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RECORD RACK

Striking a blow for hard-core

June 06, 2004|Randy Lewis; Richard Cromelin; Soren Baker; Susan Carpenter

Bad Religion

"The Empire Strikes First" (Epitaph)

***

With a Republican president in office and a war on, you'd expect Bad Religion to turn up primed for a fight.

The veteran punk band's 13th album doesn't disappoint, unleashing the kind of unbridled fury that used to define punk before it was co-opted for sneaker commercials and lust-struck teens with the hots for their neighbor's mom.

Singer Greg Graffin and guitarist-singer (and Epitaph CEO) Brett Gurewitz wrote most of the songs, which lambaste political imperialism (the blistering title track, "Let Them Eat War"), religious hypocrisy ("Sinister Rouge," "Atheist Peace," "God's Love") and societal bankruptcy ("Los Angeles Is Burning," "Social Suicide").

With so many available external targets, it's not surprising that most of Bad Religion's wrath is directed outward; you wonder how they might apply Shakespeare's observation that "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves" in a modern sociopolitical context.

Still, you have to hand it to a hard-core punk band that can make it through an entire album without once invoking the F-word, and even if some tracks unfold more like political manifestos than songs, Bad Religion has succeeded in expressing its outrage more eloquently while sustaining its musical muscle over the years.

-- Randy Lewis

Guest rappers spice up the mix

The X-ecutioners

"Revolutions" (Columbia)

***

Much of modern hip-hop music ignores the DJ, focusing instead on the rapper. On their second album (in stores Tuesday), the New York-based X-ecutioners make another strong case for the relevance of the DJ, who after all was the true originator of hip-hop culture.

Recognizing that their sonic assault of cutting and scratching would be best showcased by adding some rhymes, Rob Swift, Grandmaster Roc Raida and DJ Total Eclipse enlist some of rap's heavy hitters to accent their otherworldly turntable skills. Rhyming over a quirky beat made famous by overlooked rap legend MC Shan in the 1980s, Ghostface and the Roots' Black Thought deliver impressive lyrical gymnastics on the energetic "Live From the PJ's," while promising up-and-comer Saigon unloads a string of clever, battle-minded punch lines ("How you call yourself a DJ and can't scratch / That's like a

Like the rest of the 18-cut collection, these songs are accented by the X-ecutioners' deft scratching and energetic beats, resulting in a regularly exciting and inventive album. Unfortunately, a number of superfluous skits interrupt some of the momentum that the X-ecutioners create with their turntable wizardry.

-- Soren Baker

A postcard from the Big Apple

Bumblebeez 81

"The Printz" (Modular)

***

The cover of this debut album from Australian siblings Chris and Vila Colonna says a lot about what listeners can expect. The photo is of a young electric guitarist with his head missing. Indeed, the mind creating this wonderfully wacky stuff is far removed from reality, or at least what's ordinarily tried within the confines of rock 'n' roll. Out-of-tune, hick guitars are the bass line to a dance track; horror-film screams double as hip-hop beats, lyrics are acted out as sound effects.

With "The Printz," Bumblebeez 81 makes a science out of fusing wildly incompatible sounds into immensely danceable art rock. High-contrast seems to be the name of the game for this brother-sister duo. Inspired by Chris' student exchange trip to Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in 2001 and recorded in his family's rural Australian farmhouse, "The Printz" is an adventurous attempt at distilling a foreigner's entire New York experience into a single record.

Frenetic, wondrous and all over the map, the album sometimes demonstrates an excessive fondness for vocal distortion. But as a whole, "The Printz" is aural collage at its finest.

-- Susan Carpenter

Reggae originals welcome visitors

Toots & the Maytals

"True Love" (V2)

***

The appearance of more than a dozen guests and song selection that spans the veteran reggae band's long career gives this effort a pronounced sense of celebration and recapitulation. Toots Hibbert's ever-soulful vocals and some powerful social commentary also make it more than simply a marketing attempt to expose the Maytals to a wider audience.

The lineup ranges from fellow reggae acts (Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, Shaggy, U-Roy) to obvious rock world admirers (Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt) to a few surprises (Ryan Adams, Bootsy Collins and the Roots).

Even Willie Nelson climbs aboard for the opening "Still Is Still Moving to Me," sounding more comfortable amid a loping reggae groove than you might expect. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's turn with Hibbert on "Sweet and Dandy," one of two songs here that originally appeared on the groundbreaking "The Harder They Come" soundtrack, is as joyously effervescent as pop music gets. Guitarist Jeff Beck's searing contributions underscore the ominous autobiographical tale of Hibbert's marijuana bust.

How rewarding to find one of the survivors of the early-'70s breakout class of reggae artists, which also included Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, not only still active, but still vital.

-- Randy Lewis

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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