Cd Check

CD CHECK

December 08, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Talib Kweli

Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free CD

[Koch Records] * * (2 stars)

Brooklyn-born MC Talib Kweli is a hip-hop rarity: a conscious rapper who enjoys commercial success and significant, unquestioned underground credibility. That's one of the reasons hip-hop fans from the 'hood to the 'burbs and everywhere in between have been eagerly anticipating his latest release.

The former member of Black Star has made a name for himself by rapping in compelling, realistic and human terms about topics all but played out by mainstream rappers: poverty, violence, individual struggle. Right About Now follows in that tradition, if less compellingly than Kweli's earlier efforts.

In seven years, Kweli has proved at least one thing: You don't need a perfect voice or a perfect flow to gain loyal listeners of all backgrounds. You just need to speak some street-informed, progressive truths -- or catchphrases that sound close enough.

Kweli has gotten loads of airplay (and love) for writing songs that speak from the gut: "I Try," which featured Mary J. Blige on the hook, and "Get By" were his two most prominent recent singles. Unfortunately, Kweli's latest doesn't have a song with lyrics and production as catchy as those tunes, the closest being "Supreme (Side by Side)."

What makes a great Kweli song is that it pushes the envelope lyrically and musically. Is it really OK to rap double-speed and just off beat? Can you really rap about violence and despair without glamorizing them? Some of us still ask those questions, and Kweli has been one of the few to consistently answer in the affirmative.

Still, the album, though consistent, has little that stands out.

Depeche Mode

Playing the Angel

[Sire/Reprise/Mute] * * * (3 stars)

OK, let's get that common prejudice about electronic-pop trio Depeche Mode out on the table: The band makes shallow, self-indulgent, adolescent, sophomoric, indulgent pap. Does the fact that the late Johnny Cash thought enough of the Depeche Mode track "Personal Jesus" to record his own etched-in-granite version persuade you otherwise? If you're still in doubt, have a listen to the group's first release in four years and just try not to groove to the sinuous rhythms, arresting riffs and better-than-therapy lyrics.

Vocalist David Gahan mixes in silver-lining optimism with his trademark dread and unhappiness, making the proceedings more palatable and less of a slog.

"Precious" is quintessential Depeche Mode, bouncy and synth-driven. Depeche Mode has endured for a reason -- sturdy, well-constructed songs, written primarily by founding guitarist-keyboardist Martin Gore and sung convincingly by Gahan.

Johnny Cash

The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-58

[Time-Life] * * * * (4stars)

Purists will argue that Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis never bettered the tracks they recorded with producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, but that's not the case with Cash, who made great records after leaving for Columbia, and many more for American Records in the last stage of his career.

Nevertheless, the Sun sides are essential, and this excellently annotated, three-disc, 61-song compilation is all anyone but a scholar would need to own, even if it omits some of the raw versions.

Produced by Sun's unofficial historian Colin Escott, it, of course, contains the original versions of "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Guess Things Happen That Way" and "Give My Love to Rose," with Cash and the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant), but adds some of the more enticing outtakes, including a version of "I Love You Because" with a piano player believed to be Lewis.

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