"A lawyer who represents himself," the adage goes, "has a fool for a client," but Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo may not have heard that one. As the Neptunes, Williams and Hugo have spent the last five years turning dry, stuttering rhythms, beeping synth lines, and retrofitted soul vocals into a torrent of hits for Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and No Doubt, among many, many others. But being the biggest production team in the world seemingly wasn't enough for them, and in 2000 they formed the group N*E*R*D with their old friend Shae Haley. N*E*R*D got off to a good start: the original version of their debut album, In Search of... (Virgin, 2002), was all-electronic and full of the idiosyncrasy that had made the Neptunes stars. But after its release in the UK, the group decided to rerecord the tracks using an undistinguished Minneapolis rock band called Spymob as session musicians; the U.S. version of the record still has its moments but suffers from a notable loss of charm. N*E*R*D seem to have taken exactly the wrong lesson from this experience--they've gone with real instruments on their brand-new Fly or Die but chosen to play the parts themselves. The production is typically immaculate and invigorating, but the performances are shockingly amateurish and the songs are generic funk-rock jams pitched somewhere between Red Hot Chili Peppers and Steely Dan. Amhir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots plays drums on "Maybe," which only makes Williams's drumming elsewhere sound that much clunkier; as front man, Williams can manage only wobbly vocal imitations of George Clinton, Al Green, Lenny Kravitz (Kravitz himself adds some guitar to "Maybe"), and Curtis Mayfield. Better singers and players might have made this a good album. Spymob return as N*E*R*D's live backing band, and their chops ought to help. Black Eyed Peas and Clipse open. 18 & over. Thursday, April 8, 7:30 PM, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine; 773-275-6800 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sacha Waldman.