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Bloodhound Gang
One Fierce Beer Coaster
Geffen

"Know thyself," goes one of the commandments of the ancient Greeks. "I'm more tongue and cheek than a lesbo orgy," goes Jimmy Pop Ali, mouthpiece of the Bloodhound Gang, a twisted band of mall rats from suburban Philadelphia.

Where's the connection? Like their white-trash Pennsylvania homeboys in Ween and the Dead Milkmen, the Bloodhounds are offensive, rude, stoopid and vigorously gutter-minded, but they're better off for knowing who, and what, they are. And once admitting that, they also happen to be surprisingly clever and damn funny. The group's latest offering, One Fierce Beer Coaster, is full of smart lines, great hooks and creative arrangements, and not one of its ten originals misses its low-down mark.

Unlike the Gang's 1995 debut, Use Your Fingers, which was essentially a sample-heavy rap CD with rockist tendencies, One Fierce Beer Coaster features a backing band for a live rock sound with funk touches. But while the new Bloodhounds are more in tune with current rock radio styles, Jimmy Pop remains an emcee at heart. If you doubt his skill, check out his rapid-fire delivery on "Going Nowhere Slow," in which Pop names 72 cities in under 30 seconds.

Overshadowing both the music and vocal chops, though, are the lyrics. Full of TV celebrity mentions, product endorsements and gleeful juxtapositions (Jack Kerouac and Gilbert Gottfried in the same line), the Bloodhounds's rhymes are as dense as they are topical, and their humor is a guilty pleasure for the politically incorrect. Like Jimmy says, "I'm an Alka Seltzer, you're a sea gull" -- and if you get the joke, you deserve to hear the rest of the record. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

Loose Diamonds
Fresco Fiasco!
Freedom Records

Just when you thought a band had forever consigned itself to the junk heap, it goes and makes you take a second look. Prior to Fresco Fiasco!, Austin's Loose Diamonds released two efforts, both filled with the sort of middling roots rock that sounds for all the world like the soundtrack to a beer commercial. You couldn't fault the craftsmanship, and the band's songwriters obviously possessed some chemistry. The problem was the songs, which weren't so much bad as they were a bore.

And now this: seven acoustic tunes slapped together at the tail end of a tour. And wouldn't you know it, Fresco Fiasco! is not only the band's best outing, but one good enough to turn a doubter into a believer.

For one thing, the acoustic setting soaks more character out of the guitars and voices than the band ever mustered with its amplifiers. Troy Campbell's vocals are sweeter, Jud Newcomb's Leonard Cohen-esque musings gruffer. For another, they've smartly bookended the disc with two sure-fire covers: Lubbock songsmith Al Strehli penned the honeyed opener "I Know You" (previously covered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore with the Flatlanders), and you should recall the Stanley Brothers's "Stone Walls & Steel Bars," which the Diamonds romp through like God's honest convicts. Between those tracks are two more covers and three originals, all given an extra shine by proximity and intimacy.

Fresco Fiasco! was conceived as a one-off deal, an unplugged anomaly in a catalog of electrified roots rock. Here's hoping Loose Diamonds keep making exceptions such as this. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Bill Janovitz
Lonesome Billy
Beggars Banquet

Among the indie-rockers-gone-major set, Buffalo Tom is infamous for its status as a commercial underachiever. As such, there's little reason to expect a solo outing from the trio's leader, Bill Janovitz, to do any better than, say, Sleepy Eyed, the last Tom release to simmer at the lower reaches of the charts. Even so, Janovitz can take comfort in knowing that with Lonesome Billy he's hardly made an ass of himself.

Lonesome Billy is strewn with the sort of rough-hewn textures, country-comfort instrumentation, gruff execution and whine-in-your-whiskey subject matter that, with the proper marketing push, could win over Americana radio -- though its low-key feel hardly screams "major event." Billy avoids most of the pitfalls that often derail such one-man vanity projects, and it does so for a specific reason: Despite what the disc's title implies, Janovitz had the good sense to surround himself with friends, a makeshift booster club/democracy that included Joey Burns (bass, accordion, mandolin), John Convertino (drums, vibes) and Howe Gelb (piano). The casual saloon-style atmosphere the four cooked up in Tucson's ramshackle Wavelab Studios gives the disc its jammy, loose, collective feel.

Then there's the songs. Graceful and sonically focused, all but a few of Billy's ten tracks mock the assumption that a songwriter saves his strongest material for his band. Janovitz allows himself the occasional indulgence -- the ungainly C&W crooner "Strangers," the curiously ineffective instrumental "Ghost in My Piano" and an ill-fitting rendition of "My Funny Valentine" -- but those missteps are easily excused as the sort of playful toss-offs expected of a guy enjoying a little time away from his real responsibilities.

There's no denying that Billy's one full-on rocker, "Gaslight," would make a swell radio hit. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Too much about Lonesome Billy suggests a more humble fate for Janovitz -- like maybe a mobile home in the high desert with a goat and some chickens in the back. (*** 1/2)

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