Ostensibly a soundtrack to the group's recent straight-to-video film of the same title, most of the music on Three 6 Mafia's Choices (Loud; Grade: B-) doesn't appear in the movie (and vice versa), though the album is peppered with soundbite skits from the film. Choices is not as memorable an album as the Project Pat and Gangsta Boo spin-off projects that Hypnotize Minds released earlier in the year, but this is the best proper Three 6 Mafia album yet.
Choices leads off, and peaks, with the summer radio hit "2-Way Freak." With its memorably slinky pager-beep hook and welcome lyrical counterpoint from new female protégé La Chat, "2-Way Freak" is the finest Three 6 cut since "Sippin' On Some Syrup." Nothing else on Choices is at that level, but some tracks do rise from the muck. "Baby Mama" is a realistic slice of life that again employs La Chat for some welcome male/female give-and-take ("It's my baby mama/I'm on child support/She gets welfare checks/But I stay in court" versus "It's my baby daddy/And he's always broke/And he ain't no good/Nothing but a joke"). And the blaxploitation R&B of "I Ain't Goin (A Hustler's Theme)" is an accomplished change of pace.
But 70 minutes of this stuff will still be too much for anyone who isn't part of the core audience or a slumming thrill-seeker. The beats and rhymes are still metronomic and the attitude belligerent in a manner that has no social purpose and maybe no social root.
La Chat may be a welcome foil on otherwise male-dominated Three 6 cuts like "Chickenhead," "2-Way Freak," and "Baby Mama," but her solo debut, Murder She Spoke (Koch; Grade: C), sounds pretty tired, coming on like it's 1991 all over again. Apparently La Chat didn't get the memo from the rest of the hip-hop nation that violence is out and sex and rampant materialism are in. Rather, the tough-talking La Chat (choice title: "Yeah I Rob") is the kind of gangster moll that Death Row Records could have used, evoking Snoop Dogg (by way of Angela Lansbury) with the album title (as well as on Choices, when she raps, "Hypnotize Minds is the label that pays me") and Ice Cube with the early-album refrain that she's "the bitch you love to hate."
La Chat's "Slob On My Cat," a response to Three 6's oral-sex-demanding "Slob On My Nob," may be a needed response, but that only makes it the second least sexy sex song ever committed to tape and no threat to the "Roxanne" songs in the pantheon of hip-hop answer records. There are stray moments of lyrical wit here ("Ain't no way that you can be me/I got thuggin' in my blood/Cookin' pork chops in that rice/Making scrubs fall in love," from "Peanut Butter"), but ultimately Murder She Spoke is a case study for a subgenre in which women can only be respected by mimicking the worst characteristics of the men behind the controls, all of which is made explicit on the cut "What Kind Of Bitch Do You Want?"
Keith Sykes' reputation is centered primarily on his songwriting, for good reason, but Don't Count Us Out (Syren Records; Grade: B+) may make a better case for Sykes as musician than as wordsmith. The lyrics are fine (especially "Broken Homes," which offers a needed positive rejoinder to the current era of primal-scream pop without lapsing into the maudlin), but it's the music that shines here. Sykes presides over a varied collection of roots styles that features a bevy of first-rate talent, both local (vocalists Susan Marshall and Jackie Johnson, players Ross Rice, Harry Peel, and Jimmy Davis, among others) and national (John Prine, Rodney Crowell, the incomparable Iris Dement). The opening "Country Morning Music" at first seems like an apt moniker for the collection, but Sykes and company stray from that acoustic blueprint plenty. The John Prine co-penned and co-sung "Everybody Wants to Feel Like You" is an invigorating blast of electric "heartland rock" that compares favorably to the best of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp, while the Rodney Crowell duet "Talking To a Stranger" is gently rootsy pop a la Buddy Holly.
Sykes also plumbs the other half of the Delta divide with fine results: "Chain" employs Hi vets Teenie Hodges and Howard Grimes (along with soulful backing vocals from Marshall and Johnson) for a solid slice of R&B, while the record's sole cover is a fine version of the Blind Willie McTell blues standard "Broke Down Engine."
But the best thing about Don't Count Us Out is Sykes' ability to juggle the contributions of friends and colleagues without ever -- except for the two Dement duets, but she would overshadow anyone -- letting his own musical personality get lost in the mix.
"This city's filled with reasons to kill/But everyone wants to play the blues," Alicja Trout sings on the opening track of the Lost Sounds' Black-Wave (Empty; Grade: A-). The sentiment won't endear the band to anyone in the local music industry, but it's the kind of lyric that focuses the power of a sound band (as opposed to song band) that is dark and brooding but also explosive, with melodies bursting out of the music's breakneck tempos. There can't be more than two or three other rock bands in town right now who have harnessed their sound as completely as the Lost Sounds do on Black-Wave, a stronger and fuller record than their fine Memphis is Dead from earlier in the year. The band's often thrashy, occasionally somber guitar-and-keyboard raveups reimagine new wave as the most vicious possible garage rock, with echoes of early rock-and-roll poking out of the mix (check the great handclap chorus of "Heart Felt Toys").
Black-Wave peaks midway through when co-lead singers/guitarists/keyboard players Jay Reatard and Trout take turns with back-to-back showcases -- the locomotive pull of Reatard's "1620 Echles St." segueing into the more mid-tempo reflection of Trout's "Throw Away."
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.