Timeless: The Singles Collection
Tommy Boy/Rhino
The late '80s were heady times for hip-hop. N.W.A. and the West Coast gangsta rap onslaught were shakin' folks up. So was Miami's 2 Live Crew, with their lewd porn-raps. Public Enemy was leading the way in social consciousness. The genre was maturing, spreading into the mass psyche, factionalizing, breaking into subgenres. In '89, along comes three trippy brothers from Long Island called De La Soul to put a whole "nother spin on things.

These cats were different in every possible way.

Their first CD, the masterful 3 Feet High and Rising, was conceived and executed as an album, not a collection of singles. Producer Prince Paul — using snatches of Steely Dan and the Turtles, as well as the requisite R&B samples — laid swirly sonic collages under the coy, laid-back raps of Posdnus, Trugoy the Dove and Pasemaster Mase. These guys didn't holler like most other rappers. Their rhymes glided across the grooves in whimsical, codified lingo. De La Soul also led the pack in breaking away from those big, turgid drum machine thwacks that were at the center of virtually all '80s pop music. This was the first rap group to swing.

And De La Soul lasted, although they weren't productive by hip-hop standards. They're one of the few rap acts that can be legitimately called legendary — thus this 16-song compendium of their best singles is an extremely welcome arrival. Even better: Many of these singles, several of them taken from 12-inches, differ to varying degrees from the album versions.

Timeless comes out of the blocks with five tracks from 3 Feet High, the prototype for what would be called backpack rap. De La Soul makes no grab for street cred; they're just romping around in their own daisy-age microcosm. None of it sounds dated, though. A song like "Me, Myself and I" is just as fresh now as it was in '89.

In '91, miffed at being dismissed by some as a hippie novelty act, the group dropped De La Soul is Dead, a slightly edgier outing. "Ring Ring Ring" rails against wannabe rappers pushing demos on them.

By 1996's Stakes is High, the trio cut ties with Prince Paul and skewed toward leaner beats and a somewhat more strident stance. The brilliant title song rails against gun violence, materialism, jive emcees and the general decline of western civilization.

Timeless concludes with three songs from De La Soul's two 21st century discs, which represent a noted drop-off in artistic vision. The three selections are solid, though, especially the catchy rap/R&B hybrid "All Good?" with guest vocalist Chaka Khan.

These days, it's safe to say that De La Soul's future is in doubt, but Timeless proves that their past is priceless. 1/2—Eric Snider

The critics' favorite melancholy technophobes have finally followed up their rightfully raved 2000 hipster breakthrough The Sophtware Slump, EPs and anthologies aside, with a proper full-length. Sumday is easily the group's most cohesive and overtly psych-pop-tinged effort yet. The acoustic guitars, softly delivered vocals and synthy accents that characterize their sound seem to have fallen into fairly static roles. Sometimes that's a bad thing, but more often it works — what Sumday sacrifices in unpredictability and experimentation, it largely makes up for in warm, dreamy listenability. The sporadic austerity of earlier material is all but gone, here replaced by an engaging humanity that balances the band's penchant for lyrical imagery that examines modern mechanical culture in an uncertain light. The expansive "The Group Who Couldn't Say" and unbelievably hooky "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" perhaps best meld the strummy guitars to spacey, Cars-esque keyboard lines. Other highlights include the sunny, Beulah-esque pop gem "El Caminos in the West," the piano-driven "Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World," and "OK with My Decay." In all, Sumday hardly ever misses. 1/2—Scott Harrell

Free Country
New York-based, D.C.-raised guitarist Joel Harrison takes plenty of liberties with Free Country, a dozen radical reinterpretations of classic American roots songs. He comes at these tunes from a jazzy angle — albeit not in a traditional, bebop sorta way — and most of his ethereal takes on the likes of "I Walk the Line," "This Land is Your Land" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" are winning efforts. A few don't quite work. Harrison's quintet (along with guests) doesn't handle these tunes with the same aplomb as others who engage in this sort of hybrid (Bill Frisell and Cassandra Wilson come to mind), but they do take more chances. With guest vocalist Norah Jones, Harrison and company transfigure Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" into a torch song. "Tennessee Waltz" (again featuring Jones) takes a similarly gauzy tack. Conversely, the band takes a frenetic run at "Folsom Prison Blues" that has the patina of instrumental cow-punk. The project falters when it teeters too close to jazz-fusion, as on "Wayfaring Stranger," where Rob Thomas' violin conjures up dreaded images of Jean Luc Ponty. On "Twelve Gates to the City," Harrison and Jen Chapin make their vocal phrasing too self-consciously jazzy. Saxophonist David Binney and guest pianist Uri Caine tart the songs up with spirited solos. In all, Harrison's playing is tasteful but a bit too circumspect. He seems more interested in his role as producer/arranger. www.actmusic.com 1/2—Eric Snider

Zoo Psychology
French Kiss
When I was in high school, a friend and I recorded an album's worth of songs on a tape deck using coffee cans and a $2 microphone. Now I know that we weren't the only ones. Zoo Psychology, Ex-Models' gift to our already troubled world, carries on unlike anything my 15-year-old eccentricities could have imagined. Every song on this noise-rock blitzkrieg is an ill-assembled collage of tension and abstraction. Fuzzed-out guitars and falsetto vocals replace the coffee cans but with no less ADD-ridden energy. Song titles like "Hott 4 Discourse," "The Password is Pelican" and "The Mystery of Brine" beg not to be taken seriously. There are enough 200 beats-per-minute beats on Zoo Psychology to impress an army of death metal fans. To their credit, Ex-Models maintain a consistent theme of aggression and New York artiness, but ultimately it wears thin enough to make all 20 minutes of this album seem drawn out to excess. 1/2 —Mark Sanders

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