-- David Simutis

Old Joe Clarks
Town of Ten
Lonesome Bob
Things Fall Apart
Checkered Past

These two releases on Checkered Past, the new imprint run by "insurgent-country" label Bloodshot Records' co-founder Eric Babcock, could hardly be more different. The Old Joe Clarks are a quiet, acoustic, San Francisco (by way of Kansas) outfit that plays rural-sounding, atmospheric music that -- while occasionally too restrained for its own good -- feels both ancient and utterly contemporary. The Town of Ten instrumental "Old Joe's Stomp," for example, clops along like an old string band with wood block until it shifts into a brief chorus that, all echoey and synthetic, sounds more like the Moody Blues than it does the country blues. With his scratchy, straining voice, lead singer/songwriter Mike Coykendall suggests a rustic Bob Dylan, especially when he's singing a sparkly, riff-driven number such as the Byrds-ish "Weekender."

More often, though, this old/new contrast is highlighted by modern, and occasionally too obscure, lyrics sung over songs that employ old-time instrumentation (dobro, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, etc.) to flesh out melodies that Neil Young might have sung in quieter moments. The best of the bunch, "Welfare Hotel," has the easy, sad lope of a weary honky-tonk, but turns out to be a character sketch of an old, poor woman who lives "scared to death, scared by monsters of the evening" in a neighborhood that has seen better days. It's a beautiful, delicate song, and one where the always tight but cautious tone of the band's playing actually seems to underscore what the song wants to be about. (*** 1/2)

I'm betting Lonesome Bob couldn't be cautious if he tried. His Things Fall Apart is a fearless, wild-swinging, rock and roll affair, both in its high-energy roots-rock and its heart-on-its-sleeve lyrics. Usually backed by the blistering electric guitar of Tim Carroll, Lonesome Bob (in reality ex-Ben Vaughn drummer Robert Chaney) can rock out in the wild and innocent tradition of his birthplace, New Jersey. But his performances are regularly accented by the twangy touches of his new home, Nashville. The result is music that can sound as if someone such as Joe Grushecky were suddenly idolizing Steve Earle (as on "Love Is Not Blind") or as if Joe Ely had started fronting the Bottle Rockets ("Do You Think About Me," "Too Much Time").

But what really makes Bob more than just another sweaty roadhouse roots-rocker is his point of view. The songs on Things Fall Apart are filled with allusions to the self-help industry, organized religion and psychology. It's a bent that, in clumsier hands, might come off preachy and saccharine, but Bob is as critical of these institutions as he is enamored of them. Whether recognizing both the strengths and limits of therapy ("Now I'm learning how to deal with how I feel now that she's gone," he sings, "but why can't someone tell me what went wrong?") or locating complex meaning in the most everyday observations ("My mother's husband is a pretty good guy," he begins one song, then actually manages to turn the line into something approaching an anthem), Bob consistently speaks his anxious mind in a baritone that's loud, clear and, sometimes, uncomfortably personal. Offering nothing more than three chords and the truth, Things Fall Apart is one of the very best rock and roll releases of the year. (**** 1/2)

-- David Cantwell

Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions

The final sessions for guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer, that is. That duo was unceremoniously jettisoned by band founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons in favor of their original counterparts, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, for last year's ultra-lucrative reunion tour and inevitable studio release.

Carnival of Souls is the CD that was ready for release when, despite years of balking, Simmons and Stanley spearheaded the old band's return, something made more or less public when Frehley and Criss "guested" on KISS's MTV Unplugged appearance. And while you'd be hard-pressed to find a single fan (myself included) who hasn't reveled in reunion mania, it's still a shame that the group's later version -- which finally seemed to be on the right track after years of mediocre efforts -- has now come to an almost certain end.

That version's previous effort, Revenge, found KISS at its most vital since its '70s heyday, thanks in no small part to the power of Kulick's playing and a rediscovery of hard rock. Carnival, its lyrics light on the band's more juvenile sex metaphors, proves a nice follow-up, having more in common with Megadeth and Soundgarden than with Mstley CrYe. "Hate," "Rain" and "Master and Slave" are all bang-up rockers, while "Seduction of the Innocent" even veers toward psychedelia with less than embarrassing results. Here's hoping Kulick and Singer got one hell of a settlement package in the separation. (*** 1/2)

-- Bob Ruggiero

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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