Bloodhound Gang
One Fierce Beer Coaster

"Know thyself," goes one of the commandments of the ancient Greeks. "I'm more tongue and cheek than a lesbo orgy," goes Jimmy Pop Ali, mouthpiece of the Bloodhound Gang, a twisted band of mall rats from suburban Philadelphia.

Where's the connection? Like their white-trash Pennsylvania homeboys in Ween and the Dead Milkmen, the Bloodhounds are offensive, rude, stoopid and vigorously gutter-minded, but they're better off for knowing who, and what, they are. And once admitting that, they also happen to be surprisingly clever and damn funny. The group's latest offering, One Fierce Beer Coaster, is full of smart lines, great hooks and creative arrangements, and not one of its ten originals misses its low-down mark.

Unlike the Gang's 1995 debut, Use Your Fingers, which was essentially a sample-heavy rap CD with rockist tendencies, One Fierce Beer Coaster features a backing band for a live rock sound with funk touches. But while the new Bloodhounds are more in tune with current rock radio styles, Jimmy Pop remains an emcee at heart. If you doubt his skill, check out his rapid-fire delivery on "Going Nowhere Slow," in which Pop names 72 cities in under 30 seconds.

Overshadowing both the music and vocal chops, though, are the lyrics. Full of TV celebrity mentions, product endorsements and gleeful juxtapositions (Jack Kerouac and Gilbert Gottfried in the same line), the Bloodhounds's rhymes are as dense as they are topical, and their humor is a guilty pleasure for the politically incorrect. Like Jimmy says, "I'm an Alka Seltzer, you're a sea gull" -- and if you get the joke, you deserve to hear the rest of the record. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

Loose Diamonds
Fresco Fiasco!
Freedom Records

Just when you thought a band had forever consigned itself to the junk heap, it goes and makes you take a second look. Prior to Fresco Fiasco!, Austin's Loose Diamonds released two efforts, both filled with the sort of middling roots rock that sounds for all the world like the soundtrack to a beer commercial. You couldn't fault the craftsmanship, and the band's songwriters obviously possessed some chemistry. The problem was the songs, which weren't so much bad as they were a bore.

And now this: seven acoustic tunes slapped together at the tail end of a tour. And wouldn't you know it, Fresco Fiasco! is not only the band's best outing, but one good enough to turn a doubter into a believer.

For one thing, the acoustic setting soaks more character out of the guitars and voices than the band ever mustered with its amplifiers. Troy Campbell's vocals are sweeter, Jud Newcomb's Leonard Cohen-esque musings gruffer. For another, they've smartly bookended the disc with two sure-fire covers: Lubbock songsmith Al Strehli penned the honeyed opener "I Know You" (previously covered by Jimmie Dale Gilmore with the Flatlanders), and you should recall the Stanley Brothers's "Stone Walls & Steel Bars," which the Diamonds romp through like God's honest convicts. Between those tracks are two more covers and three originals, all given an extra shine by proximity and intimacy.

Fresco Fiasco! was conceived as a one-off deal, an unplugged anomaly in a catalog of electrified roots rock. Here's hoping Loose Diamonds keep making exceptions such as this. (****)

-- Brad Tyer

Bill Janovitz
Lonesome Billy
Beggars Banquet

Among the indie-rockers-gone-major set, Buffalo Tom is infamous for its status as a commercial underachiever. As such, there's little reason to expect a solo outing from the trio's leader, Bill Janovitz, to do any better than, say, Sleepy Eyed, the last Tom release to simmer at the lower reaches of the charts. Even so, Janovitz can take comfort in knowing that with Lonesome Billy he's hardly made an ass of himself.

Lonesome Billy is strewn with the sort of rough-hewn textures, country-comfort instrumentation, gruff execution and whine-in-your-whiskey subject matter that, with the proper marketing push, could win over Americana radio -- though its low-key feel hardly screams "major event." Billy avoids most of the pitfalls that often derail such one-man vanity projects, and it does so for a specific reason: Despite what the disc's title implies, Janovitz had the good sense to surround himself with friends, a makeshift booster club/democracy that included Joey Burns (bass, accordion, mandolin), John Convertino (drums, vibes) and Howe Gelb (piano). The casual saloon-style atmosphere the four cooked up in Tucson's ramshackle Wavelab Studios gives the disc its jammy, loose, collective feel.

Then there's the songs. Graceful and sonically focused, all but a few of Billy's ten tracks mock the assumption that a songwriter saves his strongest material for his band. Janovitz allows himself the occasional indulgence -- the ungainly C&W crooner "Strangers," the curiously ineffective instrumental "Ghost in My Piano" and an ill-fitting rendition of "My Funny Valentine" -- but those missteps are easily excused as the sort of playful toss-offs expected of a guy enjoying a little time away from his real responsibilities.

There's no denying that Billy's one full-on rocker, "Gaslight," would make a swell radio hit. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Too much about Lonesome Billy suggests a more humble fate for Janovitz -- like maybe a mobile home in the high desert with a goat and some chickens in the back. (*** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Tony Coleman
Out in the Open
King Snake

Watch for the trad-blues intelligentsia (who popped a collective woody when a young African-American named Cory Harris cut a highly derivative acoustic blues release) to venomously attack this solo debut by longtime B.B. King drummer Tony Coleman. Harris, however, took the blues where it had already been; Coleman is where the blues is headed. So get used to it.

On Out in the Open, keyboards and horns -- serious soul-funk keyboards and horns -- join the best wall of guitars (various combinations of Ernie Lancaster, Warren King, Ace Moreland, Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal and Molly Hatchet's Bryan Basset) to hit the streets since the T-Bone Walker Orchestra. Atop this mountain of soul is a veteran blues-rhythm virtuoso whose powerful vocals compare nicely to his considerable songwriting skills. You can tell by the bemused tone in Coleman's voice on "This Is the Life" that he can trade life-on-the-road stories with any greenroom veteran in the business. If, that is, you can stay off the dance floor long enough to listen. (****)

-- Jim Sherman

Alan Jackson
Everything I Love

Stuck next to another lame Shania or Brooks and Dunn country-rocker, Alan Jackson's singles stand out on country radio like Shaquille O'Neal in Munchkin Land. Jackson's twangy vocals and his stubborn devotion to fiddle and pedal steel make him the old-school real deal in a plastic Hot New Country world. His latest, Everything I Love, will only enhance his already formidable reputation. Especially on the title track and on the heartwrenching country power ballad "Between the Devil and Me," Jackson shows off the kind of bottom-of-the-bottle soul that's been missing from country's airwaves since George Jones and Merle Haggard stopped getting regular play.

But despite Jackson's brave adherence to C&W tradition, there's something about his music that doesn't satisfy nearly as much as it should. Partly that's because, compared to the legends, Jackson's voice and singing come off as plain and unmemorable. On Everything's "Time You Learned About Goodbye," he could be any hat act going. And even when compared with the work of second-tier country greats such as Jack Greene or Gene Watson, Jackson's choice of material often comes off slight (a hot take of Tom T. Hall's not-as-deep-as-it-wants-to-be "Little Bitty," for instance) or just plain bad (Jackson's own "Buicks to the Moon" is more in love with its premise than any emotion). So there's no denying that Alan Jackson is about as good as mainstream country radio gets these days. But sometimes, that's really disappointing. (**)

-- David Cantwell

Dash Rip Rock
Dash Rip Rock's Gold Record
Naked Language

One recent review of Dash Rip Rock's Gold Record would have you believe that it suffers in comparison to the band's prior outing, Get You Some of Me, which contained "some surprisingly poignant songwriting that even sensitive guys like John Hiatt would be proud of."

Here's what I think: The world needs another second-string John Hiatt like you need a hole in my head (uhh, wait a minute). The point being, anyhow, that the day Dash Rip Rock wakes up eager to work through some "surprisingly poignant songwriting" will be a good day to bury the van, shoot the dog and wander out to sea, 'cause mama, I'm coming home. Speedy rock goofs in the tradition of last year's surprise minor hit "(Let's Go) Smoke Some Pot" are what Dash Rip is best at, and if you disagree, well, enjoy your nap.

There's a little of that sensitive crapola on the new CD ("Specialty," for instance), but not enough to ruin it. Everything else is the sort of relentless billy-thrash that's made Dash Rip a live draw in college towns all over the region (two tracks are even recorded in concert) and a commercial semi-entity (the other 14 sound like they were recorded in concert) for the last 12 years. You've got your mandatory adolescent fantasy ("I wanna be locked inside a liquor store with you"), your screwball rave-ups ("Rawhide Instrumental," "Jambalaya"), your roots tribute (Creedence's "Born on the Bayou") and your good-natured misogyny ("Rich Little Bitch"). What else would any frat-rocker at Mardi Gras want? Surely not a collection of Hiatt knockoffs. (***)

-- Brad Tyer

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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David Cantwell
Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman
Brad Tyer