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Offbeat: A Red Hot Sound Trip

Wax Trax!/TVT

ONE OF THE many interesting things about the new DJ/electronic music movement has been a reemphasis on the art of making albums rather than just songs, using the full length of a CD (or often two) to create an expansive sonic environment/ narrative. This set, another in the series of AIDS-education/benefit recordings put together by the Red Hot Organization, presents a bunch of progressive musicians and sound sculptors in just this way. And it's quite the head trip.

Caveat emptor, though, to those who would grab this for the starpower of its lineup. Moby's "Republican Party" is a few minutes of tape loops of drunks laughing and babies crying (get it?), David Byrne's collaboration with cut-up conspirators Tomandandy is a slight spoken-word/sound collage piece, and the track credited to "Mark Eitzel Meets My Bloody Valentine" is a 50-second mix of drone and poetry that sounds made up on the spot. (The other cut featuring MBV, a highly ambient collaboration with Skylab, doesn't offer much more explanation of what they've been doing in the five years since their mind-bending Loveless, except perhaps lots of drugs.) There are some moments that stand out--a groovy jam by Midwest abstractionists Tortoise, a trip-hoppy rap by Laika, an abstract meeting between DJ Spooky and poet Amiri Baraka ("Black Dada Nihilismus"), and a stream-of-caffeinated-consciousness workout by Soul Coughing. The full effect, though, transcends the sum of its parts. Offbeat draws you into a cubist world where meaning and music get cut into discrete planes, and where, if you close your eyes and give it some creative attention, you can build a reality of your own liking. (Will Hermes)

Van Morrison with Georgie Fame & Friends

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Verve

VAN MORRISON'S INFATUATION with jazz has been going on for quite some time, actually--although it's always been overshadowed by his love affair with R&B. As far back as Astral Weeks, furtive jazz elements were lurking in the shadows. But How Long is Morrison's first jazz immersion. It's a plunge into standards and jazz arrangements of some Morrison tunes, and features an agile band of British musicians: fellow vintage jazz/R&B fanatic Georgie Fame, former James Brown sax stalwart Pee Wee Ellis, and notable jazz vocalist Annie Ross.

It's not the triumphal arrival of some new Celtic jazz, but it is a bright and swinging collection that rises and falls on Morrison's vocals and, to a lesser extent, the band's versatility. As a singer, Morrison can wring emotion from a tune, which he does in fine style on bluesy fare like "Early in the Morning." And few can milk such dramatic flair out of the spaces in phrasing as Morrison does on the introspective "Who Can I Turn To?" But his vocals embellish tunes rather than reinvent them, and his failure to improvise with the expansive ingenuity of a pure jazz singer like Jon Hendricks is the album's lost opportunity. Still, Morrison hints at it, scatting at the end of an initially desultory, but later marvelous "Moondance," and with Fame on "Heathrow Shuffle." Another frustration is the band's reluctance to really stretch out, although it swings nicely most of the time: A jaunty, hipsterish swagger through Cannonball Adderley's "Sack O' Woe" is a delight, along with a sizzling "Blues in the Night" and Mose Allison's jiving "Don't Worry About a Thing." Venturing out of the mystic and into the jazz realm seems to have revived Morrison's enthusiasm for musical fun and adventure--at points it sounds like Van still wants to be the Man. (Rick Mason)

The Cardigans

LIFE

Minty Fresh

IMAGINE IF ALL the artistic gin and juice flowing in American G-funk--the ear for vintage sounds and loving attention to detail--were somehow pipelined across the oceans to fuel its whitebread opposite: Swedish cocktail pop. You'd no doubt get a band nearly as good as the Cardigans, a hyper-stylized quintet so cool they put their name in the plural (an American band would call itself "Sweater") and have already sold something like 400,000 copies of their second CD, LIFE, to those savvy kids in Japan. While hip-hoppers get blunted on '70s soul, these Swedes indulge their love of jazzy '60s pop with songs that make catchy, danceable sense on their own terms, but sound either quaint or trippy when compared to anything else.

Singer Nina Persson's voice is so silky and assured, you can get lulled into believing that LIFE is what all pop records sound like: shapeshifting guitars, keyboards, horns, flute, strings and percussion, all cheerfully trading compliments. (The band claims Swedish children's television music as an influence.) Still, the happy factor can overwhelm: Any CD that begins with a "Carnival" and ends with a "Happy Meal" will have problems with creeping alienation; I suggest small doses. Like the cover-sleeve photo of Persson, all dimples and teeth, posed on her belly in a fluffy ice skater costume, some of the songs are at once exquisite and banal. But the plasticness betrays a seeping melancholy in the lyrics, as when Persson, on "Sick and Tired," croons, "symptoms are so deep/something is so wrong" over the most perky riff imaginable.

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