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Tunes to Back Up the Beats

January 27, 2002

***1/2

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS

"Come With Us"

Astralwerks

With 1997's invigorating "Block Rockin' Beats," the Chemical Brothers proved that they can craft a hit single as well as any act on the dance scene today. What the English electronic stars have yet to establish is that they can sustain that skill for an album.

They aren't alone; few of their peers have accomplished that feat. But few artists have the reputation of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who have been anointed the leaders of an entire genre of music.

As if aware that they needed to step up in order to meet those expectations, they answer the challenge with an album that celebrates all the diversity electronic music has to offer.

Although the Chemical Brothers' fourth album (due in stores Tuesday) is anchored by a memorable lead single--the pulsating conga percussion and laser-like keyboards of "It Began in Afrika" have been burning up the dance floors at raves and clubs around the world since DJs got their hands on it last fall--the Chemical Brothers back up the track with a collection of equally rewarding numbers.

Whether it's the dance-centric house of "Star Guitar," the stuttering keyboards of the acid-propelled mini-drama "My Elastic Eye," the Beatles-like psychedelia of "Pioneer Skies" or the surreal dreaminess of the down-tempo "The State We're In" (with singer Beth Orton), "Come With Us" creates an intoxicating netherworld of lush soundscapes.

"Come With Us" is an impressive achievement, a wholly dance album that can appeal to listeners beyond the dance world. This time the Chemical Brothers have truly earned their reputation as the best in the business.--Steve Baltin

**1/2

DAWN ROBINSON

"Dawn"

Q

After earning success and acclaim with notable funk-soul groups En Vogue and Lucy Pearl, singer Dawn Robinson finally steps out solo. But between echoes of her former projects and sops to modern pop, this is not a terribly exciting new "Dawn."

Mixing rock, R&B, soul, hip-hop and funk in numbers ranging from lively to leaden, these dozen tracks (in stores Tuesday) form the usual package put together to demonstrate an artist's "uniqueness." The album's mood shifts from celebratory ("Party, Party") to romantic ("Set It Off") to defiant ("Still") to inspirational ("Get Up Again").

Her greatest asset is her voice, an agile instrument that can coo breathily or wail mournfully, but is most compelling when its sharp, don't-give-me-any-grief edge is tearing off chunks of whoever has wronged her. Not surprisingly, the collection's best moments come with taut funk-pop that recalls En Vogue's respect-me-or-else hits. In the accusatory "How Long," she even obliquely references that group's 1990 smash "Hold On." But not even her singing can elevate such tripe as the syrupy I'm-pregnant ballad "Our Child."

Still, lyrical cliches could be forgiven if the production were slightly more innovative--and that doesn't mean emulating 'N Sync with the "Bye Bye Bye"-like kiss-off "Fed Up." Maybe a sense of rehash was inevitable--after all, En Vogue was among the first to stylishly blend classic R&B with hip-hop, and Lucy Pearl elevated the casual groove to pop art. Which was all the more reason to pay attention to the details.-- Natalie Nichols

***

HANK WILLIAMS III

"Lovesick, Broke & Driftin'"

Curb

If Garth Brooks is the anti-Hank to country purists, then Hank Williams' grandson must be the anti-Garth. The songs on the scrawny upstart's second album (in stores Tuesday) are full of cheatin', lyin', stealin', ramblin', gamblin', drinkin', smokin', tokin', truckin', mama, prison, yodeling, moaning fiddle and weeping steel guitar: all things mainstream country music tries desperately to avoid now.

That makes the man with the thin, nasal whine that's just like his granddaddy's both a revivalist and a revolutionary, because he also resurrects the notion of soul-deep remorse, something also in short supply in the songs that reach country radio.

He sounds like even more of a throwback than he did on his 1999 debut, "Risin' Outlaw," an album Williams has since disparaged. Yet if his sophomore effort is more reflective of his vision, it still doesn't present the full picture of a performer who's also capable of hyper-charged punk-rock fury.

The closest he gets here is in "Trashville," a chugging Southern rocker that has more in common with Hank Jr. than Sr. He rarely flashes the lyrical poetry that made Hank Sr. the hillbilly Shakespeare, but he does extend the Williams legacy on alienation, loneliness and heartache. --Randy Lewis

In Brief

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