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Spit and Polish

Slobberbone has never quite fit into any of the usual country-rock categories, and there has always been a suspicion that the songs of leader Brent Best simply encompassed too much for that kind of easy treatment. Barrel Chested, the Denton outfit's latest release, confirms that, and makes a compelling case for Best as one of the state's best songwriters.

Barrel Chested is Slobberbone's second CD for the independent Doolittle label; the first was a re-release of Crow Pot Pie, which had been issued independently in 1994 and was then picked up by the Austin-based label, which put it out in a slightly altered form. Since the first CD, the band has been whittled down from a somewhat busy quintet to a foursome of Best, bassist Brian Lane, drummer Tony Harper and just-added guitarist Jess Bar. The slightly more stripped-down presentation brings a great deal of clarity to the band's new music, which is reminiscent of Son Volt and the Jay Farrar side of Uncle Tupelo, except that Best seems to get out of the house a bit more than Farrar does. Like Son Volt, Slobberbone has a sense of its roots -- roots not copied nor traced, but altered as they pass through the artist's lens. The change from Crow-era Slobberbone to the current, tighter incarnation is exemplified by Barrel's "Haze of Drink," a Crow number that didn't make it from the indie release to Doolittle's. The song is essentially unchanged -- a head-pounding, hell-raising evocation of the condition referred to in the title -- but the new version is more polished, better put together and more direct.

As announced by the ringing thwaps on the guitar strings that kick off Barrel Chested's title track, though, Best's love of big guitar remains intact, as does his love of the fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar. Now, however, they're mood-setting tools, ones employed in the service of the song rather than the self-conscious explorations of Crow. Earlier this year, four of the songs on Barrel were released noncommercially in their acoustic form. Those compositions ("Engine Joe," "Lame," "Little Drunk Fists" and the title track) showed Best's songwriting to be in good form, and in their finished states on Barrel the tunes prove he's learning more and more about how to put a song together.

Best has an everyday voice in the best sense of the word. Whether angrily denouncing a poisonous lover ("I'll Be Damned"), wearily contemplating his next relapsed breakdown ("Get Gone Again") or delivering a folksy, John Prinelike ditty ("Engine Joe," which is Prine-like at least until the guitars kick in), his voice has the familiar cadences of an old friend. Slobberbone aren't country-rock, or insurgent honky-tonk, or anything more than music made by a band that articulates a vision according to certain beloved patterns. In the case of Best, those patterns owe as much to AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd (check out the guitar solo on "Barrel Chested") as they do to Buck Owens or the Flatlanders.

-- Matt Weitz

Slobberbone opens for the Road Kings at 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 31, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $10. For info, call 869-COOL.

Neville Brothers -- In a music world filled with cruel gimmicks and frustrating intangibles, it's always nice to know that the Neville Brothers are around to keep things honest. Think of the Nevilles as a Southern-fried, New Orleans variation on the Jackson 5, but in a slightly smaller, less deified, more weathered package. Third brother Aaron is, by far, the most visible of the four outside the region. He had his first R&B hit, "Over You," way back in 1960, and recently enlisted the help of Babyface -- among others -- to further update his tranquil flutter of a croon on the new, super-slick solo release ... To Make Me What I Am. But his winningest collab-orative team will always be brothers Art, Charles and Cyril. Family, after all, has a way of bringing out the best -- and the worst -- in a person. And fortunately for the Nevilles, there's been a lot more of the former than of the latter. At 8 p.m. Friday, October 31, at the Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $35. 988-1020. (Hobart Rowland)

Dance Hall Crashers -- It hardly matters who was performing at the time; Dance Hall Crashers are the ones who should have headlined your high school prom, blasting away with the sort of infectious, buoyant romps that would've thrown even your crusty old algebra teacher into a pogoing frenzy. This Berkeley, California, band adds spunky, punky attitude to a driving ska beat to create party music that actually deserves that description. And with relentlessly upbeat musicianship (get a load of Jason Hammon on guitar) bolstering the tangy harmonizing of co-vocalists Elyse Rogers and Karina Denike, the Crashers -- who took their name from a '60s-era Jamaican ska anthology -- put a powder-fresh spin on the largely male-dominated shenanigans of ska, and one that is decidedly more believable than No Doubt's stadium histrionics. Wednesday, November 5, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. MXPX and Weston open. 629-3700. (Bob Ruggiero

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