Barrel Chested
Strangers Almanac

It's long past the point where ingenuity is a prerequisite for even the best alt-country outfits. Then again, ingenuity hasn't been much of a factor since 1993, when Uncle Tupelo traded in its punked-up power trio format for a more subtle rhythm section, steel guitars and back-porch duets with the likes of Doug Sahm. For most bands of Tupelo's acutely reverent ilk, betrayal of one's forebears is tantamount to artistic parricide, and the key to survival is how effectively a band resurrects select portions of the past and fashions them into something that sounds vaguely current. Old habits may die hard, but with the proper updating, there's no reason why they can't live on indefinitely.

That considered, count Slobberbone and Whiskeytown among the most up-to-date of the newer No Depression stylists, staunch roots rockers with distinct traces of C&W revisionism. Both bands have, no doubt, done their digging in all the right places, exhuming not only the superficial traits of their influences, but a nice hunk of their spirit as well.

To say the least, Slobberbone's Barrel Chested is a spirited offering. As shit-faced and slovenly as it is honest, the Denton band's sophomore release is a surly beast of a follow-up to 1995's more restrained Crow Pot Pie. The disc's more cathartic moments (the title track, "Engine Joe," "Your Excuse," "Front Porch," "One Rung") are also its most melodically direct, and the songs vent their rubbed-raw fury in a fashion not unlike the most feral Crazy Horse -- or the least subdued early Tupelo.

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Fortunately, Barrel Chested's in-your-face production doesn't squander a shred of the bruising, twin-guitar attack of Mike Hill (who has since left the band) and singer/songwriter Brent Best. "I'll Be Damned," the CD's sprawling, seven-minute focal point, piles on the amplified anguish like an ex-lover's furniture heaped on a back yard bonfire. Best is left spewing invectives like a jilted man possessed ("I'll be damned if I let you take my heart and tear it apart / And make me watch the tears fall from your face") until the tune not so much ends as flames out. Then it's back to the corner bar, where Slobberbone has always been most comfortable, and the place in which Barrel Chested's most moving, real-life drama is hatched.

To aid in the navigation of Strangers Almanac, Outpost Recordings, Whiskeytown's new major-label home, has been good enough to supply postcard-size maps tracing the North Carolina quintet's musical genealogy, which zigzags through a number of regions, genres and decades. Taken at face value, the graphic would have you believe that Whiskeytown is exceptionally well-traveled, what with references to everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Loretta Lynn to the Replacements. Those, of course, are combined with the standard acknowledgments of cross-generational alt-country kingpins such as Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo.

And in a way, Strangers Almanac is the perfect musical companion piece to a particularly bad case of road rash, its themes pitting the urge to flee against the desire to stay. Credit the frayed nerves, itchy feet and roving eye of primary singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, whose best lyrics address a near-insatiable wanderlust and the anxiety it instills. While Adams's uncertain vocals tend to waver between a languid Paul Westerberg croak and a strapping croon more along the lines of Glenn Frey, he stands on his own as a songwriter, picking apart the damage his rogue lifestyle has wrought upon significant others with a flair for telling detail. "Got 16 days / One for every time I've gone away / One for every time I should've stayed / Should've worn my wedding ring," he sings on "16 Days." Like Westerberg, Adams is an efficient wordsmith, summing up a lifetime of hurt in the turn of a phrase.

Still, the largely friction-free music on Strangers Almanac suggests a more complacent existence than does Adams's angst-ridden prose. And while Whiskeytown might shrug off comparisons to the laid-back Southern California slickness of, say, the Eagles, they exude a similar hippie-cowboy finesse on a number of songs, especially the wistful, pedal-steel-swathed folk rocker "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" (with guest vocals from Alejandro Escovedo). If "Excuse Me" is not quite a dead ringer for "Take It Easy" in structure or attitude (the former is as self-defeating as the latter is vain), the tunes are clones in overall feel. Looks like the mapmakers left out a few points of interest on the road to Whiskeytown. Barrel Chested (*** 1/2); Strangers Almanac (****)

-- Hobart Rowland

Wyclef Jean
Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival

You've got to hand it to Wyclef Jean: The man is never boring. On Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival, the guitar-wielding, mike-checking third of the guerrilla hip-hop trio the Fugees sets sail on a message-laden journey, a colorfully bizarre fun house cruise through the bowels of hip-hop.  

But he isn't manning his ship alone. For this, Jean's solo debut, he enlisted the help of the Refugee Allstars -- including, but not limited to, Fugees Lauryn Hill (she of the exquisite pipes) and Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, as well as Refugee Camp label associates John Forte and Melky Sedeck -- for his excursions into hip-hop's uncharted waters. An "anything can happen" mantra is touted throughout the CD, and damned if Jean doesn't deliver on his promise. With its wacky interludes and flair for the exotic, Carnival is almost manic in its unpredictability; half the fun of listening to the thing is guessing what Jean might come up with next. The Jamaican love lullaby "Gone till November" features lushly elegant accompaniment from members of the New York Philharmonic. A sample of the Bee Gees' disco classic "Stayin' Alive" informs the surprisingly compelling "We're Trying to Stay Alive." Jean and crew even pull off a springy rendition of the Latin standard "Guantanamera."

About the only thing missing on Carnival is an obvious crossover hit -- something along the lines of, say, the Fugees' "Killing Me Softly." Aside from that, though, Carnival has all the components of a unique hip-hop experience. In fact, it is more than a carnival; it's a circus, parade, World's Fair and freak show all rolled into one relentlessly entertaining package. (****)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals
Ark 21

For decades, Los Angeles has been a center of American punk rock and its descendant genres. And for much longer the city has been a focal point for Latino culture in the U.S. But while the pairing of the two to form a hybrid genre of "alternative norteno" would seem natural and inevitable, to date only Los Lobos has been able to earn a place in the rock world by bridging the distance that separates Sunset Strip from East L.A. It is, after all, a sprawling metropolis.

In the wake of California's recent Proposition 187 -- which threatens to further distance immigrant communities from mainstream culture -- two bands from opposite sides of the L.A. river have joined together in solidarity to explore what happens when you very consciously attempt to mix Hollywood-style hard rock (and occasional eclecticism) with the proud voices and musical styles of the barrio. And so we have a musical collaboration between two veteran Angeleno bands: Concrete Blonde and Los Illegals.

Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals is a good move for both groups. For Los Illegals, the CD provides national exposure the four-piece hasn't enjoyed since it released a major-label record in 1983. For Concrete Blonde -- which has comprised singer Johnette Napolitano and guitarist Jim Mankey for over a decade until they supposedly called it quits a few years back -- the disc is perhaps the first really good album the band has ever made. Whether on the update of the traditional "La Llorona," on the rocking cover of the Gypsy Kings' "Caminando" or on the punk speedster "Xich Vs. the Migra Zombies," rock elements (guitars that crunch and riff or scream in solos) constantly intermingle with Latin touches (flamenco guitar, rapid hand claps). Words shift freely between English and Spanish -- sung both by Napolitano and Los Illegals -- and cover subjects as timeless and tragic as Woody Guthrie's migrant lament "Deportee" or as timely and hilarious as the O.J.-inspired "Ode to Rosa Lopez," which features the lines, "You're the ultimate subversive, Rosa / Dressing down in your moth-eaten jumpsuit to make Marcia Clark look like the petty yuppie she is." Take that, Pete Wilson. (*** 1/2)

-- Roni Sarig

We've Been Had Again

Huffamoose's methods are so technically exacting that you could set your watch by them -- only they'd rather not advertise that fact. Thus, on its major-label debut We've Been Had Again, the Philadelphia quartet goes about the business of trying to convince listeners they're nothing more than a fun-loving rock band. As one might surmise, the charade fails more often than it works -- and even when it succeeds, we know better.

A bit like an office-dwelling recluse who wastes an entire Club Med vacation trying to convince himself and others that he can actually loosen up, Huffamoose overcompensates for its hipness deficiency with an awkward and exhausting display of too-cute cleverness. At best, the band concocts mildly memorable distractions, such as the spry, tightly wound hook-fests "Wait" and "Snapshot Family." At worst (as on the unbearably busy "Speeding Bullet"), they tend to indulge in the lamest sort of frat-rock fusion (hardly a surprise when you consider that two-thirds of the band has a heavy jazz background).  

Mostly, though, the material on We've Been Had Again hovers somewhere between those extremes, in that antiseptic pocket of quirk-pop occupied by the likes of da da and Dishwalla, both of which sport names as dumb as Huffamoose's. If only the music were as tough to shake as that recurring image of a glue-sniffing Bullwinkle. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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