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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NAS

Nas

When Nas announced last year that he would use a racial epithet as the title of his ninth studio album, it smelled like a cheap publicity ploy from a once-great rapper who no longer had much to say. Now that the album, an intense exploration of racial inequality in America, has arrived (sans controversial working title), it seems the stunt was actually a cheap publicity ploy from a once-great rapper who still has a lot to say.

Now that Nas has our attention, he wants to share his every thought, and he often overstuffs the tracks. "America" alone holds an entire album's worth of hot-button issues, including police brutality, the "race dichotomy" and the death penalty. On the similarly distended "Queens Get the Money," Nas discusses his reputation, Huey P. Newton, calculating pi and terrorism in the space of one verse. The density may bolster Nas's reputation for lyrical agility, but concepts whiz by too quickly to further his goal of schooling the masses.

Although the Queens MC doesn't quite achieve the professorial vibe of Chuck D or KRS-One here, he delivers powerful reportage when sticking to detailed, tightly focused stories. On "Sly Fox," Nas goes after Fox News, and directing his anger toward a single target produces inspired vitriol. "Fried Chicken," featuring Busta Rhymes, discusses food by using sex metaphors, urging everyone to resist temptations of the flesh. And the Obama-themed "Black President" ends the album's examination of race on an appropriate note of cautious optimism.

Nas will perform July 27 at Merriweather Post Pavilion as part of the Rock the Bells festival.

-- Sarah Godfrey

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Sly Fox," "Fried Chicken," "Black President"

STAY POSITIVE

The Hold Steady

You won't find many albums in the current realm of rock-and-roll more exciting than the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive." So even if three of those albums are the previous efforts by Brooklyn's classic rock revivalists, the fact that "Stay Positive" can stand on the same level is an achievement in itself. Longtime fans might not have a new favorite Hold Steady record, but newcomers are likely to have a new favorite band.

The opening one-two punch of "Constructive Summer" and "Sequestered in Memphis" will make a believer out of anyone, as the quintet flexes every aspect of its bar-band muscle. Monster riffs, Tad Kubler's scorching guitar solos, rousing organ, singalong choruses and Craig Finn's singular lyrical vision of the down and out -- now presented with actual singing instead of rapid-fire speak-spewing -- are all accounted for.

Some attempts to expand the musical palette aren't too appealing, suggesting the forced experimentation that bands engage in as they get deeper into their careers. The Cars-like keyboard on "Navy Sheets" and excessive use of talk box (is there any other kind?) on "Joke About Jamaica" are particular offenders. But the banjo-driven, Southern Gothic-tinged "Both Crosses" is one of the Hold Steady's most mysterious songs and proves the band can succeed not just at breakneck speed.

It all comes back to Finn, though, and he provides another tour de force focusing on shady characters seeking salvation. "In bar light/She looked all right/In daylight/She looked desperate," from "Sequestered in Memphis," may be the quintessential Finn lyric. Not only is it a perfect microcosm of the kind of protagonist he often celebrates, but the clever rhyme scheme and subtle alliteration show an attention to detail that few other lyricists bother with.

The Hold Steady will perform at the 9:30 club with the Loved Ones on Aug. 14.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Sequestered in Memphis," "Constructive Summer," "Yeah Sapphire"

ALL SIDES

O.A.R.

If the Goo Goo Dolls ever decided to form a band with Vertical Horizon and some of the less essential members of Phish, it would probably sound a lot like O.A.R. Long beloved by college students, Hacky Sack players and casual pot smokers, O.A.R. is a jam band for people who don't like jam bands. In other words, most people.

The band's latest is hook-happy and melodically concise, so much so that its lack of jam-band sprawl seems like a statement of purpose. Or at least an attempt to get played on the radio: O.A.R., which initially hailed from Rockville, is in the awkward position of being successful without being famous, selling out Madison Square Garden this year without the benefit of a defining hit single or a frontman with even the limited charisma of Dave Matthews.

"All Sides" isn't O.A.R.'s first bid for mainstream stardom, but it may be the band's best. This is an amiable effort that can't seem to decide whether to emphasize its relative radio-friendliness or its extended artistic reach, and winds up splitting the difference. There are Middle Eastern rhythms ("Whatever Happened"), up-tempo, horn-centric pop tracks ("Something Coming Over"), modified reggae ("What Is Mine"), songs about the troops ("War Song," which doesn't pander) and songs about the fans ("This Town," which does).

It's little wonder the band's been having trouble with radio programmers, though. O.A.R.'s idea of a pop hook has a distinctly first-Clinton-administration feel, as if it were fixed during the heyday of Toad the Wet Sprocket, one of the many faceless, gently rocking '90s bands with whom this one has too much in common.

O.A.R. is scheduled to perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion with the Beautiful Girls on July 26.

-- Allison Stewart

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Shattered," "Whatever Happened"

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