Sound Bites

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2008

Akon, 'Freedom' ★★★

Akon sneaks up you, doesn't he? Since 2004, while much of the hip-hop universe witnessed sales plummet and elaborate productions grow duller, the Senegalese hop-popper with the mournful, lilting voice was busy being locked up and smacking that and making big money. The key to Akon's success is an economic sonic style and a lyrical palette that keeps it simple.

Richer, denser and more ruminative than Akon's usual tinny production, "Freedom" isn't exactly baroque. But it is broader in tone, churchier and clubbier, even. While the title tune comes across as somewhat heavy-handed (African marching drums and moody melody to make Peter Gabriel blanch), much of Akon's remaining efforts are sprightly and discoesque.

If "We Don't Care" doesn't make you yearn for further Donna Summer-Giorgio Moroder collaboration, the elated house-music grandeur of "Keep You Much Longer" will send you to the nearest dance floor. Corny as that sounds, Akon manages to make club-pop with a vocal and melodic dexterity as ferocious as its rhythms. Still, there's little here as potent as the clipped, flippant hip-hop kick of "I'm So Paid," with Akon's patented moan set against the leering raps of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne.

Smack that.

The Replacements, 'Tim' ★★★★ 'Pleased to Meet Me' ★★★★

"One foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter," Paul Westerberg wails on "I Don't Know," from 1987's "Pleased to Meet Me." That ambivalence gets to the heart of the brilliant mess that was the Replacements, one of those bands that is far more influential than its record sales would indicate. Now, the Minneapolis quartet's eight studio albums, from 1981's "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" through 1990's great-in-retrospect "All Shook Down," have been remastered and reissued, all with worthy and sometimes revelatory bonus tracks.

"Tim" and "Pleased to Meet Me" were the Replacements' first two major-label albums after four in the indie ranks, but the move up didn't tame them any. (That would come with the next album, the disappointing "Don't Tell a Soul.") They may have refined their punkish attack - and the made-in-Memphis "Pleased" added some R&B elements - but the scruffy foursome still seemed on the verge of careering wildly out of control.

Amid all the thrilling recklessness, however, Westerberg continued to grow as a songwriter. And seventeen years after the Replacements' demise, these songs ring as true as ever; these reissues reaffirm the group's stature as one of the greatest of rock bands.

Guitar Red 'Lightnin' in a Bottle' ★★★ ½

Street musicians have to project a dynamic presence to get and keep an audience. The 44-year-old Guitar Red (Billy Christian Walls), who busks in Decatur, Ga., is a pro at it, and, performing solo except for one number, he captures all that energy on tape on the aptly titled "Lightnin' in a Bottle."

The singer-guitarist has substance abuse, homelessness and jail time on his resume, which gives him ample fodder to sing the blues. Without denying hard-luck reality, however, he conveys an infectious exuberance for life. Laments such as "I Ain't Got Nobody But Myself" and "Chain Gang Blues" are outnumbered by brisk, hard-strumming workouts such as "Lips Poked Out" and the humorous "Three-Legged Dog Blues," or the sweet declaration of faith "I Believe." A great find.

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