"II Trill" (Rap-A-Lot/Asylum)
* * * 1/2
IN THE months since the death of rapper Pimp C, Bun B, his partner in the legendary Southern rap group UGK, has popped up on nearly every high-profile remix to hit the Internet, with each of his verses topping the last. The tragedy has seemingly spurred the veteran Houston rapper to new heights, and his second solo album finds him continuing this ascent.
The majority of "II Trill" may have been completed when Pimp C suddenly died in December, but his presence still hangs heavily over the album. From the "R.I.P. Pimp Cs" shouted by David Banner, Rick Ross and 8-Ball & MJG to "Angel in the Sky," Bun B's eloquent lament to his comrade, the ghost of the late Chad Butler, feels ubiquitous. Bun B even includes one of UGK's last tracks, "Underground Thang," and it's one of their best.
Plagued by more than just the loss of his partner, the 35-year-old Bun B sounds a weary and disillusioned note, using "Get Cha' Issue" to call out faux-spiritual hypocrites, police brutality and more, before launching into a powerful third verse in which he denounces the White House's deception in Iraq, Congress members who flip-flopped on their war votes and the Larry Craig scandal.
In "If It Was Up to Me," he indicts inequities in the educational system, lead-based paint, asbestos in project housing and local politicians beholden to shady developers. Careful to balance his social protests with levity, Bun B enlists Lupe Fiasco for "Swang on 'Em," a bass-heavy, hydraulic hop tailor-made to catapult out of sub-woofers all summer long.
Bun B's second solo record is an impressive late-career triumph, one with a poignancy and resonance worthy of his dedication and devotion to the memory of his departed friend.
What an ideal time to fight
"Fight With Tools" (Universal Republic)
* * 1/2
YOU MIGHT not guess it from its hit single "Handlebars," but this Denver band is a sort of Rage Against the Machine on a Rocky Mountain high. Or maybe a Linkin Park as an acoustic jam band.
"There is a war going on for your mind," the Flobots declare in the opening words of "Fight With Tools," an album that they put out independently last year and that gets a major-label release today. That proposition introduces a focused flip-book of progressive-leaning issues: corporate greed, Guantanamo, the Iraq war, globalization, racism, government-sanctioned assassination, the plight of the powerless.
The list goes on, and on, but the Flobots find some fresh and educational territory, such as a tribute to the late Anne Braden, a Southern white who led the fight against segregation.
They serve it up in a style that touches on underground hip-hop and hippie funk, boho jazz and folky grooves. "Mayday!!!," with its alternating rapped and sung sections, sounds like an organic Linkin Park, with Mackenzie Roberts' viola in place of the heavy sampling. In "Handlebars," their breakthrough track, they build up the force and tension as they describe the fine line between noble achievement and dangerous power.
Overall, the music on "Fight With Tools" is a little loose-limbed and light in touch to deliver the artillery with Rage Against the Machine impact, but the sentiments are strong, smart and sincere. And of course election year is an ideal time for a little good-hearted subversion.
A way to break folk music's mold
"Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet" (Nettwerk)
* * *
PERHAPS IT was because Washburn came to playing folk music so late in life -- she was in her 20s before she decided she wanted to learn the banjo -- that the Illinois-born musician happily shows so little regard for most of its conventions.
On this collaboration with similarly boundary-blind players Bela Fleck (banjo), Ben Sollee (cello) and Casey Driessen (fiddle), Washburn blurs the line between folk and art music, between rural Americana and world music.
Last year the foursome became the first American musicians to tour Tibet on a U.S. government-sponsored cultural outreach mission, and this suite-like work is the result. Washburn lived for years in the Sichuan province of China and speaks Chinese fluently, something she does here periodically to enhance the one-world impulse behind the music.
"Strange Things" embodies its title, meandering over a tempo-less Asian modal melody that evolves into a Native American rhythmic pulse. She yodels politely at the outset of "Great Big Wall in China," as banjo strings are plucked lightly and sprightly, before the fiddle and cello introduce ominous undercurrents, all combining with her lyrical quest for a mythic place of unity.
The globe-trotting effect grows with the haunting instrumental "A Kazahk Melody," leading into the flat-out bluegrass breakdown "Banjo Pickin' Girl" that's all the more liberating because of the distance it's taken for Washburn to find her way home. Maybe it is a small world after all.
A soulful, rocking '70s throwback
"Rare Child" (ADA/Adrenaline)
* * *
THOUGH IT'S true Cotton is black, she did grow up in a mostly white town in semi-rural New Jersey, where the young guitarist-singer listened and learned from the hard-rock bands of the day, including AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest, as well as the gospel and jazz her mother and aunts played at home. With her new album, Cotton wishes to emphasize that she doesn't do R&B; she does rock 'n' roll.
Cotton's sound is a savory dig in the early '70s, when the twin powers of rock and soul came together to form a harmonious funk that satisfied the spirit as it thrilled with slashing electric guitars. It's a sound we haven't heard much of recently, the glorious soul-rock band the BellRays being a notable exception.
Though the opening "Make U Move's" rudimentary lyrical content isn't promising, the deliberately retro sound of Cotton's squawking guitars is intriguing. "Testify" expands on it, bringing to mind the white soul grooves of the early '70s as played by Lynyrd Skynyrd or Black Oak Arkansas.
As a singer and arranger, Cotton has a refreshingly uncluttered style, heard best in "Didn't U," a low-key affair of gruffly sweet singing, twangy guitars and rolling country-style piano. The concision and inventiveness of her playing stand out in "Bang My Drum" and especially in the title track, whose tough, rock-funk riffs boast imaginative double-guitar lines and a lot of very fine string squawk. Cotton's raspy holler atop such tightly messy hard rock is genuinely funky stuff, like a cross between Thin Lizzy and Sly Stone.
Mellower, instrumentally nuanced tracks such as "Bound" and the sprawling epic-rock of "Let It Ride" remind us that the '70s were a time when musicians could and did take big chances with the rock form and style. Cotton brings a freshness to the soul-rock formula, not to mention a contagious fervor that is near irresistible.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums will be released today.