"Boy in Da Corner" (Matador)
In 2002, English hip-hop producer and rapper Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, introduced Americans to a relentless, verbose, street-tuff style called garage or two-step, a combination of minimalist beat and torrid rap that broke hip-hop free from R&B; and, at the time, sounded like a revolution.
Now it's clear he was just making way for Dizzee Rascal.
"Boy in Da Corner" (due in stores Tuesday) shows that garage was a giant step toward new, unrealized forms. The peripatetic album -- the winner of Britain's 2003 Mercury Music Prize, a prestigious sort of underground Grammy -- is a dance syncretism made of menacing beats skittering from dark dancehall to mashed-up jungle, super-warped bass frequencies, stark anti-hooks, and a voice that is the most authentic to emerge in years.
Commanding attention on the hard-bitten streets of Bow, on London's East End, 19-year-old Dizzee Rascal (born Dylan Mills) delivers a cracked, war-torn stream of dystopian warnings in a thick accent that turns "girl and boy" into "gyal and bway" and ranges from bug-like buzz to dancehall flow to glottal, staccato syllables sprayed like random machine gun fire, never to be repeated.
The opening track, "Sittin' Here," reveals an entire universe with no time and no nostalgia for a soft R&B; hook. The narrator contemplates suicide, saying, "It's funny, but I haven't bust a smile for while," where "smile" and "while" would rhyme with "owl." The flow is relentless, even brutal, and the music lacks melody, giving only the slightest indication that a few repeated lines compose what passes for a chorus.
Where Skinner tells coherent stories about the U.K. underclass, Dizzee Rascal breathes it like poetry, splashing it about like liquid from a jug. His breakthrough English radio single, "I Luv U," is as close to a song as he gets, recounting a he-said/she-said about unwanted pregnancy and poverty-induced war between the sexes. Other cuts, such as "Stop Dat" and "Seems 2 Be" are explosions of words, lyrics layered on indecipherable lyrics.
When you can make them out, a lot of this is the same hard-core boasting that drives other gangsta rap. And Rascal lives it -- he recently was stabbed five times in a nightclub, earning him a rep as Britain's 50 Cent. English rap stars are rare, however, giving him extra weight when he says, on "Brand New Day," "emcees better start talking about what's really going on."
Aloneness works for DiFranco
"Educated Guess" (Righteous Babe)
Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco has a knack for looking, seeing and telling. And she has a lot to tell, releasing at least one album a year on her own label since 1990. This entry (in stores Tuesday) is both a departure from 2003's "Evolve" and a logical progression for the Buffalo native, whose recent works have mixed her spare, acoustic folk with lusher funk and R&B; elements.
Here she returns to the stark, acoustic feel of earlier recordings, and the sense of isolation in such numbers as "Swim" is reinforced by her creative approach: She single-handedly wrote the songs, played the instruments, sang lead and background vocals and recorded and mixed the collection. Yet "Educated Guess" still incorporates jazz and blues influences into 14 largely melancholy, reflective musings on romance and politics.
With big, open spaces and the stark clash of heavily struck guitar strings, the music feels foreboding and at times almost dissonant, echoing her tense, vividly emotional ruminations about how love can be exhausting and identity-sucking, especially when a partner is endlessly needy.
A handful of frank spoken-word tracks includes "Platforms," an intimate glimpse at the humility of heartbreak, and "Grand Canyon," another of her pieces blending observations of contemporary American life with a specific statement (in this case, that being a patriot partly means celebrating feminism). Even when nursing a bummer, DiFranco still inspires.
-- Natalie Nichols
The Crystal Method
"Legion of Boom" (V2)
Since the Crystal Method's 1997 debut album, "Vegas," and the galvanizing crossover hit "Busy Child," the L.A.-based duo of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland has been viewed one of America's greatest dance-music hopes. The pair's larger-than-life breakbeats, expansive synthesizers and arena-rock sensibility give it the potential to transcend genres and appeal to rock, hip-hop and dance fans alike.
While the duo has yet to establish a Top 40 presence, it has occasionally reached over to mainstream audiences, earning a spot on the 1999 Family Values tour with Limp Bizkit and Staind and getting airplay on rock stations such as KROQ.
"Legion of Boom," the duo's third studio album, again displays that crossover appeal, skillfully integrating an array of styles into an invigorating sonic journey. Aided by a wide range of guest stars, including the Roots' Rahzel, ex-Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland and the BellRays' singer Lisa Kekaula, Jordan and Kirkland weave their way from the "Busy Child"-like synthesizer intro of the high-octane opener, "Starting Over," to Kekaula's spirited house vocals on "High and Low."
To Jordan and Kirkland's credit, they let their guest stars shine without sacrificing the Crystal Method sound. Rahzel brings a heavy hip-hop flavor to "The American Way" and the funky "Acetone," while Borland's noodling guitar adds energy to the menacing "Weapons of Mass Distortion" and "Born Too Slow."
The Crystal Method is one of the few dance acts with the potential to elevate the entire genre on their broad beats. And "Legion of Boom" makes a valiant effort to do just that.
-- Steve Baltin
Ancient and atmospheric
Lisa Gerrard/Patrick Cassidy
"Immortal Memory" (4AD/Beggars Group)
Glacial enough in pace to make Sigur Ros sound like speed-metal, the music on former Dead Can Dance singer Gerrard's collaboration with Irish folk-classical composer Cassidy (in stores Tuesday) offers every bit as much majestic, ghostly beauty as that of the celebrated Icelandic ensemble. But then, Australian Gerrard has been making music with those qualities for many years now, most recently lending her haunting aesthetics to scores for such movies as "Gladiator" (earning her an Oscar nomination) and "Whale Rider."
Here Gerrard and Cassidy create score-like atmospheres, if not drama, with lush washes of orchestral sound around Gerrard's luminous chants, at times taking on an otherworldly tone as she touches a honeyed low end of her register. Atmosphere has to rule, since few will understand the words, which are in ancient Gaelic and Aramaic, and in some cases no formal language at all.
There's no misunderstanding the depth of feeling, though, with the prayerfulness Gerrard brings to "Maranatha (Come Lord)" and "Abwoon (Our Father)," among other pieces, recalling recently revived music of 12th century mystic Hildegard Von Bingen. It's very moving -- just moving very slowly.
-- Steve Hochman
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.