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The Hollisters
The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure
Freedom

Nationally, many consider Austin to be the hub of alternative country. But The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, the long-awaited debut CD from the Hollisters, just might be the release Houston has needed to put itself on the alt-country map. It proves without a doubt that the Hollisters' brand of traditional honky-tonk and revved-up roots rock can stand toe-to-toe with any band cultivating similar territory, be they from Austin or anywhere else.

With Mike Barfield's hearty growl (think a younger, nimbler Johnny Cash) and Eric Danheim's sleek, deceptively direct guitar work leading the way, the Hollisters show a deep respect for the Bakersfield sound made famous by Buck Owens. That's especially true on tracks such as the aging-trucker's anthem "Better Slow Down" and the lively cover of Nick Lowe's "Without Love." But the Hollisters have also managed to fashion a sound all their own by lightly sifting in other influences, which show up on the delicate, Tex-Mex-tinged "Pink Adobe Hacienda" and the hard-charging highway romp "Goldbrick Wheeler."

It's worth mentioning that some of Austin's finest musicians had a hand in making The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure a success. Casper Rawls, best known as a guitarist for Toni Price and the Leroi Brothers, produced the record with a clear and refined touch, while singer/songwriter Libbi Bosworth adds sweet harmonies to the disc's first tune, "East Texas Pines," which she also co-wrote (with Gary Griffith).

After shopping this disc to labels big and small for what seemed like forever, the Hollisters decided to release Rhythm and Pleasure on Freedom Records, a tiny Austin label responsible for a limited but impressive array of seriously country releases over the last couple of years. Not that any of that matters to the listeners, who should be thrilled that such a sterling document of the best band to come out of Houston in a long time is at long last available. (****)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Green Day
Nimrod
Reprise

To understand Nimrod, go immediately to the disc's second-to-last track, "Time of Your Life." Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong flubs his first two attempts to play a pretty acoustic guitar intro, mutters a quiet "fuck," and then nails it on the third attempt. From there, the song never wavers from its particularly smooth shape: It's a meditative ballad augmented by David Campbell's keen string arrangement. That's right: On the band's fifth full-length release, Green Day adds strings, horns and harmonica in an effort to expand their sonic vocabulary.

Nothing wrong with that; in fact, some of Nimrod's best moments are its least expected ones, even if the "mistakes" on "Time of Your Life" sound like Armstrong's self-conscious attempt to prove to the faithful that he's no Billy Joel. He needn't have tried so hard, because Green Day has always been more a pop band with spiky hair than true Gilman Street punks. Purists bitched when the Ramones hired Phil Spector to produce End of the Century, too, and that collaboration made perfect sense at a similar point in the band's career. Nimrod doesn't match Dookie's gale-force fun, but it's more interesting than the latter's half-finished follow-up, Insomniac, on which Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool strained to sound like slap-dash superstars.

Not that Green Day's signature sound has disappeared; far from it, in fact. Fans of Dookie should take comfort in the fact that a dozen of Nimrod's 18 songs are durable pop-punk staples -- "All the Time," "Uptight" and "Hauskinka" among them. As for the remaining "experimental" cuts, it should be conceded that the drag-queen humor and woozy horn arrangement of "King for a Day" sound more like cold-sweat desperation than any sort of logical progression. And at this point in Green Day's career, such triple-time romps as "Platypus (I Hate You)" and "Take Back" sound less convincing than something like "Last Ride In," a moody surf instrumental complete with strings, horns and some tasteful vibraphone.

Ultimately, the combination of new ideas and old tricks serves the band well: Nimrod isn't a great CD, but it's an imperfectly good one. One piece of advice, though: The next time Billie Joe feels the urge to record a ballad such as "Time of Your Life," he should let the song stand without apology. Some listeners may think it's a mistake, but at least we can be sure he did it on purpose. (***)

-- Keith Moerer

The Refreshments
The Bottle and Fresh Horses
Mercury

While rumors of the untimely demise of Tempe, Arizona's Gin Blossoms inch ever closer to fact, their miserable New Southwest experience soldiers on under the guise of the Refreshments. The fact that the Blossoms and their sound-alike progeny share the same hometown cannot be overemphasized. For if every note-perfect jangle-riff and yearning, cry-in-yer-microbrew chorus on the Refreshments' sophomore effort was indeed -- as it seems -- cribbed from the Ginners' Byrds-cum-Petty playbook, the sharp-dressed banditos responsible could, at the very least, say they rubbed shoulders with their victims. They did have the humility to thank those victims in the CD liner notes. But why stop there? There's always songwriting credits. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

Portishead
Portishead
London

This is the CD on which Portishead loses their element of surprise. When the band's debut, Dummy, came out in late 1994, it was a revelation: hip-hop reinvented as torch songs for the terminally languid. Songwriter Geoff Barrow slowed mechanized breakbeats down to a crawl, surrounding them with soundtrack samples, reverb-drenched guitars and quiet keyboards. Singer Beth Gibbons delivered on that promise with the voice of a Valium-encrusted siren -- sexy and seemingly resigned to despair. The resulting noir ambiance managed to sound modern and classic in the same breath, and such stylishness never came at the expense of the songs. That "Sour Times" became an unlikely hit presents the strongest (if also the most superficial) proof of the band's attention to such niceties as melody and sturdy songcraft. Coupled with Tricky's hippie-hop minimalism, Portishead's sound essentially created a genre ("trip-hop") and a direction for introverted techno-geeks.

With such a style already firmly established on the band's first CD, Portishead, having none of its predecessor's unexpectedness, might have been doomed to suffer in comparison. Surprise, however, is about the only thing the band has lost on this release. "Cowboys" opens Portishead with the news that the band's aesthetic -- and writing skill -- remains intact. As with most of Dummy's tunes, the song's lackadaisical drumbeats flirt with inertia, its instrumentation consisting of a subtle organ, well-placed scratches and a guitar part that recalls nothing so much as the buzz of a telephone left off the hook. Gibbons's singing is more distorted, more emotive, and generally more odd, but such subtle shifts reach the same ethereal ends at which Portishead excels.

The rest of Portishead expands on that basic idea, and the results are elegantly depressive -- and vice versa. "All Mine" betrays the band's soundtrack fixation more clearly than ever; its opening horn line sounds exactly like a James Bond theme song. "Undenied" starts as a soft lullaby but ultimately evokes an entirely different sort of nodding off. If ever a band's sound was perfectly suited for a theremin, Portishead's is it; "Humming" provides ample evidence of this. "Only You" and "Elysium" substitute twang for jazzier guitar lines.

Throughout, Gibbons sounds beautifully tormented, but her pose avoids the kind of overwrought affectation capable of ruining such a mood. She delivers nothing as immediately gripping as "Sour Times," but ultimately Portishead equals Dummy with regard to skill and atmosphere. And while those attributes might not be so surprising anymore, the songs themselves are still unpredictable, still evocative, still great. (****)

-- Keven McAlester

Cornershop
When I Was Born for the 7th Time
Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.

Sometimes the most universal music comes from the most provincial places. I've never been there, but I imagine Leicester, England, as a quaint university town, where choral groups battle a second-rate symphony for cultural supremacy. Though now based in London, Cornershop staggered onto the Leicester scene in 1993, a ragtag group of East Indians who adopted an English stereotype (the immigrant as bodega owner) as their proud, defiant name.

The band's 1995 release, Woman's Gotta Have It, was at its best at its most exotic, with Eastern melodies and beats played by sitars and tablas. The other half was fairly ordinary: indie guitar-rock with a little masala sprinkled over it. That makes When I Was Born for the 7th Time even more revelatory. The song that will be mentioned the most, a Punjabi version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," is important as a reclamation of the band's Indian roots. But it isn't as thrilling as the CD's opening accordion flourish, which announces the arrival of a group unafraid to mix musical cultures, from the Cajun sounds of Louisiana and boho poetry of New York to the dance beats and hip-hop scratches of underground London.

Still, I'm partial to bassist/vocalist Tjinder Singh's more conventional pop structures, especially "Sleep on the Left Side" and "Brimful of Asha," which are the latest in a long, proud tradition of tunes about the power of good music. But even such slight, goofy dance shuffles as "Funky Days Are Back Again" and "Good Shit" are too amiable to be faulted much for their hippy-dippy lyrics. An experiment that could have ended disastrously -- Allen Ginsberg's poem "When the Light Appears Boy" spoken over the sound of the polyglot streets -- works surprisingly well. Singh's duet with Paula Fraser of Tarnation is less successful, because it's just a conventional country song that happens to have flute in it.

The rest of the disc is filled out by dance-floor hybrids. The sitar on 7th Time isn't quite as prominent as it was on Woman's Gotta Have It, but the new CD's "It's Indian Tobacco My Friend," with its odd vocal modalities and high-hat splashes, is Western music that could be conjured only by Easterners. A current cliche is that we're now all citizens of the world. In Cornershop's case, it's actually the truth. (*** 1/2)

-- Keith Moerer

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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