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Beck
Odelay
DGC

Beck Hansen's 1994 breakthrough lo-fi single "Loser" begged an interesting question: one-hit wonder, or new Dylan? Odelay, Beck's first major-label release since his Mellow Gold debut, answers the question nicely. The answer is neither. Hits number two and three are already accounted for with "Devil's Haircut" and "Where It's At," surely to be followed in short order with any number of tracks off this densely packed disc. As for the Dylan thing, well, Dylan at his most surreally non-literal was never so surreally non-literal as Beck's "Silver foxes lookin' for romance / In the chainsmoke Kansas flashdance ass pants" (from "Hotwax"). And what the hell could it possibly mean when Beck spends his lead track intoning, "I got a devil's haircut in my mind"?

A whole bunch of nothing, if you ask me, but that doesn't mean Beck does not sound great saying it. Part of that sleight of hand is due to the manchild's voice: a cannonball of offhand gravity that lends weight to the slightest pop-culture ephemera. And part of it is due to production by the Dust Brothers -- the audio wizards responsible for the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. What the brothers have done is unhinge Beck from his basement-tape limitations and let him roam free in a po-mo hodgepodge of sound that's the perfect mirror for his disjointed lyrical referents. There's some post-"Loser" slide guitar work, some Beastie-ish organ lines, some frighteningly authentic country-tonk empathy and enough tasteful sampling to keep trivia buffs happy for months. All anchored -- if that word can be applied to such sonic free-float -- on a white-boy hip-hop sensibility whose exemplars remain the Beastie Boys.

But if the Beasties are still kings of this domain, Beck is their crown prince in waiting. And it's Beck, more than the Beasties, whose trek from a New York anti-folk fixation on acoustic blues to the Los Angeles-drenched freestyle of Odelay makes the best case for hip-hop as our truest urban folk music. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Metallica
Load
Elektra

After toeing basically the same hard, speedy and intricate line for more than a decade, Metallica was in a unique -- if unenviable -- position when assembling the tunes for Load. Did they continue preaching to the converted (who, by the way, have sent the band's last few releases past platinum), or did they continue taking their bruising sound in the more refined, song-centric direction they'd been fiddling with since 1988's ... And Justice for All?

Five years after the release of Metallica, it seems that the band has gone with the latter, and, as you might expect, the results are mixed. Load is sometimes brilliant, but other times it's tarnished with the creeping, corrosive compound of commercialism and an excessive eagerness to please. Even so, undeniable links to past glories crop up in enough places to assure us that Metallica has not gone irreversibly astray.

Load begins strongly with "Until It Sleeps" and "King Nothing," their grandiose choruses and multiple transitions an obvious extension of Metallica's attempts to refine and contain the group's bullish conceits for the radio. Lyrically, James Hetfield is as menacing and punishing as you would expect, but his message tends to meander as he searches for unnecessary vocal nuance, rather than just belting it out as he should. More direct and unhampered by self-consciousness are the CD's stinging guitars, which have a visceral razor-sharp intrusiveness that harks back to ... And Justice for All and its monumentally forthright sound, courtesy of producer Bob Rock. And how about that cover, which features a photo by controversial artist Andres Serrano of Serrano's semen mixed with cow's blood and squished between two plates of glass. Repugnant or beautiful? Calculated compromise or creative victory? Better to let the kids decide. (*** 1/2)

-- Greg Barr
Metallica performs at Lollapalooza Thursday, July 25, at Fort Dallas, Dallas.

The Wallflowers
Bringing Down the Horse
Interscope

When you're the son of the most influential songwriter of the 20th century, deciding to go into the family business can be both a quick blessing and a deadly curse. For Jakob Dylan, leader of the Wallflowers, being born with a high-powered surname surely made for an easier entrance into record company offices. But once through the door, the expectations to be a chip off the old block had to be nearly impossible to realize. And the young Dylan isn't making it any easier for himself. Understandably reluctant to accept notoriety he hasn't earned, Jakob keeps his famous relationship quiet (the Wallflowers' bio doesn't even mention dad), even though the added notice couldn't have hurt. And of all the musical styles he could have plied -- from punk to techno to R&B -- Jakob chose the mythic folk-rock Americana that his pop pretty much invented.

Calling Bringing Down the Horse, the Wallflowers' long-delayed follow-up to their 1992 debut, Dylanesque may be ridiculous under the circumstances, but the description is more accurate than you'd even expect. From the heavy organ/guitar interplay, to the throaty vocals, to the musical and lyrical cues borrowed from Springsteen, Petty and even Elvis Costello, the Wallflowers amalgamate all the new Dylans and old Dylans into songs that -- despite their general pleasantness and standouts such as "6th Avenue Heartache" and "I Wish I Felt Nothing" -- don't contain a single refreshing musical idea. Guest F.O.B.s (friends of Bob) such as producer T-Bone Burnett and Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell -- plus other roots guys such as Adam Duritz (Counting Crows) and Gary Louris (the Jayhawks) -- only make the ancestor worship harder to shake. Remember the days when rockers defied parents instead of posing as pale imitations of them? (** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

Richard Thompson
you? me? us?
Capitol

Thirty plus albums and 28 years into a career that tracks all the way back to Celt-rock progenitors Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson has lost none of the ambition, none of the skill and none of the edge that's made him a cult favorite with rock critics and other manic-depressive sorts. And to prove it (as if it needed proving once again), Thompson -- along with super-producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake and an intimate cast of players that includes drummers Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas (the Attractions), guitarist Simon Nicol (Fairport) and longtime Thompson cohort Danny Thompson on acoustic bass -- has compiled one of the rarest of all studio products: a virtually fillerless double CD.

Disc one, Voltage Enhanced, is an electrified romp through the minefield of Thompson's romantic psyche -- a terrain that alternates between scar tissue and bleeding meat with the archetypal Thompson savagery of tracks such as "Razor Dance" and "Put It There Pal," the latter a boiling puddle of vitriolic bile spewed at a former acquaintance whom "some say" is "a rattlesnake in the grass / But I say, the sun shines out of your arse." Disc two is titled Nude, which means most of its tunes, including reprises of disc one's "Razor Dance" and "Hide It Away," are treated with only vocal, acoustic guitar and bass. Here's where you find the softer, more indulgent side of Thompson's fixation on emotional failure. It's a quiet counterpoint to the ballsier aggression of the first CD, but still a near-perfect companion piece -- the same brain in a different mood. (**** 1/2)

-- Brad Tyer

Jonell Mosser
Around Townes
Winter Harvest

Jonell Mosser is a throaty-voiced, baby-faced redhead who cuts demos of new songs written by Townes Van Zandt. Then, Van Zandt's people pass the demos on to established artists looking for material to record. Bootleg cassettes of this 13-song compilation have been certificates of industry-insider hipness for quite a while; now the collection is available to the masses on disc. Mosser sings country/blues/rock the way Van Zandt writes lyrics -- both fillet your soul. If that don't make yer fuzzy little heart pound a double-shuffle, then hell, you ain't from around here, are you? (****)

-- Jim Sherman

Willie Nelson
Spirit
Island/Polygram

A surprising number of bluesmen (and women) cite Willie Nelson as one of their favorite all-around musicians. The acoustic offerings of Spirit show copious justifications for that adulation. While I can only claim familarity with 20 or so Nelson albums -- maybe a third of the Bearded One's catalog -- this psychic self-autopsy lays bare the doubts and fears beneath the bandanna to a degree I doubt Nelson has ever reached before.

The themes here are the core of both country and blues -- uncertain religious faith and love gone wrong. These have obviously left scars and wrinkles on Nelson's soul and brain; they have also resulted in a collection of songs that will cut you so cleanly that you'll notice the blood before you feel the scalpel. "Too Sick to Pray" is a hymn of faith lost when it was needed most -- and found again during a transitory remission of crisis. "She Is Gone" and "I'm Not Trying to Forget You Anymore" speak volumes of the inner pain of a man who has found everything in life except what he wanted the worst -- and knows there's no one to blame but himself. Nelson's ability to do anything but stay married has long been a country-music spectator sport; the bittersweet looks back on Spirit shame the rubberneckers and answer the questions that no one outside the Nelson family ever had a right to ask.

The minimalist arrangements here fit superbly. The piano and fiddle work of Bobbie Nelson and Johnny Gimble could have been mixed into an instrumental album that would stand on its own merits; instead, they serve as the foundation of the country chapel where Nelson wrestles with his personal demons and emerges battered but poignantly hopeful. (****)

-- Jim Sherman

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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