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Reviews by Jim Brett, except where noted by Steve Herlihy!

Reviewed 01/02


Le Tigre

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

John Mellencamp

Reviewed 11/24

Stone Temple Pilots

Lucinda Williams




HEY 19  (Aden); A very low key record, that unfortunately crosses my fine line between the engaging, often outstanding work of Yo La Tengo and the near elevator music from some hip indie bands of the new millenium.  There is little variation in tempo - and when they try, it doesn't work.   The songs here are slight, feeling like they could float away, and the playing follows the same cue.  The vocals are very annoying, almost a high-pitched monotone.  He sounds like Art Garfunkel (just to clarify, this is mostly not a good thing!)

Country Bar in the City is an OK song.  This is not a terrible record, just boring.  Which, come to think of it, makes it a pretty terrible record.

MY GRADE >> C-  (Not much hope here.)    -jb-

JUST PUSH PLAY  (Aerosmith); Granted that Aerosmith was never more than a Stones knock-off, and Mick, Keith and the boys have floundered about for over 20 years now to find a style that could work like back in the day.  But Stephen Tyler is still doing the same shtick, and it only occasionally rises to anywhere near the level of Aerosmith's best, much less any of the Stones' best work.

Just Push Play continues the formula that Aerosmith has been mixing during their post-rehab rise from the gutter.  Take a few generic rockers, add a few power ballads, shake a little (but not too much!) and serve lukewarm.  

This record's only good song is a ballad - who would've thought?  Jaded works because Tyler and Company do not oversell it.  It is just natural; you can almost see the kids slow-dancing to this at the prom.  The title song is a try at updating the "Big Ten-Inch" sound of their hey-day.  However, it pretty much fails miserably - only the chorus, which is classic Aerosmith, works.  TripHoppin also feels like more of that old Aerosmith sound.  But the song has nothing to do with trip hop.  Nothing else here leaves any sort of impression.  Lame ballads, tossed-off blues rock, you've heard it all before.  

Who listens to Aerosmith anymore, anyway?

MY GRADE >>  C  (A tired effort from a tired group of old men.)    -jb-       

BLACKJACK DAVID  (Dave Alvin); I consider Dave Alvin to be one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years.  Since the Blasters, this has produced some fine songs and records, most notably Blue Blvd.  In general, his work as a solo artist has excelled more in the songwriting than in the execution.  His singing and playing, and that of his musicians, has not risen to the level of the songs.  

    But, on this record, it all comes together.  As expected, the songs are uniformly excellent.  The difference is that Alvin's vocals fit this material perfectly, and the various guitars on these mostly acoustic numbers are outstanding.  In addition to Alvin, credit would appear to be due to multi-instrumentalist and producer Greg Leisz.  My favorite songs here are From a Kitchen Table (an absolutely breathtaking song, featuring some of the most vivid lyrics I've ever heard - see, Steve, I do like lyrics!- and, a mournful, soulful clarinet solo), The Way You Say Goodbye, Laurel Lynn and Abilene.  Other highlights are the title song, 1968, Mary Brown, California Snow, Evening Blues and New Highway.  That amounts to just about all of the songs on the record!  

    While the dominant tone of this record falls into the "alt-country" and "folk" genres, that is much too narrow to capture the breadth of this record.  Like his songwriting peers Dylan, Springsteen and Steve Earle, Dave Alvin's songs are able to work in many different contexts.  I am thrilled to say that Alvin has now made a record that ranks with some of the finest from these other artists

MY GRADE >> A+ (The best record yet from this American treasure)

HER WALLPAPER REVERIE  (Apples in Stereo); More pop music from this Denver-based band, this is more ambitious and Beatle-like than Fountains of Wayne.  Also, be warned; although there are 15 songs listed on the album, half are short instrumental transition pieces - total album time is 27 minutes.

The Shiney Sea, Ruby and the others are very nice songs, and are more varied than I am used to in this type of music.  (Bad word alert - the fine song about Y2K contains some cussing.)  The music is heavy on studio trickery; I am sure this band memorized every Brian Wilson and Sgt. Pepper idea.  Strawberryfire mimics Strawberry Fields Forever; I'm really surprised they haven't been asked to share the royalties.  

This sounds like I am damning with faint praise, and maybe I am.  There is not one bad song on the record, and it is different than much of what is out there today.  It is just too slight, too weightless, and ultimately it floats away; like a pleasant dream, it feels nice, but makes no lasting impression.

  MY GRADE >> B (Inventive, if you like this kind of studio stuff.)

RELATIONSHIP OF COMMAND  (At the Drive-In); An acclaimed band from El Paso,Texas, their sound owes much to the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene, most notably Fugazi.  In fact, Mannequin Republic, Quarantined (kicking off with a nice bass riff) and Rolodex Propaganda could be prime Fugazi.  While they have certainly honed their punk attack to martial precision, At the Drive-In adds nice touches here and there to break up the full frontal assault, such as the melodic guitar fills on Pattern Against UserInvalid Litter Dept. actually conveys a Flaming Lips feel; the  song seems nicely out of place and is the most distinctive song here.  

But make no mistake, the essence of the band is captured in tunes like the raging Sleepwalk Capsule.

MY GRADE >> B  (Good hardcore songs played with ferocious precision, and just enough variety to keep you guessing.)

HOUR OF BEWILDERBEAST  (Badly Drawn Boy);  Badly Drawn Boy is a pseudonym for Damon Gough.  Who is Damon Gough?  I don't know.  And why does he need a pseudonym?  Pretentious, usually British, rock star attitude maybe?  Say, how come there are not more Americans named Damon?

Now, lets not be catty.  This is actually an exceptional record, the debut full-length from BDB.  They remind one of a  brighter British version of Yo La Tengo (one of my favorite bands) in some places, and a softly strumming folkie in others.  Much of this type of delicate pop music is just too slight for my taste, but Gough is able to provide some robustness to even his gentler melodies. 

The Shining starts the record off with a beautiful gentle song; this could be the sentimental ballad in a very good Broadway musical (OK, that last part may be an oxymoron!)  Everybody's Stalking then follows, a good song, with an even better title; Gough's vocals recall latter-period John Lennon.  

The title song is an agreeable instrumental, stuck in the middle of the CD, leading nicely into Magic in the Air, featuring a gorgeous piano melody.  Other highlights include Camping Next to Water, Another Pearl, Once Around the Block, Pissing in the Wind (a more pleasant song than you would think) and Say it Again.

While there are moments of pretentious arty fluff, such as Cause a Rockslide, this is overall a shining beacon at the forefront of modern British rock.  Badly Drawn Boy is not out to rock your socks off; rather, they prefer to charm them off you.

MY GRADE >> A (Fine songs, combined with innovative arrangements and shimmering production.)

THE SOUNDS OF SCIENCE  (Beastie Boys);  An anthology from one of the most innovative, if utterly undiscriminating bands of the 90s, this record is a fair representation of their output.  The record covers their early days as hardcore punks, through the "Run-DMC for white frat boys" phase and into their current role as the disapproving older brother of the Limp Bizkit Nation.  The great thing about the Beastie Boys is that they have recorded excellent songs through each stage of their career.  I have never been a huge fan of their albums, because of their tendency to put all of their ideas on the record, regardless of merit.  Thus, an anthology is a good summary for fans like me.  There seem to be enough outtakes/rarities to impress the diehard fan, as well.  

    First, we can skip over the unfortunate experiments - a truly bad cover version of a truly bad song (Benny and the Jets), which must be heard once, and then never again; 2 goofy country songs by Mike D., and most of the punk/hardcore here, except for I Want Some  and the interesting Time For Livin'.  The bulk of this record consists of my favorite Beasties songs from Fight For Your Right, through Pass the Mic, Sure Shot, Sabotage, So What'cha Want, and up to the recent Intergalactic.  Additionally, I discovered several other fine songs that I had not heard, or had previously overlooked.  The best of these are Slow and Low, Gratitude, Body Movin' (remixed here spectacularly by Fat Boy Slim), Song for the Man, Shadrach and Son of Neckbone.

    An additional bonus is the booklet with pictures and commentary from the Beasties.  The band has long been one of the more astute observers of the music scene, and they demonstrate a fine ability to place their music in the context of their careers and the times.  They appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century music, and their narratives explain their approach to the material.  They present a reasoned history and assessment of Fight for your Right, which made them stars, despite the song being a throwaway, unrepresentative of most of their work.  In pointing out how the remixed Body Movin' echoes Tommy Roe's Dizzy, they made my day by making me hear something in the song I had missed, as well as reminding me of one of my favorites songs from my pre-teen years.  Hard to beat that combination.

 MY GRADE >> A-  (Great songs for the most part, and never boring)

MIDNITE VULTURES  (Beck); Another genre mishmash from Beck, this record has more in common with his hit record, Odelay, than with his last record, the slow-paced Mutations.  For those unfamiliar with Beck Hansen, he is the most unlikely "funk soul brother" since David Byrne of Talking Heads (see my comments on the 15th anniversary release of Stop Making Sense in Assorted Musings.)  The short story on Odelay is that Beck took a rap aesthetic, and threw in everything else he could think of to come up with a fine record, packed with diverse musical elements.  No minimalist is he!

The new record is based on a 70s soul aesthetic - horns, funk guitar, cheesy synthesizers, falsetto vocals.  But, of course that is merely a starting point for Beck: the kitchen sink is once again thrown in.  Amazingly, Beck pulls this off.  The record kicks off with Sexx Laws, a salacious song, lyrically and musically.  Nicotine & Gravy  showcases some of Beck's creative, if nonsensical lyrical rhyming ("I think we're going crazy/Her left eye is lazy/She looks so Israeli/Nicotine and gravy".)  Mixed Bizness is the most successful song on the record - it defies you to sit still, and features an absolutely killer horn sequence at the end.  Other highlights are Debra (very Prince-like circa mid 1980s), Get Real Paid (featuring a textbook usage of synthesizers), Hollywood Freaks, Peaches & Cream and  Milk& Honey

At the end of the record, it is hard to describe the appeal of this record, just like with Odelay.  The 70s soul style is not one that I would instantly gravitate to and it took a few listens for me to begin to pick up everything that Beck is trying to do with this record.  Largely, I think he succeeds, and I have listened to this more each week. 

MY GRADE >> A- (The best songs don't quite measure up to Odelay standards, but this remains a very worthy followup.  I have a feeling that this grade could actually go up over time.)

BIG HELLO  (Big Hello);  This is a 1998 release by a band that I saw at Taste of Chicago, on a small side stage.  I liked their 30 minute set so much, that I bought their CD on the spot.  Their music has a punchy 80s new wave feel; the female lead vocals are reminiscent of the best of Blondie and the Pretenders.  Lyrics have a decidedly 90s feel, and one song has a cuss word, so watch out with the kids around.  While this is not groundbreaking in any way, it is a very solid debut.  O' Canada, Star 69, Riot Gurl, and Clouds Cover the Mountain are first among a batch of solid rockers.

 MY GRADE >> B+ (Recommended; worth the money)

VESPERTINE  (Bjork); Let's talk about Bjork and Yorke, two vocalists who have dedicated, often fanatical followings.  Possessed of two of the most distinctive voices in rock music, Bjork and Yorke cast about for the right musical framework to build around those voices.  Thom Yorke has Radiohead, a fantastic band, and he also (usually) has the proper sense of restraint to know when to unleash his instrument.  

Bjork is like Thom Yorke without a band or any good sense to reign him in.  Come to think of it, even when she was in a band (Sugarcubes), she was no better.  Her classically great voice should be doing opera, not pop or rock music, much less the vague ambient soundscapes of Vespertine.

A record like this, and an artist like Bjork, are difficult to review.  If you like Bjork, you will probably like this.  As for me, I found it painful to listen to in spots (Aurora, Hidden Place) and merely boring in others (Cocoon, Frosti, Undo.)  As such, it is easy for the few good moments to stand out even more!  The production duo of Matmos is credited with beat programming here, and they produce some interesting effects.  It's Not Up to You and Unison are good songs, where she largely (and thankfully) adopts a more straight-forward vocal style.     

MY GRADE >> C (A couple of decent songs cannot overcome Bjork's worst vocal tendencies.)

LIONS  (The Black Crowes); Despite the Black Crowes’ desire not to sell out, this raunchy blues-based rock and roll band is little more than a rock and roll cliché.  The drug excesses, the stormy relationships leading to numerous personnel changes, the two brothers who just cannot get along – it has all been done before and done better.

They are from the South but their musical roots in the blues comes from across the pond in the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Faces, and Led Zeppelin.  Coming off their recent concert dates with Jimmy Page, it is easy to understand why the Black Crowes’ sixth album, Lions is more Zeppelin and less Stones.  Consequently, Lions is an album looking for and failing to find a groove.

Fuzzy psychedelic guitars start things off with two lackluster songs in Midnight From The Inside Out and Lickin’.  They finally get rocking on the third song, Come On with Chris Robinson singing, “Come on come on/Let’s get this thing started.”  However, the Robinson brothers, Chris and Rich, fail to follow their own advice and slow things down again with two ballads.  Both songs have a polarized-emotion theme going.  In No Use Lying, it is “I’m here to stay…I’m gone and you can’t catch me.”  While Losing My Mind goes with the “I love you…Yes, I hate you” tug of war.  Ozone Mama has a nice slow groove and Soul Singing is a gospel-inspired song complete with background singers.  But the song is too slow and includes the lyrics, “Tired of my heart turned upside down/Now my life’s a smile not a frown.”  Ugh.  

Miracle To Me breaks a trend with more coherent lyrics, but continues the trend of  having little energy.  Young Man, Old Man has a Sly Stone slow boogie going with the drums and added percussion.  Unfortunately, the bass and guitar work are a bit too heavy to lift the song off the ground.  Song eleven is Cosmic Friend, which has more of the Led Zeppelin sound, and fails to fly.  “You know just what to do/Put on track eleven/Get on with the groove.”  Problem is, there is no groove going on here.  Cypress Tree is the most interesting song on the album.  It is about a friend who happens to be a killer.  It is Chris Robinson’s best vocal performance along with the final song, Lay It On Me. 

The Black Crowes can seamlessly go from rocker to ballad without missing a beat.  Chris Robinson’s vocals help to distinguish them from other bands.  But on Lions, there is little energy to separate the rockers from the ballads.  The lyrics are uninspired and the vocals seem tired.

This, in more ways than one, has been considered a comeback album for the Black Crowes.  But this seems more like the winter of their career.  While they should be going to the South to find their roots, the Black Crowes are not flying anywhere.  They have lost their direction and their energy.

MY GRADE >> C-  (They may not be selling out to Corporate America, but they are not rocking out either.)                 - sh -       

JUST LIKE HOME  (The Blacks); The Blacks (Danny and Gina, with James Emmenegger on drums) had a fine record with 1998's Dolly Horrorshow.  This new record is not bad, but not up to previous standards.  They are on Bloodshot Records, Chicago's home of insurgent country, but their music respects no boundaries.  This disc has virtually nothing in common with their labelmates.

    At their best, as on Head on a String and Call, the music has a wonderfully propulsive feel, featuring Gina Black's luminous voice.  Off the Couch and Foggy Minded Breakdown showcase Danny's most effective vocals on this record.  Fake Out Jesus is fine musically, but suffers from  weak vocals.  Goin' Out West, a Tom Waits song, is a good fit for the Blacks - their Waits-like musical and vocal diversity is showcased well.  The other songs are an unremarkable lot.

    This band has a great album in them somewhere, which I eagerly await.

MY GRADE >> B-  (Okay, but they need to come up with consistently better songs to match their adventurous musicality)

HILL  (Richard Buckner); This is a record based on the classic Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  Buckner sets the stories to a type of backwoods folk music, attempting to complete the picture that Masters laid down in the book.  This record reminds me of a Richard Thompson record without the hooks or the sharp lyrics.  Buckner is a fine guitarist and distinctive vocalist, but (like Thompson at times), he struggles to create anything consistent here.  Despite its indie, low-budget pedigree, the production is excellent.  Some of the pieces are fine - in particular, the instrumentals (Elmer Karr, Willard Fluke, Nellie Clarke - song titles are names of people in case you're wondering.) The few "rock-like" songs are among the best ( Johnnie Sayre, Amanda Barker and Reuben Pantier, the latter with his best vocals on the record.)  

This is a weird record.  I liked it better with each listen, but it was never a truly enjoyable experience.  Hill reminds me of many of the "classics" I had to read in high school English class - I knew they were supposed to be good for me, but they were a real struggle to get through.

MY GRADE >> C+  (Arty, ambitious, but not very successful.)

KEEP IT LIKE A SECRET (Built to Spill); A really fine record (released 1999), with a sound that is hard to compare to other rock records.  The closest I can come is Flaming Lips (with lyrics like "I don't like this air/but that doesn't mean I'll stop breathing it"), but with a much more straightforward sound.  The drummer is the excellent Scott Plouf, formerly (?) of the Spinanes.  Standout tracks are The Plan, Center of the Universe, Carry the ZeroYou Were Right is an excellent song that keys off of song titles from "classic" 60s & 70s songs. ("You were right when you said a hard rain's gonna fall, you were right when you said you can't always get what you want, you were right when you said we were all just dust in the wind", etc. - Trust me, it sounds better than it reads!)

MY GRADE >> A (Highly recommended)

NO MORE SHALL WE PART  (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds);  I was once a typical isolated, overly dramatic teenage English major, so I should have some appreciation for Nick Cave.  But, the lure of his poetic efforts, reeking of 19th century Romantics, has continued to elude me.  This stuff probably appeals mostly to people who spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves, and if Cave helps them feel better, well, hey, great.  But, overall, his music has mainly been a bore.

No More Shall We Part is certainly well-crafted minimalist music, featuring little but piano, violin and Cave's vocals.  He is an undeniably compelling vocalist, who does his best to sell the material.  The first song, As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, showcases his signature vocals, backed by tasteful piano.  The lyrics, though, match the overall downbeat tone.  After his girlfriend (or daughter?) marvels at the passing parade of humanity outside her window, Cave feels compelled to roll in and empty the clouds.  "'That may be very well,' I said, 'But watch that one falling in the street/See him gesture to his neighbors, see him trampled beneath their feet/All outward motion connects to nothing, for each is concerned with their immediate need/ Witness the man reaching up from the gutter, see the other stumbling on who does not see."  I bet this guy is a hoot at parties!

Love Letter is the best song here, with beautiful spare piano and the best use of Cave's vocals.  Hallelujah is also a nice song, featuring the excellent violin work of Warren Ellis.  Gates to the Garden also has some nice moments.

Over the course of 12 long songs, however, it just becomes too much.  Not that this should be a surprise from the quintessential Prince of Darkness.  The title song, Sweetheart Come, God is in the House and The Sorrowful Wife, cross the line from slow and entrancing to slow and boring.    Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow and Oh My Lord do burst briefly into rock music territory, but the latter song is hurt by vocals with Cave at his most overly dramatic.

I am sure that there are people who adore this music, and you cannot fault Cave's effort here.  But, once again, he is merely preaching to the choir.

MY GRADE >> C (Sadly, I must part from the unrelenting gloom.    -jb-

SURRENDER  (Chemical Brothers);  This record is nominally in the "techno" genre.  Chemical Brothers are the most commercially popular techno act, which means that they probably have little credibility left with the hard core techno fans.  Whatever, this is easily the best techno record I have ever heard.  I never liked most of this genre because the songs sound too similar.  Chemical Brothers have solved this problem by writing actual songs, and then applying the production techniques that are the heart of techno.

    Chemical Brothers have also been almost perfect in their choice of collaborators from the more traditional rock world.  They used Beth Orton and Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) to great effect on their previous record, the very solid Dig Your Own Hole.  On Surrender, the spectacular track is Out of Control, featuring Bernard Sumner of New Order.  Admittedly, I really liked New Order, and miss the music they put out in their prime.  Out of Control is a spectacular return to the New Order sound with the production effects of the Chemical Brothers added to the mix.  This song should keep them on the dance floor all night.  Let Forever Be is another winning foray with Gallagher.  I'll tell you, it is a tribute to the Chemical Brothers that the only two Noel Gallagher songs I like are not on Oasis records.  Asleep From Day, a song with Hope Sandoval (OK, I had never heard of her, either) is yet another happy marriage of fine songwriting with techno production.

    Most of the remaining tracks here are good, the features being The Sunshine Underground, Music: Response, Under the Influence.  This record sounds great blasting from the car stereo, or from any decent set of stereo speakers.  (Admittedly, the effect is even better if you imagine yourself dancing the night away in a hot nightclub.) 

MY GRADE >> A (One of the top records of 1999, and the best techno record ever for my money!) 

REPTILE  (Eric Clapton); Bashing Eric Clapton is kind of like bashing your kindly old grandfather.  Sure, he may be your filthy rich, former heroin addict, rock superstar grandfather, but still...

Let's face it, Clapton never was a great songwriter, vocalist or bandleader.  He is a fine and inventive guitarist, but there is no reason that he should not have gone quietly to wherever old rock guitar heroes go in their dotage.  (Hello, Jeff Beck; hey, there, Robin Trower.)  In fact, were it not for the tragedy of Tears in Heaven, Clapton's commercial fortunes would undoubtedly be little better than Beck's (Jeff, that is.)    Of course, the sad part of this is that Tears is one of Clapton's finest songs  -  sincere, emotional, soulful, and everything most of the rest of his catalog is not.  It was only when it was played for the one millionth time that it became more annoying than affecting.

Anyway, this is not really a bad record.  It breaks down between the classical Clapton blues-rock (mostly covers) and the classical Clapton easy listening rock.  The standout is the muscular blues workout on Come Back Baby, featuring piano, organ and guitar all meshing nicely.  On the softer side of the ledger, the title song is a nice acoustic instrumental.  Elsewhere, the songs underwhelm.  Got You on My Mind  and Broken Down are garden-variety blues.  The lighter material tends to the inoffensive, with tasteful, but uninspiring guitar work.  In fact, Clapton seems to be writing for the lounge music crowd.  Believe in Life is light, almost new age jazz rock, destined to be played (badly) in hotel lounges worldwide.  Find Myself is in a similar vein, but with a more appealing shuffle feel and nice piano.  His version of James Taylor's Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight reworks that slight pop tune into a slight blues tune.  

Overall, I tired of the light, jazzy, breezy vibe, although this is precisely the appeal of Clapton to many of his current fans.  The longtime fans have apparently become accustomed to Clapton's thin, generally unexpressive vocals.  Not me.

(The Japanese version of this CD includes a fine blues number, Losing Hand.  Now, you could get this by buying the Japanese CD for $25 extra (!) at  Or, you could get just this one song - just this one time - at one of those nasty file sharing places I've heard about on the Net.  Don't tell anyone I told you.)

MY GRADE  >> C (Unlike Dave Mathews, not too annoying to be elevator music)

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY LIVE  (The Clash); This is a 1999 release of live shows from one of the best bands of all time.  Most of the shows are from the early 80s.  As my friend Steve had previously pointed out, one of the most impressive things on the record is the musicianship.  This is especially so, considering the Clash initially embraced the punk ethic that placed little value on knowing how to play your instruments.  And the songs continue to hold up well twenty years later, both the early classics (from White Man in Hammersmith Palais to London Calling), as well as the underrated later songs (Guns of Brixton, Know Your Rights and Straight to Hell.)  The passion of the playing and, especially, of Joe Strummer's singing is still something to hear after all these years.  The legend grows stronger as the individual members have generally failed to reach a comparable level of inspiration (although see my favorable Joe Strummer review below.)

    While the record succeeds as a documentary of live Clash performances, it does not offer any significantly different versions of the songs or any transcendent moments that mark the best live albums.

MY GRADE >> B  (Love the band, the songs sound great , but I'd rather listen to the studio versions.)

HONKY TONK UNION  (Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers); The best summary for the sound of this record is stated on the back jacket of the CD - "this record ain't country, like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle ain't country"  While this record does not rise to those levels, it is a very enjoyable and pleasantly varied offering.

Roger Clyne was the former leader of the Refreshments, a fine band from Arizona, with a sound by way of Texas.  They were perhaps best known for performing the title instrumental for the "King of the Hill" animated Fox sitcom.  The best features of the Refreshments were Clyne's versatile vocals, amiably witty lyrics and an easy swinging groove, which distinguished them from some of the garden-variety alt country acts.  

These strengths carry over to Clyne's new band, as demonstrated in the title song, Beautiful Disaster and Never Thought.  The best song here is Green and Dumb, with Clyne's most winsome vocals painting a vivid picture of a shy suitor, and the music fitting perfectly.  The most distinctive song is My Heart is a UFO, with a chorus that brings a smile to your heart. It first makes you look twice at the title to make sure you know what the hell he is singing, and then you can't get it out of your head.

The only real weakness here is a general sameness to the material, with too many indifferent songs.  Clyne needs to focus on stretching out a bit the way he is able to on My Heart is a UFO, or honing the material to the near-perfection of Green and Dumb.   On Never Thought, Clyne sings that "I was looking for ways/around the cliches."  He needs to keep looking.

MY GRADE >> B  (Some very solid tunes, with a couple of standouts.)   -jb-

BREAKFAST IN NEW ORLEANS, DINNER IN TIMBUKTU  (Bruce Cockburn); This is a 1999 release brought to my attention by Hans, my former Houston colleague.  Bruce Cockburn is familiar to me mainly through WXRT's shameless overplaying of his 1984 song, If I Had A Rocket Launcher.  Based on Hans recommendation, I gave this record a shot, and I'm glad I did. 

    Here is what Hans had to say about the record:        

            "...quite possibly one of the greatest CD's I have ever purchased. It is worth a listen. Some very interesting collaborations on this album with Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies. A very interesting cover of Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill with Margo is hauntingly beautiful. Also singing backup vocals on the album is Lucinda Williams on several cuts. This is the type of music you put on a Sunday morning, drink your coffee, and read the paper -- really excellent for that relaxing mood."

    While I would not rave quite as enthusiastically, I enjoyed this record.  When You Give It Away is a great opener, rocking a bit harder than most of the rest of the disc.  Down in the Delta is a pleasant instrumental featuring fine acoustic guitar work.  The cover of Blueberry Hill is spectacular, retaining the basic melody and tempo, but sounding completely fresh.  While I have been no fan of Margo Timmons or Cowboy Junkies, her vocals on this song are perfect.  Other highlights include Mango, Let the Bad Air Out, and Last Night of the World.

    The only drawbacks I saw here were some overly pretentious moments, such as the spoken words at the beginning of Use Me While You Can, and a general sameness of tone throughout the record.  Some records trip over the fine line of consistency into the muck of boring monotony.  Fortunately, this record never quite succumbs to that sad fate.

MY GRADE >> B  (A good record that rewards additional listens)     -jb-

THE HOUSTON KID  (Rodney Crowell); This series of vivid narratives is set in Houston, one of my favorite cities.  This is not, however, about the Houston of the Galleria or River Oaks.  It is about a "one eyed sailor in an ice house bar...barbecue and beer on ice, just a little taste of paradise."  Brings back memories of Blanco's, my favorite bar in the whole world.  

Crowell offers up an excellent batch of songs, firmly rooted in the Springsteen tradition of loosely basing the songs on his life.  Hope, disillusion, pain and redemption move from the Jersey shore to the Houston streets.  If Springsteen favored the operatic approach on his early albums, Crowell favors the understated vibe of Tunnel of Love.  What results is a deeply affecting blend of wonderful lyrics, sympathetic playing and fine production.

It begins with the rollicking optimism of Telephone Road, a nice complement to the fantastic Steve Earle song of the same name.  Here, Crowell sets the scene of where he grew up - a poor, "white trash" area, but with simple pleasures for a young boy.  Unfortunately, for kids like Crowell, things get tougher as life goes on.  The Rock of My Soul is about how he turns into "another Houston kid, on a downhill skid/like father, like son."  Topsy Turvy continues the recollection of a hard childhood, combining harsh rock guitar with bitter raw lyrics.  "Daddy thinks that whiskey makes him big and smart, Mommy thinks that Daddy's got a concrete heart...I wish I had a brother or a sister to whom I could turn...Momma's on the pavement with a broken arm/ tellin' everybody  Daddy meant no harm/Talk about denial with a great big "D"/you can try to fool the neighbors, but you can't fool me."  He concludes, understandably, with "I don't like a thing about the way we live"

A superb updated duet with the Man in Black himself finds Crowell recalling the first time he "heard Johnny Cash sing I Walk the Line."  He captures the feeling he gets to this day - "I've seen the Mona Lisa, I've heard Shakespeare read real fine/just like hearin' Johnny Cash sing I Walk the Line"  This is followed by Crowell treading the same thin line (but falling over) on Highway 17.  "I put away 15 grand doin' one-night stands/mostly liquor stores and filling stations."  But that money is lost while he is in prison - the spot where he buried it has been paved over by a six-lane highway.  He's also lost his family, who know he is "the perfect sample of a bad example." 

Every other song here offers its own pleasures, moving Crowell to a new level as a singer, songwriter and performer.  I Know Love Is All I Need is an unexpected closing song that indicates that Crowell has come a long way from his past, and offers hope that others can, as well.  He has come to terms with his late parents, coming to see their pain, as well as his own.  He is a better man, and he "can see it in my children, I can feel it with my wife/ and I know it with these friends I have, so important to my life." 

It is hard to conceive a better guide to a happy life.

MY GRADE  >> A (Transcending his country lineage without giving up a bit of his heritage, Crowell's lyrics make this a real treasure.)

HALF MAD MOON  (The Damnations TX);  A pretty good first record.  "Countryish" rock from this band starts with a flat-out great rocker, Unholy Train, and then some fine midtempo  harmonies on No Sign of Water.   Soon after, they go full tilt "alt-country", a la Freakwater, on Spit and Tears and Kansas.  The record peters out somewhat in the second half, with the exception of Finger the Pie, which does a nice job of stirring things up, even adding a little well-placed trumpet (!), and the closing song, Catch You Alive, which highlights their vocal prowess   The vocals, mainly from Deborah Kelly and Amy Boone (put them together and you get Debbie Boone, an altogether scary thought), are very distinctive.  Overall, a few very fine songs, with just a bit too much filler to warrant a hearty recommendation.  However, I did like this record and this band could have some real potential for the future.

 MY GRADE >> B (Not a "half-bad moon" overall; a few standout songs indicate this band has some real potential) 

EVERYDAY  (Dave Matthews Band); This may not surprise any of you, but I have never figured the appeal of Dave Matthews, either as a band or recording artist.  To his credit, the new album features Matthews trying to write actual songs.  He is not successful, but at least he tries.  Dave seems to have discovered the electric guitar, as opposed to his usual meaningless acoustic jamming.  What is amazing is that even his 4 - 5 minute songs on this record still feel like they are meandering without any urgency or destination.   It is produced by noted hack Glen Ballard (famous as the reason that Alanis Morrissette had her 15 minutes of fame), but there is no noticeable difference from previous DMB stuff I've heard.  

I Did It - the first single - is dreadful, and sums up the worst of Dave Matthews - indifferent playing, mumbled vocals.  I Did It does provide me one satisfying experience - it is the rare song that unites me with my 12-year old daughter, who dislikes it almost as much as I do.  No arguments about what to do next when this song comes on the radio!  I am hard-pressed to identify any other bright spots on EverydaySpace Between and Fool to Think are not overly annoying.   But then, you run into these stupefying lyrics on Sleep to Dream Her - "I know I'll miss her later, wish I could bend my love to hate her/wish I could be her creator, to be the light in her eyes."  While I believe that lyrics are not always necessary for a good song, even great musicians (notably absent here) could not save such laughable songwriting. 

What depresses me about this music is not that it is worse than Britney Spears or NSync - it isn't.  However, this music is popular with adults who should know better.  Even worse, many think that because they like Dave Matthews, they are still hip.  Sad.

MY GRADE  >> D (Too annoying to be elevator music)

CARPE P.M. - HONOR COMES ONLY AFTER HUMILITY  (Deja Voo Doo);  I got this free from my brother Marty, who works with someone from this band.  When he gave me the CD, I thought he said the music was influenced by Zeppelin and the Beatles.  After listening to it, I was totally confused.  Then, Marty reminded me that he had said Zappa and the Beatles.  Now it all made sense; well, as much as anything influenced by Zappa will make sense.  While the list of people who played on this album is lengthy, it appears to be primarily the work of Scott Fischer, who wrote, produced and sung.  I should clarify up front that I am not a fan of Frank Zappa.  I know that he was a good composer, because he did classical music or opera, or something GOOD like that.  As a non-Zappa fan, most of this CD (with notable exceptions) left me cold.  Fischer tries too hard to put too much into the record - concepts, horns, narration; you name it, it's here.  From time to time, it comes together, such as on Yesteryear and Andy.  The story and narration did not work for me, other than a really funny offhand comment about Stephen Tyler and Aerosmith.

BUT WAIT; just when I was ready to write this off, the last song on the album comes out of nowhere to be one of the best songs I've heard this year.  Purple Ladybug is a personal account of a hard time in Fischer's life that he overcame with the help of family and friends.  It is a little too long, but the most straightforward song on the album is easily the best.  Most often, the best songwriting comes, not out of lofty concepts and ambitions, but from simple personal statements.  Purple Ladybug is that type of personal statement, showing me more than the rest of the record.

MY GRADE >> B- (Nothing special, except for one outstanding song, or if you miss Zappa) 

GLOBAL UNDERGROUND 019: LOS ANGELES  (John Digweed); Well, I've never been to a rave, never taken Ecstacy, and am no longer in the age demographic for this kind of dance music.  The few times I have been in a club that plays anything like this type of "deep house" music, it drives me crazy after about an hour.  But I've gotta tell you, I really like this double CD - about 2 and 1/2 hours of thumping bass, electronic effects and a few heavily treated vocals.  Digweed is apparently a superstar for fans of this music, and you can hear why.  He pays attention to the sequencing of tracks in a way that lets this disc hold up even away from the dance floor.

The record captures highlights of a 5 hour show in Los Angeles.  With most marathon "rock" shows (Dead,etc), the resulting album merely reinforces that "you had to be there."  But here, , Digweed blends the 22 tracks by various artists into a seamless whole that actually works better listened to straight through, rather than as individual tracks.  I know, it's hard to believe that dance music could actually bring back the album length progressive rock of the 70s and make it work so well.  Yes never sounded like this!

Lyrics, of course, are unimportant here, as in most dance music.  In fact, individual songs are hard to pinpoint as Digweed weaves the strands into a whole comforting blanket of sound.  Suffice it to say that I was most impressed by the beginning of disc One, and the end of disc Two.

MY GRADE >>  B+  (I have been surprised at how often I listen to this.  You may be, too.) -jb-       

GET SKINTIGHT  (The Donnas);  There was a group in the late 70s called the Runaways, consisting of teenage girls playing high-energy pop-punk music.  My friends made fun of me for listening to them (although they always liked to look at the girls' pictures on the album cover), but that group produced Joan Jett, who has put together a decent career, including a few excellent tunes.

    I offer this little anecdote to give you an idea of the Donnas' sound.  This album strives for Ramones heights (they are all named "Donna"), but ultimately settles for Joan Jett's competency.  The subject matter concerns girls, guys, partying and rock and roll.  Of course, this was always my favorite subject matter as well.  A month ago, I discussed the issue of artisitic ambition in rock music.  Well, the Donnas have no artistic ambition beyond three chords and loud amps.  The Ramones took this approach and produced classics that sound even better 20 years later.  On this record, Doin' Donuts and Party Action are the most obvious and effective Ramones homages.  You Don't Wanna Call, Get Outta My Room, Hyperactive, Hook It Up, and Didn't Like You Anyway  are more Joan Jett than the Ramones, but all sound great blasting out of the car stereo.

 MY GRADE >> B+ (Young female rockers could certainly have worse idols than the Ramones and Joan Jett)

THE DONNAS TURN 21  (The Donnas); Wow, I sort of remember when I was 21, but I didn't know any girls like the Donnas.  Too bad for me.  Turning 21 has not softened their hard-edged music a bit.  The new record burns every bit as hot as their last record, Get Skintight.  Both records remind us that the best rock music is often that which stays true to its garage roots.  There are other bands that are more adventurous and ambitious than the Donnas, but few of them are as fun.  By turns cute and tough,  their Ramones-like bark sometimes obscures their lyrical bite.  This is fun party music, but you don't want to get on their bad side.

Are You Gonna Move It For Me starts off the record with a super-charged challenge to their boy fans/critics.  "You want to meet me, but you wrote about a few of our shows/If you don't like us, what are you doing standing in the front row?/If you didn't come to party, why did you bother coming at all?"  Later, they lament "Stop drivin' through my heart/You ditched me at the mini-mart" in Drivin' Thru My Heart.  My personal favorite is Police Blitz, when they turn the tables on the policeman who pulls them over and convince him to party  Donnas-style - "Police Blitz all night long, gonna party like Cheech and Chong/Let's go drink some Schlitz, the Police Blitz!"  

Other highlights include Midnight Snack, Nothing to Do, You've Got a Crush on Me, Gimme a Ride, Little Boy, and Don't Get Me Busted.  They even pull off a relatively straight version of the Judas Priest metal warhorse, Living After Midnight.  It never sounded so good.

MY GRADE >> B+ (You can have your Lilith Fair; I want the Donnas!) 

SING LOUD, SING PROUD  (Dropkick Murphys); It's hard to imagine a more promising mix of influences than the Clash and the Pogues, and the Dropkick Murphys are able to brew a fine blend on Sing Loud, Sing Proud.

Originating as a harcore punk group in the mid-90s, the Murphy's have continually incorporated their south Boston Irish heritage into their music.  This time, they also feature a cameo from legendary Pogues wildman, Shane MacGowan.  The album gets off to a rousing start with the anthem, For Boston, followed by the Clash-like sound of The Legend of Fin MacCumhail.  

Which Side Are You On is a good, plain-speaking rabble-rousing Union-hall song!  "My Daddy was a miner, and I'm a miner's son/and I'll stick with the union 'til every battles won."  Heroes of Our Past is a tribute to the ancestors, once again conjuring the Clash (or should I say, Rancid; Lars Frederickson of that punk band produced their first two records, and his influence is still felt here, especially on The Gauntlet.)  

However, the boys are no mere apologists for the old sod; The Torch bitterly laments the cycle of violence (physical and emotional) in Ireland and Irish culture generally.  Raging with just acoustic guitars about a "bitter old man"  who has "grown cold to the touch of the ones that you love."  Saddest of all, "ignorance is something you can't overcome/but you pass it on down, and that's something much worse/for a bitter young man has now taken the torch."  Politics becomes personal.

As for Shane, his contribution on Good Rats is fine (the song is about Guinness and good rats, and, trust me, that it is about all you want to know about the story.)  MacGowan also chips in on the group chanting on the awfully cool cover of the the traditional Irish drinking song, The Wild Rover

Other standouts include Forever, The Fortune of War, A Few Good Men, and Ramble and Roll.  The CD concludes on a high note, with The Spicy McHaggis Jig, which unleashes a wobbly traditional jig, followed by hilarious lyrics, hard to translate to print. 

MY GRADE >> B+ (An enjoyable record that holds up better than most modern-day punk-oriented music.)     -jb-       

STALLED PARADE  (Eleventh Dream Day);  The first album in three years by this very solid Chicago-based band is an exhilarating blend of new influences and directions with a grounding in the basic soft/hard modern rock that this band was perfecting at the same time as Nirvana (without the reward of mainstream commercial success.)

The members of Eleventh Dream Day have day jobs and/or gigs in other bands (my favorite being Janet Bean's traditional country group, Freakwater).  But, when they play together, there is an interplay musically that handily overcomes the occasionally shaky songwriting and vocals.

Stalled Parade, In the Style of... and Ice Song are classic Eleventh Dream Day songs that feature hard, feedback-drenched electric guitar.  Guitarist Rick Rizzo has an uncanny sense for using his guitar solos to move the song through to a logical conclusion, rather than the aimless wanderings of so many guitar aficionados.  Interstate is a  more straightforward rocker.  The lyrics on Way Too Early on a Sunday Morning may be the band's finest, drawing up imagery all too real for those of us who occasionally see dawn from the wrong end - "By this time of the day, there's no going back/I could always collect myself, but you'd be off the track...There is no revolution/there's only revelation.../It's way too early on a Sunday morning/but it's not too late for a Saturday night"  


MY GRADE >> B+ (Guitar rock that shows that the abduction by the Q101 generation has still left a few hardy survivors.)

A MAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE  (Alejandro Escovedo); Alejandro Escovedo’s family has a rich history in music.  His father, Pedro, was in a Mexican mariachi band.  Alejandro is one of eight children, including a brother, Pete, who was a percussionist for Santana.  His niece is Sheila E. from Prince fame.  Escovedo was born is San Antonio and raised on the surf near Los Angeles.  He was a member of various punk bands including the Nuns, which opened on tour for the Sex Pistols.  He was an original member of the cowpunk band Rank and File and also formed Buick MacKane, which went on tour with Los Lobos.

Escovedo has recorded in relative obscurity for about 25 years now and has settled down, the father of six children of his own, in Austin, Texas.  His 1996 song With These Hands, about his father’s struggles in emigrating from Mexico to the U.S., was the inspiration for the play he co-wrote called By The Hand Of The Father.  The play opened in L.A. last year and continued on in various cities during the spring of 2001.

Two songs from the play highlight and begin Escovedo’s newest release A Man Under The Influence.  Wave is about leaving Mexico as people wave goodbye to go their separate way, while looking for their individual destination in the new world.  “The sun's not brighter here/It only shines on golden hair.”  Rosalie is an elegant song of longing for a loved one separated by different countries.  Seven years of letters only make that longing stronger and more painful.  “…to build a world that’s free/I want to dance with you Rosalie.”  Rhapsody is another strong song rich in guitars, cellos, and violins.  Across The River highlights the pleasant yet haunting vocals of Escovedo.  Don’t Need You shows off his interesting songwriting indicating the conflict of love and lost opportunities. “I don’t need you/like you don’t need me.” Follow You Down is a beautiful song with string orchestration describing the struggle to accept someone’s love.  “I’ve been hanging with the ghost/the cause of all this trouble.”   Wedding Day is nicely melodic with cello, acoustic and steel guitars, and also mandolin providing the orchestration.  Velvet Guitar along with an earlier song on the CD, Castanets, are two fine rockers that help break the more mellow pace of A Man Under The Influence.  Ultimately, however, they are probably the two least remarkable songs on the album.  As I Fall, with the solid drumming of Hector Munoz, is one of the best songs on the CD.  “And as I lean into this fall/I’ll always surround you.”  About This Love has Escovedo singing about a former love and that chance to get back with her.  “There’s a story in your eyes/that needs a witness.” 

For Escovedo, this is a more melodic and less downbeat album from his previous efforts.  It is a beautiful recording particularly with the cellos of Brian Standefer.  It may seem an odd mixture as you hear the cello intertwine with the guitar feedback at the end of Velvet Guitar, but it is most effective.   Also prominent on the album is the pedal steel guitar work of Eric Heywood. 

Cellos, violins, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, pedal and slide guitars; this is the result of Escovedo’s varied influences and incarnations as a rock and roller.  It all makes A Man Under The Influence a solid album from beginning to end.

MY GRADE >> B+ (Like a work of art, the poignancy in the lyrics may lead each listener to interpret the songs in somewhat different ways.  The songs will touch you none-the-less.) 

                                                                                                                      - sh - 

SONGS FROM AN AMERICAN MOVIE, VOL. ONE: LEARNING HOW TO SMILE  (Everclear); Now here is a straightforward rock record from a straightforward rock band.  Leader Art Alexakis was unfairly castigated by his early 90s alt-rock peers for the perceived fatal flaw of being frankly ambitious.  At the time, the alt-rock crowd valued their persona as slackers, unconcerned about any such trifles as commercial success.  Everclear admitted that they wanted to be successful, in the sense that they wanted many people to like and listen to their music.  The irony is that Everclear continues to build a musical catalog to be envied, while bands from Nirvana to Soundgarden to Metallica have been ruined in various ways by their commercial success.

    On Vol. One,  Everclear offers more hooks than you'd find at an overcrowded fishing hole.  The music is uniformly sunny, while Alexakis' lyrics continue to work to find the hope and beauty in otherwise painful or mundane lives. This is perfectly captured in Wonderful, a child's lament about his parents' breakup.  The lyrics ring completely true - "I don't want to hear you say that/I will understand someday/I don't want to hear you say/You both have grown in different ways."  We know exactly what he is feeling when he sings "Promises mean everything/When you're little/and the world is so big"  In Otis Redding, Alexakis offers that "I wish I could be like all my heroes/I wish I could be like yours too/I wish I could sing like Otis Redding/I wish I could play this guitar in tune."  The giddy, should-be-a-hit AM Radio absolutely nails what Top 40 AM radio used to mean to us 40-somethings, down to the perfect finishing chant of "we like pop, we like soul/we like rock, but we never liked disco."  There is also a top-notch cover of Brown Eyed Girl, the fine title songs, and the fun Unemployed Boyfriend, with Alexakis attempting to pitch some woo at the unemployment office.

    There are certainly a few misses here, including the closing Annabella's Song, which tries too hard with its over-the-top string arrangement.  But, considering that this band had one of the perfect songs of the 90s (Santa Monica), they continue to move forward -  unafraid to try something new, despite the risk of failure, but also unashamed to make fun music.

MY GRADE >> B+  (A fine offering, with great lyrics from Alexakis - a definite contender as the best rock lyricist working today )

SONGS FROM AN AMERICAN MOVIE, VOL. TWO: GOOD TIME FOR A BAD ATTITUDE  (Everclear); Well, this is what I get for being one of the few critics to defend Everclear and its leader, Art Alexakis.  Volume One was the "pop" record and it confirmed for me that Everclear was receiving a bad rap from the rock press for his unapologetic desire to be successful.  Volume Two is the "hard" record, and it is everything that Everclear's critics accuse them of: cynical, formulaic and calculated.  I found this record depressing, because I believe that Alexakis has shown that he is capable of better.  Am I depressed when listening to other records that are as bad as this one?  No, because most of those bands have no chance of writing songs as nearly perfect as Santa Monica and Wonderful.  There is nothing remotely in that league on this record.  The leadoff song, When It All Goes Wrong Again, is as good as it gets.  Aside from some clever lyrics from Alexakis on Rock Star and Short Blonde Hair, there is nothing here worth noting.

MY GRADE >> C- (A sad confirmation of some of the worst criticism of Everclear) 

HALFWAY BETWEEN THE GUTTER AND THE STARS  (Fatboy Slim);  The followup to the breakthrough You've Come a Long Way, Baby, the new Fatboy record should be another dance floor hit.  While there are not monster crossover hits like Rockafeller Skank or Praise You, it is a solid display of electronica, with good songwriting - usually the missing ingredient in the dance-floor genre.  If this record will not further the infiltration of dance music into American indie rock, it should keep the faithful dancing the morning hours away.  Star 69 has a great pounding electro beat, combined with gratuitously  profane lyrics - perfect for the disaffected beautiful people sulking through the discos of the new millenium.  Love Life with vocals from Macy Gray is a fine example of the way that Fatboy Slim is able to combine disparate genres in a creative way, not losing sight of bringing enjoyment to the masses.  Weapon of Choice is an enjoyable rocker, with an interesting rhythm.  Talking Bout My Baby brings a live, piano club vibe; this could be, like Praise You, an unlikely hit after the inevitable remixing.  Then, there is Bird of Prey, which repeats a Jim Morrison sampled vocal to a fair degree of annoyance, before taking an ambient turn.  Drop the Hat is weird and interesting for the first couple of listens, then it is just weird.  

MY GRADE >> B  (While not up to the Chemical Brothers brilliance, Fatboy Slim does a creditable job of merging the electronic dance movement and traditional rock approaches.)

THE SOFT BULLETIN  (The Flaming Lips);  Speaking of ambition, this one reaches up to the sky, with smoothness and grace like Michael Jordan.  While it doesn't close the deal quite as well as Michael did, this is a very successful outing by a band that refuses to stand still.  I know I am going to have a hard time explaining exactly why this is such a great record.  The lyrics make no real sense, at least in any linear way, but they never have with the Lips.  The music is not even rock in any recognizable sense, other than a few touches here and there - a heavy bass and drum moment in the middle of A Spoonful Weighs a Ton, the end of The Spark That Bled, most of Buggin' (also on the Austin Powers Two soundtrack).

    The CD sleeve art is presented as if the record were a film, and that is as good an analogy as any.  The songs here give the listener the sense of watching one of those experimental movies we saw in film class, with colors and shapes filling the screen.  OK, fine Jim, but what does the music sound like?  Well, that's the point.  This sounds different from anything I can remember hearing, unlike even previous records I've heard (and enjoyed) from the Flaming Lips.  Some people will say the Beach Boys or Beatles, but I only picked that up in a couple of places (e.g., The Gash is quite Beatle-like).  I believe a better comparison that comes to mind is last year's good (but overpraised) OK Computer by Radiohead.  The vocals are similarly high-pitched and plaintive, the lyrics similarly oblique, and the music similarly ambitious, incorporating numerous non-rock elements.  The major difference is tone - The Soft Bulletin feels expansive, sunny and optimistic, while OK Computer was claustrophobic, dark and a downer.  Simply put, listening to The Soft Bulletin makes me smile; I enjoyed this record right from the start.  The only songs that are close to a miss are Suddenly Everything Has Changed and Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.  All the rest are uniformly wonderful songs. 

MY GRADE >> A (Highly recommended; one of the year's best)

UTOPIA PARKWAY  (Fountains of Wayne); Apparently, a certain brand of catchy pop (complete with Beach Boys/Beatles-like vocal harmonizing) is quite the rage in independent music circles these days.  Fountains of Wayne and Apples in Stereo are examples of this movement.  Utopia Parkway starts off with the title song, and this promising lyrical intro - "Well I've been saving for a custom van/And I've been playing in a cover band."  Now, if that doesn't capture the early 70s, I must be Dazed and Confused.

It is hard to dislike this music, because it is relentlessly cheerful in style, if not always in lyrical content.  Denise is a sunny "sha-la-la" type song (complete with "shoobe-do-ah"s!), even while name checking a Lexus and Puff Daddy.   The Valley of Malls, Amity Gardens and Troubled Times are pretty good ear candy.

This band sounds similar to Teenage Fanclub and (maybe) Matthew Sweet; this record is a little more consistent than Teenage Fanclub, but without the real standouts featured by that band or the bite that Sweet often brings.  Overall, while this is a well-crafted effort, it lacks any real excitement or risk-taking.  I read that Fountains of Wayne is one of Elton John's favorite new bands.  Needless to say, I do not consider that a positive endorsement.

  MY GRADE >> B- (Not unpleasant)

END TIME  (Freakwater); This band has put out one of the best records from the 1990s, Feels Like The Third Time.  Their sound has been primarily acoustic country, featuring harmony vocals from Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin.  They probably fall into the genre of "alt-country" because they don't get played on country radio stations, but their sound and sensibility are pure country.  Other than Feels Like the Third Time, their other records have been inconsistent, although each has some good-to-great songs.  

This record is a mixed bag.  It features more instrumentation and the arrangements are not quite as spare as on earlier efforts.  The best song is the first, Good For Nothing,  with its great chorus of "I've been good/and I've been good for nothing."  Cheap Watch features some nice fiddle work from Joel Batty.  When the Leaves Begin to Fall is an excellent example of the best of the old Freakwater (breathtaking harmony vocals) with the newer, full-band version.  I also enjoyed Cloak of Frogs and Sick, Sick, Sick.

The rest of the record did little for me.  The band seems eager to have the music evolve to the next stage, and I agree with that philosophy.  Freakwater had been running out of ways to make the acoustic country consistently interesting and inventive.  This record is a step in a new direction, but they still have a ways to go.

MY GRADE >> B (An okay record, but if you have to have one Freakwater record - and you do - buy Feels Like the Third Time.)

VERSION 2.0  (Garbage); Released last year, and touted as one of the year's best, I just got around to buying this.  This is my kind of pop music; more of an edge than Fountains of Wayne or Apples in Stereo, this takes the catchy melodies and superb vocals and rocks out.  The radio hit, I Think I'm Paranoid, is a fine update of the slow/fast Nirvana dynamics.  When I Grow Up, Hammering in My Head, Push It, You Look So Fine and Sleep Together are a similar blend of accessibility and risk-taking.  The production shines, as could be expected from a band led by Butch Vig.  This group does a fine job of integrating techno and industrial touches in a very subtle fashion.  Not as brilliant as the best in any one genre, this is still a good record.

MY GRADE >> B+ (Solid effort; short on the spectacular tune, but consistently good)

2000 YEARS OF HUMAN ERROR  (Godhead);  Remember when the second tier industrial rock bands were as good as Nitzer Ebb, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM, Revolting Cocks, Skinny Puppy and Skrew?  OK, well, I do, and at the risk of sounding like the cranky old man I am, I have to say that those were the good old days.  Today, we have Nine Inch Nails at the top of the heap, with Ministry as royalty emeritus (since their last couple of releases are not up to the astounding standards set a decade ago.)  Then you've got Marilyn Manson one level down.  After that we go all the way down to Godhead. These guys may have the slight credibility that comes with being on Manson's boutique record label, but they are still just another industrial rock ripoff.  

What is good on this record?  Very little.  Tired Old Man, Break You Down and Backstander are all tolerable.  A cover of Eleanor Rigby is the novelty tune (which is all it was for the Beatles as far as I am concerned.)  Industrial covers of old songs are not new, but this does not reach the heights of Ministry's reworking of Dylan's Lay Lady Lay or Skrew's finest hour, the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil.

With all of the lame efforts in the industrial rock genre recently, I would be tempted to say that there is nowhere left to go.  However, Nine Inch Nails released The Fragile just over a year ago, and that proved that there is still some life left.  

But none of that life is present in Godhead.

MY GRADE  >> C-  (More proof that loud guitars and distorted vocals can still be boring.)

LIQUID SKIN  (Gomez);  Recommended by my Denver brother-in-law, Pete.  I don't know anything about the band, although one guy is named Ian, so I assume they're British.  Hangover and Revolutionary Kind are a nice start to the record.  Fill My Cup has a nice hard guitar part near the end.  Otherwise, I found this unremarkable.  It seems too self-consciously arty, and the vocalist seems unsure whether he wants to be Eddie Vedder or Thom Yorke.  Musicianship is fine, but the performance and songs are uninspired.

MY GRADE >> C (ho-hum; sorry, Pete!)

WARNING:  (Green Day);  Green Day originally started out posturing as a punk rock band. Now, on their sixth album Warning they are a power-pop trio and just as unconvincing. The album starts off with one of its better songs, the title track. "Is it the cop or am I the one that's really dangerous?"  Let's just say, there is nothing dangerous about Green Day. There is some angst, along with some hope, in their words, but the lyrics really never click. The music is mostly catchy tunes and mostly pointless. 

Church on Sunday is all right, but makes you wish you were listening instead to an old Romantics album. 

Castaway has a nice sing-a-long quality.   "Castaway/now I'm on my own." Everybody join in.  There is a lot of toe tapping, but nothing special going on here. Wait a minute, on Waiting, is that '60s British pop star Petula Clark I hear?  With Minority, they at least attempt to write something interesting, "Down with the moral majority 'cause I want to be the minority."

Warning is straightforward rock and roll. But, their lyrics need work and the musicianship is limiting.

MY GRADE >> C- (The old punkers' strongest efforts on this album are the more acoustic songs: Warning, Misery, and ending with Macy's Day Parade. Maybe their next incarnation will be as a folk band. How sad would that be considering they have nothing to say.)    -sh-

ISOLATION DRILLS  (Guided by Voices);  Guided By Voices is the vehicle for the occasionally fine, more often frustrating songs of Robert Pollard.  A critical favorite, GBV has always been too off-hand for my taste.  Their songs generally take a single melody, throw in some nonsensical lyrics (sung in Pollard's cheesy fake British accent), play it quick and move on to the next one.  OK, so maybe that is what the Ramones did, minus the fake British accent, but the difference is in the execution of that concept.  The Ramones committed themselves to the purity of their sound, and boiled songs down to their essence in 2 minutes.  GBV has always had good ideas, with no commitment to bringing those ideas to full realization.  They just quit after 2 minutes, and think that makes them "punk."  But Pollard's songs demand more than the tossed-off treatment he too often gives them.

Isolation Drills is an advance for Guided By Voices, with more "complete" songs than on any of their previous records.  In general, the effort put in on this record pays off.  Fair Touching and the driving Skills Like This are fine lead-off tunes.  Chasing Heather Crazy and Glad Girls show that Pollard can make power-pop at the high level of a Material Issue or Off Broadway.  Unspirited is a nice melodic song.

The record still has too many throw-away tunes (Frostman, Sister I Need Wine), plus one song (the ambitious, mostly failed Run Wild) that demonstrates the pitfalls of putting too much effort into a song.  Lyrically, especially for a former schoolteacher, Pollard is a lightweight.  

One thing that GBV have going for them is that they are making music that is not dependent on current trends, and they have few competitors left in the power-pop field.  There may be some greatness still lurking here.

MY GRADE >> B (A definite step forward, with some glorious power-pop moments  -jb-        

IN THE AIR  (Handsome Family); This 2000 release from the Chicago band is a tremendous improvement over their previous record, Through the Trees. That 1998 release garnered much praise, but struck me as somewhat mannered, with the band worried more about the sound and mood than the songs. 

    On the new record, their songs catch up to their ambitions.  They nominally fall into the alt country ghetto, but they also build on the country blues/gospel tradition.  Their lyrics, written by Rennie Sparks, the female half of the married couple that is the Handsome Family, range from bleak to homicidal.  The music has a cinematic feel, like the soundtrack for a spaghetti Western.  The instrumentation is varied, refusing to be limited to the traditional tools of the trade.  The vocals, by Brett Sparks, the male half of the group, give meaning and feeling to the lyrics, and complement the musical vision perfectly.

    This blend of gently rolling music and often horrific lyrics gives the music a power that belies the humble origins of the recording - the Sparks living room.  The best songs are beautifully rendered stories, with characters we can vividly picture, even when, as in So Much Wine, it is painful to do so.  Brett Sparks sings achingly of a sad person, lamenting an alcoholic partner, "there's only so much wine you can drink in one life/and it will never be enough/ to save you from/ the bottom of your glass"  Other highlights here are Don't Be Scared, The Sad Milkman, In the Air, Up Falling Rock Hill (more soft music and harsh lyrics), When That Helicopter Comes (a lively dirge with gleefully bizarre lyrics), Grandmother Waits for You (offering the slightest bit of redemption for the motley cast of characters featured on this record)

    Virtually free of filler, the record succeeds spectacularly overall in matching the artists' vision to excellent songs performed well.  Also, this is an Enhanced CD with a high quality music video of Amelia Earhart, a fine song from an earlier CD.

MY GRADE >> A  (Music that mines country and blues traditions, and comes up with something wholly original in the process)                                                          -jb-

STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA  (PJ Harvey); A wonderful all-out rock record from Ms. Harvey, this is her best and most consistent album.  While she has certainly hit these heights occasionally on previous efforts - most notably on To Bring You My Love and Dry - there is a relentless sense of purpose and self-confidence here that has been missing before.  Without losing any of the old power in her vocals, this makes Stories a joy to listen to.

The best song is You Said Something (as close to the mainstream as Harvey gets, and a song that cries out for radio airplay).  However, listen for the distinctive tunes that close the record.  Horses in My Dreams and We Float are ethereal, haunting and still exude a dangerous vibe. In We Float, Harvey sings that "we wanted to find love, we wanted success/until nothing was enough, until my middle name was excess." 

The record is heavy on the rockers that Harvey does as well as anyone - her ferocious guitar playing is demonstrated on Good Fortune (almost a  Patti Smith tribute, but with a Courtney Love edge!), This is Love (maybe an answer to her last record, Is This  Desire), Kamikaze, The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore (featuring her driving guitar within an eerie context)  and Big ExitBeautiful Feeling comes closest to the "classic" PJ Harvey, raw solo electric and vocal.  This Mess We're In is a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke that grows with each listen (thankfully, Harvey, a prime vocal stylist in her own right, leaves the high pitched yelps to Yorke.)  

MY GRADE >> A-  (PJ Harvey has come through with the best record of a strong career.)  

FIT TO BE TIED - GREAT HITS  (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts); This record is a few years old, but I was prompted to buy it by my recent praise of the Donnas' record, as well as the use of the song Bad Reputation in the outstanding, but now-canceled  TV show, Freaks and Geeks.  

    Everyone made fun of me when I bought the Runaways album back in college, and they were basically a manufactured girl group, although a damn fine-looking one.  Joan Jett came out of this experience to make some classic rock songs, that have held up better as the years have passed.  The aforementioned Bad Reputation is probably my favorite, but I Love Rock N Roll is the quintessential Joan Jett song.  With a big sound, passionate vocals, and one chord short of a Ramones song, this is so good cranked up with car windows rolled down.  The cover of Sly Stone's Everyday People is so-so, but she scores with her cover of Tommy James' Crimson and Clover.  You've got to hear her tremendous one-minute version of Love is All Around, the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show.  It is the punk rock version; I heard that the Replacements also did a version of this song, but I never heard it.  Other winners are I Hate Myself for Loving You, Roadrunner (the punk rock classic from Jonathon Richman) and Light of Day (written by Springsteen)

MY GRADE >> A- (Great songs to sing along to; some filler but the classics are worth it.)

SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA  (Mark Knopfler); Mark Knopfler first made an impact in 1978 fronting Dire Straits.  He played the most sensitive yet electrifying guitar; making him one of the greatest guitar players in Rock and Roll.  With each new album, Knopfler would improve upon his songwriting accompanied with more atmospheric music.  His guitar work, however, became less prominent.

After Dire Straits, he moved on to movie scores and various collaborations.  Now, after one unnoticed solo album, comes his second project, Sailing To Philadelphia.  Knopfler’s easy, fluid guitar playing, the signature sound of Dire Straits, is evident right from the start on What It Is.  It is only a tease.  The title track, Sailing To Philadelphia, is a catchy, mellow tune aided by the mellow croon of James Taylor.  It is a song about the two British astronomers who created the Mason-Dixon Line.  Knopfler, with this album, gives us sort of a reporter’s eye-view of America from an historical and sociological perspective.  But the lyrics are hit and miss.  On Who’s Your Baby Now, they miss.  It has a pleasing acoustic sound, but asking a prostitute, “Who’s your baby now?” in a deadpan vocal delivery is ineffective.  Baloney Again hits and is the best song on the album.  Jim Hoke’s harmonica helps tell the tale of a traveling gospel group singing about Jesus in the face of racial prejudice.  “We don’t eat in no white restaurant, we’re eatin’ in the car.  Baloney again…” Unfortunately, Van Morrison cannot help save The Last Laugh.  And El Macho is a big miss.  Who knows what he is singing about here.  Who cares.  Do America brings you a British rock star coming to conquer America.  It is the song the radio stations will most likely play because, on this album, it sounds the most like an old Dire Straits’ song.  Prairie Wedding and Wanderlust work together.  Prairie Wedding has a farmer first meeting his mail order bride.  “Do you think that you could love me Mary?  You think we got a chance of a life?”  It is followed nicely by Wanderlust.  With a Native American sound, it is about someone unable to settle down.  “I was down the road in a cloud of dust.  Me and the wanderlust.”  Speedway At Nazareth has a Nashville-NASCAR feel and then Knopfler puts the pedal to the metal and plays his guitar once again.  But like on most of this album, the guitar work is ultimately disappointing.  Let’s face it, Knopfler has set an awfully high standard to reach. 

Listening to Sailing To Philadelphia from beginning to end will thoroughly mellow you out.  There are minor peaks and valleys that by the end go flatline with Sands Of Nevada.  Will Knopfler ever resuscitate his guitar?  I am beginning to think, no.  And I am not sure I like it.

 MY GRADE>>C (His songwriting is not up to par with his previous work and he refuses to cut loose on his guitar.)                                 -sh-  

FEMINIST SWEEPSTAKES  (Le Tigre); Le Tigre made a fantastic debut record a couple of years ago that defied categorization.  Punk?  Yes, in that it was more focused on the urgency of the playing, rather than the proficiency, but it sounded nothing like any other punk I've heard.  Riot Grrrls?  Absolutely, but the lyrics brimmed with wit and vigor, not nearly as strident as some of the other grrrls.  Grunge?  Certainly not, but the lyrics evoked the best of Kurt Cobain.  It was a spectacular debut by a band fronted by Kathleen Hanna, formerly the leader of the legendary Bikini Kill.

Feminist Sweepstakes is nearly as good, working in some of the current electronic dance trends, and more overtly (radical and profane) political lyrics.  While losing some of the variety that made Le Tigre an A+ effort, the new music continues to be innovative, vital and damn catchy. 

Opener LT Tour Theme provides the perfect description of Le Tigre music, that eluded me initially - " we're the band with the roller skate jams."  Driven by the cheap drum machine, cheesy synth and fuzzed-out guitar sound that dominate the disc, Shred A laments that "you're wasting my's all so precious/you just throw it away."  Dyke March 2001 is about just what it says, and features a great, exhilarating leap into the electronic music realm, matching Radiohead in seamlessly integrating dance music into a rock context.  FYR, standing for 50 years of ridicule, has some of the harshest lyrics on the record, as Le Tigre's inner radical feminist comes busting to the fore. "Ten short years of progressive change, fifty years of calling us names/Can we trade Title IX for an end to hate crime?"  To summarize the Le Tigre philosophy, we've come "one step forward, five steps back/We tell the truth, they turn up the laugh track."   TGIF is also a standout song, focused on a friend getting fired by an idiot boss. On Guard directly takes on those who judge people by their appearance, as polite a way as I can describe this confrontational song.  Well Well Well  features yet another great, insidiously catchy beat.  

Feminist Sweepstakes finishes with the unlikely, yet perfect combination of Cry For Everything Bad That's Ever Happened - a simple, piano-driven instrumental that defines sad, but hopeful, and the redemptive triumph of Keep On Livin'.  In this concluding song, Le Tigre check off the tough things that face young women (and men, for that matter) as they go through life.  Among them, "disproportionate reactions just won't fade, every dude you see puts you in a rage/Or stupid shit keeps making you cry; your friends are worried you won't tell them why"  But Le Tigre pushes us to "keep on livin' you can taste that sweet sweet cake, and feel the warm water in a lake.  What about that nice cool breeze?"  The only live drumming on the record emphasizes the warmth and ultimate positivism of Le Tigre's music.  "This is your time, this is your life and ...keep on livin'"

Falling just short of the caliber of their debut, Feminist Sweepstakes is still one of the best records I heard in 2001. 

MY GRADE >> A (Increasingly assertive lyrics coupled with musical experimentation that clicks more often than not. This is a very good record. ) 

HYBRID THEORY  (Linkin Park); The latest "hot, new alternative rock" band, Linkin Park represents an attempt to broaden the rap-rock formula.  I don't know how successful anyone could be at this; adding melody to this genre is a tricky thing, and it does not really work here.  

There are some decent songs, with the choruses especially MTV-ready.  Runaway and One Step Closer are the most successful distillations of the formula, very effective at getting the heads'a'bangin'.  Papercut and In the End are OK.

The best description of what is happening on this record is that it owes much to Rage Against the Machine and is not nearly as awful as Limp Bizkit.  I am torn, because one view is that they are trying to take the best of Rage and bring it back from the muck that Limp has dragged it into.  Of course, the other view is that they are trying to soften it (especially with harmony on the choruses) to appeal to a wider audience.  Ultimately, as the band sings, "In the end, it doesn't even matter"

MY GRADE >> C  (Not as offensive as Limp Bizkit, but then, what's the point?)

ROLL ON  (Living End); The Living End is three school friends from Australia who formed a band in 1994.  Lead singer Chris Cheney plays guitar, Scott Owen is on the upright bass, and Travis Demsey strikes the drums.  After two EP’s and their self-titled debut album, comes their second full-length CD, Roll On. 

It is a blend of punk, heavy metal, pop, arena rock, and a touch of reggae.  The various influences would normally lead to a hodge-podge of disaster.  But The Living End, with their solid musicianship, make it all work.  The complex tempo changes keep the album consistently interesting.  The musical twists and turns, the infectious energy, blistering guitar work of Cheney, along with the intelligent and intelligible lyrics keep Roll On sounding fresh and ready for repeated listening.

The title track kicks things off with the rolling thunder of guitars and drums.  Roll On is about dockworker strife, “You’ll go back to work tomorrow or meet your new replacement son.  Roll On.”  Another highlight is Riot On Broadway, where the Stray Cats meet the Clash and AC/DC.  Staring At The Light visits the sound of Midnight Oil.  It is an interesting song about people who end up facing the afterlife as they strive to reach the shores of a better world.  “Times up for a brighter light.  The foreign waters put the fire out.”  Don’t Shut The Gate is an excellent song.  Opening in a robotic-like state, “Isolate for protection…,” followed by the screaming chorus, “Don’t shut the gate.”  Roll On is one solid song followed by another including Revolution Regained and Silent Victory, about the battle cry for a love that has already walked out the door.  Astoria Paranoia is another excellent offering.  “Is there something going on around me, is there something I should know?”  With the references to fire and everything lost in the haze, could this be about the fire that destroyed downtown Astoria, Oregon almost 80 years ago?  That is a reference from way out there.  No matter.  The music alternates from panic to an internal confusion, “Lost inside my mind,” showing a band with artistic endeavors playing music that enhances the lyrics.  Minor quibbles include the songs Carry Me Home, starting off at a breakneck pace and Blood On Your Hands, beginning in a reggae mode.  They would have been better served in a more straightforward musical style.  While on tour to promote their second EP, The Living End released a single, Prisoner Of Society.  It became a major hit in Australia.  They included the song on their first album and have added a live version, sans audience, to the end of Roll On.  Obviously proud of the song, they wish to share it again, this time hoping America will hear what got it all rolling for the band.

Once you stop listening for who they sound like and start listening for what they are, The Living End sound energetic, interesting, and always fresh.

MY GRADE >> A-  (Worth listening to again and again and again.)        -sh-  

BUZZ ME IN  (Jack Logan);  This is one confused guy, at least musically.  His story is great - pool cleaner by day, sensitive songwriter by night, "discovered" and adopted by the indie, alternative cognoscenti, now with a major label record.  Good reviews in the media, by critics who, I am convinced, like the idea of Jack Logan better than the actual music.  Logan attempts to dress up his basic country rock with an array of instrumentation to no great effect.  These songs are bad, and they are not improved by  the workmanlike playing, or the underdog story.  Based on this record, I hope he is a better pool cleaner than he is a songwriter.                           

MY GRADE >> C- (Pretty much a dog) 

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE  (Low); Low has made a minor career out of playing what is ostensibly rock music as quietly as possible.  Now, as a fancy pants rock critic, I am impressed with anybody who tries something different, and then tries to take it further each time.  But, there is one inescapable truth about rock music that has not changed in 50 years - the louder, the better.  Now that does not mean that tremendous and influential works cannot come from the quieter side.  Yo La Tengo and some of Bruce Springsteen's work, to name just a couple of examples.  

But if an artist is to work that end of the scale, the margin for error is vastly reduced.  Case in point - Elvis Costello's first few albums were brilliant adaptations of punk's louder/faster ethic to traditional pop songwriting.  His slower songs were few, but included the breathtaking Allison.  When Costello decided to do all his records in that style, he was revealed as a less than compelling songwriter and performer.  Ultimately, his body of work suffered from his decision to stay committed to "non-rock."

If Elvis can't pull it off, Low has little chance.  It shows here.  Now, when this band wakes up, they can be quite good.  Sunflower and Dinosaur Act and  are lively songs, the latter effectively contrasting their usual quietude with a typical rock chorus.  Laser Beam and Like a Forest come closest to achieving the quiet beauty that Low aspires to.  Unfortunately, songs like Kind of Girl, Whitetail and Medicine Magazine merely disappear into the air, like wisps of smoke.  

MY GRADE >> C (Low remain committed to their shtick, but are effectively stuck in a rut.)

ELECTRIC HONEY  (Luscious Jackson);  New release from these New York purveyors of the slow, easy groove.  Luscious Jackson has always been vulnerable to an unfortunate sameness to much of their music, and this disc is their worst offender.  It does not have any song that stands out from the crowd, as Naked Eye did on their last record, nor does it achieve the level of consistency present on the earlier Natural Ingredients.   The nature of their music does not lend itself to standouts; the best tracks here are Alien Lover, Sexy Hypnotist, Country's A Callin' and Fly.  Luscious Jackson has always trafficked in slowed-down hip-hop tunes, which de-emphasize the bass dominance in most rap, while increasing the guitar/keyboard sound.  Their vocals are half-spoken (whispered, really) in hip-hop style.  While this all held together well on Natural Ingredients, and when Steve and I saw them at (the first?) Lollapalooza, it is just a little boring now.

MY GRADE >> C (Nothing special) 

STEPHEN MALKMUS  (Stephen Malkmus);  Here we have the long-awaited (by some) debut solo offering from the former frontman for Pavement, yet another acclaimed indie band whose merits escaped me.  Pavement exhibited at least one key similarity with Guided By Voices - too many song ideas, with too little commitment to execution.  No need to try very hard, when you have an adoring (if small) fan base, and enough money to live out your modest slacker fantasies.  For every good Pavement song, there were 5 that were too precious for their own good.  

The ratio holds here.  Church on White is very well-crafted, with some of Malkmus' most straightforward vocals.  The Hook has a nice one (hook, that is) and Trojan Curfew has some fine guitar work, but neither song really goes anywhere.  Out of nowhere, Malkmus gives us some wonderful lyrics on Jennifer and the Ess-Dog, a story of Jennifer, an 18 year old dating "a man in a 60s cover band," the 31 year old Sean ("Ess-Dog.")  There are certainly differences - "see those rings on her toes/ Check that frisbee in his Volvo," - but things go well early on, as they "kiss when they listen to 'Brothers In Arms'" and get a "dog she named Trey." Then, inevitably, things get tough when she goes off to college, and now, "neither one listens to 'Brothers In Arms'/The Ess-dog waits tables and he sold his guitar/Jenny pledged Kappa and she started pre-law/And off came those awful toe rings."  Finely observed cultural commentary, along with an affecting personal story. 

These brief shining moments are outweighed by the (not-at-all-charming) goofiness of Phantasies and Jo Jo's Jacket.  Inconsequential songs, such as Pink India and Troubbble (sic), pour out one after another, as if Malkmus realized that even his most dedicated fans require a dozen songs. 

If Malkmus has a great album in him, he's going to have to work a lot harder than this.

MY GRADE >> C (Might have made an OK EP.)    -jb-     

HOLY WOOD  (Marilyn Manson); There are many who decry the decline of the American culture.  Never mind that most of these people consider only the most middle-of-the-road and bland songs, movies, plays, etc. to be worthy.  Marilyn Manson has served his time as the whipping boy (or whipping whatever) for these groups.  However, with the rise of Limp Bizkit and Eminem, Manson's 15 minutes to outrage American parents appears to have passed.  The only thing left is the music, and, although wholly derivative of other, better acts, it is not bad.

Manson was a protégé of Nine Inch Nails' guru Trent Reznor, before some type of rock star falling out.  To say that the influence of Reznor permeates Manson's music is as much of an understatement as to say that the recent presidential election was close.  On Manson's best songs, the music and vocals would fit right in with NIN's harder material.  Fortunately, there are numerous such songs on this album, including Disposable Teens, Burning Flag and the holy trinity of The Fight Song, The Death Song and The Love Song.

Speaking of holy, this record includes the usual fascination with blasphemy, which is Manson's creative dead-end.  He really wants to be outrageous and get the fundamentalists riled up, but songs such as God Eat God and Lamb of God are simply dreadful.  Combining ridiculously self-important lyrics with dreary, sludgy music, this could only connect with teens who like to think of themselves and their problems as the center of the universe.  

Actually, that explains a lot.  

MY GRADE >> B-  (They would be an excellent Nine Inch Nails cover band, with even a few of their own tunes mixed in.)

CUTTIN' HEADS  (John Mellencamp); John Mellencamp has too much money for his own good.  If someone less successful made music as consistent as he does, that artist would receive much more critical respect.  Not to say that he has not put out plenty of filler over a 20+ year career, but when he is on his game, the good songs seem to flow easily.  On his new release, there is plenty to celebrate.  

If there is one complaint I have about him, it is that he just tries too hard.  This is evident on the title cut here, an earnest and solid tune, presenting the trials and tribulations of interracial romance.  It has a welcome guest vocal from Chuck D, but, like too much of Mellencamp's music, its reach exceeds its grasp.  

Where his strength really shows is in the type of tunes that made him the perfect Farm Aid spokesman.  As mainstream country lost its relevance to the heartland, Mellencamp's good-rockin' Midwestern vibe hit home.  On songs like Crazy Island, he sings of America as the "Silent Majority" could perceive it.  "Hey Hey America, you're some kind of crazy island/You're a place where dreams can grow, And there's history in your mansions"  But there's a dark side to our Crazy Island -  "Hey Hey America, with your salesmanship and your salaries/And your strip malls a growin', And your handguns and your heresies/don't hold no responsibility, in this land of easy millions."   Seemingly playing the typical liberal rocker here, Mellencamp is really more in the Springsteen populist tradition.  Same Way I Do and Women Seem are delightful songs, Mellencamp at his easygoing best.  Peaceful World is another winner, with absolutely perfect vocal accompaniment from India Arie.  It again has some of Mellencamp's vaguely political, "let's everybody get along" lyrics.  "It's what you do and not what you say/If you're not part of the future, then get out of the way."

On the negative side, Worn Out Nervous Condition is a little too "worn out," Shy goes nowhere, despite a nice lilting Caribbean beat, and Deep Blue Heart uses a  Trisha Yearwood guest vocal in a vain attempt to bring some interest to the song.  Still, Cuttin' Heads is clearly one of Mellencamp's better albums and an enjoyable listen.

MY GRADE >> B (Cuttin' Heads is certainly not cutting edge, but Mellencamp continues to make solid, underrated music.)

BROKEN THINGS  (Julie Miller); This is an acclaimed 1999 release in the alternative country genre.  Miller has a fine voice, more than a little reminiscent of Lucinda Williams.  While this is a good enough record, it is not on a par with the best alt-country, such as, well - Lucinda Williams.  Miller's husband, Buddy, also a singer-songwriter, contributes significantly to this record.  As I listen to more of this type of music, I find it sounding too much alike, and this record suffers from that flaw.

    The best songs here are Maggie, Ride the Wind to Me, Orphan Train and  The Speed of Light.

MY GRADE >> C+  (Pleasant listening, nothing special)

DARK SIDE OF THE SPOON (Ministry);  Formerly my favorite band, and still able to blow away all industrial metal music (other than maybe Nine Inch Nails, if Trent Reznor ever does another record),  Ministry keeps the grind going on this release.  A witty title play on the old classic Pink Floyd record notwithstanding, this album, like most Ministry is unsuitable for younger or easily offended listeners.  Now that I got that out of the way, I must also note that this record does not live up to the high standard set by Ministry through the late 80s and early 90s.  What's missing?  I think the high BPM (beats per minute) have been slowed down, probably in the interest of coming up with something different.  High BPMs are very conducive to the striking sound that propelled Ministry to the forefront of the industrial category.  They can also get old very fast.  What's still there?  Tortured vocals, lyrics full of bile and a fine production job that highlights the best playing and writing of the band.  The highlights here are Whip and Chain, Bad Blood, Eureka Pile, and Nursing Home.  The only new thing they come up with that meets with some measure of success is 10/10, an instrumental workout that incorporates a wild, "free jazz" saxopohone, a la early 70s Stooges. 

    Why do I spend so much time on a record that only rates a middle of the road grade?  Al Jourgenson (main brain of the band) released some of the most exciting, extreme, confrontational and, yes,  rhythmic music of the last ten years.  If nothing else, he deserves a percentage of the dollars made by NIN, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie.

MY GRADE >> B (Okay, if you like this sort of stuff)

ALERT TODAY ALIVE TOMORROW  (The Muffs); I'm pretty sure that my brother John recommended this band to me years ago, and I was not overly impressed.  I heard a song from this record somewhere, and decided to give them another chance.  I mean, you've got to give a band some respect when they keep at it for years, ending up on "Honest Don's" record label.  Really!

Anyway, I am still not impressed with this band.  Prettier Than Me is a nice slow song, made even more effective by the hoarse, occasionally on key vocals of Kim Shattuck.  I'm Not Around,  Blow Your Mind and Jack Champagne (a nice instrumental) are serviceable songs.  That's about it.

  MY GRADE >> C (Ho-hum)

IN NAME AND BLOOD  (Murder City Devils); Who said nobody uses the organ in hard rock anymore?  Certainly not this band, which uses the organ, not to accent a song, but as an integral part of the songs.  Most of this comes off as an Iggy and the Stooges imitation, but it cannot sound anything but lame compared to the Ig.  

I Drink the Wine, Somebody Else's Baby and Bunkhouse are fine tunes in the Stooges tradition, but this sure gets repetitive.  The sole truly unique touch is a cover of Neil Diamond's I'll Come Running, which is far more effective than Urge Overkill's overrated version of Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

MY GRADE >> C+  (They are drawing from an inspired source, but the results largely fall flat.)

THE FRAGILE  (Nine Inch Nails); 5 years coming, the new NIN record finally arrived a couple months ago.  Almost two hours of music across two CDs, this is a fine record overall.  

I must note that, like all NIN records, the lyrics are unsuitable for children and young teens.  Yes, I mean you in the black trench coat!  Ah, hell, they are all going to listen anyway.  (Don't even get me started on 10 year olds seeing R-rated movies!)

A little background for the uninitiated.  Nine Inch Nails is a band in name only.  Trent Reznor is NIN, at least from a studio perspective.  His debut record, Pretty Hate Machine (see Oldie Review below), took a while to catch on, but it basically contained some of the hardest music to ever become popular. 

Trent has lost none of his production gifts; this is an absolutely great-sounding record, whether played in the car, in the den or blasted through your best stereo.  The CD starts off with Somewhat Damaged, an outstanding song, showcasing Reznor's gifts for marrying martial drum beats, buzzsaw guitars and bleak lyrics.  The Wretched, No, You Don't, Into the Void are more fine examples of classic NIN.  The title song, I'm Looking Forward to Joining You Finally and Even Deeper are NIN's version of a slow song - not romantic, just the usual formula slowed down, here to good effect.  The first alt-radio single, We're in This Together, is not the best song on the record, but it has some of the most optimistic lyrics you will ever hear from Reznor.  Life and the world still suck, they are all out to get us, but at least we've got company.  Not exactly Shiny Happy People, but it is a glimmer.

Some new twists here work well - piano interludes on the otherwise hard, topnotch instrumental Just Like You Imagined, horns and the marching band drums on another excellent instrumental Pilgramage (in a warped way, it kinda reminds me a little of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk - not, I'm sure, what Trent was trying to evoke.)

Like most double CDs, the great songs get stretched a bit thin, especially on the second disc.  Several of the songs here are relatively quiet instrumental breaks that don't do much for me, but do break up what could otherwise be a fairly unremitting series of loud hard and fast songs. 

This is clearly superior to their last effort, the overpraised Downward Spiral.

MY GRADE >> A (worth the wait.  NIN is one of the few industrial bands to be able to sustain my interest into the late 90s.)

THINGS FALLING APART  (Nine Inch Nails); Consisting mostly of remixes of songs from his recent commercial disappointment, the spectacular The Fragile, this record continues to demonstrate Trent Reznor's mastery of his art.  While not a uniform success, Reznor's willingness to deconstruct his songs and build them into new entities (with the assistance of outsiders) only draws out the underlying solid fundamentals of the music.

Of course, the material here gives Reznor his best plate of offerings to toy with since Pretty Hate Machine.  Slipping Away is not quite as ferocious as in the original (Into the Void); but it conveys a true feeling of "slipping away."  The Wretched, while not slamming quite as hard as the original, is just as haunting in its remix with added beeps and blips.  The Great Collapse is an outstanding instrumental. The price of Reznor's wide-ranging experimentation is that not everything works.  The Frail is remade as some type of wigged-out classical piece, to no great effect.  Only the last of the three versions of Starfuckers Inc. does much with the song,  recasting the song as a good drums'n'bass number.  

MY GRADE >> B  (Although Reznor's commercial prospects seem to be fading, he continues to innovate) 

SHAKE HANDS WITH SHORTY  (North Mississippi Allstars); Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, despite only being in their twenties, have musical roots going way back from Memphis to Mississippi.  Their father, Jimmy Dickinson, has had a varied musical career from playing piano on The Rolling Stones’ 1971 hit Wild Horses to producing the Replacements’ 1987 album, Pleased To Meet Me. 

But it was three Mississippi farmers, who happened to play the blues, Otha Turner, R.L. Burnside, and Fred McDowell that inspired the Dickinson brothers, along with Chris Chew on bass, to form the North Mississippi Allstars.   Burnside and McDowell wrote 7 of the 10 songs on the North Mississippi Allstars debut album, Shake Hands With Shorty.  Its roots are in hill country blues and it was nominated for a 2001 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues.  The driving drum play of Cody is what gives it a modern sound.  But it is the mean guitar playing of Luther that really sparks this album right from the get-go with the rockin’ Shake ‘Em on Down.  Drop Down Mama flat out boogies.  Po Black Maddie and Skinny Woman blend to make one song with a rambling Allman Brothers style complete with drum solo.  Goin’ Down South has a Cream/Jimi Hendrix sound goin’ down.  And is followed nicely by K.C. Jones (On The Road Again), a tragic story sung in good-humor and aided by the lilting piano playing of East Memphis Slim.  Ironically, Station Blues, written by Jacobs and Carter, sounds eerily like the McDowell-penned You Gotta Move by The Rolling Stones.  The album concludes with Jr. Kimbrough’s All Night Long.  This is boogie chillin’ music with some more Allman Brothers flair.  After a short 9+ minutes, the song fades out.  But the Dickinsons are not done; there is 7 more minutes of unannounced music featuring drums and piano and more guitar pickin’ leaving you to believe, the North Mississippi Allstars could go on playing all night long. 

The Dickinson brothers did not rediscover the blues; it has been in their backyard and on their porches the whole time.  This is not the guitar-blazing soulless blues Stevie Ray Vaughan played.  Nor is it the technically-expert tepid blues of Eric Clapton.  This is hot and dirty blues right from the Delta.

MY GRADE >> B (It will now be interesting to see if the Dickinson brothers draw from their blues roots and come up with some original material.)           -sh-      

CENTRAL RESERVATION  (Beth Orton);  Her 1997 album, Trailer Park, was an excellent blend of folk and electronica, and she has collaborated with the Chemical Brothers, among others.  Now that she has her "coolness" quota filled, she has returned with this disc, much more focused on the folk sound, with increasing emphasis on her amazing voice.  The electronica/folk is still present on a couple tunes here, but is downplayed.  Consequently, this is not as adventurous as Trailer Park, but only marginally less satisfying.  I vastly prefer Beth Orton to the more critically acclaimed Tori Amos and Bjork, whose vocal and musical gyrations are merely annoying mirrors of the tedious drum solos of the 70s.  Just a bunch of show-offs!

Here, as always, the songs are the key.  The best ones are the more straightforward folk-influenced tunes, most spectacularly on Pass in Time, and Feel to Believe.  I also like the adventurous title song, as well as Stolen Car.   Sweetest Decline is a pretty song.  All in all, a fine followup from an artist with an exciting future.

MY GRADE >> A- (Very good record, with minor flaws/annoyances)

STANKONIA  (Outkast);  Hip-hop music in the 21st Century is dominated by the profane, with more attention to lyrical skills than plowing new sonic ground.  Charles Barkley has been quoted as saying that we live in odd times where the best rapper is a white guy (Eminem), and the best golfer is a black guy. (I'm not sure who he meant.)

Well, Chuck, at least some things are heading back to normal.  The new album from Outkast represents the most innovative development in hip-hop since NWA started down the gangsta path.  Stankonia may one day stand with NWA's Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet as landmarks in rap music.

This is not a throwback; it is filled with as much profanity and explicit imagery as most mainstream hip-hop.  On this record, Outkast has perfected its stew of hard-core rap, Prince and sweet slow Southern soul.  When this is all simmered in studio wizardry reminiscent of  Public Enemy's heyday, you've got a delicious feast.

The highlight for this unrepentant rocker is B.O.B. (Bombs over Bagdhad), sped up to techno-like beats per minute, and as hard-hitting as the most aggressive punk rock, but leavened with a girl group chorus.  Forget hip-hop, this one ranks as one of the best rock songs of recent years.  Funkanella skitters along on a distinctive catchy beat.  Tough Guy  is indeed the featured "gangsta" song, except for the great chorus, which seems to mock the premise - "Everybody wants to be a tough guy."  

Outkast do not shirk their "sensitive" side.  I'll Call Before I Come has Prince's trademark double entendre (though, amazingly, even less subtle than the Short One himself) - this is what the Artist would have sounded like if he had ever been able to figure out rap.  So Fresh So Clean and Ms. Jackson maintain a smooth R& B feel, the latter with some genuine and heartfelt lyrics.

Other standouts include It's OK (showcasing the multiple strength of Outkast - good rapping skills, with classic choruses that highlight the music), Question Mark, We Luv Deez Hoes (I told you it still had the explicit imagery), Humble Mumble and Gasoline Dreams 

MY GRADE >> A-  (The masterful blend of deft wordplay, slamming beats and wildly imaginative arrangements and production results in a hip-hop classic.)

OWEN  (Owen); Owen is the latest band for Mike Kinsella.  Well, not actually a band at all, as he played all instruments, wrote all the songs, and, I don't know, he probably emptied the trash in the studio.  Actually, he recorded Owen in his home studio, so I certainly hope he emptied the trash.

Owen makes music for the long car ride on a deserted highway through the dark night, as opposed to the windows down, stereo blaring music of a hot summer day.  It is music that is not easy to make, but Kinsella succeeds for the most part with strong songs that slowly insinuate themselves.

That Which Wasn't Said is a fine opener, an instrumental acoustic guitar mood-setter, in the vein of Yo La Tengo.  However, Accidentally, another acoustic number, is three times as long, and not quite as strong.  It sounds like Owen has been listening to too much Tortoise.   Most Days And, as well as the next song, cleverly titled Most Nights, begin with minimalist music (a bit too Low-ish for my taste), and then nicely evolve towards fine mid-tempo rock with the best vocals on the record.  Places to Go is a very strong song, maybe the only song on the record that would fall anywhere near  the mainstream concept of "rock."  The acoustic guitar playing on this song is inspired.

Owen has a clear idea of what it is trying to achieve on this debut, and for the most part, it succeeds.

MY GRADE >> B (A nicely done effort from Owen, Kinsella shows how to make a quiet, yet still persuasive record.)         -jb-    

APOCALYPSE NOW  (Pere Ubu); This has nothing to do with the great movie (but see my comments on the DVD version of the movie in Assorted Musings.)  It is a live album from Pere Ubu, released in 1999.  The concert was recorded in 1991 at Shuba's in Chicago, yet another hip club I have never been to.

    I am not a big fan of Pere Ubu; nothing bad, I've just never really got into their music, despite owning a couple of pretty good records.  This is a fine record, a blend of acoustic and electric songs.  It is notable how much fun the band seems to be having, interacting with each other and the audience.  Live rock music does not have to be full of angst and pouting or special effects.  The first song, My Theory of Spontaneous Similtude highlights Pere Ubu's playful approach to the evening, with leader David Thomas soliciting spontaneous lyrical contributions from both band members and audience members, generally to fine effect.  Life of Riley, Wine Dark Sparks, Worlds in Collision, We Have the Technology and Oh Catherine shine in these live arrangements.  Heaven features angelic acoustic guitars, and rough, but effective, vocal harmonies.  Non-Alignment Pact is a good flat-out rocker, prompting a short version of Now I Wanna Be Your Dog by the Stooges, highlighting the roots of the Pere Ubu song.  This also prompts enthusiastic response from the audience, causing Thomas to offer the tongue-in-cheek observation that "Yeah, that's what they want - that mind-dead rock."  The rest of the songs are pleasant enough.  

    What a great live record can offer over and above the studio record is either a different take on the songs, or a superb record of the concert, making you get a feel for what it was like to be there.  This record does a fine job on both counts.

MY GRADE >> A- (A fine live record, featuring great songs, and communicating effectively the ambiance of the event.)

NEW WORLD RECORD  (Poster Children);  A really fine band from Champaign, Illinois, Poster Children has put out some great music throught the 90s, but have never caught on, even in the "indie" world.  Their music rocks hard, but defies easy categorization beyond that.  It was not "grunge" and it is certainly not "industrial" (despite a surprising Ministry reference buried in the middle of Wait and See.)  Their best record is Junior Citizen, but I've never really heard them make a bad, or uninteresting record.

    As a side note, Poster Children have always been one of the most computer-savvy bands around - this CD is advertised as being "y2k compliant."  Additionally, the CD contains 5 screensavers, 3 live videos and a computer game.  Cool!

    Anyway, on to the music, since that is our reason for being (here, at least).  Accident Waiting to Happen opens the record with a dissonant beat, drums rolling in the background, jagged guitar riffs coming and going, and vocals slowly enunciated over the impending chaos.  This leads into a more traditional flat-out rocker, 6x6, and the CD is off and flying. Chemicals, Wait and See, and Straightline are the best of the rest, a generally solid batch of tunes.  

MY GRADE >> B+ (Another solid effort from a band that may have plenty of commercial reasons to quit, but has plenty of artistic reasons to keep on.) 

RATED R  (Queens of the Stone Age); The Queens are considered state of the art in the genre known as "stoner rock."  Combining certain metal attributes with a psychedelic feel straight out of the early 70s, Queens of the Stone Age attempt to bring back hard rock virtues in this age of bland pop.  Regrettably, they are not consistently successful.  

I am not a huge fan of the type of music that is the inspiration for stoner rock, so I may not be the best judge of this.  Repeated listenings to Rated R did reveal a certain depth and variety not there at first spin.    Two of the better songs, In the Fade and Tension Head have a very early 90s Soundgarden feel.  Feel Good Hit of the Summer agreeably rushes by in a drug and alcohol-fueled frenzy.   Lightning Song is a nice page from the Jimmy Page acoustic guitar book.

Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for this record, I believe that the band does just about all that can be done given its meager sources of inspiration. 

MY GRADE >> C+  (A few glimmers of light in an otherwise uninspiring disc.)

KID A  (Radiohead); Here is a band that had everyone watching to see how they would follow the triumph of OK Computer, 1997's consensus album of the year.  Celebrated (almost worshipped) by those who were eager for someone to reclaim the ambition and artistry in hard rock, OK Computer was an excellent record.  The skilled performances by the band and Thom Yorke's operatic vocalizing received most of the attention, but the record's real strengths were its solid foundation of great songs and state-of-the-art production.  

The same adventurousness that produced OK Computer has led to Kid A, a radically different record that takes far more chances.  Risking alienating their huge audience of progressive/alternative rock fans, this record throbs to the vibe of electronica and ambient music.  Popular in Europe, these trends have gone nowhere in the States.  Radiohead's embrace of that aesthetic is a brave artistic move, though probably a foolhardy commercial one.  While there is no mistaking Yorke' vocals, only rarely on Kid A are they used in the classic rock way.

The tone of the record is set very effectively with the first track, Everything In Its Right Place; an atmospheric feel, with Yorke's vocals distinctive as usual, but ever so slightly warped electronically.  National Anthem is the best example of experimentation that pays off, with the bass pushed to the front, the guitar and keyboard providing atmospheric flourishes, giving way to a free jazz squall of horns that blasts through midway.  The sensational Idioteque sounds nothing like a rock song and everything like a dance song; only Yorke's vocals make it sound at all like Radiohead.  Optimistic is the most "traditional" Radiohead song, with a more straightforward use of Yorke's vocals.  Some songs just don't work - the title song, In Limbo and Treefingers go nowhere (just like most ambient music).

In short, Radiohead proves to be not only a band unafraid to try a different approach, but also a band serious about finding the essence of what makes those other approaches work.  I do not think this is quite as good a record as OK Computer, but  I admire the spirit in which it was made.   

MY GRADE >> B+  (The songs are not as consistently good as on OK Computer, but the high points here rank up with Radiohead's best.)  

AMNESIAC  (Radiohead); Radiohead is back with a quick follow-up to last year's Kid AAmnesiac was rumored to consist of the more commercial songs from the Kid A recording sessions, but don't expect a return to the more radio-friendly OK Computer.  Radiohead is an extremely adventurous band, seemingly unconcerned with trying to meet expectations from fans, critics, or (certainly) their record label.  So, how do these songs differ from those released on Kid A?  In general, these songs feature more and less distorted vocals from singer Thom Yorke.  Since Yorke's distinctive high-pitched vocals are the real foundation of Radiohead's fan base, they may identify more with this record.  

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box starts things right where Kid A left off.  Electronic effects dominate rather than electric guitar.  Yorke's vocals are subdued, while the lyrics may be aimed at his highly loyal fan base, still yearning for another OK Computer.   "After years of waiting, nothing came/And you realize you're looking, looking in the wrong place/I'm a reasonable man, get off my case."  Pyramid Song is initially dominated by a lone piano and Yorke's vocals, then the band kicks in with yet more eerie background noise, falling just short of the haunting effect of much of Kid APulk/Pull Revolving Doors and most of You and Whose Army (until a great,  rollicking finish) are just bizarre.  

For all of Radiohead's admirable ambition, the best song here is the most radio-friendly.  I Might Be Wrong has a great trancey groove and Yorke's vocals enhance the song, rather than distracting the listener.  It's one of the best blends of rock and electronic music, and certainly one of the best songs of the year.  The balance of the record has some nice moments as well.  The Morning Bell Amnesiac features classic Yorke vocals, with a nice soft melody of keyboards.  Dollars and Cents is one of the more straightforward songs, with outstanding percussion, although Yorke's vocals are almost as over the top as the inane lyrics (As usual, lyrics are not one of Radiohead's strong points.)  Hunting Bears is a short instrumental, with a fine electric guitar solo - loud, but still warm, like a Yo La Tengo song.  Life in a Glass House has a late night woozy jazz feel, with a nice contribution from the horns. Yorke's vocals are everything his fans could expect - for better or worse.

Radiohead continues to take advantage of their unexpected commercial success to make adventurous music.  There is much more to admire about this band than Thom Yorke's vocals.  While they have once again fallen short of a home run, this is another solid hit.

MY GRADE >> B+ (Another ambitious record from a band that seems determined to take only their most adventurous fans along with them for the ride.) 

THE BATTLE OF LOS ANGELES  (Rage Against the Machine); Another acclaimed 1999 release from the band that was a forerunner of the rock/rap genre now (poorly) represented by the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit,  Now, I was an early fan of their first record; this band's intensity is second to none, musically and lyrically.  But, despite some sincere attempts to advance their musicv (and, yes, I know that Tom Morello is an outstanding and innovative guitarist), this basically sounds like a batch of inferior songs left off of their first record.  

    If I had any bona fide "rock critic" credentials, I would certainly lose them with this review, but I am dumbfounded as to what people see in this record .  The only explanation that I can offer for its popularity with critics is that it is certainly more "honest"  and powerful than the awful, cynical (yet wildly popular) music of the aforementioned Korn and Limp Bizkit.  That Rage is a far better band than those others is beyond dispute; that this record is thus a real disappointment should also be evident.

MY GRADE >> C  (Disappointing effort from a band that is recycling its material, lyrically and sonically)

LOOK NOW LOOK AGAIN  (Rainer Maria); I wish I could remember where I heard about this band, because this record has some of the best songs I've heard all year.  This band conveys a unique sound and identity, while evoking echoes of Throwing Muses, especially Kristin Hersh.  There is stunning male/female harmony on this record.  Caithlin De Marrais has an amazing voice, and the band uses it to their advantage, with one of the guys contributing wonderful harmonies on several tunes.  It is to their credit that they can take advantage of those voices, mostly without overwhelming the songs.  The musicianship, especially the guitars, receives nearly equal billing.  I am sure that it can be tempting for this band to just compose songs that show off the vocals, but this record rises above a mere vocal showcase.

    The highlights here are Rise, the song that most evokes Kristin Hersch; Planetary, which first showcases the superb male/female harmonies; Feeling Neglected?, The Reason the Night is Long and Centrifuge.  The only complaint about this record is that there are a couple of songs that pale in comparison with the standard set on most of the tunes.  Oh, it is also a bit skimpy at 9 songs and 35 minutes.  But, overall, this is a band to watch.  

MY GRADE >> A- (A very strong record from a band with a distinctive sound)

BETTER VERSION OF ME  (Rainer Maria); If you are going to plow the fields of the "emo-rock" genre, you've got to bring the feeling.  Rainer Maria does it as well as anyone on A Better Version of Me.  Continuing to develop the themes of their superb 1999 effort, Look Now Look Again, Rainer Maria deliver another fine batch of songs.  Caithlin De Marrais' vocals are in the great rock tradition of Liz Phair, Mick Jagger and others.  Their strong voices might not work with other kinds of music, but are perfectly suited for the songs they sing. 

Artificial Light kicks things off on a high note, with the signature shimmering guitar combining with the soaring vocals.  On Thought I Was, William Kuehn's drums come to the front, leading the song like a young Charlie Watts.  The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets redeems its somewhat precious lyrics with the wonderful vocal interplay of De Marrais and guitarist Kyle Fischer.  The same vocals make Hell and High Water a rousing closer.  Ceremony and Spit and Fire are also highlights.  Save My Skin is a standout track, with superb musical interplay backed by the best lyrics on the record.  Questions abound - "Tried to mention all my sins, but I didn't know where to begin.  Should I forget them?  Or should I let them begin again?"  

In general, you will hear many questions in the lyrics on this record.  "Why is this technology an anathema to me?...Am I wicked?  Am I right?  Or am I just reacting all the time?...And should I feel cold and far?  And should I feel weightless?...How can you deal with that kind of information?...Have you got any magic tricks that will work for me?..."  This is a tough record to get to know lyrically, but that is no barrier to its enjoyment.  In fact, it gives the listener something new to hear each time.  And how many times do you hear the word "anathema" used in a song? 

This band beautifully blends the music, lyrics and vocals together to make a record that reminds me of a college junior - the teen angst is still there, but the glimmer of a positive future is breaking through.  Optimism beginning to overwhelm gloominess.  Rainer Maria has raised the bar for emo - hell, for just about all of guitar rock. 

MY GRADE  >> A- (More consistent than Look Now Look Again, although without the peaks of the earlier record)

THE FRACTURED HYMNAL  (Red Star Belgrade);  This is a two-man Chicago band that I read about in one of the papers.  While it takes a few listens to appreciate, it is a fine record.  Songwriter and front man Bill Curry writes lyrics that are far more adventurous and accomplished than most these days.  Bulldog may be the best song on the record, and it appears to be about the atrocities in Yugoslavia over many years, and between many tribes.  Other highlights are Sunsets & Camden, End of the Line, West Virginia, Favorite Thing, Charles Bukowski, First Night, Writer, Poet, Slut (bad word alert, but features some of the best music on the record!).  While the music is fine, the lyrics here are very strong, really the best part of the record.  And that is really saying something, since bands who attempt to reach high lyrically rarely distinguish themselves, and also usually unduly neglect the musical side.  By no means a flawless record, the successes here are more frequent than the failures.

 MY GRADE >> B+ (Recommended; worth the money) 

FIZZY FUZZY BIG & BUZZY  (The Refreshments);  A 1996 release with a "Mexico" theme; I heard a song from them somewhere that I liked.  This is the most recent release I found from them.  Blue Collar Suicide gets the record off to an excellent start, using a "Nirvana" slow/fast approach to a basically roots rock tune.  Mexico features some native Mexican instrumentation and some funny, although profane, lyrics.  Interstate is an "alt-country" style song that succeeds fairly well.  Nada is a fine closing song, a good showcase for the vocalist, and featuring some tasteful guitar playing.  Down Together, Banditos and Don't Wanna Know are fine songs based on very straightforward verse/chorus/verse dynamics.  Roger Clyne, the vocalist has a good "rock/country" voice in the fashion of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.  Nothing revolutionary here, but not bad at all.

MY GRADE >> B (There are enough good songs here that I may be tempted to find a newer release from this band.) 

REVEAL  (REM); REM's music has had that tired feeling ever since Bill Berry abandoned the drum kit due to health reasons.  The impact of his departure is not really noticeable in the drumming on Reveal, but the spirit.  Frankly, other than vocalist Michael Stipe, the band seems to be going through the motions.  Now, for a band as good as REM, even operating on cruise control will produce some good songs, and Reveal has plenty.  Just don't expect to hear them consistently achieve the transcendent level of earlier classics.  

The Lifting is a pretty good leadoff song, and representative of the vibe on Reveal.  Pleasant, breezy, with fine vocals by Stipe, but missing the signature Peter Buck guitar flourishes.  She Just Wants to Be is the best tune here, the only one that can truly rank among REM's classics.  It features great acoustic guitar with an inventive and mesmerizing melody.  Stipe sings in his quietly hopeful way that "it's not like if angels ...remind us of what, when, why or who/that how's up to us, me and you/and now is greater than the whole of the past."  Imitation of Life is another light song; like the "sugar cane and lemonade" Stipe sings of, the song is momentarily satisfying, but not very filling or particularly nutritious.  I also liked All the Way to Reno (conveying a real western feel) and their most blatant attempt to mimic a Brian Wilson song, Summer Turns To High (complete with lyrics of "cotton candy (and) caramel apples.")

Once you pick through these highlights, the rest is pleasant, but disposable.  I'm sure that REM, like the few other bands who have produced several albums that will last forever, gets tired of hearing that they were better in the old days, but it is part of the burden of greatness.  From those who once gave us priceless music, much is forever expected. 

MY GRADE >> B (Even sub-par REM makes for a pretty good record.)

LOVERS ROCK  (Sade); Sade was popular in the late 80s, primarily due to her entrancing vocals.  The true embodiment of easy listening - a pleasing vocalist cooing innocuous lyrics backed with subdued lite jazz music - Sade stays firmly within the four walls of the genre.  By Your Side, Immigrant, Lovers Rock, It's Only Love that Gets You Through are not bad if you like this sort of thing.  The Sweetest Gift gives off a minor Roberta Flack vibe. The rest of the songs are just wisps of smoke vanishing in the air.  Overall, the feeling here is of overwhelming boredom.  This stuff goes down well on Lite Jazz radio.  If you are trying to get some sleep, crank this up.   

Some believe that Sade's music is sensual; thus, the Lovers Rock title.  I suppose that, for the right people in the right context, it could be.  I prefer something that grooves a bit more, such as Prince or Bob Marley, where it gets you moving and the juices flowing.  But, of course, each of us has our own hot buttons.

I think it's time to end this review before things get any hotter.

MY GRADE >> C (A bit of a snoozefest.) 

ALL ABOUT CHEMISTRY  (Semisonic); All About Chemistry, Semisonic’s third album, is not so much a beacon of light as it is a beaker of insight into love and relationships.  The Minneapolis trio of songwriter, lead guitarist, and singer Dan Wilson; bassist John Munson; and drummer Jacob Slichter explore these relationships as if conducting scientific experiments.  Their continued use of synthesizers and sound effects connotes the stirring up of laboratory formulas to describe the trials and tribulations of love.

Similar to their previous album, Feeling Strangely Fine, which put them on the musical map, Semisonic starts out their latest effort with the best song on the CD.  Chemistry shows the clever songcraft of Wilson and is your basic Chemistry 101 course.  Bed has an ‘80s techno-pop sound and is about getting someone into bed.  “Well show me a friendship that’s pure and chaste/And I’ll show you an engine that’s dying to race.”  Follow is one of the highlights on this album.  It is a nice song with a good melody and shows Wilson as a pop classicist.  “Love me as well as you know/And everything else will follow.”  The chemical effects involved with happiness and love are described in another catchy tune, Sunshine & Chocolate.  With a Beatles-like piano intro, Who’s Stopping You is an interesting song showing off the fine drumming of Slichter.  I Wish starts out as an excellent song with more of Slichter’s drum work and some fuzzy guitars.  “I wish I could be more like someone you wish I could be.”  Unfortunately, the song goes on way too long with an instrumental ending showing little muscle or spark.  One True Love is co-written by Wilson and Carole King and features some nice harmonies by the two with King playing electric piano.  Get A Grip is the one true rocker on All About Chemistry.  “Get a grip on yourself, you know you should/I’ve got a grip on myself and it feels good.”  Kids do not try this experiment alone or you may risk blindness.  Anyway, All About Chemistry ends with a couple of unspectacular concoctions thrown into the mix.

Semisonic’s use of synthesizers and various techno sound effects along with the string orchestration shows an attempt to create romance in a test tube.  With their 1998 album, Feeling Strangely Fine, the production was both reminiscent of the Beatles (from their colorful coat days) and of the overly produced pop (remember ELO) of the 1970’s.  All About Chemistry is more in tune with the technology driven pop songs of the 1980’s and leaves you feeling emotionless.  Semisonic plays it safe, using no combustibles to blow up in their face.  There is, however, no passion or fire.  They could not come up with anything else on their last album to rival Closing Time and there is no song on their newest album that comes close this time. 

MY GRADE >> C+ (Lacking in chemical reaction, but if you like finely crafted pop songs, you are in the right class.)               -sh-          

1000 HURTS  (Shellac); Shellac is the latest vehicle for Steve Albini's rigid punk rock aesthetic, complete with spiteful, angry lyrics.  Shellac's music takes the usual three piece punk approach, and adds its own distinctive elements - Albini's guitar sounding like its being dragged across a metal grate, a brutally precise rhythm section, the traditional clean mix and production that Albini is famous for, and a fine use of silence and open space, which serves to further enhance the punishing music. 

So, what's the problem?  Well, it is starting to get a bit old on 1000 Hurts.  The unrelenting, unvarying approach that Albini forces on himself and his colleagues leaves little room to grow or change.  The absence of notable songs does not help either.  Prayer to God is a typically venomous Albini song, and then the rest of the album serves up less distinctive versions of the same basic song.  While there are some moments on the record (Song Against Itself, the rockin' 45 second finale of Mama Gina), Albini needs to rethink where this band is headed.  

MY GRADE >> C  (Albini is a visionary who is slowly being trapped inside his own dogmatic approach to rock.)

YOU'RE THE ONE  (Paul Simon); Paul Simon may be getting old, as he is told in Old, a fun little song with a Buddy Holly guitar strum to it, but he will still challenge his listening audience.  At his best, Simon will challenge you to see the world and maybe even yourself a little differently.  On his latest effort, You’re The One, too often the challenge is in staying with the song and not drifting away.  There is still some of the exotic and worldly instrumentation underlying the lyrics.  That makes for some interesting listening.  However, the melodies and rhythms shift back and forth leaving Simon to sing in a monotone style or even talk his way through some lyrics. 

The title track, You’re The One, is an instance where that song structure works.  The shifting is not just in the music, but also in the blame.  “You’re the one, you broke my heart…” to “I’m the one…” and finally, “We’re the ones…”  Another highlight is the reincarnating theme of Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears.  “I don’t want to be a judge, and I don’t want to be a jury.  I know who I am.  Lord knows who I will be.”  Even here, though, you start to drift away only to be pulled back by the percussion and understated, yet excellent guitar work.  And after the droning of Love, the song Pigs, Sheep And Wolves, in its simple and obvious correlation between animals and human behavior, becomes a welcome relief.  It is Simon having a little fun, yet doing so with some intelligence.  You’re The One concludes with Quiet.  The challenge here, again, is unintentionally two-fold.  Simon, with the perspective of an older and wiser man, has found quiet solitude challenging our materialistic ambitions.  He is also challenging us to work a little harder to stick with the song and hear this wisdom.

Pigs, Sheep And Wolves along with Old are fun.  Even if you do like the complexity of song style in You’re The One, and I do, the rest of the songs do not fare quite as well.  

MY GRADE >>C+ ( Paul Simon continues to share his pearls of wisdom, but with You’re The One, there are not enough pearls to keep you consistently interested.)  

THE HOT ROCK  (Sleater-Kinney);  This is a band from the Northwest, consisting of three women (riot grrls, as they used to be known), who play uncompromising 90s hard rock.  They were formerly very punk, in musical sound and attitude.  This new record maintains the attitude, but the sound has advanced.  This may not be good news to their old fans, but they have fashioned a fine work with The Hot Rock.  

    The vocals have always distinguished Sleater-Kinney (for better, and sometimes, for worse), but here the music takes center stage.  It is evident from the opening songs, Start Together and  Hot Rock, that this band has made quantum leaps in their abilities to play and write music.  Their previous record, Dig Me Out, won them much critical acclaim, and certainly was an energetic breath of fresh air.  But it always comes back to the songs, and on the new record, there are numerous standouts.  Additional highlights include Don't Talk Like, Get Up, One Song For You and A Quarter to Three.  It now appears that this could be one of the better bands of the new millennium, assuming they continue the progression they have shown on this record.

MY GRADE >> B+ (Recommended; worth the money)         

ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE  (Sleater-Kinney); This 2000 release from this band from the Northwest, is a solid progression from their previous record The Hot RockThis band refuses to be restricted by the rigidities of the punk genre, and, while the results can sometimes be uneven and the production remains defiantly lo-fi, the peaks continue to get higher.  

    As always, the vocals are front and center here.  The unconventional phrasing and keys that the group sings in make for oddly compelling harmonies.  Their lyrics increasingly get better in conveying a stark emotional honesty, seemingly coming from hard-fought experience.  As for the music, it gets better with each album; this is one tight trio.  Sleater-Kinney shows the value of a good band staying together and growing through a series of records.  They have not abandoned the basics, or tried something wholly different each time out, but have made consistent improvements.  They are truly a band whose expertise has caught up with their passion.

    The title song is the best example of the state of the band today.  Other highlights here are #1 Must Have (featuring outstanding lyrics reflecting on the riot grrl movement that spawned Sleater-Kinney set to music by way of Fugazi), Leave You Behind, The Swimmer, The Ballad of a Ladyman, Ironclad, and The Professional (with a riff from a Blue Oyster Cult song). 

MY GRADE >> A-  (I previously wrote that  could be one of the better bands of the new millennium; nothing here changes that opinion)                                            -jb-

ASTRO LOUNGE  (Smash Mouth );  Well, I fell for it again.  Smash Mouth's first record featured one tremendous song, the radio hit Walking on the Sun, and a bunch of rotten ska-influenced tunes.  After hearing the fine, bouncy hit singles All Star and Can't Get Enough of You, Baby, and seeing a positive review from Jim DeRogatis in the Sun-Times, I bought this record (released 1999).  And, surprise, this has two great songs and more rotten ska-influenced tunes!  To be fair, Diggin' Your Scene, Defeat You, Come On Come On and Then the Morning Comes are passable songs, and the two afore-mentioned hits feature a tremendous pumping keyboard sound (Farfisa organ, I think?), and Graham Parker-like vocals.  Although, it is interesting that none of the band members are credited with the keyboards that are the secret of these songs' success.  We should probably give most of the credit for this record's limited pleasures to producer Eric Valentine.

MY GRADE >> B- (Nothing special, but some redeeming qualities.)

MACHINA II : THE FRIENDS AND ENEMIES OF MODERN MUSIC  (Smashing Pumpkins); This is supposedly the final chapter in the Smashing Pumpkins soap opera.  Released only as MP3 downloads so far, you can get these 25 songs (free & legal) at, among other places.  Billy Corgan may be a bit whiny ("If only a million of you buy my records now, I'm going to break up the band") and occasionally pretentious, but there are few artists today who can match his combination of solid songwriting and adventurous arrangements and production.  He also is unafraid to make this risky business move, a combination of "Thank You" to his fans, and an apparent "Hasta la vista" to his record label, which stands to forego as much money as Corgan has with this move.

While these songs are mostly outtakes and alternate takes from the Machina recording sessions, they do not have the feel of leftover or inferior tracks.  Surprisingly, Machina II is superior to the fine Machina.

The songs showcase the many facets of Smashing Pumpkins.  There are the fine straightforward rock songs, such as Saturnine, Dross, Let Me Give the World To You and two versions of Cash Car StarGlass Theme is a short, even more aggressive rocker, one of their most effective.  Demonstrating the Pumpkins' total mastery of the midtempo rocker are tunes such as Home (with Corgan's vocals fitting the material perfectly), Here's to the Atom Bomb, In My Body, Vanity and Go.   We also get an alternate, much more experimental (and better) version of Heavy Metal Machine from Machina, a slightly different take of the fine Try Try Try, also from Machina, and two versions of If There Is a God (the acoustic version much more effective).

If the Pumpkins are really history at this point, this is a superb final statement.  It will be fascinating to see where Billy goes next.

MY GRADE >> A-  (It's a sad day when the finest rock band of the 90s calls it quits.)

XO  (Elliott Smith); Released in 1998 to widespread acclaim from many knowledgeable music fans, including my brother Marty.  Sorry, folks.  I found the record to be incredibly affected and phony..  The sound is meant to be "lo-fi" folk music, but it sounds like Smith is just slumming here.  "Hey, ain't I cool with my acoustic guitar?"  Pavement and Sebadoh take this "lo-fi" approach to Smashing Pumpkins/Nirvana music, and it usually works because the songs are good enough that the lack of production values is irrelevant.  Here, the songs are annoying, and most folk music is "lo-fi", anyway.  The only song I liked a bit is "Baby Britain"

MY GRADE >> C (A lame record)

THROTTLE JUNKIES  (Soil); Heavy metal, recommended by Jim DeRogatis.  Does a nice job with this genre, produced by Steve Albini (producer of many, and artist behind Big Black and Shellac).  As with much of heavy metal, the musicianship is crisp and tight, and Albini's production is the usual fine job.  This is very Metallica-sounding circa And Justice for All.  (I consider that a good thing.)  Best songs are Everything, Road to Ruin (be careful about appropriating song or album titles from the vaunted Ramones!), F-Hole.  However, as also is true with much of heavy metal, it is way too pretentious, especially lyrically.  And, I can't help it, but every time I listen to metal, I think of Spinal Tap, and I start laughing.  While that may make as much sense as having an 11 on the amplifier, too many bands like Soil fall into the "Tap" trap.  Anyway, Throttle Junkies is OK.

MY GRADE >> C+ (A couple OK songs; if you like metal, it is probably worth it.) 

ARCHES AND AISLES  (The Spinanes);  Having lost superb drummer Scott Plouf to Built to Spill, Rebecca Gates is left with a raft of studio players, and founders about on the 11 tracks here.  Sadly, the Spinanes turned out to have only one great album in them.  Plouf was smart enough to move on to a better band.  Gates should do likewise.

MY GRADE >> C- (Boring, and a continued disappointment given their earlier work)

LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY  (Bruce Springsteen); Bruce Springsteen live can be described as part Bob Dylan and part Elvis Presley.  His concerts are a roller coaster ride of marathon proportions.  His previous tour however, in promotion of the Ghost Of Tom Joad, was more in the Woody Guthrie mode.  Now, the E Street Band is back and follows up their recent tour with Live In New York City.  The two-disc set was recorded from two Madison Square Garden shows on June 29 and July 1, 2000. 

At 51, you will not find the Boss running around the stage and beyond like in his glory days.  But what still makes Springsteen one of the greatest live performers in rock and roll is the music.  Too often, without the magic of seeing the performance, live albums do not hold up well.  On the other hand, Springsteen’s songs played live are frequently superior to the studio versions.

For many die-hard fans, possessing an assortment of bootleg (sorry "Import" live shows) – first, shame on you; – second, you may be a little disappointed in the sound quality of this recording.  The sound is not all that crisp.  Garry Tallent’s bass is muffled.  And while the vocals are played up, the guitar work is played down a notch.  Max Weinberg’s booming drums are not adequately captured.  Roy Bittan’s majestic piano playing is evident, but Danny Federici’s organ playing, swirling with emotion, is lost in the guitar din on this tour and is hard to hear on Live In New York City as well.

The song selection could have also been done better.  The CDs are mostly from an HBO TV special.  The first ten songs are consistent with the concert tour.  After that, ten more songs are added and unrelated to the song order in the actual shows.  Live In New York City does contain 20 of the roughly 25 songs Springsteen would play at any one show.  Missing are tour staples Promised Land, Light Of Day, Thunder Road, and Bobby Jean.  Consequently, the double-CD package does not quite capture the rocking nature of the tour.

All that being said, Live In New York City is definitely worth the price of admission.  Culled from all parts of Springsteen’s career, and including two new songs, this is a collection even those bored with the same-old, same-old will enjoy.  Yes, Badlands and Jungleland seem a little tired.  And The River is a bit awkward with Springsteen’s off-speed delivery.  Overall, however, Springsteen offers us some new revelations.  Starting with the thunderous pounding of Weinberg’s drums to open My Love Will Not Let You Down, the Boss with the E Street Band are off on another ride.  It may not be quite as long nor with as many dips and curves as in previous years, but does show the band is still rocking.  Youngstown is an absolute killer live and is followed by Murder Incorporated.  These two songs are the highlights of a high-energy sequence that shows Nils Lofgren has mastered the wonderfully gnarled guitar solos ala Bruce himself.    Ending disc One is a last minute addition and not listed on the CD packaging.  Oh yeah, it just happens to be Born To Run.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out starts off disc Two.  During the course of the song, Springsteen breaks into Take Me To The River, which then evolves into some of his signature banter.  As a rock and roll preacher, he turns the obligatory band introduction into an art form.  The two new songs follow.  First, get on board the train that will carry you to the Land Of Hopes And Dreams.  Contrast that with the killing of an unarmed man, Amadou Diallo, by New York City police in American Skin.  “41 Shots…” is the haunting refrain, “…and we’ll take that ride/’Cross this bloody river.”  Another highlight is a stark rendition of Born In The USA.  Evoking the pain of a Vietnam veteran, it is hardly a version politicians would choose to promote American patriotism.  Springsteen has, in effect, taken his song back.  The CD concert ends with a gentle song in If I Should Fall Behind.  The E-Streeters, including Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt, and Patti Scialfa take turns singing the lines such as:  “If as we’re walking a hand should slip free/I’ll wait for you/And if I should fall behind/Wait for me.”  Springsteen could very well be singing about his own relationship with the E Street Band.   Don’t Look Back, may also help describe this relationship, “We made it through the heart of a hurricane/We tore it apart and put it together again.” 

Springsteen has always done a good job of giving his fans what they want without sinking into nostalgia.  The E Street Band is back and, for the most part, sounding as fresh as ever.  If the two new songs are any indication, the Boss and the E Steet Band are still a vital force in today’s rock and roll.  

“So put your foot to the floor darlin’, don’t look back.”

MY GRADE >> B+ (The sound quality and song sequencing could be better, but there is plenty of great music.  A good bang for your buck.)     -sh-         

SHANGRI-LA DEE DA  (Stone Temple Pilots); The Stone Temple Pilots have lacked respect in the past because their songs too often sound like someone else’s music.  They have borrowed liberally from their contemporaries and their predecessors.  Shangri-LA DEE DA, STP’s fifth album is no different in that respect.  But what helps make it work for the band is the chameleon-like singing of Scott Weiland.  And though their latest album is not musically cohesive, it is finally lyrically coherent.  More than that – on Shangri-LA DEE DA, Weiland faces his demons, sings the praise of the woman who saved him, offers a lullaby to his young son, but continues to run from the demons still lurking.

The demon drug addiction comes crushing down from the start on Dumb Love.  “Couldn’t find a way to live through the pain.”  Days of the Week has a pop sound that masks that continuing battle with drug addiction.  “She’ll get what she wants/Can’t seem to get enough.”  The theme continues with Coma, in a suffocating barrage of rock and roll.  “Nobody breathin’ in a coma.”  Two rockers, Hollywood Bitch with its heavy sound and catchy sing-along lyrics, and Too Cool Queenie with its too obvious diatribe against Courtney Love, are passable songs.  They just seem out of place in this otherwise introspective journey.  Shangri-LA DEE DA does have a bit of a soft middle.  In an ethereal vocal style on Wonderful, Weiland sings of the woman who helped save him from his demise, “I wanna ask you to forgive me/I haven’t been the best with all that I had.”  Black Again starts off strutting but quickly settles into bland melodic fare.  Hello It’s Late is, in a sense, a sequel to Carly Simon’s That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.  Simon sings about agreeing to get married because it is what’s expected of her.  On STP’s follow-up, Weiland laments that decision.  “It kills me just because it can’t be erased – we’re married.”  Hello It’s Late so eerily sounds like Simon’s song from over 30 years ago I was checking the songwriting credits for her name.  I could not find it.  Regeneration has STP revisiting their Jane’s Addiction sound.  While Bi-Polar Bear is microcosm of the entire CD.  It goes from the airy mellow sound to the smothering crush of Eric Kretz’s drums, Robert DeLeo’s bass, and Dean DeLeo’s guitars and back again.  Transmissions From A Lonely Room is STP doing Billy Squier doing Led Zeppelin.  A Song For Sleeping is a beautiful song with Weiland facing the responsibility of fatherhood.  “I’ll protect you/From the demons of the night.”  The irony of those lyrics is not lost on Weiland as he follows that up and concludes with Long Way Home.  In a Nirvana-like song from hell – it is the realization that the demons are still there and waiting. 

The Stone Temple Pilots have often been compared unfavorably to Nirvana as a grunge-wanna-be.  But, while Nirvana was not the blissful state-of-mind for Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland has seemingly overcome his heroin addiction.  And with his marriage, his son, and his music, he may now be living in Shangri-La.  Judging from this album, Weiland does not appear to be taking his newfound lease on life for granted.  The irony is not lost with the album title. 

MY GRADE >> B (No “+” because they did not even thank Carly Simon.)  -sh-   

VESTAVIA  (John P. Strohm );  One of the best records (released 1999) I have heard this year.  I have heard of this guy before, but never bought a record. Throughout the 12 tracks, Strohm melds tight musicianship with fine vocals, all in support of solid songs.  The first song (Wouldn't Want to Be Me) sets the tone for the record, sounding like Tom Petty, except with energy and inspiration.  Some of the best lyrics are in Drive-Thru, which features Strohm musing that "I've been living 11 miles from town/and it sucks without a car."  I guess so.  Other top tunes are Ballad Of Lobster Boy, Jesus Let Me In, Home, Better than Nothing, For Awhile.  In a just world, this record would get strong airplay on mainstream radio stations - it is not "experimental" at all, just well-crafted, original, tuneful rock and roll.  However, in our world, you might have a hard time finding the record.  It is on Flat Earth Records, not exactly a major label.

 MY GRADE >> A+ (A must for the savvy collector!)

GLOBAL A GO-GO  (Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros); After ten years of doing virtually nothing musically, Joe Strummer has now released his second album in three years. Both albums, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and the latest, Global A Go-Go are with his new band, The Mescaleros. As he helped expand the sound of punk while with the Clash, Strummer and the Mescaleros expand upon the reggae genre with a more international flavor.  

Bandmates Scott Shields, Martin Slattery, Pablo Cook, Tymon Dogg, and Richard Flack are all over the globe, playing an eclectic whirlwind of instruments. This solid band has created quite a variety of music with influences from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, the West Indies, and Ireland. Strummer throws in an odd assortment of lyrics that range from the absurdity of a David Lynch movie to the obscurity of a Dennis Miller quip. However, his vocal limitations hinder some of the effective mood settings.

Johnny Appleseed starts off Global A Go-Go. It is an excellent song in the folk/reggae mold. In our hour of need is the hope for Johnny Appleseed. It is a pessimistic song of a world lacking in food and where the door closes on Martin Luther King. "If you're after getting the honey/Then you don't go killing all the bees." Following that up is the most rock and roll song on the album, Cool 'N' Out. It is a guitar-driven, hard-edge reggae song. God baked a bunch of fruitcakes. "They're all over the country/And they're running ours." The title song, Global A Go-Go comes up next with a message to the D.J. to send the music to all corners of the globe. With the help of Roger Daltrey on vocals, they sing of "Quadrophenia in Armenia." And there will be, "Good Hip Hop in Islamabad." Rounding out the top four is the best song on the album, Bhindi Bhagee. This is a fun song about a guy from New Zealand looking for some mushy peas. Informed there are none (thank goodness), he is told that, among other things, there are, "shrimp beansprout, comes with or without/Bagels soft, or simply harder." Strummer tries to explain to the stranger what the music is all about in this friendly neighborhood. And the band plays on with flutes and African guitars. "There's a bunch of players and they're really letting go."

These first four songs on Global A Go-Go are full of infectious hand-clapping energy. The band is on a roll. It is global. But the go-go got up and went with the next song, Gamma Ray. And the album never picks back up where it started. Gamma Ray is weird in its unemotional reggae sound and strange lyrics. It is safer in Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the gamma ray. It is only the beginning of a slow strange ride. Mega Bottle Ride continues on with the strangeness. "I took a tram into the fourth dimension…And don't think we didn't dance/To the records by the Fifth Dimension." Shaktar Donetsk flirts with reggae while Mondo Bongo goes the Latin way with Spanish guitar and Cuban drums. Bummed Out City has an interesting mixture of acoustic guitars, violins, and synthesizers. "It was me, I admit I had the map/This is what I've got to say…/We're in Bummed Out City." At The Border, Guy is driven by bass and keyboards and might have fit in well on the Clash's Combat Rock album. A 17-minute plus Celtic mantra, Minstrel Boy concludes Global A Go-Go. It is a fitting end to this downward trend. Ironically, Strummer and the Mescaleros put the brakes on the music right after singing about the players really letting go. Global A Go-Go starts out with the typical in-your-face Joe Strummer style. And although the songs are interesting individually, collectively the last 53 minutes of the album end up slipping into the background. 

MY GRADE >> B- (The first four songs are excellent. That is more than most albums can boast.)        - sh -     

ROCK ART AND THE X-RAY STYLE  (Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros); A very solid, surprising new record from the former Clash front man, who has really done nothing of note since the early 80s.  This record is heavy on the reggae beats, with a few modern day electronica flourishes tossed in.  For the most part the songs are languorous, easy-going affairs.  The surprising part is how effective Strummer's vocals are with these songs, rather than the loud, fast punk of his youth.  Most impressive, and the best song on the album, is Willesden to Cricklewood, a recollection of a middle-aged man on his old stomping grounds.  Amid beautiful piano and strings, Strummer sings comfortably, inhabiting the lyrics without overselling the sentimentality.  It is easy to visualize him walking in the old neighborhood, "from Willesden to Cricklewood, as I went it all looked good/Thought about my babies grown, thought about going home/thought about what's done is done, we're alive and that's the one."

    Other standouts are Tony Adams, Techno D-Day, The Road to Rock 'n' Roll, Nitcomb, Diggin' the New and X-Ray Style.  It is great to hear something this good from a "classic" artist that is not merely a replay or rewrite of his greatest hits.  

MY GRADE >> B+ (A record that really came out of nowhere to show that Strummer still has something left for us to hear.)

THE GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL BAND IN THE WORLD (Supersuckers); These guys are certainly not modest, and, as it turns out, they are not really accurate.  This is trailer park Ramones-like rockabilly, a bit more punk, and way more profane than the Reverend Horton Heat.  Think Social Distortion with a sense of humor (which Mike Ness could use, come to think of it.)  Very politically incorrect, this is not for the kids or the easily offended.

    Essentially a greatest hits record from a band that has never had one, this has its moments, but is overall nothing special.  Maybe these guys would be good live, probably in a biker bar.  One good idea here is the cover of Keith Richards' Before They Make Me Run, with vocals by Steve Earle.  Not executed particularly well, but a good idea nonetheless.  The CD cover art by Mitch McConnell is also really cool.

    They are at their best when deviating from the punkabilly songs.  Notable are the humorous Dead in the Water (a career comment), the countryish Roadworn and Weary, the southern boogie of Supersucker Drive-By Blues, the Butthole Surfers-like faux-rap of Dead Homiez.  I also liked Born With a Tail and the rocked-up cover of Willie Nelson's great Bloody Mary Morning and Wake Me When It's Over.

               MY GRADE >> C+  (A couple good songs sprinkled in among the run-of-the-mill bar band rock)

SEPARATION ANXIETY  (12 Rods); I sure didn't get the appeal of this one.  If they are going after the bright shiny Apples in Stereo crowd, as it appears on Kaboom, they are not nearly catchy enough.  If they are going after what is left of the old Seattle alt-rock crowd, as it appears on What Has Happened, the guitars are not nearly crunchy enough.  

    The production is lame, the playing is weak, the lyrics seem almost willfully thin.

    Why does this seem like a throwback in every way to the worst of 70s shlock-rock?  Ah, here's why, buried deep in the liner notes - "Produced, Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by Todd Rundgren"  

    This is what should have come with a warning sticker - 

                    BE AFRAID - BE VERY AFRAID!   

            Bad "Classic" Rock Dude Heavily Involved With This Record

MY GRADE >> D  (I found not one song I liked here.)                                    -jb-

LATERALUS  (Tool); Here we have the new record from Tool, the great white hope of progressive metal.  Better than anyone in this genre today, they are the successors to Metallica (now merely cruising with power ballads and collaborations with symphony orchestras; you know, "respectable" musicians) and Soundgarden (imploded with the rest of the Seattle scene after Kurt left.)  On Lateralus, Tool brings some of the power, speed and precision of early Metallica, but still falls victim to tired metal cliches.

The radio single Schism is probably the best song on here, with The Patient also a highlight.  Both songs feature the band absolutely locked into a fearsome tempo; no machine could be more exact, despite some tricky time signatures and chord changes.  Disposition and Reflection contain some of the more diverse music on the record.  Reflection even has some passages that could be described as Tortoise-like in its quieter moments.

Lyrics are a highlight nowhere; even on The Patient, James Maynard wails "A groan of tedium escapes me, startling the fearful./Is this a test?  It has to be. Otherwise I can't go on./Draining patience, drain vitality./This paranoid, paralyzed vampire act's a little old"  Uh, yeah, it is a little.  The lyrics are typical labored metal, not much of a step up from the 70s progressive rock of Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer, just a darker side of the same coin.  

Overall, the performances here are fine, but the record (and the band for that matter) lacks the necessary ingredient of chaos that is crucial to pulling off this dark kind of music.  From the Stooges through Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, the best artists make you feel like the music (and the performer) is about to jump the track at any instant.  Tool just tries to awe you with their technical prowess.

MY GRADE >> C+ (State-of-the-art metal, with the precise playing of early Metallica, but a little too much bombast, and not enough risk-taking.)

STANDARDS  (Tortoise); Tortoise has carved a minor career, and an estimable critical reputation, by heading into territory that most rock musicians would be completely lost in - even with a map.  This can be considered as brave risk-taking, forsaking blatant commercial concerns.  I, on the other hand, consider it little more than instrumental wankery from a group of fine players who did better work in better bands (Eleventh Dream Day, Poster Children.)

Tortoise's music is jazz-like in its use of repeated themes with a variation each time.  Yes, they are probably superb musicians, from both a physical and intellectual standpoint.  

Their compositions are well-crafted, but ultimately too clinical to rank with the best jazz or rock music.  Standards is a bit warmer than past efforts.  Seneca starts with feedback guitar, reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix' Star Spangled Banner, then fades into an appealing, but more Tortoise-like tune.  Blackjack is a nice tune with a swinging feel; it recalls an old (90s) Chicago band, the Coctails.  Speakeasy throws out some more distortion, before settling into a free and easy close.  There is also a nice 20 second percussion passage at the end of Eden 2.

Other than that, the songs float by like a lazy summer day - nothing unpleasant, but nothing memorable.  Tortoise may promise some feeling in Eros, but the song is as far from erotic as the rest of the band's catalog.  Tortoise has the right idea.  A musician, just like a good lover, needs to be in tune with what is satisfying to himself, before he can begin to truly satisfy others.  

Still, I'm not sure that these guys get many dates.

MY GRADE >> C (They may impress each other and their music professors, but not me.)

ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND  (U2);  U2 has been a band adrift for most of the '90s -- since their 1991 release Achtung Baby. Looking to various styles and ideas on Zooropa and Pop, they failed to connect with their audience. This, coming from the rarest of bands, which did not just sing to their fans, but sang for them. U2 expressed their fans' thoughts and feelings and they did so with energy and passion.

Now Bono is looking for a melody. He certainly finds it on All That You Can't Leave Behind. Song for song this is a solid, very listenable album.  But get a little closer to the music and you find some awkwardness. From Walk On you get, "A singing bird in an open cage, who will only fly, only fly for freedom." This is followed not by the chorus "Fly away, fly away," but by "Walk on, walk on." The lyrics to Wild Honey seem to be all over the place. They are swinging from trees, he was a monkey apparently tasting wild honey. Is the wild honey his shelter and shade? And is the wild honey still growing wild? I don't get it! But it sounds good.

There are some excellent songs. Elevation and New York in particular are very good. Peace On Earth reminds me of why I loved U2 throughout the '80s. And Kite gives us some insight into where the band is right now.  Bono sings, "Who's to say where the wind will take you." They have been adrift for quite awhile and All That You Can't Leave Behind too often floats off failing to connect. Overall, however -- though I might wish for more -- this is a good album. We can be thankful for Peace on Earth and hope for more of the like in the future. As Bono continues on Kite, "I know that this is not goodbye."

MY GRADE >> B+  (Classic U2 it is not, but it gives you a fine reminder of what U2 used to be.)            -sh-

POOR LITTLE KNITTER ON THE ROAD  (Various); This is a tribute album to the country, honky tonk band, the Knitters, which was basically a side project for the seminal L.A. punk band, X.   Here, their songs are performed by a roll call of alt-country elite, who generally have a fine time.  The standouts are Someone Like You, done by Kelly Hogan and the Rock*A*Teens,  Walkin' Cane (featuring some fine fiddle work by Travis Good), by The Sadies with Catherine Irwin (of Freakwater), Cryin But My Tears Are Far Away (featuring some fine country accordion, and standout vocals by X's John Doe) by the Old 97s, a humorous The Call of the Wreckin' Ball by the estimable Robbie Fulks, Baby Out of Jail by 99 Tales, and the previously unreleased Why Don't We Try Anymore by the Knitters

MY GRADE >> B+ (an enjoyable record, demonstrating the continued influence of John and Exene)

DOWN TO THE PROMISED LAND: 5 YEARS OF BLOODSHOT RECORDS  (Various Artists); A compilation record paying tribute to Chicago's Bloodshot Records label on its five year anniversary, this double CD (for the price of one!) is a real hoot.  We get 40 songs, most of them wildly enjoyable, a number of instant classics and only a few duds.  Included are pictures from shows by many of the label's acts, which only add to the sense of fun on this record.

The ever-present and always valuable Jon Langford (essentially the one-man house band for Bloodshot) is present on numerous songs, and in numerous of his guises.  He adds vocals to Alejandro Escovedo's superb take on Mick Jagger's Evening Gown, which sounds like a Stones Sticky Fingers-era song, but is actually from a 1993 Jagger solo record.  He is featured on the outstanding Brixton, Chip Taylor's tribute to the evolution of the Chicago insurgent country scene (think of the Minutemen's History Lesson, Part II and you've got the idea.)  His Waco Brothers do a country cover of Baba O'Riley with only modest success, and back Graham Parker on the Waco's See Willy Fly By.  

The song you have to hear, though, is The Unholy Trio's version of Public Enemy's Bring The Noise.  Taking a hardcore, beat-heavy, slang-laden rap classic, they convert it to a true swinging country and western hootenanny.  The lyrics, of course, are meaningless out of context, but that only adds to the enjoyment.  While unlike anything I have heard on Bloodshot releases, it exemplifies the spirit of the label.  Take inspiration from any valid source, and make it your own.  I say again, you must hear this song!

Other top-notch songs are contributed by Chris Mills & Deanna Varagona (a stunning duet on Last to Know, a terrific Alejandro Escovedo song), Robbie Fulks (a typically sardonic and well-written, but atypically affectionate ditty called Bloodshot's Turning 5), the Hollisters, Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, The Yayhoos, The Meat Purveyors, The Handsome Family (another doleful tune), The Blacks, The Cornell Hurd Band, Split Lip Rayfield, The Roughnecks, Giant Sand, Trailer Bride, Moonshine Willy,  Red Star Belgrade, Nora O'Connor, Bare Jr and Kelly Hogan & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.

MY GRADE >> A-  (Nothing but fun!)

FREEDOM SINGS  (Various Artists);  This CD is a compilation of various artists who have performed as part of the Freedom Sings program of musical concerts sponsored by the First Amendment Center to raise awareness of the connection between music and the First Amendment.  The live performances feature a nice range of artists performing well-chosen songs, some of which ran afoul of those who would censor free expression.  (See our interview with Ken Paulson, Executive Director of the First Amendment Center in Assorted Musings.)

As with any compilation the results are somewhat uneven, but ultimately rewarding due to several standouts.  Jonell Mosser throws down a great house-rocking version of Annie Had a Baby.  Radney Foster and Freedom Sings musical director Bill Lloyd perform a sensitive version of one of Elvis Presley's most underrated songs, In the Ghetto.  John Kay, formerly of Steppenwolf, gives a fascinating account of the story behind the song The Pusher, as well as a fine acoustic version of the song.  Ohio (performed by Greg Trooper) and Eve of Destruction (performed by Tommy Womack) are two old protest songs that have held up very well over the years, and sound great here.  Chip Taylor performs his own fine composition, Bigot's Graveyard, as only he can - lyrically inventive, but almost too spare in its instrumentation.  You can't miss with Steve Earle, here with a beautiful Christmas in Washington.  Other good efforts include Street Fighting Man (performed by Dan Baird, formerly of the Georgia Satellites), Good Rockin' Tonight (Bill Lloyd) and Okie from Muskogee (performed by Rodney Crowell, with tongue firmly in cheek.)  The assembled performers conclude with a nice version of This Land is Your Land, which never fails to inspire.

While most of the songs and artists are firmly on the left side of the political ledger, the overriding theme is an abiding faith in the ability of music to move us - intellectually, physically, emotionally and morally.  Our lives would be poorer without the freedom to create and hear these songs.

MY GRADE  >> B+ (Many classic songs, played with a real feeling for the historical significance and meaning.)

ELECTRIC WACO CHAIR  (Waco Brothers); The Waco Brothers Electric Waco Chair is, pardon me, well executed.  It has a glossier production quality than their previous four recordings.  The album starts off with a couple of radio-friendly songs, It's Not Enough and, the better of the two, Make Things Happen. They are followed by one of their best efforts about the demon drink, Where The Mighty Fall. It is a mellow song with a guitar sound reminiscent of Neil Young.

Electric Waco Chair continues on with several more interesting songs, though it gets a bit soft around the middle. It does, however, end with four good offerings. Nothing To Say sounds like the Smithereens with a serious attitude, "Style over content and cash into crap." Fox River rocks and rolls and floods, "You have to learn to live with your fear." There is the bleak Tombstone, "I'll give up without a fight."  And the closer is quietly the best song on the album, Never Real. Woody Guthrie would be proud.

After getting over the disappointment this was not like their 1997 Cowboy In Flames, one of my favorite albums of the past decade, I enjoyed Electric Waco Chair more and more. There is still a little honky tonk, but the punk is gone. There is more jangly guitar ala The Byrds; nevertheless, this is a good album from the beginning that only gets better at the end.  Despite the ready-for-radio sound, it is clear by the end of these 13 songs that The Waco Brothers are a little bitter about the lack of recognition. This is a band and an album trying to Make Things Happen but for whatever reason It's Not Enough.

Here's hoping they remain the unique Waco Brothers.

MY GRADE >> B (If it is not classic Wacos, it is still a set of fine songs)         -sh-

WEEZER  (Weezer); Weezer made a big splash in the mid 90s with the irresistible Undone (The Sweater Song), and Buddy Holly (irresistible to others, though not a favorite of mine.)  Shortly thereafter, they went on unofficial hiatus while lead singer Rivers Cuomo went back to college.  A strange thing happened.  Their fan base became larger, not smaller and got way more fanatical.  I don't mean fanatical in the Osama Bin Laden way, because Weezer fans are not like that.  It was more of a "Please get back together and put out a new record, please, please, please?"  Well, they did, and it was worth the wait, even for us non-fanatics. 

You won't find any overly adventurous Radiohead-type stuff here, just straightforward melodic guitar rock.  For the the most part, it is harder than you might think, as on the radio hit, Hash PipeDon't Let Go is a rollicking opener, with the catchy chorus and great guitar.  On the mellow side is the superb Islands in the Sun, with its carefree Caribbean vibe.  It may be the best song about lounging around in the nice weather, since Sly's Hot Fun in the SummertimeSmile is not a mellow song, but definitely moves at a slower, almost sludgy tempo, with excellent Lennonesque vocals.  O Girlfriend is a top-notch closer, and a wistful, yet hopeful song for the Weezer faithful. 

Is there filler here?  Sure, but Weezer is more of a great singles band, anyway.  They are in the firm power pop tradition of a 70s band called Shoes from Zion, IL.  They never made it as big as Weezer has, but they turned out absolutely pure pop songs.  

And, if you can find it, check out Starlight, which is the B-side from Hash Pipe single.  Does anybody know what a B-Side is anymore?  For you young folks, it's the extra song on a CD single.  Anyway, Starlight is a great, classically Weezer song. 

MY GRADE >> B+ (Guitar-based pop music does not get much more satisfying than Weezer, the new Pure Pop for Now People.)    -jb-     

SUMMERTEETH  (Wilco); Critical favorites Wilco have finally made the album that deserves the praise heaped on this Uncle Tupelo offshoot.  This is an ambitious amalgam of their alternative country background with pop music sensibilities and instrumentation.  The previous Wilco outing was a tremendous collaboration with Billy Bragg, covering Woody Guthrie songs.  Listening to Summerteeth, it appears that their work on the Guthrie songs went far in loosening them up.  While Jeff Tweedy is still prone to overly precious lyrics, the overall feel of this record is much more open than Wilco's previous efforts. 

When Uncle Tupelo broke up, we lost one great band; however, as my cousin Pat Brett has pointed out, we gained two great bands in Son Volt and Wilco.  Son Volt has stuck more with the alternative country approach, and has put together some fine records.  Wilco was always more ambitious, and on the Bragg collaboration and Summerteeth, the ambitions are finally backed up by great songs.  Highlights on this record are When You Wake Up Feeling Old, In a Future Age, She's a Jar, Can't Stand It and Via Chicago.  Wilco has always been able to come up with fine songs here and there; on Summerteeth, they have finally put together a consistently fine record.  

MY GRADE >> A (Highly recommended)

ESSENCE  (Lucinda Williams); Essence is the follow-up to the sensational Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and finds Ms. Williams in an exceptionally downbeat mood.  Lacking the up-tempo rockers of Car Wheels, she bores in on relationships in these mid-tempo songs.  And, these are not your happy, Herman's Hermits "I'm into something good" type of relationship songs, but rather, "sweet sad songs, sung by lonely girls."  That lyric, from the fine opener, Lonely Girls, sets the tone on Essence. The beautiful, simple (and yes, poetic) lyrics on this song ("heavy blankets/cover lonely girls...I oughta know/about lonely girls") should be sad, but are instead strangely reassuring. 

That reassuring tone begins to fade with Steal Your Love, as the desperation begins to mount. "I don't need a knife, I don't need a gun/I know how to steal your love.  I don't want your drugs, and I don't want your money/I just wanna steal your love."  Then, in I Envy the Wind, Williams becomes jealous of the elements (wind, rain, sun) that touch her (former?) lover.  By the time we get to Blue, there is no doubting where Williams is coming from.  "We don't talk about heaven, and we don't talk about hell/we've come to depend on each other so damn well...So go to confession, whatever gets you through/You can count your blessings, I'll just count on blue."  Hey, cheer up, it's not that bad.

On the fine title song, Williams' fire make a welcome return, both musically and lyrically ("Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name/shoot your love into my vein.")  The most atypical song on Essence is the rollicking Get Right With God.  With lyrics steeped in the Old Testament (serpent's bites, bed of nails, that type of thing), and bluesy riffs, this song gives the band a chance to stretch out more than anywhere else on the record.  Her band on Essence is sympathetic to Williams' mood, and offers accomplished backing.  Especially noteworthy is some tasteful guitar work by Bo Ramsey and the Hammond organ of Reese Wynans on Are You Down and the title song.  

While not quite as good as Car Wheels, Essence has some wonderful moments. Williams is an excellent, if occasionally overwrought, songwriter.  As a vocalist, she has few peers.  Give me her anytime over the overrated yelpings of Bjork.   

MY GRADE >> B+ (A record that rewards repeated listening as Williams defines "down, but not out.")              -jb-      

WHAT I DESERVE  (Kelly Willis);  I had seen her music recommended by some critics, and this is the first of her records I've bought.  I must note that it is only in the last several years that I have begun to enjoy some good country music, thanks mainly to spending a lot of time with some of my Houston friends.  I tend to prefer my country music more on the honky-tonkin' side (prime example is the Waco Brothers), or the very traditional (prime example is Freakwater.)  While this CD is fairly straightforward middle of the road country music, it grew on me after a few listens.  

Let's be blunt - most of "popular" country music is awful.  The idea that Shania Twain has anything at all in common with genuine country music, or any good music for that matter, is laughable.  Her producer was the brains (and I use that term loosely) behind Def Leppard!  She has more in common with those hair metal 80s bands than she does with Patsy Cline.  

Okay, enough of that tangent.  Kelly Willis has a fine voice and it is well-utilized on most of the tracks here.  The pace is all mid-tempo, causing too many of the tracks to sound alike, and it all seems a little too laid back.  Best song is They're Blind, written by Paul Westerberg of the late, lamented Replacements.  I also like Take Me Down, What I Deserve (both co-written with Gary Louris, of the Jayhawks and the excellent Golden Smog) and Not Forgotten You.

MY GRADE >> B- (Nothing special, but some redeeming qualities)


1. EXILE IN GUYVILLE  (Liz Phair); Reclaims/updates the singer/songwriter label from James Taylor and Carole King, and also makes the rhythm guitar cooler than anybody since Keith Richards.

2. IN CASE YOU DIDN'T FEEL LIKE SHOWING UP (Ministry); Absolutely fearsome, the hardest band ever at the height of their genre. Pure industrial rock, with a driving beat, metal guitars, and tortured vocals. As good as NIN is, Trent Reznor will never catch what Al Jourgenson was pulling off at this time.

3. SIAMESE DREAM (Smashing Pumpkins); Classic Rock in the best sense of the term.  Combined power chords and melody brilliantly, and was very well recorded.  I like this better than Mellon Collie, because it was more concise. I did admire the experimentation on MC, but Adore really fell apart for me.

4. LIVE THROUGH THIS (Hole); Absolutely great record; no real bad songs, and many great ones. Kurt's influence is undeniable, but it ultimately doesn't matter. If this is merely a Nirvana album with Courtney singing, that it is at least one more Nirvana album for us. 

5. I FEEL ALRIGHT (Steve Earle); A tremendous songwriter, inventive vocalist and fearsome guitarist, Earle is the spirit of great country music with the intensity of rock. These are great songs from a guy who probably thought he'd never get another chance.

6. UNPLUGGED (Nirvana); Fantastic record featuring some revelatory covers and rearranged versions of their own songs. This reveals that Kurt Cobain was more than a shouter; he was a brilliant interpreter of a lyric. The old blues tune, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, is the best evidence on this count, but the other covers are also superb.

7. RITUAL DE LO HABITUAL (Jane's Addiction); Perry Farrell is one weird dude, but he began the alternative groundswell that Nirvana topped off. I liked just about every song here, and the band's musicianship is great, even though it was overshadowed by Farrell's persona.

8. PAINFUL (Yo La Tengo); Fine recording by one of my favorite bands. A slow, haunting version of Big Day Coming is followed later by a tremendous rocking version of the same song. I Heard You Looking, Nowhere Near, Sudden Organ and others show a great band at the top of their game. Their other work this decade has been nearly as good.

9. I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN'T GOT (Sinead O'Connor); Great voice, great songs and fine production, before Sinead got too strident. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is a fine industrial techno thing ahead of its time, but the stars are the low-key songs that allow the power of the voice and lyrics to shine through. The Last Day of Our Acquaintance, Nothing Compares 2 U (written by Prince), Black Boys on Mopeds, and Three Babies are great examples. The Emperor's New Clothes is a standout rocker.

10. FEELS LIKE THE THIRD TIME (Freakwater); Many standout tracks, all with sardonic and sweet old-time country lyrics and beautiful female harmony. My Old Drunk Friend is a great song title and a better song. This includes the great line, "And my logic just seems more clear/with every bottle of beer."  Are You Ready, You Make Me, Pale Horse and Lullaby are the best of a good lot. The wonderful album title (and cover photo) is a great play on the old bad Foreigner song, Feels Like the First Time.

11. Transmissions from the Satelite Heart (Flaming Lips); Great, weird music from a very strange band from Oklahoma of all places. Turn It On, She Don't Use Jelly, Slow Nerve Action and When Yer Twenty Two are the best, but others are worth hearing. Greg Kot brought this band to my attention.  Flaming Lips could have really taken off in the "alternative" movement, but they just kept getting wierder.

12. Automatic for the People (REM);More great songs from a band that really hit their stride with this and their last couple records. Everybody Hurts is a wonderful, aching song. Man On the Moon, about comedian Andy Kaufman, is a wonderfully wistful song. Ignoreland, Nightswimming and Drive are just solid "Classic" rockers.  REM was certainly the most consistently great band of the 90s.

13. Nevermind (Nirvana); "GRUNGE" ; really good songs, played and recorded well. Smells Like Teen Spirit kicked off 8 years and counting for the Alternative Revolution - the first 5 years were pretty good. In Bloom, Breed, Lithium, Territorial Pissings and On A Plain are quality blend of punk and classic rock.  That was the key to the alternative scene - punk rockers realizing that melody ("hooks") mattered.  Nirvana's breakthrough made a lot of money for a bunch of garage rockers, but ultimately cost us Kurt Cobain.

14. Dead Man Walking (Movie Soundtrack); Great songs from a very good movie. Bruce Springsteen 's title cut is among his best work in years, but he is topped by Mary Chapin carpenter's title song (a different one), and Steve Earle's Ellis Unit One, which is the song Bruce has been trying to make for the last 10 years. An excellent Johnny Cash song, a fine Michelle Shocked song, and two outstanding duets between Eddie Vedder and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Great songs that also evoke a true sense of the movie.

15. Natural Born Killers (Movie Soundtrack), Absolutely wonderful soundtrack record from a spectacular and bizarre movie. This is truly a soundtrack, featuring music and dialogue from the movie; both are chosen and produced well by Trent Reznor. Two Leonard Cohen songs, Waiting for the Miracle and The Future are good bookends. Features oldies - Dylan's You Belong to Me, Patsy Cline's Back in Baby's Arms, Patti Smith; industrial - NIN's Burn, Lard's Forkboy - rap - Tha Dogg Pound and Dr. Dre, plus L7 and Drums a Go-Go. Almost no misses on the entire CD.

16. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams);  She supposedly spent years (and drove initial producer Steve Earle crazy) trying to make a perfect record.  This is almost it.  Country flavored songs with a rock and roll attitude.  The recording and playing are very clean, while Williams' singing is imperfect in just the right way.  Her voice is not classically good (she's no diva, thank God!), but her vocals fit the lyric like barbecue sauce on the rib.  Can't Let Go is my favorite here.  Also, the title song, Joy and I Still Long For Your Kiss.