than 50 pages).
Other themes: "Yesterday's Gone" which includes the Band's transcendent, piano-led I Shall Be Released and political numbers such as If I Had a Hammer and This Land Is Your Land. "Reason to Believe" offers songs by the Byrds and Arlo Guthrie. And "Simple Songs of Freedom" contains Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee, the Mitchell Trio's Leaving on a Jet Plane and Trini Lopez's La Bamba. Now that's inclusive! B+
- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent
PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES, THE NEW ROMANCE (MATADOR) Bearing the name of a Smiths song (which comes from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums), the identity of Seattle post-punk band Pretty Girls Make Graves seemed vague at first. They rehashed all things trendy and Pacific Northwest in a slick pop package. But then came the current release, The New Romance. With smart, tough lyrics, expert instrumental layering, catchy rhythms and cathartic vocals, Pretty Girls Make Graves have officially come into its own.
The complementary mixing of sounds and vocals, aided by the urgency of Andrea Zollo's singing, makes for a brew of fever-pitch confusion, desperation and sadness. From the eerie chants of "you aren't the ones who fascinate us" in The Grandmother Wolf to the random acts of brilliance in All Medicated Geniuses to the hushed introspection of the title track, there are thrills throughout, something new upon every listen. For some, it might all be too much and too precious, but for those who haven't repressed the unwieldy ideas and emotions of youth, The New Romance holds much to be adored. B+
- JULIE GARISTO, Times correspondent
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