Rooty, Basement Jaxx (Astralwerks)
Discovery, Daft Punk (Virgin)
Though the age of Dylan and the Beatles still seems to hold sway over pop music consciousness -- the Bard's 60th birthday and the Beatles' shamefully useless Anthology repackaging have gotten more respectful attention than anything else music-related this year -- you could make a compelling case that the most important era of post-war pop wasn't the Summer of Love or even the "birth of rock" in the mid-'50s but the relatively uncelebrated late '70s. That's right -- the malaise-filled Carter administration as home to pop's most thorough cultural correction.
In retrospect, the late '70s witnessed the birth of three pop styles that formed the core of most compelling pop that's been made since -- punk, hip hop, and disco. Disco has been the most maligned from day one, but with punk in commercial decline, that producer-/DJ-/diva-driven dance music rivals hip hop for global supremacy. Of course, no one calls it disco anymore, since the term was long-ago displaced by monikers such as techno, electronica, and club and gerrymandered into a morass of subgenres seemingly designed to scare off dilettantes.
But for those who can't be bothered to distinguish between arcane subsets like tech-house, 2-step, and speed-garage, there seem to be two types of dance music that spark more general interest. There's the hip-hop- and garage-rock-influenced big beat of Fatboy Slim -- DJ bricolage as Big Dumb Fun. Then there's the music captured on these two albums, which, terminology be damned, is just plain disco -- disco that Chic and Donna Summer could be proud of.
Daft Punk's Discovery is the better of the two -- pure, transcendent, vocoder-laden dance-floor delivery that opens with a four-song rush that sounds positively historic. The lead cut/single "One More Time" is Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" reimagined as post- millenial club hymn. "One more time/We're gonna celebrate/Oh yeah/Don't stop the dancing," guest vocalist Romanthony sings as the French DJ duo imbues the mundane sentiments with a sonic aura that borders on the magical. Next is the smart, witty instrumental "Aerodynamic," which cunningly juxtaposes two genres seemingly furthest removed from dance music -- guitar- heavy acid rock and classical-leaning prog rock -- without ever losing the beat or forgoing the funk. "Digital Love" lifts '70s AOR a la ELO and REO Speedwagon for a sweet little dance-floor love song. "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" completes the triumphant opening set with a virtuoso, vocodered-vocal symphony composed primarily of the four words of the title. Discovery comes down to earth after that, with a barrage of instrumentals that flirt with, but never succumb to, the monotony that disbelievers tend to associate with electronic dance music.
Rooty starts off on a high note as grand as Discovery but can't sustain it for as long. The lead cut/single "Romeo" is as thrilling in its own way as the London duo's great 1999 single "Red Alert." With guest vocalist Kele Le Roc providing a vocal filled with more personality than the typical diva-for-hire club vocals, the song is the catchiest romantic kiss-off in memory. After that stunner, Rooty reveals its true mission: to be the new decade's best Prince album, a feat that, sadly, it is likely to attain. "Breakaway" sounds like one of the Prince songs he recorded under altered-voice pseudonym Camille. The over-sexed "Get Me Off" is more salacious than anything Prince has done since the similarly titled "Gett Off" almost a decade ago.
Rooty doesn't hold up, first note to last, quite like Discovery does, but anyone with a pop sensibility who wants to sample some modern club music would be well-advised to start with either record. -- Chris Herringon
Grades: A- (both records)
Hot Shots II, The Beta Band (Astralwerks)
While the title of the Beta Band's second proper album perhaps unknowingly refers to an unfortunate Charlie Sheen movie from 1993, the spirit of Hot Shots II suggests that this Welsh quartet is already standing in line for Lord of the Rings tickets. At times overwrought with trippy fantasy references and sci-fi-themed lyrics, the album namedrops the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on "Al Sharp" and chants "Sell to them the killing gem/Attack to get it back" repeatedly on "Life." But there's no unifying theme or narrative here to tie everything together: Hot Shots II is a concept album in search of a concept.
Fortunately, the band emphasizes rhythm and texture as much as, if not more than, the band's lyrics. The album's carefully sculpted beats and elegant soundscapes are simultaneously precision-calculated and dreamily spontaneous, making Hot Shots II a very imaginative and listenable, if not very consistent, album.
The lead track, "Squares," lays a shuffling electronica beat over a trip-hop bassline, hits stride with a beautifully spiraling guitar solo, and ends with a coda of Casiotone handclaps. It's the Beta Band at their best: "Squares" grabs handfuls of disparate genre elements, squashes them all together, and makes them sound not only cohesive but natural and harmonious.
The album's closer, "Won," is a glorious trainwreck: The band grafts Harry Nilsson's "One" onto a hip-hop breakdown, over which New York-based musician Sean Reveron raps about "cinematic synergy." The original's famously relentless chord sequence remains, although the violins sound like a tip of the hat to the recent Aimee Mann cover. The song shouldn't work at all, but it's a strangely compelling mess of elements -- easily the album's most inspired risk.
Ultimately, listeners may wish the band had stuck more closely to experiments like "Won" and had forgone some of the D&D- inspired digressions. Still, most of the album lives up to the title, even if some songs never quite rise above tepid shots of playful beats and stilted lyrics. -- Stephen Deusner
The Invisible Man, Mark Eitzel (Matador)
The phrase "singer-songwriter" can rightfully produce a feeling of petrifying terror in discerning listeners. I'm not discrediting the entire genre -- when it's good, it's beautiful, but when it's bad wow. I will wager that Mark Eitzel is aware of this. That's one of the reasons his output is largely iconoclastic and only occasionally wow. Despite the trendy electronic overlay, The Invisible Man is an album of wit, confidence, and individuality. It's a strong and moody album that doesn't resort to assaulting you with a personal holocaust every five minutes, aware that with the exception of perhaps Arab Strap the listener must not be constantly subjected to unsubtle baggage.
Much of the '80s and early '90s saw Eitzel fronting the acclaimed American Music Club before dissolving them in 1996 to focus on his already prolific solo career (this is the sixth full-length under his name). Eitzel, with and without AMC, has worn a path to and from the alcoholism and self- deprecation drawing board, using a whip-smart vocabulary to make those two life-wreckers harmonious. And the songwriting is here in spades, enveloped not by the chaotic folk element that personified great Eitzel moments of yore (see "The Dead Part Of You" from AMC's Everclear if you question this) but by a thick atmosphere dominated by keyboards, swinging synthetic percussion, and burbling glitchtronics. It can be awkward and unbecoming, as with "To the Sea," with its forced Euro-beats, or when the swooshing background noises become an unneeded focal point ("The Boy With the Hammer"), but skip the handful of offenders and you have a unique keeper that belies the fact that it appears at the butt-end of a 20-year career. -- Andrew Earles
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.