Short Cuts 

The outlandish "audiosyncrasies" of hip hop's current "It" boys.

In Search Of

N*E*R*D

(Virgin)

N*E*R*D consists of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (better known as the current "It" boys of production, the Neptunes) along with fellow gaming vidiot Shay. And the name is appropriate.The group's style is less ghetto-fab "Lord of the Blings" than indie-rock geek chic.

After scoring a string of hits as knob-twiddlers for the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, the Neptunes were given the studio green light to produce themselves.Of course, in Major-label Land, things are never that simple.The original version of In Search Of was drenched in swooshy synths, cornball Bizarro World skits, and muffled samples.Released to much acclaim in England, its genre-hopping appeal even made waves back here.But the studio or N*E*R*D itself decided to completely redo the whole damn thing.

The new version's sound reminds me of the overlooked early '90s lo-fi rap impresario Basehead. But whereas Basehead was comfortable playing air guitar in his bedroom, N*E*R*D seems poised to take the stage of an actual coliseum.In Search Of kicks things off with "Lapdance," a near-perfect synthesis of cock-rock attitude and metro-funk lechery.The most appealing element of the album is the band's hook-laden, straightforward approach to soul.Despite its hip-hop pedigree and audiosyncrasies, N*E*R*D is particularly adept at creating gritty urban ballads that sidestep earth-mama nu-soul ("Run to the Sun," "Stay Together," and the highlight, "Bobby James")."Provider," a coke mule's hymn to the lure of the white line, is a great example of countrified gangsta -- Johnny Cash Money, if you will.

-- David L. Dunlap Jr.

Grade: A

The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. 1

The Pine Valley Cosmonauts

(Bloodshot)

Murder ballads and mob-law songs, like those collected on the Pine Valley Cosmonauts' third full-length album, The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. 1, are, at their core, cautionary tales warning listeners away from the temptations of violence, drinking, and loose women, among other evils. Punishment is always as fundamental as the crimes themselves: Kill someone, and you will be killed, whether by the state or by God Himself.

So it's curious that the Pine Valley Cosmonauts -- ex-Mekon Jon Langford and company backing a revolving roster of guest vocalists -- have recorded so many retribution-minded songs on this album, which benefits the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. To say the least, the death penalty is an endlessly complicated issue, and it would seem as if the Cosmonauts have found a way to speak to those complexities.

The results, unfortunately, are mixed. Johnny Dowd infuses "Judgment Day" with his usual histrionics, and Chris Ligon's flippant "Great State of Texas" is too light and breezy to convey the gravity of the situation it describes. Steve Earle turns in a languid, lackluster version of "Tom Dooley" that, pardon the expression, grinds to a dead halt.

Balancing out these missteps are some very sensitive readings of death-related songs. Edith Frost's take on Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" is lovely, and Rosie Flores puts some sass and stomp into Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." The showstopper is Diane Izzo's haunting plea to the Grim Reaper on Ralph Stanley's "Oh Death." Singing with a wobbly voice and creaky phrasing, she accomplishes a nearly impossible task: She boldly conveys the horror of death in such a way that we would never wish it upon anyone, not a murder victim or a murderer.How unfortunate then that Tony Fitzpatrick sounds off near the end of the album on his spoken-word "Idiot Whistle," decrying slimy politicians and reducing this vital issue to a black-and-white, us-versus-them cliché. Fitzpatrick's is an insultingly simplistic argument that does little for death-row inmates and even less for this flawed benefit album. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

Under Cold Blue Stars

Josh Rouse

(Rykodisc)

Josh Rouse's musical leanings have always centered around the geographical: His '98 debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, provided a vibrant flip-side to Bruce Springsteen's depressing ode to the prairie state; 2000's Home centered on Rouse's adopted hometown of Nashville. Rouse's newest release is called Under Cold Blue Stars, so it should come as no surprise that it's his most expansive album to date. With the title track, he unwinds his life story, replete with tales of wanderlust and guitars -- typical fodder for an alt-country album. Yet, despite the subject matter, Rouse is hardly constrained by the genre. Sure, he plays guitar-fueled power pop, but the music's deeper than that -- tape loops, horn sections, strings, and funky drumbeats all contribute to the mix. Think sunnier Lambchop or countrified Yo La Tengo. Rouse has links to both bands, and he effectively combines the off-the-wall vibes of both groups with effortlessly soaring pop hooks. Don't miss the bright fuzz of "Feeling No Pain" -- if the world were a perfect place, this radio-friendly number would take Rouse straight to the top of the charts. Other standouts: the album's opener, "Twilight," and the minimalist "Summer Kitchen Ballad." "It's a grey world," Rouse sings on the latter. Listening to his spare yet lush composition, we can hardly agree. -- Andria Lisle

Rating: B+

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