Record Time

Erykah Badu
Mama’s Gun

These days, finding an R&B album that hasn’t been loaded with samples is harder than finding something on the Top 10 chart worth shelling out $20 for. Between Puff Daddy and Shaggy, every familiar song from the past two decades has been trussed with beats and refashioned as a slick urban chorus.

So the fourteen tracks of unadulterated material that comprise Erykah Badu’s latest, Mama’s Gun, almost sound like a classical composition in comparison.

Badu’s 1997 debut was a welcome antithesis to a women’s music scene that was over-styled, over-sexed and over-hyped. The scene hasn’t changed much since then, and Badu’s reflective lyrics and traditional headdress are a fresh alternative to the current herd of mass-produced girl groups.

While the songs on Baduizm stuck to a formula of Badu’s slightly raspy vocals over drum and bass, Mama’s Gun has Badu’s voice taking a back seat to strings, brass and more complicated rhythms. Badu doesn’t even include the lyrics to many of the songs.

The lyrics that are printed are worth a second look and listen. ‘A.D. 2000’ is an elegy for Amadou Diallo, an African who was shot by New York City police in 1999. In it, Badu takes on his voice and begins with the insight, “No/ you won’t be namin’ no buildings after me.” In ‘Booty,’ Badu says to her rival, “you shugah on ya pita/but ya nigga think I’m sweeter,” making the words to Destiny’s Child ‘Bootylicious’ sound like a silly school-yard chant.

In the epic final track ‘Green Eyes,’ she laments her break-up with OutKast’s Andre Benjamin, in three movements of cathartic rationalization.

The album also features a slew of collaborators, including members of D’Angelo’s crew and Stephen Marley, with whom she sings a duet.

Musically, Mama’s Gun showcases Badu’s stripped-down style, mixing simple vocal lines with bluesy piano riffs and curious vibes. The album’s a logical evolution from her debut and stays true to her jazz-scat roots—which is more than you can say about most made-to-order MTV fare.

—Adrian Liu

The Beta Band
Hot Shots II

The Beta Band has a problem: they’re just too damn cool. Recall the scene from High Fidelity, in which John Cusak’s record-store obsessive sells five copies of the band’s Three EPs simply by playing the opening bars of its first track to a crop of hip-hungry music nerds.

Being a catch-word for cool has helped the band achieve success in the notoriously wary musical waters of North America. But as the band has moved on, pursuing their musical muse, their reputation has become an albatross. Nobody can be as cool as the Beta Band—especially not the Beta Band themselves.

Hot Shots II is the band’s second full-length, following on the heels of their critically-bludgeoned self-titled disc from 1999. The same criticisms showered on The Beta Band have been leveled at the band’s new offering: it’s boring, it’s unfocused, it’s not as adventurous as The Three EPs.

What everyone forgets is that you can only be the next Next Thing once. There are moments of excellence on Hot Shots II, such as the skip-and-shout chorus of ‘Human Being,’ the freestyle pondering at the end of ‘Eclipse’. The album plods in places, and much of it isn’t instantly memorable. It’s not as good as The Three EPs. Most things aren’t.

Yet, considering the patience that critics have devoted to the tripe that Radiohead has released lately, it seems unfair to write off Hot Shots II without giving it some time. It’s not a quick album. It shuffles where The Three EPs snapped and crackled. It asks you not to look for a masterpiece, and not to pout when one doesn’t happen.

The Betas likely won’t ever live up to their reputation, but they seem unconcerned. Rather they’re content to create their own brand of weird musical tomfoolery, in the privacy of their own contained world.

—Joel McConvey

The Two-Minute Miracles
“Volume II”
Teenage USA

Chock up a banner year for Andy Magoffin. After contributing his crisp production skills to what many consider 2001’s likeliest contender for the unofficial best-of-year title—the debut by rock n’ roll soldiers The Constantines—this London, Ontario-based wunderkind decided he wanted a great album all his own.

To the benefit of everyone, he and his fellow conspirators in the Two-Minute Miracles came up with “Volume II.” A far cry from the Cons’ frantic rock combustion, Magoffin’s own band deals in quirky, nimble pop, often laced with hints of quiet country regret. Guitars are joined by slick horns, rich piano, and Magoffin’s sad but friendly vocals.

The disc kicks off with the brief dirge ‘Why We Seek the Heat of the Wave,’ and quickly segues into ‘Name That Song,’ a rolling wave of a tune that crests into the catchiest indie chorus to come along since Pavement gave the slackers their anthem in ‘Cut Your Hair.’ Indeed, Magoffin evokes Pavement front-boy Stephen Malkmus often on “Volume II”—his songs radiate the same relaxed vibe that made heroes of Malkmus and co., but manage to avoid the languid self-consciousness that ultimately overwhelmed Pavement’s music. Lines like “Down with Love and Rockets/Down with Sook-Yin Lee,” from the loopy march ‘Mother of the Airwaves,’ manage to sound wry without being cynical, and slower moments like the fuzzy lullaby ‘Like a Forest Ranger’ beget an honesty absent from most clever indie pop.

As good as the songs are, the album’s biggest asset is Magoffin’s endlessly interesting production. Every track emphasizes new textures and small sonic details. The guitar sounds alone are a marvel, ranging from the sprightly pop sparkle of ‘Rayon Queen in a Nylon Dream,’ to the thick, guttural burr of the acoustic ‘Meekly Mate’.

The shifting sound, however, doesn’t detract from the album’s status as a solid whole. “Volume II” may be a raggedy patchwork of sorts, but its charm is undeniable. Indeed, the essential difference between Pavement and the Miracles is best located in each band’s paramount quality. Stephen Malkmus sung, ever so coolly, about his miles and miles of style. Magoffin’s answer comes in a line from album highlight ‘Slow Down’: ‘You used up all your air being everywhere / Trying to prove your worth to the town.’ Andy Magoffin doesn’t need to prove himself. His talent takes care of it for him.

—Joel McConvey

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