The Coming (Elektra 61742)
For better or for worse, Busta Rhymes' "The Coming" epitomizes the sound and strengths of East Coast rap. Or perhaps we should say for better and for worse. Though his brusque, staccato delivery evokes all the roughneck aggression of Onyx, his sputtering cadences are often at odds with the groove, working against the rhythm in the worst way possible. And even though he grounds each track with lean, bass-heavy loops, his refusal to lock into the rhythm means those jeep beats don't always take the music anywhere. So as much as "It's a Party" testifies to his soulful side, and "Woo Hah!!! Got You In Check" shows that he knows how to turn a goof into a moment of grandeur, those tracks tend to be more the exception than the rule. Far too much of the album ends up squandered on pointless tough talk -- Rhymes uses the N-word so casually you wonder if he knows what it means -- while cameos by Redman and Q-Tip can't quite raise the level of discourse beyond the pedestrian. If Rhymes is New York's idea of what's "Coming," maybe it's time to be going.
The Golden Age (Virgin 41498)
No matter how much irony might be implicit in the title of Cracker's new album, "The Golden Age," it's hard not to wonder if frontman David Lowery doesn't have a more basic meaning in mind. Between the blunt-edged irony of "I Hate My Generation" and sarcastic cynicism of "Nothing To Believe In," it seems almost as if Lowery is opting for a lowest-common-denominator version of the sour slacker pop he's peddled since leaving Camper Van Beethoven. That's not to say "The Golden Age" is without its moments of greatness; the crank-it-up chorus to "I Hate My Generation" is proof enough of that. But such pleasures are few and far between this time around. As much as there is to admire in the hard-bit balladry of "Big Dipper," the rock-by-rote facility of "I'm a Little Rocket Ship" and "100 Flower Power Maximum" leaves Lowery sounding like little more than a clever hack. Most disappointing of all, though, is that the closest Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman get to the "Cracker Soul" sound of the band's early albums is "How Can I Live Without You," which on the whole seems about as witty (and funky) as a Joe Walsh B-side. All told, there's really no reason to go for this gold.
Taj Mahal/N. Ravikiran/V.M. Bhatt
Mumtaz Mahal (Water Lily Acoustics 46)
In addition to being a universal emotion, the blues is also an international sound -- or so it may seem after a few spins of "Mumtaz Mahal." This transcontinental jam session finds American bluesman Taj Mahal joining two Indian musicians, mohan vina virtuoso V.M. Bhatt (who has made a similar genre-jumping album with Ry Cooder) and chitra vina stalwart N. Ravikiran. Although much of the material derives from the American pop vernacular, it's doubtful many listeners have ever imagined "Stand By Me" or Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" done quite this way. Even so, there's something unexpectedly consonant about the way American blues and Indian classical music come together. It helps that both schools stress rhythmic invention over harmonic complexity, and it's worth noting that the whining tonality of the Indian instruments blends nicely with the bottleneck buzz of Mahal's dobro. But the album's greatest pleasures come from hearing familiar cadences recast in new light, as with the trio's take on the reggae classic "Johnny Too Bad." A real find!
More ABBA Gold (Polydor 519 353)
America never really "got" ABBA. Sure, the Swedish quartet had its share of stateside hits, but its Top-40 track record barely scratched the surface of the ABBA catalog. Fortunately, ABBA-mania endures in Europe, and so collections like "More ABBA Gold" have made their way to the American market. Tellingly, only two of the 20 tracks assembled here were hits in this country, yet almost all have the heard-it-somewhere-before quality expected of pop gold. Credit for some of that lies with the distinctive blend of Agnetha Falstkog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the two women whose voices defined the ABBA sound, but the group's greatest strength isn't the singing but the songwriting. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus fused the melodic tradition of European pop with the rhythmic vitality of American rock as well as anybody since Lennon and McCartney, and nowhere does that come across more convincingly than in later work such as "When All Is Said and Done" and the melancholy exuberance of "Head Over Heels." Perhaps it's not too late for American listeners to catch up.