Muggs Presents the Soul Assassins: Chapter 1 (Columbia 66820)
Given the way gangsta rap has been demonized, it's easy to forget there's more to the style than gratuitous violence. Fortunately, albums like "Muggs Presents the Soul Assassins: Chapter 1" make a handy reminder that many rappers would rather stop the violence than celebrate it. Mixmaster Muggs (whose usual gig is behind B Real in Cypress Hill) has assembled a first-rate cast of assassins for the project, including Dr. Dre, KRS-One, RZA and GZA/Genius from the Wu Tang Clan, and Wyclef from the Fugees, but the album's strengths have less to do with who's talking than with what's being said. It's evident by the depth of the rhymes that a lot of thought went into these tracks, and the album's best moments -- like MC Eiht's moody, hypnotic "Heavy Weights" or Wyclef's mordantly fatalistic "John 3: 16" -- offer listeners insights as deep as the grooves they're built upon. But even if all you want are pleasures as simple as hearing Dre's gruff delivery grating against the slippery cadences of B Real in "Puppet Master," the Soul Assassins hit their mark every time.
Songs in the Key of Springfield (Rhino 72723)
The success of Andrew Lloyd Weber may be pushing old-style musical theater writing off Broadway, but it's nice to know it still has a home on television. Or so it would seem from "Songs in the Key of Springfield," a collection of musical excerpts from Fox's animated series "The Simpsons." In addition to such impromptu tunes as "Who Needs the Kwik-E Mart?" (in which Apu expresses his thanks to the Simpsons for taking him in) and "It Was a Very Good Beer" (in which Homer thanks the beers he's taken in), there are also some honest-to-goodness, big-name production numbers, as when Tony Bennett sings "Capitol City" (imagine if "New York, New York" had been written about Des Moines) or Robert Goulet offers the "Batman smells..." version of "Jingle Bells." Granted, some of the gags won't make much sense to those who don't know the show, since if you didn't know that Bart had switched hymns on Rev. Lovejoy, it would be hard to appreciate the humor in a choral rendition of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." But even those who have never watched the show should get a laugh out of the album's parodies, particularly the five-minute "Oh, Streetcar!," a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that's funnier than anything on Broadway.
Women in Technology (Chrysalis 56129)
One of the supposed attractions of "electronica" -- that brave new world of techno-savvy dance music -- is that affordability of synthesizers and sequencers has democratized pop music. That since anyone can afford the gear, anyone can make the records. That may not exactly be the case, but it does suggest we'll be seeing more albums like White Town's "Women in Technology." Essentially the work of Jyoti Mishra, a bright, underfunded pop savant, White Town offers the perfect compromise between lo-fi aesthetics and Top-40 accessibility. Between Mishra's breathy, undernourished voice and the obviously low-budget sound of his synths, there's nothing slick or overtly commercial about White Town's sound. But the melodies -- particularly in such songs as "Undressed" and the mournfully melodic "Your Woman" -- are so clearly meant for mass consumption that the lack of production polish seems almost endearing.
Billy Sheehan/John Novello/Dennis Chambers
Niacin (Stretch/Concord Jazz 9011)
By rights, the Hammond B-3 ought to have been rendered extinct by now, the victim of smaller and cheaper synthesizers. Instead, the instrument seems to be headed into a sort of renaissance, both in pop and jazz. Take, for example, the Billy Sheehan/John Novello/Dennis Chambers album "Niacin." Even though Sheehan is nominally the session leader, it's B-3 man Novello who dominates the mix, supporting Sheehan's guitar-style bass work and playing off the furious polyrhythms of Chambers' drumming. As a result, "Niacin" comes across as an odd cross between a traditional organ trio album and an early Emerson, Lake & Palmer outing. When the trio gets funky, as on "Cleanup Crew" or "Three Feet Back," it's clear they know their Jimmys (Smith and McGriff), but as soon as they get into the classical composition of "Spring Rounds" or the compound cadences of "For Crying Out Loud," rock fans will find themselves on a flashback to "Tarkus." Still, look on the bright side -- Sheehan may aspire to be the new Greg Lake, but at least he doesn't sing.