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Previewing albums from Oysterhead, Ja Rule, Jermaine Dupri, George Jones, Billy Joel, and more.

Life Is 'Grand'

OysterheadWhat began as an impromptu jam between Phish's Trey Anastasio, Primus' Les Claypool, and the Police's Stewart Copeland last spring in New Orleans has grown into a full-fledged new band. Under the moniker Oysterhead, the trio will release its Elektra debut, "The Grand Pecking Order," this week, and will begin a 20-date U.S. tour Oct. 21 in Seattle.

As could be expected, the album is a challenging, but often fascinating listen, with Anastasio and Claypool splitting vocal duties evenly. The set touches on everything from the simpler, pop-tinged rock of Phish's recent studio albums ("Radon Balloon," "Birthday Boys") to trippy jams ("Pseudo Suicide," opener "Little Faces"), self-referential groove fests, ("Mr. Oysterhead," "Oz Is Ever Floating") and abstract, art-damaged sound collages ("Shadow of a Man," "Wield the Spade").

"I've never felt the chemistry that I felt with Trey and Stewart, especially with Trey, with the lyrical thing," Claypool admits. "I was always the lyricist [in Primus]. But here we were finishing each others' sentences. It was pretty incredible." Adds Copeland with a laugh, "I haven't got any individuality to express. I just enjoy banging away on those drums again, which I'd forgotten all about for a decade."

Spiked With 'Pain'

Ja RuleLast year at this time, Ja Rule was readying to drop his sophomore Murder Inc./Def Jam set, "Rule 3:36." Although he was a rising star in hip-hop circles, he had yet to catch the ears of mainstream music fans. All that changed when "Rule 3:36" debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200, a feat followed by Rule's appearance on Jennifer Lopez's No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, "I'm Real."

As such, his new album, "Pain Is Love," couldn't come at a better time. Early buzz has been generated by the single "Livin' It Up," which is No. 8 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart this week. "A lot of artists make records to make money. Not to make people smile, or make hearts light up, or to warm souls," Rule says. "That's why I make records, and it's starting to show."

The new set also includes a track on which Ja Rule duets with Tupac Shakur on a remake of the late rapper's "So Much Pain" (Shakur's original version of the song was released prior to his death). "I did that a long time ago, right after Pac died," Rule says. "It was a record that I wanted to make and needed to make. A lot of people haven't heard the record because -- although it was on the 'Above the Rim' soundtrack, it was only on the cassette version. I feel it was one of Pac's best records."

Following 'Instructions'

Jermaine DupriIf anybody is drafting a blueprint for industry longevity and success, it's Jermaine Dupri. The 27-year-old producer/songwriter/artist/entrepreneur drops his sophomore solo album, "Instructions," this week via his Columbia-distributed So So Def label. It's the follow-up to his platinum-certified and Grammy-nominated 1998 debut, "Jermaine Dupri Presents - Life in 1472: The Original Soundtrack."

Dupri raps on nearly every song on the 20-track "Instructions." He and Ludacris open with "Welcome to Atlanta," while Da Brat is showcased on the hot number "You Bring the Freak out of Me." Xscape, also part of the So So Def family, is featured on "Rock With Me," a melodic pop venture. Usher croons the hook to "Get Some" -- which also spotlights Boo & Gotti and So So Def artist R.O.C. Other notable guests include Jagged Edge, Bilal, Backbone, Kurupt, Too Short, Eddie Cain, and Field Mob.

"When I do a record as an artist, I want to feel like an artist," Dupri says. "I feel like I'm cheating myself if I don't get the full-fledged experience that an artist gets by being directed and letting other people contribute to the album. As a producer, it gives me a chance to work with all these new cats coming out, like Backbone and Field Mob."

'Rock' Solid

George JonesHe has been called everything from "Possum" and "No-Show" to country's greatest singer. Now George Jones can add "label partner" to the list. The enduring performer is a partner with former Asylum Records head Evelyn Shriver in Bandit Records, which will release Jones' new album, "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001," this week, through a partnership with RCA Label Group (RLG) and its imprint BNA Records.

Produced primarily by Emory Gordy Jr., with four cuts produced by Keith Stegall, "The Rock" is a solid collection of lively uptempo cuts and the kind of sturdy, heartfelt ballads that have long been Jones' stock in trade. Among the highlights is "Tramp on Your Street," a Billy Joe Shaver ballad about Hank Williams that fits the 70-year-old Jones -- whose admiration for Williams is well-documented -- like a glove.

As for the state of new country music, Jones says, it's "like putting a bunch of corn meal and milk together and frying it up -- it's mush. I can't tell what half of it is." It's a cause Jones won't drop: "I'm gonna stay in their front yard as long as possible and raise all the hell I can. I'm gonna stay in this business and haunt them until we get it back."

'Fantasy' Land

Billy JoelBilly Joel hesitates to describe his first post-pop recording, "Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano" (due this week from Columbia/Sony Classical), as a traditional classical music effort. While he claims that he's simply trying to dodge the slings and arrows of critics eager to slay another rocker striving to compose "serious" music, further probing reveals that Joel is actually a little apprehensive about being aligned and compared with those composers who have become his heroes.

"I'm still at a point where I feel like a student discovering a treasure trove of goodies that will make me better and smarter," Joel says with a grin. "Ain't that a kick in the ass? An old guy like me feeling like a kid again. But that's precisely the case. To allow my name to be mentioned in the same breath as the masters is not something I'm comfortable with."

To Joel, recipient in 1994 of the Billboard Century Award, "Fantasies & Delusions" can more accurately be viewed as "a toe in the water" of the classical genre. "More times than not, I refer to this project as instrumental piano music of the romantic era. It carries the influence of 19th-century music, but it's cross-pollinated with other elements, some of which are undeniably modern. It's melodic and singable. I don't think that I could write music that wasn't."

Additional titles hitting stores this week include a new studio album from rock legend Elton John, "Songs from the West Coast" (Universal); the long-delayed third set from electro-rock outfit Garbage, "Beautifulgarbage" (Interscope); country artist Gary Allan's "Alright Guy" (MCA Nashville); hard rock outfit Default's "The Fallout" (TVT); Latin rock veterans Gipsy Kings' "Somos Gitanos" (Nonesuch/Atlantic); a new album from the Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette trio, "Inside Out" (ECM); singer/songwriter Alana Davis' "Fortune Cookies" (Elektra); banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck's "Perpetual Motion" (Sony Classical); modern rock act Pressure 4-5's "Burning the Process" (DreamWorks); pop duo the Rembrandts' "Lost Together" (J-Bird); a concert set from the singer/songwriter tour dubbed Voices on the Verge, "Live in Philadelphia" (Rykodisc); the soundtrack for the Dwight Yoakam film "South of Heaven, West of Hell" (Reprise); the soundtrack to the John Cusack film "Serendipity" (Columbia); a greatest hits set from rapper Busta Rhymes, "Total Devastation" (Rhino). a best-of from alternative rock mainstays Dinosaur Jr., "Ear Bleeding Country" (Rhino); and a five-CD set of film scores from composer Philip Glass, "Philip on Film" (Nonesuch).

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