Short Cuts 

Chili Peppers' career best; the roots of Soweto's Indestructible Beat

By the Way

The Red Hot Chili Peppers

(Warner Bros.)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers occupy a strange place in popular music: Springing from a scene most famous for its '70s SoCal lite-rock and '80s El-Lay hair bands, the Peppers blend the former's peaceful, easy feelings with the latter's party vibe. But Anthony Kiedis' staccato-rap delivery and the band's Bad Brains-style funk have influenced numerous rap-rock and nü-metal bands -- such as Crazytown and Korn -- who cribbed the Red Hot sound without thinking to build on it.

On their eighth album, By the Way, the Peppers shift the balance between rock and funk, favoring catchy rock choruses and tuneful verses over mad grooves to create a more mature sound. More important, these Los Angelenos have looked beyond their immediate forebears to earlier, slightly less mainstream influences, especially Brian Wilson.

Almost every song on By the Way has harmonies: bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante oooh and aaah behind Kiedis' vocals, which, as ever, are a little flat in pitch yet endearing and vulnerable. And tracks like "Can't Stop" and "The Zephyr Song" are built around catchy hooks that continually fold in on themselves.

For California pop breeziness, "Tear" stands out: Its Mellotron intro gives way to an easy vibe and a heraldic chorus punctuated by a concise, note-perfect solo by Frusciante, which is repeated by Flea on trumpet. It's not only the album's finest moment but also one of the best updates on Wilson's signature orchestral pop, all the more moving for being so unexpected.

Such a sunny surface hides typically dark subject matter, specifically drugs and death -- twin demons that have haunted just about everything the band has done since the overdose death of founding member Hillel Slovak. The album's more expansive, more adventurous sound lends gravity to such fears, making songs like "This Is the Place" and "Dosed" all the more devastating.

Simultaneously haunted and hopeful, By the Way is not only the Peppers' best effort to date, it's also one of the best mainstream rock albums in ages.

-- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

The History Of Township Music

Various Artists

(Wrasse import)

After years of housecleaning the vaults of U.S. record companies, we now have access to everything you could possibly hope to know about the history of American pop. So it's about damn time it started happening with Africa too, and, lo and behold, it has. There may be no better example than this more-or-less chronological 28-song compilation of classic South African singles -- a great history lesson, especially if you read the liner notes, and, even more importantly, a cavalcade of pleasure.

The disc opens with three important pre-'50s songs. Thomas Mabiletsa's 1944 "Zulu Piano Melody No. 1, Pt. 1" looks back (already) at marabi, South Africa's indigenous early take on ragtime, which had been steadfastly ignored by record companies that hated its lowbrow origins. It's followed by the minstrel-show tune "Rea Gae" by the Pietersburg Melodians and Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds' "Mbube," the first incarnation of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and Africa's most famous melody, both from 1939.

But it's with the Royal Players' "Khala Zo°Me," from 1954, that the disc really picks up speed, introducing the township jazz style that dominates the disc's middle tracks. Sweet but not treacly cuts like the Young Stars' jazzy girl-group "Ulova" and the cotton-candy melody of the Solven Whistlers' "Something New in Africa" achieve a grace that, as the disc progresses, gives way to the grittier sound of mbaqanga, or township jive. The guitar rhythms jump harder and weirder on Big Four's 1966 "Mr. Music" and the Mahotella Queens' 1967 "Mama Thula." By the time the disc reaches the Boyoyo Boys' 1975 "Tsotsi" and Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje's 1977 "Omzala Bakho," the lithe beat of old has been upended and hardened.

History ends in 1981, the same year the earliest tracks from the classic 1985 compilation The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto were cut, and it's a hell of an efficient map of Indestructible Beat's lineage. -- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade: A

Romantica

Luna

(Jetset)

Alt-rock perennials Luna have managed to fashion a (semi)profitable career building mid-tempo guitarchitecture leavened with the occasional dumb joke. But this isn't a glib dismissal of a band and a subculture: Consistent success within a genre is a remarkable accomplishment, even if it eventually puts the band in a no-win position. Veer off the path with too much noise or percussion or story songs or whatever and the band has "lost the magic"; stay the same and risk permanent irrelevance to lovesick kids and wistful art fascists alike.

Besides, when a band does what it does as well as Luna, demands for evolution seem hasty and infantile. They make rock-and-roll comfort food for at least a couple thousand folks out there, and Romantica is more of the same: 12 tunes with a cumulative know-where-when-we-get-there attitude so palpable, it's downright seasonal. The songs about girls and crushes and "the agony of love" suck you in, but my favorite line comes from "Black Postcards," in which Dean Wareham sings, "If I had to do it all again/I wouldn't/Throw it all away/Throw it all away." Aw, c'mon: Throwaways (and repetition) have lit up his albums for as long as he's been making them.

A timeless band if you're not in a hurry.

-- Addison Engelking

Grade: A-

On

Imperial Teen

(Merge)

How many perfect pop records does the world need? For what it's worth, here's one more. Yes, another of those vexing recordings that does everything right from start to finish. And Imperial Teen has produced two such albums already.

Formed by Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum in 1994 as an alternative to the "heavy band" stuff he was mired in at the time, Imperial Teen signed with Slash very quickly and churned out a great first record, Seasick, in 1996 and an even better second record, What Is Not To Love, for the label in 1999. Then they got dropped in an artist purge by Slash's parent company, Universal. Now they're on the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, indie Merge with their best record yet. Sound familiar? Getting dropped by a pseudo-major label and getting picked up by an indie label is becoming the rule rather than the exception for a lot of bands these days. But, in Imperial Teen's case, it's a good thing.

So what does the band offer us with this third trip to the alt-pop well? Twelve great originals, subtle production by Redd Kross' Steven McDonald, good guitar and keyboard work, and hooks, choruses, and melodies that just keep churning around in your noggin' -- in other words, just what fans have come to expect from this underrated band. Consider your purchase an investment in a culture that can keep on producing minor gems like this. n -- Ross Johnson

Grade: A-

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