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A Good Time to Tune In to Electronica

April 25, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN

Record industry insiders were wrong in their predictions that electronica was going to be the next big commercial thing in pop, but that's no reason not to check out some enticing new works that touch to varying degrees on the British dance-scene movement, including collections by Badmarsh+Shri, Prodigy's Liam Howlett and Underworld. All three are in this guide to how to keep up with what's exciting in pop on an album budget of $50 a month.

March

Badmarsh+Shri's "Dancing Drums" (Outcaste/Tommy Boy). When multi-instrumentalist Shrikanth Spiram and DJ Badmarsh step out of London's underground dance scene for a touch of pop accessibility on the vocal-accompanied "The Air I Breathe," they don't inject enough urgency or sensual heat to make the track work. When the pair sticks to its own, more esoteric turf, however, things work exceptionally well. The textures--which employ everything from turntables and drum samples to bass effects and tablas--are graceful, seductive, mysterious and endlessly engaging.

Blur's "13" (Virgin). This is the kind of risky, inspired music that once seemed beyond the grasp of Blur's cool reserve--a work, like Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night" or Eels' "Electro-Shock Blues," that seems a reaction to a traumatic experience. And sure enough the music is apparently a reflection on the breakup of Blur leader Damon Albarn's eight-year relationship with Elastica's Justine Frischmann. It's mostly a jarring, sometimes disorienting mixture of anger, accusation and renewal. The highlight, "No Distance Left to Run," is a virtual open letter that is painful and pointed.

Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band's "The Mountain" (E-Squared). It's not normally a good sign when an artist changes styles as often as Earle, who has gone over the last two decades from rockabilly to heartland rock to Nashville blues to, now, bluegrass. But Earle finds inspiration in each change. Working with an acclaimed bluegrass band, Earle serves up songs about struggle and salvation that remind us why he is the only male singer-songwriter to come out of Nashville since the late '70s who can stand alongside such earlier greats as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

April

Liam Howlett's "Prodigy Presents the Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One" (XL). Prodigy mastermind Howlett shares some of his dance, rock, techno and hip-hop influences, from Public Enemy and the Ultramagnetic MC's to the Beastie Boys and the Sex Pistols, in a delightful album that weaves samples of more than four dozen recordings into striking sonic collages that serve as a manual to Prodigy's own marvelous dance world dynamics.

Underworld's "Beaucoup Fish" (JBO/V2). There are times in this album when the British trio also seems to be paying tribute to some of its electronica forefathers, including Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. In fact, Underworld re-creates the sensual tension of "I Feel Love" so expertly in "Shudder/King of Snake" that you expect Donna Summer's voice to come through the speakers at any moment. Despite these looks back, Underground finds plenty of time to assert its own personality in a deftly crafted album that is especially playful and upbeat.

Tom Waits' "Mule Variations" (Epitaph). For those who prize the pure singer-songwriter side of Waits' always imaginative pop expedition, there is a wealth of tunes here that fit straightforward, but never conventional, style--enough so, in fact, to make this an early contender for album of the year. (See Record Rack, Page 61.)*

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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