It Was Written (Columbia 67015)
There's nothing easy about listening to Nas. Between the brutal staccato of his delivery and his unflinching descriptions of street crime, his raps are hard enough to give "It Was Written" the same blood-splattered impact as the early gangsta rap recordings. But unlike O.G. rappers, Nas rarely glories in his own verbal aggression; instead, what comes across is a sort of killer cool, the flinty determination of a man with more sense of purpose than sense of humor. So even though he prefaces "Shootouts," a rap about taking out a neighborhood informant and her police officer boyfriend, with a quote from "Theme from the Avengers," what his protagonist is after has less to do with quid pro quo than meting out what he feels is just punishment. In other words, it isn't about fair play so much as players getting theirs, which is why there isn't much irony in "Street Dreams," his drug-drenched spin-off of the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," or hope in the personal utopia depicted in "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)." So even though the backing tracks are remarkably imaginative, from the melancholy Sting sample that grounds "The Message" to the ominous, insistent Dr. Dre groove of "Nas Is Coming," the nastiness of what Nas has to say sucks most of the joy from the music.
Three Snakes and One Charm (American 43082)
It may be easy to hear similarities between what the Black Crowes do now and what the Rolling Stones did 25 years ago, but it would be a mistake to suggest that the sound of "Three Snakes and One Charm" is in any way a throwback. Like the Stones, the Crowes have built their sound on a firm foundation of blues and R&B, but without necessarily drawing from the same influences. So where Jagger and company would likely have framed a song like "Blackberry" with a Muscle Shoals-derived groove and a drawling, Chuck Berry-style vocal, the Crowes' Chris Robinson takes his cues from Otis Redding while the band plays like some unholy fusion of the Allman Brothers and the Stax house band. That's typical of the Crowes' range, though, as the songs on "Three Snakes" evoke everything from acoustic psychedelia ("Evil Eye") to Sly Stone funk ("Halfway to Everywhere"). But the album's greatest strength isn't its diversity so much as it is the depth of the writing, as songs like "Under a Mountain" and "Girl from a Pawnshop" convey a grandeur and sense of scale the band's early output only hinted out. This one is definitely the charm.
High/Low (Elektra 61913)
It's no wonder that the Nada Surf single "Popular" is so, well, popular. Not only does it boast an only slightly exaggerated depiction of high school politics, but it frames its deliciously ironic lyrics with a sly, catchy chorus and a deliciously manic vocal performance. But "High/Low," is hardly a one-ong wonder. Although Nada Surf's arch aesthetic has much in common with the brainy, bemused alterna-rock approach of Pavement or Sebadoh, its bare-bones sound is almost in a class by itself. Thanks to Ric Ocasek's crisp, clean production, there's an almost elegant austerity to the album's sound, but what ultimately brings the songs into focus is the band's ultra-efficient playing, which is so sparing you'd think the recording studio charged them by the note. That's why it's hard to put much stock in those pundits who have likened the group to Weezer. True, Weezer's debut was similarly sly, ironic and Ocasek-produced. But where Weezer came across as a pop act in alterna-rock clothing, Nada Surf is pop almost in spite of itself.
4 Aces (Reprise 46197)
Being a Tex/Mex supergroup is not the ticket to celebrity it ought to be, so it's understandable that most pop fans remain unaware of the momentousness of the Texas Tornados reunion. Freddie Fender, accordion ace Flaco Jimenez, and Sir Douglas Quintet alums Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm originally formed the group in 1989, but called it quits after three albums and four years of hard touring. Fortunately, though, you can't keep a good band down, and "4 Aces" shows that the Tornados are not only back, but better than ever. As always, there's plenty of Texas wit and Norteno spice in the songs, which range from such witty laments as "A Little Bit Is Better Than Nada" to tuneful rock and roll throwbacks like "Tell Me." But the best tunes tend to be the ones that draw most clearly from conjunto culture. Nor does it matter whether a song hews to tradition as closely as "Amor de Mi Vida" or takes the sort of cheery fusion approach exhibited in "Ta Bueno Campadre" -- you'll be sucked in by the Tornados either way.