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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2004 07:53 am

sound patrol 9-16-04

Safety first

Ricky Fanté Rewind (Virgin)

Ricky Fanté

Ricky Fanté makes soul music, nothing "neo" about it: just sweet, buttery, Stax-sounding soul that's wholesome as a plate of hotcakes. No hip-hop flourishes, no Pro-Tools preening, no freaky dancehall textures, no pottymouth innuendoes for this 26-year-old ex-Marine. Rewind is truth in advertising, a trip back in time to when nice girls wore girdles and nice boys wore hats and no one, not even professional strippers, wore thong underwear. Straight out of central casting, Fanté has a square jaw, a manly rasp, and a sensible haircut. Put a skinny tie and a sharkskin suit on him, and he's ready for a guest spot on American Dreams. Some enterprising oldies DJ could sneak songs such as "It Ain't Easy (On Your Own)" and "He Don't Love You" into rotation, and no one would bat an eyelash. No regular person, that is. Critics, long afflicted with the authenticity bugbear, generally have a problem with throwbacks. Make it new, they scold, or at least pretend that you're being postmodern about it, like the character in the Borges story who rewrote Don Quixote word for word. If nothing else works, épater les bourgeois. Fanté fails on all these counts. But is it fair to despise him because he sounds so familiar and unthreatening, because Starbucks-swilling, Norah Jones-loving soccer moms might crank him in the SUV?

No, the problem isn't that Fanté sounds safe compared with D'Angelo, Usher, and R. Kelly. The problem is that he sounds too safe for 1964. Even though he co-wrote all the songs, there's a peculiar lack of intimacy throughout the album that seems antithetical to the soul tradition, however pitch-perfect the sonic trappings. Singers such as Otis Redding, O.V. Wright, Al Green, Arthur Alexander, and David Ruffin were tragic and magnificent, ordinary men ennobled by monstrous desire. They were the bringers of catharsis and brutal epiphanies, the blighted heroes you turned to for solace during your own dark nights of the soul. Fanté's is a sanitized, smiley-faced soul with none of the guts and the grandeur of his musical forefathers. Perhaps with time and experience he'll join their hallowed ranks; in the meantime, he's a pleasant-enough accompaniment to a Frappucino.

Martina Topley-Bird

Maybe Americans resent Martina Topley-Bird. Does she really need to be quite so cool and English, with her fancy hyphenated name and her cred-boosting Tricky backstory and her Mercury Prize-nominated solo debut? Maybe we take one look at the cover of her new CD -- originally called Quixotic but renamed Anything for us dumb Yanks -- and we just can't help it: There she is, all green and glittering and glamorous, and we just have to hate her or who knows, maybe the terrorists win, Prince Charles becomes our president, and we all have to smear baked beans on our toast. How else to explain why Martina Topley-Bird isn't ruling the airwaves right now?

Granted, no one besides a handful of club kids and car-commercial producers cares about trip-hop anymore, but Topley-Bird needn't worry. She hasn't so much cast the genre aside as transformed it into something that's both weirder and more inclusive. Check out the liner-note credits: When the musical guests range from Tricky to Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan (of art-metal provocateurs Queens of the Stone Age), you know you're under a pretty big tent, as the Republicans are fond of saying. From the cracked folk of the title track to the exquisitely raunchy "Ragga," from gauzy ballads to club-thumping anthems, from glitchy electronica to slithery soul to spooky jazz, Topley-Bird assumes different styles, inhabits them for a nice long groove, and then saunters off to the next experiment. Call it trip-hop if you have to, but really it's just sexy pop music that you can dance to or not. Who but a terrorist would object to that?

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