Album: N*E*R*D

Fly or Die, Virgin
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The Independent Culture

With a series of judicious guest spots and duets helping Pharrell Williams's solo career toward lift-off velocity, this second album from his band with fellow Neptune Chad Hugo should make more impact than their debut, In Search of.... That album was initially released in August 2001, in a version recorded in The Neptunes' signature style, with sparse digital beats and techno twitches; but it was instantly deleted and rerecorded with the heavy-rock band Spymob for release the following March. The rationale, apparently, was that they needed to differentiate the new band from the projects they routinely undertook as The Neptunes.

Although Spymob have been discharged for Fly or Die, the rock manner persists in the trio's (the third member is their old schoolfriend Shay) guitar-heavy backings. Not that they've abandoned dancefloor imperatives: with their lumpy funk grooves and slightly stodgy guitar and keyboard parts, tracks such as "She Wants to Move" and "Jump" resemble the prog-funk workouts of Funkadelic and Talking Heads, respectively, while the predatory, blues-based guitar parts and drum avalanches of the slower "Backseat Love" recall the saucy early style of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. "So we street-walkin' and holdin' hands," Williams oozes sexily, "but she don't know that daddy got plans."

A loose concept of adolescence holds the album together. The title track captures the as-yet-undirected surge of teenage ambition ("Fly or die, sink or swim/ Which way shall I choose?"), and "Jump" offers a runaway teen's explanation of why he had to leave home: "I'm not perfumed or facetious,/ But at home I felt seedless/ You were so completely heedless:/ 'Turn to BBC: you should see this.' " Further strains of angst and disaffection characterise "Breakout" and "Thrasher", while "Waiting for You" offers a brief mid-album respite from the heaviness by using acoustic guitar, hand percussion and pizzicato strings to support a tale of a near-drowning experience.

There are moments when things come perilously close to the epic pomp-rock bluster of Queen or Jeff Wayne, but Williams's lyrical imagination usually salvages matters, whether through the reference to Orson Welles in the bizarre but catchy "Drill Sergeant", or the hallucinatory imagery that follows the whistled intro of the jazzy "Wonderful Place": "The wallpaper's moving/ My arms and my legs leave a blur when I swipe/ Sap is just oozing/ The trees say smoke blocks the sun so for them it's just right." By the penultimate track, "Chariots of Fire", he has all but abandoned rational continuity, calling out: "Mildred! Mildred!" before diving head-first into utterly baffling mid-song switches of lyrical and musical direction.

Confused? You should be. But also relieved that such idiosyncratic talents as N*E*R*D are prepared to cross genres and bring a fresh impetus to rock music.

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