PhishSlip, Stitch and Pass (Elektra 62121)After the death...

CD REVIEWS

November 13, 1997|By J.D. Considine

Phish

Slip, Stitch and Pass (Elektra 62121)

After the death of Jerry Garcia, the trend vultures in the popular press decided that Phish would be heir apparent to the Dead's jam band crown. Never mind that the two bands barely sounded alike; both liked long, in-concert improvisations, and besides, their fans kinda looked alike. So the label was applied, and has -- at least in the mind of nonfans -- stuck. Imagine the shock those folks would feel if ever they were to sit down and listen to the new Phish live album, "Slip, Stitch and Pass." Unlike the Dead, whose approach to improvisation generally found its members striking out for parts unknown in the hopes of hooking up again later, Phish takes a genuinely collaborative attitude to jamming, listening carefully to each other and responding with empathy to each idea offered. There's no noodling here; not only is there a strong sense of direction to the solos, but the band moves with astonishing grace and unity, as with the seamless segue from "Wolfman's Brother" into a cover of Z.Z. Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago," or the way "Weeklong Groove" ends with the tag from the Rolling Stones "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." This is imaginative, song-oriented playing, and those who can't hear that don't deserve to get this band.

The Firm: Nas Escobar, Foxy Brown, AZ and Nature

The Album (Aftermath/Interscope 90136)

It was only a matter of time before rap generated its own supergroups, and the Firm is typical of the phenomenon. A collaboration featuring New Yorkers Nas Escobar, Foxy Brown and AZ alongside a Cali crew including Nature, Noriega and producer/mastermind Dr. Dre, it offers the best -- and the worst -- of both coasts. Sure, the beats are hard and the rhymes razor-sharp, and there's no denying that these rappers have flow to spare. But for every moment of brilliance, like the uncompromising "Firm Fiasco" or Foxy Brown's soulful, straightforward "F-- Somebody Else," there are tracks as forgettable as "Firm Biz" or Nature's "Five Minutes to Flush." It helps that Dr. Dre's production is lean and hook-heavy, giving each track enough rhythmic support to make the rappers' every syllable shine. But for all the power in their word play, the four principals in the Firm only rarely coalesce, meaning that much of the album comes across as less as a group effort than a series of high-profile cameos. But that, unfortunately, is also part of the supergroup ethos -- too bad it also got carried over from rock.

Various Artists

Ultimate Dance Party 1998 (Arista 18988)

In theory, the advantage of mix collections is that they provide a host of current dance hits in a single, seamless collection, thus ensuring that the beat goes on and on. But it's hard to keep a steady groove going on when the material is as varied as that on "Ultimate Dance Party 1998." Although the set starts off strongly with Gina G's irresistibly effervescent "Ooh Aah ... Just a Little Bit," that Eurodisco beat is hardly a constant. There may be plenty of thumping synth beat in Real McCoy's "One More Time," Bouche's "Sweet Dreams" and Crystal Water's "100% Pure Love," but that beat hardly carries through to Mark Morrison's "Return of the Mack" or Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems." Worse, the pumped-up, post-disco pulse of "Mo Money" makes an awkward segue from the frenetic energy of the Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats." Granted, the remix artists end up saving the day more than once, as with the unexpectedly fierce remix of the Toni Braxton power ballad "Un-Break My Heart," but not even the greatest mix-masters could excuse the inclusion of such fluff as the Original's "I Luv You Baby" or No Mercy's "Kiss You All Over."

The Fairfield Four

I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray (Warner Bros. 46698)

Anyone who doubts that the Lord works in mysterious ways need only look at the career of the Fairfield Four. A Nashville-based traditional Southern gospel quartet with several decades of recording behind it, the group now finds itself a quintet with an uncanny amount of contemporary cool. "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," after all, boasts guest vocals by Pam Tillis on one song and Elvis Costello on another, while Garrison Keillor provides narration on a third. Despite its potential for pop glitz, though, the album's charms remain as simple and unvarnished as the Fairfield Four's sound itself. Most tracks are sung a cappella, and the group's rich, resonant harmonies -- grounded by an almost impossibly deep bass -- makes the mostly traditional material seem as fresh and exciting as if it were new. Even better, the Four have no trouble accommodating their guests stars, offering supple support to Tillis on "Get Away Jordan" and fleshing out the funereal poetry of Costello's "That Day Is Done." Still, as exciting as those all-star moments may be, they can't quite outshine the holy fire that burns beneath old-time gospel favorites like "Come On In This House" and "Shadrack."

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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