The Mars Volta
"De-loused in the Comatorium" (GSL/Strummer Recordings/Universal)
The short opening track may be titled "Son et Lumiere," but light is hard to come by in the L.A. band's much-anticipated debut album (due in stores Tuesday). Inspired by a friend's death (and foreshadowing the death of band member Jeremy Ward last month), this is an imagining of a nightmare world between life and death, and an anguished howl of loss.
This ambitious album both fulfills the potential of and moves beyond At the Drive-In, the challenging, bracing band that featured Mars Volta singer Cedric Bixler Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Zavala indeed howls, railing against fate with the disjointed phraseology familiar to ATDI fans. The music also has a cut-up quality with its jarring shifts in dynamics, marked by recurring vocal and instrumental motifs, and honed by co-producer Rick Rubin (who brought along Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to sit in on bass).
"Comatorium" proudly wears its prog-rock roots -- the nature sounds of "Televator" are a nod to Pink Floyd's "Ummagumma." The periodic air of emotional suffocation recalls Genesis' "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," and there's a fair amount of King Crimson throughout this rough but always exhilarating ride. Mars Volta plays the Henry Fonda Theatre on July 1.
-- Steve Hochman
Romance with special poignancy
"Dance With My Father"(J)
There is something poignant about the combination of Vandross' struggle to recover from his recent stroke and the title track of his 15th album -- a beautifully sung, ultra-nostalgic ballad cataloging childhood memories of his long-departed dad. But more to the point, the follow-up to 2001's platinum-plus "Luther Vandross" better updates the singer-songwriter-producer's time-tested strengths as a butter-voiced chronicler of romance.
Although a few songs never rise above serviceable, the R&B veteran avoids lyrical cliches and puts fresh twists on the he-said-she-said in such numbers as the funky "She Saw You," with its sound of shattering glass and message that a friend's cheating ways have been discovered.
Vandross, 52, often produces himself, at times abetted by different partners. On such numbers as "If I Didn't Know Better," he adeptly melds R&B-pop traditions such as a sprawling, gospel-esque backing chorus and the modern hip-hop style of stark, Timbaland-esque percussion.
Guest stars including Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown further modernize things, even when Vandross enlists the new school in paying tribute to the old. Busta Rhymes' rap adds playfulness to a buoyant, soulful rendition of Bill Withers' 1977 track "Lovely Day," but the duet with Beyonce Knowles on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's 1978 ballad "The Closer I Get to You" proves unmemorable.
-- Natalie Nichols
Maybe she's too quick to move on
"After the Storm" (J)
Overcoming tragedy is a timeworn theme of R&B, and Monica has had her share of sorrow and loss in the five years since her multi-platinum second album, "The Boy Is Mine." She needn't worry about staying in the game -- her taut new No. 1 R&B single, "So Gone," has that covered. The obsessive love call of an unrequited female suitor, the tune boasts a hip Missy Elliott production, with funky-to-humorous old-school touches including horns and vinyl surface noise.
Miss E. produced five of these 13 tracks for Miss Thang, steering confidently as the singer gamely tries on roles, even rapping (c'mon, you gotta ask?) a couple of times. Monica's voice is just too blandly sweet to carry the Tweet-like heat intended in the percussive dance-floor filler "Get It Off," but Elliott makes it a highlight, along with such erotic boogie fare as "Knock Knock."
But great R&B moments have come from singers who dwell on tragedy as intensely as on overcoming. Clearly, the title "After the Storm" implies moving on rather than wallowing, but the album too often feels generic, despite the personal sentiments Monica lets out in "I Wrote This Song" (with the help of five co-writers). So maybe she should've dwelt a little more, at that.
"The Movement" (KOCH)
Although Deck is one of the most respected rappers in the Wu-Tang Clan, this is only his second solo album, following 1999's uneven "Uncontrolled Substance." Fortunately, his low profile hasn't dulled his effectiveness as an artist. "The Movement" contains the type of keen storytelling and vivid imagery that have made him a Clan fan favorite. The stirring "City High" and "Cradle to the Grave" stand out on a collection with nary a weak moment.
-- Soren Baker
"Fly Below the Radar" (Foodchain)