Guy Clark
Keepers: A Live Recording
Sugar Hill

"Keepers" is exactly right. The title of Guy Clark's latest disc suggests that what we have here is a collection of a legendary songwriter's best songs, recorded live. And we do. But what makes this one of the year's best albums is that Clark takes things a giant step beyond merely revisiting 15 of his past glories in front of a paying audience. On Keepers, Clark offers up the definitive version of each one of those tunes. The reasons behind this success are threefold. First, when Clark recorded many of these songs the first time around, his voice was often a little thin, raspy and cracking. But in the second half of his career, he's grown into his voice. His singing on Keepers is full and worn with wisdom and warmth; his voice is still hoarse, but it never falters. Second, the acoustic band Clark surrounded himself with for this live gig is intimate and loose and spontaneous in way that Clark's bands have never been in even his best studio recordings. Finally, the stories and asides Clark offers his audience (he dubs one song "the antithesis of boot-scoot boogie") add an informal, front-porch charm to the proceedings, and the crowd's reactions seem to push the band to ever-higher heights. The result is an "L.A. Freeway" that out escapes and a "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" that out good-byes even Jerry Jeff Walker's better known covers.

This shouldn't have been a surprise. There's always been something almost Zen about Clark's finest compositions. His best songs have always been so in the moment, so at one with the task at hand. On Keepers, when confronted with pain and joy, he knows that the two are inseparable, and so with great joy and pain he embraces "A Little Bit of Both." When he sings "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Texas Cookin'," the focus is simply on the enjoyment of eating homegrown tomatoes and Texas cooking. When he recounts seeing his first streamlined train in "Texas, 1947," he is the thrill of that moment. Given this quality of his art, it only stood to reason that a live recording might capture Clark at his best. So maybe the real reason that Keepers lives up to its name is that, when Clark performs his greatest hits here, he just performs them -- like nothing else could be more important than the task at hand. (****)

-- David Cantwell

Foo Fighters
The Colour and the Shape

Slight expectations are easy to meet. Who knew that Dave Grohl wrote songs before the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut? And what a pleasant surprise Foo Fighters was, proof that Nirvana's pop-punk glory didn't die with Kurt Cobain. "I'll Stick Around" and "This Is a Call" may not be the equal of Cobain's best, but Foo Fighters earned most of its raves. Any doubts were offset by sheer disbelief that Grohl -- a drummer, for Chrissakes -- had done most of it himself.

But Foo Fighters are now a real band (Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mandel and new drummer Taylor Hawkins). And The Colour and the Shape is their In Utero, the prove-it-again challenge that follows any big breakthrough. Unlike Cobain, however, Grohl seems destined to survive whatever comes his way, be it mixed reviews, tepid sales or the end of his marriage, which crashed and burned between CDs.

The Colour and the Shape is supposedly Grohl's "divorce album," but don't expect the white-knuckle ride of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot out the Lights. Grohl doesn't have the patience to stay sad for long, and producer Gil Norton has buffed his can't-help-singing-'em melodies to a bright, mod-rock sheen.

Truth to tell, Grohl sounds more comfortable with the power-pop surge of "Monkey Wrench" and the light, jazzy breeze of "See You" than with the Cobain-like screams he forces in "Enough Space" and "Windup." Overall, the band uses Nirvana's sonic formula (soft verse, loud chorus) a little too often -- the effect has been cheapened by too much imitation. Considering Grohl's formative background (drummer on the Washington, D.C., hard-core scene), it's disarming how good he is at writing and singing ballads. There's nothing particularly distinctive about the lyrics of "February Star" or "Walking After You," but Grohl's voice is sweet enough to soften the lingering sting of loss and regret.

A good album, The Colour and the Shape won't stand the music industry on its head. It's not even the equal of Foo Fighters, though part of what's missing is the sense of surprise. Grohl has never spoken publicly about Cobain's suicide or his relationship with Courtney Love, but I'd always assumed there was meaning buried deep in the noisy bowels of Foo Fighters. Now I'm convinced that Grohl is simply an ordinary hero; he'll bleed for his own pain, but damned if he's going to suffer for you too. In other words, look to Foo Fighters for reliable hooks, but don't expect them to shatter your world, or build it up again either. (*** 1/2)  

-- Keith Moerer

The Sheridans
Girl Loves Guitar

What's a girl to do when she's in a sinking ship of a band? When Austin's Sheridan Roalson found herself in that situation, she started by collecting talented friends from assorted other going-nowhere bands -- bassist Tom Bombara from South Dakota's Children, guitarist Lance Schriner from Austin's Flying Saucers and drummer Derek Pflaum from San Antonio's cover band hell -- and gigged around Texas.

A year later, they settled on their favorite 12 power pop originals and created Girl Loves Guitar Records to release them on User-Friendly. From the opening chords of the wedding march to Roalson's closing plea to be kissed "even if it's good-bye," the effect is a sound in the same vein as That Dog, Sleeper or New York's punk trio Battershell. The material grows on you, but the alternative-flavored bubble gum doesn't really sink a hook in deeply until the fifth song, "Something to Bite On."

Roalson acts like a graduate of the Throwing Muse school of music, Kristen Hersh division. She aced the vocal theory of "out-of-key beauty," but seems to have ditched some of the "intense lyric writing" classes. The band provides a fairly standard backup, plugging through tight melodies and a few fast-changing chord sets. The slow acoustic crawl of "Tennessee" and the a cappella beginning to "Don't Break My Heart," though, give the listener faith in this work in progress. (*** 1/2)

-- Carrie Bell

Body Count
The Violent Demise: The Last Days
Virgin Records

Ice-T's heavy-metal hobby, Body Count, should have been one of those star-showcasing, guitar-band side projects, much like David Bowie's Tin Machine or Ted Nugent's Damn Yankees, that died when the gimmicky hype became obtrusive. But call Ice nutty -- he still believes there's something worth recording with this group. Whatever it is, it's not The Violent Demise: The Last Days. This CD is disreputable bile, but not, unfortunately, the disreputable bile we know and love Ice for.

It's hard to take Ice's ranting seriously when he's playing to an audience that disappeared the moment MTV's "Headbanger's Ball" was canceled. Where even the sappiest true heavy-metal band generally manages to acquire a sense of reckless virtue through its music, Ice and his Crenshaw homies -- guitarists Ernie-C and D-Roc and drummer Beatmaster V -- are screaming and wailing on their guitars simply for the sake of, well, screaming and wailing on their guitars. The signature lyricism you'd expect from Ice -- blissfully brutal with that sardonic touch of un-PC bravado -- is here all right, but when it's played to a speed-guitar rhythm, it sounds splatteringly uncouth. Foam-mouthed accounts of sex, violence and other bits of urban mayhem feel more like attempts to rile listeners rather than to edify them. It's only on the final track, "Last Days," that the words and music meld into something culturally and socially significant.

There are times when I actually enjoy heavy metal, that bastard child of glam rock and punk rock, that unlikely bond between big hair and spiked dog collars. But The Violent Demise misses the point by displaying heavy metal as anachronistic rather than anarchic; it's a reminder of why heavy metal played itself out the first time around. Right now, the best thing for Ice-T to do is go back to his day job and find a way to save rap before it, too, dies of overindulgence. (**)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

The Jayhawks
Sound of Lies

After Victoria Williams made herself the Yoko Ono of the Twin Cities, luring Jayhawks leader Mark Olson away from longtime partner Gary Louris, splitsville for one of the more promising American rock and roll bands of the '90s seemed imminent. Yet after flirting with the idea of a name change, the remaining Jayhawks decided instead to continue without Olson, despite his being half of the creative element they had long relied on.

Sound of Lies, the first CD from the new version of the band, not only establishes Louris as the de facto voice of the Jayhawks but also allows for some revisionist history. Skimming through the back catalog, it becomes obvious that since the Olson-dominated Blue Earth, most of the Jayhawks' better songs -- "Scattered down like Rain," "Waiting for the Sun," "Blue" and "Two Hearts" -- are Louris-led. So any panic over Olson leaving was probably a bit hasty.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Sound of Lies fall close together, primarily because the gap between subtle elegance and simple blandness isn't that wide. And from song to song, the Jayhawks bounce between elegant and bland without any drastic variations in overall sound. The best moments are the loudest, though their power doesn't lie in being overwhelming. "Big Star" has the largest sound, but its molding of Midwest rock and Memphis pop only serves its subject matter. The song, whose title and sound are allusions not only to Alex Chilton's legendary band, but what it means to want to be a big star, is a deftly composed ode to musical obscurity in the face of legendary potential.  

Unfortunately, the pool of remarkable songs on Sound of Lies goes only about four deep -- in addition to "Big Star," there's the crunch of "Think About It," the emotionally taxing "The Man Who Loved Life" and maybe the nervous urgency of "Dying on the Vine" -- while much of the rest of the record lies flat. There are just no melodies and no credible emotions that emerge from routinized rock.

So add another handful of keepers to the Louris songbook. And continue waiting for the Jayhawks to make the career-defining release that they continually indicate a potential for, yet that they keep falling short of. (***)

-- Michael Bertin

Various Artists
Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness

Say what you will about our celebrity-obsessed, messed up nation, but any culture that counts poets and authors (in addition to ball players and talk show hosts, of course) among its top-shelf icons can't be all bad. When on the nightly news, between stories of Clinton's knees and Mideast peace, the late Allen Ginsberg was eulogized as a socio-political force, we were reminded that some poets still serve a clear public function.

Similarly, though almost 30 years gone, Ginsberg's Beat brother Jack Kerouac continues to enlighten young Americans' ideas of freedom. Like no book short of Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac's On the Road informed the way several generations have come of age. It's little surprise, then, that artists from octogenarian William Burroughs to twentysomething Jeff Buckley would find common reason to celebrate Kerouac's words and, even more, his person.

The 25 performances on Kerouac -- kicks joy darkness include those from his comrades (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti) and heirs (Hunter Thompson, Robert Hunter), plus actors (Johnny Depp, Matt Dillon) and musicians of all stripes: folkie Eric Andersen, noisy Sonic Youth, big shots Stipe and Vedder and little guys Helium and Come. The result is a mixture of spoken word (mostly Kerouac's lesser known "pomes") and bits of musical accompaniment, with some surprises: Who knew comedian Richard Lewis could be so effective playing it straight? Who knew Juliana Hatfield could be so extroverted? Who knew Aerosmith's Steven Tyler would fit in?

But while it's fair for performers to set text in any context they see fit, some of the acts -- Inger Lorre, Lydia Lunch, Maggie Estep -- try to remake Kerouac in their own dark, angry, post-punk image, and it seems somehow inappropriate. While these artists may share with Kerouac membership in a counterculture, he was hardly interested in gloom and negation, but rather in a Whitmanesque, Buddha-blessed reverie. Kicks, yes; joy, certainly. But darkness? That was just another place to find grace. Those who capture hipster whimsy, or jazz fluidity, or Western expanse -- Hunter, Lewis, Ginsberg, Warren Zevon -- are most successful here.

Of course, anyone who's heard Rhino's Beat Generation box set knows that it's Kerouac's own voice that best relays the energy of his words. One of Kerouac's readings, enhanced with a techno beat by Joe Strummer, graces kicks joy darkness. The rest, interesting as it may be, is in comparison just filler. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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