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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. (**)

-- 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

KISS
Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions
Mercury

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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