Hell's Half Acre

Jolene, the self-titled debut EP from this North Carolina quintet, was one of 1995's more pleasant surprises. Its potent lyrical turns, uncanny sense of dynamics and irrepressible whole-grain melodies hinted at even better things to come. Well, a full-length CD is now here, and while Hell's Half Acre is impressive, it's also a slight disappointment.

The letdown is a result of too much familiarity. "China Card," the best of Hell's Half Acre's 14 songs, was also Jolene's one out-and-out stunner. Still, the repetition does nothing to reduce the song's power, or to cast doubt on frontman John Crooke's considerable merit as a songwriter. And if the rest of the CD isn't quite up to "China Card," the overall quality is still consistently high.

Given the familiar feel of much that's on Hell's Half Acre, it's reasonable to assume that no one will be patting Crooke on the back for his group's bold originality. But Jolene is hardly a band of shallow pretenders. Their methods are so untainted by forethought that any sound-alike qualities seem incidental. The reverence the band shows for its influences -- everyone from George Jones to R.E.M. to fellow Carolinians the Connells -- is bred from sheer music-fan's passion.

Lyrically, Jolene keeps it personal, with Crooke tackling the thoughts that keep him awake at night, as well as those that keep him dreaming. Often, his words touch on the competing impact of myth and fact on his Southern upbringing. Run-ins with Bible belt conservatism, sour memories of heartless lovers and long-anticipated retreats to the backwoods and mountains of his home state all contribute to Hell's Half Acre's tightly woven mesh of emotion.

And that, again, brings us back to "China Card," the most durable thread in that weave. A somewhat paranoid socio-political tale that attempts, in its own small way, to cast Richard Nixon in a more human light, the song evokes a powerful set of images. It's a small part of a winning formula that drives Hell's Half Acre home to a sweet parcel of land just this side of brilliant. -- Hobart Rowland

Aimee Mann
I'm with Stupid

Mention the name Aimee Mann to people, and chances are that all you'll get back is a blank look -- unless, that is, you add a rendition of "Voices Carry," the 1985 hit by her former band, 'Til Tuesday, a group that lasted three releases before fizzling. Mann's first solo effort, 1993's Whatever, did little to help her establish a post-'Til Tuesday name; its few goodies failed to outweigh its needlessly busy, confessional-style pop. More recently, "That's Just What You Are," her single on the Melrose Place soundtrack, turned a few heads. Now, there's I'm with Stupid, Mann's sophomore effort, and this could finally earn her some of the recognition she craves.

In many ways, Stupid is Whatever done right, with more poignant lyrics and simpler arrangements. There's also not as much of the relationship drivel that mired its predecessor. Instead, there are coy, gritty asides laced with the occasional "f" word to ram home a point. It's hard not to notice a Liz Phair-ish edge to several tracks, especially the endearingly catchy "Superball" and the stormy "You're with Stupid Now"; to an extent, the CD has an "I got it right this time" feel similar to Phair's own second effort, Whip-Smart. In addition to her collaborations with Whatever's Jon Brion -- who, on Stupid, sings, writes, produces and plays just about every instrument -- Mann also shares credits with Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze and ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. Most notable however, are two songs with Juliana Hatfield, "Amateur" and "You Could Make a Killing," on which Hatfield's waifish backing vocals blend seamlessly with Mann's assured leads. A few minor flaws aside, I'm with Stupid is well worth the time it took Mann to live up to -- and beyond -- her '80s glory days. -- Joe Hon

Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphu**in Compton
Eternal E

Never blessed with the overwhelming presence of a superstar, rapper Eazy-E nevertheless earned respect in the music business through controversy and innovation. Almost a year after his March '95 death of AIDS, Eazy-E isn't through stirring up trouble. Two potent CDs have been released postmortem to keep the memory of his exploits fresh.

As one of the founders of the gangsta rap group N.W.A., Eazy-E established a penchant for an explicit realism bred from a hard life in the ghettos of Los Angeles. And while it wasn't always readily apparent, Eazy-E was determined to turn overwhelming negatives into positives. That in mind, he started Ruthless Records to help others looking to break into rap. Ruthless is responsible for Str8 off tha Streetz, which flaunts the explicit style Eazy-E helped make commonplace. The CD features guest contributions from Naughty by Nature, fellow N.W.A. founders M.C. Ren and DJ Yella and others. The result is an uneven, but at times powerful, homage to the felled rapper, its blunt sentiments as uncompromising as you'd expect from the man who helped bring us "Fuck tha Police."

Eternal E, a compilation of some of the best of Eazy-E's back catalog, is a valiant effort to assemble the rapper's many voices, from initial projects with N.W.A. to later solo material. "Boyz-N-The Hood" (Remix), "We Want Eazy" and "Gangsta Beat 4 tha Street" provide the CD's strongest introduction to Eazy-E's shotgun-blast rapping style and nasal delivery. All three are bolstered by high-powered beats, rugged rhymes and a peerless attitude that should sustain Eazy-E's memory in the gangsta-rap idiom for years to come. -- Shaakir

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Joe Hon
Hobart Rowland