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Tab Benoit
Live: Swampland Jam
Justice

Some sage or another once said that music matures within oneself as one grows older. That's certainly the case for Louisiana blues guitarist Tab Benoit -- if, that is, the new Live: Swampland Jam is any evidence. These days, Benoit paces himself, letting his guitar phrases light fires under the material without having it sound forced.

A pair of early-'97 gigs at the Grant Street Dance Hall in Lafayette and the House of Blues in New Orleans provide the material for this, Benoit's first live recording. His short, emphatic bursts on "Ain't Gonna Do It" have urgency, and he scores points when slowing down the tempo to recall the lonesome night of the "Moon Coming Over the Hill." Benoit also handles himself nicely when trying to fill the shoes of Albert Collins on the Ice Man's "Too Many Dirty Dishes" and when doing some tortured soul-searching on the slow-blues "Heart of Stone." His singing, meanwhile, is adequate to the task -- neither great nor bad -- and his band is generally dependable, though bassist Doug Therrian could have provided a bit more rhythmic muscle.

Among Benoit's on-stage guests are Henry Gray, a onetime Howlin' Wolf sideman, who tickles the ivories on "Too Many Dirty Dishes"; Tabby Thomas, who supplies sensual vocals and guitar to his own "It Takes a Long Time"; and Johnny Sansone, who contributes harmonica to "Crawling Kingsnake" and accordion to "Louisiana Style." Chubby Carrier is also on the guest list, strapping on his squeezebox for a fittingly torrid version of Clifton Chenier's "Hot Tamale Baby." But the real center of attention here is, of course, Benoit, who seems to have curtailed his penchant for playing too many notes and conjuring exaggerated drama. (***)

-- Frank-John Hadley

5th Ward Boyz
Usual Suspects
Rap-A-Lot/Noo Trybe

As hip-hopping, hustling hood rats, Houston's 5th Ward Boyz couldn't be more generically gangsta if they doused themselves in malt liquor, severed their arms and replaced them with Mac-10s. On their new CD, Usual Suspects, the trio's flow -- which sounds a lot like the Geto Boys without the morose perversion -- is standard thug/playa give-and-take, complete with weighty topics (most of the songs are about "stackin' paper") and boisterous claims ("I'll have your baby's mama sucking dick") to further support the false belief that the life of a gangsta rapper is like that of an eccentric billionaire, just more bloody.

So why is Usual Suspects even worth mentioning? Because while E-Rock, 007 and Lo Life frequently falter in the lyrical and vocal departments, the wavy, irresistible funk grooves that accompany their inane raps are peerless -- locally, at least. Although other local hip-hop acts might wish their music resembled the resonant '70s grooves of Curtis Mayfield, a few of the songs on Usual Suspects actually do bring to mind Mayfield in his Superfly heyday, boasting backbeats more advanced than the patched-together, instrumental chicken scratch typically heard behind Houston rappers.

That sound comes courtesy of an indispensable cache of in-house producers, including Mike Dean, Freddy Young and Scarface, who also guest on the disc along with Spice-1, Willie D and Eightball & MJG. And while that amount of help might sound like overkill, the Usual Suspects crew surprisingly (and effectively) manages a smooth, subtle and textured touch. So while the 5th Ward Boyz might have a way to go in the word race, musically, they're already in the winner's circle. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Metallica
Re-Load
Elektra

Come again? So soon? You bet. Metallica's original plan to release a double CD in 1996 was nixed when they ran out of recording time. But in the end, they had enough songs to quickly follow up last year's Load with this cleverly titled outing. All in all, Re-Load is fairly consistent with the group's sneering, dusky vision of life as an endless struggle against the powers that be. It takes listeners to a dark place and allows them plenty of space to wallow.

While many metal acts went limp in the early '90s when grunge changed the rules, Metallica has more than hung in there. But what they still haven't quite come to grips with is the issue of brevity -- or the lack thereof. As a result, without odd time signatures and varying guitar histrionics, Metallica tunes still have a tendency to get boring when they exceed five minutes. Two-thirds of the tracks on Re-Load clock at five minutes plus, and they all drag under the weight of repetition without variation.

Still, in most aspects, Re-Load closely approximates what Metallica fans have come to expect from the band. The drums remain at a pummeling low-end thud; the guitars come at you with all the finesse of a brick to the face, broken up only by solos administered at Autobahn speeds; and James Hetfield's seething growl is as guttural as ever. It all sounds so familiar, and that's the problem: Metallica has grown too comfortable with how they're supposed to sound. It might be silly to expect huge leaps of artistic growth from Metallica at this point, but all too often on Re-Load, it sounds like they're shooting blanks. (**)

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