The Crystal Method; Da Beatminerz; Richard Wyands; Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys

The Crystal Method

The Crystal Method certainly isn't a darling of the underground. It's difficult to maintain your integrity when you play virtually any gig thrown at you, everything from an MTV fashion show to Korn's Family Values tour, or when your songs appear on several film soundtracks and TV shows. While the Los Angeles duo is far from being labeled with superstar status, the 1997 debut Vegas did sell several hundred thousand copies -- far better numbers than most electronic acts. The duo's big-beat electronic music --which consists of gut-busting hip-hop beats, thunderous bass, and ear-searing squelches that sound suspiciously like guitars -- is all about the BOOM, the powerful bottom end that gets the kids moving.

More than four years after the release of Vegas, the long-delayed Tweekend (one of the lamest titles of the year) is a return to the duo's signature beats and shimmery synthesizers. The sound is larger and a bit darker than Vegas, buffed up with pristine production, beefy beat programming, and high-profile guest stars such as Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland. Yet, much like Vegas, Tweekend suffers because so many of the tracks resemble one another, bleeding together without much in the way of individuality. One could play the albums back-to-back and have trouble distinguishing which album is which. Sure, there are some cool moments on Tweekend and overall it's a better, more consistent album than Vegas, but Crystal Method still sounds like an electronic act with serious guitar-rock envy.
--Tim Pratt

Da Beatminerz
Brace 4 Impak

After earning serious props in the mid-'90s for producing classic debut records from Black Moon and Smif-N-Wessun, Da Beatminerz quickly became one of NYC's hottest commodities. They continued their reign through work with various members of the Boot Camp Clik, Bahamadia, the Roots, and others. In recent years they've had a somewhat lower profile as producers like Hi-Tek and Madlib have risen to the forefront, but make no mistake, Da Beatminerz can still lay a nice track.

On their long-awaited first "solo" effort, the Brooklyn collective (DJ Evil Dee, Mr. Walt, Baby Paul, Rich Black, and Chocolate Ty) cooks up an assortment of tasty beats, and enlists a small army of all-star co-conspirators to provide the rhymes. Bucktown representatives Cocoa Brovaz (aka Smif-N-Wessun) throw down on "Extreme Situation," a sizzling, minimalist dub jam packed with spazzy sound effects and ragamuffin-style rhymes. Underground fave the Last Emperor gets loose over thick-bodied organs and cowbell-laced drums on the anthem-esque "Hustler's Theme," while Freddie Foxxx (Bumpy Knuckles) brings his usual full-throttle style to the bass-heavy, horn-peppered "How We Ride." On the mellower side of things, "Open" features the silky R&B vocals of Caron Wheeler, paired with laid-back rhymes from Pete Rock, all riding over a simple beat and bubbling keyboards. Talib Kweli teams up with Total for "The Anti-Love Movement," a playful love jam set to punchy snares and funkdafied bass grooves.

There are a few weak spots in the mix, but for the most part Da Beatminerz deliver. Their sound has definitely evolved from the straight-up murky jazz loops that filled their early work, and this album flaunts their sonic diversity. While not a classic like Enta Da Stage or Dah Shinin', Brace 4 Impak is a strong showing, and a good score for any hip-hop head.
--Brolin Winning

Richard Wyands
As Long as there's music

Ever since he left the Bay Area for the Big Apple in 1958, Oakland-born pianist Richard Wyands has been one of the most in-demand modern-mainstream sidemen in jazz. He caught the ear of producer Esmond Edwards shortly after the move and was hired by play on countless now-classic albums on the Prestige label by such artists as Gene Ammons, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Willis Jackson, Etta Jones, and Oliver Nelson. Wyands also made notable recordings for other companies with the likes of Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, and Benny Carter. While he has cut several albums under his own name for labels in Europe and Japan, As Long as There's Music marks the 73-year-old pianist's long-overdue US debut as a leader. The Houston Person-produced session presents him in a satisfying straight-ahead context with bassist Ray Drummond (a later East Bay expatriate) and drummer Grady Tate on a thoughtfully chosen set of time-honored tunes from the jazz and popular repertoires, though some, like Tadd Dameron's "Focus" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Ivy," are rather obscure. Subtle yet always swinging, Wyands brings an authoritative touch to the material as he recasts melodies in richly voiced chords and invests his two-fisted improvisations with rhythmic playfulness. Two selections -- "What's New" and "My Old Flame" -- feature him without accompaniment, his elegant lines blossoming like rose petals in a style that suggests Art Tatum. Wyands, of course, knows how to lock into a groove, closing out the disc with a self-penned blues titled "West 94th Street Funk," juxtaposing rolling chords and single-note treble figures in a Red Garland-like manner over Drummond's walking bass and Tate's steady-loping shuffle.
--Lee Hildebrand

Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys
The Original Columbia Recordings, Volumes 1-2,
Boot Heel Drag:The MGM Years

Like many country legends, Bob Wills' career foundered in the face of rock 'n' roll, but up through the early 1950s no one in hicksville had a more swinging band. Wills was an early pioneer in the madcap fusion of rural music and up-tempo jazz -- the prewar style known as Western swing. When his greatest rival, Milton Brown, died in a 1937 auto accident, Wills took on the mantle of "king" of the genre. His best-known material from the 1930s and early '40s is now available in a sweet new series on Rounder Records -- this is Wills at his brashest and most dynamic, mixing hot dance music and country corn with smoldering, bluesy riffs. While the Rounder discs pleasantly recap Bob Wills' glory years, the new double-CD collection Boot Heel Drag is an absolute revelation.

After WWII, the Texas Playboys went through tremendous transformations. Trailing Western swing's fan base to the West Coast, Wills purchased a cavernous dance hall near Sacramento and set up shop in California. His touring schedule was grueling, yet so were his problems with alcohol, which often made him mean-tempered and unreliable. As a result, in 1948 he lost one of his key musicians, crooner Tommy Duncan, whose silken vocals were synonymous with all of the Playboys' greatest hits. After a series of disastrous bookings, Duncan and Wills parted ways, each going on to pursue a greatly diminished career. At first it was hard to tell what would happen to Wills. He was at the top of his game, having recently signed with the fledgling MGM label and, more importantly, was at the helm of one of the most versatile, adventurous bands in the hillbilly pantheon. Master musicians such as Tiny Moore, Eldon Shamblin, and Herb Remington anchored the Playboys and buoyed Wills as he drove the band to explore ever more powerful material. He laid down one iron-clad edict for his band, "Play it naturally," and make the music swing. On these fifty fabulous recordings, the Wills work ethic pays off in spades. While his prewar material was revolutionary, these postwar recordings are sublime. Riotous yet relaxed, soulful beyond anyone's wildest imagination, Wills' big-band-tinged performances have languished in the vaults for years, just waiting to resurface and blow our socks off. As Wills himself put it, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh...yasss!
--Lawrence Kay


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