Ladies Edition

Back in 1993, three local boys with the handles G.I., Shazaam and Dino made good nationally with a smoldering little ditty called "Knockin' Da Boots." The song peaked at number two on the Billboard pop charts, and for a while there, it looked as if H-Town would become one more of Houston's claims to fame.

But then the moment passed, and others took the spotlight. Not that you need to feel sorry for these bare-chested balladeers. After all, they're back in full-on schmooze mode with a new CD, Ladies Edition, on a highly reputable label, Relativity. As you can probably guess from the title, H-Town is sending this one out to all the foxes -- and hoping it won't get thrown back in their faces.

Not that Ladies Edition is all late-night heavy breathing and sex-soaked booty calls. Believe it or not, it actually boasts some serious, politically correct content. Most of the tracks advocate showing females the utmost understanding and respect, and when you reach the next-to-last song on the CD, "Julie Rain," you'll understand why: The tune is about a woman relatively close to H-Town who died of injuries suffered as a result of spousal abuse.

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But there are other things going on behind the scenes here as well. Though it may not always sound like it, Ladies Edition is the equivalent of one big cleansing session -- a proverbial hot shower with turpentine and scouring pads -- from the creative and financial soiling the group experienced over two releases with mumble-mouthed Floridian Luke Campbell and his Luke Records. While H-Town never went to the same scandalous lengths as Campbell's 2 Live Crew, things veered toward the embarrassing thanks to their interminable hip-thrusting on-stage and lyrical lowlights such as "Back Seat (Wit No Sheets)."

Relying on themselves to write and produce Ladies Edition, H-Town entertains a healthy share of both highs and lows. Though some of the socially sensitive outings ("Natural Woman," "Woman's World") feel unnatural and forced, when the guys tone down the PC rhetoric and, guided by Dino Conner's smoky pipes, cut to the hopelessly romantic quick ("Special Kinda Fool," "Beggars Can't Be Choosy" and "They Like It Slow"), things come into powerful emotional focus.

With Ladies Edition, H-Town seems to be striving a bit too hard to solicit forgiveness from all the women they've wronged over the years. News flash, fellas: They were never that mad at you to begin with. They simply forgot you existed. Now, get back to thrusting those hips. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Unsound Methods

Five years ago, Recoil had a reason to exist. Depeche Mode's Alan Wilder, together with guest vocalists Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb, Moby and Toni Halliday of Curve, made up a dream collective of alterna-talent that, while no better than the sum of its parts, was also no worse. True, it was nothing more than a sideline, but it was an intriguing diversion from the more serious projects that were coming down the pike for everyone involved.

This time around, however, with Wilder and McCarthy on permanent vacation from their respective groups, Recoil's Unsound Methods seems pointless. As if Depeche Mode were not dark enough, Methods aggrandizes Wilder's obsession with the depraved side of the human spirit. In assembling his fantasy-horror sequences about various sickos and psychopaths ("Stalker," "Luscious Apparatus"), Wilder works from obvious sources, as if smitten by the Hollywood blockbuster version of psychosis.

Musically, Wilder dips into his knowledge of jazz and blues in an attempt to round off the serrated edges. As a result, Unsound Methods feels mostly secondhand, a series of sound bites and samples -- some used and some new -- strung together haphazardly: Two collaborations with singer Hildia Campbell haplessly rework gospel standards, and Siobhan Lynch's "Drifting," the first single, is aching to be Portishead. The lyrics are equally derivative. "Incubus," the first of two songs with McCarthy, quotes liberally from the dialogue of Apocalypse Now, but worst of all is Maggie Estep's pedantic "hot sex ... worthless sex ... sex, sex, sex" contribution to "Luscious Apparatus," which is spoken over a numbing Nine Inch Nails-like onslaught.

By the end of the disc and the slick and hollow "Shunt," it's more obvious than ever that Wilder's departure ought to be a blessing in disguise for Depeche Mode. Unsound methods, indeed. (* 1/2)

-- Stephen Gershon

Various Artists
Knights of the Blues Table

With this unexpectedly solid tribute, Cream lyricist Pete Brown proves you can go home again. For Knights of the Blues Table, Brown shepherded 20 or so graying English rockers and a few younger blokes into a London studio to salute the African-American music that led most of them into the world of rock and roll.

Nearly all of Table's participants, famous or not, wrestle honest feeling from every word sung and every note played. On a pleasing interpretation of Lonnie Johnson's "Racketeer Blues," Mick Jagger conjures decent Elmore James-like harmonica screams while joining vocal forces with his kid brother Chris Jagger. Bassist Jack Bruce (Cream) hits it off famously with guitarist Dave Clempson (Colosseum, Humble Pie) on an inspired romp through the British-blues warhorse "Send for Me" and on the slow-blues outing "I've Got News for You." After years of seclusion, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green returns to action in the company of fellow guitarist/singer Nigel Watson for a slightly ragged acoustic rendition of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Many lesser-known performers also shine. Soloist Tony McPhee (Groundhogs) handles his acoustic guitar with hard confidence, singing like his life depended on it on Sleepy John Estes's "Drop Down Mama." Vocalist Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows) and guitarist Big Jim Sullivan play the evergreen "Blind Man" as if they had written it. The tireless Pretty Things, featuring vocalist Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, pound out "Judgment Day" like feverish kids on the scrappy London R&B/blues circuit circa 1964. Ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor hooks up with keyboardist Max Middleton (Jeff Beck Group) for "You Shook Me," the Willie Dixon tune that, once upon a time, was swiped by the Led Zep gang. Singer/guitarist Miller Anderson (Keef Hartley Band) refurbishes "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" with believable drama, while Georgie Fame, the '60s hit maker found these days in Van Morrison's entourage, checks in with his Mose Allison impersonation on "If You Live."

Among others present on the disc -- and in good form -- are jazz-blues horn player Dick Heckstall-Smith (Graham Bond Organization, Colosseum), Welsh keyboardist Phil Ryan (Man), singer Paul Jones (remember Manfred Mann's "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy"?) and ace modern-blues guitarist Otis Grand. All in all, Knights of the Blues Table does more than its part to dispel the archaic notion that white guys and gals are incapable of personalizing black blues. (***)

-- Frank-John Hadley

Guitar Wolf
Planet of the Wolves

Guitar Wolf are a surly garage-rock threesome from Japan who worship at the overamped altar of Link Wray and the Stooges. They're the sort of unruly, greaser boyfriends the parents of the cutesy Japanese grrls in Shonen Knife must have nightmares about. But make no mistake, Guitar Wolf's is an authentic melding of contemporary punk angst and traditional rock and roll values. And it's not to be confused with anything else to emerge from Japan's cliche-ridden pop-culture meat grinder.

Most of Planet of the Wolves, Guitar Wolf's second full-length release for New York's independent Matador label, sounds like it was recorded live by a fan with a microcassette recorder in the back of a half-empty nightclub. It's a brutal, unforgiving beast of a listen, and it puts most of today's hard-core clatter to shame, spitting sheets of white-hot distortion like dragon's breath and emitting high-endurance screams that could make Iggy Pop's blood curdle. (Well, maybe not Iggy's.) Even better, Guitar Wolf has the unfettered reverence -- not to mention the sheer balls -- to top it all off with a CD-closing rendition of Link Wray's "Rumble," giving the incendiary guitar instrumental a thorough ransacking worthy of both its title and its originator. Mudhoney fans take note: This is the way grunge is supposed to sound. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Two Dollar Pistols
On Down the Track

Whether their preferred tag is No Depression, alt-country or neo-Nashville, there's certainly no shortage of young roots-minded acts tipping their recently purchased cowboy hats toward the altar of George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Fresh out of the holster from North Carolina, Two Dollar Pistols do an earnest honky-tonk turn on their debut, but the results are serviceable at best. Possessing neither the fire of the Hollisters nor the musical dexterity of the Derailers, Two Dollar Pistols mostly shoot blanks on On Down the Track. The most obvious weakness is singer John Howie Jr., whose deep, robotic vocals sound the same whether he's singing a rave-up or a teary lament. Even the best of the rave-ups never quite catch fire, and as for the laments, they couldn't dampen the eyes of Jimmy Swaggart.

And the bland instrumental backing doesn't help. Sure, all the right chords are there, buffeted by ample displays of technique. But nothing in the way of feeling or personality shows up to steer them toward the heart. Given Track's faceless twang, you may want to think twice before grabbing hold of these Pistols. (**)

-- Bob Ruggiero

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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