Jeff Buckley
Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk)

Anyone well-versed in the more senseless aspects of rock and roll tragedy ought to be acquainted with Jeff Buckley's abrupt demise. The charmed offspring of vocal gymnast Tim Buckley -- who died of a heroin overdose when his son was a child -- the guy had all the symptoms of inevitable genius, not to mention his dad's multi-octave range. Then, on a May night in Memphis in 1997, 30-year-old Buckley threw it away for an ill-advised (clothed) dip in the churning Mississippi River.

He didn't leave much behind. When his dad died at 28, he already had nine releases to his credit; by 30, Jeff had released only a live EP and a single proper debut, 1994's breathtaking Grace.

Columbia has approached Buckley's posthumous Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) with a certain amount of caution. In particular, the label has emphasized the artist's lack of say in the two-CD project. (Duh, he's been dead nearly a year.) It's as if Columbia is prepping listeners for a letdown, and apologizing not only to us but to Buckley himself.

In the big picture, though, such damage control is unwarranted, if only because Sketches brings a sense of closure to what's sure to be seen as an unjustly abbreviated legacy. Taken as a whole, the 20-track collection is patchy and unhinged, its production (much of it done with the help of Television alum Tom Verlaine in New York, the rest self-produced) bordering on unlistenable in some instances. But it's worth a pass through the murkiest moments if only to glimpse where Buckley might have been headed.

Compiled by Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, with help from the singer's close friends Michael Clouse and Chris Cornell, Sketches is just that: a liberal outline of what might or might not have gone into Buckley's second full-length album. The Verlaine-produced songs on the first disc feature Buckley and his band. Things commence on a bold note with "The Sky Is a Landfill," its heavy-handed, vaguely apocalyptic lyrics ("You like to dance to the rolling head of the adulteress") leavened by inspired singing and a forcefully seductive guitar line. Even stronger are the scorching ballad "Everybody Here Wants You" (on which Buckley tackles the role of soul singer to remarkable effect) and "Witches' Rave" (a bouncy but dark number with pillowy falsetto interludes and an enticingly skewed chorus). The more finished material on the first disc lays out an expansion map of sorts for Buckley's plans after Grace -- the tempestuous melding of beauty and brutality, coldness and intimacy, melody and malady.

By contrast, the second CD is more note pad than blueprint; it's made up of four-track demos and reworked versions of tracks from disc one. Inconsistency reigns: A superior version of the previous disc's "Nightmares by the Sea" is followed by a noticeably inferior take of the first CD's "New Year's Prayer," then by a series of unnerving tone poems and shrill noise vignettes. The quasi-spiritual imagery seems to define Buckley as an uncomfortable cross between Nick Drake and Jim Morrison -- weird stuff best reserved for weird states of mind.

But even Sketches' warts are revelatory, as they show the singer struggling to experiment while also satisfying his more conventional rock-star urges. Had fate been kinder, the chances are good that Buckley would've given us plenty more reasons to examine both extremes.

-- Hobart Rowland (***)

Randy Travis
You and You Alone

Randy Travis's first release for his new label could have been a contender. It could have been a great chance for a favored veteran to reclaim some of the thunder from the hat-wearin' pop artists who pass for "country" these days -- an artistic rebirth, perhaps. Instead, on You and You Alone, one of the genre's most distinctive voices reminds us just why the same-sounding brethren he influenced are so popular in the first place: They still have some life in them.

A bulk of the tracks here -- most maudlin or just plain inferior -- are as dry as the haystack on which Travis sits for the CD cover. Granted, his singing style has always been oil-well-deep and on the less emotive side, but lately his delivery possesses all the passion of a mathematician rattling off equations. And it doesn't help that far too many of the lyrics find Travis in pissin', moanin' and moonin' mode. Either that, or he's trying to turn modest three-minute ditties into statements of major importance (as on the overwrought "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man").

A few numbers provide some relief: the buoyant "Stranger in My Mirror," the cautionary tale in "The Hole" and the simple yet elegant cover of "Horse Called Music." But mostly on You and You Alone, Travis makes like the acquaintance you try to avoid, lest he rope you into hearing his latest dull, drawn-out tale of woe. And frankly, it's getting tougher to seem interested. (**)

-- Bob Ruggiero

Dave Matthews Band
Before These Crowded Streets

As commercial pop-rock entities go, the Dave Matthews Band has a lot to recommend itself. Just the idea of a white South African leading a near-superstar multiracial act has cultural merit, and the band's instrumental mix of horns and violin isn't exactly typical of best-selling acts these days.

As a critic, I must admit that I'm not sure what to think of Dave Matthews -- and that's a compliment, especially where the band's latest CD, Before These Crowded Streets, is concerned. This may even be the disc that turns things around for skeptics who continue to see the group as nothing but a H.O.R.D.E. jam band with pop appeal. After all, here's a mainstream outing that includes highbrow guests like the Kronos Quartet and Bela Fleck, while at the same time featuring super-pop diva Alanis Morissette on two tracks.

Within DMB's sometimes jazz-inflected, blue-eyed rock 'n' soul, all sorts of spicy international flavors crop up: Middle Eastern tonalities on the swirling "Last Stop," an Afro-Caribbean lilt on "Stay (Wasting Time)," and hints of the West African highlife sound on the verses of "Pig." More than likely, it's that ephemeral combination of rapidly shifting styles that makes Before These Crowded Streets so hard to get a firm handle on. It's a nifty balancing act, and the group manages to pull it off.

And what's even cooler, Streets feels like an album -- not simply a collection of songs. It starts with some sizzle, then relaxes into a more ethereal midpoint before cranking back up, finally ending with a sweet, graceful finale (followed, of course, by the obligatory hidden track, a snippet of airy neo-folk). Sure, at times, DMB sounds like Sting at his lite jazz-rock worst, and there are moments when Matthews strains way too hard to get fun-kay, baby. Still, there's musicality and breadth here that are rarely less than enchanting. (***)

-- Rob Patterson

Walter "Wolfman" Washington
and the Roadmasters
Funk Is in the House
Bullseye Blues

Walter "Wolfman" Washington -- soulful, funky and eclectic -- is the quintessential New Orleans bluesman. With a cool name and an even cooler sound, Washington's blues gumbo flows in all directions, picking up a little gospel here, some jazz-tinged phrasing there. Give the ears and feet a chance to fall in line, and the Wolfman will satisfy needs you never knew you had.

Without hesitation, Washington and his crack Roadmasters (featuring a sassy, three-man horn section) leap into action on Funk Is in the House, mixing and matching styles, bouncing through energetic instrumentals, soul-soaked blues and classic R&B ballads -- including a terrific take on Jerry Butler's "I Stand Accused." Washington's warm, expressive vocals are right out front, but his stylish guitar work is never far behind.

Recorded in New Orleans, Funk has a Crescent City sensibility so pronounced you can almost smell the crawfish boiling. Appropriately, Washington's fluid lines touch on both the jazz and blues traditions. And the Roadmasters anticipate the guitarist's every move, effortlessly reinforcing the rhythm in his step. Talk about truth in advertising. (*** 1/2)

-- Michael Point

A Series of Sneaks

Brash and energetic, Spoon's major-label debut is like an impromptu French lesson from a wiseass 14-year-old intent on teaching only the curse words. And with it, the Austin trio is destined to fall in alongside fellow art-damaged slop-rockers Pavement, Dandy Warhols and Archers of Loaf as sly, cerebral troublemakers to be tamed. While their angular and obtuse songwriting strays toward the shamelessly melodic, their compositions are raw and of-the-moment enough to suggest that if the songs hadn't been put to tape fast, they might have been forgotten.

Sneaks' flashiest track, "Metal School," begins conventionally, with bouncy drums and crooned harmonies, but it then careens into a hopeless, slashing guitar assault. Both the minute-something "Chloroform" and the 54-second "Staring at the Board" fly by in an instant -- sonic outlines for which the listener can fill in the blanks. Simple passages of stun-gun guitar and Britt Daniel's jerky vocals belie complex rhythms and strong hooks, all delivered with a sneer that ought to ward off radio airplay in this millennium.

Look at A Series of Sneaks as the soundtrack to some imaginary installment of MTV's Austin Stories. It's an album haunted by the ghosts of the over-educated, creative types that are the show's -- and, for that matter, the town's -- bratty, boho lifeblood. (*** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Spoon performs Friday, May 22, at Rudz!

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame