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> Hip-hop

Jay-Z & Kanye West

Watch the Throne

[Roc-A-Fella Records]

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

When artists boasting the commercial clout of Jay-Z and Kanye West release new product, it's not simply big pop music news, it's a big business event. That means that corporate-sponsored hype will preface such a release, so that by the time said collection finally hits the ether in an official capacity, it is already all but guaranteed to come out of the gate running. Teaming Jay-Z and Kanye for a full "elpee's wortha tunes" is closer to a major corporate merger than it is to a simple collaboration between peers. There is major money riding on this. Which might make it distasteful to some.

So does "Watch the Throne" live up to the hype? Sure. Why not? There's nothing truly new going on, the sound collage approach is only tangentially associated with actual music, and the usual grab bag of samples fleshes out what might otherwise be mere skeletons of songs. But it's creative, playful, often irreverent and consistently interesting stuff.

"No Church in the Wild" offers the by-now standard West madness intermingling religious imagery with wild nights of champagne and Peruvian marching powder, a taste of bizarre and gritty realism and sloppy symbolism almost thrown off track with the midtune arrival of guest the Dream's annoyingly auto-tuned cameo. "Lift Off" brings Jay-Z's belle Beyonce to the party, and is so straight-up club-friendly that it's jarring after West's guilt-ridden libidinous turn during the album opener. "Ni**as in Paris" is West getting raunchy while Jay-Z intones as straight man to his cohort's foul-mouthed braggart. This is a club anthem of the first order, but it also feels a bit forced and unnecessarily nasty.

It's not too surprising that the best tunes here succeed on the strength of the samples that form their hooks. "Otis" cuts and loops Otis Redding's soulful snarl, as the two stars trade verses. As far as rip-offs go, it's a clever one. "Gotta Have It" finds guest producer the Neptunes cut-and-pasting James Brown's funky interjections into a suitable backing track for Jay-Z and West to strut their stuff -- stuff that, it must be noted, is getting a bit thin in the substance department by this point in the trip.

Genius or joke? Depends what you're into, ultimately. "Watch the Throne" doesn't move hip-hop forward in any artistic sense and the whole thing reeks of callous gimmickry. But it makes for a pleasant diversion while it lasts. Maybe that's enough.

-- Jeff Miers

> Jazz

Cloning Americana

For Which It Stands


Review: 3 stars

Here is that profoundly unusual thing in contemporary jazz: an overt sociopolitical statement.

On the saxophone quartet disc's back cover you find this statement from saxophonist and leader Billy Drewes: "Is this the way that things used to be in our country? I think maybe not -- Pardon my fears and tears for the lonely. Not only alone, with unneeded hardships and unmended fences. I still believe that some folks care, daring to give honest answers to blue shirts and dancers. We are all one.

"The above narrative is in response to the apparent decline in the basic social values of respect, compassion and tolerance. Too many of those entrusted with the honorable task of promoting and sustaining these values are failing us, causing unnecessary inequality and suffering."

Listening to Drewes and his quartet -- pianist Gary Versace, bassist Scott Lee and drummer Jeff Hirschfield -- you wouldn't necessarily connect that lovely, whimsical music with the sociopolitical program. It could just as easily be the plight of Caribbean dolphins, the "heroism" of those in unyielding battle against the tax code or the need for new etiquette on how to treat the flag. As long as something conspicuously American and emotionally attached were involved, the meaning of the disc and the sound of it don't exactly line up in a perfect row.

That doesn't mean it isn't an exceptional disc when you know where in fact it's coming from. Drewes is a Dave Leibman-type tenor and soprano saxophonist, pianist Versace is a deep and sometimes phenomenally inventive player given to all manner of counterpoints and unisons when he isn't wearing a very tender heart on his sleeve. (Listen to "Old Dirt.")

Imagine a rougher and simpler version of the kind of jazz quartet lyricism that we used to hear in the early days of ECM.

All the tunes are written by saxophonist Drewes and bassist Lee. Drewes, as a composer, is a sort of whimsical abstractionist out of Paul Bley. As a player, he sometimes likes a lot of breath in his sound, a la early Jimmy Giuffre or Ben Webster.

It's quite an unusual disc, in its way. An "honest answer to blue shirts and dancers" (and isn't the latter a phrase deserving of long life, if not immortality?). Available toward the end of August.

-- Jeff Simon

> Soundtrack

Various Artists

Muppets: The Green Album

[Walt Disney Records]

Review: 3 stars

You've never heard the music of the Muppets quite like this.

Released to usher in the newest movie of the iconic puppets, "The Muppets," which comes out Nov. 23, Walt Disney Records has released "The Green Album," a compilation of Muppet classics covered by some of today's most popular artists. Some achieve their goal far better than others, but the album overall is a lighthearted, contemporary tribute to the Muppet canon.

Weezer and Paramore's Hayley Williams handle the much-covered "Rainbow Connection" with a respectful touch and keep it from turning into sentimental goop. Another favorite, "Movin' Right Along," gets a fun, hard rock edge from Alkaline Trio, and the Fray takes on the ridiculous "Mahna Mahna" song with gusto -- you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish it from the original.

My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Rachel Yamagata and OK Go are just some of the other artists and bands appearing on the 12-song disc. If you loved the Muppets and don't mind the creative license enacted on these old favorites, this album will provide a trip into fond nostalgia. If not, most of the humor and meaning of each song will fail to impress.

-- Kristy Kibler

> Country/roots

Jimmie Vaughan

Plays More Blues, Ballads, and Favorites

[Shout Factory]

Review: 3 stars

Johnny Nicholas

Future Blues

[The People's Label]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

It worked so well the first time, why not do it again? Jimmie Vaughan, older brother of the late Stevie Ray, founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a guitarist's guitarist, follows up last year's "Blues, Ballads, and Favorites" with more of the same -- songs well-known and obscure that shaped his musical life and still fire his passion.

Backed by the same group of musicians, Vaughan continues to show the connections among these various strains of American music. His interpretations make everything here seem of a piece, without loss of individual flavor. He tears into material from the worlds of country (Webb Pierce, Hank Williams), blues (Jimmy Reed), and R&B (Ray Charles, Jimmy Liggins), including a healthy dose of the New Orleans variety (Bobby Charles, Lloyd Price, Annie Laurie).

One quibble: When you have a singer like Lou Ann Barton at your disposal, you have to use her on more than just three of 14 cuts, especially when your own vocals are not nearly as powerful and dynamic.

Vaughan also plays on the first album in six years by just-as-long-in-the-tooth singer and guitarist Johnny Nicholas. You can see why they connect -- Nicholas' version of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" owes a lot to Jimmy Reed. But while Nicholas draws from the same well as Vaughan, he uses those influences mostly in the service of his own songs -- 10 of the 12 on "Future Blues" are originals, and fine ones at that. While not always hewing strictly to the blues, they extend the tradition in ways that ensure the form does, indeed, have a future, as well as a past.

-- Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

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