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Sanz Gives the Synth a Rest and Reconnects

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ALEJANDRO SANZ

“MTV Unplugged”

WEA Latina

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When Eric Clapton made the first recording of an “MTV Unplugged” concert in 1992, Alejandro Sanz was barely beginning his career as a pop singer-songwriter in Madrid. Too bad it took 10 years for Sanz, now a Spanish superstar who swept this year’s Latin Grammys, to apply the unplugged principles to his own work. The warm, acoustic style of this live concert brings out the best in a performer whose appeal has been too often smothered in bombast and overproduction.

Gone are the synthesized excesses and annoying noisiness of his recent studio albums, steeped in the Italian school of romantic pop melodrama. The toned-down and tailored MTV versions, recorded in Miami in October and produced by Humberto Gatica, enhance the emotional impact of Sanz’s songs, with their swirling crescendos and endlessly looping lyrics. They allow his gravelly voice to come through with some of the raw, rustic force of flamenco, a style he studied but normally underplays.

He closes the set with a flamenco flourish on “Bulerias,” which, along with a touching ode to his wife and baby daughter titled “Y Solo Se Me Ocurre Amarte,” is one of two new songs on the album. It comes down to Sanz alone with his guitar, bristling with a gypsy’s existential angst and proving once again that less is more.

--Agustin Gurza

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MYSTIKAL

“Tarantula”

Jive

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This New Orleans artist went from respected rap stalwart to mainstream sensation last year with the party-starting “Shake It Fast.” With his sixth album (in stores Tuesday), it’s clear that the former Master P cohort isn’t looking back. Throughout the earlier part of his career, Mystikal made his mark with dazzling, hurricane-force lyrical displays punctuated with equal parts bravado and intense imagery.

Mystikal keeps his voice raspy and rowdy on his new collection, but more and more of his lyrics now focus on women: how he likes looking at them, how he likes to love them and how well he’ll love them.

The rapper’s grunts have been compared with James Brown’s, but his libido-inspired escapades on “Go Head” and the title track owe more to 2 Live Crew.

This revised formula works remarkably well for Mystikal, who also throws terrific braggadocio battle jabs into the smoothed-out “Settle the Score” and the edgy yet elegant “Alright.”

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--Soren Baker

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WU-TANG CLAN

“Wu-Tang Iron Flag”

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Loud

Although this group delivered a heralded knockout punch of a debut album in 1993, its status in the hip-hop community (as well as the output of its nine members) has vacillated severely since then. The New York crew creeps back toward its hard-core, grimy roots on its fourth album (due Tuesday), a welcome shift but one that doesn’t totally return the Wu to its original essence.

The group’s signature edgy sound, more evident here than on most of its recent work, still contains more polish than anything on its landmark debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).” It hits a strident stride on “Ya’ll Been Warned,” as Method Man, RZA, Inspectah Deck and Raekwon strike out at those who doubt their might. The somber ghetto narrative “Babies” features inspired verses from Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and GZA/Genius.

The group’s tag-team rapping style permeates these cuts, as the energy and interactive flows carry from one group member to the next. Even without the bizarre, jolting and often polarizing antics of incarcerated member Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Wu-Tang Clan can again raise its flag in victory.

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--S.B.

**

PRINCE

“The Rainbow Children”

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NPG

Leave it to the erstwhile Artist to get you on your feet while turning your head inside-out. This 70-minute “concept” album has a lot of cool grooves, but they are somewhat scattered, and the collection’s lyrical stance, though intriguingly provocative, drags the whole thing down.

“U know, this is funky but I just wish he’d play like he used 2,” goes a criticism-anticipating line in the dense narrative. Well, maybe not just like he used to, but ... how about putting a teeny bit more effort into finishing a song?

The sprawling story involves a neo-apocalyptic myth (possibly aimed at the music biz) that mixes spirituality and sexuality as Prince has always done, but in a preachier manner, with parables involving social and racial concerns and calls for everyone to come together. Whatever. Musically, this latest dispatch from Prince’s little purple world recalls last spring’s Palladium concert in its freewheeling-yet-precise jamming, and on-a-dime segues among funk, soul, rock, and hip-hip.

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Such crisp, danceable selections as “The Work Pt. 1" recall his ‘80s heyday, but he also moves forward, playing with jazzy elements on such tracks as “Rainbow Children.” Those who really love Prince will love this, but the lack of really transcendent moments might leave discerning fans hungering for more.

Natalie Nichols

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APHEX TWIN

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“Drukqs”

Warp/Sire

Richard James, who records under the name Aphex Twin, possesses the strangest mind in electronic music. In a decade of sporadic recording that has seen him praised by critics and worshipped by the electronic-scene intelligentsia, the Englishman has remained unapologetically difficult to get a read on. His supporters will argue that that’s why he’s so special, and James’ first full-length album in five years backs up that claim.

A massive work that features 30 tracks clocking in at more than 100 minutes, the two-CD set is as challenging as a triathlon. To make his point, James renders 23 of the song titles indecipherable, beginning with the opening “jynweythek ylow” and ending with “nanou 2.”

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Despite appearances though, “Drukqs” is a surprisingly warm and accessible record. Using piano-based classical numbers as interludes between the mix of bouncy techno beats and ethereal ambient numbers, James creates seamless bridges from era to era.

--Steve Baltin

In Brief

**1/2 Yolanda Adams, “Believe,” Elektra. The singer-songwriter’s modern way of marrying Christian sentiments with smooth, secular R&B-pop; has sparked debate among believers. Hard to see why, since the approach has boosted her profile, and this versatile collection never strays from traditional (if repetitive) messages. Besides, she turns on considerable vocal power for some classic, histrionic testifying. Still, such funky numbers as “Fo’ Sho’,” with its polished, boho groove, probably won’t thrill hard-liners. And T-Bone’s sanctified rapping on “I’m Thankful”? Don’t even go there.

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--N.N.

*** Jennifer Warnes, “The Well,” Music Force/One Leaf Music. A lifer in Southern California music circles, Warnes has withdrawn and regrouped in recent years, reemerging now with her first album since 1993. You’ll think more of her Leonard Cohen affiliation than her Oscar-winning movie songs when you hear “The Well,” a burnished showcase for the mature folk-pop that is the Warnes trademark. Linda Ronstadt doesn’t go here anymore, so this return is especially welcome for connoisseurs of incisive storytelling and emotional complexity.

-- Richard Cromelin

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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