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Who'd think of shooting a messenger like this?

September 24, 2006|Richard Cromelin;Soren Baker;Steve Hochman


"The Information" (Interscope)

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TIME was when two turntables and a microphone was all it took to dispel the darkness, but times have changed since Beck laid down that law on 1996's "Odelay." The world he sees in "The Information" (due in stores Oct. 3) is a psychic wasteland of blasted dreams and lost bearings, a place impervious even to the best James Brown moves.

Beck (who headlines the Detour Music Festival in downtown L.A. on Oct. 7) is known as one of rock's most party-minded entertainers, but his text has always been dark, or at least troubled, with the melancholy of "Odelay" and the bitterness of "Midnite Vultures" eventually leading to last year's "Guero," a set of festive music played out under a gathering apocalyptic storm.

Now the MC has seen better days ("You'll probably do it again and again like you did it before, but you're more erratic than then," he sings in "Elevator Music"), and the party seems desperate, doomed. Civilization is on the ropes, disconnected from its sources and bound for chaos. In "Movie Theme" he measures the degree of desperation: "I carry my heart like a soldier with a hand grenade."

So why is "The Information" so much fun? For one thing, there's always an unquenchable humor and hope in the boyish earnestness of Beck's delivery. But the real key might be the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, whose work with Radiohead has demonstrated his affinity for unsparing prophets.

Like Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, et al. concocting a "Dr. Strangelove" for the ears, Beck and Godrich convey their disquieting vision with a loose-limbed lightness and a sensuous tactility. This is their third collaboration, but neither the casual, light-bodied "Mutations" nor the intimate "Sea Change" anticipated this kind of flowering.

Hip-hop is Beck's primary vehicle, a broad canvas made to channel his kaleidoscopic imagery. But the album ranges widely, with Stones/Parsons country-rock, "Odelay"-reminiscent songs, the syncopated Doors homage "Nausea," sound collages and an atmospheric lullaby.

All the while, Armageddon might be around the corner, but for Beck, whimsy remains a sustaining life force, and when things get a little close, he and Godrich know how to, as they put it, "make a kick-drum sound like an S.O.S." Message received.

Richard Cromelin


The artist behind the cartoon


"Release Therapy" (Def Jam)

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BEFORE he became a bankable actor with star turns as a car thief in the Oscar-winning "Crash" and a shady rap superstar in the acclaimed "Hustle & Flow," Ludacris emerged in 2000 as a firebrand rapper whose hilarious yet confrontational lyrics were delivered with a smile and an implied grain of salt. In fact, his cartoonish persona caused many among rap's cognoscenti to overlook his immense talent and creativity.

On his strong fifth major label album (in stores Tuesday), the Atlanta-based rapper tones down the humor and often raps about the types of social issues he's previously addressed only in passing. "Do Your Time," a heartfelt collaboration with Beanie Sigel, C-Murder and Pimp C (all rappers who -- unlike Ludacris -- have spent time behind bars), features Ludacris encouraging others who have been incarcerated to persevere, imploring them, "Do your time, don't let your time do you."

"Tell It Like It Is" provides a music industry insider's tip sheet for success as well as a less-than-flattering look at the materialistic fantasies the rap world has created to peddle CDs. The somber "Runaway Love" details the life of a child troubled by a drug-abusing mother and her abusive beaus, while the gospel-tinged "Freedom of Preach" is part apology, part condemnation of his detractors.

This batch of songs is solid, but when Ludacris sticks to bombastic production and uses his inventive delivery styles, as on the boastful "Ultimate Satisfaction" and the thumping "Warning (Intro)" and "Grew Up a Screw Up," the results are gloriously enjoyable. As Ludacris grows as an artist, it seems he has to get more comfortable applying his humorous style to more meaty topics. In the interim, "Release Therapy" is a noteworthy pit stop.

Soren Baker


It's hard on a famous son

Sean Lennon

"Friendly Fire" (Capitol)

* * 1/2

FOR Sean Lennon's music career, it's been damned if he did, damned if he didn't. On his 1998 debut, "Into the Sun," he didn't. With a highly personalized, intimate yet unconventional approach, he sidestepped easy comparisons to both his father, John Lennon, and mother, Yoko Ono -- though arguably a personalized, intimate yet unconventional approach is exactly what his parents always did at their best. Yet his efforts were not embraced other than by a handful of critics. Who could blame him if he was confused and contused, or at least amused?

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