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RECORD RACK

Emotions as keen as her taste

May 25, 2003|Robert Hilburn; Agustin Gurza; Lina Lecaro; Natalie Nichols; Steve Hochman; Steve Baltin; Soren Baker

Gemma Hayes

"Night on My Side" (Astralwerks/Source)

*** 1/2

Norah Jones' soulful "Don't Know Why" is so instantly appealing that it's easy to see why radio programmers are still playing it after all these months. But if anyone wants to move on, there are some tracks on this Irishwoman's debut album with the same traits.

In parts of the album, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter mixes folk-pop strains with contemporary sounds in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Beth Orton, although Hayes favors some of the distorted textures associated with My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain rather than Orton's electronica, and it works nicely.

The emotional core of her music, however, is in the softer, melancholy moments of songs such as "Evening Sun" and "My God," both of which have the restraint and taste of the Jones hit. In "My God," she struggles to find the right answer during a turning point in a relationship. "Now, I'm scared of what I've won/ So afraid of leaving/ Now I don't think I can return."

As the title suggests, the best moments here seem suited for the wee hours when the world is still, letting you be alone with your dreams and your doubts, taking inventory of your life. Hayes will be at the Troubadour on June 23.

-- Robert Hilburn

New York style, Cuban substance

Clan 537

"Clan 537" (Ciocan)

***

Yerba Buena

"President Alien" (Fun Machine/Razor & Tie)

***

Afro-Caribbean music is undergoing a strange transition. Artists are groping for new formulas and fusions, but so far nobody has hit a commercial breakthrough.

These two entries from Havana and New York offer very different approaches that underscore the risk of change, because one man's evolution is another man's mutation.

Yerba Buena's debut is the most eagerly anticipated record to come out of New York's comatose Latin music scene in years. Concocted by Venezuelan producer Andres Levin, it's a roiling Caribbean caldron that blends rumba, cumbia, rap, Afrobeat and Santeria chants, featuring Cuban exile vocalist Xiomara Laugart. The result is exciting dance music sure to turbocharge a party.

Lyrically, however, the band sticks mostly to catchy but simplistic choruses, made to sound even more moronic with stereotyped Spanglish accents. In "Guajira (I ? U 2 Much)," a rapper gushes, "Long legs, brown hair, swear she came with a halo/Her sensuality had her looking even better than J-Lo."

By contrast, Cuba's Clan 537 releases a torrent of smart and vivid observations about daily life on the troubled island. Though less sophisticated than Orishas, its Paris-based counterpart, this hip-hop quintet effectively takes on taboo topics -- corrupt Santeria priests, Havana barrio violence, anti-gay bias and race discrimination in a society that promised equality. The Cubans' underdeveloped sound could benefit from the slick studio finesse of the New Yorkers, who in turn could take a tip on how to stay hip without dumbing down.

Now, if we could only fuse the two.

-- Agustin Gurza

Quick spins

Deftones

"Deftones" (Maverick)

***

Metal? Thrash? Emo? Deftones have never been easily categorized, and with their first album in three years, they seem to have come full circle with a brutal yet utterly blissful collection of dark musical mini-dramas. Pummeling guitars and groove-wringing rhythms are matched by the hypnotic power of Chino Moreno's lazy snarls and sultry screams. Another delirious meld of vulnerability and voraciousness by the band that perfected the blend.

-- Lina Lecaro

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley a.k.a. Mr. Biggs

"Body Kiss" (DreamWorks)

** 1/2

Abetted by the unerringly emotive accents of guitarist Ernie Isley, singer Ronald Isley again plays the buttah-voiced hip-hop Don Juan on this collection of romance tunes, all but one written by R. Kelly. Cliched situations mean no surprises, although Mr. Biggs' smooth, tomcat purr is certainly hypnotic. The thoroughly modern soul-pop production keeps this veteran act current, as does, unfortunately, the songs' tendency to treat women as decorative-to-treacherous possessions.

-- Natalie Nichols

Cold

"Year of the Spider" (Flip/Geffen)

** 1/2

Like Staind, these fellow Fred Durst discoveries take their brooding rock very seriously, and on "Spider" the Floridians finally seem to be delving as deep sonically. Singer Scooter Ward's grungy croon feels more expressive than before, and though the band is still working a familiar gloom 'n' grind formula, moments of harmonic brilliance (most notably the catchy Rivers Cuomo collaboration "Stupid Girl") shine through to reveal some bittersweet bite.

-- L.L.

Jack Johnson

"On and On" (The Moonshine Conspiracy)

** 1/2

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