Though he professes to be in touch with his "inner caveman," Joel Stein and his rock and roll musings are anything but Neanderthal. Brimming with electric vitality, insightful lyrics and funky rhythms, Marionette, Stein's latest release, is an enchanting romp through his complex and witty psyche, set to sweet guitar riffs and classically inspired piano interludes.

Trained in music composition at Rice University in the mid-'90s, the Washington, D.C., native left Houston for New York City after graduation. After two years of toughing it out in the East Village scene, Stein returned to the Bayou City, where he has since heated up the local scene with his solo performances. In October he made his acting debut in the Alley's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, even offering up original songs that he performed on stage as part of the show. This singer-songwriter obviously knows how to blend the past with the present.

Likewise, the songs on Marionette are filled with references to classical texts, the sort of savvy intellectualism that's sorely needed in rock and roll. And unlike most rock on the shelves these days, Stein's songs don't sound identical; each is an individual work of art with a satisfying message, drawing upon his vast influences, from classical music to Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Velvet Underground.

Although he may aspire to the rarified level of a Dylan or Bowie, Stein prefers to get there by his own path. His live shows are unique, soul-baring experiences, more like an intimate gathering at Stein's home than a traditional club performance. Packed with raw energy and passion, his shows are primal and smart, sure to please both the caveman and his more evolved descendants.

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Elizabeth Taishoff