Gin Blossoms
Congratulations I'm Sorry

The Gin Blossoms lost more than they realized when founding guitarist Doug Hopkins put a gun to his head in 1993, ending his troubled life just months before the Tempe, Arizona group's debut, New Miserable Experience, exploded. At that point, Hopkins had already been booted from the band because of his rampant alcoholism, which was eating away at any motivation he had left to succeed. But his legacy was apparent in Experience's string of Hopkins-penned hits, beginning with "Hey Jealousy."

Hopkins' legacy is also apparent on Congratulations I'm Sorry, Experience's bland successor. Without him, the Gin Blossoms' creative streak has come to a grinding halt, and nobody close to the band can say they didn't see it coming. In fact, rumors out of Arizona indicated that one factor behind the long break between releases (the debut came out in 1992), involved A&M's displeasure with much of the new material the band came up with sans Hopkins. Unfortunately, the extra time the label granted the band to hone its songwriting didn't help much; most of Congratulations is by-the-numbers midtempo rock with a rootsy-accessible VH-1 twang that's fast becoming old hat. Not that Congratulations doesn't have a few obvious radio choices. "Follow You Down," the first single, is a charming enough trifle that locks into a comfortable Blossoms groove as lead singer Robin Wilson croons over a crisp bed of ringing guitars, and "As Long as It Matters," a downbeat ballad-style loper, features a falsetto chorus copped from Crowded House's "Fall at Your Feet."

Ultimately though, none of the new songs pulls at the ears with the same urgency as "Hey Jealousy," "Lost Horizons" or other Miserable tracks -- a bad sign for a band dependent on strong hooks from which to hang its formula. With Congratulations I'm Sorry, the Gin Blossoms may have shown that they can live without Hopkins, but isn't living supposed to be more than simply going through the motions? -- Hobart Rowland

L.L. Cool J
Mr. Smith
Def Jam

With more than a decade logged as a consistently viable recording artist, L.L. Cool J has set the pace for hip-hop longevity. And with five consecutive platinum releases, he's long since qualified for his rap-star pension. But why stop the old guy when he shows no signs of slowing down? On Mr. Smith, the 27-year-old L.L.'s "self-titled" (he was born James Todd Smith) sixth album, the rapper -- beyond his prime, perhaps, but still running in what could pass for a full stride -- tries to keep pace with the youngsters.

At this point in his career, however, L.L. seems overly concerned with retaining the credibility of his tough Queens, New York upbringing. Obviously conscious of the fact that he's fast becoming more recognized as a sitcom star (on NBC's In the House) than a rap pioneer, L.L. goes out of his way on Mr. Smith to flaunt his street credentials. But it feels like a sham -- the aural equivalent of an actor playing tough for the cameras. L.L. can't escape his TV-ready self, and he even celebrates his second career on "Hollis to Hollywood," a rap loaded with filmic wordplay ("I'm making Speed like I'm Keanu Reeves / But too many True Lies can make a honey bleed").

Mr. Smith is at its most interesting when the star does his lady's man shtick. "Hey Lover" waxes R&B sultry with Boyz II Men on supporting vocals, while "Doin' It" and "Make It Hot" get down-and-out sexy over impeccable rhythm tracks. In the end, it seems, L.L. Cool J hasn't forgotten his calling. -- Roni Sarig

Mike Henderson
Edge of Night
Dead Reckoning

Memo to the country music industry, Nashville, Tennessee:
Hey guys, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you need to keep a closer eye on those guys over at Dead Reckoning. I got the new Mike Henderson thing, and while the cover is okay -- Henderson's at a bar looking pensive, wearing a Stetson and standing in front of a wall full of guns and trophies so the public will know this is a country CD -- listening to it was quite a shock. They forgot to layer it full of strings! There are 11 tunes without a trace of cello or viola. Thankfully, "Wherever You Are" does have a hint of violin in the breaks, right where Garth Brooks would have put them. Or maybe it doesn't -- it could be Henderson having fun with his Stratocaster, which wouldn't be surprising, considering the guitar trickery he pulls off throughout the CD.

Still, that doesn't address the problem. You guys have spent years and millions building a thriving big-hat-no-cattle culture with the built-in capabilities of making a star out of any lame pop-music hunk you slap a hat on. And here a Nashville label goes and puts out something without enough strings to sledgehammer the heartache sentiments home to the listener. Instead, there's real heartache in "This Property is Condemned," a blues-gospel preacher-and-choir tune called "This May be the Last Time" and a cookin' rockabilly treatment of "You're So Square." There are even fiddles, a six-string blues bass playing lead, Table and National steel guitars -- criminy, there's a National mandolin. What's stuff like this doing on a country CD?

And why does it sound so much like it belongs there? -- Jim Sherman


If you're looking for comforting assurance that Alex Lifeson's Victor is not the most ill-conceived vanity project since David Bowie oiled up his Tin Machine, don't expect to find it here. Even for die-hard Rush devotees (for those who aren't, Lifeson is the brainy Canadian power trio's guitarist), this clattering morass of multifaceted predictability will be hard to swallow. Though this 11-song yawner sometimes has the experimental feel of a solo project, Lifeson's slapdash assemblage of competent studio musicians -- along with the mandatory guests (among them Primus' Les Claypool and I Mother Earth vocalist Edwin) -- is meant to impress upon us that Victor is a group effort. He even left his name off the cover of the CD, which, in hindsight, was not such a bad idea: one person wouldn't want to take all the credit for this hyper-indulgent, preachy mess.

If the planets maintain their proper orbits, Victor shouldn't outlast its tepid reviews. Then again, if by some wonder of physics the thing sells more than 50,000 copies, expect a sequel brimming with more cringe-inducing lines such as "Do it hard -- make me free" and "Victor was a little boy, into the world he came / His father took him on his knee and said: 'Don't dishonor the family name.' " God, where's Neil Peart when you need him? -- Hobart Rowland

Jerry Lightfoot and the Essentials
Burning Desire
Conner Ray Records

Jerry Lightfoot's voice may lack the range and expressiveness needed for him to be considered a great blues vocalist, but this in no way keeps his self-produced Burning Desire from being both an enjoyable milestone in his career and an important chapter in the history of Houston blues.

Lightfoot's strongest talents are as a guitarist, songwriter and band leader. Few lineups have been shaped as carefully as the Essentials, and the smooth interaction between Lightfoot's guitar, the refreshingly restrained harmonica of Steve "Satch" Krase and the pure Texas blues boogie of pianist Robert "Pee Wee" Stephens repays Lightfoot's painstaking structuring in dividends. The guest talent isn't particularly shabby, either. Bert Wills loans both his "You Gotta Rock" -- a selection enlivened with backup vocals from Eugene Moody -- and a rhythm guitar that meshes seamlessly with Lightfoot's lead. Grady Gaines, Joe "Guitar" Hughes and the divine Trudy Lynn provide the super-chunk sweeteners in this home-baked labor of love, while longtime Lightfoot mentor Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price's "The Preacher Walks and Sings the Blues" is a bonus track without compare. "Someone's Doggin' My Baby," "Lost in the Shuffle" and "Night Train (From Oakland)" are Lighfoot's testimony that everyday life is weird enough to give anybody the blues. That message alone is delivered forcefully enough -- albeit in a voice reminiscent of a somewhat gravelly East Texas highway -- to keep Burning Desire on my rotation list for the foreseeable future. -- Jim Sherman

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Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman