An increasing number of bands on both sides of the Atlantic are blurring the lines that separate rap, rock and heavy metal by merrily rummaging through the past. Everything is up for grabs -- country blues licks, tortuous Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, James Brown funk, punk rhythms, Zappaesque humor, sweet '60s soul harmonies, you name it.
Urban Dance Squad: 'Mental Floss for the Globe'
Holland's Urban Dance Squad seems to have mastered the mix as well as any. Fronting the five-piece band, which performs tomorrow night at the 9:30 club, is rapper Rude Boy. Contrary to his nickname, Rude Boy actually possesses a rather civil tongue, at least by rap standards. The band's new album, "Mental Floss for the Globe," is mercifully free of sexist, racist and misogynist themes, though no one would mistake it for light entertainment. From start to finish, the album is nearly one long assault on the ears and middle-of-the-road sensibilities, fueled partly by Rude Boy's frenetic commentaries and partly by a band that freely appropriates just about every pop, rock, punk and soul trick imaginable.
For all his pell-mell pacing, most of Rude Boy's raps are easily understood, and the anti-drug messages on "Big Apple" and "Piece of the Rock" are hammered home convincingly. But the album's real strength stems from its sheer energy and crazy-quilt pattern of styles. When Rude Boy credits Prince Buster Campbell, the Beatles, James Brown and Public Enemy in the album's liner notes, he isn't paying them lip service -- he's acknowledging a huge debt, as the arrangements of "No Kid," "Fast Lane" and "Mental Floss for the Globe" attest.
Granted, sometimes the band's zeal to mine the past gets a bit tedious -- the Hendrix-inspired "Prayer For My Demo" ultimately wears thin, and the punk anthem "God Blasts the Queen" is strictly an over-the-top parody. Still, it seems a small price to pay for making rap's rhythms and rhymes sound a lot less confining and predictable than usual.
24-7 Spyz: 'Gumbo Millennium'
As the title of its new album, "Gumbo Millennium" (In Effect), suggests, the South Bronx quartet 24-7 Spyz also has an outrageous melange in mind, but the results aren't always as refreshing. After opening with a stiff, Hendrix-like instrumental called "John Connelly's Theory," the band settles into a tiresome heavy metal groove on "New Super Hero Worship," with lead singer Peter Fluid aping Robert Plant's ultrasonic scream and guitarist Jimi Hazel evoking Jimmy Page and a legion of his disciples.
The mood brightens considerably, though, on "Dude U Knew," a jazz-inflected ballad-turned-funk workout that's charged with extended-chord guitar riffs and drummer Anthony Johnson's insistent beat. Then there's the nonsensical novelty "Culo Posse" and the inspirational rap song "Don't Push Me," a call for racial peace and understanding. As different as they are, these songs demonstrate the band's charm and intelligence as well as anything on the album. Unfortunately, just when things are looking up, along comes "Spyz on Piano," a chance for all the band members to camp it up at the keyboard. Suffice it to say one listening is quite enough.
The good news is that the album's flip side is far more consistent. Fluid and Hazel have come up with some topical and touching lyrics, addressing everything from the Valdez oil spill to Nelson Mandela's release, and more often than not the band vibrantly underscores the words and images, especially on the reggae-powered chant "We'll Have Power" and the Vietnam soldier's story "Some Defender's Memories."
Jesus Jones: 'Liquidizer'
The British quintet Jesus Jones is something of a rarity -- a heavy metal band with more on its mind than merely a head-banging good time. On "Liquidizer" (SBK), the band's fondness for '60s-era psychedelic arrangements leaps out at you, first on its British hit "Never Enough" and then on both "The Real World" and "All the Answers." All three songs have compressed, resonating textures that recall the Beatles' waning days. Hendrix and the Byrds are obvious reference points as well, and it's these influences, mixed together with rap and hip-hop rhythms and technology, that keeps lead vocalist Mike Edwards's raspy voice and sardonic delivery from sounding as one-dimensional as it would have otherwise.
Included on the album is "Info Freako," the band's first British hit and still one of the best examples of how well the group merges pop, dance and metal music. Better yet, though, are the rhythmically seductive "Too Much to Learn," the defiant "One for the Money" and the turntable-driven funk track "Broken Bones."