'I'M A HUSTLA'
Full Surface/J, sss
To Philadelphia homicide detectives, Barry Reese is a local man charged with murder, assault and related crimes in a recent shooting. To hip-hop fans, he's Cassidy, and he's got cred. Lawyers, guns, money and felony charges can be a rapper's badge of honor, as stylish as Jacob the Jeweler diamonds.
As on his previous CD, "Split Personality" (also exec- produced by burned-rubber rhythm provider Swizz Beatz), Cassidy shows off two selves.
There's the sexy, diabolically ambitious Jay-Z sort who makes himself known on the repetition-driven "I'm a Hustla" and the cutesy acoustic confection "Bellybutton."
Then there's the Nas-ish prophet-eer with a leery eye for trouble of "B-Boy Stance" and "Crack." That smooth street druggist appears with Quan and Nas himself on the string-kissed, soulful "Can't Fade Me." Thicker and more musically elegant than its predecessor, "Hustla" shows off a groovy growth process. His progress, not the bust, should be what enhances his rep.
Funny how some people spend endless time and money and use every bell and whistle to achieve pop perfection, while others nail it through the simplest of means, almost accidentally.
It's no accident that British duo Turin Brakes have a pop masterpiece in third album "JackInABox." There's serious craft at work, but it's first-take, gut-instinct kind of stuff. To try and perfect the blissful "Come and Go" would sap it of its indie-blokes- having-a-go-at-bossa-nova charm.
That mind-set makes for an album full of well-designed songs, all in the key of a gorgeous summer sunset.
Some surge like wildfire and make you want to shake something, such as "Red Moon" with its "Hey Ya!"-inspired beat. Others, like the far-beyond-smitten "Above the Clouds" and "Forever," deliver a message of love that is clear and not the least bit trite.
Just when we thought the reign of squeaky-clean boy bands was over, the Backstreet Boys have returned with their first new album in five years. Shockingly, it isn't terrible.
Full of inevitable "maturity" signifiers (acoustic adult-alternative ballads, lyrics about death and the state of the world), "Never Gone" is a pleasant, inoffensive effort to stay current. "Incomplete" mopes like Coldplay. "Just Want You to Know" steals shamelessly from Kelly Clarkson's jumpy hit "Since U Been Gone." And "Weird World," written by Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik, sounds like, well, Five for Fighting.
The deliciously tacky overkill of past Backstreet hits is sorely missed. Alas, every Boy must grow up eventually.
'PLAYS GEORGE GERSHWIN: THE AMERICAN SOUL'
Blue Note, sss 1/2
It sounds as if pianist Bill Charlap does not play the tunes of George Gershwin because he should. The guy does it, perhaps, because they inspire him. The composer's work conjures up the world of his late father, Moose, who wrote the music for "Peter Pan," and his mother, singer Sandy Stewart, who toured with Benny Goodman.
This is exceedingly well-covered terrain. But Charlap, who delved into Leonard Bernstein's oeuvre on his last CD, makes this the most heartfelt music around. The set includes three trio numbers, featuring his bandmates of close to a decade: bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington.
Then Charlap, in a first for him, invites in four horns -- trumpeter Nicholas Payton, trombonist Slide Hampton, altoist Phil Woods, and tenor man Frank Wess -- for six more tunes. Among the offerings is a long and sensual take of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and a reworking of "A Foggy Day," which features Charlap's sly lines, qualifying as caresses. And Woods adds some impetuous fire to " 'S Wonderful."
Charlap closes up this artistic set with a solo take of "Soon" that hits few notes -- just the good ones.
Yep Roc, sss 1/2
Robbie Fulks' first albums, "Country Love Songs" and "South Mouth," were vastly entertaining sets full of songs that sounded both like clever send-ups of, and heartfelt homages to, classic country. Now, after several checkered years that included a disappointing stab at the majors and an ambitious but deeply flawed song cycle, Fulks is back to tapping his traditional-country muse.
On "Georgia Hard," the Chicagoan steps away from the cheeky irony he often flirted with earlier to deliver several numbers that sound like, well, classics. These include the adulterers' anthem "All You Can Cheat," the cautionary tale "You Don't Want What I Have," and the drinker's lament "Each Night I Try."
This new maturity doesn't mean Fulks doesn't have fun. He's over-the-top goofy on "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Love Me)" -- the album's weakest track -- and gleefully insults a good portion of his fan base while making a cogent point with "Countrier Than Thou."
Knight Ridder Newspapers