John Reuben

Word of Mouth

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John Reuben's first four albums veered wildly between braggadocio and piety. It was an uneasy marriage -- the usual hip-hop swagger combined with impassioned calls to Christian service and humility, Reuben's razor-sharp wit and flippant tendencies tempered by his sometimes self-deprecating lyrics. His previous album, 2005's The Boy vs. the Cynic, played the Angelic John vs. Dark John angle to the hilt, with the strident smart-ass duking it out, song by alternating song, with the good Christian evangelist. With Word of Mouth, Reuben has found a way, for the first time in his career, to merge the best of both worlds into a seamless whole, and the resulting album is not only his most mature work to date, but also his most musically adventurous. Produced by Beck compatriot Joe Baldridge, Word of Mouth offers the typically eclectic Beck musical mash-up -- banjos colliding with samples from old Delta bluesmen, sappy strings meeting Bootsy Collins bass, surf guitars twanging, children's choirs singing, and Reuben riding herd above it all, his always obvious lyrical gifts honed to a new sharpness and precision. The sarcastic edge that has always characterized Reuben's best songs is well to the fore here. "Make Money" and "Trying Too Hard" satirize hip scenesters everywhere, slyly noting the high price of maintaining the right image along with fashions that are "expensively indie." The title track finds Reuben in uncharacteristically world-weary mode, reflecting on his 15 minutes of fame, wondering if it has already passed him by, and ruminating on the vagaries of an industry where "the next big thing" always sounds remarkably like the last big thing. But if there is a hint of disenchantment at the heart of much of this music, and there is, it would be a mistake to conclude that Reuben is losing much sleep over it. This is a party for thinking men and women, but it's still a party, and the raucous funk of "Good Evening" and "Sing It Like You Mean It" appeals to both the brain and the booty. Still, it's impossible to shake the feeling that this is a new direction for John Reuben. "Cool the Underdog," one of the album's many kiss-offs to adolescence, states it most directly: "The thrill of proving the world wrong is finally gone/You should move on." Word of Mouth is the sound of a precocious brat coming of age, looking disillusionment squarely in the eye, and resolving to lead an extraordinary life in spite of the disappointment. And it's an unqualified triumph. You won't find a truer, more honest, or more celebratory album this year.

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