Arling & Cameron; Cormega; Mercury Rev

Arling & Cameron
We are A & C
(Emperor Norton Records)

Dutch DJ duo Gerry Arling and Richard Cameron are so inventive they don't really need a gimmick to sell albums, but We Are A&C has one anyway. Meet "AC/3D" -- a virtual version of the band commissioned so the humanoids could avoid having to do press junkets and write songs. According to the liner notes, AC/3D's flesh-and-blood counterparts shoved them into the studio with instructions to tinker with the machinery until they got the right sound, which for Arling & Cameron means crossbreeding musical styles and inserting sassy samples until they get a lighthearted, goofy mix to which you can shake your virtual booty. As AC/3D rasps robotically on the album's title track, they are programmed to "Combine every conceivable style / Cook till it's hot and wait for a while."

Despite the deletion of humans from the band's roster, We Are A&C is not much different from their previous globe-and-genre-hopping efforts; they're the rainbow sherbert in the dance music ice cream shop. You get a little electrofunk, a little spaghetti Western, a little rock guitar, a little crooning, and a whole lot of disco pop and that scratchy DJ noise everyone likes so much. You also get guest appearances from Françoise Cactus of Stereo Total and Fay Lovsky of La Bande Dessinée, as well as not one but two flugelhorn players. There are brassy dance tracks like "B.B. Electro" and mellow synth strings-and-horns makeout numbers like "Love & Understanding." There's a song called "Dirty Robot," which sounds exactly like you'd think it would. Is this pastiche or is this the club sound of the future? Who cares? It rocks! Grab the nearest virtual humanoid and shake all your movable parts till the power grid blows.
--Kara Platoni

The Realness
(Legal Hustle/Landspeed)

For followers of New York thug-rap, Cormega needs no introduction. Hailing from Queensbridge (the housing project repped by Capone, Nas, Havoc, MC Shan, etc.), he is arguably the East's premier street poet. Known for his distinct voice and vivid storytelling abilities, he's earned his stripes through champion verses on numerous singles and collaborations with Mobb Deep, Screwball, Tragedy Khadafi, and others. He's also had his share of industry troubles, including label shadiness, bootleggers, and other beefs. Despite the setbacks and delays, Cormega's long-awaited debut LP is finally here.

From the get-go, the album is sizzling. On "Dramatic Entrance," thick beats and dreamy harp loops sound off as Mega sets the stage: "The streets was waitin' / here I am a beast awakened / a Beamer station wagon with massive gleaming bracelets / after years of bein' patient / sheddin' tears and beatin' cases / I'm ready for whatever yo." "American Beauty" is a metaphorical monument to hip-hop, breaking down the history of the rap game over a familiar guitar and bass loop. Ayatollah (who produced Mos Def's "Ms. Fat Booty") brings the heat on "Rap's a Hustle," an anthemesque neck-breaker rife with chopped vocal samples and seriously gritty drums, while "The Saga" sports clacking rim-shots and plucked strings backing deep rhymes about coming up in the ghetto. Cormega's knack for making you visualize his words is uncanny, and he knows it. "I paint a picture vividly / as if Picasso's spirit entered me / staring at the heavens / secluded in a tinted jeep."

"Unforgiven" is an early contender for beat of the year, with fat-bodied bass, sinister piano chords, and hardcore boom-baps provided by Spank Brother. "You Don't Want It" is a straight-up verbal attack on all fronters. "I don't hate you / I despise you / call you cocksucker / cuz it describes you." The record ends with "Fallen Soldiers (Remix)," a dedication to all his slain partners, paired with a sick track from the Alchemist.

There are a few thinly veiled Nas disses scattered throughout, due to their on-again/off-again feud, but for the most part Cormega's rhymes stay focused on the narcotics trade, trust and betrayal, life in QB, and his love for hip-hop. While some may be put off by the heavily criminal mindset, the depth of his writing is undeniable, and the sample-filled production is outstanding throughout. Easily among the year's best albums -- with 14 tracks and no filler -- The Realness lives up to its name.
--Brolin Winning

Mercury Rev
All is Dream
(V2 Records)

Like its moody contemporaries Nick Cave or His Name Is Alive, upstate New York's Mercury Rev has taken a bizarre, winding path to its current vision of twisted American music. While Cave has settled post-punk ire into outsider-bluesy balladeering, and His Name swings moody hybrids of folk, gospel, and '60s pop references, the Rev emerges from a decade of soundtracks, art-pop, and ambience with the quirkily existential, classic-rock-fueled repertoire found on its fifth album, All Is Dream.

Deserter's Songs (1998) reflected the band's relocation to the Catskills and felt like an assortment of rural porch songs made epic by a neo-romantic composer such as Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. While All Is Dream picks that mood up again with the aria-like "The Dark Is Rising," the rest of the album weaves singer Jonathan Donahue's simple, tragic mantras into unique and strange intersections with REO Speedwagon-ish ballads ("You're My Queen"), poppy Velvets darkness ("A Drop in Time"), and lonely highway blues ("Tides of the Moon"). Even at its most grandiose, All Is Dream's sound still seems to center on Donahue's lyrics and unlikely voice. His quavering, mousy tone recalls a timid Neil Young rather than the Leonard Cohen pipes you'd expect from lines like "I dreamed I'd always love you complete / I never thought I'd hear you scream." The lyrics and that voice, juxtaposed against such deliciously pompous arrangements, keep you intrigued and wading inside the Rev's opaque and melancholic dreamland.
--Ron Nachmann

Thelonious Monk
Live at the Jazz Workshop

Thelonious Sphere Monk: reclusive piano genius, bebop pioneer, composer of numerous jazz standards -- all these fine appellations are as inadequate as calling Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley merely singers and Duke Ellington simply a bandleader. Monk's angular, humorous, and swinging compositions, his minimalist approach to soloing, and his penchant for rising from the piano bench during performances to dance made him a controversial but much beloved figure. In 1964, during the high point of Monk's popularity, Columbia issued an album recorded at the legendary San Francisco club, Live at the Jazz Workshop. The limitations of old records being what they were, many tunes were edited on the original release, but this two-CD set restores the performances to their original length and adds 13 previously unreleased tracks all in crisp (though a little bass-heavy), digitally remastered sound. You get a fine crosssection of Monk classics -- "'Round Midnight," "Evidence," "Well You Needn't" -- as well as some Monk-ified Great American Songbook standards ("Just You, Just Me," "Memories of You") and lesser-known goodies like "Hackensack" and "Bright Mississippi." There's a hearty, occasionally rough-toned showing (that's a compliment) from Monk's right-hand Charlie Rouse, and sympathetic and energetic support from Larry Gales and Ben Riley (bass and drums, respectively). All in all, this is virtually essential for Monk fans and a fine intro to his music for them that needs it.
--Mark Keresman


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