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Various Artists

Our critics' picks in new releases

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With a law and order man about to take the U.S. drug czar seat, Jonathan Stuart's New Prohibition, A Musical History of Hemp might seem like a lobbying effort for reconsideration of the place pot holds in the legal system. And Stuart, who wrote the songs and co-produced the set, states in the liner notes that part of the profits will go to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But the CD is more like a groovy smoke-in than a white paper on the benefits of hemp. Along with Hal Wilner (SNL musical director and producer of many interesting compilations, including Stay Awake, which featured Sun Ra covering a Disney cartoon song), Stuart put a daring house band together: guitarist Chris Spedding (a British session musician who's worked with John Cale, Bryan Ferry, Robert Gordon and Paul McCartney), Wayne Kramer (founding member of the MC5 and Pink Fairies) on guitar and keyboards, Chris Brubeck (son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck and a classical and jazz musician) on bass and trombone, and Danny Frankel (Fiona Apple, Dog's Eye View and various avant garde and experimental projects) on the drums. The roster of singers includes Eric Mingus (Charlie Mingus' son), Dee Dee Ramone, Taj Mahal, Cy Curnin of The Fixx, the Bottlecaps' Peter Stampfel, L.A. doo-woppers the Mighty Echoes and soul singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens.

But it's not the heavy musical artillery that matters on New Prohibition. It's the humor injected into Stuart's crusade--as well as the variety of musical styles successfully brought under the same roof--that make this compilation a triumph. For the title cut, Curnin delivers a jazzy litany on how the pot laws are outdated and alienating the youth of the country, while "On to Something Good" is a funk ode to the pleasures of getting high. Mahal's "Slow Lane" is a hysterical tale of outsmarting the law with a trunk full of contraband weed. Stamphel, with his trademark countrified voice, pleads for the president to "Balance the Budget" by legalizing and taxing pot. Elsewhere, Dee Dee Ramone's pop punk cut, "Pass it to Jah," makes the Jamaican connection. Ties between the booming prison business, racism, politics and pot are made through verse, alongside several cuts about the pleasing feeling many get from a reefer high. The only point of view not covered is that of the prohibitionist. But balance is not Stuart's goal; he simply wants marijuana legalized, and New Prohibition is a compelling statement for his point of view.

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