Gentleman's Blues

After the disappointing commercial showing of their last release, The Golden Age, it would be easy to forgive David Lowery and the rest of Cracker for continuing to streamline the formula that earned them a gold record with 1993's Kerosene Hat. But rather than further refining the post-punk hick-rock of their last two efforts, Cracker crumbles all over the place on Gentleman's Blues.

Peering further into the weirdness of the soul, Cracker's fourth full-length release inches ever closer to the bumpy back-road sonic territory of the Band and current Americana icons like Wilco. But they're also going through an identity crisis: In particular, do we want to rock, or do we want to experiment? Though not an official double album, this sprawling, 24-song (that includes the unnamed bonus track) collection plays out like two releases, each sounding half-finished. As a result, the whole production feels half-assed. The proceedings are so polarized that it's like they all took a vote and decided to honor everyone's input.

Not that Gentleman's Blues isn't reasonably successful as a mainstream rock release. The lead-off track, "The Good Life," doesn't pull any punches, boasting a quality, radio-friendly hook. "Seven Days" could be a lost cut from Sticky Fingers, complete with funky organ fills and female backup singers. But a few tracks into the fray, and the other Cracker makes its appearance in the form of "James River," a minor-key, brokenhearted dirge. As drippy guitar twang and tasteful pedal-steel licks lap at the foundation of Lowery's sad-eyed tale of wanting, a violin rises, piano and drums begin to make themselves known. But by then it's too late. The music simply falls away in a disaffected blur.

And it goes back and forth like that for the majority of Gentleman's Blues: a rocker or two followed by an unhinged series of fleeting moments, then it's back to being a pop band again. Through it all, Cracker never has an opportunity to gain momentum. It's the sound of a band foiled by the democratic process. (** 1/2)

-- David Simutis

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Left of Cool
Warner Bros.

Bela Fleck has come so far, yet changed so little, since his formative years with super-hip backwoods fusionists the New Grass Revival. More than 15 years later, he's still the same well-studied, retiring virtuoso plucker. Chances are, he'll always be part hippie spirit, part technical obsessive -- the sort of guy you can easily picture killing free time polishing the guitar-shaped bodies of his banjos or hanging out at the corner music store talking shop with the staff.

Those quick to size him up -- or, for that matter, quick to lend criticism -- might be inclined to label Fleck the bluegrass Pat Metheny. After all, both attract a somewhat similar mix of granola types and anal-retentive music geeks, and both favor a light-on-the-ears, yet intricate, instrumental accessibility. But where Metheny's jazz underpinnings are often informed by rock, Fleck's primary reliance on the banjo makes the rural origins of his sound inevitable, no matter how he tries to dress them up.

And try he does on Left of Cool, returning to the four-piece Flecktones format of his first three releases, while attempting to expand his stylistic reach and loosen the band's commercial boundaries. Perhaps Fleck's guesting on Dave Matthews's latest CD inspired more conventional pop excursions like "Communication," which features Matthews, and "Step Quiet" with Amy Grant. Granted, it's tempting to want to indulge the Flecktones their newfound overtures toward a certain mass-consumable predictability.

But, alas, the Flecktones weren't programmed to be predictable. The clearest proof of that is "Communication," which -- with Matthews's Sting-like vocal turn -- sounds like an unused excerpt from the Police vet's new age Jazzercise days. Fact is, Fleck was born to play what he feels, not write about it (choice lyrical lowlight: "Been savin' all my loving for a rainy day / I didn't know that love was gonna hurt this way"). The same can be said for the Flecktones' synthetic drum specialist Future Man, whose formless stint here as a rapper and vocalist under the poorly concealed "alter ego" Royel is the therapeutic equivalent of a warm meal and a nap.

Pats on the back for effort aside, Left of Cool succeeds when the Flecktones clear out all the big-name rabble, zip it up and play. Bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten's all-sensing command of his stick is as superhuman as ever on nimble, well-constructed instrumental workouts such as "Throwdown at the Hoedown" and "The Big Blink," and Fleck shows a willingness to move away from his comfort zone like never before, experiencing fits of inspiration on guitar synth, mandolin, sitar, gut-string guitar and more. New addition Jeff Coffin, in his bid to become the Flecktones' indispensable fourth link, supplies ample dynamics and color on saxophone, clarinet, flute and an unearthly contraption called a singing bowl. In the end, it would've been best if Coffin's bowl was the only thing doing the singing on Left of Cool. (** 1/2)

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Jim Caligiuri
Frank-John Hadley
Rob Patterson
Hobart Rowland
David Simutis