Spin Control

June 4, 2006



The Coup, "Pick a Bigger Weapon" (Epitaph) *1/2

Though he's been a hero in the underground hip-hop world since 1993, Boots Riley, the main man behind the Oakland, Calif., duo the Coup, is best known in the music world for the controversy over the original cover of "Party Music," released shortly before 9/11, and presciently portraying him blowing up the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner as detonator. At its best, the group's music has indeed been explosive: Witness the way DJ Pam the Funkstress' electro-synth groove propels the 2001 track "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," which found Riley striking the perfect balance between his Marxist politics, righteous anger and wicked satire. But the equilibrium is all off on the Coup's fifth album, which is a muddled mess when it isn't outright annoying.

"I'm here to laugh, love, f--- and drink liquor / And help the damn revolution come quicker," is the line most often cited by the disc's boosters. But what they hail as an infusion of playground humor making the politics more entertaining, I hear as sophomoric silliness and lowest-common-denominator pandering. Riley's self-serving praise of shoplifters in "I Love Boosters" and his attack on brownnosers in "A---Breath Killers" are tedious from the first couplets, and the nursery rhyme at the heart of "Head (Of State)" is the sort of "critique" that makes you think Fox is right about pea-brained liberals; there are a lot of more pressing things to say about Iraq than, "Bush and Hussein together in bed ... Billions made and millions dead." But the problems with "Pick a Bigger Weapon" are musical as much as lyrical.

Largely recorded live in the studio with a big band featuring local guitar hero Tom Morello, Dwayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone and veterans of Maze and the Gap Band, the Coup is aiming for a version of Digital Underground's update of the classic psychedelic party grooves of Parliament-Funkadelic, but it actually delivers pointless, unfocused eclecticism. With 17 tracks clocking in at 65 minutes, the disc seems twice as long, and the effort to weed out the few successful moments such as Silk E's guest turn on "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBuchDoSomethin'Crazy" just aren't worth the trouble.


Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, "The River in Reverse" (Verve/Forecast) **

I've always preferred the former Declan MacManus, when he's in straight-ahead rock mode, rather than dabbling with ill-conceived or pretentious genre experiments such as his forays into country ("Almost Blue"), baroque ("Imperial Bedroom") and classical avant garde ("The Juliet Letters"). As one of these detours, his collaboration with New Orleans soul/jazz legend Allen Toussaint is more successful than most, but it still requires us to accept Elvis Costello as a great interpretive singer, and that has always been the least of his talents.

The two artists met in New York at a benefit to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, and they recorded in New Orleans late last year as it was still struggling to climb out of the wreckage. (Toussaint lost his home in the storm.) Costello scoured his latest partner's lengthy catalog for overlooked gems; rewrote some to comment, albeit obliquely, on disasters natural and manmade; and penned a few new tunes, alone or in collaboration with Toussaint. Augmented by the R&B legend's Crescent City Horns, Costello's backing band the Impostors turn out passable though hardly stellar version of the more uptempo Nawlins' grooves, but the more swampy ballads really drag. And even the best of these tunes sink beneath ol' Declan's homely vocals, his tendency to mistake over-singing for emoting and the fact that he just doesn't have the soul to make moving tunes such as "On the Way Down," "All These Things" and "Nearer to You" his own.