De La SoulStakes Is High (Tommy Boy 1149)There's a reason...

CD REVIEWS

June 27, 1996|By J.D. Considine

De La Soul

Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy 1149)

There's a reason De La Soul dubbed its new album "Stakes Is High." "Stakes" isn't just a make-or-break effort by a group whose reputation has sagged considerably since the release of "Buhloone Mind State" three years ago; it's also a statement about the importance of keeping hip-hop culture vital. Fortunately for De La Soul, the album succeeds on both fronts. From the album-opening montage presenting fan-in-the-street recollections of Boogie Down Productions' classic "Criminal Minded" to the way "Brakes" quotes Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks," De La Soul clearly appreciates the hip-hop heritage. But the trio bTC isn't interested in merely holding on to the past; it wants to maintain that tradition by moving forward. Some tracks evoke rap's early days to point out, as on "Supa Emcees," that "times done changed," while others (for instance, "Baby Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby") apply a knowledge of the past to show how shallow some of today's fads are. But the best tracks put aside the pedantry and let the music do the talking. De La Soul's greatest strength has always been its ability to make the details of the rhythm bed seem as important as the words of each rap, and that attention to detail is what carries such cuts as "Wonce Again Long Island," "Down Syndrome" and the soulful, infectious "4 More." The stakes may be high, but De La Soul can definitely cover this bet.

Blues Traveler

Live From the Fall (A&M 31454-0515)

Blues Traveler built its reputation as a concert act and is more celebrated among fans for its free-flowing jams than for pop fare like "Run-around," so it would seem to follow that "Live From the Fall" would be the band's best album yet. But "best" can be a tricky term. If what you want is a sense of how well the members of this quartet mesh instrumentally, the double-CD "Live From the Fall" will answer all your questions and then some. There are marathon workouts on "Alone" or "Mountain Cry" that leave ample room for harmonica ace John Popper and guitarist Bob Sheehan to strut their stuff, as well as solo-heavy shorter tunes, such as "New York Prophesies" and "Breakfast." There are also some stunning moments of intra-band communication, as when the group shifts tempo almost in mid-phrase to follow Popper into a rendition of the War chestnut "Low Rider." What there isn't a great deal of is pop appeal. Although there are certainly some sturdy tunes in the set list, including "Run-around" and a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," the melodies often seem secondary to the playing -- and with 18 tunes spread across 145 minutes, that's a lot of playing. Plus, Popper's voice, though generally endearing, lacks the strength and polish to bring out the best in such quiet numbers as "100 Years."

Screaming Trees

Dust (Epic 64178)

Most rock fans think Seattle rock means one thing: Nirvana-era grunge. But the city played host to a vital psychedelic scene in the late '60s, and that's the sound Screaming Tree evokes on "Dust." With its whining sitar and humming mellotron chords, "Halo of Ashes" is a classic piece of retro cool, evoking a classic rock sound without falling victim to its limitations. That pretty neatly sums up the Screaming Trees aesthetic, too -- playing off the past while remaining firmly rooted in the present. It helps, of course, that frontman Mark Lanegan has the perfect voice for the part, a deliciously cool distillation of Neil Diamond, Jim Morrison and Glenn Danzig, but Lanegan's singing would be worthless without good songs. Luckily, "Dust" includes some real killers. "Dying Days" is perhaps the most impressive, a tale of loneliness and desolation that recalls the majesty of oldies like "White Room," but it's hardly alone: There are also raging, up-tempo rockers such as "Witness" and "Dime Western," as well as quietly ambitious work along the lines of "Traveler" and the exotic, Indian-flavored "Gospel Plow." Rock could use more throwbacks like this.

Howard Johnson & Gravity

Gravity!!! (Verve 314 531 021)

Tuba jazz? An all-tuba horn section?? A whole album of tuba solos??? Don't seem so shocked. Jazz has always had its share of tuba players, but none has done as much to raise the instrument's profile as Howard Johnson. So the real question to be asked about his tuba-heavy band Gravity isn't "Why?" but "Why did it take so long?" After all, the playing on "Gravity!!!" is both supple and expressive, with plenty of swing and a well-defined sense of the blues. With fellow tuba men Bob Stewart, Earl McIntyre, Joe Daley, Carl Kleinsteuber and Dave Bargeron, Johnson shows off the full range of the tuba family, delivering everything from well-shaded ensemble work on Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" (you'll swear there are french horns and flugelhorns in there) to the gutsy, gospel-style groove of "Be No Evil." If you thought the only thing a tuba could do was provide the oom to someone else's pah-pah, you're in for an education.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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