The 13 plain-spoken tales on Waters' debut, Fertile Ground, wander as far afield as reminiscing about the family farm, getting shanked in a dark alley (a consequence, no doubt, of leaving the farm), killing several deserving sonsabitches, and mourning a failed relationship over a plate of enchiladas. Better than the Mexican food are the murder ballads, and Waters is ringmaster of the dysfunctional family circus that stars "Angelina," the story of a man imprisoned for murdering his girlfriend's killer with a hammer. (Ten bonus points for using an innovative murder weapon; getting capped with a .44 is so 1994.)

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"Now these walls that once were my only home burn hollow and red/and from my back the weight of vengeance has been thrown/as the flames engulf that dirty drunkard's bed," Waters sings bitterly on "Harris County Fire," which takes us inside the head of an arsonist who embarks on a patricidal rampage to punish his father for driving his mother to suicide. Next thing you know the guy will complain about being an orphan.

Like any self-respecting troubadour, Waters also plays acoustic guitar and harmonica. A natural melody-maker with a knack for the hook, he embellishes his Shaker-simple songs with the talents of fiddler Richard Bowden, Dobro player and mandolinist Jeff Plankenhorn, and guitarist Michael O'Connor, who add elegance and lushness to several cuts, including "Great Big Love," "The Mountains," and "The Devil Made Me Do It."

The disc's only clunker is "Things Change." Sure, the backstory is about growing up and leaving home, but the song's contrived lyrics detailing sweat and thighs fumble as clumsily as the drive-in theater groping that Water recalls. (For a moment I thought it sounded like Pat Green.)

While Fertile Ground wouldn't yield a grand champion watermelon at the 4-H Fair, it grows on you over time. The album's sincerity and lack of pretension should earn Waters' green thumb at least a red ribbon and a new Peterbilt cap - worn forward, of course.




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Have you been waiting for that follow-up to Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet? Have you been wondering when a mainstream hip-hop record would come along that is unafraid to tread the forked path of experimentation and jaw-drop skill-show? Have you been concerned that Things Fall Apart was the last gasp of a group on the way down? Well, this skull-rubbing "tour de force" should ease your pain. Having moved from bleeding-edge provocateurs screaming "Look we're live, but we're not retro!," the Roots are now firmly beyond the pale, having released a resolutely underground record under the guise of a major-label "big deal." Jamming years of influences, corporate frustrations, and far-flung musical explorations into the mix, Phrenology is all over the place, and at times, is complex enough to be very nearly inscrutable. Yet the organic sense of experimentation that has always defined the Roots is the key here and this album bristles with the same visceral fire that marked not only mid-'80s hip-hop, but also the Power Soul movement of the '70s. Phrenology might well stand as the penultimate statement for hip-hop in this decade, as it absolutely forces the genre forward another couple steps; whether the genre wants to keep up is another story.




In a recent magazine interview, Talib Kweli Greene admitted to being somewhat uncomfortable with putting out a true solo album. The self-described team player misses his homeboys Mos Def and DJ Hi Tek, with whom he shares membership in two groups - Black Star and Reflection Eternal, respectively. Instead of offering the usual "I took this album to the next level" rhetoric, Kweli's admission actually hints at a possible lack of confidence in his ability to go it alone.

Listening to Quality on the strength of Kweli's track record, one can wonder if this is the case. Luckily, hints can be misleading. After opening with a two-minute introduction by comedian Dave Chapelle (which is funny but a bit long), Kweli launches into a celebration that lasts seven cuts before slowing down. The sequencing between "Rush" (Track 2) and "Joy" (Track 7) is flawless. It hits like Lavar Arrington, and vocally takes the listener through thought processes as angry and honest as the culturally self-reflective "Get By" and the hardcore commentary of "Gun Music," then finally to one of the most detailed stories of fatherhood ever heard from an MC.

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It is after "Joy" that the album slows down and changes moods. This switch might lose some listeners, because the opening pace is so addictive. "Talk to You" is drawn out, and Bilal fails to do justice to a rendition of David Peaston's "Can I." Surprisingly, the following track, "Guerrilla Monsoon Rap," is the weakest track on the album. Verses by Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch make it interesting, but barely save it.

The remainder of the album is effectively moody. DJ Quik adds his trademark West Coast funk with "Put it in the Air," a definite club banger. Kweli then revisits the Reflection Eternal vibe on cuts like "The Proud" and "Stand to the Side," before knocking you out with "Good to You."

Kweli gets an A-minus for his lyrical ability. You gotta love a cat who comes up with lines like "The president's a Bush/The vice president's a dick/So a whole lotta fuckin' is what we gon' get." That is priceless, worthy of any family political debate. He gets a B for total production. Not everyone will stick with the moodiness of the album. Nine producers, 15 songs. That is a lot of diversity to manage, but Kweli keeps it in stride. He has no reason to be skeptical about having to go for self.




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