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-- David Cantwell

John P. Strohm and the Hello Strangers
Caledonia
Flat Earth

If there were such a thing as the Republic of Indieland, John Strohm would make a great secretary of state. Over the past decade, Strohm has practiced a shuttle diplomacy that's earned him a place in just about every decent music scene in the country: Boston (as a member of the Blake Babies and a part-time Lemonhead), Minneapolis (as a contributor to Polara) and Chapel Hill (as a longtime name on the Mammoth label roster with his bands Antenna and Velo-Deluxe). His stature even earned him a slot on Mike Watt's who's who of alt-rock release, Ball-hog or Tugboat?, all the way out in Los Angeles.

For Caledonia, though, Strohm stays entrenched in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where he hooks up with some old friends, the Hello Strangers. What he finds is his roots -- or at least somebody's roots. Add Caledonia to the growing list of indie efforts born from a melding of two sensibilities: Big Star's power pop and Gram Parsons's twangy blue-eyed soul. It's more than a little reminiscent of the Jayhawks, Wilco and any number of other bands who've graced the pages of alt-country's magazine of the moment, No Depression.

Though Strohm wins no praise for originality here, Caledonia does contains some of his best songs to date. Accompanied by the acoustic strumming, vibrato electric, pedal steel, brush percussion and aching harmonies that define alt-country, "Tangelo," "See You Around" and "Geronimo's Cadillac" are likably goofy and immediately memorable. With its tape hiss and toy piano accompaniment, "Thelma" is a slight pop ballad worthy of either Sebadoh's Lou Barlow or Bryan Adams. And isn't it just like a diplomat to find common ground between two such seemingly disparate parties? (***)

-- Roni Sarig

Silverchair
Freak Show
Epic

Is it real, or is it Nirvana Jr.? Such debate seems pointless at this phase of Silverchair's evolution -- the put-up-or-shut-up phase -- when all it really comes down to is the songs. The more appropriate question might be: Can this Australian teen trio put pen to paper with any sustained urgency or self-analytical aplomb? Can they write around their copycat reputation and outdistance their post-Cobain competition in the process?

If you go by Freak Show, the mildly engaging follow-up to the band's huge-selling debut Frogstomp, the answer is a resounding ... not yet. Plain and simple, Silverchair has a lot of growing up to do. At the moment, youthful enthusiasm is taking them places their brains aren't yet ready to handle. At times, they seem aware of their dilemma. "Need to ask a question / Calling out my name," mewls Silverchair singer/guitarist Daniel Johns in Freak Show's "Abuse Me." "Nothing seems to bother / Wish I had a clue."

That sort of ambivalence permeates Freak Show. Granted, a meteoric leap such as Silverchair's can mess with even the most mature mind, and I'm quite sure that the group's members have witnessed much of what they sing about. But it wouldn't hurt if Silverchair made an occasional attempt to lighten the load on their shoulders. There's something sad about Johns, a kid who's all of 17, singing (and writing) lines such as "Sinking through dark black holes / It's never gonna end." Welcome to puberty in the '90s.

Still, compared to Frogstomp's minor-chord drudgery, Freak Show's more varied sonic palette is uplifting, thanks in no small part to producer Nick Launay. "Abuse Me" sports a cozy intimacy that remedies its depressing lyrics. "Cemetery" is a haunting string-laced ballad with verses that suggest Smashing Pumpkins' quieter, more baroque side. And "Pop Song For Us Rejects," another track that benefits from spare orchestration, begins on a catchy acoustic note -- that is, before it succumbs to the rudimentary slab-metal riffs that drag down a significant portion of Freak Show. Oh well, at least time is on Silverchair's side. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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