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Chili Peppers Grapple With Some Old Demons

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RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

“By the Way”

Warner Bros.

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The Chili Peppers’ transformation from party animals to puppy dogs has been so protracted and organic that it’s never seemed as unlikely as it actually is. From socks on their privates to hearts on their sleeves, it all makes perfect sense in the wacky world of L.A.'s favorite dysfunctional rock family.

That introspective side reached full bloom on 1999’s “Californication,” and it remains the core of this follow-up (due in stores Tuesday). The Chili Peppers’ hearts really don’t seem to be in the up-tempo songs, which register as perfunctory nods to expectations and tap the worst side of Anthony Kiedis’ singing--staccato jive and clumsy rapping.

His plaintive, nasal croon, on the other hand, especially when tracing the melancholy melodic signature the band relies on, can stake its claim as a key voice of the modern rock generation. A little lost and wounded, sorting through regrets and summoning determination, it suggests someone facing the realization that all those old demons are not easily shaken.

“By the Way” lacks the striking spareness of “Californication,” but the arrangements are rich and often surprising, deploying strings, spacey effects and acoustic stretches to vary the atmosphere. The band’s sweet, suburban soulfulness gets sidetracked by lapses into generic forms, but when they head into the landscape of the eternal hangover, the Chili Peppers manage to provide comfort even as they search for it.

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--Richard Cromelin

** 1/2

COUNTING CROWS

“Hard Candy”

Geffen

With song titles referencing the Band’s Richard Manuel (whose vocal ability to convey psychic hurt seemingly foreshadowed his suicide) and more obscure Scottish soul-blues singer Frankie Miller (left unable to sing since a 1994 brain hemorrhage), Crows singer Adam Duritz sets the emotional bar high for his band’s fourth studio album (due Tuesday). The intentions are commendable--although the execution falls short.

In “If I Could Give All My Love to You (Richard Manuel Is Dead),” he seeks to “justify myself, but I’m just not coming through,” neatly encapsulating the desperation of yearning deeply but not being able to express it sufficiently.

But as an artist, he fails to transcend that problem. In part, that’s because his voice simply lacks Manuel’s heartbreak quality, and in part, it’s because his lyrics rarely go beyond plain statement, whether in first person or detached, if compassionate, observations of people mired alternately in stasis or endless restlessness.

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The musical expression is another problem. Where the rough edges left on the band’s last album, “This Desert Life,” made for the Crows’ most rewarding (if least commercially successful) studio release, the playing here, under producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Dave Matthews), is too mannered.

Ironically, the most intriguing tracks are those that stray furthest from the usual Band/Van Morrison territory. The strings-adorned “Butterfly in Reverse” is a wistful waltz that could pass as a Bacharach-David song, while the snappy “New Frontier” is somewhere between R.E.M. and the B-52’s. In those there’s a certain boldness otherwise lacking in the album.

--Steve Hochman

*** 1/2

ORISHAS

“Emigrante”

Universal Music Latino

In their latest video, these expatriate Cuban rappers appear larger than life, walking on water as they return to their native island from the sea. They prowl Havana’s decaying streets like a trio of hip-hop Gullivers, demanding to know what’s happening in their old neighborhood: Que es lo que pasa en mi barrio? The striking image--exiles coming home by the route usually used to escape--captures the soaring spirit of this imaginative and stirring work.

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Orishas, named for the gods of Santeria, won critical acclaim for its 2000 debut, “A Lo Cubano,” and its intriguing mix of rap and traditional Cuban music. But by comparison, that work now sounds like a demo tape, a rough cut of a good concept.

In this follow-up (in stores Tuesday), the Paris-based group has perfected the balance between the aggression of hip-hop, the sweetness of son and the irresistible, polyrhythmic pulses of the rumba. The songs flow like mini-suites, weaving rap sections with graceful melodies and elaborate lyrics about the joys of fatherhood, the dignity of women, the disillusionment of once-hopeful immigrants.

In the video of “eforeQue Pasa!” the towering trio walks back out to sea, leaving behind a Havana covered in scaffolding and suggesting that new things must now be built. Musically, Orishas has laid a solid foundation.

--Agustin Gurza

In Brief

*** Dolly Parton, “Halos & Horns,” Sugarhill. The erstwhile country queen continues her trek through her Appalachian roots in a collection (due Tuesday) that makes a couple of nods to her pop-crossover days. The world could have survived without her remake of Bread’s saccharine pop ballad “If,” but believe it or not, her bluegrass translation of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” works just fine to close out this exploration of the eternal struggle between the sacred and the secular. And “Hello God” is a classic expression of one person’s desperate bid to understand earthly suffering.

--Randy Lewis

*** MC Eiht, “Underground Hero,” D3. As the frontman for influential gangster-rap group Compton’s Most Wanted, this California rapper helped popularize thought-provoking, hard-core hip-hop. On his seventh solo album, Eiht raps with precision about the highs and lows of street life over beats that range from smoothed-out gangster grooves to crisp, funk-inspired soundscapes. Eiht focuses on good times here more than he ever has, creating a feel-good gangster party.

--Soren Baker

*** Jazzanova, “In Between,” Ropeadope/Atlantic. This German dance ensemble is the latest act to venture forth from production and remix work into the realm of original music. On its studio debut, Jazzanova creates a rich and melodious world that sings with the smooth beats of jazz, ‘70s-style funk, Brazilian music and soul. “In Between” is as stylish as any album in recent memory, and a classic late-night chill-out CD.

--Steve Baltin

*** The Possibilities, “Way Out,” Parasol. Sounding like ‘60s legends one minute and tight, digital-age indie rockers the next, this Athens, Ga., quintet frolics in classic influences without sounding antique. Working in a Spector haze, all five Possibilities share vocals, harmonizing pristinely while dazzling keyboards by Jason Gonzalez dictate the mood. Fresh old sounds? When you’re versatile enough to recall Pavement and reverent enough to cover Del Shannon, it’s possible.

--Kevin Bronson

*

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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