| Taste the Secret |
This sunny underground rap trio from equally sunny Long Beach, Calif., thankfully has little use for the gangsta posturing of the mainstream or the pretense of the art-rap scene: One of the biggest beefs on their sophomore album is with a fictitious fast-food chain where everything's made of meat. That goofiness is served up in a bouncy old-school style, a refreshing cross between Slick Rick's cheeky narratives and A Tribe Called Quest's soothing lyricism. It's an unlikely rap recipe for these sober days, but their Secret sauce makes it work. Grade: B+
| Their Wildest Dreams |
When struggling suspense novelist Nicholas Loeb visits a small police station near the Mexican border, he finds more inspiration than even his native Brooklyn could provide. A bizarre bank robbery pits Loeb as the amateur sleuth in his own thriller, stirring dreams of daytime talk-show appearances and implicating him in a bloody tangle of everyday desperados: a struggling single mom-cum-stripper and her castle-building ex-husband, a weathered police lieutenant, and an enterprising Russian robber-baron with Texas-size ambitions and the malapropisms of George W. Bush. Even though Dreams' suspense-laden plot meanders at times, Abrahams... Grade: B+
By Barry Eisler
Thriller (Putnam, $24.95)
John Rain is a half-American, half-Japanese hitman (introduced in 2002's Rain Fall) who savors a smooth malt whiskey as much as turning some heavy's legs to sushi. This time out, Rain gets ensnared in a web of zealous cops, rogue CIA agents, fatally irresistible strippers, and one sumo-size mobster. While Eisler offers a convincing noir landscape and action scenes that could make John Woo drool, the too-complex plot is peopled by characters both sharp-tongued and hollow. Plus, Rain is given to hokey clenched-jaw quips. "The people who know me," he muses, "seem to be equally divided between wanting to kill me and wanting me to kill." At times, the reader might be inclined more toward the former. B --Alex Pasternack
WHO: Spin Doctors
THE CASE AGAINST: While their early-'90s hits ''Two Princes'' and ''Little Miss Can't Be Wrong'' were as addictive to frat boys as cheap beer, Spin Doctors lead singer Chris Barron's self-indulgent warble and rootsy lyricism lacked the flavor to lure listeners back for more. By the time the band's experimental second album came out, their tiresome pseudo-hippie image had played out on MTV, and no amount of spin could save them.
THE TRUTH: Guitarist Eric Schenkman's knack for combining blues-rock licks and contagious pop melodies proved the band could rise above tie-dyed corniness and watery jam-band fare. And their cheery singles were refreshing at a time when American rock was growing angrier. Even though they couldn't compete with the nihilism of Nirvana and the like, the band's optimism and fusion sensibility paved the way for Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews Band. But if you still want to call them two-hit wonders, just go ahead now.
LISTEN 2: The debut, ''Pocket Full of Kryptonite'' (1991), or, for a taste of their vigorous stage performance, ''Homebelly Groove...Live'' (1992).