A punk-era pop star's personal, rich album

Posted: July 25, 2006

Of the three albums reviewed today, one was a long time coming, one was long-awaited, and one is by a cowboy who's long in the tooth.

Green Gartside is surely the only punk-era pop star to buddy up with both French philosopher Jacques Derrida and Miles Davis (who recorded the '80s Scritti Politti hit "Perfect Way"), and who knows as much about Marxist critical theory as he does about old-school hip-hop.

That said, White Bread, Black Beer (Nonesuch ***), released today, the first album in eight years from the sweet-voiced Scritti singer, is his most personal, autobiographical effort to date. From the list of Run-D.M.C. song titles that make up a verse in the opening musical manifesto "The Boom Boom Bap" to the ode to an inspirational schoolteacher, "Mrs. Hughes," Gartside, a 51-year-old Brit, bares his soul, Scritti-style.

His elegantly restrained, beat-savvy homemade pop puts his well-preserved voice at the foreground. In White Bread, Black Beer, Gartside faces up to his fear of creative completion - of really finishing his work - as well as the stage fright that has kept him from performing live for 26 years (he's now planning a fall tour). "Just another drink, another cigarette / If you never play your cards you'll never lose the bet."

*

Pharrell Williams

In My Mind

(Star Trak/Interscope ***)

It's no shock that Pharrell's dropped a solo hottie.

Whether working as a producing partner in the spare, sexy Neptunes or as a playa in his spacey band N*E*R*D (both with Chad Hugo), Pharrell has managed to insinuate his impish falsetto and naughty lyrics into the music. (He's the falsetto "Sn-o-o-o-o-p" behind "Drop It Like It's Hot.") In fact, he's made his bits the best part of every song they've touched.

But what took so long for this easy blend of street-smart hip-hop and Prince-ly soul?

It's not that what happens in Pharrell's Mind isn't bold. The sing-speak of "Baby" feels - rhythmically, raunchily - like the Purple One's Dirty Mind. The gangsta-disco "Show You How to Hustle" is gorgeous. The silky, angelic "That Girl" is as dynamic as any of Pharrell's duets with Snoop.

But the innovations - the New Wave crackle, the freaky futurist funk - found in the Neptunes and N*E*R*D* stuff seem to have been scrubbed from Mind, leaving us to wonder: Pharrell - were you just frontin'?- A.D. Amorosi

*

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

I Stand Alone

(Anti- ***)

In relation to this album, the title is technically not true: Ramblin' Jack Elliott - running buddy of Woody Guthrie, mentor to Bob Dylan - gets occasional help here from younger, presumably hipper folk, including Lucinda Williams and members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, Wilco and Sleater-Kinney.

It's all mere window dressing, though, for an album that in the end really is all about just Ramblin' Jack and his guitar. In a weathered voice that reflects the weight of his adventures and experiences but still carries more than a hint of frisky playfulness, the 74-year-old troubadour mixes traditional songs with numbers by A.P. Carter, Leadbelly, Hoagy Carmichael and others. The result is a broad, open-hearted take on American music that ultimately does stand alone.

- Nick Cristiano

ONLINE EXTRA

Listen to new releases at http://go.philly.com/albums

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