SYSTEM OF A DOWN
By now, you know what you're going to get in an album from L.A.'s most famous Armenian-American provocateurs: socially conscious spaz-metal highlighted by short passages evoking everything from polka to opera, and lead vocalist Serj Tankian's Jello Biafra-channeling-Pavorati warble. And, as anyone who has heard "B.Y.O.B.," the whiplash-inducing anti-war single from this chart-topping Part 1 of 2 (a companion full-length, Hypnotize, is due out this fall), can attest, Mezmerize won't disappoint on that count.
What's surprising about the album, though, is that the best tunes here are the least A.D.D.-afflicted, and that those tracks that indulge most heavily in System of a Down's particular, peculiar sonic schizophrenia tend to come off as weaker and more gimmicky than the ones that made 2001's Toxicity so fresh.
The undeniably timely "B.Y.O.B." and much of the disc's more out-there material (most notably the Faith No More throwaway "Violent Pornography") seem a bit tired, and too dependent upon weirdness; of the few extraordinarily unhinged arrangements, only the truly odd, synth-assisted "Old School Hollywood" rises above. Much more well-executed are the punk-thrash grooves and barely restrained mayhem of cuts like "Cigaro," "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel like I'm on This Song" and "Sad Statue," as well as the harmonies of (barely) softer tracks "Radio/Video" and "Question!"
Then again, there's more comparatively straightforward stuff here than on previous outings, suggesting that this unarguably creative outfit realizes it can't coast on eccentricity forever. Mezmerize boasts some songs that best the best Toxicity had to offer, but suffers a bit from lack of cohesion - a fault SoaD had, in the past, turned to its advantage.
While I personally prefer the more adventurous, iconoclastic Common of 2002's Electric Circus, every artist deserves a breakout disc, and Be, with Kanye West co-writing and doing most of the production, appears to have done the trick. This is no sellout party rap, though; Common is staying the socially conscious course, with lyrics that stress personal responsibility and how to overcome the hard knocks of street life. The Chicago MC's flow, with just the right measures of muscle and finesse, lends the words even more heft. West's penchant for sampling pieces of obscure old R&B tunes gives Be a hint of old-school soul to go along with an overall progressive take on hip-hop.
Don't Believe the Truth
It's been nearly a decade since Manchester's Oasis was granted a little corner of the American alt-rock revolution. The band has since gotten a lot of mileage out of its formula: grabby post-Beatles hooks, chiming guitars and the indelible stamp of Liam Gallagher's sneering vocals. Don't Believe the Truth continues in the same vein, but ultimately comes off as a tad workmanlike. It's missing that sense of wonder. Yes, there are moments of magic here - the strutting "Lyla" is a power-pop gem, "Keep the Dream Alive" a winning anthem - but these aren't enough to truly energize the disc.
Blues exploder Jon Spencer teams up with Matt Verta-Ray (formerly of underappreciated '90s indie-rock combo Madder Rose) and about a million guest players to make some fairly reverent rockabilly that, while stylin' and swaggerin', doesn't quite live up to the absolutely stunning Paul Pope artwork that graces its packaging. Tracks like "Lover Street, "Justine Alright" and "This Day is Mine" showcase a bit of Spencer's flamboyant attitude and soulful, borderline-discordant guitar playing, but he and Verta-Ray mostly play it a little too straight - their love of proto-rock 'n' roll is evident, but this disc could've used a bit more bite.
Jumping the Creek
Once a jazz darling of the hippie set in the late '60s, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, now 67, has released some of his best work this decade. Jumping the Creek prolongs the streak. With pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland, Lloyd - playing tenor and alto - delivers a set that is at turns high-spirited ("Georgia Bright Suite"), frenetic ("Canon Perdida"), spacey ("Angel Oak Revisited"), contemplative ("Ne Me Quitta Pas") and all of the above ("Song of the Inuit"). Lloyd's sax tone ranges from feathery to agro, and he continues his penchant for Coltrane-isms. He and Wayne Shorter are easily jazz's hippest elder statesmen.
That's What I Say
Obviously, an artist of John Scofield's stature wouldn't approach a Ray Charles tribute album with anything other than reverence. Still, this album's M.O., with its passel of guest artists (Dr. John, John Maher, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Warren Haynes), made me fear it might end up a cluster fuck. Didn't happen. The disc manages to stay funky, soulful and kinetic - never too processed - with a nice blend of vocal turns and loosey-goosey, guitar- and organ-fueled jams. Tracks range from "What'd I Say," with singers passing the mic around, to a swinging, horn-driven take on "Hit the Road Jack," to a lovely guitar/organ duet on "Cryin' Time." Brother Ray'd be smilin'.
1/2 -ERIC SNIDER