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Galactic "We Love 'Em Tonight (Live at Tipitina's)"; Bob Dylan "Love and Theft"; The Beta Band "Hot Shots II" 

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Galactic "We Love 'Em Tonight (Live at Tipitina's)" (Volcano)

It's obvious that the audience brings Galactic energy that can't be found in the studio. The band's first live album was recorded at its home base, the legendary New Orleans club Tipitina's. The album captures Galactic's uncanny ability to mesh New Orleans funk, jazz improvisation, rhythm and blues and soul into a swampy sound that simply makes you get up and dance. Several tracks are instrumentals, including the infectious opener, "Crazyhorse Mongoose," and a catchy rendition of Allen Toussaint's "Working in the Coal Mine." But Galactic's secret weapon is Theryl "The Houseman" de Clouet. De Clouet, known for his ability to work the crowd, serves as a spiritual godfather to the group. With soothing vocals he lends Marvin Gaye soul and Barry White sexuality to their rolling sound. He even manages to pull off a funked-up cover of the Black Sabbath rock anthem "Sweet Leaf." The album showcases incredible musicianship — especially from the rhythm section of bassist Rob Mercurio and uberdrummer Stanton Moore — and a highly danceable blend of styles. — Christopher Hudgins

Bob Dylan "Love and Theft" (Columbia)

During the 1980s and early 1990s, there wasn't much reason to get excited about a new Bob Dylan album as he reeled off a string of hit-or-miss efforts. In concert, his performances were haphazard to say the least. Considering Dylan's place in music — his pioneering role in making topical lyrics acceptable in rock, his groundbreaking fusion of folk and rock on albums like "Blonde On Blonde" and the amazing poetry and power of his finest songs — it was painful to see him slip into irrelevance and mediocrity.

But in the mid-'90s, Dylan's concerts began to take on a new energy, focus and passion, which translated into the studio for 1997's "Time Out Of Mind." Now, four years later, Dylan has topped that previous effort with "Love and Theft."

The CD stands out foremost for its excursions into song styles that Dylan has only hinted at during his prolific career. On "Summer Days" Dylan draws from the jump-blues tradition, kicks the tempo into overdrive and unleashes one of the most enjoyable tunes of his career. Meanwhile, "Bye and Bye," with its torchy yet rough-hewn feel, sounds like it fell out of a 1920s-era songbook. Similarly, "Floater (Too Much to Ask)," with its shadings of violin and mandolin, recalls the hot jazz sound of the 1930s and '40s. Despite such strong roots, the songs sound so alive that they remove themselves from the realm of nostalgia. When Dylan returns to more familiar musical territory, the results are just as impressive. Two electric-blues tunes — "Lonesome Day Blues" and "Honest with Me" — bristle and swagger in a way that recalls classic songs like "Maggie's Farm" or "Highway 61."

Dylan also delivers in more of an acoustic folk-rooted style. The closing tune, "Sugar Baby," is perhaps the high point of "Love and Theft." The descending notes of its signature melody make a thing of beauty and hammer home the contemplative mood of the song.

Some say "Love and Theft" may belong among Dylan's masterpieces. That's a stretch. But as the 40th anniversary of Dylan's career approaches, it's enough of an achievement for Dylan to have found new stylistic territory to explore and create music with this kind of spirit and passion. Being a Dylan fan is truly exciting again. — Alan Sculley

The Beta Band "Hot Shots II" (Astralwerks)

Record-store shoppers stopped and cocked their heads to hear the Beta Band in "High Fidelity," a movie about three music snobs who approved of the Betas' "The Three EPs" album. Cusack and his cohorts might not have approved of the band's goofier self-titled follow-up, but you can bet they'd love the latest release, "Hot Shots II," because it's an excellent return to form.

Looking at the tongue-in-cheek nonsense on this cover — with its cheesy fiery explosion and the fact that there is no "Hot Shots I" — one might think they are in for a second dose of Beta Band goofiness, and their quickly tiresome everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. What's inside is actually quite surprising.

This group has taste and restraint! Lots of restraint, actually. Check the horns on "Human Being," which sound like they are being played behind a brick wall. It's this stripped-down form that gives the Beta Band the power to actually connect with the listeners instead of beating them over the head.

Everywhere I turn I'm reading some review about how this group sounds like Pink Floyd. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the risk of unintentionally turning off some listeners, I think it's more appropriate to imagine the Moody Blues with hip-hop beats. The Betas set the tone of "Hot Shots II" with the opening track, "Squares" — a cappella vocals are soon lifted by a laid-back hip-hop beat and led by a meandering melody created with different elements of electronic music.

That's the basic formula for just about every song: The ever-changing odd beats, electronic noises and other subtleties twisting around the loungy tones are what make each track unique. I can see pop-music snobs everywhere nodding their heads in approval. — Wayne Melton
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