Rubbing Doesn't Help

If Rubbing Doesn't Help sounds looser and more scatterbrained than its much-hailed 1994 predecessor, Hot Boxing -- much like a demo -- it could be because Magnapop's second full-lengther is a demo, more or less. After subjecting themselves to the meticulous wiles of underground demigod Bob Mould for Hot Boxing, then barreling across the country on an inhuman touring schedule in support of the release and losing a drummer in the process, this tart coed quartet was ready to relax -- and Geza X (ex-Dead Kennedys, ex-Germs), a Los Angeles linchpin of the '80s hard-core scene, was happy to oblige. But in supplying his cozy home studio and a "what happens, happens" attitude behind the boards, Geza gave Magnapop permission to lull themselves into punk-pop predictability.

Only about a third of Rubbing Doesn't Help's 13-song offering bristles with the sort of angular melodic precision and tender-tough intimacy that made Magnapop's last release such a revelation. The rest barely qualify as backup fodder for the lesser tunes on Hot Boxing. On Rubbing's "An Apology," lead vocalist Linda Hopper sings, "You heard it all from me, complacent and repetitious." That pretty much nails it. Strangely enough, "An Apology," propulsive and disarmingly catchy, is the CD's liveliest track. It must say something about the integrity of a band when the most interesting song on an utterly forgettable release is about forgiveness. What, I'm not sure. (** 1/2) -- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
Songs in the Key of X
Warner Bros.

Considering the droves of TV viewers hopelessly zombified by The X-Files, the hit series that revels in all thing paranormal and paranoid, a project such as Songs in the Key of X seems inevitable. Of course, Chris Carter, creator of the TV show and co-executive producer of Songs in the Key of X, doesn't look at this "soundtrack" as simply another tool of greed. In the liner notes, he explains that this is "music inspired by the show as an inspiration for the show." (Did you really expect any other response?)

Still, whatever the intentions behind Key of X, this isn't your average soundtrack. Rather than a collection of hand-me-downs bundled with one hit, this collection features almost all original material written by artists who also happen to be X-Files addicts. Also unlike most soundtracks, which usually feature a poor ratio of good songs to bad songs, this CD has a commendable number of standouts. The best are the Foo Fighters' cover of Gary Newman's "Down in the Park," Meat Puppets' "Unexplained" and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Red Right Hand." The CD could have done without both P.M. Dawn entries, though, and Elvis Costello and Brian Eno's joint effort, the long, dull "My Dark Life," inspires sleep more than anything else.

Not surprisingly, there's a gimmick on Songs in the Key of X. Two secret tunes -- a second Cave entry and a third take on the "X-Files Theme" from Australia's Dirty Three -- are stored before the first song, rather than long after the last song is over. They can be accessed through a process explained on the CD sleeve -- as if die-hard X-Files fans didn't already have enough to gab about on the Internet. (*** 1/2) -- Joe Hon

Hootie and the Blowfish
Fairweather Johnson

Whenever I think of Hootie and the Blowfish, the image conjured up is that of my nine-year-old son yelling, "Oh no, not Hootie," as he scrambles to change the radio station before the strummed intro to "Only Wanna Be with You" has a chance to register with anyone else in the car. But I'm a firm believer that every artist, even Hootie, deserves an assessment devoid of preconceived notions. Besides, my kid wasn't available. So here goes.

The new Fairweather Johnson is a just-this-side-of-tolerable collection of nice, unassuming melodies and by-the-numbers songwriting performed by the nicest bunch of average Joes you'd ever want to meet. And therein lies the rub: it's Hootie's averageness that makes the group so easy to dismiss. After playing the CD twice from start to finish, I found it impossible to recall much of anything on Fairweather Johnson, let alone a salient hook or a striking lyric. Granted, any act that sells 13 million copies the first time out can hardly be expected to equal that impact with release number two, but when the best the band can come up with the second time around is "So Strange," an unthreatening, retroish, Hammond-driven rock number that sounds like warmed-over Steve Winwood, it may be time to reevaluate the music industry's definition of trying. (** 1/2) -- Greg Barr

Charlie Rich
Lonely Weekends: Best of the Sun Years

For the past year or so -- or ever since I figured it out myself -- I've been trying to tell anyone who will listen just how damn cool Charlie Rich really is (or was, now that he's dead). They listen politely, but no one really believes me, because come on, the Silver Fox? Whose megahit "Behind Closed Doors" was crooned at such a high pitch of schmaltz that it instantaneously sealed the man's image in millions of eyes?

Yes, because that image was a false one. The real Rich was the pre-fame performer, the handsome young songwriter at Sam Phillips' Sun Records. The kid with Elvis' voice, Jerry Lee's keyboard flair and a serious musical education, who roamed from the blues everyone was ripping off to the country everyone had grown up with to the jazz nobody around Sun had ever heard of. Rich could do it all, and Phillips himself is reported to have said that Rich had the talent to go where Presley had gone before him.

Some say Rich was just too talented -- could do too many things too well to ever find a convenient marketing niche (until "Behind Closed Doors" thrust one upon him). And certainly, the Rich portrayed so eloquently by Peter Guralnick in Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway was a man unnerved by the star-making machinery. In any case, the recordings collected here are not Rich's commercial legacy, but the legacy of his far more powerful art. On Lonely Weekends -- which makes many of its 25 Sun tracks available for the first time on CD -- Rich displays all his facets. There's the rock and roll of "Whirlwind," the gospel tones of "Big Man," the borderline novelty of "Easy Money," the barrelhouse blues of "Juice Head Baby," the jazzy piano rolls of "Midnite Blues," even the overdone stylistic missteps of "Philadelphia Baby." The hits are all here: "Lonely Weekends," "Finally Found Out," "There's Another Place I Can't Go," "There Won't Be Anymore." A few have even been un-dubbed, stripped of too many strings to cut to the musical bone beneath. And that bone, when you get there, is rock solid. (****) -- Brad Tyer

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Long Way Home

Subtitle this one "The Girot's Family Reunion" for its profusion of guest talent, all stopping by to pay their respects to the master. Classic-rock radio listeners might be shocked by Brown's boogie-woogie treatment of Eric Clapton and Leon Russell's "Blues Power," until Clapton joins in on vocals. Russell channels Amos Milburn on piano, while Ry Cooder stirs in a little mandolin here, a little slide guitar there and Amos Garrett has the time of his life on rhythm guitar. Maria Muldaur's duet with Brown on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" (featuring Clapton on guitar) transforms that chestnut into a timeless standard.

Long Way Home features a lot of Brown on acoustic guitar. With John D. Loudermilk singing on "Tobacco Road" and Clapton singing on the title track, Gate shows the unplugged upstarts how it's done. Brown's last CD, The Man, was a horn-section celebration, but for horn fans Long Way Home offers only "The Blues Walk." On this track, Eric Demmer and Grady Gaines transform their alto and tenor saxes into flamethrowers.

Long Way Home is chicken-fried in bacon fat. But don't stick it with a fork. Use tongs instead -- just so you won't waste a drop of its sweet juice. (****) -- Jim Sherman

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown performs Saturday, June 8, at the Juneteenth Blues Festival, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park.

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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