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As a critic, I must admit that I'm not sure what to think of Dave Matthews -- and that's a compliment, especially where the band's latest CD, Before These Crowded Streets, is concerned. This may even be the disc that turns things around for skeptics who continue to see the group as nothing but a H.O.R.D.E. jam band with pop appeal. After all, here's a mainstream outing that includes highbrow guests like the Kronos Quartet and Bela Fleck, while at the same time featuring super-pop diva Alanis Morissette on two tracks.

Within DMB's sometimes jazz-inflected, blue-eyed rock 'n' soul, all sorts of spicy international flavors crop up: Middle Eastern tonalities on the swirling "Last Stop," an Afro-Caribbean lilt on "Stay (Wasting Time)," and hints of the West African highlife sound on the verses of "Pig." More than likely, it's that ephemeral combination of rapidly shifting styles that makes Before These Crowded Streets so hard to get a firm handle on. It's a nifty balancing act, and the group manages to pull it off.

And what's even cooler, Streets feels like an album -- not simply a collection of songs. It starts with some sizzle, then relaxes into a more ethereal midpoint before cranking back up, finally ending with a sweet, graceful finale (followed, of course, by the obligatory hidden track, a snippet of airy neo-folk). Sure, at times, DMB sounds like Sting at his lite jazz-rock worst, and there are moments when Matthews strains way too hard to get fun-kay, baby. Still, there's musicality and breadth here that are rarely less than enchanting. (***)

-- Rob Patterson

Walter "Wolfman" Washington
and the Roadmasters
Funk Is in the House
Bullseye Blues

Walter "Wolfman" Washington -- soulful, funky and eclectic -- is the quintessential New Orleans bluesman. With a cool name and an even cooler sound, Washington's blues gumbo flows in all directions, picking up a little gospel here, some jazz-tinged phrasing there. Give the ears and feet a chance to fall in line, and the Wolfman will satisfy needs you never knew you had.

Without hesitation, Washington and his crack Roadmasters (featuring a sassy, three-man horn section) leap into action on Funk Is in the House, mixing and matching styles, bouncing through energetic instrumentals, soul-soaked blues and classic R&B ballads -- including a terrific take on Jerry Butler's "I Stand Accused." Washington's warm, expressive vocals are right out front, but his stylish guitar work is never far behind.

Recorded in New Orleans, Funk has a Crescent City sensibility so pronounced you can almost smell the crawfish boiling. Appropriately, Washington's fluid lines touch on both the jazz and blues traditions. And the Roadmasters anticipate the guitarist's every move, effortlessly reinforcing the rhythm in his step. Talk about truth in advertising. (*** 1/2)

-- Michael Point

Spoon
A Series of Sneaks
Elektra

Brash and energetic, Spoon's major-label debut is like an impromptu French lesson from a wiseass 14-year-old intent on teaching only the curse words. And with it, the Austin trio is destined to fall in alongside fellow art-damaged slop-rockers Pavement, Dandy Warhols and Archers of Loaf as sly, cerebral troublemakers to be tamed. While their angular and obtuse songwriting strays toward the shamelessly melodic, their compositions are raw and of-the-moment enough to suggest that if the songs hadn't been put to tape fast, they might have been forgotten.

Sneaks' flashiest track, "Metal School," begins conventionally, with bouncy drums and crooned harmonies, but it then careens into a hopeless, slashing guitar assault. Both the minute-something "Chloroform" and the 54-second "Staring at the Board" fly by in an instant -- sonic outlines for which the listener can fill in the blanks. Simple passages of stun-gun guitar and Britt Daniel's jerky vocals belie complex rhythms and strong hooks, all delivered with a sneer that ought to ward off radio airplay in this millennium.

Look at A Series of Sneaks as the soundtrack to some imaginary installment of MTV's Austin Stories. It's an album haunted by the ghosts of the over-educated, creative types that are the show's -- and, for that matter, the town's -- bratty, boho lifeblood. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Spoon performs Friday, May 22, at Rudz!

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

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