Stone Temple Pilots
Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop

It's difficult to muster up any pity for Stone Temple Pilots. The San Diego quartet has sold a gazillion albums, and still bandleader Scott Weiland can't manage a smile, because people keep saying nasty things about his group. And while it's true that STP has been subjected to significant amounts of bashing in the music press, Weiland's whining has only invited more scorn.

Whether the songs on Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop are calculated and contrived should again be the subject of intense debate, but heck, at least they don't sound like Pearl Jam or, even worse, thrift-store Led Zeppelin. On their third CD, STP sounds, well, not so much like STP any more, jumping off into decidedly pop-oriented territory. You know the band is trying to make a statement when the opening cut is a one-minute slice of funky, Soul Train-ish instrumentation. Several of the tunes have a decidedly Beatlesque flavor, especially "Lady Picture Show" and the Lennon-meets-grunge "Pop's Love Suicide." The striking single, "Big Bang Baby," is a hook-laden amalgam of '60s one-hit-wonder tactics. STP really takes a plunge with "And So I Know," a low-key lounge ditty that sounds like hazed-over Andy Williams, and it's made even weirder by Weiland's nonsensical lyrics.

Weiland scores points for trying diverse vocal styles, though he also exposes his limited range in doing so. But at least the group is taking some chances. In cleaning house, STP has morphed into a plain old pop-rock band -- albeit a self-conscious one. -- Greg Barr

Steve Earle
I Feel Alright
Warner Bros.

Native Texan Steve Earle may not have invented country rock, but ever since Guitar Town, his now-canonized debut, was released in 1986, he's been its most compelling rebel/martyr. Part of Earle's mythic appeal is pure romance: learning his lyrical chops at the feet of Townes Van Zandt, drinking too much whiskey, shooting too much heroin, marrying too many women and spending too much time in jail, all of which adds up to a portrait of the artist as hell-bent and demon-afflicted. That tortured image is milked (perhaps dry) in the songs that make up I Feel Alright, Earle's fourth release. "Hard-Core Troubadour" is self-explanatory. In "CCKMP," he decides that "cocaine cannot kill my pain" and "whiskey got no hold on me" before concluding that "Heroin is the only thing / The only gift the darkness brings," which sounds an awful lot like Van Zandt's desperate allegiance to codeine in "Waitin' Around to Die." But Earle, surprising as it may be, hasn't died yet, and it's his messed-up love songs that carry the punch on this outing. "You're Still Standing There" and "Valentine's Day" are where the shot roughage of Earle's vocals shine, and "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You" and "Billy and Bonnie" carry on the small-town pathos of past Earle classics such as "Someday" and "Nowhere Road."

Not to ignore "Poor Boy," where Earle's debt to Buddy Holly is made explicit with hiccuped "uh-ohs" and "baby maybes." To these ears, "Poor Boy" is a standout because it doesn't struggle to promote Earle's bad boy image -- which is already set in stone. Instead, it settles for a twangy old-school country rock lament, which is what Earle does best -- the core of the myth, and the only reason anyone would care whether he's a bad boy or not. -- Brad Tyer

Don Walser
Texas Top Hand

Having spent a St. Patrick's Day in South Boston and heard 10,000 versions of "Danny Boy," I can honestly say that nobody sings "Danny Boy" better than Don Walser. He'll have you sobbing before you find out that the closer of his new Texas Top Hand is dedicated to Walser's cousin Narl Long -- whose son Danny died years ago.

There's little left that hasn't been said about Walser -- his voice, his devotion to traditional Western music, how the enthusiastic support of Austin's punk community propelled him to stardom -- except this: he deserves the hype. Texas Top Hand's covers of classics such as the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" or Merle Travis' "Divorce Me C.O.D." will have any honky-tonking Texan -- whether of the big-buckle-and-boots or the orange-hair-and-nose-ring variety -- giddily singing along. The anti-cheating anthem, "You Walk By," shows Walser as a man of both strong personal beliefs and equally strong song writing talents, while the title track is yet another example of why the Texas Legislature should, at the next opportunity, pass a bill naming Walser our state's official yodeler laureate. -- Jim Sherman

Don Walser performs Friday, May 3, at Rockefeller's, with Bad Livers opening.

CD Laser Lens Cleaner

Precocious, ambient space-pop with forgettable melodies and an annoying propensity for wishy-washy guitar effects. The two best tracks on this six-song E.P. are previous Shallow cuts given the twice-over by Spaceman 3 mix master extraordinaire, Sonic Boom (a.k.a. Pete Kember). His hypnotic touch is welcome, and the band does offer a well-chosen cover of Spaceman 3's "I Love You" -- though it's not enough to make this disc anything more than a mild curiosity. And don't take the title at face value, either; it's the band's idea of a joke, and it backfires. -- Hobart Rowland

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr
Hobart Rowland
Jim Sherman
Brad Tyer