Bigger and Blacker (Dreamworks 50055)
Comedy albums have traditionally fallen into one of two categories: joke collections and party records.
Joke collections are by far the most familiar of the two. Although they sometimes include racy language or taboo material, most of what they offer is the safe, radio-friendly comedy made by Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin or Steven Wright.
Party records, on the other hand, are the kind of album people hide on the back shelves so the kids won't find them. These discs are crude, lewd and shamelessly profane -- the kind of low entertainment that makes high-minded critics shudder in revulsion.
Chris Rock's "Bigger and Blacker" is a party record in the classic tradition. It's not an album you're going to want your parents to hear, or your kids to know exists. It's nothing you want your minister to see you buying.
But it is funny. Offering routines from his current HBO special as well as bits recorded especially for the album, it includes everything from straight stand-up to song parodies. And though little of it is quotable -- or even describable -- in a family newspaper, Rock is so hysterically tasteless you'll be embarrassed at how much you laugh.
Unlike some comics, who seem to think profanity itself is a punchline, Rock brings wit and imagination to his dirty jokes. Take his "Monica Interview." The premise -- asking Monica Lewinsky for comment on her affair with president Clinton -- may be creaky, but Rock offers a clever twist, using raps by the sex-obsessed Li'l Kim to provide Lewinsky's "answers." For once, Lewinsky really does sound like the freak of the week.
Then there's "No Sex," a parody of Baz Lurhman's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)." The advice Rock offers to "the G.E.D. graduating class of '99" isn't quite as wholesome as Lurhman's (the title has to do with strip-club practices), but that doesn't mean it lacks for insight. For instance, would Ann Landers have the moxie to observe: "If you have been dating a man for four months, and you haven't met any of his friends, you are not his girlfriend"?
Naturally, there's a lot of sex talk on this disc. Like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor before him, Rock appreciates the inherent ridiculousness of sex and has no shame about broaching the subject. He jokes about practices that aren't legal in some states and speaks as if watching porno flicks and going to strip joints were the sort of thing every man does.
But his most pointed jokes tend to be the subtlest. "Snowflake," a parody of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" (sung with rapper Biz Markie), is a double-edged joke that takes on racial and sexual stereotyping at several levels. It's not typical party record humor, but it's smarter than most of what you'll see on MTV. ***
The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (Warner Bros. 47332)
Although bluegrass music is often saddled with hillbilly stereotypes (remember the "Dueling Banjos" scene in "Deliverance"?), the playing can be as urbane and sophisticated as on any jazz album. Just listen to what Bela Fleck and friends do on "The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2." Working with some of the best players in the business -- including mandolin ace Sam Bush, dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and fiddler Stuart Duncan -- Fleck pushes bluegrass to the limit. It isn't just that he manages to work a bit of "The Beer Barrel Polka" into "Polka on the Banjo"; Fleck also brings a jazzy wistfulness to the beautiful "Buffalo Nickel" and underscores the Irish roots of "When Joy Kills Sorrow." Rarely is an album so illuminating and enjoyable. ***1/2
Viva El Amor! (Warner Bros. 47342)
Rock and roll isn't about growing old gracefully, but we don't often hear rock stars act their age as defiantly as Chrissie Hynde does in the new Pretenders album, "Viva El Amor!" From the album-opening snarl of "Popstar," in which Hynde snickers at an old beau whose new girlfriend wants to be a pop star, to the slow-groove jangle of "Biker," a valentine to her hog-riding lover, Hynde presents herself with a take-it-or-leave-it confidence that's equal parts punk-rock aggression and old-codger crotchetiness. But even when complaining "my patience has worn thin" (as she does in "Nails in the Road"), Hynde and her Pretenders still play like angels, making mid-tempo rockers like "Human" almost irresistible. ***
Profound Sounds, Vol. 1 (Ovum/Ruffhouse 63628)
As any mother knows, there's something intrinsically soothing about repetition. Even so, there's something invigorating about the gently shifting loops Josh Wink sets in motion for the remix album "Profound Sounds, Vol. 1." Compositionally, Wink constructs his tracks like a trance DJ, slowly accumulating rhythmic detail and letting the groove grow incrementally. But his sense of texture is totally unpredictable. Drawing from the soft, echoey palette of ambient and dub, he turns Johannes Heil and Heiko Laux's "D2" into a dreamy meditation and pulls a hypnotic drone from the thumping house beats of Blaze's "Lovelee Dae." Even Sylk 130's jazzy "When the Funk Hits the Fan" is transformed into a mechanized abstraction, showing just how complete Wink's command of his material can be. ***
* = poor ** = fair
*** = good **** = excellent