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Negro Problem Makes a Sunny Return

September 01, 2002|Natalie Nichols; Don Heckman; Ernesto Lechner; Steve Baltin; Steve Hochman;

*** 1/2


"Welcome Black"

Smile Records/

Image Entertainment

TNP leader Stew gets back to the band thing after two acclaimed solo albums, and the L.A. group reconvenes to effortlessly deliver the clever wordplay, insistent melodies and oddly authentic emotion expected of it.

"Welcome Black" (due in stores Tuesday) is delicately honed baroque pop festooned with horns, piano, finger-snaps and lots of la-la-la harmonies. It feels more casual and musically streamlined than 1999's "Joys and Concerns." It's also, ironically, more joyful and a bit sillier, thanks to such numbers as the unabashed "Bong Song"; the love letter to Thelonious Monk "In Time All Time"; and the concert favorite "I'm Sebastian Cabot," about a homeless black man in downtown L.A. who thinks he's Mr. French's alter ego.

Along with the humor, the airy complexity of such propulsive calliope music as "Out Now" (written by bassist and co-producer Heidi Rodewald) remains among the great delights of this band. But don't let the sonic sunniness fool ya. Sometimes Stew is just candy-coating his attitude, as with the rollicking "Is This the Single?" (hmmm, dunno, but it should be), which pokes fun at the record business' how-can-we-move-the-most-units mentality, in the process reminding us that pop can indeed be art. The Negro Problem plays the Knitting Factory Hollywood on Sept. 28.

--Natalie Nichols

*** 1/2



Blix St.

When Cassidy died of melanoma in 1996, even her most dedicated fans couldn't have imagined the success that her albums, most of them released posthumously, would have. "Imagine" entered the U.K. album chart last week in the No. 1 position, confirming her stature as a major international artist.

But short of creating a "Simone"-like synthesized audio Cassidy, only a finite number of recordings exist, and the small Blix St. label has had to maneuver carefully to assemble material with sufficient sound quality for commercial release.

"Imagine" doesn't quite rise to the level of past Cassidy albums, in part because of some mediocre material, in part because of the technical difficulties of placing her voice front and center in live recordings.

That said, however, Cassidy's singing can do no wrong. Two tracks-- "Imagine" and "Danny Boy"--are exquisite displays of musical artistry. Accompanied only by her guitar, she touches the caring heart of the former, and poignantly restores the too-often-abused life spirit of the latter. Further illustrating her remarkable versatility, "You've Changed" reveals how comfortable she was with jazz, "Fever" reinvents the old Little Willie John soul classic and Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Any More" has the easygoing accessibility of a potential country hit.

--Don Heckman

*** 1/2




In 1984, this Cuban singer-songwriter released "Triptico," a largely orchestral collection of three albums celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. No matter what your political convictions were, it was difficult not to be moved by the troubadour's vision and his knack for merging anthem-like melodies with evocative lyrics. To this day, "Triptico" stands as one of Latin music's most poetic achievements.

Rodriguez's latest is a return to that sweeping compositional canvas. After releasing five acoustic albums in the span of a decade, the singer begins a new chapter, tackling orchestral arrangements that at times sound vague and melodramatic, but overall add a welcome patina of dreamy romanticism to songs about Elian Gonzalez, the war in Yugoslavia and Rodriguez's impoverished hometown.

Like Ruben Blades, Juan Luis Guerra and Pablo Milanes, Rodriguez transforms the essence of the Latin American experience into popular music that's both catchy and erudite, fun and transcendental. His '60s days as a visionary troubadour may be over, but like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in the U.S., he continues to surprise with his unique point of view and the passion of his voice.

--Ernesto Lechner

In Brief

** Supreme Beings of Leisure, "Divine Operating System," Palm Pictures. The second album from L.A.'s Supreme Beings of Leisure (in stores Tuesday) introduces the streamlined version of the group. Down from a trio to the duo of soulful singer Geri Soriano-Lightwood and instrumentalist Ramin Sukarai, SBL shows off its new MO with the disco-flavored "Give Up" and the '60s lounge of "Catch Me." Slicker and more stylish, SBL version 2.0 has created a record that is unabashedly groovy if ultimately insubstantial.

--Steve Baltin

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