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Page & Plant
Walking into Clarksdale
Atlantic

When all is said and done, the Led Zeppelin output that endures best isn't the straight blues jams or the acoustic ballads, but, quite simply, the rock and roll -- that is, the sound made when all at once you heard John Bonham's thunderclap percussion and Jimmy Page's erupting guitar and John Paul Jones's trembling bass and, of course, Robert Plant's piercing voice. At its turned-up best, Led Zeppelin whipped the blues into a controlled frenzy, every note louder than the last until the vinyl seemed unable to contain the music any longer. Listen once more to "Nobody's Fault but Mine" or "The Ocean" or "Rock & Roll" or most anything off Zep's historic fourth release; they're still thrilling moments, heavier than any modern-day metal and funkier than anything Dr. Dre could ever conjure. And, my God, they were so well fashioned: Jimmy Page made the music feel tangible, as thought your heart was the instrument keeping time. You could almost touch the music coming out of the car-stereo speakers.

So it is not unreasonable for anyone to think that Page and Plant could bottle a bit of that magic for one more go-around, especially with indie-rock fetishist Steve Albini recording and mixing. It's almost as perfect as Rick Rubin producing AC/DC -- who better to revive a forgotten sound than someone who spent his whole life trying to reproduce it? But it apparently doesn't work that way at all: Walking into Clarksdale is the sound of two men recycling legend and ... no, recycling isn't even the right word for it. Perhaps rebuilding is a more apt description, because Page and Plant have spent so many years shitting on their legacy (a little Coverdale/Page anyone, or perhaps a little Honeydrippers?) that they must now live down their failures rather than live up to their history. The duo's 1994 made-for-MTV reunion smacked of last-gasp desperation; the retooling of forgotten deep cuts and a handful of new songs fooled us into thinking that Page/Plant were more about the future than the past, but how wrong we were. Walking into Clarksdale is a record made by the guy who fronted the Firm, not the Guitar Hero of Houses of the Holy.

Granted, looking back is no fun, and this isn't Zep at all -- without the propulsion of the late, great Bonham or the pop of Jones, who wasn't invited on this trip down Amnesia Lane, it never will be again. Yet you can't help but listen to Walking into Clarksdale and hear it as nothing but a pastiche of echoes better served by what came before. Walking begins with a very Zep moment, "Shining in the Light," which sounds as though it was lifted from, well, Coda. But it's just a tease, a soft version of hard rock: When the electric guitar peeks through the acoustic shroud covering the song, it's an exhilarating moment -- but it's all too brief. Same with "Please Read the Letter," which begins with a jolt and then stalls before it leaves the driveway.

Albini actually seems determined to turn Page and Plant into a new-age rock band, replacing passion with mood, and emotion with string sections; their Mississippi blues obsession has given way to Middle Eastern meanderings, and the music now feels like a breeze instead of a punch. Even worse, by turning it down, Albini forces us to listen to, concentrate on, Plant's shrieking vocals and hippy-drippy lyrics (try "When I Was a Child," if you dare). That said, Walking is more frustration than failure: A song like "Most High," which is at once haunting and thrilling as a simple riff builds into a mountain of music, offers a glimpse at what might have been. And Page's guitar tones are exquisite, like a needle pricking naked flesh. If nothing else, the album sounds damned good. Too bad you can't say the same of the songs on it. (* 1/2)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Scarface
My Homies
Rap-A-Lot/Virgin

On last year's The Untouchable, Brad "Scarface" Jordan evoked the image of a lone, laconic godfather carrying gangsta rap's heavy burden. But with the release of his latest, My Homies, the Houston don introduces us to his family -- his sawed-off support group, if you will. Cramming 30 tracks onto a pair of CDs, Scarface pops in and out of My Homies more times than a jack-in-the-box on Vivarin. Those times when he does show up, he lends the proceedings his unmistakable world-weary touch.

While a couple of tracks on My Homies are indeed pure Scarface, Jordan is content to concede to the likes of Ice Cube (who makes a hilarious appearance on "The Geto") and Too Short, as well as Geto Boy cohorts Willie D, Bushwick Bill and Big Mike. He even seeks aide from beyond the grave. "Homies and Thuggs" resurrects the cocky freestylings of the late Tupac Shakur with a creepy, low-fi audio sample, while "Sleepin' in My Nikes" pairs Scarface with recently deceased newcomer Seagram. Scarface sees My Homies as his opportunity to play father figure to young up-and-comers: Hoodlums provide some fine background vocals on "Hustler," and the album's final track, "Warriors," unleashes a furious heavy-metal/funk jam courtesy of locals Ragtag.

Granted, with a release this ungainly, there are bound to be plenty of hits and misses. Even so, My Homies is the most consistently enjoyable rap double album since Shakur's All Eyez on Me. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Scott Weiland
12-Bar Blues
Atlantic

Given the title, you'd think that 12-Bar Blues is Scott Weiland's attempt to recast himself as a roots artist. But within the first few bars -- bars that recall that great master, Tone "Wild Thing" Loc -- you realize that this is the blues as defined by a guy with no musical home. Glam and grunge offered temporary shelter for Weiland's Stone Temple Pilots, but here he's patched together a solo debut of random influences -- a stray hip-hop beat, a Jane Fonda movie title, Iggy Pop's voice -- and tries to make sense of all the clutter. For the most part, he can't -- and for reasons that may be personal, more than musical.

It's always dodgy to speculate on a stranger's mental health, but 12-Bar Blues seems most logical if you consider Weiland's long struggle with drug addiction. With promising starts, blown endings and bouts of sheer confusion, it adds up to a kind of 12-step blues, with Weiland borrowing the terminology of rehab ("Can't you see that it's a disease?") when he isn't off on some relapse from reality. "Chateau Mars" does indeed sound like a man lost in space: just an acoustic guitar and Weiland playing a word game of states ("California, Arizona, Minnesota") before lashing out at the listener or some imaginary enemy: "I want to bring you down / I want to get high."

12-Bar Blues isn't a bad album so much as a deeply discomfiting mess. Weiland has always tried on other artists' costumes, but he's generally stayed true to some central persona (Pearl Jam clone, Bowie/Beatles pop star). Here, he wanders off in half a dozen different directions, from cocktail jazz ("Cool Kiss") to Kurt Weill cabaret filtered through Jim Morrison (the cheesy, but surprisingly satisfying, "Lady Your Roof Brings Me Down"). At its most unfinished, 12-Bar Blues is as heartbreaking as watching Dirk Diggler struggle to reinvent himself as a pop singer in Boogie Nights.

In the end, the song that rings truest is also the saddest and most chilling: "Son" is a father's simple appreciation ("coolness is driving with my son") as well as an apology for what an unreliable parent he's been. As fathers of newborn babies, Kurt Cobain and Sublime's Brad Nowell had every impetus to live, too, but neither quite convinced himself of it. "Son" is reason enough for Weiland to continue making music; let's hope the song's real-life inspiration is enough to help him stay clean. (** 1/2)

-- Keith Moerer

Montell Jordan
Let's Ride
Def Jam

On his third effort, Let's Ride, Montell Jordan distinguishes himself as the Pierce Brosnan of new-jack R&B. With his handsome voice caressing each track as if he were singing from a penthouse terrace overlooking the French Riviera, Jordan dresses his playboy image in jet-setter duds. While the album's title could easily be perceived as purely sexual, it's really Jordan's invitation to journey inside his politely exotic soul.

Then again, maybe he does just want to get down and dirty. A good portion of Let's Ride has him continuing the balancing act between heartfelt balladeer and uncouth mack daddy. But this time, the former keeps tabs on the latter. Jordan's smooth, globetrotting facade comes into full relief on the leadoff "When You Get Home," on which he smoothly interjects verses from Marvin Gaye's classic "I Want You." "Don't Call Me" has him doing a sly, slippery take on Usher's "U Make Me Wanna...," just before he springs into thrust mode on the title track and "Anything and Everything." Meanwhile, enlisting the help of Silkk the Shocker, Redman and Houston's homey of the moment, Master P, ought to score Jordan some points in the street-cred department.

Still, Let's Ride takes a strange detour in its final minutes, during which our suave man of the world is suddenly compelled to kneel and pray. An interlude by Los Angeles pastor Clarence E. McClendon sets up two spiritual numbers that bring Ride screaming to a halt. Suddenly, I feel so dirty. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Montell Jordan performs Friday, April 17, as a part of the Box Birthday Bash at Compaq Center.

Izzy Stradlin
117i
Geffen

In 1991, when Izzy Stradlin walked away from Guns N' Roses at the height of the band's brief but brilliant brush with fame, most fans thought he was crazy. Shortly thereafter, in the wake of GNR's self-destruction, they called him prophetic.

What's more, he surprised many with the warm pleasures of 1992's Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds. Indeed, it was a bluesy, beer-sippin', joint-passin' effort in which Stradlin -- the Ron Wood to Slash's Keith -- ably staked his own musical turf with appealing, energetic material and an effective, if limited, croak of a delivery. So why does 117i, arriving some six years later, register like flat backwash from the Ju Ju Hounds' party keg? Simple. Stradlin's brew has grown stale in that lengthy interim, and despite the title, registers only as lukewarm.

Things kick off promisingly enough with the Stonesy rant "Ain't It a Bitch" but quickly regress from there. And even when a decent number does come along ("Here Before You," the title track, and the instrumental "Grunt"), its worth is inflated in relation to the other material. Here, Stradlin's studio sidekicks include ex-members of the Georgia Satellites, the Reverend Horton Heat and even former Gunner Duff McKagan, but they never really click as a tight unit.

Still, some of the blame can be attributed to Stradlin's mumbled, incoherent vocals, which make Dylan sound like Henry Higgins by comparison. And at least Dylan had a way with a lyric; Stradlin's hackneyed prose is frequently embarrassing. The mostly generic bar-band riffs are far from adequate compensation. Obviously, Stradlin isn't kidding when he sings, "Ain't that a bitch / It's all your mess." Hope you clean it up a little next time, Izz. (**)

-- Bob Ruggiero

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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