But just when a complete loss of faith was on the horizon, along comes Twistin' in the Wind galloping up from behind. And if the dust from its approach isn't as evident in the first few spins, its undeniable force should eventually hit home with the pure emotional force, eloquence and wisdom of a long, satisfying trip home. Twistin' in the Wind is the ultimate soundtrack of the New West, music that rides hard under the big sky with an old-fashioned integrity and pride, but with contemporary smarts and savvy as well. Within Ely's own body of work, it represents a refinement of the majestic windblown acoustics found on Letter to Laredo. Yet, at the same time, the CD offers his most focused definition of the potent notion of country rock. Lyrically, these are tales from the modern-day frontier from a veteran wanderer who knows what love -- and what dreams and evil -- lurks in the hearts of men. Musically, from the pervading lilt of its flamenco guitar to the blasting-cap chords of its more electrified moments, it's a journey with a startling breadth of scenery.

So if you're already in the Ely camp, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's only gotten better with time. And if you haven't yet fallen under Ely's spell, Twistin' in the Wind is a damn fine -- if not ideal -- place to start. They say God blessed Texas, and if that's so, Ely is one of the finest musical embodiments of that blessing. (****)

-- Rob Patterson

The Jesus Lizard

The Jesus Lizard is the rock band His Cartoonish Evilness Marilyn Manson wishes he could lead. Not that actual Lizard frontman David Yow is really all that evil. Still, his Charles Manson stare and proclivity for circus-like maneuvers with his scrotum are frightening enough. It also helps that his band has been relentless in dispensing its insanely off-center distorto-rock for almost a decade.

The onetime Austin band has never been nearer to commercial success than with its second major-label release, Blue, which smoothes a few rough edges while adding some new ones. The group's low end could well be the best in the business, combining guttural bass and atomic drumming into a fury that gives guitarist Duane Denison something substantial to rail against. Meanwhile, producer Andy Gill, of Gang of Four fame, helps them sort through the difficulties of growth.

On Blue, the Lizard's experiments with electronic instrumentation include drum machines and keyboards. And even when pairing that stuff with a newfound sense of melody, the group doesn't lose much of its edgy aggression. In the Lizard's domain, such techno-tinkering sounds more like Killing Joke than the Crystal Method. Vocally, Yow is surprisingly restrained (for him, anyway), and seems comfortable singing rather than howling. And Denison has never sounded more confident, playing in and out of the pocket, taking full advantage of the liberties afforded by his solid rhythm section.

Odd as it sounds, Blue's biggest surprises are its mellower songs. "Needles for Teeth (Version)" veers in the direction of Garbage, with processed drums providing what resembles a dance beat. The punchy, slapped bass and hovering, eerie keyboards of "Eucalyptus" bear producer Gill's signature, coming off something like early Public Image Limited. Still, it's on "Eucalyptus" that the Lizard displays considerable power, even without guitar histrionics; the band invokes tension and malaise with percussion alone. Scary stuff indeed. (***) -- David Simutis

The Jesus Lizard performs Wednesday, June 3, at Fitzgerald's.

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

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