Reviews of CDs by Hepcat, Boyz II Men and John Duffey.
Now Hear This
Hepcat, "Push 'N Shove," (Hellcat Records) Ska music, the precursor to dub reggae and rocksteady, has come a long way from its origins as a Jamaican form of pop music. That dates as far back as the 1950s. Ska drew heavily on American rhythm and blues, soul and even jazz. Nowadays ska is synonymous with blaring horns, crunchy guitars and a punklike attitude. Unfortunately, these younger bands, playing their own version of the music, fail to pay homage to the music's roots or its innovators. One band that stands out from the rest is Hepcat, whose music is consistent with that of the early Jamaican ska sound. The title track for the band's fourth effort, "Push 'N Shove," sets the tone for the rest of the album. Hepcat replicates, more than on any other of their previous records, the feel of early Jamaican pioneers such as The Skatalites, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. They've also incorporated more early musical influences of ska into their sound, to boot. My favorite tracks this go-round are "Coming On Strong," the rocksteady instrumental stomper, "The Spins," "Daydreamin," and their cover version of the soul classic "Gimme Little Sign." Guest appearances are also made by the group's former co-vocalist Alex Desert on the record's other cover tune, Lord Funny's "Tek Dat" and on their original love song "You And I." Alex Desert left Hepcat to pursue an acting career, having starred in the television show "Becker" and appeared in the movie "Swingers." The other guest appearance comes from co-vocalist of the Dance Hall Crashers, Karina Denike, who sings lead on the eerie "Prison Of Love." Hepcat may not have as many potential hit singles on the laid-back "Push 'N Shove" as on their last album, "Right On Time," but their style of ska and rocksteady is still as authentic and listener-friendly as that of the musicians who pioneered the sound. Angelo DeFranzoBoyz II Men, "Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya" (Universal/Motown) Boyz II Men weren't the first four dapper fellas to sing flawless harmonies while wearing matching suits, but in this era of "Ken Doll" boy bands, they're practically icons. They are proof positive that you can get somewhere without leather suits, platinum chains and songs about thongs. How else do you explain the rush of pale imitators that flooded the charts while the Boyz were off working on their first album since 1997? This disc relies on the Boyz II Men formula: smooth harmonies and romantic lyrics x great producers = huge sales. The single "Pass You By," is a prime example. "Beautiful Women," a Latino-sounding track that's a little reminiscent of "Motown Philly," opens the CD on an upbeat note. "Thank You in Advance" is indicative of the eternal optimism that seems to permeate the band's music. The rest of the disc is equally impressive. No cut necessarily screams "instant hit," but you don't have to work the skip button, either. It's simply solid. Whether these men will reach the lofty heights they once held remains to be seen. But we do know that the three-year wait for this one was worth it. No jutting pelvises, no nagging melodies. Just laid-back jams. Joseph JonesJohn Duffey, "Always in Style: A Collection," (Sugar Hill) This CD was compiled as a tribute to the former leader of the Washington, D.C.-based bluegrass band the Seldom Scene who died in December 1996. Even now, members of the band acknowledge that John Duffey was the heart and soul of the group, and this recording documents why. Cut after cut, Duffey's tenor soars with a grace and an edge that grabs a listener with its soulful elegance, and his mandolin rings with a rootsy resonance. The 21 tunes included in this package are culled from a number of Seldom Scene albums recorded between 1978 and 1996, and even without Duffey's magic, this CD would be great just as a collection of bluegrass classics and rearranged country and folk tunes. Whether working musical wonders on Bill Monroe's "Rose of Old Kentucky" or Woody Guthrie's "Philadelphia Lawyer" or Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," the group is a vocal and instrumental marvel. The Seldom Scene continues today as one of the best bluegrass bands around. But "Always in Style" makes it clear John Duffey will never be replaced, and he deserves an honored place in bluegrass history. Ames Arnold
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