Marv Ellis Mental Picture Machine

[VIBE MUSIC] Positive, laid-back hip-hop isn't any less palatable or critically acceptable than the hardcore rap that takes up most of the space at chain record stores across America. The problem is that laid-back, sunny-day hip-hop too often attracts lazy MCs without the hunger to hone their craft or hustle their material.

Marv Ellis doesn't seem to have that problem. The Portland-via-Eugene MC hosts a weekly hip-hop showcase at the White Eagle for which he's built a community of like-minded artists from across genre lines; he recruited Quannum MC Gift of Gab for a standout track on Ellis' new LP; and for Mental Picture Machine's release show, Ellis wrangled the oversized Crystal Ballroom.

So the hustle is there, and on Mental Picture Machine, the flow is there as well. Despite his chill demeanor (he spends the opening bars of "Vibe Music" ordering coffee and sweet buns in spoken-word Spanish), Ellis is a vocal presence—a funky, stoney, politically conscious character reminiscent of the Coup's Boots Riley and the aforementioned Gift of Gab. On "All 6 Shots," he preaches humanism over warm, Tom Morello-esque guitar flourishes, and the syllables fall quickly like dominoes between the beats. Ellis' plainspoken verses—like those of a Mos Def or Talib Kweli before him—are delivered with enough gusto to transcend his politics for the apolitical while at the same time, to borrow some talk radio terminology, energizing the base.

Much of Ellis' appeal is musical: He's not a positive-tip artist who falls back on played jazz or James Brown samples, turning instead to ambient noises ("Back and Forth," "Just How I Feel"), big raunchy Oak-town synths ("Broke People," "Close Your Eyes") and, most encouragingly, elaborately plotted productions like the meta sampling of "What's Hip!?" and the Mexicali horns of his epic story-song "El Payaso." It's on these tracks that we find Ellis stretching his lyrical legs to match the blockbuster beats. If he remains this ambitious, the Crystal Ballroom won't always seem like such a stretch. CASEY JARMAN.

She & Him Volume Two

[BUBBLEGUM POP] It's impossible to hear the music of She & Him and not think about Zooey Deschanel's acting career. Or, more accurately, it's impossible for me to watch the video for Volume Two's first single, "In the Sun," and divorce the image of Deschanel—decked out in a frilly white dress and jumping through hula hoops like she wants you to scream "Hit Me Baby One More Time"—from the squeaky-clean music she makes with local troubadour M. Ward. Deschanel is clearly having a ball, but what's the point?

On Volume Two, She & Him continue to play it safe. That's not to say it's not an enjoyable album; the problem is that the music is so catchy, so nostalgic for a time before Pro Tools and iTunes that it often comes off as pure fluff. Everything—from Ward's impromptu but measured guitar solo on "In the Sun" to the bouncing piano pop and cup-half-full sentiments in "I'm Gonna Make it Better"—is calculated for maximum cute points. Even the album's two cover songs (NRBQ's chiming and innocent "Ridin' In My Car" and Skeeter Davis' "Gonna Get Along Without You Now") are so appealing your grandma will certainly dig them.

Ultimately, your opinion of Volume Two will come down to how you think about pop music. If you like music that's immediate and inoffensive, then there's plenty to love here. But if you prefer a little imperfection, there are better places to turn—Neko Case's immaculately arranged but still raw Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, for one. Deschanel would be well served following the path of her other gig, which is dotted with clear highs (All the Real Girls) to atrocious lows (uh, Yes Man). Shooting for a safe middle ground is never very much fun. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.

SEE IT: Marv Ellis releases Mental Picture Machine on Saturday, March 20, at the Crystal Ballroom with Unkle Nancy and Niayh. 8:30 pm. $5. 21+. She & Him's Volume Two is in stores now; the band will play the Les Schwab Ampitheater with Band of Horses on Sunday, May 30.