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It's almost ironic that this depiction of the newest West comes from a band with its roots in British punk rock. Mutating out of the Mekons, who themselves mutated from politicized punk into countryish pub rock, the Wacos traffic in hard country and roots rhythms overlaid with tightfisted guitar work. Steel guitar and mandolin waft through the mix like a warm breeze off the prairie, but the musical weather in WacoWorld is primarily that of thunder, lightning and rain.

In the final tally, this isn't a record about how the proverbial West was won, but rather about how the mythical modern West has come undone. So even though WacoWorld may not be a pretty place, it is a realm where anyone who visits and comes out walking tall knows that the vagaries of modern life can never gun them down.

-- Rob Patterson

Paul Westerberg
Suicaine Gratifaction
Capitol

It's hard not to read into "I'm the best thing that never happened," the opening line of "Best Thing That Never Happened," when delivered by Paul Westerberg, the godfather of white-boy, Midwest rock who never achieved the stardom he deserved. Suicaine is a dark record from the basements of Westerberg's mind and house (where much of the basic tracks was recorded). He has said that he stopped fighting depression when he wrote his third solo record, and it shows.

Comfortable with the fact that he has grown up to be songwriter, not a rocker, Westerberg journeys to sad and horrifying places without remorse. Producer Don Was has helped other less-than-young artists (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones) turn their experiences into satisfying records without getting in the way. He does the same thing here, patiently letting Westerberg indulge in his Randy Newman/ Elvis Costello fantasies through a handful of piano-based and slower acoustic pieces while allowing him to give the louder numbers a good punch. Guests include Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Shawn Colvin and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but they don't add polish. Only Tench's keyboard work is even noticeable.

What is evident is that Westerberg trusts his instincts again. With the Replacements he operated intuitively, creating some of the best pure rock and roll of the past 20 years, but his two previous solo records wavered between half-assed rock and half-dead ballads. He overthought himself so much. Opening Suicaine with "It's a Wonderful Lie," Westerberg, accompanied by acoustic guitar and accordion, says he's past his prime. When the record segues into "Self-Defense," a piano and French horn number, it becomes apparent that this is going to be a small, quiet and personal record. Westerberg's voice has never sounded more fragile or intimate. His journey to the depths has allowed him to channel the beaten soul of "Bookmark," a song about a girl who never recovers from her father's walking out on the family. Sparse pedal steel and piano frame the words of a life ruined, a life "crushed like the petals of a flower."

-- David Simutis

Jimmy Eat World
Clarity
Capitol

Phoenix's Jimmy Eat World returns with its second record, and the actual, noneaten world is a better place for it. Clarity is powerful and catchy but complex and soaring as well. The rhythm section of Rick Burch (bass) and Zach Lind (drums) provides an intricate foundation that gives the coupled guitars of Jim Adkins and Tom Linton room to skate on top and dive into the thick mix when necessary. Grafting strings and keyboard textures to odd time signatures and the raw power of overdriven guitars makes the record a little cerebral to be sure, but not so much that the visceral pleasure of white boys making noise is lost. Creating fresh and vital rock from the basic tools is rare, and when Clarity hits the mark, as it frequently does, it's a transcendental experience.

The brightest of these moments is "Lucky Denver Mint," simply the best rock radio song in a long, long time. It's more restrained than most of Clarity, the guitars are less crunchy, the sentiment more wistful than angst-ridden. The slow burn of the verse -- with Burch, in counterpoint, hammering straight eighth notes on his bass and the chiming guitars increasing in intensity -- is built up layer by layer before the song erupts into the chorus. In a decent world Adkins's emotive, taunting melody, "You're not bigger than this, not better, why can't you learn?" would be booming out of cars in high school parking lots all spring long. The muted six-string caterwaul of "Your New Aesthetic" may give them a rush as they burn off nervous energy, but what makes these musicians rise above the noise merchants are the twisted guitars, song structures and sweetening instruments. The xylophone, synths and cello of "A Sunday" show that the quartet has many dimensions. Barely out of school themselves, the members of Jimmy Eat World still revel in the wall of guitars and punk tempos that testosterone and youth encourage. But they also understand the power of holding some things back.

-- David Simutis

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