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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Hip-Hop

Lil Scrappy, "Bred 2 Die, Born 2 Live" (G Unit/Reprise). Atlanta has produced a subgenre of hip-hop that has become as influential on its parent genre as "grunge" was on the broader category of rock, a decade-plus back. Crunk, as the offshoot is known, was shoved into the mainstream by rapper Lil John and is notable for the heaviness of the bass and drum tracks in its mixes, and the gruff, scruffy nature of its party-centric rhymes. Crunk is meant to rattle trunks, not engage minds, and not surprisingly, its relative shallowness has found a broad common denominator and a mass audience. Newcomer Lil Scrappy ups the crunk ante by bringing a "gangsta" attitude and a touch of social conscience to the table. Lil John and 50 Cent joined forces to executive produce "Bred 2 Die, Born 2 Live," and perhaps not surprisingly, the record sounds like a perfect mix between the two. There's enough substance here to speak to fans beyond the confines of crunk, and enough of the Atlanta sound to knock out Lil John lovers. That should spell a major crossover success for Scrappy. 2 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

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>Soundtrack

Apocalypto, by James Horner with "vocal solos" by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. (Hollywood Records). Pounding drums, brass chorales, air whooshing through Japanese shakuhachi flutes, wordless Arab chants, chirping birds, string orchestra tremolos. There isn't much in the way of exotic musical effects that Horner doesn't throw into his score for Mel Gibson's neo-primitive jungle adventure. Horner isn't generally among the more imaginative of modern film composers but confronted with a movie of such originality, even he seems to be able to invent a rare sound world, if not exactly one without precedent. (For that, go to the world of classical music and listen to the sonic jungles invented by composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, Colin McPhee and Werner Josten.) 3 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

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>Pop

Jim Brickman, "Christmas Romance" (Compass Productions). Jim Brickman, who is headed to Buffalo on Dec. 30, has quietly built his own little industry. He writes books about peace and love, he interviews celebrities on his own weekend TV show and he soothes the stressed, on this CD, with cheery, New Age Christmas music. Brickman appreciates great yuletide folk melodies like "The Holly and the Ivy," "O Tannenbaum" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" He plays them, plus a few originals, with a movie-music smoothness that makes Billy Joel, in comparison, sound like Stravinsky. Don't try to puzzle it out. It's more than music. It's a way of life. 2 stars (out of 4) (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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>Classical

Beethoven, Sonatas for Piano and Violin, Op. 23 and Op. 30 No. 2, Andreas Staier, piano, Daniel Sepec, violin (Harmonia Mundi France). Fans of period instruments rejoiced in 1995, when Beethoven's violin turned up. It was a century old by the time Beethoven received it as a gift. So it conceivably could have sounded as antique and mellow to him as it does to us, on this recording, which is a co-production with the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. The two sonatas showcase the violin beautifully. But it's almost more fascinating to hear the ancient piano, which has so delicate a tone it can sound like a harp. Beethoven's variations, WoO 40, on "Se vuol ballare," Figaro's defiant aria from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," are a special curiosity. Performed softly by piano and pizzicato violin, the theme sounds, honest, like New Age music. Then there's what's known as the Janissary stop -- a kind of "prepared piano" effect -- but I don't want to give all the surprises away. 3 stars (out of 4) (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Panufnik, Homage to Polish Music performed by Igor Cechco, trumpet, the Polish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Mariusz Smolij (Naxos). When World War II stopped making his musical life impossible (all the compositions of his first 30 years were destroyed in the 1944 Warsaw ghetto uprising), Stalin's post-war "socialist realism" took up the slack, thereby forcing Andrzej Panufnik to flee to England, where he was knighted, just before his death at age 77 in 1991. These works were mostly written in England -- originally in 1947 to restore fragmented music from the 16th to 18th centuries to a performable state just as "beautiful 16th and 17th century houses in the old part of Warsaw" were reconstructed after wartime devastation. It is, often then, a love of homeland from afar. If anything, these pieces resemble Respighi's orchestral "Ancient Airs and Dances" from old lute music and have a lot of that charm and irresistibility. They're superbly played by the Polish Chamber Orchestra. 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (J.S.)

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Steinway Legends: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca Universal, two discs). For a pianist known for his Chopin and Shostakovich, Ashkenazy shows a heck of an instinct for the more classical stylings of Beethoven and Mozart. At the moment, he's just about my favorite Beethoven pianist -- his treatment of the great Sonata in E, Op. 109, included in this set, is tremendously sensitive and heart-rending. Mozart's magnificent two-piano sonata, performed with Malcolm Frager, shines but also has moments of shadow in its haunting, music-box slow movement. The Russian masterpieces are thrilling and sensuous, from Scriabin's explosive Sonata No. 5 through a handful of rolling, passionate Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux. Three Chopin pieces -- the elegiac C sharp minor Prelude, Op. 45, plus a mazurka and scherzo -- seem like too few, but you can't have everything. This is a wonderful addition to the already impressive Steinway Legends series. 4 stars (out of 4) (M.K.G.)

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>Rock

Sonic Youth, "The Destroyed Room: B-sides and Alternate Takes" (Geffen). B-side compilations often reek of the dreaded "we owe our record company an album, so let's toss them some cutting-room floor junk" syndrome. Sonic Youth, as the band is wont to do when it comes to just about every rule in the world of modern rock music, turns this notion on its head with "The Destroyed Room." Since the fine line dividing songwriting and ensemble improvisation is the one Sonic Youth has long toed, this record of orphans and unloved children comes across as a legitimate entry in the band's canon. It's weird, long, drawn-out, trippy, sometimes annoying, sometimes sublime and strangely beautiful, always interesting. Which makes it not unlike the rest of Sonic Youth's best work. 3 stars (out of 4) (J.M.)

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>Rockabilly

The Whiskey Daredevils, "The Essential Whiskey Daredevils" (Knock Out). Cleveland's Whiskey Daredevils play rockabilly with a punk attitude. "The Essential Whiskey Daredevils" -- actually the band's second album, a collection of 14 new tracks and six culled from the band's debut, "The Best of the Whiskey Daredevils" -- packs the fury of the Reverend Horton Heat, a touch of the "noir-a-billy" of the Cramps, and a healthy dose of '60s gritty garage rock into a potent cocktail. There's also a sense of humor at play throughout, as the band plows through tracks like "Bacon Martini," "Ironic Trucker Hat" and "No One Believes In Zeus Much Anymore." Lyrically, the band attacks indie rock sacred cows with incisive couplets like this one -- "Your friend with the Atari cap, he bummed a couple smokes/Well, didn't he go to boarding school with that one guy from the Strokes?" Hilarious, hip-shaking and genuinely rocking. 3 stars (out of 4) (J.M.)

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