Van Helden's 'Meatmarket' shows he's master of the mix


March 26, 1998|By J.D. Considine Christian Various Artists

Armand Van Helden's Sampleslaya

Enter the Meatmarket (Ruffhouse/Columbia 68226)

Back when rock was in its infancy, saxophone ruled the roost. But after Chuck Berry electrified the excitement of boogie-woogie piano by playing those licks on guitar, rock and roll became a six-string world. And so it remained for the next 40 years, as neither sitars nor synthesizers could topple the electric guitar from its musical throne.

No dynasty goes on forever, though, and the guitar's reign seems finally to be coming to an end. Even so, it will be hard for some pop fans to accept this change, because what's pushing the guitar from prominence are, to some people's way of thinking, not really instruments at all: the turntable and the sampler.

Neither is new to popular music. Grandmaster Flash cut a single, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," way back in 1981, and digitally sampled sound collages have been pop fare at least since Art of Noise released "Beat Box" in 1984. But as hip-hop and the dance club sounds loosely described as electronica exert an ever-increasing influence on mainstream pop, it looks more and more as if these DJ tools will define the sound of popular music.

Of course, the great irony in that statement is that turntables and samplers really don't have "a" sound. If anything, their greatest appeal is the ability to deliver a whole universe of previously recorded sounds, allowing the mixer/composer to conjure up anything from stark electronic landscapes to the lushest of orchestral harmonies.

So apart from some turntable scratching sprinkled through the tracks, there isn't anything about the sound of Armand Van Helden's Sampleslaya that would make "Enter the Meatmarket" seem especially electronic. We get chanting monks and harp glissandos in "Daaboodaa Munks," honking brass and screaming crowds in "Crooklyn Anthem," even funk guitars and clanging synths in "Reservoir Dogs." Nothing particularly unusual about those sounds.

Rather, what stands out is the way the sounds are used. Like most sample-and-scratcher artists, Van Helden thrives on repetition. His tracks are full of rhythmic hiccups and hypnotic loops, endlessly reshuffling a small handful of sounds to keep the beat pumping.

Yet as much as he depends on reiteration, there's nothing monotonous about the results, for by varying the length and intensity of his loops, Van Helden's tracks never seem to repeat themselves. For instance, "This Is It!" makes a mere handful of samples feel like a fully developed song through careful pacing, while "Hood Movie Stars" keeps its momentum by building a rich and varied musical base beneath a single vocal loop.

In addition to having a peerless ear for pop hooks, Van Helden also has a keenly developed sense of irony, using a short sample from Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins" in "6 Minutes of Funk" to create something totally new and fresh - something Puff Daddy has yet to do.

What does he know that Puff Daddy doesn't? For one thing, that variety is the spice of life; instead of relying on a single sample, Van Helden mixes in everything from a Bob James piano lick to the whistled hook from Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." Mostly, though, he mixes up his musical elements, varying their intensity and thus increasing their impact.

What Van Helden understands is that the key to songwriting is structure. Even though there's not a single track on "Enter the Meatmarket" that could be performed with just voice and guitar, each stands up as a full-blown song. And that, more than his use of technology or command of the groove, is what makes Van Helden's "Meatmarket" worth visiting. ***1/2

WoW 1998 (Word 51629)

Jacket notes on "WoW 1998," a compilation of contemporary Christian tunes, advertise "music that can make an eternal difference." That's a high standard to which this two-disc set simply doesn't measure up. There's too much of the superficial here. Gimmickry swamps the message of Carman's "Mission 3:16," an unsubtle variation on the James Bond movie theme, and Petra's loud praise hymn "We Need Jesus," featuring Foreigner front man Lou Gramm. And Clay Crosse's "Saving the World" swipes a riff from Earth, Wind and Fire's "Shining Star." The gems in this 30-song collection include "Let Us Pray," Steven Curtis Chapman's lively celebration of prayer. BeBe and CeCe Winans wisely let their vocals power a cover of "Up Where We Belong." "Carry You" - a new release from Amy Grant - and Sandi Patty's "Breathe on Me" also merit honorable mention.

Steve Andrulonis


Janis Ian

Hunger (Windham Hill 01934-11274)

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