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Once you get past Mainstream's more direct references, the earlier influences begin to emerge. Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, Delaney and Bonnie, the Byrds, the Band -- aspects of these and other Golden Smog soul mates are gracefully assimilated into the group's comfortable retro-folk sound. It has the loosely wrapped feel of a side project, to be sure, but the surprising thing about Mainstream is the strength of its songs. Only a few of the 14 tracks have the picked-over quality of rejects from other projects, and the playing is remarkably crisp throughout.

With the Jayhawks disbanded and Soul Asylum struggling commercially, it's anyone's guess where this sideline experiment could lead. Will Golden Smog evaporate into the chilly Midwestern air or settle into the expanding roots-rock landscape? Hard to say, but Down by the Old Mainstream sure makes you want to linger awhile on its banks to see what washes up. -- Hobart Rowland

Rolling Stones
Stripped
Virgin

Stripped arrives in the wake of the recent Beatles' disinterring to remind us, once again, who were the contenders and who were the pretenders. The Stones' Lord Byron-meets-John Lee Hooker-at-the-crossroads shtick was always more appealing than the Beatles' straight-faced professions of adolescent and universal love, and Stripped shows why. This not-really-unplugged collection mines everything that was good and true about the Stones. In fact, most of the Stripped versions sound better than the originals. While there are no Dylanesque reworkings of melody and tempo, the muted instrumentation is sinewy and almost swings, an achievement to which other elderly rockers should aspire. "Street Fighting Man," for instance, churns with a renewed bravura, and you can almost imagine Louie Armstrong fronting the classic sing-alongs "Let It Bleed" and "Dead Flowers." The inclusion of the 30-year-old "Spider and the Fly" is a nice touch, too, especially the updating of the line "she looked about 30" to "she looked about 50." (Yeah, why not?)

There are drawbacks: always enhancing the Stones' aura of faux mystery was the indecipherability of their lyrics. On Stripped, however, the spaciness of the sound and Jagger's crisp enunciation make the words clear -- painfully so in some instances. And lo and behold, there's a lyric sheet inside the jacket, for chrissakes. We are sorry to report that, henceforth, any listening of the still-wonderful "Sweet Virginia," that consummate going-down-the-road-and-you-can-kiss-my-ass lament, will be slightly marred by the knowledge that it contains the line, "Yes, I've got the desert in my toenail." One more thing: this is an "interactive" disc, meaning you can pop it into your CD-ROM drive and witness Mick and the rest of the fiftyish cadavers gallivanting on-stage in a full two dimensions. -- Jim Simmon

Goldie
Timeless
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Timeless indeed, but also precisely of the moment. This mixed-race London DJ/graffiti artist has accomplished something exceedingly rare with his debut: like Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and maybe a handful of others, Timeless firmly plants itself in the ageless category by, quite ironically, capturing this very moment in music and, by extension, society. Timeless signifies its importance in part with words, but it does so much more through its profoundly impressionistic music: a sonic and emotional climate completely at peace with the past and in line with the future. Hard-bop, soul, hip-hop, techno, house, acid jazz, trip-hop and now, with Goldie's keen deliverance, jungle.

A sort of urban techno made from breathtakingly hyper break beats and dub bass lines, the jungle sound unites American and British dance music with the cheerful abandon of a block-party rave in a rundown dance hall. But Timeless is more than that: it brings the music out of the hall and into the popular consciousness with beats so fast that they spray sound and so dense that they threaten to implode into one eternal pulse. And the soulful vocals of Diane Charlemagne and Lorna Harris belt and wail like Marvin Gaye at his most vital. Framed by two gorgeously melancholic epics -- the title suite (containing Goldie's hit "Inner City Life") and "Sea of Tears" (featuring live jazz musicians) -- and sprinkled with thrilling industrial grinds and sweet jazz-soul trips, Timeless' subtle all-inclusiveness beckons us to celebrate the past as it remains steeped in the present. -- Roni Sarig

Sunflower
Round Trip
Lovespell Records

Round Trip, the second indie release from Austin's Sunflower, is tainted with the same sour feeling of unfulfilled promise that drags down many jam-happy groups these days. An impressive force on-stage, Sunflower nonetheless can't seem to apply its considerable energy to writing memorable songs -- that is, songs with tight melodies and hooks that achieve their desired emotional effect without an in-person vibe and visuals. Instead, Round Trip locks into a gimmicky repetitiveness that makes Sunflower sound hopelessly out of it, Peter Frampton talk box and all. Do yourself -- and the group -- a favor and see Sunflower in person before all else. That shouldn't be difficult, seeing as the band's been hanging out in Houston so much lately that its members should have earned their personalized urinals at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge by now. -- Hobart Rowland

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