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Juliana Hatfield
Bed
Zoë/Rounder

You could say that Bed is an experiment of sorts, a time-killer on a small label as Juliana Hatfield searches out a permanent home. The former Blake Baby turned moderately successful solo artist admits that this is a transitional album, and it certainly comes across as a progress report on her songwriting skills. Recorded without the sort of studio gimmicks (reverb, echo, compression) that can help mask thin sounds and subpar performances, Bed has an intimate, live feel that conveys Hatfield's mercurial moodiness in its purest form.

Distorted guitars and up-tempo tunes dominate Bed, but the handful of quiet numbers are where Hatfield's strides are most apparent: On "Let's Blow It All," Hatfield uses a weepy slide guitar as an emotional crutch while going off about taking risks without concern for the consequences -- like ordering one of everything from room service and leaving a 100 percent tip. Sounds like a perfect metaphor for her career.

Growing from an awkward college student to such a confident performer in public has somehow honed Hatfield's talent for saying the right things the wrong way. And the lyrics on Bed are among the most blunt of her career. Referencing the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" on her own "Sneaking Around," Hatfield asks her married lover, "Will I ever meet your kids?"

In fact, classic-rock lyrics are quoted throughout Bed -- as if Hatfield is reclaiming a piece of her past she had once disowned. "Swan Song" even goes so far as to update John "Cougar" Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane," with the female in the relationship walking out on her man, leaving a note that reads: Dear Jack, I hate you. Love, Diane. It's straight-up, cool and cutting, like Hatfield's best work.

-- David Simutis

Juliana Hatfield performs Saturday, October 17, at Fitzgerald's.

Canibus
Can-I-Bus?
Universal

Fearless, brash, sharp-tongued and cocky, Canibus is a Jamaica-born computer analyst stuck in the body of a roughneck. And evidently, he has found a fight.

A relative rap newbie, Canibus has already gotten into it publicly with hip-hop giant LL Cool J. The fruits of that war of words can be found on "Single Round K.O.," a single that also appears on Can-I-Bus?. The tune prompted LL to strike back with (what else?) "The Ripper Strikes Back." (Personally, I think the whole thing is some well-orchestrated publicity stunt; but at least they're not shooting at each other.) There's other digs at Mr. Cool on Canibus's debut CD, but that's not all there is. Working with the always-freewheeling Wyclef Jean and his Refugee Camp knuckleheads, Canibus spews substantive verse amid quirky-ass samples. A sliding beat and bits of Marvin Gaye's "After the Dance" accompany battling rhymes on "Get Retarded"; "Rip Rock" has a heavy-metal feel that harks back to Run DMC's "King of Rock"; "I Honor U" is another "brothas in jail and the women who love them" tale.

Mostly, though, Canibus riffs on subject matter most commercial rappers won't go near: "Niggonometry" and "What's Going On" have Canibus exposing the corruption and ignorance within rap music and black culture in general ("You got a mansion, a Bentley, a Benz and a Range / And none of that shit is in your government name"). On "Hype-nitis," he bristles over hip-hop sycophants to the tune of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "The Look of Love." Apart from a couple of conspiracy-oriented tunes near the end of the album that have him getting his flake on, Canibus is that rare breed of hard-core rapper who actually has something new to say. Sure, the whole LL Cool J deal is an engaging angle. Overwork the gimmick, though, and three words come to mind: Kool Moe Dee.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Chris Isaak
Speak of the Devil
Reprise

In the time since the release of his 1985 debut, Silvertone, Chris Isaak has perfected the craft of dishing up glamorous, vintage rock and roll that's as crisply reminiscent as a black-and-white photo from a less complicated era. Some may fairly argue that because he continues to revisit the same territory with his music, practice has made his silky stylings all too flawless. And Isaak's new CD, Speak of the Devil, makes a good case for that contention -- almost.

Isaak has reteamed with longtime producer/collaborator Erik Jacobsen for Speak of the Devil, which effectively picks up the pace from his last two outings, the lovelorn Forever Blue and the acoustic, south-of-the-border, cover-laden Baja Sessions. Devil's first single, "Please," is a sly smash if ever there was one. Struggling with a hypercritical love who questions him endlessly, he eventually explodes, "I keep listening, but I just don't see now / What's the problem? What's the question? What's the answer? Where's this heading?" Between outbursts and reconsideration, out of an eerie muted answering machine drifts a haunting " ... It's me. Just calling to say, um, I love you." Love, in Isaak's world, is all about breaking up and breaking down.

Still, it's the dirty stuff on Speak of the Devil that finds Isaak reawakened from his bout of near-terminal brooding, which he dragged us through mercilessly on Forever Blue. "I'm Not Sleepy" is a rave-up of sinful proportions; it's essential and sexy and urgent like the best music of his Sun Records heroes. In it, he charms his gal with a wink and that devastating matinee-idol smile: "Come on over, you can hang with me / We'll lie in bed and watch TV." Uh huh.

So, yes, the man once in line to be the new Elvis tends to remake the same songs again and again. But they're not bad. Unambitious, but definitely not bad. Maybe someday, Isaak will prove he was worth the fuss all along. In the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy the past today.

-- Melissa Blazek

Local H
Pack of Cats
Island

News flash: Grunge has gone to the worms. Now, say it for me over and over -- and say it with feeling, in case someone's not listening.

Apparently, Local H has some nasty wax buildup. On its burly, boring second album, Pack Up the Cats, the resourceful, ebony-and-ivory pair (one plays drums, the other sings and plays both guitar and bass) continues to kick out the flannel-lined jams in admirable, sophomore-sludge fashion. It's as if the ghost of Cobain himself were listening over their shoulders.

Who knows? Maybe he is, and maybe he's proud. Most likely, though, he'd be forwarding them an urgent memo from beyond if he could. Its contents might read something along the lines of: Sorry guys. Not even a happy communing with other genres (rap, metal, punk) and a decent sense of humor is gonna resuscitate this stiff. -- Love Always, Kurt. P.S. Word of advice: Never toy with the Who again.

-- Hobart Rowland

Allison Moorer
Alabama Song
MCA

Allison Moorer has been turning a few heads lately. She caught the eye of Robert Redford, for one; he was so impressed with "A Soft Place to Fall," a song she wrote that was included on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, that he cast her in his film. As it happens, Shelby Lynn's younger sister possesses not only a sultry voice genetically programmed for singing country music, but the talent to write ten of the 11 tracks on her debut, Alabama Song, a truly rare feat in Nashville these days.

Those familiar with Moorer from her work with alt-country vagabond Lonesome Bob are in for a bit of a surprise here. Sonically, Alabama Song falls closer to the work of Patty Loveless or Bonnie Raitt than that of any C&W punk. Yet it deftly maintains an edge most other country artists can't approach. Moorer exhibits several sides, getting sassy on the bluesy "Set You Free," mournful on the starkly beautiful "Is Heaven Good Enough for You" and vengeful on the honky-tonking "The One That Got Away (Got Away with My Heart)."

Moorer achieves the moods she creates without resorting to hackneyed images or trite lyrical novelties, a clue to her enormous abilities as a writer and performer. That's a startling accomplishment for a new artist, and it easily makes Alabama Song country music's debut of the year.

-- Jim Caligiuri

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