Oysterhead "The Grand Pecking Order"; Mary J. Blige "No More Drama"; AM/FM "Getting into Sinking"; Grade "Headfirst Straight To Hell" 

Now Hear This

Oysterhead "The Grand Pecking Order" (Elektra) - Every once in a while, a few all-star musicians get together and put on a show. Sometimes they put their other projects aside, call themselves a band, put out an album, and go on tour. Such is the case with Oysterhead. The seemingly holiest of holy unions between Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, Primus bassist Les Claypool, and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland began at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May 2000, when Claypool recruited Anastasio and Copeland to put on a "Superjam." After a blistering set, the three knew they had something special, but did not reconvene to lay down a record for almost a year. When they did, it cemented one of the most powerful Super Groups since Blind Faith formed in 1969.

Fans of Phish, Primus, and the Police will be encountering an earful of entirely new sounds from their heroes on "Pecking Order," which is exactly what those fans have come to expect. Claypool seems to be the top dog of the three self-described alpha males, with his bass leading the rhythm and his Primus influence coming through on the title track as well as on "Shadow of a Man" and the British underground sound of "Little Faces." Anastasio's subtle guitar contributes sublime riffs and loops, and his influences are clear on the acoustics of "Radon Balloon," the catchy guitar crunch of "Owner of the World" and the oddities of "Wield the Spade." Copeland's drums are as on-point as ever, furthering his reputation as one of the most underrated rock 'n' roll drummers ever. The trio is perhaps best described in the self-reflexive "Mr. Oysterhead": "I remember back in the day/ when music folk had a lot to say/ Now I sit, hope and pray/ that someone will come along and show the way … He's an inspiration to us all." — Ford Gunter

Mary J. Blige "No More Drama" (MCA Records) - Anyone familiar with the music of Mary J. Blige knows the significance of the title of her new CD, "No More Drama." Blige's first three albums — "What's The 411?" (1992), "My Life" (1995) and "Share My World" (1997) — chronicled, with no small amount of emotion, her romantic struggles and her battle to gain self-esteem and self-confidence. The 1999 "Mary" CD signaled a turning point for Blige, as she began pointing toward a happier and healthier future.

On "No More Drama," Blige radiates positivity. On "Love" she pronounces herself ready for a nurturing, long-lasting relationship. She plans for times of release and intimacy on "Steal Away." And she declares herself free of the need for romantic and personal turmoil on the song "No More Drama." Blige may be smoothing out the rough edges in her life, but fortunately there is plenty of drama within the music on the new CD.

To a great degree, "No More Drama" is Blige's least gritty work. Early CDs spotlighted beats and exuded a street-tough personality, but "No More Drama" is her most melodic and classically soulful effort. To be sure, there are still some smart, modern rhythms driving these tracks, but a song like "Crazy Games," for example, is built more around layers of vocal harmonies and a jazzy soul melody instead of the beat. On the title song, Blige borrows the delicate "Young And Restless Theme" to set the tone for her self-affirming promise to overcome romantic pain and seek out the joy in life. Even tracks that emphasize their beats — such as "Where I've Been" and "Family Affair" — boast melodies strong enough to hold their own against the groove. The mood throughout the CD is often one of determination as much as contentment. It's as if Blige has not quite attained the serenity that is such a watchword on "No More Drama," but she knows that feeling is within her reach.

"No More Drama" is a clear signal that Blige's music will no longer be fueled so much by tension and turmoil. For some artists, that could suck the life out of their songs. But "No More Drama" suggests that a happy Mary J. Blige is able to create music that's every bit as satisfying as the music that characterized her more embattled past. - Alan Sculley

AM/FM "Getting into Sinking" - This Philadelphia-based duo's second full-length is a humble collection of lo-fi, acoustic-based, mellow tunes. As the title suggests, the songs are so sedative that you find yourself sinking into a state of oblivion. You can listen to the entire 40 minutes and not even remember it once it's over. The songwriting, while meant to seem relaxed and spontaneous, more often sounds clumsy and poorly crafted, and the falsetto vocal melodies, in most cases, seem like an afterthought. While some of the 12 tracks on this record come through with captivating melodies, few find a center to build upon, leaving them sounding empty and directionless. — Lindsay Sterling

Grade "Headfirst Straight To Hell"(Victory Records) - Moving past the album's graphics (which instilled in me the expectation of heavy metal), this album is probably the best record released this year by the hardcore intensive Victory Records. The band we have to thank for this fairly original creation is the Canadian outfit Grade. While toeing the post-hardcore line to a degree, the group's tunes likewise draw on emo, metal, punk and indie rock as influences. This hodgepodge of styles is a great middle ground for fans of all of the previously mentioned genres. The end result of this emergence of musical directions is comparable on the whole to a group such as Shades Apart, but particular guitar riffs or time signature changes could easily be reminiscent of nonrelated bands like Embrace or Iron Maiden. Yes even Iron Maiden resonates. Grade's sound is basically a cool breeze blowing through a somewhat stagnant post-hardcore musical scene. With songs such as the old-school-infused "Little Satisfactions" and the somewhat schizophrenic "In Ashes We Lie" beefing up an already decent record, it's easy to see exactly why Grade makes the grade on its latest effort.— Angelo DeFranzo


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