Diamond in the Ruff

(Babygrande ***)

nolead ends Different generations of Philly's old-school rap scene made a handsome showing in 2012. In a year that saw Beanie Sigel releasing a minor hit before heading back to prison and Schoolly D touring with Public Enemy, having Freeway back in action is a bonus. Like his pal Beans, Freeway was a member of Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella family in the early 2000s and stayed hard throughout the decade and its four solo releases.

Diamond in the Ruff proves that highly volatile Freeway is still the stoic iceman when it comes to rapping and rhyming. With steel, busy beats behind him, "No Doubt" is nail hard and just a little Lil Wayne-y. "Ghetto Street" is good and ghostly, but a bit of a gangster retread. When you're the hard guy, staying bad forever can become a grind, especially when you're an acknowledged peaceful Muslim. That could be why Freeway has added a dose of coy and clever humor to his menacing, low-voiced rants. The romping (and Just Blaze-produced) "Early" finds Free toying naughtily with morning sexuality ("she just played karaoke on my pokey"), while "Sweet Temptation" allows him to make light of MCs with tight slacks and pseudo-African allegiances. Fun.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Daughn Gibson
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(White Denim ***1/2) nolead ends

Josh Martin spent more than a decade drumming in punk and hard rock bands in central Pa., including in Allentown's Pearls and Brass, but you wouldn't know it from All Hell, his debut under the pseudonym Daughn Gibson. The album is a unique blend of deep country melodies and sample-based instrumentation.

Gibson, now based out of Carlisle, fell in love with country music when he worked as a long-haul truck driver, and his writing adapts the genre's classic strain of character-driven hard-luck narratives, with empathetic songs about being an old man in a young girl's world, about writing a song about rain on the highway, about bad guys who grow up to be "totally worthless." His resonant, dramatic baritone calls to mind Waylon Jennings, Lee Hazlewood, and Scott Walker, but the music owes more to contemporary studio obsessives like James Blake, the Magnetic Fields, or Grimes, with spooky textures and sparse electronic beats mingling with acoustic guitars and piano.

- Steve Klinge
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Yo Ma Ma: Symptomology;
Shortcuts to Infinity

(MsMusic Productions 2 discs


This two-disc set proves to be an inspired pairing of two veteran artists. Stephen Kalinich is a lyricist and longtime Beach Boys collaborator. Brian Wilson called him "a poetic genius." Jon Tiven is a producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter with an affinity for R&B; he has helmed terrific comeback albums by Wilson Pickett and Philadelphia's Garnet Mimms, among others.

Symptomology is credited to Yo Ma Ma, an alter ego that allows the duo to play younger than they are. It's full of dirty, horn-accented rock-and-roll delivered with snarl and swagger, as you can gather from such titles as "Let's Get Stoned," "Grow a Pair," and "Once My Zits Go Away." It all packs a visceral punch, enhanced by the fact that Kalinich and Tiven, for all the wit here, never display any ironic distance from the material.

Shortcuts to Infinity is similar musically while bringing out more rootsy touches, and it can hit just as hard, as with the Bo Diddley-esque thrust of "Climb Some Walls" and the chugging rock of the seven-minute-plus centerpiece "Out of the Darkness" (with Queen's Brian May on guitar). But there are also more laid-back moments, like the laconic, J.J. Cale grooving of "Harsh," the dreamy "Red Black Horizon," and a classic-sounding pop-soul duet with soul man Willie Jones on "God Helps Those." On this disc Kalinich's lyrics tend to be more earnest, in an introspective and idealistic way, but as with the music, they never go soft, or softheaded.

- Nick Cristiano


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Trumpeter Tom Harrell begins this CD with obsession. His opening duet on Dizzy Gillespie's "Blue 'N' Boogie" with the Philly-born drummer Jonathan Blake is a clamorous call to action, and a bracing start. Harrell keeps the interest high for this set of originals, released this year and featuring various setups of his long-running quintet with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

The title track is a pretty number with Harrell's trumpet rising over Danny Grissett's doodling piano, while "Journey to the Stars" is more muscular bebop, with Harrell spraying lines over a fast, churning bottom. "Star Eyes" finds Harrell ruminating alone and quoting extensively, his breaths forming a kind of human accompaniment.

Harrell throughout is a legato presence, well-phrased and lyrical. That he manages this level while keeping his schizophrenia under control is amazing. But the music holds up even if you don't know this.

- Karl Stark