The Marshall Mathers LP2


2½ stars (Out of four)

OMG, this is, like, so totally ’90s!

Eminem released “The Marshall Mathers LP’s” first volume 13 years ago. Back then, the Detroit-raised rapper came across as at once a radical and prodigiously talented rapper. He also was a bit of a creep, more than a bit of a misogynist, and a homophobe, to boot. In the time since, “Slim Shady” seemed to be fading from focus, collapsing into a solipsistic pool of bitterness, drug addiction and perhaps most degrading of all, irrelevance. Always bratty, the Eminem of 2009’s “The Relapse” now added cloying self-pity and a firm belief that his own narcissism held some sort of universal appeal, as long as the rhymes were strong and the attack vicious.

Happily, “Marshall Mathers LP2” largely drops the self-pity and navel gazing, offering an Eminem who seems to be having fun once again, and who has reaffirmed his ability to make nastiness rhyme like nobody’s business.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that much of “LP2” sounds dated, when it isn’t downright stuck in the miasma of that late ’90s era when rap decided it wanted to also be rock, pop and techno.

Case in point is “Rap God,” a typically ego-fueled marriage of hyper-clever caffeinated rhymes and well, lame sounding piano samples, voice-overs, looped synths and feeble drum machine. Em spews filth, as is his wont, and some of his rhymes are absolutely hilarious, as if the man has now truly asserted his place as the undisputed Shakespeare of potty-mouth.

Album-opener “Bad Guy” offers a litany of “I’ve been wronged” wordplay from our man, with singer Skylar Grey adding vocals that provide an Evanescence-like goth-rock counterpoint. This is a nasty piece of business, with our narrator seemingly still interested in listing the (apparently endless) offenses perpetrated upon him by his ex.

“Parking Lot” is an eminently disturbing audio play, wherein Shady apparently shoots a foe, runs while swearing like a man on fire, is pursued by police, surrounded, and then shoots himself, all in the space of 55 seconds. Why? Who knows?

Far better is “Rhyme or Reason,” one of several songs that winningly employs a sample from a revered hit of the past – in this instance, the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” the opening line of which (“What’s your name, who’s your daddy?”) Em answers with “Marshall, and I don’t have one.” This is producer Rick Rubin and Eminem at their playful best, and when the two dig for samples to construct songs around – “Berzerk” employs Billy Squier and the Beastie Boys; “Love Games” borrows Wayne Fontana’s “The Game of Love”; “So Far” takes a chunk from Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” – they lighten the otherwise oppressively negative mood.

Sadly, these high points also underline the fact that Eminem now sounds like a man frozen at that late ’90s point in time when what he was doing seemed new, fresh, bold and exciting. Now, it merely sounds cleverly nostalgic.

– Jeff Miers


Randy Brecker

The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion

[Piloo Records]

2½ stars

“Reunion?” Say what? Michael Brecker, quite tragically, died of leukemia at the age of 57 in 2007. He was not only one of the two founding members of the Brecker Brothers Band, he was, far and away, the group’s most consequential and influential musician, even though the original Brothers disc was supposed to be a record by Randy alone. Mike was the one, in fact, who lifted the whole band above the category of a 10,000-note-a-minute jazz rock fusion band of little but noise and technical prowess.

If anyone did, that is.

If Mike Brecker was the most influential white tenor saxophonist of the whole post-Coltrane generation (and he was all of that, many times over), Randy Brecker has seldom seemed too much more than a proficient technician. He had all the chops of a popular and much-employed studio musician and none of the imagination of a jazz artist whose music makes a difference.

The latter, sadly, is what’s true of Randy’s attempt to make Brecker Band music without the brother it desperately needed.

Heaven knows Randy’s name alone could gather an important branch of the fusion clan, everyone from Will Lee and Mike Stern to David Sanborn, Dave Weckl and Adam Rogers. But there are good reasons why the fusioneers and funkslingers of jazz never earned the undying allegiance of anyone other than those who felt that jazz held itself too high and mighty for ordinary folk and needed to be taught a lesson.

If jazz was a folk music, an art music and a pop music, fusion was the sadly compromised rock of proficient musicians sick of looking to each other for support and making too little money doing it.

This is not to say that no creditable music happens here among old Brecker colleagues. It does. Ada Rovatti isn’t really a substitute for Mike Brecker, but whenever Brecker has alto saxophonist Sanborn around to bounce off, there’s some actual flavor and idiosyncrasy to accent the blandness and mediocrity.

“The Slag” does some good gospel stomping things with guitarists Stern and Mitch Stein as well as George Whitty on keyboards. And a few other tunes earn their keep (“Elegy for Mike” especially, despite the synthesizer yuck), but the disc is a player’s disc that’s far more interested in chops than music.

– Jeff Simon


Sultans of String


[Red River]

3 stars

No, you won’t hear this version of these tunes when the Canadian jazz string band pulls into the Sportsmen’s Tavern on Nov. 17. It isn’t exactly the kind of place that can make room for a 50-piece orchestra and that’s what the Sultans wanted to give some punch and impact to this disc.

What this string jazz band does is not only good fun, it’s stocked wall-to-wall with irresistible international musics – gypsy jazz classics, flamenco music, Inuit melody, ukulele raveups, visiting musicians from the Chieftains for indigenous island music, Lebanese music, you name it. If it’s got strings and fingerboards, count them in.

What they never forget to provide, though, is enough melodic charm to beguile almost anyone. The large orchestra certainly does give them gravitas but, on their own, they’ve got as much charm as they need.

– J.S.


The 5 Browns

The Rite of Spring

[Steinway & Sons]

3 stars

I don’t know who deserves our amazement more, Jeffrey Shumway for arranging Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for five pianos, or the Five Browns, who not only played it but memorized it. It’s all almost too much to contemplate. The Five Browns are five brothers and sisters from Utah who outdo themselves with projects that are half virtuoso, half vaudeville, and this disc is glorious in its cacophony.

I am not sure we needed another piano treatment of “The Rite of Spring” because just earlier this year, we saw the release of Jon Kimura Parker’s performance of his own solo piano arrangement. On the other hand, isn’t excess what this group – and “The Rite of Spring,” for that matter – are all about? The sound of the Stravinsky is more sensitive than you might expect, though it does build to a sort of continuous wild bacchanalia that wears on you.

I actually found it more entertaining than the Kimura because I like all the different distributions of notes that are possible when you are dealing with five pianos. There are twinkly effects in the Introduction to the Adoration of the Earth and jazzy effects in the Mystical Circles of the Young Girls, and – well, you get the idea. Call up your friends, open a bottle of mead or some other primal and ancient elixir, and hear it for yourself.

The disc also includes arrangements by Greg Anderson (of the piano duo Anderson and Roe) of Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” and three movements of Holst’s “The Planets,” culminating in the famous “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” This recital, or whatever it is called, was recorded live at Skidmore College.

– Mary Kunz Goldman