The Legend of Digital Underground
They were the Next Big Thing of 1990 -- an eccentric West Coast hip-hop crew upping the ante on De La Soul's "D.A.I.S.Y Age" revolution of a year before. Led by the long, lean doppelganger duo (at the time, I thought they were alter egos for the same person) of clown prince Humpty Hump and hunky Shock G, Digital Underground duplicated the good cop/bad cop dynamic that Public Enemy's Flavor Flav and Chuck D. brought to hip hop and put it to the service of the most undeniable music early Nineties party rap produced. Humpty Hump in particular is one of hip hop's most iconic figures -- an entirely unthreatening sex addict always good for a self-deprecating laugh when he isn't busy getting busy in a Burger King bathroom or getting fried chicken grease on some young thing's panty hose.
And they had the goods coming out of the gate: This roughly chronological 14-song compilation opens with the eternal "The Humpty Dance" -- one of the decade's essential singles. A showcase for Humpty Hump -- the hip-hop Groucho Marx -- "The Humpty Dance" has the funniest instructions in the long, proud history of novelty dance songs: "First I limp to the side like my leg was broken/Shakin' and twitchin' kinda like I was smokin'/Crazy wack funky/People say, 'You look like MC Hammer on crack, Humpty!'/That's alright cause my body's in motion/It's supposed to look like a fit or a convulsion."
The group's other stone classic was "Doowutchyalike," a thrilling, rambling dance-floor epic so free and spontaneous that the song itself demonstrates the title's call to arms -- cramming social commentary, lyrical pranks, sexual exhortations, bizarre background vocals, and even a piano solo into its groove. As far as hip-hop braggadocio goes, "not your average everyday rap band" is far too modest in this context. More to the point is "you've got to admit it's a new kind of song." But the great flaw of this otherwise outstanding collection is that it mystifyingly includes the short version of the song, cutting off during its false ending at the four-and-a-half-minute mark. The full-length version runs nine minutes and just gets weirder after the false fadeout.
Though Digital Underground never again matched the promise of those two extraordinary singles, No Nose Job reveals plenty of more obscure pleasures (see "The Way We Swing" and "Kiss You Back") and captures an arguably great band ahead of its time. Digital Underground brought the cosmic slop of Parliament-Funkadelic (not to mention Prince's vision of a classless, interracial sexual utopia) with more fervor than any other group until Outkast came along. The weird porno rap of "Freaks of the Industry" and "Sex Packets" presages similar exploits by Kool Keith. The invigorating, pass-the-mic anthem "Same Song" introduces Tupac Shakur to the world. And No Nose Job catches you off-guard at the end with the subtle, deep "Doo Woo You," which equates sexual conquest with artistic acceptance, warning the (white) listener, "Don't be afraid to let a brother funk with you I'm gonna creep within your skin." -- Chris Herrington
The Modern Jazz Quartet with Laurindo Almeida
With a recording history spanning 1951-2001, the Modern Jazz Quartet has remained a staple of elegant, refined jazz with two constants: John Lewis, pianist, and Milt Jackson, vibraphonist. But with the recent death of Lewis, it seems the Quartet is no more. Throughout the years, bassists and drummers have come and gone, but Lewis, as long-time musical director and collaborator with Jackson, is irreplaceable.
Originally released in 1964, Collaboration is a work of high craftsmanship featuring tight performers with astute sensibilities channeling the sounds of South America. Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida's subdued bossa nova approach meshes brilliantly with the mellow, meditative sound of the Quartet.
In the three singularly perceptive Lewis compositions that open this soothing, thoughtful album, the alternating jazzy blues and flamenco tension built by the rumblings of Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums collapses into playful, swinging tango rhythms before the expected denouement, as if the musicians just couldn't keep a straight face. The album pivots on a stunning reimagining of J.S. Bach's "Fugue In A Minor," turning the listener's ear on its ear (the counterpoint is woven of equal parts Almeida, Jackson, Lewis, and Heath) in preparation for the Latin rhythms, surprisingly reminiscent of sections of the fugue, that close the album. The final three compositions are, by 1964 standards, daring in their insight into the possibilities of jazz. After Bach, we hear a wise, multicultural ear's arrangement of the works of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Djalma Ferreira, and Spain's Joaquin Rodrigo -- composers pushing the Latin sound beyond its heritage and providing the Quartet with the perfect opportunity to inversely explore the influence of jazz on the sound of another culture. -- Jeremy Spencer
On Jim White's second album, No Such Place, sampled loops and ambient synths dance around with gently plucked acoustic guitars and the singer-songwriter's practiced drawl, delivering stories steeped in religious symbolism and Southern-fried gothic overtones. Ambitious and daring, White is obviously -- and admirably -- grasping for something new and meaningful, a revival of certain Southern musical traditions through modern production quirks. But he severely overreaches, and No Such Place ultimately proves more embarrassing than groundbreaking.
On songs like "The Wound That Never Heals" White plays dress-up, wearing the clothes of a Southern storyteller like a Halloween costume. He dispenses corny homespun wisdom, and he relies very heavily on white-trash imagery. But instead of sounding insightful and wise, such overcooked proclamations portray him as pretentious and smugly self-satisfied.
Not everything on No Such Place is so dismally disastrous. Despite its cringe-inducing spoken intro -- "There's nothing prettier than a pretty girl digging a heart-shaped hole" -- "The Wrong Kind of Love" has a sultry chorus. The album's highlight is a suped-up cover of Roger Miller's "King of the Road." His voice distorted and half-buried in the production, White brings out new elements in the iconic anthem by throwing in a curious pennywhistle and an infectious banjo.
Ultimately, White intends No Such Place to be a work of folk art. But folk art is by nature outsider art, and White's songs are too calculated, his sound too self-conscious and too synthesized, to be organic or natural. Simply put, he is too much of an insider to make it work. -- Stephen Deusner
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.