Soaring in Spanish, stumbling in English


"Atlas" (Sonic 360/Nettwerk America)


In its sophomore effort, this celebrated electro-Latin quintet set out to capture the excitement and energy of its live performances. Sonically, they succeeded with this polished and occasionally provocative new album, written and produced by the band.

Seeking a fresh creative environment, these longtime friends ensconced themselves in a remote jungle studio in southern Mexico, refiningtheir intriguing blend of rock, electro-pop and Latin rhythms. Employing fewer loops and sampling, the music is fuller and more muscular than the band's somewhat uneven 2002 debut. And the set seems more cohesive and carefully assembled.

Ah, but the band couldn't leave well enough alone. They decided to do half the songs in English, producing lyrics passable for students of English as a second language. As art, however, they fall laughably short, with clunky syntax and accents out of sync. By contrast, their Spanish songwriting soars with imagination in the surreal "Pos Que Se Vengan" and conveys a chillingly concise social message in the edgy "Presidente."

Kinky should have learned a lesson from "Mas," its signature hit from the first CD, with its enigmatic, five-word Spanish refrain. It's not so much what you say, but how you say it. Subtleties of language aside, however, Kinky has the power to captivate with its irresistible groove alone. Now all it needs is a good translator.

Agustin Gurza


Delightful mixture fuels Furnaces

The Fiery Furnaces

"Gallowsbird's Bark" (Rough Trade/Sanctuary)

*** 1/2

Throw in a few references to brollies and prams and you'd swear on first impression that this debut was the work of some lost British eccentrics. In actuality this brother-sister duo of Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger (yes, they're really siblings) was raised in Chicago and is now Brooklyn-based. And despite the U.K. overtones, closer examination reveals a wealth of influences and sources in an imaginative, vibrant and unpredictable mix.

Eccentric it is, though -- and exhilaratingly so. In-jokes and personal references abound with sometimes Dylanesque offhandedness ("I swam in an Olympic-sized pool/ I had a picnic lunch with a ventriloquist," from the song "I'm Gonna Run"), but never seem insular or private.

The music skips from the jittery bass and cascading piano of the opening "South Is Only a Home" to the quasi-garage-blues of "Asthma Attack" and "Rub Alcohol Blues" to the warning-sign electronics of "Leaky Tunnel" without losing the sense of a unified vision. Eleanor's voice -- occasionally bearing a Patti Smith tone -- is one anchor, but there's a more intangible, anything-goes sensibility at work that allows such touchstones as the Who, Talking Heads, Eno, Syd Barrett, the Rolling Stones and much more to be distilled into this frothy home-brew.

Steve Hochman


Jean effort lacking in inspiration

Wyclef Jean

"The Preacher's Son" (J)


When former Fugee Wyclef Jean exercises his considerable storytelling talent, as on the reggae revenge ditty "Linda," he transcends an endless litany of thanksgiving about his own good fortune to reach a more universal entertainment.

The song is a glimpse into another Jean, little seen here. Over an irresistible Caribbean R&B; melody, he lays into a Jimmy Cliff-type tune about Beretta-wielding Linda, hunting down her unfaithful fiance: "Like the FBI/ She's gonna knock down the door with no warning/ What happened to the good time lovin'?"

Unfortunately, most of this album is less inspired. The obvious hit track, "Party to Damascus," makes it all the way there mostly on the back of Missy Elliott, right down to her signature Middle Eastern samples and tabla intros. It's a good song, but it's a Missy Elliott song.

The unremarkable midtempo cruisers that dominate this longish album show off Jean's eclectic roots, mixing Caribbean, hip-hop, Curtis Mayfield soul, dance-hall and Latin sounds, but they get bogged down in a by nowtired parade of guest artists, from Patti LaBelle to Scarface.

Jean is at his best here when he puts down the empty party songs and the positive raps and gets to the dirty business of the tales only a Haitian preacher's son can tell.

The better songs are the four (out of 15) that feature only his voice, with the exception of "Baby Daddy," a tortuously compelling duet with Redman about the frustration of raising other men's children.

Dean Kuipers


Aesop's raps need a sharper setting

Aesop Rock

"Bazooka Tooth" (Definitive Jux)

** 1/2

"Have a midlife crisis when you're 10 years old," raps this New Yorker in the song "Babies With Guns," and indeed, childhood has changed a lot since his namesake spun morality fables for kids. But with his second album for the intense indie label Definitive Jux -- known for hip-hop as resolutely outsider in tone and dark in sound as anything since the heyday of Public Enemy and its Bomb Squad production team -- Aesop spins dizzying rhymes and stern warnings as reflective of these complex times as the Greek guy's tales were for his. Throughout, he honors hip-hop roots (including a nod to slain Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay) without seeming stuck in old-school conventions.

But where on the 2001 album "Labor Days" the music told as much of the story as the too-fast-for-the-ears words, this one, with production mostly by Aesop himself, lacks the sonic undertow usually associated with Def Jux projects. Aesop (real name: Ian Bavitz) avoids trite samples or overt gimmickry, but as distinctive as the music is, it doesn't provide enough to hold on to, to compel you to give the words time to sink in. The moral of the story: If you've got something to say, give it a setting that will keep people listening.

-- S.H.

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