BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES
Jazz fusion comes trotting out these days like an old goat - still kicking, but looking a bit stubborn as it chomps away at the few scraps left over by upstart music genres like adult contemporary, new age, and ambient. Bela Fleck seems to thrive on scraps, fortunately. He's got a group that'll go to the ends of the earth for new musical elements, just to add a little tweak to its sax-and-banjo-based sound. Tuvan throat singing? Chuck it into the mix for a little background buzz. Aaron Copland? Turn his beefeater's theme ("Hoe Down") into a smorgasbord!
It might be unfair say that this is the work of dilettantes, considering the quality of some compositions here (like the lovely and direct "Aimum.") A better tag might be that this is music for busy people, made by busy people. The quartet is unfailing in its inventiveness, and the sixteen tracks are rounded out nicely with guest performances like Shawn Colvin's vocals, Edgar Meyer's acoustic bass and Paul McCandless playing the most obscure reed instruments he can find. Fleck grounds the affair beautifully, understating his bravura capabilities for the most obvious reason: he's playing a banjo in a jazz quartet. He's been doing it for a decade or so, but the concept still has some novelty. When tracks take off in a half-dozen directions in as many minutes, it's somehow reassuring that the folksy little stringed thing can keep up-and sometimes take charge-over the likes of Future Man's experimental percussion sounds. -T.E. Lyons
The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book
This brilliant dilettante sees all of the variety of fine music in the pop-rock terrain and its soul/hip-hop neighbor. He also sees how rarely the rift between the two is crossed with total commitment, and wants to be just such an exceptional entertainer.
Wyclef Jean is a dabbler deluxe. Inside of fifteen minutes, his second non-Fugees collection presents stage-whispered self-mocking from Columbia recording executive Tommy Mottola, a musically immaculate dub mix featuring Kenny Rogers singing of gamblers and DJs, and a dead-serious look at thugs moving inevitably toward an early trip to the cemetery. Later tracks offer tribute to strip clubs (with a melody stripped off of Pachelbel's "Canon in D") and the heart-wrenching tragedy of Amadou Diallo. The album's capper is a personal accounting for Jean's view of musical universality: his cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."
Anyone who is clueless about hip-hop when putting on this record will quickly pick up on Jean's parochial point-of-view, which can certainly open the door for getting into rap/reggae/dub artists who don't have the character or time to be friendly tour guides. Not that Jean isn't busy here: he interacts with the guest stars (great understated use of Earth, Wind and Fire), sings in a variety of styles, and polishes and plays within the dense production. There's just a few stretches where one would wish that the mantra "Less is More" had been posted over the studio door. Like when a pro-marijuana anthem leads to a pretty good guitar solo, but Jean is soon boasting that he's channeling inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai, and B.B. King. That weed's got you outta your mind, Man! -T.E. Lyons
Fu Manchu is a band on a mission. That mission is to land phat guitar riffs on top of pummeling percussion, thus making your head bang - no nonsense, no frills. The band that is forever concerned with all things 70s California (vans, skateboards, drugs) cranks out what could be their finest disc to date. Joined by former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork, Fu Manchu has not re-invented, so much as reminded fans of, the big, heavy, dumb riff. Like Iron Chefs choosing ingredients, Fu Manchu take the heaviest aspects of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Thin Lizzy, distilling them down to the most no-nonsense form of metal. This is what metal was like before costumes became as important as a Marshall stack. This is Ozzy before he raided Elizabeth Taylor's closet. This is Zeppelin before they read their own press. Put simply, King of the Road is possibly the finest rock record released this year.
From the opening sting of "Hell on Wheels" to the disc's closer, a cover of Devo's "Freedom of Choice," not one moment is wasted with anything other than ROCK. Singer Scott Hill's blasé delivery is the perfect voice for such lyrics as the repeated chorus in "No Dice," "No shoes/ No shirt/ No dice." And if the head riff of "Weird Beard" doesn't make your head bob, better check your pulse, 'cause it is possibly the most perfectly heavy riff - the one that rock scientists have been striving towards ever since Tony Iommi glued on an extra digit. Get in your "Boogie Van" and drive straight to a store to get this one, do not pass go, or stop to huff a J, just get it bro!-Rob Hulsman