Peas, mind where you take cues

Black Eyed Peas

"Monkey Business" (A&M;)

** 1/2

"Monkey" (in stores Tuesday) continues the kitchen-sink approach that made 2003's "Elephunk" a breakthrough, but with spotty results. The Indian tabla beat on the love-song single "Don't Phunk With My Heart" holds some promise, and the odd, surf-mariachi flavor of "Pump It" is bound to be a staple of this summer's sweaty club grind, but the bulk of the L.A. hip-hop group's sweetly over-produced album is so slick that one song slips into the next.

From pastiche pop with Justin Timberlake to dancehall and pure R&B; to sensitive acoustic rap featuring fireside guitar crooner Jack Johnson, this CD hurries from one strangely unsatisfying sparkle to the next, and even up-on-the-one James Brown gets short shrift. One gem: "Don't Lie" is bound for pop radio smashdom, as the authenticity of a real song fights its way through, with lyrics talking about an issue that resonates -- why lovers lie to one another.

Singer Fergie's voice sounds better than ever here, but is mostly tapped only for soaring choruses or idiotic throwaway ditties such as "My Humps." In fact, the first four songs manage to escape the unfinished, disposable feel that mars the others. But in a world where one single sells a whole album, this is unfortunately just enough for Black Eyed Peas to keep their super-hype momentum.

Dean Kuipers

*

A potential that needs nurturing

Audioslave

"Out of Exile" (Interscope/Epic)

* * *

Everyone complains that the record business, desperate for quick hits, no longer gives bands the time they need to develop. Well, here's a classic test case, a major-label group with the potential to create something unique and potent, and a clear need for aging in order to reach it.

The two parties in this rock music mega-merger -- rangy singer Chris Cornell, ex of Soundgarden, and the power plant of an instrumental trio that formerly drove Rage Against the Machine -- have a strong foundation to build on: their shared affinity for rock of epic scale and earthy manner.

On this second album, Audioslave continues to grapple with existential and social issues, often cloaked in the language of myth and folk tales. This scope is matched by the monumental reach of the guitar-rooted music

But "Out of Exile" is mostly grand and aggressive, riding the old-fashioned appeal of pipes and chops. Some of the songs seem like undeveloped riffs, but it's always easy to listen to the mournful and defiant Cornell soar, to buck the fury of this rhythm section, and to submit to the weird physics of Tom Morello's wildly inventive guitar solos.

There is some movement, though. The hit "Be Yourself" is a soothing piece of self-help philosophy, with a sinuous melody and an insistent pulse that give it a Coldplay-like tone of reassurance. Audioslave also breaks away from its clamorous comfort zone with the bouncy, acoustic arrangement of "Doesn't Remind Me," as Cornell taps a lighter vocal touch.

What's left for the band is to become more than the sum of its parts -- to generate something that's pure Audioslave instead of some Rage and some Soundgarden. "Out of Exile" is a firm but small step toward that breakthrough. Just give them some time.

Richard Cromelin

*

Speaking of Satan, where's the fire?

Death in Vegas

"Satan's Circus" (The Lab)

* * 1/2

Does this latest offering from producers-musicians Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes evoke a dark festival orchestrated by the Evil One? Perhaps -- if their idea was that rather than tormenting our immortal souls for eternity, Satan would preside over a diabolical gala that would bore everyone to infinity.

Instead of recruiting such singers as Dot Allison or Liam Gallagher, who previously gave Death in Vegas' soundtrack-y tunes some human personality, the core duo eschew guest vocalists on this oddly antiseptic collection, which also includes a bonus live disc. (The 68-minute concert CD, featuring such highlights as "Flying" and "Hands Around My Throat," feels a lot less mannered.)

So, we get 63 minutes of instrumentals showcasing the pair's fealty to German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! ("Sons of Rother") and facility for subtle shifts among such styles as ambient, techno and dub.

"Circus" begins with the deceptively sunny sheen of "Ein fur die Damen" (i.e., "This One's for the Ladies"), then darkens during the increasingly hallucinatory, hypnotic "Heil Xanax." But "Satan's Circus" never really peaks before simply chilling out, and while such numbers as the skeletally percussive "Candie McKenzie" and the crisply flowing "Anita Berber" prove tantalizingly sinister, the vibe is ultimately too sterile to be compelling, let alone truly malevolent.

Natalie Nichols

*

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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