**** The only monkey business the title "S&M" refers to is the unexpected twist this double CD takes by melding symphony and Metallica. It isn't original (think Moody Blues or Pink Floyd), but it's a brilliant idea and quite an accomplishment to blend harsh metal with symphonic lyricism. This live disc has performances from two sold-out shows with the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Kamen, an Academy Award-winning composer who also arranged the songs. There are times the orchestration is too "Hollywood" or poppy (besides his film scores, Kamen also co-wrote the schmaltzy Bryan Adams hit "Have You Really Loved a Woman?"), but the bulk of the 21 songs benefit from the collaboration. Searing guitar solos are doubled by other instruments or carried along by lush strings and brazen brass. There's now melody on songs such as "Master of Puppets" where there was once only frenetic speed metal. Striking violin flourishes add life to the usually monotonous riffs of "The Thing That Should Not Be." Kamen's formula on "The Memory Remains" is nearly flawless, with strings filling out silences and building momentum as double bass and brass grind out the bottom. Ominous violins are a perfect complement to the frenetic guitar of "Enter Sandman," a technique Kamen needed to use elsewhere. The glitzy scoring of the haunting "Until It Sleeps" fails to serve a song crying for its brooding nature to be underscored, and high-pitched strings diminish the gritty guitar of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It's here that a moodier composer who blends traditional and exotic instrumentation like Graeme Revell ("The Crow") would have excelled. But you can't find fault with an effort that has teens listening to an orchestra.
-- Toni Ruberto
Bad Boy Records
** "Born Again," the Notorious B.I.G.'s second posthumous album, is pretty much D.O.A.
The album is a collection of unreleased tracks and old demos scored with mostly new beats, its rhymes filled out by a cast of dozens that includes Redman, Method Man, Eminem, Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, Ice Cube, Nas, Lil' Kim and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs.
Unfortunately, you can feel the latter's clumsy hands all over this project -- the album's success is crucial to the bottom line of Combs' Bad Boy Records -- particularly on "Notorious B.I.G."
What saves the album is Notorious B.I.G.'s booming authority. These may not be his best rhymes, but there's enough of his commanding delivery and impeccable phrasing to cover the obvious shortcomings. That's particularly true on such tracks as "Who Shot Ya" (an underground track dating to 1995), the DJ Premier-produced "Rap Phenomenon" featuring Redman and Method Man, and "If I Should Die Before I Wake," a haunting D-Dot Angelettie track featuring Black Rob, Ice Cube and Beanie Sigel.
As on the Notorious B.I.G.'s previous posthumous release, "Life After Death," there's lots of foreshadowing of violence, most notably on the Puff Daddy-Lil' Kim collaboration "Would You Die for Me," "I Really Want to Show You" and "Who Shot Ya," which includes the lines "check out the rumor/last I heard I was dead with six in the head."
There's also the requisite misogyny with "Big Booty Hoes" (featuring Too $hort) and "Dead Wrong" (featuring Eminem).
The album's strangest element is its closing track, "Ms. Wallace," featuring the Notorious B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, in an unashamedly sentimental remembrance of her son. Suddenly, the track fades out while she's still talking! It's a weirdly dismissive, ungracious coda to an already disappointing project.
-- Richard Harrington, Wsahington Post
Born Again Savage
In this, the Year of the Boss, a new release from E Street Band sidekick Steven Van Zandt is bound to get lost amid the hoopla. That's a shame, as "Born Again Savage," a no-frills rocker with as much social commitment as "Born in the U.S.A."-era Bruce, deserves to be heard.
Long since he bid farewell to his Disciples of Soul, Little Steven employs U2 bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Jason Bonham (John's son) for a blistering 10-song workout that eschews glossy arena-rock production and even Van Zandt's usual bar-band glory in favor of a supercharged punk fury, caught somewhere between the dragster sleekness of Steppenwolf and the sneer of the Sex Pistols. "This is the record I would have made in 1969 had I been capable," he explains in the album's liner notes, adding that he considers it a tribute to his influences: the Kinks, Cream, the Yardbirds.
That may be true, but there is just as much of the past three decades poured into it, from the Aerosmith riffing supporting the Joe Strummer-like lyrics of "Guns, Drugs and Gasoline" to the post-punk propulsion underscoring the ironic jadedness of "Organize." Plus, there's a spirituality to the whole (from obvious moments such as "Face of God" to more-opaque musings, such as "Saint Francis") that none but the "Tommy"-era Pete Townshend bothered to explore.
You may have to seek this one out -- but it's more than worth the effort.
-- Ben Wener, Orange County Register
Something to Live For
Let's not be silly here -- there is no way anyone could skim over Ella Fitzgerald's immense recording career up to 1966 and not come up with a two-disc set of some of the greatest jazz and pop music of the 20th century. And that, to be sure, is what some of this is. But the indispensable two-disc Ella anthology remains "For the Love of Ella." What we have here is the music used in Charlotte Zwerin's biography of Ella for PBS' "American Masters" series, and it's chock full of mediocrities whose only friends could be history. (After a few bars of her very first hit "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" you'll want to kill somebody; her version of the disc's title masterpiece by Billy Strayhorn is, in fact, Ella at her most superficial. Listen to Andy Bey's sometime.) Because of its origins in documentary and the peculiarities of international finance, this is the first two-disc set to combine her early career at Decca and her later career with Norman Granz' Verve. A good thing, that. Unfortunately, music wasn't the prime consideration here -- biographical fact and storytelling were. Still, it's two prime discs of the woman who was, arguably, the greatest of all jazz singers (yes, greater than Billie Holiday) from her best period. A gift from the gods, that.
-- Jeff Simon
RCA Red Seal]
**** There will always -- always -- be those who think Vladimir Horowitz was the most exciting classical virtuoso of the century. On this two-disc set, you'll hear why. This is Horowitz from two periods: 1945-55 and 1979-83. Everything on it is designed to show off the pianist rather than the music. Even so, it remains astounding that the same pianist who could play with such hair-raising violence in claptrappy adaptations of Liszt could play his idol Scriabin (who'd met him when Horowitz was a child prodigy) with such haunting delicacy and who could love Scarlatti so much that it approached what can only be called anti-virtuosity. Horowitz, then, like those other great piano virtuosos Sviataslav Richter and Glenn Gould, isn't merely an instrumental interpreter, he is a musical country to be visited for a vantage point upon which to see the rest of the world. For these two discs, every listener becomes a musical citizen of the ultra-romantic Horowitz empire, where Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff reign and trivia by Moszowski have dignity, and where his arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" more than suffices for hilarity. An amazing musician -- still.
-- Jeff Simon
Dave Schulz and Steve DeMarchi bring together a zany cast of talented characters for a full-length debut that expands on the band's five-song demo EP. The 11-song effort is classic Jones, taking the fun disco grooves of the '70s and adding a hefty dose of '90s panache. The sexy funk of "Do It" has a sassy groove made even hotter by Al Monti's seductive soaring sax and the give-and-take vocals of Schulz and Robin Wilson. Steve Poole is featured vocalist on the big-band inspired funk monster "Funkarella." The relaxed R&B flair of "Naked in the World" recalls a breezy summer day. The psychedelic funk of "You're the Drug" gets an extra shot of attitude with the matter-of-fact vocal delivery of Schulz detailing his lust for a woman. We're also treated to the rambunctious old favorite "Slappin' Chin," with nifty rhythms by the brassy duo Jeff Hermanson (trumpet) and Jim Burgess (trombone). Wilson's silken vocals are wonderful on the traditional R&B ballad "Matter of Time." My favorite is still the irreverent tale of "Mr. Big Shot" told against "Shaft"-inspired musical themes.
-- Toni Ruberto